Can Celebrities Better Motorcycle Racing?

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Motorcycles & Celebrities

Sponsorship and fan attendance is what keeps the sport of national and international motorcycle road racing alive. Much like everything else it’s a business. Promoters, circuit owners and team owners look for success on the track and revenue off of it.

The money comes in the form of sponsorship and ticket and merchandise sales. The presence of Michael Jordan at New Jersey Motorsports Park for the penultimate round of AMA Superbike prompted me to wonder about the possibilities of Star power and motorcycle road racing promotion.

The power of celebrity is strong and used in everything from promoting movies, endorsing products and advocating charities. Oprah can send books to the top of the Best Sellers List by sometimes simply mentioning it on her show. Then there’s George Forman, who has sold over 100 million Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machines better known as the “George Forman Grill.”

Can celebrity bring exposure to racing? It was attempted during Round 11 of this year’s MotoGP race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with famed Tonight Show host Jay Leno acting as Grand Marshall. On race day, Sunday, Aug. 29 Jay presented a trophy to fellow American and podium finisher Ben Spies who rode his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha M1 to a brilliant second-place behind race-winner Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda.

The August IMS race was preceded by Leno hosting a Yamaha event at his well-known Big Dog Garage on the eve of the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California.

Attending were current and past Yamaha champions, including “King” Kenny Roberts, Ben Spies and current MotoGP points leader Jorge Lorenzo. Guests mingled around the eclectic collections of cars and motorcycles while Leno received a surprise gift of a nearly-as-raced 2008 ex-Eric Bostrom AMA Yamaha R1 Superbike for his hospitality.

While Leno was well received by participants and fans alike, his participation did not penetrate mainstream media. It’s safe to say not many tickets were purchased for either of the US rounds of the MotoGP series because of Jay Leno’s presence. Other celebrities can be found in the pits at Laguna Seca or even taking part as team owners watching over their team.

Celebrity team ownership in auto racing has birthed several successful, long standing teams. Both David Letterman and the late Paul Newman have teams currently running in the Indy Racing League. David Letterman is co-owner of Bobby Rahal Letterman Racing and Paul Newman was co-owner of Newman-Haas Racing which was established 1983.

Today’s list of road racing team owners is just as short but just as well known. If you read Michael Jordan’s or Antonio Banderas Bio on Wikipedia or the first page of a Google search, there is no mention of motorcycle racing though they both are motorcycle road racing team owners. I guarantee if you had the opportunity to chat with either of these mainstream celebrities they would want nothing more then to talk about their passion for motorcycles or the teams they sponsor.

Michael Jordan, the iconic former NBA player, established Michael Jordan Motorsports in 2004. Team Jordan had success in the discontinued Superstock class in previous years but the Superbike wins finally came this year during the 2010 opening double header weekend at Daytona International Raceway with veteran Jake Zemke.

His first appearance for the team landed him on the podiums top step in both Superbike races riding the #54 National Guard Suzuki GSX-R 1000. Jake Zemke finished the 2010 Superbike season third overall after the final round at Barber.

Last year “His Airness” was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 11, 2009 and in June 2010, Jordan was ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 20th most powerful celebrity in the world.

According to the Forbes article, Brand Jordan generates $1 billion in sales for Nike. This is just the Star power needed to boost a racing series. Some tangible results are the much needed non-motorcycle industry sponsorship he clearly brings into the sport including The National Guard, Hanes, Gatorade and Upper Deck trading cards. Surveying the stands and grounds of any AMA round there are clearly MJ fans identified wearing Jumpman t-shirts and the familiar No. 23 jerseys.

Unlike his years on the basketball court, Jordan’s shies away from the motorcycle industry media. The top of the scoring tower at New Jersey Motorsports Park, where over half of the track can be seen, was off limits to all but Jordan’s entourage and industry racing friends – some former Team Jordan riders. SPEED TV was able to zoom in on Michael and made comment to his presence but those fans were already watching.

In the International world of FIM Grad Prix road racing Team Jack and Jones by Antonito Banderas Racing is sponsoring a Moto2 team. Moto2 replaced the two stroke 250cc Grand prix class that had existed since 1949. Moto 2 uses slightly modified Honda CBR600RR spec engines to reduce development cost and increase depth of competitiveness of this MotoGP support series. The cost reduction in series competition is reported, by Spanish news site, to be half as much, from over €1.2M to run a single 250GP bike down to €700K for a Moto2 entry.

Banderas, the Spanish Actor, has appeared in many Blockbuster hits including, The Mask of Zorro, 1995’s Assassins, and the voice of Puss in Boots in the Shrek franchise. He tries to fit as many races as possible into his busy filming and theater performance schedule.

The next step for Team Jack & Jones by Antonio Banderas is to enter as a privateer team into MotoGP. They site that with the 2012 rule change to allow 1000cc production based engines it is looking to be a possibility with appropriate sponsorship and media exposure.

What could really bring our sport some national exposure? How about Antonio Banderas and Jay Leno discussing MotoGP on The Tonight Show followed by a Michael Jordan interview about his success in AMA Pro Racing this year with plenty clips of track action.

To true race fans, the celebrities are the racers themselves. Names like “King” Kenny Roberts, Josh “Hurricane” Hayes and “The Texas Tornado” Colin Edwards are the true role models for anyone wishing to bend their sportbike around the next corner just a few miles-per-hour faster.