SBK Road Racing EventThe three main (televised) motorcycle road race series available in this country all produce excellent, close racing at various times, but most aficionados would tend to agree that the World Superbike series–based around highly modified production motorcycles–usually produces the closest, most competitive racing. The first major motorcycle series to adopt the spec tire concept around 5 years ago (using Pirelli Diablo tires) and thus eliminating arguably the biggest variable in motorsport, the playing field has been very effectively leveled. Usually it seems that any one of several riders could win any given race. Heck, only around a second a lap separates the first fifteen or so riders; that’s a highly competitive recipe if ever I’ve heard of one.
The only fly in the ointment for us here in the States, was that since Colin Edwards (aka ‘The Texas Tornado’) moved on to the prototype based MotoGP series in 2003, there hasn’t been an American riding in the series. But World Superbike (WSBK) has still been awesome to watch with ‘Nitro’ Noriyuki Haga-that crazy, brilliant Japanese rider, and the charismatic and approachable Aussie, Troy Bayliss, among others, keeping us entertained with their handlebar-banging, paint-scraping battles on-track.But for this 2009 season, that has now changed. Bayliss has retired, and a new American hero has exploded on to the scene. Ben Spies–curiously another Texan–has moved up to the world level having won three national (AMA) superbike championships in a row. Despite the considerable handicap of never having seen any of these international tracks before, Ben has surprised–no, make that shocked–the pundits and won several races in this rookie season, as well as scoring the pole position grid position in every single round (7) held so far this year. Incidentally that broke Doug Polen’s record of six straight pole positions set in 1991… In anyone’s book that is an astonishing accomplishment by the remarkably calm, self-effacing, truly likeable Mr. Spies.So it was with great anticipation that the World Superbike circus arrived for this year’s US round of the Championship held at the world-class Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah. The astounding Ben Spies had (for once) the benefit of riding the track before, (although not actually in this particular configuration), so continuing his remarkable run of qualifying pole positions I suppose, was not necessarily a huge surprise. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’re blasé about his results, nor do we even expect him to dominate, but having watched him annihilate the competition throughout the weekend with apparent ease, Ben has certainly taken his rapidly growing legend to another level, that’s for sure.But the Ben Spies fairytale story aside, how was the rest of our experience at Miller?We stayed at the gorgeous, upscale Grand America hotel and spa in downtown Salt Lake City. The rooms were reasonably priced (less than $200 a night) for a huge, comfortable suite with great views across to the mountains. The Grand America was built in 2001, but the detail furnishings and décor give it a very elegant, olde-worlde charm that is attractive and very upscale.Despite having a crowd of almost 50,000 attend the races, absolutely no price-hikes, or event-gouging seemed to go on at all in Salt Lake City. Don’t believe me? It’s true. Perhaps you have experienced the Monterey/Laguna Seca race meetings once too often and are maybe a little jaundiced? Take a trip to the Miller motorsports round of WSBK next year (happily, they’re now booked through 2013) for a little refreshing change and sample some true Utah hospitality.The immaculate and well designed Salt Lake City itself seems to be home to a friendly, welcoming, kind-hearted populace that is genuinely happy to have visitors. And that same attitude carries through to every single one of the impressive staff at the late Larry H. Miller’s Motorsports Park situated an easy drive (around 40 minutes) from the downtown area.Miller’s Motorsports Park complex is rapidly becoming a Mecca for motorcycle racing. As a staggeringly successful entrepreneur, Larry Miller (who sadly passed away earlier this year from complications from diabetes) basically wrote a blank check to then president and track designer, Alan Wilson, to design his dream facility. In 2006–and around $100 million later–the track opened for business. Needless to say, that level of financial horsepower and commitment to be the best has brought Utah a motorsports complex that is truly world class. Actually, most circuits I’ve been too probably envy Miller for any one of a myriad of reasons. For example, every team has a luxury garage to work from, and power outlets abound even on pit lane–so no generator noise!Be that as it may, the layout is excellent and the facilities are incredible. When was the last time you went to a public restroom at one of these places and it was spotlessly clean, no matter what time of day? The aforementioned attitude of the staff is again, welcoming and friendly and this was proved over and over again to me. One day, I managed to mis-park my rental car in the wrong lot and as I climbed out I noticed a security yahoo steaming across the parking lot in my direction fully ready to yell at me. Bracing myself for an aggressive telling-off, instead, he was actually nice! Literally apologetic, he respectfully pointed out my error and pleasantly asked if it would be too much trouble to move the car. It’s a small example, but it was this kind of pleasantness that we came across over and over again at this facility.There are many excellent viewing places around the track and every grandstand has not just a great live view, but also a Jumbotron screen to follow the action as well; the PA system is understandable and not the usual tinny, abrasive cacophony. The new Yamaha Champions riding school now calls Miller home, and lead insructors Nick Ienatsch and Ken Hill offered adrenaline-filled two-up rides around the track for a $75 fee–that was donated to charity incidentally.The Hannspree World Superbike Championship series competitors are friendly and accessible, and InFront Sports (the Italian owners of the series) run the race weekends in a slightly less formal way than other series owners seem to. Access to the riders and paddock is easy, and there’s even a pit walk each day for spectators to see some of the garage and pit action close up. This particular weekend’s racing was brilliant entertainment, our new all-American hero Ben Spies cleaned up. A couple of other of our local riders–Jamie Hacking and Jake Zemke–had ‘wild card’ rides for this round of the series and acquitted themselves well too.All in all, the gorgeous Miller Motorsports facility and this round of the WSBK series was an absolute pleasure to attend; there were many families enjoying the racing and sunshine, and it was great to see lots of young kids out having fun. Racing just doesn’t get any better than this and we’ll definitely be back there next year.