With Ben Spies already retired, Colin Edwards about to retire at the end of the 2014 season, Nicky Hayden struggling with a wrist injury and Josh Herrin having a very tough rookie year in Moto2, there is growing concern among US fans about the future of American racing. What is to become of the nation that once dominated world championship racing, with existing stars in decline and no fresh blood ready to replace them?
Perhaps the brightest point in the firmament for American racing is PJ Jacobsen, currently racing in the World Supersport championship for the Kawasaki Intermoto Ponyexpress team. The native of Montgomery, New York has been quietly building a reputation as a fast and promising young racer, stringing together a series of top ten results in the competitive WSS series in his debut year, and coming very close to scoring his first podium. Jacobsen's World Supersport debut comes after an impressive first year racing in the British BSB championship with Tyco Suzuki, which earned him a move to the world stage.
We caught up with Jacobsen a few weeks ago at Assen, ahead of the third round of the World Supersport championship. There, we spoke to him about the state of American racing, the difficulties faced by American riders trying to break into a world championship, and the path he took to the world stage. Jacobsen covers BSB, living in Northern Ireland and how his background in dirt track helped in road racing. PJ tells us about how BSB is a viable route into a world championship, and just what it takes to make the move. It was a fascinating perspective from an extremely talented young racer.
MotoMatters.com: First, a little background on you. You started your career racing with Barry Gilsenan in the AMA with Celtic Racing?
PJ Jacobsen: I've been racing for [Barry Gilsenan] since I was twelve, he was the first person that got me on a bike.
MM: He got you onto a bike, he got you racing, what was your path to World Supersport?
PJ: I was racing 125s in the USGPRU series in the US. He got me involved in that, and I won a title with him in the States. Then I came to Europe to race in the Spanish championship, and was in the MotoGP Academy. Then I went back to the US and rode for them in the AMA on a Suzuki 600. I rode for them for three years in the States. I rode in the Daytona Sportbike class, that's when everything was kinda turning around there.
My last year with him was on the Ducati. We had a really tough year with the Ducati, the 848. Then I was supposed to ride in World Supersport in 2012 for PTR, but sponsorship stuff fell through and I had no ride.
MM: So you had no ride at all in 2012?
PJ: Actually, one of my mechanics who I have been with since I was eleven riding for Barry, he got me a test with Tyco, TAS Suzuki, and I actually finished the season with them on the Supersport bike and in Superstock in BSB. That got me a year in BSB, which was last year.
MM: It's a very long route to travel to get into a world championship. Was there a plan behind it, or was it just a struggle to find sponsorship?
PJ: When I was little, I always wanted to be a professional dirt tracker, a guy like Ricky Graham, Chris Carr, Jay Springsteen, people like that. I didn't think about coming to a world championship. But yeah, it's been a goal now since I was twelve years old on a road race bike to get into the world championship. I feel like I've already achieved a goal in my own eyes, just by being here now. But I wish that I'd got my first year in the world championship in 2012, just to get my feet wet. Instead I'm doing it this year for the first time.
I think it's just difficult right now for Americans to get into the world championship. I think the BSB and the Spanish championship, they just have really good series going right now and it's bringing all these fast kids through. America is just, there's just not much interest over there in motorbikes. It's hard to keep the series going I guess.
MM: You can't put your finger on one particular thing why there's no interest in the US? Because it seems to have been reduced to the real hard core of fans.
PJ: I probably wouldn't be the best person to ask about this. But giving you my opinion and everything, I think just a lot more Americans are involved in NASCAR and stuff like that. But also it's just a shame that this year, the AMA has, what, five or six rounds. Then they have this other series going with John Ulrich, which I think is only three rounds. It's like, who do you claim to be the national champion? If two guys win the two series, it's totally different, I guess. I don't know, it's just very hard for Americans to come back over here right now.
MM: Are you glad that you came to Europe when you did?
PJ: Yes, I think that I wouldn't be making it back to Europe if I was in the States right now. It's definitely not easy. There are so many other fast kids over here coming through, you know, so I think like the teams, Italian teams, Spanish teams, just teams in general are not looking at American kids. There's just so much talent right now, and I just don't think that they're really looking towards the other side of the ocean.
MM: Do you think that the year you spent in BSB helped you come here?
PJ: Yes, I think so for sure. I think I matured a lot last year riding in BSB. Josh Brookes was my team mate, I had no clue what the series was all about, I wouldn't have really followed it too much or anything like that. So yeah, once I got into it last year, I was like, wow, I just jumped into a fish tank, it's pretty crazy. But I definitely think it made me mature, and towards the end of the season, I was getting steady top fives. I was really happy with that, and I was getting pretty excited to go into a second year in BSB, and actually see what I could do, having the knowledge of all the tracks. I just got the chance to come to the World Supersport level, which is like a dream, so I had to take it.
MM: But again, you're faced with a lot of tracks to learn. Even in Spain where you've ridden, you have Aragon, where you probably didn't race.
PJ: No, I never raced in Aragon, but we did have a two-day test in November, so it wasn't completely new for me. At least I knew a little bit of the track.
MM: How is the transition from BSB Superbikes to World Supersport? What's different, and what's the same?
PJ: I think the competition is nearly the same. In both classes, it's really hard and there's a lot of good talent in there. I think it took me a lot last year to get used to the superbike, just riding style and picking the bike up, and the Superpole, things like that going on. I think I kinda had to lose all that to come back to a 600 and get some more corner speed, and just ride the 600 totally differently.
MM: Is it easier going backwards to a 600?
PJ: In my eyes, a bike's a bike. You just have to get your head around it and at the end of the day, it's still just a motorcycle and you'll figure out how to ride it. It's getting better and better each round, I think I've got the 600 back to my riding style now.
MM: The Kawasaki is clearly a competitive package once you've got it sorted.
PJ: Yeah, the bike is really fast on top speed. It's a little stiff in the corners, but I think we're getting better and better at it. My teammate Florian Marino has been putting it on the podium and just off the podium, so yeah, the bike is there. I think it's just me, just getting settled in. For qualifying I'm there, top five at Phillip Island and second in Aragon, so it's just time to put a result together and get my head around it.
MM: What is the hard part? Where are you struggling in the race?
PJ: I think, I was a little bit nervous at Aragon, because it was my first actual race, I didn't get the chance at Phillip Island, because we had a motor mechanical. So there was a little bit of nerves, and I had a pretty bad crash in qualifying. We actually changed a couple of things before the race, which we probably won't ever do again, and I should have known that, having the experience already. It was a Sunday to kinda forget about. First race, and it was just one of those Sunday's to forget.
MM: You raced here at Assen last year, so you already know the track …
PJ: Yeah, I raced here last year, I had my best result here, I got second in BSB. It was a pretty close race that's for sure. I think this weekend is going to be the same. Real hard competition and stuff. So I think I just need to settle in, I know this place really well, see what we can do on Sunday. [Jacobsen would finish the race in Assen in 9th.]
MM: Are you based in Europe or do you fly back to the US?
PJ: I'm actually staying at this guy Mark Hamilton's house, he used to own the magazine in Northern Ireland called Irish Bike. So he's just letting me stay with him...
MM: Because I think you're picking up a bit of a Northern Irish accent...
PJ: I try not to, I definitely try not to! It's from hanging out with all my buddies in the town and stuff...
MM: Do you think this is the only way you can do this, to come over to Europe and base yourself here to be in a world championship?
PJ: To tell you the truth, I haven't got really too much help on what to do or how to go about this. I've asked Nicky Hayden and John Hopkins on some pointers, some advice if I need a question or something, and they've been right on the spot and answered me right away. But yeah, I think basing yourself over here is the best thing, because it's way too expensive to fly back to America. And just getting used to the timezone and everything like that. I really had a good time last year, because the TAS shop was based in Cookstown, Northern Ireland, so I made a lot of friends there, mountain biking, bicycling, so I decided to move back there this year, and I've been having a great time.
I think that's it, it's just the easiest way. I don't really miss home too much.
MM: You said you grew up riding dirt track. There's something of a dirt track revival going on among racers in Europe. I went down to watch the Superprestigio in Barcelona in January, which Marc Marquez organized. Do you think that dirt track still has things it can teach you?
PJ: Yeah, I think so. The way Marquez rides the bike, it's kinda like dirt track. I think it still has a big part to play. He's sliding the bike everywhere, leaving black marks everywhere.
MM: You think it also has lessons for riding a 600 which you don't slide around so much?
PJ: I don't know about on a 600. On a 600 you want to keep your wheels more in line, it's kinda hard to slide the 600. I think on a Superbike and bikes that have more power, you see those guys just sliding like crazy. I try to slide on the 600 sometimes, but it doesn't work out too well!