MotoGP Roars Back into America

It is the premier class of motorcycle racing, the equivalent of Formula 1 on two wheels. The MotoGP -- Motorcycle Grand Prix -- is all about incredible speed, power, and technology. And it just returned to the U.S. for the first time in 11 years, when the Red Bull U.S. MotoGP, 8th of the 17-round series, took place at Mazda's Laguna Seca Raceway, in Monterey, Calif., July 8-10.

At the center of the race are million-dollar motorcycles, featuring one of a kind, hand-built, race-bike prototypes with 990-cubic-centimeter 4-stroke engines made strictly for racing and not sold to the public. They're relatively lightweight at roughly 325 pounds, while producing up to 240 horsepower, enabling them to reach speeds close to 220 miles per hour.


  These rank as the fastest, most technologically advanced motorcycles on the planet. Even the engines are unique, with a variety of configuration designs: V-5, inline 4, V-4, and a V-6 cylinder that is a work in progress. Each produces a distinctive music of its own.

Although the MotoGP bikes classify strictly as race-bred machines, the R&D trickles down to the street. Even the wild paint schemes are starting to appear on current-day sport bikes such as the Honda CBR1000RR. It borrows some technology from its MotoGP sibling, but it does not use Honda's (HMC) high-tech V-5 cylinder power plant.

There are roughly a dozen race teams in the MotoGP, most having two riders per team. The riders come from a variety of countries, but Italy has produced the majority -- and the best -- of the them, including the defending champion and undeniable star, Valentino Rossi, with the Gauloises Yamaha (YAMCY) team. (Sponsor Gauloises is a European cigarette maker.) Rossi is a superstar in Europe, one who commands a $28 million yearly income, including salary and endorsements.


  Racing and all its technology is superexpensive. With each motorcycle costing close to a million dollars, it breaks down to about $1,000 for each cubic centimeter of engine displacement. Then there's the cost of employing riders and support crews that travel with equipment worldwide.

The Big Four Japanese manufacturers, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki (KWHIY), each have at least one team. Both Yamaha and Honda have multiple teams with different sponsors. Ducati (DMH) of Italy is sponsored by Marlboro, and it also has a second, satellite team called Ducati D'Antin, sponsored by Pramac Group, an Italian maker of industrial power equipment.

Two less-known teams are Kenny Roberts' KR Proton/KTM Team and the Blata WCM Team. Kenny Roberts is a former world champion himself who receives sponsorship from Proton, a Malaysian auto maker, and KTM, an Austrian motorcycle manufacturer. Blata, based in the Czech Republic, builds minibikes, better known as pocket bikes. Blata has recently formed a partnership with WCM (World Champion Motor Sports), a race team that has competed in the premier class of GP for more than a decade.


  When MotoGP was last seen in the U.S., American riders dominated the racing. They held sway through much of the 1980s. Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer were the earlier American champions. Freddie Spencer did the nearly impossible and became the only rider in history to win both the 250 and the premier classes of GP in the same year, a record that stands today.

The American dominance continued with Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, and Kevin Schwantz. All remain household names in Europe. Today, American riders are rising stars once again in the series. Kenny Roberts Jr., the son of the aforementioned former world champion, is a teammate of John Hopkins, who rides for Red Bull Suzuki MotoGP. Red Bull energy drink is also the title sponsor of the Laguna Seca race.

Joining current champion Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha Team this year is Texas-born Colin Edwards. Topping off the U.S. list is young Nicky Hayden, riding for the Repsol (REP) Honda Team. (Repsol is a European maker of engine oils and lubricants.) People magazine recently voted Hayden one of the Top 50 most eligible bachelors, and he has appeared on NBC's Today Show -- signs of motorcycling gaining mainstream popularity.


  The MotoGP race at Laguna Seca in July was spectacular. The spotlight was on Nicky Hayden when he clinched the pole position during Saturday's qualifying laps. And on Sunday he launched from that front position and led the entire race to his first ever MotoGP win. Colin Edwards finished a close second, followed even more closely by reigning champion Valentino Rossi.

MotoGP racing is attracting a growing number of celebrities, most of whom are avid street riders themselves. Brad Pitt and Michael Jordon attended the July 10 Laguna Seca event, and Jordon actually owns a motorcycle race team that competes in the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s U.S. National Series. At MotoGP, celebrities become fans and act like them, seeking autographs and photos from the riders.

The Laguna Seca race attracted some 150,000 spectators and more than 1 million viewers on Speed Channel. The ninth round was held a week later in Britain, and Rossi won in a rain-soaked race. Even since the most recent 10th round in Germany over the July 31 weekend, Rossi continues his points lead, with Colin Edwards in third -- but only a single point from second. Another near winner, Nicky Hayden, is just 21 points behind Edwards, standing at seventh in the points race. The last race of the season is in Valencia, Spain, on Nov. 6.


  Both Hayden and Edwards have good chances of reviving American bike-rider dominance of the MotoGP. And even if they don't, the race of million-dollar bikes is as exciting as it gets. As former world champion Kenny Roberts Sr. hinted, maybe one day the competition will even see an American-made bike and engine -- perhaps one produced by industries outside of the current realm if big mainstream sponsors continue their growing interest in MotoGP.

For those of you who are newly enamored of MotoGP: TiVo the Speed Channel on cable and buy Faster on DVD.

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