Made the trip to Austin last October so I could see Valentino Rossi race his last MotoGP at the Circuit of the Americas. I certainly wasn’t alone. I left wondering how the retirement of MotoGP’s biggest draw would impact the sport. Well, I got my answers after attending the Austin MotoGP on Sunday April 10th and those answers confirmed some suspicions and surprised me.
First, what I expected. The crowd took a hit. A big hit. Even with improved weather conditions, removing the battalion of Rossi fans seriously diminished the army of MotoGP spectators. There were plenty of fans wearing day-glow-lime colored 46 T-shirts (they easily outnumber the fans of any current MotoGP racer) but overall, the missing Rossi fans left a lot of empty grandstand seats.
What surprised me? The racing! Last year the races looked like qualifying with riders finding their pace and riding in a bubble. Boring! Not this year. Classes were filled with tight, edge-of-the-seat racing starting with battles for the lead and going to the poor guys in mid pack trying to salvage a few series’ points. It was the kind of racing that builds a fan base (and that is what MotoGP needs right now). If the rest of the MotoGP season is as exciting as the beginning rounds, all those missing Rossi fans will be replaced with new fans who want to see great racing.
The Rossi migration: When Valentino Rossi left MotoGP, he took a lot of fans with him. He still fields a MotoGP team but it is not the same as seeing the man himself in the saddle. While the sport has taken a hit in spectator attendance, it could be a short-lived dip. The racing is at a different level and that will bring new (and old) fans back to the grandstands.
The Márquez handicap: Something screwed up royally on Marc Márquez’ Honda that limited his power or speed off the start. It was pure luck that he wasn’t rammed by a rider starting behind him. He entered the first corner in last place and the Honda suddenly came to life. He chased to sixth place, passing 16 riders in the process. Amazing!
New groove: Some riders complained about the track surface last year and there was talk of a walkout. The Circuit of the Americas resurfaced the bumpy sections over the winter and riders gave the track a big thumbs up. The beautiful facility will always have to deal with the clay soil that it is built on.
Duke it out: Ducati Motorcycles dominated qualifying and ended up filling the top five spots on the grid. They won both the weekend’s MotoGP and MotoAmerica events. Note the 100% logo’ed umbrellas on the grid. The brand is popular in all forms of two-wheel racing from MotoGP to motocross to supercross to the Tour de France.
Exclusive photo: Here is a shot you will never see in Cycle News or Roadracing News Magazine. Why? Because it was shot with an iPhone from a football-field distance away, it is out of focus, and it is not even a race (it is the warm-up lap for MotoAmerica). I could apply for press credentials next year but then I’d have to drag all my camera equipment around instead of enjoying the racing like a fan.
MotoAmerica at the circuit: America’s Superbike road racing series got to share the track with the MotoGP classes even if their two races were relegated to support status. I assume the tight racing won over MotoGP fans who may take the opportunity to attend future MotoAmerica events.
Thanks for the great seats: World Champion Kevin Schwantz (right) hosted Lance Sallis, my Backcountry Discovery Route riding partner and myself in his epic suite on the front stretch. While I like the life of luxury (air conditioning, big screen monitors and cool people), I also like hoofing around the circuit to smell the race gas and see the action from a relatively close distance. So, it is one day in the suite and one on the feet. Thanks, Kevin!
THE NORTH AMERICAN TALENT CUP
The biggest surprise of the weekend was watching and learning about the North American Talent Cup races. The series takes 13- to 16-year-old racers from America, Mexico and Canada and allows them to compete in the series on Aprilia RS 250 SP2 road race motorcycles. The idea behind the series is to develop MotoGP riders the same way young riders get a chance to compete in Italy, Spain and France (and I suppose Australia must have some type of development series because that continent produces a lot of fast riders).
While the series is not cheap (a bike will set you back $16,000 and then you have all the usual racing expenses), these racers will gain experience they could never attain on their own. There are no Americans currently competing at the highest level of MotoGP and that is something the MotoGP promoters hope the North American Talent Cup will correct. And one more thing…the racing was spectacular. Except for “Jesse James” Shedden (who ran away from the field in both races), the racing was close and entertaining. There were insanely tight battles throughout the field and I saw a level of skill and maturity you don’t expect from 14 year olds.
Family affair: Logan Cunnison is typical of the Talent Cup riders. Flanked by his mechanic, Ryan Snooks (right), and his father Scott and brother Luke, Logan fought back from poor-fitting leathers (he lowered his lap times by 8 seconds after adjustments) and improved his performance every lap he was on the track. Logan has to add weight to the bike to reach the minimum requirements. You can check out his Facebook page here.
Logan gets lucky: Speaking of Logan Cunnison, fast forward to minute 21 of this video to see how the rider missed being taken out of the second race by inches.
Future champions: Will one of these young riders become a future World Champion? I say that is too much pressure to lay on anybody this age. I witnessed a bunch of young racers who showed maturity and dedication way past their years. If they become pros, great. If they apply what they learn in the Talent Cup to school, their careers and life, that is even better.
Lance and the Wienermobile: The crew at the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile were out of whistles (or so they said). Lance poured on the charm and somehow a whistle was found. That’s how he rolls. The Wienermobile was just one of many promotional displays at the races.