Beginner’s Guide to Motorcycle Road Racing

Valentino Rossi
Valentino Rossi

Post updated 10/25/09

One of the best by-products of my motorcycle hobby was becoming a huge motorcycle road racing fan – it gave me a whole new sport to follow and obsess over.  I didn’t have much interest in it until I started riding because I couldn’t relate to how difficult it really is.

It took me a little while to figure out what was what in road racing though, especially since it’s somewhat obscure here in the U.S.  It’s for this reason I decided to post a brief summary of the different road racing series for those of you just getting into it.  Have fun!

MotoGP (www.motogp.com)

Let’s start with the top, shall we?  The motorcycle equivalent of Formula 1, MotoGP is where (most of) the fastest riders race the fastest bikes.  The machines are completely custom prototypes costing millions of dollars each; they are not allowed to contain parts from mass-produced motorcycles.  The races are held at top tracks all over the world.  It’s broken down into 3 sub-series:

  1. Premier Class (800cc four stroke)
  2. 250cc (250cc two stroke, changing to “Moto2” 600cc four stroke in 2010)
  3. 125cc (125cc two stroke)

Most premier class teams consist of two riders.  There are manufacturer owned “factory” teams (Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki for 2009) and privately owned “satellite” teams.  The satellite teams lease or purchase bikes from the factory teams but don’t get quite the same level of support.

Some names you should know:

  • Valentino Rossi – the richest athlete you’ve probably never heard of, the Italian superstar is on the top 10 list of the world’s highest paid sportsmen.  Valentino has won an astonishing seven premier class MotoGP championships, not including the 125cc and 250cc championships he picked up along the way.  He is arguably the greatest road racer ever, having won so many races and championships on so many different bikes (125cc two stroke, 250cc two stroke, 500cc two stroke, 990cc four stroke, 800cc four stroke).
  • Casey Stoner – 2007 champion from Australia.  Casey has had some difficulty in 2009 with a mystery illness (possibly mild anemia) but has been the only rider capable of riding the 800cc Ducati to any sort of sustained success.
  • Jorge Lorenzo – 2nd year rider from Spain.  Jorge is Rossi’s teammate on the factory Yamaha team and his closest competitor.
  • Dani Pedrosa – 4th year rider from Spain.  Honda’s main man in MotoGP, Dani is always a top-three threat.
  • Nicky Hayden – 2006 champion and one of two Americans racing in the premier class.  Hayden won the 2006 championship in dramatic fashion, the last year of 990cc four strokes.  He has struggled since the series moved to 800cc four strokes in 2007.
  • Ben Spies – see summary below under World Superbike.

The premier class bikes can top 200 mph despite being downsized in 2007 from 990cc to 800cc in an effort to improve safety.  With the move to smaller 800cc bikes, the average size of the riders has also diminished.  Not a single rider in the premier class weighs over 150 lbs.

World Superbike, aka SBK (www.worldsbk.com)

The pinnacle of production-based road racing, World Superbike employs many up-and-coming racers and some that have fallen from the ranks of MotoGP.  The bikes are highly modified versions of mass-produced street legal bikes.  There are rules as to what can be modified but they start with the same bikes we can buy at the local dealership.  Races are held at some of the same tracks as MotoGP along with other popular tracks worldwide.  SBK is broken down into four sub-series:

  1. Superbike (highly modified 1000cc)
  2. Supersport (highly modified 600cc)
  3. Superstock 1000 (modified 1000cc)
  4. Superstock 600 (modified 600cc)

The team structure is similar to that of MotoGP; there are factory and satellite teams.  Manufacturers currently racing in the Superbike classification for 2009 are Ducati, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Aprilia and BMW.

Some names you should know:

  • Ben Spies – an American and 3-time AMA Superbike champ, 2009 was his first year in SBK.  He won the championship in the last race at Portimao, a tremendous feat for someone who had never seen most of the tracks he raced on this year.  “Elbowz” will be racing in MotoGP for 2010 on the Tech 3 team, a Yamaha satellite squad.
  • Noriyuki  “Nori” Haga – Japan’s heartbreak kid and a former MotoGP rider.  He came within 2 points of winning the 2007 SBK championship and fell 6 points short in 2009.  Many projected him as a lock for the 2009 championship after he secured the spot vacated by the retiring Troy Bayliss on the Ducati factory team.  Their bike is widely considered the best in SBK.
  • Johnny Rea – A talented young British rider on the factory Haanspree Ten Kate Honda team.  Rea (pronounced ray) was 5th in the 2009 SBK championship but won multiple races and showed the pace to be at the front.  Definitely a title contender for 2010.
  • Max Biaggi – Four time 250cc grand prix champ, former MotoGP title contender and all around fast guy.  Max has had a long storied career in motorcycle racing, made even more amazing by the fact that he never rode a motorcycle until he was 18.  He’s getting older but still wins races and helped make Aprilia’s amazing RSV4 a huge success in its first year of production and SBK racing.
  • Michel Fabrizio – Haga’s teammate on the Ducati Xerox team.  2009 was the first year he won any SBK races, but got faster as the season went on and seems to be a legitimate threat to steal multiple races in 2010.
  • James Toseland – 2007 SBK champion and former MotoGP rider.  Toseland won the SBK title in 2007, then spent a miserable two years in MotoGP at the back of the pack.  He’s returning to SBK in 2010 on the factory Sterilgarda Yamaha team.
  • Cal Crutchlow – 2009 World Supersport champion and 2006 British Supersport champion.  Cal tested very well on his first outing on the factory Sterilgarda Yamaha bike at the end of the 2009 season; expectations are high for him to contend for race wins in 2010.

AMA Pro Racing (www.amaproracing.com)

The American series has a long and storied history but 2009 was a disaster.  The rights to the series were purchased in early 2008 by Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG); the changes they brought in 2009 have ostracized the factories, riders, teams and worst of all the fans.  The series is in jeopardy and not a certainty to continue for 2010 as we have known it.  For 2009, DMG’s major revisions resulted in these classes:

  1. American Superbike (Buell 1125R, Honda CBR1000RR, Kawasaki ZX-10, Yamaha R1, Suzuki GSX-R1000, Aprilia RSV1000R, Ducati 1098R)
  2. Daytona Sportbike (Yamaha YZF-R6, Suzuki GSX-R600, Honda CBR600RR, Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, Buell 1125R, Aprilia RSV1000R, Ducati 848, Triumph Daytona 675)
  3. Supersport (riders age 16-21 only; Yamaha YZF-R6, Suzuki GSX-R600, Honda CBR600RR, Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, Buell 1125R)
  4. Moto-GT (130 HP maximum)

Before 2009 it roughly resembled other national superbike series but DMG’s vision included sweeping (and very unpopular) changes.  Attendance was down the last couple of years before DMG bought in;  Suzuki’s factory team had a stranglehold on the Superbike class and its 55 straight wins from 2006-2009 were putting fans to sleep.  But DMG’s attempt to save American road racing haven’t worked out.  Here are just some of this year’s missteps by DMG:

  • In 2008 DMG announced they were making “Daytona Superbike” the premier class, a mix of 600cc 4 cylinder bikes and larger displacement 2 and 3-cylinder bikes (what is now Daytona Sportbike).  The opposition was so huge that they finally relented and kept 1000cc as the premier class.
  • Some of the lights went out during the Daytona 200 (it was run at night).
  • They introduced rolling starts, NASCAR style (the rest of the world uses standing starts).  This is going away in 2010.
  • They tried using a “safety” (pace) car, NASCAR style (see a pattern here?).  It almost resulted in disaster at the Laguna Seca race when the pace car was sent out after a crash on the first lap.  The car was deployed in a blind spot over the crest of a 150 mph hill and the lead riders narrowly missed smashing into it.  They have since ditched the safety car for a safety bike.
  • They said live TV broadcasts were too confusing for fans, so they opted for a weekly Saturday night show where the previous weekend’s races would be shown.  This changed mid-season to same-day broadcasts.
  • The “Daytona Sportbike” class, formerly Formula Extreme (basically equivalent to Supersport), was modified to allow a number of different bikes to compete with the usual 600cc bikes.  The most controversial was the Buell 1125R, an 1125cc twin-cylinder bike that seemed more at home in the Superbike class.  The Buell took the 2009 championship with Danny Eslick riding.
  • Buell was allowed to run their 1125RR in the Superbike class, a special race-only edition of the 1125R that is not available as a street legal bike.  Regardless of the 1125RR’s inability to contend for race wins, this was perceived as a slap in the face to the other manufacturers as the rules plainly stated that only bikes that start as street legal models can be used.
  • Honda withdrew its participation from the series after the 2009 season ended, stating, “Regrettably the current AMA/DMG racing environment does not align with our company goals.”
  • DMG keeps promoting (and wants to expand) Moto-GT, a class the majority of fans don’t care about.

In short, DMG’s efforts seemed puzzling, nepotistic (favoring Buell) and something to the effect of, “let’s make this thing really American (NASCAR-like).”  It’s not surprising since one of DMG’s principals, Jim France, is also Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President of NASCAR.  The problem is road racing fans in America generally don’t want American road racing to be something completely unique.  Most want it to resemble World Superbike so we can talk about our best riders and theirs on the same level, and see our best riders graduate smoothly to the world stage (like Ben Spies did).

2009 did produce closer racing and multiple non-Suzuki race winners for the first time since 2006, something DMG has trumpeted loudly, but it’s one of very few positive results.  In 2008 when overall support didn’t look good for DMG’s new vision, the Motorcycle Industry Council (made up of the manufacturers) briefly announced their own series called US Superbike.  It was shelved for 2009 as AMA Pro Racing was able to hammer out a schedule, but who knows what’s in store for 2010.

Update:  On October 15, 2009, Buell officially announced the end of its operations.  AMA Pro Racing is going to look very different in 2010 if it manages to get there.






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