We are entering an interesting time in American Superbike racing. Let’s call it Superbike AM (After Mladin). This is a strange feeling. Love him or hate him, Mladin was an amazing force field on the American road racing landscape. This will be the first time since 1996 that the cantankerous, uncensored, ultra-fast Aussie training monster that was Mladin will be absent from the field.
Will Mladin be missed? Let’s look at history. Over the years fans have shown an amazing ability to look forward and live in the moment instead of looking into the past. Since its inception the series has lost luminaries like Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Fred Merkel, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, John Kocinski, Colin Edwards, Doug Polen, Scott Russell and Ben Spies and survived and even in most times thrived with the riders who came in to replace them.
I think it will take a few years before fans quit asking what might have been had Mladin raced. It will take longer for current day riders and champions to live down the shadow of Mladin, if for no other reason than we’ve never had a rider dominate the series for such a sustained amount of time as Mat.
But racing moves on and in a way Superbike AM presents some intriguing possibilities.
While the factory involvement is at one of the historical lows, this doesn’t mean there’s going to be a lack of interesting competition.
First off is the favorite – Josh Hayes. A few years ago I stood amazed watching Hayes step up to an even higher level of riding skill in Formula Xtreme and Supersport. He was 32 at the time and had taken seemingly a huge step in his riding, especially for a rider of that age. Clearly he should have been in the Superbike class in 2007 (if not earlier). He was at his absolute peak. Hayes will turn 35 this season (between Fontana and Road Atlanta). If he’s going to win the American Superbike Championship he’s going to have to do it soon. He’s racing a proven championship-winning machine in the Yamaha R1, so it seems everything is in place for the Mississippi native to become the first Champion in year one of Superbike AM.
I would just like to point out that this is the first time I can remember in years that a factory-supported squad in Graves Motorsport Yamaha is favored over the only direct factory team in Yoshimura Suzuki. Certainly Yoshimura Suzuki has a great mix with veteran Tommy Hayden and the still improving Blake Young. These two are the riders I think most fans will be watching to see how they perform. They’re both on the AMA Superbike dominant Suzuki GSX-R1000 with tons of residual know how left from the Mladin/Spies Era.
We tend to forget this, but there is one former AMA Superbike Champion in the field and that’s Ben Bostrom. Depending on how much support (Bostrom claims nearly factory-level) Pat Clark Motorsports truly gets from Yamaha, he could be a major factor in the championship picture. Bostrom said he likes the less regimented environment the non-factory ride provides, yet he gets the best of both worlds with claimed factory-level backing.
Another veteran to look out for is Larry Pegram on the Foremost Insurance Ducati. Many experts see the Ducati 1198R as potentially the best bike out there. The DMG recognized this possibility and reduced the allowable weight of four-cylinder machines by five pounds to make sure there’s a level playing field. Even with the weight penalty for the Ducati this may be the best chance ever for the 36-year-old Pegram to win the championship.
Michael Jordan Motorsports Suzuki’s Aaron Yates and Jake Zemke (Zemke in National Guard livery) are both proven winners. Both are in their mid-30s (which seems more and more like the average age of today’s American Superbike riders), so like Hayes if either hope to have the title of AMA Superbike Champion next to their name when they retire now is the time. The question remains, even with the relaxed DMG Superbike rules, what level of support Jordan will get as compared to Yoshimura.
Another rider to watch for this year is Chris Ulrich on the Team Roadracingworld.com Suzuki. Inspired and helped by Ben Spies (who has been giving Ulrich training advice), Ulrich has trained and is leaner and stronger than ever before. His long-nagging shoulder injury seems to be finally solved. He’s a real blue-collar rider, working hard on perfecting his craft. I expect Ulrich, at 30, is poised to reach his peak in the next two or three seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the podium this year.
Other top-notch riders who could run among the leaders this year include young Canadian Brett McCormick on the Picotte Racing Suzuki, Taylor Knapp on a RidersDiscount.com Suzuki, Ben Bostrom’s young protégé Chris Clark and Barrett Long joining Pegram as the only other Ducati in the field.
You may have noticed there is one high-profile rider I’ve left off the list so far. The reason for that is I wanted to end the feature by talking about the rider I predict will win the championship and that rider is John Hopkins on the Team M4 Monster Energy Suzuki.
From my perspective Hopkins is the most talented rider in the field. He’s just 26 and looking to prove he is still worthy of a second chance in world championship competition be it Grand Prix or World Superbike. After a tough outing in World Superbike Hopkins’ confidence might be shaken, but if he can get in there and be competitive in the early rounds I would bet he’ll get his mojo back. If that happens Hopkins has the capability and talent level to go on major run.
To me Hopkins’ entry in the series is the most intriguing and newsworthy thing that has happened in a period that many consider rock bottom for the championship. A winning Hopkins would be good for the series. People across the world who are seriously into motorcycle road racing know who Hopkins is and will be paying attention to his potential comeback.
I’m an optimist at heart. If Hopkins manages to win the championship this year it will be great for him, great for the series, great for the M4 Monster Suzuki squad that years ago clawed its way up from the club ranks to become one of the top national teams and just a plain feel-good story. I just have a sneaking suspicion that people have written Hopper off a little too early.
Bring on the Daytona Superbike Doubleheader. I’m ready for Superbike AM to begin.
Projected Top-10 American Superbike Rankings for 2010
1. John Hopkins
2. Josh Hayes
3. Tommy Hayden
4. Blake Young
5. Aaron Yates
6. Chris Ulrich
7. Jake Zemke
8. Larry Pegram
9. Ben Bostrom
10. Taylor Knapp