Off-track unknowns looming as Superbike opens year without fans
Cameron Beaubier will strap onto his Yamaha YZF-R1 this weekend for the first time in nine months and barrel around Road America at an average speed over 110 mph.
But the racing unknowns from such a long layoff (aside from a March test session at Barber Motorsports Park) aren’t really what the four-time HONOS Superbike champion has been thinking about as the American Motorcyclist Association series prepares to open a 2020 season delayed by novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
What’s on Beaubier’s mind?
- It’s whether the restaurants around the Osthoff Resort (where his team usually stays at a picturesque lake setting that is among Beaubier’s favorite on the circuit) will be open or if he’ll be bringing food to his room.
- It’s how finishing on the podium will feel with a celebration in front of empty grandstands.
- It’s what social distancing will seem like in a paddock that is built to hold thousands but will contain only a few hundred.
“It’s the little stuff I’m curious about,” Beaubier told NBCSports.com in a recent interview. “I’m sure it’s going to all work out. Once we put our helmets on, everything is the same on the track. You’re just focused on going as fast as you can, what the bike’s doing.
“The weird stuff is going to be off the track. But whatever it takes to get back racing, I’m good with it.”
Beaubier, whose 38 victories rank third in Superbike history, and 21 other riders will be on track for the first time Friday. The first official practice of the 2020 MotoAmerica Championship will begin nearly two months after its scheduled opener at Circuit of the Americas (which was moved to the Nov. 13-15 season finale as part of COTA’s MotoGP weekend).
MotoAmerica president Wayne Rainey is hopeful that the new opener at Road America will be Superbike’s only event held without fans, so much could return to relative degrees of normal when the series returns to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for its second race of the season on June 26-28.
But several measures to protect everyone’s health will be in place around the 4.048-mile road course this weekend.
There will be about 800 people on the property instead of the normal 1,300 comprising officials, riders and teams. Only one mechanic will be permitted on track for each rider, and transporters will be parked at least 10 feet apart. Teams will be heavily restricted on passes with no guests allowed.
“I think it’ll look fairly empty from what we normally see with the full grid, full paddock and the sponsors, vendors and fans,” Rainey told NBCSports.com. “The thing that’ll look normal is when the riders get on track.”
Working with the Safe to Race coalition that also includes representatives of Supercross, motocross and American Flat Track, MotoAmerica has put a raft of safety protocols in place for the opener.
The series will be doing temperature checks on entry and also asking for a self-reading before departing for the track. Riders signed paperless waivers ahead of time and also completed a medical questionnaire.
“The whole racing community has worked together, at least those on two wheels,” Rainey said. “It’s been really good we’ve all been able to share our ideas and concerns about what we can do to get back going safe.”
Riders, meanwhile, have been trying to stay sharp by practicing at their local tracks around the country.
Beaubier, who is based near Sacramento and rides for Attack Racing in Huntington Beach, recently practiced at Buttonwillow Raceway Park near Bakersfield, turning laps on his bike for the first time in two and a half months.
“It was nice to shake the cobwebs off before we actually line up and go racing,” said the 27-year-old, who set the Superbike lap record at Road America in 2018. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a couple of mistakes here and there” when the racing begins on the 14-turn layout.
Surprisingly unforced errors have been a theme as other racing series (such as the World of Outlaws and NASCAR) have returned to action, and it could add another layer to the Superbike opener, which will be held on a mostly green racetrack.
“It’ll take a few laps to get the braking markers and racing lines down,” Rainey said. “With this being the highest level road racing series in the U.S., I fully expect everyone to come ready to race, but there could be some sloppiness. Maybe guys getting in hot and getting into each other, so I expect a lot of action as well.”
But it will happen without cheers from the crowds of 15,000 to 25,000 that MotoAmerica events average for a weekend.
“This is not a business model we’d like to keep doing,” Rainey said, echoing the words of American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock. “But we understand the pandemic and what it’s done to America and the world, and we’ve all watched from our homes and we’ve been waiting for the day we can get back to racing.
“And it’s been a lot of anticipation but some concerns about are we going to be going too soon? But we feel with all the protocols and all the states starting to open back up, we really see people getting antsy, wanting to get back out and get back to work, and that’s no different with us.”
The 10-race series, which lost only Virginia International Raceway from its schedule this year, has been on a growth curve since the 2015 formation of MotoAmerica. The series will have live coverage of its Superbike opener on FS1 and FS2, Supersport on MAVTV and the “Inside MotoAmerica” show on NBCSN.
There will be six manufacturers on the grid (Yamaha, BMW, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Ducati and Honda) at Road America, and Rainey said the number of riders has doubled to 140 while purse money increased to more than seven figures in Superbike.
The expansion means riders from five continents will be traveling to Wisconsin. Of the 22 riders in the Superbike class, eight are Europeans (and two others are from Brazil and South Africa) with Spaniard Toni Elias (the 2017 champion who led the points until the season finale last season) lurking as the biggest threat to Beaubier’s run of four titles in five years.
Rainey anticipates no logistics problems for arriving riders, however, beyond MotoAmerica helping with border entry for those traveling from Canada.
“Everything looks good; there’s been no hiccups I’ve heard from anyone trying to make it to the event,” he said. “We’re still getting people signing up.
“I’m not sure people thought we’d pull this off. Now they see it is real. We have a lot of excited riders and teams ready to go. We’re pumped.”
2020 MotoAmerica Series Schedule
Date Track Location
May 29-31 Road America Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
June 26-28 Road America Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
July 31-Aug. 2 Road Atlanta Braselton, Georgia
Aug. 7-9 Pittsburgh Int’l Race Complex Wampum, Pennsylvania
Aug. 28-30 Ridge Motorsports Park Shelton, Washington
Sept. 11-13 New Jersey Motorsports Park Millville, New Jersey
Sept. 18-20 Barber Motorsports Park Birmingham, Alabama
Oct. 9-11 Indianapolis Motor Speedway Indianapolis, Indiana
Oct. 23-25 Laguna Seca Monterey, California
Nov. 13-15 Circuit of The Americas Austin, Texas