MotoGP returns Stateside this week for the Indianapolis
Grand Prix, one of the most distinctive events on the calendar - but not
necessarily one of the most successful.
After four years of the series running two US rounds,
and with the prospect of the Texan Grand Prix joining the circus from 2013, has
the Indianapolis race and MotoGP in general captured the American audience's
America is a big target market for Dorna, and the
quality of the on-track action at Indianapolis and Laguna Seca almost takes a
back seat to the promotional side of things. The rights holders lobby to get at
least one of the top riders on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno', going so far
as to use up one of the limited number of public appearances established in an
agreement with Valentino Rossi in order to present MotoGP at its most
charismatic - and attempt to ride the coattails of Hollywood names who can bring
the racing into the public eye.
Brad Pitt has treated the USGP as a family day out -
surrounded by 10 of his closest security guards - and Tom Cruise once slipped
under the turnstiles to compare heights with Loris Capirossi. Screen time and a
front page story on the official website followed - success by association.
Meanwhile, the everyman attendance has been dropping
at both Laguna Seca and Indianapolis. This obviously has a lot to do with what
we are seemingly obliged by law to refer to as 'the harsh economic climate',
but can also be put down to a dip in interest.
MotoGP is still very much a niche sport Stateside. The
races are broadcast on Speed TV rather than one of the big TV channels that
allow more extensive exposure (experiments with CBS, NBC and Fox made few
inroads into the public's imagination). It is also very European, and few series
run from outside the States can seemingly succeed there. It is one of the
reasons why Indycar was more widely watched than Formula One there when the two
were in closer competition.
The idea for Laguna Seca was to bring back a presence
in the US, returning to a track with grand prix history. Indianapolis had
tradition too, even if the MotoGP organisers seemed to need a hasty cramming
session on bricks, milk and how to pick out Dan Wheldon from a row of gas
The problem being, of course, that Indy tradition
doesn't really cross over to bike racing. European audiences don't know how many
times Al Unser Jr. won the Indy 500, to pick a random example.
But that's not to say that Indianapolis cannot make
its mark on MotoGP. The infrastructure is in place, the press department is
amiable, organised and efficient, the fans different enough to the West Coast
attendees to provide a distinctive paddock experience and the track owners willing
to fork out for a relaid surface to appease the riders.
There is a case to be made that if MotoGP was going to
become truly popular in America, it would have done so already. In the era of
Roberts, Rainey and Schwantz the media did not exist to provide such
substantial coverage; however the Rossi era, Hayden's home win and the 'Kentucky
Kid's' World Championship provided the series with its big chance - one that
was not quite taken.
What MotoGP needs now in the USA is exciting races and
persistence. Motorsport is not renowned for long-term projects, and the
departure of MotoGP from China emphasises the lack of patience if the money
doesn't come rolling in immediately. But a few more years of laying solid
foundations -at a track that still managed to bring in 62,794 spectators
according to Dorna's 2010 raceday figures- could yet make Indianapolis and
MotoGP mutually beneficial. Even if something has to give when Austin is added
to the calendar.
Three US rounds would be a coup, a statement of intent
and a positive move towards getting the product name further into the American
conscience. As long as the hardcore fans keep attendance and viewing figures
healthy, then MotoGP can expand in popularity. Not through celebrity followers,
hype and trying to sell a show to the mainstream, but through the strength of
the spectacle and superiority over the competition in a niche market.