Some names are almost as big as the sport, and when they leave, part of the sport dies too. That is almost certainly true of Mat Mladin's not-so-shock announcement that he will be retiring from motorcycle racing at the end of the 2009 season. Mladin has dominated roadracing in the United States for over 10 years, winning six AMA Superbike titles (and currently on course for a seventh) and 82 races along the way. It took the raw talent of Ben Spies on equal machinery to take titles away from the Australian, Spies beating Mladin to three championships, but that was no easy feat. Spies won the 2007 AMA Superbike championship by a single point, and the 2008 championship after some controversial scrutineering decisions saw Mladin disqualified for an illegal crankshaft after Virginia International Raceway round, despite Mladin and Spies' bikes being ostensibly identical. After Spies moved to World Superbikes, Mladin once again became the biggest name in the AMA, and his retirement leaves a gaping hole in the series.
The reasons for Mladin's retirement are varied, but there can be no doubt that a large part of his decision is political. Mladin has been at war with the Daytona Motorsports Group, the entity that took over the running of the AMA series early in 2008, over their decisions on the direction of motorcycle racing in the US. Some of Mladin's objections centered around the bikes to be raced, but Mladin has always been one of the strongest advocates of safety in American motorcycle racing, and Mladin was particularly caustic about the safety aspects of the AMA Pro racing program. The decision to add Heartland Park Topeka and New Jersey Motorsports Park to the calendar, added to the statements made by DMG boss Roger Edmondson about the need to race in the rain at some venues Mladin and a number of other riders consider to be treacherous were too much for Mladin to stomach.
But there's more to it than just politics. Mladin is 37, and though still riding as well as he ever has, he knows that he is approaching the end of his career, and is choosing to go out on top and on his own terms than hang on for a couple of seasons, and slowly fade away. Better to go out a champion, than to hang on and get beaten by younger, faster guys, and risk serious injury racing at tracks he is not comfortable at anyway.
The initial press release (shown below) left room for interpretation. Mladin announced his retirement from AMA racing, not motorcycle racing, leading to inevitable speculation that the Australian could follow his former team mate Ben Spies into the World Superbike paddock to race in Europe. Mladin had told the press earlier this year that he had been having a long hard look around the World Superbike paddock, and had had serious talks with a number of top teams. In the end, though, Mladin decided against it, and according to Superbikeplanet.com, Mladin is finished with racing completely.
Mladin's decision not to race in World Superbikes will leave undeserved question marks hanging over the Australian's head, especially in Europe. For years, European insiders dismissed Mladin's performance as irrelevant, a mixture of vastly superior machinery and an inferior talent pool in the US. Since Ben Spies arrived in World Superbikes and proceeded to hand out drubbings to allcomers on a brand new, undeveloped bike at tracks he had never seen, Mladin's status has been reappraised in Europe. After all, if Spies had to work so hard to beat Mladin and Spies is clearly the talent of the World Superbike paddock, then surely Mladin would put up a pretty good fight for a WSBK title, given the opportunity.
It is not to be sadly, and his decision not to come to World Superbikes will always be held against him. He has aired his reasons extensively in the press in the past. He always said that his experience as a young rider at Cagiva racing in Grand Prix made it clear to him that you could only be successful in either Grand Prix or World Superbikes if you signed with a top team. This factor, combined with the fact that in the AMA, Mladin was making probably 5-10 times the salary that he could earn in World Superbikes, meant that Mladin was reluctant to risk his reputation and his bank balance by coming over to Europe and racing on the world stage with teams of uncertain reputation. Mladin knew that this decision left European fans questioning his ability, but being the forthright, rather abrasive Australian that he was, frankly, he didn't care.
That abrasive personality filled many US journalists with dread. Dean Adams of Superbikeplanet.com described his horror at the prospect of having to sit through another year of stilted, painful post-race press conferences in the AMA, a trial that Adams and the rest of the US-based motorcycle racing press will no longer have to endure.
For me, Mat Mladin was best summed up by a visitor to the MotoGPMatters.com forum, and a keen student of racing. "Mat Mladin," she wrote "is made of win."
Mat Mladin's retirement announcement is reproduced below.
After so many great years of racing in the USA, I will retire from AMA racing at the end of the 2009 racing season in New Jersey.
My career has been long and above and beyond my wildest expectations. I won my first national championship on dirt bikes back in 1981 (28 years ago) and have had an amazing career ever since.
If I had my time again, I would not change a single decision I have made, in life or in racing.
I would like to thank my team for their constant hard work. Without these guys, the 80+ race wins and multiple championships would not have been possible.
I wish to thank my fans. I want you to know that you all have helped me achieve so much. I will miss you.
I want to thank my mum and dad for getting me involved in such a fantastic sport that turned into my profession. I love you both.
My brother and sister for all the miles you done cramped into the back of a little pick up / ute in the early days. These were great times and the ones in racing I will cherish the most. You mean the world to me.
My daughters are growing fast and it is time I put my efforts into their future.
My wife, what can I say? You have unselfishly given your time and efforts to this lifestyle of ours. Racing had its down days, but with you by my side it was easy to get up and smell the fresh air, and realize how lucky I am. You have been a rock for so long, and if I could live another 100 years I still would not have the time to repay you for your commitment. I love you, babe.