When opportunity comes knocking, it is a fool who does not open the door. That is especially true when the opportunity is as unique as the chance to race at a World Championship level event. Given the chance to shine on the world stage, you have to take that shot. So when Cameron Beaubier was asked to replace the injured Sylvain Guintoli inside the Pata Yamaha team for the Donington round of World Superbikes, I cannot imagine that he hesitated for very long before jumping at the chance.
As commendable as Beaubier's choice is, it comes with some considerable risk. Not just to the reputation of Beaubier himself, but also to the standing of American motorcycle racing in the world. As arguably the best motorcycle racer in MotoAmerica, the US domestic championship, his performance will be weighed on a silver scale, and used as a yardstick for the standard of racing in the US. The hopes and dreams of many a young American racer may lie fallow if Beaubier falls short.
Is it fair that the weight of responsibility should fall so heavily on Beaubier's shoulders? Absolutely not. Yet fair or not, that is what will happen. The reasons for this lie in the historical strength of US racing, and the important role it has had in the history of both the MotoGP and World Superbike championships.
The glory days of US racing
Once upon a time, American riders ruled the world. Between 1978 and 1993, Americans won 13 of the 16 500cc championships. Between 1988 and 2002, they also won 8 of the 15 World Superbike titles. Since the turn of the century, the strength of American riders has been in decline Kenny Roberts Jr, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden, and Ben Spies have all won world championships, but they have become the exception, rather than the rule. Nicky Hayden is the last American in World Superbikes, while PJ Jacobsen defends the Stars and Stripes in the World Supersport class.
While both Hayden and Jacobsen have had strong results – for Hayden, especially since his switch to WorldSBK, where he is now once again on relatively competitive machinery – the plight of other American riders has not been good. Josh Herrin, who came to Moto2 as the reigning AMA Superbike champion, raced for 10 races in 2014 without scoring a single point, his best result a 16th place in Barcelona. Danny Eslick substituted for Efren Vazquez at Le Mans, and narrowly avoided being lapped.
Elias plays the spoiler
But perhaps the worst thing to happen to racing in the US is the arrival of Toni Elias in the MotoAmerica Superbike series. Elias joined the Yoshimura Suzuki team as a replacement for the injured Jake Lewis, and the 32-year-old Spaniard went on to win the first three races. Given a permanent contract in the Yoshimura Suzuki team, Elias is now fourth in the MotoAmerica Superbike championship.
Why would having a Spanish rider be so bad for US racing? Elias was available because both world championship paddocks regarded the Spaniard as being washed up. There were no seats available for him on either the MotoGP nor the WorldSBK grids, after Elias had failed to make much of an impression in recent years. Elias' career had been on the slide since he was forced into MotoGP after winning the inaugural Moto2 championship in 2010.
Rightly or wrongly, the consensus in both world championship paddocks is that the level of racing in the US is fairly low. When teams go looking for riders to bring into Moto3, Moto2, World Superbikes or World Supersport, they look at the FIM CEV championship, at BSB, occasionally at the German IDM championship, and at the support classes at both series (Red Bull Rookies, FIM Superstock). They don't really look at MotoAmerica as a serious source of top level talent.
Turning the tide
Cameron Beaubier has a chance to start to change that. If Beaubier can come in and be quickly up to speed, then world championship teams might start to take American riders more seriously. That does not mean that the Californian needs to come straight in and start scoring podiums. World Superbikes is a pretty tough class at the moment, with a fair depth of talent. But being close to his temporary teammate Alex Lowes, finishing both races, preferably inside the top ten, would go a long way towards persuading teams to take the MotoAmerica championship seriously.
There is hope that Beaubier can do just that. Unlike both Eslick and Herrin, Beaubier will be riding the same bike he rides in the US. The differences between the Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 in MotoAmerica and the Pata Yamaha YZF-R1 in World Superbikes should be limited, the biggest difference being the spec Pirelli tires used in WorldSBK. Nor will Beaubier have to learn the track, having raced at Donington during his year in 125s, racing alongside Marc Márquez in the Red Bull KTM team in 2009.
Beaubier is also regarded as the brightest hope for American racing at the moment. His name was bandied about when Yamaha announced they were returning to World Superbikes, though in the end, the Crescent team which runs Yamaha's WorldSBK effort went for Alex Lowes and Sylvain Guintoli. He has a chance to demonstrate that he can live up to the hype which surrounded him last year. Or some of it, perhaps.
If Beaubier does well, he will open the door for other American racers. There is a group of youngsters who look capable of making the switch, including Jake Gagne, Hayden Gillim, Joe Roberts, and more. There are more young racers on the way, coming up through the KTM RC390 Cup, and in reality, that could up being the pathway into World Championship racing. But there is also a generation of American racers which has been lost to roadracing, riders such as JD Beach* and Stevie Bonsey having switched to Flat Track, as a more viable way of making a living. Cameron Beaubier has a chance to put American racing back on the map.
* Since publishing this story, several people, including JD Beach himself, have pointed out to me that Beach is currently focused on the AMA Supersport championship in MotoAmerica, where he currently sits in third place with one race win. Beach told me he has cut back on his dirt track to accommodate his road racing.
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