I was talking to a friend today who is very prominent in motorcycle racing circles. A two-fold question came up in our discussion.
1.) Why did the Daytona 200 fall in prominence to the point where it’s little more than just another round of the AMA road racing series?
2.) What would it take to bring the race back to its former glory?
For me the answer to the first question is relatively easy to answer, but the second question honestly stumped me.
Let me say that I approach the Daytona 200 with reverence. It’s the oldest, most historic motorcycle race in the country. In its heyday it was covered in the New York Times, drew the top road racers from across the globe and attracted hundreds of journalists, also from around the world.
There is no single answer to why the mighty race has fallen so drastically. Look at a race like the Isle of Man TT – it used to be a part of the World Championship and was undoubtedly the most famous motorcycle race in the world. Since losing world championship status, the TT no longer attracts top racers, yet it still remains a viable event that has major international drawing power at least in terms of fans. Perhaps it’s the scenic setting, the even richer and longer history (dating back to 1907), the sheer test of man and machine trying to overcome the vast challenge of racing 37 miles of most challenging roads in the world. Whatever the case, the Isle of Man has moved on from its days of attracting the world’s best riders with grace. Daytona not so much.
If the Isle of Man is a graceful, classy lady who has aged into a handsome and much-beloved, albeit still dangerous dame. Daytona by comparison is a once flashy party girl, who stole the attention for a time, but became a lush and now only dares to come out under cover of darkness.
Back to the questions. Why did Daytona fall from prominence? The reasons are many. Here are a few I can think of:
1) Lack of international riders: In the 1970s Daytona attracted international riders like Giacome Agostini, Barry Sheene, Jarno Saarinen, Johnny Cecotto and many more. Now it’s only the AMA regulars and maybe a smattering of unknown international riders who come to Daytona to race and enjoy the winter sunshine.
2) The race purse never grew: In the 1970s the Daytona 200 paid a pretty decent purse. The winner at one time earned what would be equivalent to $100,000 today. It also paid well down the field. So a foreign rider, in the days before multi-million dollar contracts could be attracted to race Daytona.
3) Track safety: Track safety standards have changed dramatically over the years. While Daytona has made improvements by installing a chicane, increased run-off room and used soft barriers quite extensively, the bottom line is running wide open around NASCAR banking has such potential for lethal consequences that it would never be homologated for world-championship competition.
4) Other American races have become more prominent: With MotoGP and World Superbike racing regularly in America Daytona has fallen to the fourth most prominent motorcycle road race in the country. If you want to see the best racers in the world you now go to Laguna, Miller or Indy.
5) TV is no longer the exclusive domain of Daytona: At one time Daytona was about the only road race that was shown on television. Now you can watch national and international races every weekend during racing season.
6) Price gouging: In the salad days of the 1990s Daytona-area hotels raised rates and instituted minimum stays. It got to be very expensive to come to Bike Week. In recent years the economy has taken a dive, but some of the pricing and other restrictions remain. Daytona hoteliers helped push along the demise of the race and Bike Week itself, which is just a shell of its former glory.
7) Friday night is a bust: Having the Daytona 200 at night sounded like a cool idea, but Friday night just isn’t working out. The locals worked all week and are too tired to come out and watch a late race. And, as we found out this year, nighttime weather in March is not always ideal. Also a Friday night race makes the Daytona 200 look to play second-fiddle to Saturday night’s Daytona Supercross.
Those are some of the reasons the Daytona 200 is no longer the race it once was. In the next installment of File POV I’ll take on the harder challenge of trying to answer the question of whether or not the race can once again gain the prestige and respect it once garnered.