Thursday, November 2, 2006

The New American Hero – And: Why Don’t You Like Racing?

Well, not exactly; Nicky was already the American Hero. He has now achieved what has been his goal probably for longer than he can remember. Nicky Hayden—southern drawl and all—is the new MotoGP World Champion.

For those of you who aren’t motarded, MotoGP is the pinnacle of two-wheeled motor sport. It’s the highest and most respected form of motorcycle racing. It is the series in which the very best of the best compete to be the world champion. The history of the series has seen success by riders hailing from numerous countries, but the United States and Italy probably rank highest in number of race victories and championships won. Recently, it’s been the latter who has dominated via its prodigal progeny, Valentino Rossi. In fact, Rossi has won the last five championships, and until now, was the only one to win since the change from 500cc two-strokes to 1000cc 4-strokes. Next year the limit is changing to 800cc, so Hayden just managed to squeak in and prevent Rossi from winning every single championship in a whole era of motorcycle grand prix racing.

You probably wouldn’t know it if you’re an American, but racing is huge in most of the world. Star riders and drivers are treated like rock stars. Who do you think is the highest paid athlete in the world? I’ll give you a hint, he’s not American and he doesn’t even play ball. It’s Michael Schumacher, the man who has ruled Formula 1 racing for years.

Rossi, the Italian MotoGP rider, who possesses as much charm off the track as he does skill on it, earns the third highest athlete-salary in the world.* These guys are treated like rock stars in Europe and the rest of the modern world.

*Disclaimer – I’ve been told these statistics second-hand, and as I’m writing this, I’m without internet access to verify these claims. So they are being stated as the best of my knowledge at this particular moment in time and space.

What I don’t understand is why so few seem to care here in the US. My girlfriend recently illustrated to me the fact that a probably alarmingly large portion of our population is unaware that there are race tracks with right-hand turns. That realization makes me a little ill. NASCAR is by far the most popular form of motor sport in America. My best guess as to the reasons why are that the whole track can be seen from any seat and that the racers are mostly all good ‘ole down-home southern boys that the fans feel like they can relate to. Sadly though, those good ‘ole boys only make good ‘ole left-hand turns. I don’t want to say that NASCAR racers are not skilled drivers—they are—but I don’t see how one could think that what they do is as challenging or demanding as riding a GP bike or driving an F-1 car at its limits. Correspondingly, I don’t understand why people seem to think NASCAR is more entertaining to watch than the other forms of motor sport. I’d better stop here. The popularity of NASCAR, “professional” wrestling and reality TV in the US are topics that I could carry on about for a week or three.

As much as I like the other American riders, I have to say that Hayden was our only real hope. Colin Edwards hasn’t shown himself to have what it takes to be a consistent chart-topper. I was a huge fan back in his world superbike days, but it’s hard to stay excited about a guy who finishes in 6th or 7th place every race, like clockwork. He’s a talented rider, and on any given day can put up a pretty good fight for the lead; but he always seems to fade out of the picture before the race is over and quietly settle back to somewhere in the bottom half of the top ten.

John Hopkins is very talented and has shown much promise. So much in fact, that he was plucked straight from AMA racing for a slot in Suzuki’s MotoGP effort. The problem is, Suzuki has been a non-factor and is a little too content with B-grade riders. I don’t think they’re providing a bike capable of winning many races, and Hopkins should be trying hard to earn a spot with another team. He may be capable of improving, but it’s gonna happen slow—if at all—as long as he’s at Suzuki.

And Kenny Roberts… well, he was the champ in 2000, and I’m still not sure why. That’s about all I’ve got to say about him.

I’m a fan of all these guys (ok, not particularly of Roberts) and love to see them do well. But the reality is Nicky was the only one with a hope to win the series.

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