News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 30, 2009

From The Press Box: MotoGP is a fun racing event, but did enough fans see it?

By Todd Golden

Speedway — The operative thing to keep in mind when watching MotoGP is to not judge a book by its cover.

The bikes? At first glance, they don’t look all that impressive to the untrained eye. Really, they don’t look that much different from a spruced-up motorcycle you’d see flying past you on Third Street on a Saturday night.

Then you hear them ... the sonic blast of a MotoGP bike would make your weekend two-wheel warrior run and hide. The aural impact of the bikes is no different than when you hear the Indy Cars in May. They are that loud. And they aren’t too much slower either; the 200-mile-per-hour barrier was nearly broken on Sunday.

The riders? If you look at the entry list, it looks like just your joe average list of faceless, mostly foreign, presumably forgettable personalities.

Then you find out more about Valentino “The Doctor” Rossi, an six-time MotoGP (world) champion and Hall of Famer in harmless self-aggrandizement. Among many other things, the Italian talks trash with the world media about his favorite soccer team in a press conferences.

Last season, he had a screaming version of his own face on the back of his helmet to mess with on-board camera shots on the worldwide TV feed.

There’s Nicky Hayden, an American who rides for an Italian company (Ducati) that’s under the radar as far as its marketing in the States. He looks like he belongs in a Monte Carlo club. But then the Owensboro, Ky., native opens his mouth, and his thick Kentucky drawl would indicate that “Pitino” is the only Italian word he would normally say instead of Ducati.

Finally, there’s Jorge Lorenzo, Sunday’s race champion. Between his straightaway-length victory wheelie, his Helio Castroneves-inspired fence climb, and the Captain America shield he carried on his victory lap, he was more entertaining than three Jimmie Johnson Brickyard 400 celebrations combined.

If you don’t know any of this — and its easy to not know, since MotoGP flies way under the radar in the sports consciousness — it adds to experience of the race.

Oh, and the racing is pretty darn entertaining too.

Does any of this mean MotoGP has a permanent home at Indy? The jury is still out.

Unlike the two other races at IMS, MotoGP insists that its attendance figures are public knowledge. Attendance on Sunday was 75,130 with a three-day total of 146,680.

Not bad at all considering motorcycle racing is a niche sport and the economy is bad. But is good enough for Indy? At most circuits, 75,130 would be a boon. At Indy, you kind of just shrug.

And one of the biggest “don’t judge a book by its cover” propositions is where those 75,130 fans were on the track. Nearly all of the action in road course racing, especially motorcycle racing, occurs in the turns. And they were jam-packed on Sunday, especially on the hillside berms next to the golf course. The Speedway is smart enough to charge its higher reserved prices for seats in those areas.

The only problem is that you can’t get many people, or sell as many tickets, in the turns.

The massive, iconic Paddock Pavilion, which runs the length of the oval’s front straightaway, was desolate. There were no more than a few thousand fans; it looked like an Indy 500 practice day. There’s a good reason for that: other than the podium celebration, nothing happens on the straightaway; there are no scheduled pit stops in MotoGP.

Because of that, the Paddock Pavilion is part of the $75 general admission ticket. By contrast, it’s where the highest-priced seats are located for both the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400. When you see a sea of aluminum, you can also add up in your mind much money IMS doesn’t make from what’s normally a lucrative part of the facility.

The people most instrumental in bringing motorcycles to Indy — notably former IMS President Joie Chitwood — aren’t at IMS anymore. Nor is former CEO Tony George, who I think added a lot to the Speedway’s culture by augmenting the traditional IMS experience of the Indianapolis 500 and the popularity of NASCAR with international events like Formula One and MotoGP. All four were/are very entertaining, even if completely different.

Those are concerns. There are benefits to the track too. Four of the five MotoGP manufacturers — Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki — all fight for market share in the United States and all see a benefit to racing, and winning, at the Speedway. MotoGP is also more soundly run and not anywhere near as expensive to the track as dictatorially run Formula One was.

No one has a good read yet on what the summer power shift on the IMS board and the elevation of Jeff Belskus to IMS CEO means to the future of any of the events at the track. Later this week, the NASCAR-affiliated Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series will test at the Speedway for the first time.

Does it mean the track is ready to expand its calendar, replace a race, or stand pat? Is the track willing to take time to build MotoGP to the point where it’s at least part of the local ticket-buying consciousness?

Time will tell. But if it stays, race fans should check it out at least once. There’s a lot to enjoy if its given a chance.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or