As year four of the MotoAmerica Motul Superbike series launches this weekend with the Suzuki Championship at Road Atlanta, the focus will be on the Superbike class. That sounds obvious, but there's more to it than that.
The 2018 season will look different from the previous years because MotoAmerica, having brought the series back from near death and harmonized it more with the Superbike World Championship, has now restructured the classes to encourage the top teams to race in Superbike and to emphasize the premier nature of the class. In case you missed it, here's our breakdown of the new class structure.
The changes have had both intended and unintended effects. On one hand, almost all the top riders are now in Superbike (Stock 1000 bikes will no longer compete on the track at the same time, in a race within a race), but at the same time, Latus Motors Racing, one of last year's top Superstock 1000 teams with Bobby Fong, pulled out of the series. Team owner George Latus said it was just too expensive to field a competitive Superbike team. That decision, and the mid-year departure last season of Meen Motorsports, shows just how hard it is for private teams to find the sponsorship support they need to compete.
The Superbike elite
In 2015, the first year of MotoAmerica management, the two Yamaha factory team riders won all 18 races. In 2016, four riders won races as the two Yoshimura Suzuki racers joined the Yamaha winners. And in 2017, five riders won Superbike races as Mathew Scholtz joined the four dominant factory riders and became the first Superstock 1000 rider to beat the Superbikes at the final round at Barber Motorsports Park in sketchy wet conditions.
Barring injury or disaster, MotoAmerica's version of the final four will be the same as last year: the riders for the two factory teams, Monster Energy/Yamalube/Factory Yamaha and Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing. The difference is one of the four names on those teams is new.
Two-time champion Cameron Beaubier returns for the Factory Yamaha team but his teammate is now two-time Supersport champion Garrett Gerloff, who moves up to Superbikes. Four-time Superbike champion Josh Hayes was nudged into retirement after 2017 and now serves as a rider coach and brand ambassador for Yamaha.
Beaubier had surgery on his shoulder last year after a save of a near-crash at Pittsburgh dislocated it, aggravating previous injuries. Having set a fastest lap time of 1:24.677 at the final preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park last month, he appears to be healed up, and he says he is. But shoulder injuries are also tricky and have ended a few careers. Just ask former AMA Superbike and World Superbike champ Ben Spies.
Gerloff also surprised at Barber, setting the fastest lap on the first of the two days of testing, despite being new to the YZF-R1 Superbike. Conditions were unusually cool in northern Alabama that day, but Gerloff proved it was no fluke by finishing the test with the third-fastest time, just a tenth of a second behind Beaubier. More importantly, he showed he was able to reel off half a dozen laps in the 1:25 range, which would have put him at the front of last September's race pace (though grip would typically be lower in the heat of September).
At Yoshimura Suzuki, both riders were in the top five at the test and both are surely capable of winning the title. After all, Toni Elias won the championship by a massive 88 points last year. But the team also has to start thinking about succession planning. Elias just turned 35 and Roger Hayden will turn 35 next month.
The Superbike wild cards
There are some huge unknown factors in 2018 — riders who are capable of mixing it up with the big four and changing the outcome of races. The first who has to be mentioned is Scholtz, the South African rider for the Yamalube/Westby Racing team. Not only is he the only rider to beat the four factory Superbike riders the last two years, but he also set the second-fastest lap at the Barber test, just 0.018 seconds behind Beaubier.
Another rider who was frequently able to hassle the factory teams in recent years was Fong. With his Latus Motors team pulling out, Fong jumped to the Hudson Motorcycles team, where he will ride a Yamaha YZF-R1 instead of the Kawasaki he has ridden in recent years. New bike and new team means a question mark for Fong. Also, team owner and racer Kyle Wyman has been competitive and could affect the championship run.
But biggest unknown has to be former AMA Superbike champ Josh Herrin, riding this year for the Attack Performance/Herrin Compound/Yamaha Superbike team. In an interview posted recently at MotoAmerica.com, crew chief and Attack Performance owner Richard Stanboli said he was still building the custom swingarm for the team's Superbike. The first time Herrin will get to ride the bike will be in the first practice session this weekend at Road Atlanta. So it could be brilliant or it could be a Dumpster fire. All we know for sure is that Herrin is capable of running with the frontrunners when he's comfortable.
With Gerloff moving up to Superbike, you might think that his former teammate, J.D. Beach, would be able to waltz to a championship this year. After all, the two dominated the class last year. But Beach may have some unexpected competition from close to home. As in, as close as the next room at home.
Beach's housemate, Hayden Gillim, set the fastest Supersport lap time at the Barber test on his Rickdiculous Racing Yamaha YZF-R6. Beach will also have to contend with M4 ECSTAR Suzuki rider Valentin Debise, the guy who has most regularly harassed the two Yamahas the last two years. Debise missed the Barber test, however, after his rear tire spun on a white line in the Daytona 200 on March 17, sending him into an astounding high-side crash that clocked more air time than a Travis Pastrana stunt and left him with a concussion and a compression fracture of a vertebrae. That also raises questions about how fit and comfortable he will be this weekend.
Liqui Moly Junior Cup and the other classes
For 2018, the Liqui Moly Junior Cup replaces the KTM RC Cup and brings brand competition to the class for rising racers (age limits are 14 to 25). Ashton Yates had the fastest pace at the Barber Test, but other contenders from last year's KTM RC 390 Cup will be back, including Jackson Blackmon, Alex Dumas and Draik Beauchamp. It looks like Kawasaki Ninja 400s and Yamaha YZF-R3s will dominate the field.
While the above classes will race both Saturday and Sunday each race weekend, the Twins Cup and Stock 1000 classes will race once each weekend. I expect both will be filled mostly with local racers looking for a way to be a part of the MotoAmerica weekend. At Road Atlanta, the MotoAmerica races will also make track time for the WERA Triple Crown presented by American Honda.
MotoAmerica is also trying to build events with broader appeal, so in addition to the racing, the Road Atlanta weekend will feature a skateboarding show by Tony Hawk and Friends and music.
A rash prediction
If you've read this far, you deserve more than a trite ending, so I'm going to go out on a limb and make a prediction about a not-so-predictable season. He has to be considered a long shot, but I think Gerloff is capable of pulling off a Superbike title in his rookie year. He'll need the breaks to fall his way, but I keep thinking back to his Supersport qualifying lap last year at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca, the same day as qualifying for the U.S. round of World Superbike. His lap on his 600 cc R6 would have put him on the World Superbike grid, not in last place. Any smart money would pick Gerloff to finish fourth this year, but the kid is talented, hungry and smart — and capable of surprising.
Watch for my coverage from Road Atlanta this weekend as we start telling the story of MotoAmerica, season four.