MotoAmerica Today and Tomorrow: Interview with Rainey, Varner and Aksland

2018 Road America MotoAmerica Results Yamaha's JD Beach
Yamaha's JD Beach

MotoAmerica Interviews: Wayne Rainey, Richard Varner, and Chuck Aksland

The FIM/AMA MotoAmerica Championship is now in its fourth season, and since its conception in 2015, we’ve seen significant growth in the paddock.

Not just in the performance level of riders, some of which have come from across the globe to join, but the spectacle that is professional motorcycle racing has increased as well. Teams have expanded, trailers have gotten larger – in many ways, things are looking up.

This new American road racing series is managed by KRAVE Group – led by four individuals whose passion for motorcycling and motorsports truly knows no bounds.

MotoAmerica Wayne RaineyKRAVE is comprised of three-time 500cc World Champion Wayne Rainey; investor and CEO Richard Varner; the former Vice President of Motorsport Operations at Circuit of the Americas and former Managing Direction of Team Roberts in MotoGP, Chuck Aksland; and Terry Karges, the current Executive Direction of the Peterson Automotive Museum.

The MotoAmerica Championship’s goal is to develop riders for the world-stage, hoping to reclaim some of the relevance that American riders once held in professional racing.

Since 2015, MotoAmerica has gone through numerous changes in the structure of their championship.

MotoAmerica has restructured classes and moved towards FIM homologation with the intention of preparing riders for World Superbike and MotoGP level riding.

During MotoAmerica’s stop at WeatherTech Laguna Seca, we sat down with Wayne Rainey, Richard Varner, and Chuck Aksland to see how things are going and how they’re continuing to develop the championship.

Ultimate Motorcycling: Let’s start at the beginning. The inaugural MotoAmerica season was put together quickly, coming to fruition in 2015 when the AMA stripped the former event organizer Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG) for numerous reasons. That suddenly left the AMA road racing series with no one to run or promote the event. How did KRAVE build this to what it is today?

Wayne Rainey: We had no rules, no circuits, no staff – nothing.

Richard Varner: We were four of us looking at each other (laughs)

Rainey: We had to build our sponsorship team. It was just the four of us, but boom – we had to get the FIM guys over and create our rules; specifically, what works for us and our domestic championship. We had to create the class structure – everything.

Before, DMG was running the race operations at the track, and there was some friction between the riders and teams. Well, we thought, “we can go down that path or go completely outside.” So, Chuck grabbed a guy from the British Superbike Series (Scott Smart), who works with DORNA and the FIM MotoGP program.

That was a great move. That’s what we needed, just someone to come in with a clean sheet. He just showed everybody that we’re new and that we’re going to do things a different way. We got in-line with the FIM concerning our rules. We wanted to build our Superbike class as our main class, and we thought we’d follow that program.

Then we began working with the manufacturers. With Suzuki and Yamaha already being there, there was a little bit of pushback in us wanting to change the electronic rules initially. But in talking to the other manufacturers, they said: “if you want us to come in and compete in your series, you’re going to have to follow the FIM rules.” So, we’ve done that, and we’re hoping that the other manufacturers come and play – as they said they would. We’re working on it.

Chuck Aksland: Not only aligning the technical rules but on the sporting side too. We had a different starting procedure than what the rest of the world had. We thought it was important so when a guy like Cameron Beaubier, Josh Herrin, or Jake Gagne gets an opportunity to be a wildcard; he knows exactly what’s going to happen. The start of the race there is the same as the start of the race here. They don’t have to think about it.

Varner: A perfect example of that is Josh Herrin bouncing back and forth yesterday

MotoAmerica KRAVEUM: Interesting. So, there has been a focus on building a series that can import or export riders?

Varner: Not so much just that, but it’s more about bringing our series up to the proper standard. Why be separate? We’re as good as anybody in the world, so we’ll run the same rules and compete on an even basis with them. That’s really the main goal.

Another thing that, specifically, Chuck and Wayne bring to this thing is credibility in the paddock. When it comes to reevaluate the rules, or make changes, the two of them go out and spend a lot of time with the teams. I don’t think you’ll find anybody that feels like they haven’t been consulted or the rules haven’t been discussed.

Rainey: We’re easy to find – we’re always walking, or rolling –

Aksland: Or riding scooters (laughs)

Varner: Of course, the teams voice their concerns. But I think these two guys have done a great job of making sure that it happens. I think, from that standpoint, everyone is behind it. That makes a big difference.

And the teams are stepping up. I mean, Richard Stanboli from Attack Performance, I’m just shocked at how well he’s done in a half of a season. Look at Josh Herrin, who was on a street bike in the first race – look at what’s he’s done. It’s been great. It’s exciting to see, and I think it builds interest in the sport.

UM: Josh Herrin’s campaign has been beyond unique. Richard Stamboli has some history with the AMA paddock, as well, so he’s no stranger to racing.

Varner: There’s a lot of history in the paddock. You know, we’d be stupid to not consult with the paddock. Speaking to someone like John Ulrich (Owner of Team Hammer and Roadracing World Magazine), he sees both sides of it, and he’s got a good feel for it. He’s a great resource. It’s important that everyone gets a good idea of what we’re trying to do.

Rainey: We have an excellent relationship with the AMA, FIM, and Dorna. With MotoAmerica, we want our series to be competitive – we would love to have all racers, no matter where in the world they’re from – if they want to compete in the World Superbike Championship, that’s great, but we would hope they want to compete here like with what Beaubier is doing, or Toni Elias is doing. Those guys right now, we saw what Josh Herrin did – they could jump over there in that World Superbike event and be competitive.

If Herrin wasn’t racing in both series right now, I think he’d be doing a whole lot better in the World Superbike event than he’s currently showing right now.

Varner: He’s been on Dunlop for most of his life too – so he’s going between two sets of tires –

Rainey: I mean, Mat Mladin tried to do that years ago. I think he ended up pulling out because he couldn’t do both. When the Americans focus on that (WSBK) like Doug Polen, they can do well.

But this is our one race where we get to show how close we are to the WSBK paddock. Every year we’ve been here, we’ve tightened the times. We’ve halved the time almost every year.

Herrin was running 1:25’s and they ended up pulling in due to issues, but that’s doing good. The main points of comparisons that we can work with are the Yamaha teams here and the Yamaha teams over there because we don’t have a Kawasaki team, we don’t have a Ducati team. So, we can only have direct comparisons with what the Yamaha teams are doing.

Varner: Yesterday, Herrin was running ‘22.9’s I believe?

Aksland: Yeah. That would have put him around sixth on the grid, I believe.

MotoAmerica TeamUM: So, how has the plan developed from the first year of MotoAmerica? In the beginning stages, you were just dealing with the framing of the building – the studs or 2x4s.

Rainey: Oh, we didn’t even have a frame, we were just building the foundation! (laughs)

Aksland: We had wet concrete (laughs)

Varner: Yeah, we put our initials in it (laughs)

UM: Now that the structure is here, what are the other steps to help improve the series and ensure its growth?

Varner: You’re faced with this; you’re on the media side. Where do you go to expand racing? It used to be that you’d get your Roadracing World or your Cycle World or Cycle News and all of that was done through the endemic media. Today, it’s a difficult thing to do because people want information in real time. So, we’re now faced with the challenge of marketing this to, not just the endemic audience, but the non-endemic audience as well.

This is the greatest show in the world, or that’s what I think, and anytime somebody comes, it’s the same thing. You got to see it. It’s as difficult for us as it is for anyone.

In the first years, we talked about the need to own our events. There are three ways to run a race. You can get paid a sanction fee to show up – and they pay you to be here. You can rent the place and take the full financial risk of the event or, you can do a revenue share, and they provide the track.

During the first seasons, we had two sanctioned events where people paid us to be there. We had five or six revenue shares and then we had two, I believe, outright rentals of the facilities.

So, as the series has grown, we’ve been transitioning to a place where we now only have two events with revenue sharing, two sanctioned events, and the rest are rentals of the facilities. We’re trying to take responsibility and drive our train.

The other thing was to go from a post-produced show and move to a live televised show – we’ve done that. The next thing is to continue working on the marketing for the whole event. Now, the next question is at what time do we handle our TV production?

The next transition will be to hire more organizations, like agents and agencies to bring that in-house. When you’re hiring someone for the first time, it’s tough to know that you have the right guys – but now that we know some of these people, and where we want to go and how we’re going to do it. Those are just some of the evolutionary things.

Getting the rules right was a big part of this – but that’s the order in how this whole thing was developed.

Rainey: Probably the most important part of this whole thing has been the financial side of it. It’s very expensive to do what we do. You know, the industry has shrunk, and we’re trying to get this going. With Richard coming in here – he’s got a huge passion for this sport. I mean, you’ll see him out there at every race – he’ll walk up and down that grid and wish every rider good luck.

For me, I get choked up watching that. We didn’t know each other five years, but to see him be a part of this thing is great for us.

UM: It’s no secret that operating a racing program, at any level, is a costly endeavor. What are some of the ways that MotoAmerica is helping teams participate? Are there subsidy programs that MotoAmerica offers to help keep their racing efforts going?

Aksland: We have different stages of our entry platforms. There is a premier entry level, season entry, and single-entry level. For the premier entry level, there are some expectations as to what your presentation needs to be. Your riders must be there at every race, but in return for that, we guarantee $2000 every race to their superbike riders. So, they pay their entry fees, and they’re guaranteed $40,000k over the period of ten races.

For the privateers, they have a purse structure that covers first through tenth place finishers, and above that as well. We figure if a guy does, on average, seven races throughout the year, combined with his premier payments, he could make $70 or $80 thousand per year for him and his team.

Varner: We’re trying to incentivize the performance for each rider. If they perform, they get more. Not just to show up and perform in the races.

MotoAmerica stage
Left to Right: Wayne Rainey, Chuck Aksland, Terry Karges, and Richard Varner.

Rainey: That’s just from us. Then they also have their contingency awards from each of their sponsors – whatever those may be and how they’ve worked it out. That’s in conjunction with whatever the manufacturer has already posted.

Aksland: With those structures in place – the Superbike class has over a million dollars available for a single season. That’s never been available here, ever.

Varner: That’s one of the things that you rarely hear about or see much of that’s starting to make a difference. I can see it in the paddock, the presentation of the paddock is becoming much better, everything is coming up together, and the quality is starting to emerge, and we see more of it.

Aksland: And that’s part of the obligation with a premier entry – the manufacturer must have some aspect of hospitality, and we’re trying to drive that so that teams can entertain their sponsors and the fans. The more that it starts to happen, the more people will want to be involved in the sport. They have a place to go, a place to hang out, and feel comfortable in the environment.

UM: I’d agree with that. The performance difference between teams has also changed, there were big gaps.

Rainey: Big gaps (laughs). The Yoshimura Suzuki team dominated for years, and then it was Yamaha.

Varner: But you know, our times yesterday were on par with World Superbike and that was great to see. It shows that there is progress happening here.

Aksland: That’s been our big push too, we put pressure on our tire companies, on our riders, and our teams – this is our one opportunity a year to check how our competition stacks up against the world’s best.

UM: When I was a kid, cigarette companies came under pressure from the public, and the federal government due to their marketing campaigns that appeared to target young people. That caused Camel Cigarettes to pull “Joe Camel” imagery, and eventually, those sponsors left professional racing. Even today, alcohol endorsements seem few and far between while some countries outright ban alcohol endorsement for sporting events. In the past, motorsports thrived on those investors – is there anything preventing MotoAmerica from gaining the support of non-endemic sponsors? Legally, or otherwise?

Varner: The only thing that prevents are their boards of directors, I think – I say that regarding people wanting to support racing. In all forms of racing, it’s a difficult sell. Tobacco is a national thing, but we’re okay with alcohol sponsorships –

Aksland: Basically, if it’s a federally legal product we’re okay with it.

Rainey: We’ve had some requests for things that weren’t legal a few years ago, and now it’s exploded.

Aksland: There’s a lot of controversies, especially here in California, with medical marijuana and CBD. It’s hard to tell where it’s legal and where it’s not – it’s not something that we can support until it’s federally legal.

MotoAmerica InterviewVarner: In the face of that, we’re introducing new sponsors to the sport. Cycle Gear has a unique thing going on. First, Dunlop has been here a long time, and they are to be commended. And they’ve underpinned the sport more than, I think, anybody understands.

If I remember correctly, two years ago, they had one year left on their contract, and they came in and starting spending money without the assurance of renewal. With that, they started going through a major research and development process to improve their tires. That was a hell of a step for those guys – they invested in the sport.

Rainey: Dunlop is the spec tire supplier, so thanks to the R&D that they’re putting in – when we come here and race against the other brand (Pirelli, WSBK’s spec tire producer), in the other series – they don’t need to step it up; our tires are already there. Dunlop sees this as a way to develop tires. Eventually, those advancements make their way into the consumer product, and we like that.

Varner: That’s true. Cycle Gear is a great partner because they’ll be here – they’ll show up at every race. We’ve been able to get Motul, Liqui Moli and many others to set up their popups as well, which is important. With all of the other apparel manufacturers and their popups going, the fans can see something they like then can walk over to the Cycle Gear tent, buy it, and have it drop shipped to their house. They’ve done a great job of activating this year. Suzuki goes and does their demo rides every race, those are the things we really want.

So, when we talk about sponsorship – we really like the ones that activate as well because they’re here and see what’s going on.

But it’s tough to get a non-endemic sponsor, and that’s where the breakout comes. If you can get Paco Rabanne or Under Armor – somebody that’s a non-endemic. There’s really no restrictions; it’s just up to their board of directors and their willingness to be a part of motorcycle racing.

UM: The rules within the Superbike and Supersport class have been altered over the years, with a focus on matching the FIM rule structure. That includes price caps on components to make it more of a level playing field regarding finances. What are the ways that you’re keeping the paddock level in that regard? Independent teams do not have the financial backing that factory efforts do, and this year we’re seeing independent teams fight up front.

Aksland: In the Superbike category, that’s mostly been spelled out. You know, our bikes right now are just about the same as the World Superbike. The main difference is that we use the standard gearbox that the bike is equipped with and they use a nominated gearbox and build one ratio for the season.

How it used to be, back in the 80’s and 90’s – the US had its own set of rules, and the participating manufacturers had their own, completely separate R&D budgets. So, you’d have Honda North America going in a different direction than what Honda Japan or Europe was doing. So, it only made sense to us with the current condition of the industry – is that everyone should really be on the same stuff. It makes it easy, for example, if Kawasaki wants to come in and race Superbikes here, they have the bike. They don’t have to go and develop it, making parts from scratch.

Rainey: They have four or five private teams running Kawasaki, along with a few Ducati teams, and it would be easy to have them here.

Aksland: The success that WSBK has seen with private teams has stemmed from having price caps set, and a commitment from the factories to help private teams. To follow that was a bit of a no-brainer for us.

When we first started the series, we had to combine the Superbike and Superstock classes to build up enough confidence to make the break for racing.

Rainey: I think with our first year, we only had seven true Superbikes – so some races, we simply couldn’t field enough Superbikes, so that’s why that stock class was there. That created confusion for fans, understandably. What we were doing with that stock class was slowly loosening up those rules so that they could get closer, and closer to a true Superbike.

Aksland: We wanted them to be closer to Superbike than go back to a stock bike –

Varner: Sort of set the hook in these guys and drag them into the Superbike class. I was skeptical about it at first, but it’s worked.

Aksland: I think we’re fortunate coming into it at the time we did, especially in the liter bike class because the standard street bike performance is so high. Its motor performance is good, and with a bit of chassis work, you can get out there with a good rider and be competitive.

Rainey: Yeah, we saw Herrin during the first race this year, when his bike didn’t show – he went out there in the rain with a street bike. He was pretty much on pace in the rain.

Aksland: Even on the electronic side, the factories tend to go with the Magneti Marelli, but some of the kit stuff and in our series is good too. We allow for flashing. The performance level is quite high, and it’s less complicated, and cheaper for the technicians to work through it. As I said, I think we’re fortunate to do this at a time where the performance is so high.

Varner: You know, we’ve heard from Suzuki that with everyone being in the same rule class allows them, on the R&D side, at the OEM level, to work across three or four different series and consolidate and be more efficient with their spending. They’re not preparing a bike for each series. It makes all the sense in the world.

Aksland: Also, on the FIM side, they have the committee where all of the manufacturers are participating in and setting the rules for the future, so it creates some stability. If you’re following that system, they know that we won’t be changing the rules at random. We’re following the guidelines that have already been set forth.

Varner: The Junior Cup is going through the same process. We’re trying to make it a “one size fits all” field, so we’re working with Scott Smart to figure out, internationally, what’s the best way to make that field a level class. We’re still getting it right, but it’s worked back and forth quite well.

Aksland: There have been complications with the Junior Cup and World Supersport when it comes to balancing. You’ve seen the rules change race to race, which isn’t ideal. A lot of that is because they’d be trying something in WSS and we’d look at the results of that and implement it, or they’d be working on different formulations until our next event. It’s a good shared resource, and we’re benefiting from it tremendously.

UM: The junior class is something we’re all interested in, mainly because these riders are in the best position to be primed for the world-stage jump. You’ve touched on a few aspects of the balancing, but how is it coming along in general?

Rainey: Right now, we have a structure to help build that. We have our Junior Cup, our Supersport 600 series – the riders that are at the top of the series like JD Beach, Valentin Debise, Hayden Gillim – those guys are racing each other now, but we’d like to see those guys step up in the Superbike program.

We feel the way our class structure is, if there’s a new Marc Marquez, Kevin Schwantz – we’re going to see it; everyone is going to spot him. Some guys take a little longer to develop and you don’t see it quite as fast. What we’ve created here shows that, if you’ve got talent, you’ll be able to put that on display nationally.

We have some other ideas that are a little closer to what they do in Europe, as far as rider development goes. Some of these programs are things that we’re working with DORNA on to develop. Right now, we want to keep developing MotoAmerica in a way where it’s competitive, and the riders that come out of this championship can make the jump, doing wild-card races like what Herrin was doing this weekend, what Jake Gagne is doing. We want to make it so when these riders do get the opportunity they’re racing for the podium.

We were a long way from that when we first started that. If you watched our last race at Road America with three riders duking it out until the end – they were all in. And that’s what you have to bring when you go and race against guys like Jonny Rea or Chaz Davies; you’ve gotta be able to bring it. And that’s what we’re trying to create.

Varner: When you look at the depth of the riders in Superbike – they’re pretty damn good. It’s been helped by riders like Bobby Fong coming off the 600’s and moving to Superbike. Danny Eslick came up from the 600’s, so the field has become much more competitive. With the right bike, any one of those riders can be in the leading pack.

Aksland: It wasn’t all that long where there were only two or three guys that you thought could win a Superbike race. As Wayne pointed out, at Road America, the first handful of laps there was a pack of almost eight guys fighting for position and battling.

UM: I’ve often wondered how racing events can grow, and the idea of cross-promoting the race has come up. Is any of that happening this year? Laguna Seca could be an example of that, with MotoAmerica is tied to the World Superbike event, but what other things are you guys trying?

Aksland: This year we did bring in a CMO, it’s the first time we’ve had this level of help on the marketing side. I don’t think any of us know the magic formula to create the perfect event. We picked three events to try something different. For example, Tony Hawk was part of our race at Road Atlanta, and the idea behind that was that he’s got a huge social media following and from a background of extreme sports. That’s probably ten-million or so people that might now have been exposed to MotoAmerica. It’s also tapping into a slightly different audience, not necessarily a motorcycle audience.

At Virginia International Raceway, we brought in some live music. At Sonoma Raceway we’ll be hosting a party like atmosphere with live music, and other types of entertainment.

Aksland: We’re trying to get a longer run on some of the things we’re promoting. Hopefully, these types of integrated events become a destination where fans can come, whether they like racing or not – they’ll come for the music, or a skateboarding exhibition but they’ll see some motorcycle racing and hopefully become a fan.

Rainey: When we’ve shared this with some of our other partners – they’re wondering too, where is the next customer going to come from? And so, everyone thinks if we can just get them to the event so that they can see a motorcycle, and just touch it – those are the customers that they need.

We know that if we can get them here and they can see what’s going on; if they can touch it or go for a test ride or even sit on a bike – just seeing that everyone is having a good time, we know this is where a new customer will come from.

Aksland: The economy now is recovering a bit, and RV sales were once down in the dumps, but they’re recovering. Those people need a place to go, so were trying to create a place for someone like that.

2018 Road America MotoAmerica Results Yamaha's JD Beach
Yamaha’s JD Beach followed by M4 Suzuki’s Valentin Debise

Varner: And they don’t go there by themselves. If you’re a guy or girl that doesn’t know a thing about motorcycle racing, you kind of have to have someone tell you that it’s okay to go and check it out. It’s the kind of thing where, say, Chuck will call you and say, “Hey, you’ve never been a race, but you gotta see it.” You’re going to trust him and eventually make an effort.

The other thing is to get some stars or opinion leaders because if someone like Channing Tatum says, “This is the greatest thing in the world,” that could convince someone way over there to pay attention – it permitted them to come, in a sense. It’s gotta be a cool place to be, and that’s what we’re trying to do, it just encourages people to think in that direction.

Things have gone from going someplace to staying at home and being isolated. We’re interested to see what happens with the new gambling avenues that have cropped up – so we’ll see what happens in that, maybe get people excited about betting on motorsports. But we need to find a way to get people to leave their home and come here. It’s a challenge.

Rainey: When you come to our event it’s a race. Whether there’s a country band or Tony Hawk – we know that once you come here and see it in person, taking it all in in person, we know that you’ll follow it.

UM: It’s hard to argue against watching riders crest over turn one at Laguna Seca (laughs)

Varner: One of the telling things for me is at turn one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, right after the front straight. Michael Andretti was there and the 600’s races are going on – these guys are flying by – boom, boom, boom and he goes “this is unbelievable.” Here’s a guy that grew up racing there, and if it gets him going – you say, okay, there’s something here.

UM: That seems like a good place to wrap it up. We genuinely appreciate you guys sharing all of this with us. It’s great to see where things have come from and where KRAVE plans on taking MotoAmerica into the future. Thanks again!

Varner: Thank you!

Rainey: Thanks!

Aksland: No problem!