Common Tread

Privateers, rain dances and banjos: This is MotoAmerica?

May 03, 2018

After two rounds of the 2018 MotoAmerica Motul Superbike series, you may be experiencing some cognitive dissonance.

Sure, some things look familiar. For the third year in a row, Yoshimura Suzuki Racing’s Toni Elias started the season by sweeping the first weekend. But the standings don’t look like what you’d expect, really. And no, MotoAmerica President Wayne Rainey has not started a side hustle promoting country music concerts. There really will be motorcycle racing at Virginia International Raceway this weekend, along with the good-looking young musicians with banjos and nice haircuts.

Things look a little different from past years, however. Two rounds into the 10-round season, here are three things to consider.

MotoAmerica podium at COTA
These spots previously reserved for the exclusive use of Yoshimura Suzuki and Factory Yamaha riders. This year, things have been a bit different. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Not exactly the usual suspects

Only five riders finished all of the four Superbike races so far in 2018, and it’s not surprising that they are the top five in points. What is a little surprising is who they are. In the three previous years of MotoAmerica Motul Superbike, the Yoshimura and Monster Energy Yamaha/Yamalube/Yamaha Factory Racing teams won all of the 54 races except the very last one of 2017 in the rain. Factory teams dominate. Period. Everybody knows it.

Everybody also knows that guys don’t show up with a street bike in the back of a pickup truck and assert themselves at the top of the Superbike standings. Only some clueless Hollywood scriptwriter would come up with something that hokey and unbelievable.

Yet here we are.

Sure, it’s no surprise that Toni Elias is leading the series after the same kind of strong start to the season he also showed the last two years. And Yamaha Factory Racing’s Cameron Beaubier is in third. But in second place is Mathew Scholtz, riding for Yamalube/Westby Racing, not one of the factory teams. Even more surprising is Josh Herrin in fourth, riding for the Attack Performance/Herrin Compound Yamaha team.

The surprise is not that Herrin can run up front, but rather how he’s done it: by bringing his Yamaha YZF-R1S track-day bike to Road Atlanta in his pickup truck when his Superbike was stuck in Louisiana on a broken-down semi, and then two weeks later racing his Rich Stanboli-built Superbike for the first time ever in the rain at COTA. The more things seem to go wrong, the more Herrin appears to be having fun.

Garrett Gerloff, the Superbike rookie who is the other Yamaha Factory rider, is in fifth with podium finishes in the two dry races, but when was the last time the Yamaha Factory and Yoshimura teams didn’t have the top four spots nailed down liked they owned the copyright to the MotoAmerica standings? And what about the other Yoshimura rider, Roger Hayden? Hayden crashed in each of the first three races, including while leading in the rain at Road Atlanta. He finds himself a very uncharacteristic 11th in the standings.

MotoAmerica at COTA
After sharing the world stage with Moto GP at the Circuit of the Americas, MotoAmerica will set up a stage for some country music performers at this weekend's round at Virginia International Raceway. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Somewhere in Oklahoma, a rain dance

On Saturday at COTA, we saw the race I had expected to see on Sunday at Road Atlanta. All week leading up to the first round in Georgia, the forecast called for 100 percent chance of rain on Sunday afternoon, maybe even severe thunderstorms. On Saturday, that had Elias nervous, saying “I will try to stay on the bike,” and Scholtz saying “I’m really confident.” It didn’t play out that way, however, as Scholtz had to take to the mud to avoid a crashing Jake Lewis at the start and never caught up to Elias, who found confidence in the wet and stormed to a win.

At COTA, rain held off through MotoGP qualifying on Saturday and then began falling as soon as the MotoAmerica bikes rolled to the grid at the end of the day. Again, Scholtz got a poor start and was fifth after the first lap. But from there he moved up steadily, showing his rain-racing dominance. How dominant? Here’s a complete list of the riders who were able to dip below 2:28 on the soaked track and how many times they did it:

  • Scholtz: six laps
  • Beaubier: one lap
  • Everyone else: zero laps

Scholtz was under 2:30 on each of his last 11 laps, something that 16 of the 19 riders in the field, including Elias and Hayden, couldn’t do even once.

I can only assume that one member of the Tulsa-based Westby Racing Team has been assigned to research indigenous rain dances, top-secret Department of Defense weather-altering programs or any other potential methods of making it rain on race weekends.

Not your usual race weekend

This weekend will also be an interesting test off the track. As described in my interview last week with new MotoAmerica marketing guru Alec Marshall, one of the strategies to draw new fans is to identify and appeal to the interests of the friends of current fans. That way, more newcomers might tag along and go to the track. Music is a big part of that.

This Saturday at VIR sounds almost as much like a music festival as a roadracing weekend. Camping at the track is no longer just camping, it’s the Maxim Tailgate Campout, promising BBQ, “red cup beverages” served by models in the Maxim MotoAmerica M2 Lounge and a lineup of country music performers: High Valley, Chase Bryant, Annie Bosko and Larkin Poe. Presumably, the Sunday morning warmup sessions will provide a 14,000 rpm wakeup call for campers who were too enthusiastic with the red cup beverages Saturday night.

VIR may give us the first good indication of how these new marketing approaches are working. At Road Atlanta, the Tony Hawk and Friends show was the non-racing attraction and the Saturday crowd looked pretty good. But thanks to the 100 percent rain forecast, Sunday was a soggy ghost town in the paddock and the skateboards and BMX bikes remained stowed.

Right now, the weekend forecast for VIR is iffy, with a chance of rain, which could deter campers and country music fans, as well as dilute any red cup beverages held outdoors.

But I bet Westby Racing would be happy.