Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Photos from that barn, in that town...

I feel that I've been remiss, posting little to this blog in recent months. It's not that I haven't been up to stuff; it's that, if anything, I've been up to too much. So, there's lots I want to write about, but no time in which to write.

So, for now, here are some photos that will illustrate a story that I'll publish when I get around to it. The story—sort of my own 'American Pickers' moment—will describe a barn in... ah, what does it matter where it is? I know none of you would care, or want to go there.

How many times have you ridden past a building this innocuous? 
Premier 125 Enduro, built by Moto Beta in the early '70s, for Berliner Motor Corp.
Year? Model? Love the 'tacos but I'm not familiar enough with them to ID this one.
Lots of '70s aftermarket love in evidence, such as this Bassani pipe, Preston Petty fenders...
In his day, the youngest Ducati dealer in the history of  the marque.
Pigeons 3, 657, Honda 1.
R5. Or in this case, maybe three and a half.
Bridgestones. There's a story here.
Folk art? Or just a way to store them off the ground?
Wards Riverside. Some were made by Benelli. Can anyone place this model?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Writer's Notebook: Barcelona

Spain's in the midst of a crushing recession, although I didn't personally see that much evidence of it. Maybe what I was seeing was actually evidence of Europe's social safety net. 

Barcelona's a nice place to be a tourist; there's good public transit, better-than-average bar food, striking modern buildings that, I presume, were just finished in time for the bottom to fall out of the economy. That said, I did keep my record intact, which is that every time I spend any time in a big European city, someone tries to pick my pocket. I'm now about five for five vs. the gypsies.

Of course, Barcelona's famous for Art Deco architecture—especially the work of Antonio Gaudi. I took the Metro out to Sagrada Familia, a Gaudi church that is one of the 20th century's masterpieces. Or, at least, it will be if they ever finish it. It's surrounded by Starbucks, KFC, and a Burger King.

When I went to pick up a credential, the press officer opened her eyes wide, and told me, "You're a very famous journalist!"

I assured her that she was thinking of some other guy, but she was adamant. To prove it, she opened up that day's Periodico newspaper, and flipped to a story about the Superprestigio, which described the whole social media campaign I conducted to get Brad an invitation. The writer made a point of quoting me as saying that if the MotoGP riders failed to invite him, it could only mean they were 'gallinos'--chicken.

This hairpin turn was part of the old Monjuic Park circuit.
During the long siesta between qualifying and racing, I was desperate to get away from the noise, dust, and exhaust, I walked out into Montjuic Park, where the arena was located. The 'mont' in the name is for 'mountain'; it's on a huge hill that dominates the city. 

For years, there were motorcycle and car races on the roads around and through the park. The F1 circuit abandoned Montjuic in 1975, after an accident killed a driver and five fans. Occasional Grand Prix, TTF1, and World Endurance Championship motorcycle races were held until the '80s, along with Spanish Championship events. Kenny Noyes' dad Dennis clinched a championship the very last time anyone raced there. Dennis was so popular in Spain that the Spanish equivalent of the AMA once passed a rule, which came to be known as "the Noyes rule", that foreigners could accumulate points in the Spanish domestic championship.

Back in Montjuic's heyday, Spain was still under the control of Francisco Franco. Political niceties meant nothing to the Generalissimo; the country had trade barriers that basically made it impossible for the Japanese manufacturers to sell there.

Eventually, to get around the situation, the major Japanese manufacturers all bought into Spanish subsidiaries. Honda bought Montesa, Kawasaki bought a piece of Derbi. Yamaha invested in Sanglas, a maker of unloved police bikes. And Suzuki invested in Puch, an Austrian company that made mopeds in Spain. (My first motorbike was a Puch Condor.) The only manufacturer who was too proud to sell out was Senor Bulto.

Of course, by 1980, Bultaco was out of business.

The huge building that dominates Montjuic from Plaza Catalunya is the Museo Nacional d'Art Catalan. Yes, Catalunya thinks of itself as a separate nation, complete with a secessionist movement. A crowd of people sat appreciatively as a busker, an excellent flamenco guitarist, played a song it took me a while to recognize: Time in a Bottle, by Jim Croce.

Inside the museum, there was a swing band playing, and at least two hundred swing dancers. So it was U.S. music inside and out.

I meant to ask Baker about the amount of time he spent on the rev limiter; more than anyone else. I wonder if it was just that he didn't have the right gearing available, or if for some reason he likes riding on the overrun. At the end of every straight, his bike stuttered like a tobacco auctioneer.

Although Bradley Smith wasn't particularly fast, I thought he looked smooth and controlled most of the time. I was impressed with his workmanlike attitude, which was consistent with the observations of experienced MotoGP journos, who have for the most part defended him against critics who say he's not the most deserving guy for his ride.

Before suiting up, Smith goes through an elaborate and typically methodical stretching and loosening up routine, involving calisthenics, various elastic devices, and a roller. Other riders have said, "If I did all that, I'd be too tired to ride!"

It's a cliche to say that in Spain and Italy, guys like Marquez and Rossi are treated like rock stars. But I was taken aback to see way people--lots and lots of people--just want to be around Marc. He was pretty relaxed and available in his little pit box, signing autographs and flashing his toothpaste-commercial smile for a never ending series of photos. In many ways, it was a lot like a typical flat track pit scene, except that of course all the people who had access to the Superprestigio pit were industry insiders. Still it was nice to see MotoGP coming a little down to earth (or at least, clay.)

Baker signed a lot of autographs too, something he did especially enthusiastically if the seekers were, shall I say, date-worthy. The closest I heard to him speaking Spanish was a cheerful, "Hola, girls" when two cute ones approached. He says he's going to try to learn a little Spanish, for next time. He might find it difficult; they have a different word for almost everything.

Here's how I look at Brad Baker and Marc Marquez coming together, and having Marquez crash out of the 'Superfinal' last Saturday night: Baker told me--and I believe him--that he intentionally held a little bit back in order to give the fans a race to watch. If you accept that there was no chance that Marquez was going to win, then crashing out of a battle for the lead was the most honorable outcome.

Marc deserves a lot of credit for insisting there there'd even be a Superfinal. In the hotel, the night before the race, Bradley Smith's dad/manager was certain that this would be the first and last time a Grand National Champion would be invited to participate, because, he said, the promoters wouldn't countenance their hero being beaten.

"By agreeing to the Superfinal," the MotoGP insider opined, "Marquez has gone from a situation in which he was a certain winner to one where he won't even finish on the podium."

That, it turned out, was a little harsh; Marquez certainly would have finished second if he hadn't crashed.

The influential MotoGP blogger David Emmett came up to Brad after the races, and said, "I thought that you and Marc, on dirt, were like Lorenzo and Marc in Grands Prix; you and Lorenzo are both very smooth and controlled, and Marc was all over the place, the same as he is on a MotoGP bike."

But, David, bear this in mind: Marquez crashed out of a lot of Moto2 races, too. In a year or two he might be all over the place and still be on his wheels at the end of the night. The point is, he beat Lorenzo.

This wasn't the first time that AMA flat track has represented in Spain. In the early '90s, Solo Moto held an American style flat track race on a dog track. They brought in several top U.S. riders, who explained that it wasn't just a dog track, it was a dog of a track.

Still, I can guarantee you that more people watched Baker win the Superfinal on Spanish television than have seen any AMA flat track race in decades. My guess is that more Americans watched and followed the Superprestigio than have watched any Grand National in decades. So when I heard a rumor--that's probably all it was--that AMA Pro Racing had discussed holding a National in another country for next season, I couldn't help but fantasize: How cool would it be to bring the top 10 guys in GNC points, and their bikes, over to Spain for the final race next year?

Jaime Alguersuari is the publisher of Solo Moto and a legendary figure in Spanish motorcycling. After the banquet, he hugged me, thanked me, and made me promise I'd come back next year. "I think," he said while refusing to let me go, "that today, Barcelona was part of the United States. "

I guess exposing thousands of Spanish racing fans to dirt track makes up, in some small way, for exporting Starbucks and KFC, eh?

What with interviews and thank yous, we were the last people to leave Palau St. Jordi on Saturday night. Brad's mechanics offered to help carry out his gear bag. As people divided up the load to lug out, he said, "I'll carry the hardware." He's a racer: leaving with the trophy is what it's all about.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

You should've stopped reading at 'fucktard'

I'm not going to go all Chris Christie on you, but I put a post up late on Friday night, in Spain, that excoriated Cycle World and AMA Pro Racing for appropriating the Superprestigio.

The only reason it came to my attention was that I got a flurry of emails from people saying, "Hey, it would've been nice of them to give you credit." And the truth is, it would've been big of them to point out that they were only covering the event at all because, thanks to my Backmarker column on Motorcycle-USA, Brad Baker had been invited. 

The worst part of my little fit of pique wasn't the language I used, it was that I was being stupid. 

The reason I called out Marc Marquez in the first place is that I love the Grand National Championship, and want to raise its profile any way I can. I want to help the GNC regain its past glory and relevance, and I was stupid to be mad at DMG in the guise of AMA Pro Racing for wanting to tag along. That should have been my goal and in fact I did offer to write press releases for them from the event. (They never responded.) Because my feelings were hurt --I know: sniff--I dumped on AMA Pro, saying things calculated to rub them the wrong way. Not too mature.

Furthermore, I didn't only want to raise the profile of the GNC in Europe, I wanted to raise it here, by illustrating how much respect European fans, at least, have for our flat track tradition--more respect than U.S. fans show for it. Cycle World helped with that, a lot. (And in fact, about a week before flying out, I offered them a written account to use in  print and got a one line "no thanks" email. It's not as if I was popular there to start with.)

Anyway, my plan worked: Brad Baker gained nearly a thousand Twitter followers in two days, doubling his social media reach, and Bike--probably the most respected English-language motorcycle magazine--asked me to cover the Peoria TT this season.

So, mea culo, I mean, 'culpa'. I was wrong to call AMA Pro Racing and Cycle World 'fucktards'.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

AMA Pro Racing's failures of imagination

Earlier this month, in one of me regular "Backmarker" columns on, I wrote—half seriously and half just out of frustration—that AMA Pro Racing should reunify the Grand National Championship. I.E., revert to some form of the pre-1985 rules, when a single #1 plate was awarded to the rider who scored the most points at Expert Nationals held on road courses, and on Mile, 1/2-mile, ST and TT courses.

That column almost set a record for 'likes' (600+) and triggered a debate on Facebook that was interesting both because of the obvious emotions it brought up (both positive and negative) and because of who got involved: Chris Carr's and Mike Hacker's pages lit up; I even got a phone call from Bill Werner. More on that in a few paragraphs...

My column was really written from a marketing-strategy point of view. I began by essentially exempting the Supercross series from my critique, on the grounds that as an outsider looking in on SX, I think Feld Motor Sports does a pretty solid job promoting that sport. This morning, I had that position ratified by the L.A. Times, which ran a headline about Anaheim I on its home page (tablet version) above the fold. I thought that, for a moment, the Times' website was feeding me stories they thought I'd like, so I also opened the site on Mary's iPad; AI results were shown in the same spot.

Anyway, back to the column and the debate it provoked.

In general, the reactions I saw came from people on the flat track side of the sport. Most were positive, perhaps because the consensus is that it would be easier for a flat tracker to transition to asphalt than for a road racer to go the other way. If readers were critical of my proposal, it was usually because they thought, "We can't find the budget we need to run twins on Miles and 1/2-miles as it is; you're telling us we need to build a road racer, too?"

But another way to look at my proposal was, we'd be rationalizing both AMA Pro Road Racing and Flat Track; we'd be consolidating the best (and best-attended) 6-8 road races and the best 6-8 flat track events. We'd also be consolidating all the sponsorship available at the National Championship level.

As an "ad guy" the thing I like about this is that it gives AMA Pro Racing a real marketing hook. For decades, the AMA's Grand National Championship was a search for the best all-round racer in the U.S. In the '70s, Kenny Roberts went to Europe and reinforced the idea that the Grand National Champion was in fact the best racer in the entire world. Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, etc., did nothing to discourage that hubris.

Americans are sports isolationists: The NFL, basketball, baseball... they're all sports that were invented here and are still mainly played here. "Football" means something totally different in the rest of the world. That's why I think reverting to a uniquely American motorcycle championship makes sense from a marketing-strategy perspective.

Bill Werner's not one who suffers fools gladly, so when I saw his name on my "missed call" display I held my breath, wondering if he'd bite my head off for suggesting a reunified championship. But when I called, I found that he thought the idea had merit. We talked for quite a while, and when Bill gets excited it's hard to make notes as fast as he's going. But suffice to say that he's incredibly frustrated by the current state of AMA Pro Racing. He ran the Harley-Davidson factory flat track team for years; from his perspective, for example, the idea of balancing the regulations every 30 days will drive factory teams out of the sport.

Honestly, AMA Pro Racing has—perhaps in spite of itself—achieved some things in the last few years. Most people feel the racing on display is good; there are more brands present on flat tracks. But from a marketing perspective, and looking at it as a business from a strategic perspective, it's a disaster. The problem is the lack of imagination and foresight in Daytona.

Last month, I got Brad Baker invited to Marc Marquez' Superprestigio race in Barcelona. I'm not saying that to brag, I'm saying that to point out that AMA Pro Racing didn't do it.

So, the most charismatic and exciting new Grand Prix racer in at least a decade decides he's going to put on a flat track race and it doesn't occur to AMA Pro Racing to try to capitalize on it? Or did no one at Daytona even know it was happening—despite the Superprestigio making the news in motorcycle media around the world?

In the last few years, flat track's seen the return of Triumph, Ducati, KTM and even BMW to the big tracks. All that's happened with little-to-no manufacturer support; and yet it didn't occur to anyone in Daytona that having the American champion making news in Europe might create some marketing synergy. To say nothing of the fact that flat track desperately needs a shot in the arm back home. Doesn't anyone at AMA Pro Racing realize that having the U.S. champ go and show the MotoGP boys the fast line on a short track is a golden story opportunity for all U.S. motorcycle media?

The failure of imagination at AMA Pro Racing is stunning, but U.S. distributors and manufacturers aren't doing much better. After getting Baker invited, I wrote AMA Pro Racing, KTM (who make the bike Baker races on short tracks) and Harley-Davidson (Baker is the factory's official rider and while he'll ride a KTM in Spain, U.S. flat track and H-D are inextricably linked.) I told them, "Look, I'm going to Spain anyway. If I go, and write a couple of Backmarker columns, they'll appear on Motorcycle-USA only. If I go and write press releases, the story will be picked up by every American web site and magazine. If I go and issue releases to European media, we can spin this into a great story about flat track in the 'States, too.

I got no responses. AMA Pro, zilch. KTM, nada. Well, I did get a reply from H-D, saying, "He's going to be racing a KTM, so we don't see how we can use it." That was after I'd suggested that we could seed stories in European media about Baker being Harley's factory rider, Baker could sign autographs in the Barcelona Harley dealership, ride up to the arena on a Harley street-tracker...

The AMA actually did put out a press release about Baker's trip to the Superprestigio. I guess it would have killed them to credit and Backmarker for making it happen, eh?

Anyway, I don't suppose that I should be surprised by the lack of imagination from AMA Pro Racing (and KTM, and Harley.) But honestly when the motorcycle industry in general and the professional motorcycle racing industry in particular is still blaming "the economy" for their commercial woes... Suffice to say that doesn't ring true for me.

If they can't see their way clear to capitalize on things like Baker's trip to Spain, I guess there's no chance that the powers-that-be in Daytona are going to call me up and say, "Tell us more about this idea you have, to reunify the Grand National Championship."

There are only a handful of road races currently scheduled; the AMA Pro Racing superbike championship seems to be without a title sponsor. Don't be surprised if the series' already-sketchy TV deal falls apart next. And AMA Pro Racing will blame poor motorcycle industry revenues, "the recession", or for all I know, Obama.

The real problem is a lack of imagination.