Interview: Wayne Rainey's quest to revitalize American road racing

Interview: Wayne Rainey's quest to revitalize American road racing

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Interview: Wayne Rainey's quest to revitalize American road racing

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Immediately adjacent to the 68 Highway in Monterey County, California sprawls WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. To enter one of the world’s most recognized, revered and scenic race circuits is to drive up somewhat steep and winding entrance roads, and along the way, come across a massive billboard showing Wayne Rainey on a red and white Marlboro-liveried Yamaha YZR500.

A three-time 500cc world champion, not only did Rainey win the United States Grand Prix here in 1989, 1990 and 1991, he made himself synonymous with the  place. Which brings us to 2019, and not only the ninth round of the 2019 Superbike World Championship, but round six of the American Motorcyclist Association-sanctioned MotoAmerica Superbike Series.

Surrounded by riders, team members and industry representatives, it was obvious that Rainey, who helped launch the MotoAmerica enterprise in 2015, was a very important player in the grand scheme of things. Now a key member of the MotoAmerica property and keen to ultimately send American racers across the Atlantic to race on an international level, the Californian – who today lives right next to the Laguna Seca circuit – is proud of what he and his colleagues have been able to create during the past five years, and Laguna Seca provided a perfect backdrop to what is a colossal work in progress in trying to once again make the United States of America the world’s most powerful road-racing nation.

“It’s been five years since we first started here with MotoAmerica,” began Rainey, pointing to the teeming Laguna Seca paddock. “Maybe somebody knew a lot more than I did back in 2015 when we started this, because I didn’t realize the AMA series was in as bad of shape as it was as a whole. It’s been a grind to get where we are now. It’s been five years, and we are finally at a level where we’ve got control of our own TV production. With our own TV production, there are things we can do on the track with any of the riders or any of the teams. It’s such a plus. And so is us sharing this weekend with the WorldSBK series.”

Q: OK Wayne, here we are at WeatherTech Raceway. The race weekend is just getting started, but what are you seeing and what are you thinking?

WAYNE RAINEY: Look around. Everything you see here in our paddock was what we created. MotoAmerica created all of this: All those teams, the trucks, the people, the riders, the sponsors, this event at Laguna Seca… yeah, I helped create that. It’s been very busy. It has been five years and we have 10 events now. We are very excited. We have a lot of young riders coming up, and we have a nice class structure with five classes. We have the Superbike class, and if any riders want to eventually go abroad, that’s where they need to be. It’s all good.

Q: The atmosphere at this place is fantastic. World-class racers, teams as well as motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world…

WR: For sure. Laguna Seca is a good event for us, because I think AMA Superbike racing is strongest in California, and Laguna Seca brings that vibe. This is an iconic racetrack. It’s where all the icons from the past have raced. MotoGP has raced here, and now we have Superbike and MotoAmerica. The event’s on the Monterey Peninsula. The weather is perfect. You can ride through Carmel and visit the wineries. Big Sur is there. There is the Aquarium and all the stuff down on Cannery Row. If you were going to design a racetrack in a city with all this sort of stuff around, this is the only place you can do that. Our fans that were out there, our MotoAmerica fans, I think they feel they have a championship that is legitimate now. It’s something they can be proud of. There has also been a lot of talk about the new riders coming up and when are we going to get a chance to see the Americans to go over and get a shot at the World Championship. I think now after five years, we can finally start to answer those questions.

Q: All along the way, and certainly in 2019, the racing in the MotoAmerica series has been remarkably competitive and compelling. Are you and your guys pleased with the racing product you’re delivering?

WR: If there has been one thing that we haven’t had to work on at all, it’s been the racing. We fine-tuned the classes a bit. When we first started out with MotoAmerica, we needed to make sure that whatever class is out there on the track, the riders in that class always needed to be racing each other hard, whether it was practice, qualifying or the actual race. We see the top riders come to the front and watch them week to week, and you see if they are progressing. Sometimes they get beat, and you wonder how they’re going to respond to that. Are they just going to start making mistakes because they are getting beat, or are they going to come back being strong?

It’s like that in every class. It’s been very interesting. I think we’re really starting to see the fruitions of our strategy to get racers to come into the series, and then go through the series and then to make an actual career in MotoAmerica. When we first started this five years ago, we had 72 entries. At Laguna Seca we had almost 140. It’s really cool.

Q: Going back to the flame-out that was the original AMA Superbike Series, you guys stepped in and threw everything you had at not only keeping the series alive, but strengthening it from the bottom floor up. It’s taken five years to fix the mess. Took a hell of a lot of time and effort, eh?

WR: Yeah, it did. What had happened in the past before we had gotten there was that the national championships in other countries really went to work and worked on their own championships. This created more opportunities for everyone but the U.S. championship. The U.S. championship, I think, was the national championship in the world to go through. I think some people took advantage of that, or they thought things would never change, and then there was some tinkering with the rules and then, boom! Four or five of the manufacturers left.

When we first come in to start all of this, we had to fix the rules, but we started from zero. We’ve been working hard in trying to get other manufacturers to support teams. I think the way of the future in racing is pretty much how they do it in World SBK. Kawasaki has their factory team, but you look and see that BMW has a team. Yamaha has three teams there. The factory supports three teams. I can see that happening more often here. I can see Honda supporting a team; I can see Kawasaki supporting a team. And they don’t necessarily need to run these teams in-house at the factories, because I think the teams are so specialized now and the rules are such now that you can’t tinker with the electronics and stuff. The teams are so specialized now that they can do the job, and you don’t really have to run a team from inside the factory. We see more factory-supported teams in years to come.

We also see sportbike sales not being at where they once were, so we have to create another way to help them promote their products. Right now, basically, we don’t have the Kawasaki factory in our MotoAmerica paddock, but there are 35 Kawasaki race bikes on the grid at our races, so it’s working.

Q: Are you optimistic about bike makers coming around and supporting the series?

WR: Yes, I am.  We recently had multiple meetings with a couple of manufacturers that aren’t currently on our grid. We really like what they are saying this year, much more than what they’ve had to say in the past. When we first started with all this, it was at a level where we didn’t know where it was going to go. People wanted to make sure MotoAmerica was there to stay, so now after five years, we’re here to stay. We just signed a 10-year extension with the AMA for the commercial rights for the sanction, so we are all in. I think the manufacturers see that, and I think they’re going to start supporting the championship much more than they have in the past.

Q: All things considered, you and the entire MotoAmerica organization have certainly proved yourselves the hard way…

WR: We had to take some shots. We had some riders say some stuff like, “I remember when we had full factory teams and I remember when there was a lot of money in the paddock.” We’d have to come back and say, “Well, the way it is now is what we’ve got. We have to adjust to where the industry is at right now and where it is going.” Of course, we’re trying to make it competitive and we want the manufacturers to support the championship with teams and riders, and we would like them all to be there, but first you have to have a championship that allows them to do that, and I think we’re there now. We’ve had some riders come out in the past that didn’t have positive things to say, and they came out this weekend and they were blown away with how good the operation of MotoAmerica was run, and how competitive each class was.

You can go talk to any team in that paddock and basically they’re all pumped up with what we’re doing. I think that they know that we care about them. I also want to make sure we are racing at the safest racetracks possible. There are some tracks, and I know we could go there and get 40,000, but if it rains, we can’t race on that particular track, so we don’t go. We are trying to make our environment and our racing series as competitive as it can be. If we’re racing really close and strong here, when a rider does get a chance to go race abroad, at least he’s been racing hard; he’s not going to see another whole level of competition that he’s really far from. That’s the goal. Being an American championship, it’s always worked in the past, and we expect it to work like that again.

Q: How do we get an American racer back on the global scene and making headlines?

WR: First of all, I think it has to come from the rider himself. There have been 10 years since we’ve had a strong and competitive American since Nicky [Hayden]. In my opinion, our guys need to be more proactive in reaching out to the teams over there. They have to go talk to them when they come to COTA to race MotoGP, or when they come to American World Superbike. Go introduce yourself. You have to try and push to get rides in the Suzuka 8 Hour. You have to go race the international races, and when you do get that chance, whether it is the 8 Hour or it’s a wildcard in World Superbike, you can’t run around in 10th place. Because of what we have done in the past, you are expected to be in the top six or seven in international races and that is very possible.

I think our top riders now can do that. I think in some ways, some of the riders here make a damn good living in MotoAmerica and they get to go home and sleep in their beds after the races because they’re racing in the U.S. And our guys know that if they win abroad, at least to start with, they’re going to take a big dip in their earnings. This is the risk, though. How bad do our guys want it?

Q: We need a new Kenny Roberts, huh?

WR: That’s right! You have to go over there and go, “Okay, I am Cameron Beaubier and I deserve to be here and I’m going to show you why.” You go over there and you get a few results, and the next thing you know, you’ve got five or six of the top teams coming after you. If you go over there and run 10th, that’s not going to do it.

 

I think there has been a little reluctance from our top guys to go abroad, and I think there has been a little bit of reluctance from the international teams to ask them abroad. I keep telling our guys, “You’re going to have to push. I can only do so much. But if you’re not going to go reach out to these teams first, how can I go, ‘Yeah, this guy is ready,’ when you’re not really ready to go yourself? Not really one of them has come to me yet as far as me trying to help them get over there, but I’ve started to hear some rumblings, so I think it might happen soon. Hey, I think it’s primed right now for one of our riders to get poached!

Q: Any of the current American-based MotoAmerica riders who leap out at you as potential candidates to make a run at WorldSBK or MotoGP?

WR: Well, I see Cameron Beaubier. I know he wanted to have a chat and I hear his name quite a bit throughout the World Superbike paddock. He sounds like he could be a guy who could be making the jump. We also have some really young kids coming up. We have Rocco Landers, who is 14. He won the Junior Cup race this weekend by nine or 10 seconds. We see Dallas Daniels. He races flat track, but I know he is looking at road racing and that’s where he wants to make his career, and I know he wants to go to MotoGP. That kid is very talented. There are some good guys there. And we’re going to keep seeing more and more of those kids rising up to the top.

Q: So what’s on the horizon for both you and MotoAmerica?

WR: We would like to get our races live on NBC, and we would like to get the races live on FS1. We would like to get into more households. We think the structure of the series is such that more of the manufacturers will start supporting teams in our series. That’s another goal. We’d like to do a talent cup to see where the young talent is, and that would be on Moto3 bikes. Maybe we run a team from our series in the European Championship and give a kid a shot that way. Dorna is really pushing us to do that.

Like I said earlier, we took a sport that was almost gone and now it’s looked at in the mainstream as far as road racing series go. They know who we are, and they know that it’s important, and they know that America is the biggest market, so it’s about ready to explode. I think there are a lot of racers in our championship that they don’t even know what they can do. Our series is providing an opportunity for a lot of people to earn a living, to have a job, to race in exciting races and a lot of people seem to like excitement, so I think it’s pretty cool.

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