The Sale Of Ama Pro Racing To the Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG) evokes a number of reactions, not the least of which is irony.
Longtime race fans remember Roger Edmondson. Edmondson created the Championship Cup Series in the '80s before moving on to run the AMA Superbike Championship as a subcontractor. But dirty tricks by the AMA-at one point the hard drive was stolen out of his computer-ousted him in the mid-'90s, triggering a protracted legal battle. In the end Edmondson received a $3-million-plus settlement, which seems like a lot of money but wasn't. Not after the legal fees, lost wages and emotional damage were done.
"I loved motorcycle roadracing for years," Edmondson said at a packed news conference in the Daytona International Speedway media center just prior to the Daytona Supercross. "It was not only something I did, it was who I was. And when the disagreements came up with the AMA and we ended up nose to nose as litigants in court, it was more than just a financial issue with me. It was really a destructive time of my life. I can recall walking through the paddock and having friends avoid eye contact and turn the other way, because they were fearful that association with me at that tense time was going to affect their ability to follow their passion. And that's because we all love this."
There was enough urgency to have the announcement made at Daytona that it was done before the deal was officially consummated. But it was the appropriate venue. After his AMA battle Edmondson landed on his feet with the help of Jim France, the son of NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. France is a former dirt-tracker and the quiet force behind NASCAR. When France needed someone to get his sports car series off the ground, he called Edmondson. That series-the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, which began with one event, the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona-now has 15 races with stops in Mexico and Canada.
When AMA CEO Rob Dingman put AMA Pro Racing properties, consisting of roadracing, dirt track, motocross, supermoto, ATV and hillclimb, up for sale, France was interested. Edmondson was put in charge of the RFP (request for proposal) process. Initially the group was only interested in the promotional rights to roadracing, the most financially successful of the AMA properties (Supercross draws more spectators and has greater television viewership, but those promotional rights and most of the profits go to Live Nation). But the DMG, which consists of five individuals, upgraded its offer to include all properties. At that point it was the most natural fit. Rather than dealing with separate entities, the AMA could sign one contract and walk away while keeping its name on the championships. The DMG would then subcontract the various series to whoever it felt had the best offer.
Most of the factory Superbike team bosses came to the Daytona news conference, and they didn't necessarily like what they heard. The teams had spent last summer hammering out a set of more restrictive technical rules for 2009, and the Yoshimura Suzuki team had already begun incorporating some of the changes. Asked if those rules would be honored, Edmondson was unequivocal.
"I do not plan to blindly honor those rules-I do not," he said. "I need to review them. I haven't even read them. It might turn out they're the best set of rules in the world, and if they are, we'll adopt them. But I don't think we can know that until we get a little bit more time on the ground. I think it's going to be important that we again talk to the stakeholders, the teams and the manufacturers and get their read on it. Our vision for Superbike may turn out to be different than that set of rules, and if it is, we'll adopt our vision and go from there. But again, we need to make sure that we do so understanding the issues and the unintended consequences of any decisions we take."
Edmondson isn't wasting any time. His first hire was Colin Fraser, the owner of the Canadian Superbike Championship, which sanctions and runs the Moto-ST series. Roy Janson, who worked for the AMA during the Edmondson years, is expected to join the DMG after retiring from his post as director of operations for Live Nation. Edmondson, Fraser, Bill Syfan (who formerly ran the Formula USA series) and Tom Bledsoe, the Grand-Am Chief Operating Officer who is one of the DMG owners, scheduled meetings with each of the four Japanese manufacturers for early April. Afterward they plan to meet as a group at the next round of the AMA Superbike Championship at Barber Motorsports Park. Fraser will assume control of the officiating at that race, although his work began-unofficially-in Daytona.
The '08 Daytona 200 will go down in history as one of Honda's darkest days. Erion Honda's Jake Zemke was knocked out of contention by human error: One of his mechanics fitted a sprocket to his first replacement wheel that was a tooth off. When the team couldn't fit the axle, they had to park Zemke for a lap while his teammate Josh Hayes came in for his pit stop. He finished 13th. Neil Hodgson, in his first ride for American Honda, was a secure second when he shattered a big-end bearing, breaking the connecting rod with less than six laps to run. The reported cause was repeated downshifts at 16,500 rpm; it was the third engine he'd blown up that weekend.
Teammate Miguel Duhamel fried his clutch at the start and pitted at the end of the first lap to swap to his spare bike. Was this legal? Not? according to the rulebook (a rider is able to swap during the first three laps only if the race is stopped due to a red flag), but the on-site AMA official said it was, and Duhamel was sent on his way. When senior race officials were informed they decided to allow him to finish because the AMA had made the mistake. "That changed when they got ahold of me," Edmondson says. "I have to admit on that one, I was in the tower when word got around that they were looking at this, and then the call came upstairs. I said, 'You must black-flag him. You cannot knowingly let a participant be riding in illegal circumstances. He's risking his life and the lives of others. You'd be completely indefensible, and there's absolutely no way you can justify it to the other teams. So you might as well address it now and at least take the risk away from Miguel as quickly as you can and try to minimize the situation. But you made a mistake; you've got to 'fess up to it, and the quicker the better.'" That was about lap 44, and it took six more laps before Miguel pulled in.
"I felt so bad for Miguel," Edmondson says of one of the few riders who raced during his first tenure in the AMA. "He had a chance of winning that race, and frankly I think it probably had an effect on him in the Superbike race, too, because he put in all those laps. It was amazing, though; it was an incredible ride." As was that of Erion Honda's Josh Hayes.
The Mississippian had 32 seconds in hand when he crossed the finish line at the end of 69 laps of the new 2.90-mile road course. It would have been a bold reversal of fortune for Honda, which only a year earlier had been humiliated by fuel-starvation problems on the quartet of American Honda and Erion Honda machines. Instead it was even greater humiliation. About six hours after he took the checkered flag Hayes was disqualified. The offense was an illegally modified crankshaft.
It was clear that the crankshaft had been altered-eyewitnesses said it looked like it was chrome-plated. Yet a decision on a penalty dragged on in the tech shed until word reached AMA Senior Vice President of Racing Dennis Rhee. Rhee was in the France family suite high atop the grandstands watching the race with Edmondson, Dingman and others. The question was whether to penalize Hayes then or wait until they got back to the AMA offices in Ohio. Edmondson told Rhee, "?'I don't know what your system is, OK, but it seems to me the quicker you act on these things-if you're sure of everything-the better it is for everybody. Because there's going to be an appeal, and you just need to get out of it, but you'd better be sure.' That was it.
"I guess the courtesy to me was that there was the potential that any appeal might roll over and turn out to be held on our watch. But I'm encouraging [Rhee] to deal with this as expeditiously as possible. The rulebook certainly gives the appealing party a certain amount of time, and it requires that the AMA do things in a certain amount of time, and I said, 'You need to move post-haste.'?"
The procedure for disqualification could change. In Grand-Am they wouldn't have penalized the driver; they would have penalized the team owners, "because that's the way we're set up. So I'm not criticizing the AMA for their deal, because I don't know, but I do know that this is certainly one of the [policies] we're going to look at."
The AMA later issued a press release disqualifying Hayes. The release said the crankshaft was "polished, surface-treated and metal was removed from it. This is in violation of the 2008 AMA rulebook section 5.4." For comparison they used the crank in Neil Hodgson's CBR600RR. That crank looked like a stock piece, but it wasn't. Both cranks had been modified in similar ways, a source familiar with both says, the difference being that American Honda had employed a final process that makes the crank wheels appear stock.
Erion Honda crew chief Rick Hobbs said the team would appeal. The basis of the appeal is that it wasn't a Type A performance-enhancing violation. (Performance-enhancing Type A mod-ifications allow for disqualification; the less egregious Type B violations do not.) The appeal will be heard by a three-person board within 45 days of the infraction. The burden on Erion will be to prove that it wasn't performance-enhancing. That may not be difficult, as the crank treatment was done in the interest of reliability, not performance. The Honda FX machines are running so close to the edge that an engine only lasts about 350 miles. A winter's worth of development netted only about 2.5 horsepower. The limitation is mostly in the valve train. With the engine spinning in the 18,000 rpm range, and for extended runs at Daytona, the possibility of failure increases.
That possibility will become more likely if the DMG moves to a 600cc platform for the premiere class in 2009. Asked at the news conference if he planned on having Superbike remain the premier class, Edmondson replied, "Superbike will remain the premier class in AMA racing." And it was his intent to restore it as the class for the Daytona 200. What he didn't do is define Superbike.
In an interview later that evening, he was more forthcoming. "It could be 600s," he said, before describing the process by which he plans to canvass the stakeholders. "Manufacturers still have bikes to sell, and the way they support the racing, not only with their teams, but with their sponsorship of events and stuff, that has to be recognized and rewarded, and you don't reward them by going in and cutting them off." He added, "I do think the current Superbike series is pretty dysfunctional, and probably the only one who would prefer to see the status quo is Suzuki. So I want to talk to all of them and see what they want. There is a variety of ways that could go, but Superbikes will be the premiere class. It could be the 1000s, it could be a new program or they could be companion pieces. Time will tell."
Edmondson knows enough about the U.S. racetracks to know that safety is an issue, "and that is one of the reasons why I question the viability in the long term of the 1000cc bikes. They are pretty fast, and while the racetracks are getting safer, the human body can still only handle a certain amount of impact." While it's true that most crashes happen in corners and 600s have greater corner speed than 1000s, the worry is a straight-line or high-speed disaster.
Whichever engine formula comes into being it will be designed to even the playing field. Edmondson wants every part on every machine to be available to every competitor. He wants the Jordan Suzuki team to have access to the same parts as the Yoshimura Suzuki team. He believes that if the competitive balance can be restored, the sport will attract the sort of deep-pocketed sportsmen who populate the Grand-Am series, which Edmondson claims is a good mix of factory teams and wealthy individuals. The difference with motorcycles, of course, is that a lot more skill is needed to ride them. But if nonfactory teams think they can attract the top riders and crews and build competitive machinery, they might want in. The jury's out on that one.
Edmondson knows that the closer you get to production racing the greater the edge goes to the factories. He's also aware that you're never going to have dirt-track equality, where up to eight bikes race to the finish line at the mile ovals. But he and everyone else would like see a better show than was on display in Daytona.
"Within 90 days [the teams] are going to know [what the technical regulations are], and again, if we believe there is a new way to go it wouldn't make sense for us to approve any rules or institute any rules that required any investment in the old rules or the old format," he says. "My inclination, without talking to anybody, would be to take a hard look at the FIM's World Superbike rules." When it is pointed out that World Superbike allows for liberal modifications, he says, "Well, they start that way, but that's the equipment that starts that way. There's the ability to put restrictors on them or put horsepower limits on them or to start taking away things."
Along with machine restrictions will come control tires, in which Edmondson is a firm believer. Pirelli tires run on his Grand-Am Rolex Sports Cars, with Hoosier on the two supporting classes. Pirelli is the tire of choice of Moto-ST and the Canadian series run by Colin Fraser. It's also the tire of choice in World Superbike and, from this year, British Superbike. And if, as we've been led to believe, DMG wants to restore the 200 to the glory days when European participation was strong, the tire would almost certainly have to be Pirelli. Edmondson insists he's a long way from making a choice and that all companies will have an equal chance. He plans to have a class structure in place by the Fontana round of the AMA Superbike Championship in late April. At that point the bid for the tire contract can go out.
While the reaction to the sale from the track promoters was positive, there was some skepticism from the paddock. "To make 600s the premier class in a country like America doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Mladin says. "They're big-bore people. They want to see big bikes with horsepower; that's how I look at that. In saying that, should the Daytona 200 be the Superbike class? I agree 100 percent. Can we race 200-plus-horsepower motorcycles around Daytona for 69 laps? Absolutely not. Some of the 600s on the weekend, in the Supersport race on Thursday, actually had some small tire problems with delamination. That's a product of speed and load on the banking of Daytona."
That may be true, but those were DOT-treaded tires, not slicks. And it doesn't matter. Daytona is exempt from all discussions of safety. Racing a 600cc motorcycle at close to 190 mph a few feet from an unprotected wall (close to 200 mph for a superbike) isn't part of this discussion; at that point you're splitting hairs-or helmets.
The Daytona Motorsports Group owns the rights to AMA Pro Racing. Daytona will be the premiere event for the premiere class. That in itself may tell us more about the future than anything else.