Monday, April 6, 2009

Why isn't motorcycle road racing more popular?

I can’t remember ever seeing a TV broadcast of a MotoGP or World Superbike race from anywhere other than the U.S. where there weren’t thousands of fans lining the track, waving flags and cheering and wearing face paint the same colors as their favorite rider’s helmet.

On the other hand, I can’t remember watching an AMA (or DMG or whatever the hell it is now) road race where the grandstands weren’t so empty you could fire a cannon off up there and not hit anybody.

Why isn’t motorcycle road racing as popular in the U.S. as it is in other countries? Everybody has a theory. Here’s mine.

I call it the Personal Identification Theory—PIT for short. At the core of PIT is the notion that you’re more likely to be interested in watching someone else do something if you’ve done it yourself. If you played sports in school, for example—football, basketball, tennis—you’re more likely to watch those sports on television than if you spent all of your school years in the chess club.

PIT applies to motorsports, too. Just about everyone in America drives a car, which is, I think, a big part of why NASCAR appeals to so many fans—personal identification. The fact that few if any of us drive a rear-engine single-seater with wings and slicks might account for why NASCAR is more popular than open-wheel racing like IRL and F1. (Or not. Remember, it’s only a theory.)

I believe PIT as it pertains to motorcycle road racing is valid in many parts of the world, especially those parts where cars and gas are expensive, and where many people started their driving lives on mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles. Some of them grew out of bikes and bought cars; others never gave them up. Either way, two-wheelers were, and still are, a significant part of life in these places.

America, however, is a car culture. Our cities, our economy, and our lives are built around, and shaped by, cars. Motorcycles, even for the vast majority of motorcyclists, are essentially small recreational vehicles, used primarily for fun. And they’re hugely outnumbered by cars; motorcyclists themselves don’t seem to realize how small a percentage of the general population they represent, except when the rest of the country reminds them by treating them like the noisy but tiny minority they are.

The minority status of motorcyclists isn’t lost on the number-crunchers who work for TV networks like Speed, which devotes increasingly more hours of programming to shows that only tangentially involve speed of any kind, and can’t even be bothered to show some of the motorcycles races it does carry on the same day they occur because it would pre-empt a six-hour block of “Wrecked,” a show about the thrilling lives of tow-truck drivers, or interrupt live coverage of an all-day classic-car auction.

It’s a pretty good guess that Speed does this because those shows have demonstrably larger audiences—and therefore bring in more advertising dollars—than motorcycle racing, and because there just aren’t enough motorcycle race fans among Speed’s viewers to justify the ad rates necessary to support the programming they want to see. You might not like it, but it’s hard to argue with it.

But maybe, just maybe, it goes even deeper than that, straight to the heart of motorcyclists themselves.

When motorcycles were all pretty much the same—so-called standards—for the most part motorcyclists identified with one another regardless of what they rode. But when standards branched out into cruisers, and sportbikes, and dual-sports, and tourers, that identification with all motorcyclists did the same thing. The result was more identification with the discrete segment of riders who rode the same kind of bike you did, and less with those who didn’t.

I don’t think I’m too far off base in suggesting, for example, that not a lot of cruiser riders care much about road racing, primarily because the bikes on the track aren’t cruisers. Since they don’t identify with the bikes, or the riding style, they stay home. Or, as is the case in Daytona every year during Bike Week, they cruise the main drag cheek-to-jowl with thousands of like-minded riders while over at the speedway the racers play to nearly empty grandstands.

But this could just be me projecting my tastes on everyone else. I’m a road rider, and a former road racer, so I like to watch road racing. Not so much with the dirt racing; for me, Supercross is a supersnooze.

I’m curious to know how, or if, the type of riding you prefer influences the kind of races you go to or watch on TV. Feel free to use the comment feature to tell me if I’m right, or if my theory is the PITs.

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larrylarry75 said...

I think you're spot-on Jerry. When I was a kid it seemed all the guys who rode were on Harleys with a few Brits thrown in the mix. Back then "squids" didn't exist nor did cruisers or sport bikes; even our dirt bikes were nothing more than street bikes with bobbed fenders and if you could afford them, knobby tires. We all just rode motorcycles. It was a simple concept and maybe that's why we were a closer fraternity.

procycle said...

I think another part of the equation is that mainstream media doesn't understand motorcycles. Most of the motorcycle related stuff on TV is chromed out choppers or outlaw biker gangs. Americans aren't used to seeing motorcycle race coverage so they may not know it even exists. Besides not getting any racing on the tube we also don't get any motorcycle related viewing that has any substance at all.

Selena's Mom said...

I think you have something, Jerry, both re car-vs-m/c racing, and also in how the kind of bike one rides may influence whether s/he enjoys watching bike races.

Additionally, I think it's more than *identification* with a particular kind of bike because one rides that kind. I think it may also be because a person has or has not *experienced" a particular style of riding.

That is, it's a different feeling to throw a sit-up/standard bike into a curve, as compared to a cruiser or a crotch-rocket. And something else entirely to push a dirt-bike around. My sense is that people connect with various styles of races because they have felt the experience in their body. (And, as far as I know, there's no style of m/c racing that's analogous to riding a cruiser.)

For me, this plays out in auto races also; I enjoy road races because I've thrown plenty of cars into curves and accelerated out (on the street). As I watch a road race, there's level of awareness in my body which is re-experiencing that feeling, and I enjoy it. I have not experienced driving in an oval, so am not interested in watching race cars on oval tracks.

Do you think there's anything to that?

FuzzToons said...

Hi Jerry,
Nice piece. I believe we've met at the Colorado 500 at least once. I raced the same stuff and was around during the time you wrote. Maybe you might remember me if you go to then go to "about". Don't forget to see the movies. Sure could use some business here in Costa Rica. Paul (Chip) Furlong

Anonymous said...

i think ur right on i have recently got heavily into canyon riding and am venturing into getting started racing and with my involvment my friends and family have all became fans of the sport in which was little to no intrest in before , but now have a whole new respect for the best sport is the world....road racing