What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time we were all wondering who would take over the AMA roadracing program and what direction the new overseers would take it in. Just as a brief recap, here's what happened:
1. Daytona Motorsports Group, a consortium comprised of the France family and Roger Edmundson bought the rights to roadracing and sundry other AMA branded series.
2. The AMA classes, rules and procedures were carried over (mostly) for the 2008 season with the notable exception that tech inspection suddenly became a deadly serious matter with tangible penalties for infractions.
3. DMG, in dribs and drabs, started formulating a new class structure for the 2009 season, which virtually eliminated the racing classes as we knew them. The premiere series was to be something called "Daytona Superbike" which featured dumbed-down Formula Extreme 4 cylinder 600cc sportbikes and a wide variety of other engine configuations/displacements. Superbike, 600 Supersport and Superstock were all to be consigned to the ash heap of history. The only other attraction initially was to be MotoST, a Roger Edmunson-owned endurance racing series.
4. Much complaining and wrangling ensued, with the major manufacturers threatening too either quit racing entirely or jump ship and take their ball(s) and go play somewhere else.
5. A lot of time passed with no firm class structure or rules in place. Time for development of new machinery and hiring talent and technical crews was growing perilously short with not much communication from DMG.
6. Eventually, very late in the figurative day, a new class structure was put into place that most could live with, however out of touch with the rest of the roadracing world it might be.
7. The new classes were to be:
American Superbike -- A hybrid of the old superbike and superstock classes featuring a near Superbike spec engine in a much more stock-like chassis.
Daytona Sportbike -- Again, a cross between classes, in this case Formula Extreme and 600 Supersport. Formula Extreme was a 600cc Superbike, with extensive modifications , whereas the 600 Supersport class was much more tightly controlled, with limited suspension,exhaust and fueling mods permissible.
Supersports -- Mostly stock 600cc sportbikes ridden by kids with less than 3 years pro experience.
MotoST -- see 3.above
8. In addition to the new classes, a spec tire and fuel were instituted.
9. Then the markets crashed, motorcycle sales (and nearly everything else) plummeted and funds for frivolous enterprises such as motorcycle roadracing looked to be in dire straits indeed.
10. Eventually, all of the major Japanese manufacturers decided to participate to varying extents.
As one can can see, things are not as they used to be around the paddock. Lots of riders and technical people have moved on or out and some teams that used to be ain't no more or have altered their make-up drastically. Let's take a look at that situation now with a brief overview of the major teams participating in American Superbike. .
Yoshimura Suzuki -- Suzuki was one of the manufacturers that was braying most loudly about rule changes, saying that they couldn't see a place for themselves in the AMA in '09. Later, there were consistent rumors that they would field a team but a formal announcement to that effect was very late in coming. In the saddle(s) will be Mat Mladin, who had a contract in place for '09 and had told anyone who would listen that he'd be riding whatever bike Suzuki put on the grid, no matter what it was; Tommy Hayden, who looks to be in much better physical shape than in the recent past and Blake Young, who is arguably the best young rider in the USA who isn't signed to Yamaha. On the hardware front, Suzuki looks to be perhaps the most affected by the American Superbike configuration. With the 2009 edition of the potent GSXR-1000 delayed until further notice, we probably won't have a definitve answer to that question until a few rounds in.
Factory/Graves Yamaha -- Take a good look at your 2008 AMA Roadracing media guide. Now throw it away. The two superbike pilots listed for Yamaha are gone, with a semi-retired Eric Bostrom farming mangoes in Brazil and Jason DiSalvo riding a privateer GSXR 600 in Daytona Sportbike. In their place(s) are Ben Bostrom, rewarded for his '08 SS crown and Josh Hayes, long touted as the best rider never to have a factory superbike ride. Those two will be astride the new "cross-plane" R1 with which Ben Spies has shocked the world.
Corona Honda -- Honda was another manufacturer that complained loud and long about DMG's proposed class restructuring and were thought to be the impetus behind the rumored alternative series. Unlike Suzuki, however, Honda did something about it. Sort of. After the tire test at Daytona, which AmHon only half-heartedly particpated in, Honda allegedly pulled the plug on their factory involvement, citing financial difficulties company-wide. Then rumors came that Neil Hodgson (who was under contract through '09) might have a ride with Corona or Erion. Eventually, it was announced that Corona would campaign one Superbike with Hodgson aboard. What wasn't announced was that the crew would be comprised of AmHon team members, who, like Hodgson, were going to be paid anyway.
Attack Kawasaki -- The 3rd best Superbike rider in America in 2008 can't get a Superbike ride in 2009. That's the state of affairs that Jamie Hacking finds himself in. Hacking, along with team mate R.L. Hayden, will be relegated to riding Daytona Sportbikes in a reconstituted Attack Kawasaki team. Which, one could say, is a better state of affairs than it looked like when Kawasaki's red ink woes became widely known. As for Hayden, one could posit that Kawasaki is doing him a favor by not making him ride the ZX-10 superbike. As talented as Roger Lee is, he has never really come to terms with the big bike and spent most of last year lanquishing on the couch from injuries.
Today at Daytona, we finally got to see how all these changes have affected the series. The paddock is decidedly a much more privateer oriented, low-dollar affair. The only teams that seem to be a semblance of their former expensive glory are Yoshimura Suzuki and Graves Yamaha. Attack Kawasaki has appropriated the factory team's transporters and pit equipment and Corona Honda's techs are all familiar faces from the bygone factory effort.
That said, the move toward the private team may help to restore the competitiveness that has been lacking in the era of Mladin/Spies dominance. Mat Mladin was fast today, as usual, but there were other faces near the top that, with a few tweaks and a few more laps, may challenge the 6-time champion. Tommy Hayden, Ben Bostrom, Neil Hodgson and Larry Pegram on the privateer 1098 were all at or near the top of the leader board. In fact, Pegram had the highest trap speed in the afternoon session.
Although it didn't slow him down much or stop him from speaking his mind, Mat Mladin is clearly in great pain from a wrenched back. This reporter followed him down pit lane after he quit the afternoon session 10 minutes early, and it was disconcerting to see the fiery Australian comporting himself like a much older man. It remains to be seen if Mladin can hold up to 15 laps at a demanding track like DIS.
Dunlop techs, at least the ones that I spoke to, are happy with the way that the spec tires are holding up. As far as I know, there were no catastrophic failures or premature wear issues.
A couple of teams representing marques not currently competing in American Superbikes seemed to be intensely interested in AS practice. Let's just say that the countries of origin are Japan & Italy.
A final word from this commentator's personal perspective. The first race of the year is always an intensely exciting time. As the old racing aphorism states, "When the green flag drops, the BS stops. Everyone I saw at the track, from idols from bygone days like Bubba Shobert and Kevin Schwantz to the Supersport kids to the nameless fans who traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles, just to watch practice through a chain-link fence, looked to be doing the thing they loved most in the world. From a fan's perspective, I know I felt the same way. It would have been a damned shame to let it go by the wayside because of pointless squabbling.