Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Was a GoPro camera responsible for Michael Schumacher's brain injury?

There are stories circulating which suggest that Michael Schumacher's skiing injury may have been made far more serious because a GoPro camera mount on his helmet somehow weakened the helmet. Schumacher fell while skiing, and struck his head on a rock. Although the camera itself was undamaged (and has provided investigators with video of the fall) his helmet shattered.

I think this news has implications for the people who write racing rules.

As the story goes, a French technical institute examined the broken helmet and determined that the structural failure was not the result of manufacturing or material defect. They've speculated that the GoPro mount somehow caused the failure.

It's become incredibly common to see ordinary commuters or recreational riders with GoPros mounted to their helmets or bikes. God knows what they do with the hours of incredibly boring video they must record; presumably it's deleted without ever being watched. And, of course, every fucking stinter has a camera, or two or three, mounted. This new toy for narcissists incredibly tiring. (Although I do admit that some of the videos they record are entertaining…)

Even Marc Marquez was wearing a helmet mounted GoPro at the Superprestigio. I mean, WTF? There's not enough video of him? He has to record his own?
I can sort of see why club racers record their own races; races that aren't being recorded any other way. But when Marquez and Baker tangled in the Superprestigio, Marc's camera ended up on the track. Probably no big deal on a slow speed, dirt short track. But I don't like the idea of purposely adding non-essential components to road racing bikes—components that are just another thing to fall off and, possibly, cause a crash.

Now, with the suggestion that a helmet mount may have greatly exacerbated Schumacher's injury, it's time for racing organizations to ban helmet cameras, and give serious thought to banning bike-mounted cameras, at least until technical rules have been written that ensure they won't just become track debris.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Jay Leno can't stay retired

This past summer, I dropped by Jay Leno's garage, looking for material for my column in Classic Bike magazine. Leno dropped a little bombshell in the course of our chat. Here's the text I sent in for my September "Classic America" essay

“And of course there’s this: the most misunderstood bike of all time.”

Jay Leno and I had been meandering through his bike collection, and stopped by a Suzuki RE5. 

“At 70 miles an hour, this thing is so smooth; it’s like a turbine,” he said. Then, he reached down, turned a key, and punched the starter. It spun for a few seconds without catching. He punched it again; again with no joy. He shrugged.

“Is that a Water Buffalo?” 

That question came from Roland Sands, who walked up with another guy who was introduced to us only as Anthony. 

Sands—one of the most respected custom bike builders in the U.S.—had been over in an adjacent room, where he was installing one of his bikes near several tables laid for a formal lunch. As it happened, on the same day I came to interview Jay, a dozen motorcycle journalists had lunch in the garage, as part of a press junket organized by BMW. They were all riding the new R nine T. 

Sands was there because BMW hopes that the R nine T will become a favorite of the custom crowd. And, as I was told later, ‘Anthony’ was Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m pretty sure that Leno thought he was Roland’s assistant, as I did.

I worked on a couple of events with Jay, back in the days when he was the star of the Tonight Show and a fixture on American TV five nights a week. Every time I visited the garage, I marveled at his 150 cars and 100 motorcycles; his facility and tools; and a staff devoted to nothing but maintaining and restoring his bikes and building almost anything that he could imagine. 

He’s got an Ariel Atom open-wheel car that came, stock, with a 300-horsepower GM Ecotec motor. His guys built a bespoke V-8 out of two Hyabusa top ends, that makes about 500. That’s the kind of shit they can do in-house. 

A lot of people would be jealous, I guess, but I’ve spent enough time behind the scenes with him to realize the price of fame at that level. People literally grabbing him to adjust microphones, or wardrobe, or makeup, or whatever, right up to the second the cameras started taping. And more grabbing any time he was out in public, shaking hands over and over again. They’d wrap a show in mid afternoon and Jay’d hide out in the garage for a few hours. Even then, there always seemed to be someone from the network lurking nearby; a signature needed here, someone who wanted to meet him; a script revision. Long after dark, he’d go home—not to sleep but to work on the next day’s monologue.

Those nights I left thinking, if the devil offered me all Jay’s bikes and tools, with the caveat that they had to come with his life, I’d turn it down.

Leno was thinking about restoring this Brough, which has an Isle of Man history. But when they looked inside the fuel tank, they saw that there was a message engraved inside, which read, "Whip it like a mule"(!?) That tiny detail made him reconsider changing the bike at all. That's the kind of minutiae—and story—that makes him treasure a bike.
This summer, I went back to see if his life is any different, now that he’s turned over The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon. I guess I hoped—for his sake—that he’d tell me that he’d finally learned MIG welding in his free time, or show me some project that he’d been saving for years so he could tackle it himself, rather than have his staff work on it. 

I suppose he does have more time, but not that much more. And more privacy, although while we talked, a golf cart rolled through slowly; some private tour for NBC advertisers, or contest winners, or whatever; and there were the 20 or so people associated with the BMW thing; and one more pesky journalist—me. The only real change I noticed was that he said ‘fuck’ a lot more in conversation. I guess when he was on TV five nights a week, he had to rein that in. 

The television network still operates the jaylenosgarage.com web site, which gets six million hits a month and is the home of a web-TV series, which just earned its sixth Emmy nomination (the equivalent of the BAFTA Awards for U.S. television.)

In passing, Jay mentioned that there were plans afoot to produce a broadcast TV version of the web series. He was evasive when I tried to pin him down on details, but said it would be on the air soon. 

Actually, he said “probably by the time this comes out,” but Classic Bike takes forever to show up on U.S. newstands, so Jay may have thought an interview done in July would appear around Christmas. There’s an excellent chance that you’re reading a bit of a scoop, since—at least as I write this—the fact there’ll soon be a broadcast version of Jay Leno’s Garage is not common knowledge.

On the way out I ran into John Pera, who told me, “There’s a lot of people fighting for [the show]. NBC wanted to do a five-day a week show, but they wanted to control the scripting. Jay said, ‘No, no, no, there’s not going to be any scripted, Orange County Choppers fake bullshit.’”

That’s as it should be. They can make a great show just by tapping Jay’s enthusiasm and love of detail. He showed me a Brough-Superior from the estate of Cecil Clutton. It had been raced on the Isle of Man in the ‘Twenties. 

“I was going to restore this,” he told me. “But then I looked inside this tank with a flashlight, and I saw something written in there. It turned out that someone had scratched ‘Whip it like a mule’ on one of the pieces of metal before it was soldered together. I thought, this is history; I’m not touching it.”


Obviously ‘retirement’ isn’t really changing Jay. At least, not too fucking much.



Well, just today the Hollywood Reporter claims an exclusive on the news that Leno will soon have a prime time show on CNBC. Was he really trying to give me a scoop? Maybe I should've done more with the story...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Have you no sense of decency, AMA? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?


Just when you think the AMA can't be more of a would-be NRA (with all the shameless pandering and disingenuous bullshit, but without the political clout) the Kochsuckers in Columbus come out with… wait for it… an assault on the Centers for Disease Control.

After the NRA succeeded in blocking the appointment of a Surgeon General who had the temerity to address gun violence as a public-health issue, the AMA's decided to attack the CDC for considering Americans' propensity to ride motorcycles without crash helmets as a public health issue.


Then, it has the sheer fucking unmitigated gall to coyly say, "The AMA strongly encourages the use of personal protective equipment, including gloves, sturdy footwear and a properly fitted motorcycle helmet certified by its manufacturer to meet the DOT standard."


NO IT DOESN'T. Let's just make that clear, OK?


If the steady flow of press releases I get is any indication, the AMA's single largest legislative focus is fighting mandatory helmet laws. There is simply no reason to say, "We want you to be able to ride without a helmet," unless it's OK to ride without a helmet. This is exactly the same as when tobacco companies argue against smoking restrictions, while claiming that they aren't encouraging smoking.


What the fuck, AMA? How can killing off your constituents possibly make sense to you? I mean, the tobacco industry sells a product that comes with a guaranteed level of risk, but the AMA continually uses its words to make a qualified argument for helmets, but devotes its effort and budget to REDUCING helmet use. Because make no mistake, states with mandatory helmet laws have close to universal helmet use, and states without mandatory laws… don't. Ipso facto, the AMA's working to reduce the use of the single most effective piece of motorcycle safety equipment. And if the AMA's pathetic shills trot out the tired old lie that, "We don't want the helmet debate to distract from driver education blah, blah, blah…" I will fucking puke.


Let's get this straight! All the effort that the AMA spends arguing against helmet laws—all that effort and expense is, in fact, effort and expense that otherwise COULD be used for driver education.


And now, they're capitalizing on the media's fucking trumped up ebola panic to get in a little dig at the CDC. That's just great. You know what, if there's a fucking ebola epidemic, it won't matter whether we wear crash helmets or not. It'll serve the AMA right.




Monday, October 6, 2014

Parsing MotoAmerica's 2015 class structure


So, the other shoe’s dropped—sort of—as far as MotoAmerica’s class structure goes.

It seems there will be one race for literbikes, but it will have two separately scored classes, ‘Superbike’ and ‘Superstock’.

Superbike rules basically are broken into three subsections: chassis, motor, and electronics. The chassis rules will be as per this year’s AMA rules. Engine rules will be as per 2015 SBK rules. Teams can choose to run either last year’s AMA-approved electronics package, or next season’s SBK electronics.

The Superstock class will be as per FIM Superstock regulations.

There will be two races for 600s; ‘Supersport’ and ‘Superstock’.

In 2015, Supersport bikes will be, basically, what we have been calling Daytona Sportbike. The plan is to use the AMA’s 2014 chassis rules, and FIM Supersport engine rules. Electronics will be as per the AMA’s 2014 rulebook.

Meanwhile, Superstock bikes will be built to rules similar to last year’s Supersport bikes.

If you’re confused, this chart might help.


Race
Class
Previously known as
Chassis
Engine
Electronics
Superbike
Superbike
Superbike
AMA 2014
SBK 2015
AMA or SBK
...also includes
Superstock 1000
New class
FIM STK
FIM STK
FIM STK
Supersport
Supersport
Daytona Sportbike
AMA 2014
FIM SS
AMA 2014
Superstock 600
Superstock
600
Supersport
FIM STK600
FIM STK600
FIM STK600
Spec TBD
?




TBD?
?






From what I read, discussions are underway that could see at least two additional classes added. Apparently, MotoAmerica has talked with Harley-Davidson about the existing spec class for the now-discontinued-due-to-commercial-failure Sportster XR1200X. There’s also been lots of talk about a spec class suitable for junior riders, perhaps a la KTM RC Cup.

MotoAmerica has said that they’re leaving the possibility of incorporating a Moto2 class in 2016, when—I expect—the FIM will open Moto2 to other engine manufacturers. There’s been no mention, so far, of Moto3. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Spain’s thriving Moto3 class is probably the single best steppingstone into the World Championship right now.

Oka-ay...

I guess what we’re seeing here is MotoAmerica doing what it can to ease the transition for existing AMA Pro teams, while also lowering the barriers to entry in 600 and 1000cc classes. It would be churlish to point out that just before the DMG takeover, the AMA took a lot of heat for a show that included two 600 classes (SuperSport and Formula Xtreme) and two 1000cc classes (SuperBike and Superstock). And that the class-within-a-class structure was dismal when there were CRT teams in MotoGP. In fairness, EVO rules seem to be fairly comprehensible in BSB and World Superbike.

I would rather have seen them tear the bandaid off right away.

My suggestion would have been:

  • Superbike—a la CEV; run to FIM Superstock rules
  • Moto2—with flexibility of running any manufacturer’s motor, and grandfathering in Daytona Sportbikes
  • Moto3—allowing 125GP machines to fill the grid, a la Motostar British Championship, which is a BSB support class.

It would be easy to tweak the existing Moto2 rules to allow for additional manufacturers. Basically, it would mean using existing chassis rules, while allowing for any motor built to FIM 600 Supersport specs. You could enforce reasonable parity with claiming rules or rules forcing any manufacturer that wanted to participate to supply x number of motors at a fixed price.

I don’t know how easy it would be for American entrants to build or buy enough Moto3 bikes to fill a grid, but there are Moto3 classes in Britain, France, Spain, and Japan amongst other places.

KRAVE’s wishy-washy class structure could mean that KRAVE’s principals are stuck in the old ways themselves, which would suck; it could mean that the “manufacturers” (read: distributors) and other stakeholders (read: privateer teams and key sponsors & suppliers) are running the rules making procedure, which would also suck; or it could just mean that Wayne Rainey and KRAVE feel they need an interim year in which they have something—anything—to put on track, while they bring American road racing into the 21st C.


I’m reserving judgement. But I’d feel better if they’d announced the 2015 class structure—which is a bit of a dog’s breakfast—in the context of a statement about, “this is where we’re starting, because we have to start somewhere, but let’s be clear about where we’re heading: in two years’ time, our classes will be...”

Monday, September 29, 2014

TV or not TV? That is the question

I've been trying to stay on top of news about KRAVE's new MotoAmerica series. But, understandably, after a flurry of releases in the first few days, the flow of real news seems to have slowed; they're presumably busy with the actual nuts and bolts of  assembling a series.

I'm guessing that my fellow Canadians are wondering, too, whether the FIM "North American" status means that we can expect a race in Canada. I'm not sure whether there are any Canadian tracks that meet FIM standards. (Are there? There are some beautiful and historic tracks there, for sure. Mosport held a round of the World Championship in 1967. But up to modern standards?)

One thing that I did notice right away, though, was a resurgence of the obsession with television. I'm an "advertising guy". I get that the money in professional motorcycle racing comes from sponsors. But I'm not on this we-must-be-on-TV bandwagon. In fact, months ago, when (make sign of cross now) DMG unveiled Fan's Choice coverage of AMA Pro events, I was one of the first to say, Maybe this is better than television.

There are two big forces at work out in the world of specialty media and niche sports:

  • The new old guard, at KRAVE--and the heads of U.S. distribution for the Japanese Big Four--all date from a generation when "being on TV" equalled "having a nice big audience". That hasn't been true for decades. In the n-channel universe, there's an excellent chance no one's watching, and it's almost a certainty that no one's just stumbling onto your programming and about to fall in love with it.
  • TV's audience is shrinking and aging anyway. The younger audiences that motorcycle manufacturers and sponsors like Red Bull and Monster crave are online.


By putting so much emphasis on TV, KRAVE's preparing for the last war, not the next one. Just because you're "on TV" doesn't mean anyone's watching, any more. Tell the truth, have you ever seen an episode of that reality TV show built around Larry Pegram? I haven't. I don't even know what network it's on, what cable package I'd need in order to get that channel, if it's even available at all from the cable provider that serves my building. And all that presupposes that I want cable, but I don't; I've already completely untethered myself from cable. Like the land line phone, it's ancient history to me.

AMA Pro was bitterly criticized for not getting U.S. road racing (or flat track) on TV. In the end, with Fan's Choice, they put a program together that offered decent coverage and was available for free, both live and on demand to anyone anywhere in the world, as long as they had web access.

I'm not saying the series shouldn't be televised. It should be televised, if they can arrange for that. But not at the expense of a great free webcast. That's the future, and it's where young fans already live.

The obsession with a TV package is wrong-headed. If it's being driven by KRAVE, that's depressing to me. Because we don't need more old thinking; we need all-new thinking.

If it's being driven by manufacturers and potential sponsors, I guess that means they're another bunch of out-of-touch old men. But no matter how much power they used to wield in AMA Pro's heyday, they shouldn't be allowed to call the tune all by themselves now.

In summary: I understand the desire for a TV package built around the MotoAmerica series. But if the amount of talk about TV indicates that KRAVE and potential sponsors are obsessed with TV, we're not entering a brave new era; we're clinging to past, under a new name.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Note to KRAVE: Fuck Daytona

Observers from the sublime (David Emmett) to myself have already started to parse the potential futures of American motorcycle road racing in the post-DMG era. One interesting topic is, what the class structure of the new series should be. And one comment that frequently comes up is something along these lines: "Since the first race of 2015, at Daytona, is only a few months away, the rules will probably remain unchanged for an interim year."

But I've got some more advice for KRAVE: Fuck Daytona.

There is no good reason to start the season in March, during Daytona's Bike Week, and there are several good reasons not to start it there.


In 1974, Yamaha brought Giacomo Agostini and the then-700cc TZ700 to Daytona, and won the 200. It meant something. But as the opening round of the U.S. championship, it's now a depressing anachronism. MotoAmerica would be better off without it, and it's possible that Daytona would be better off too—promoting a single event, or a true endurance race.

For starters, the track’s too much of a special case; it requires special tires and special rules. 2015 was, we’re told, going to see a return of Superbikes in the feature 200. But who knows if the tires’d hold up? Even when the tires do last on the banking, the refueling and pit stops merely serve to exaggerate the gap between have and have-not teams.

The track insists on that early March date that, again, especially punishes privateers. They're the ones who need another month to prepare machines and look for a budget. And that location right down in the lower right-hand corner of the map pretty much ensures high travel costs for everyone, anyway.

Daytona used to have special relevance, and link the AMA championship to the World Championship. In 1964 and ’65 they opened the World Championship at Daytona. (Hailwood won both 500GP races, on an MV Agusta.) Through the ‘70s, it was still the whole world’s unofficial first race meeting. Riders from the World Championship came to Florida on a sort of busman’s holiday, knocking the rust off at the Speedway. But that was at a time when there weren’t tracks (and early season races) in places like Qatar; there weren’t several great tracks in Spain; Phillip Island wasn’t ready for prime time.

Nowadays, the vast, empty grandstands are a silent but evocative testimony only to how far the once-great event has fallen. I can't imagine a bigger turn-off for sponsors. It’s not as if Daytona Beach could give a shit, either. The vast majority of people who attend Bike Week couldn’t tell you who Josh Hayes is. And any momentum that is developed at Bike Week is lost in the months-long wait for the second race of the season.

It would be far better to start the U.S. season with a proper race, at a proper modern track, some time in April. Austin leaps to mind. But perhaps the most important reason to fuck Daytona is, it would send a clear message: MotoAmerica isn't just AMA Pro Racing, repackaged.

Lest DMG take umbrage at my suggestion. I’ll add that, freed of it's role as America’s season opener, maybe it can find real international relevance again, either as cool 200-mile one-off run to the old Formula-USA rules, or run at an even longer distance, as a round of the World Endurance Championship.

Daytona (and Daytona Motorsports Group) is dead! Long live Daytona! Just not as the MotoAmerica opener. Fuck that.

For the record: There's an excellent chance that DMG made keeping a race at Daytona a condition of the transaction when the rights were "reacquired". So here's a note to the AMA, while I'm at this: How about launching a new era of transparency, and you tell us just what that transaction entailed, huh?



Thursday, September 4, 2014

Motorcycle safety notes: "I hate it when that happens"

From England, comes this video which shows a fatal motorcycle crash, from the rider's perspective. Normally, I wouldn't touch this kind of video with a ten-foot pole, but I think it's worth a second, close watch because it highlights a number of dangerous assumptions made by motorcyclists.

I note that the driver of the car involved was charged in the accident, in spite of the fact that the rider was traveling nearly 100 miles per hour moments before the crash. This was a classic, "I didn't see you, mate" accident. This happens, all over the world, many times a day. What can we learn from it?..


Off he goes. The motorcycle is a Yamaha. I'm not sure which model. Perhaps a reader can identify it. It looks like a big adventure bike to me. [FJR1300, per comment below--MG] In the next few seconds, he's going to catch and pass several cars and at least one other bike. I can't read the speedo, but the official investigation found that he traveled up to 97mph. His mum said, "He loved speed." We all do, and we've all exceeded 97 miles an hour at some point.

The good: alcohol was not a factor. The roads are dry, visibility is good. Traffic is light. The passes he makes are all safe, although he's traveling at a rate of speed that is bound to earn him a big speeding ticket if he's caught.



The bad: Already at this point, 97's too fast. The big green sign on the rider's left tells him, there's an intersection ahead. The heavy foliage could conceal a car about to pull out. Meanwhile, the white car just ahead has seen him coming and pulled over.




Taking the invitation, the bike passes the car. His lane position is not too bad; he's to the right in his lane, maximizing his sight lines into the intersection, maximizing his own visibility. He could've just let his momentum carry him past the car and rolled off the throttle, but he's still on the gas.



He should be in Condition Orange by now. There's an intersection up ahead, with a view of potential cross traffic obscured by trees. And now, he can see an oncoming car positioning itself to turn across his lane.

A good rider using proper situational awareness would already have rolled off and taken other steps to reduce his risk by now. But anyone can be caught off guard, so this would be the time to roll off, flash high beams or sound your horn to let the driver in the turn lane know you're there and just maybe going a bit quick [See comment below--MG]. And, check the rear view mirror and flash brake lights to tell the guy in that white car, "I know I just passed you, but I might be about to hit the brakes and you should think about it, too."



But no, dude's still on the gas, accelerating. At the very least, the road on left would be a perfect place for a cop to be parked, pointing a radar gun our way. At this moment though, a cop would be the least of his problems; the rider should have a laser focus on that car's left front tire--that car's still rolling, and the driver has steered into the motorcyclist's lane.





Finally, he's rolled off. I can't know what was inside his head at this point, but I'm guessing that he's jumped straight from Condition White (daydreaming) to Condition Orange (potential threat identified) or Red (immediate action required). 

But what's he going to do? He's 100 feet or so--less than a second--from the point of impact. His speed hasn't yet decreased at all. He's now in the middle of his lane. I can't blame him for moving towards the verge from the earlier position. At this point, his brain hasn't caught up to his situation. He's probably still thinking, "This car signaling a turn will poke into my lane, the bastard." But, as understandable as that drift to the left was, it's put him in a shitty position for an emergency evasive maneuver. He's now on the dirtiest part of the asphalt, at a moment when he needs maximum braking grip.



Now he's in Condition Red. He's realized that the car's not stopping. Look at his right hand. He's reaching for the brake. C'mon you guys! Always cover the front brake! The time it took him to reach for it has already made some kind of crash almost inevitable. Note that at this point, although the horizon is tilted, it's not any more tilted than it was on the straightaway; he hasn't taken evasive action, he's just drifted towards the left. He hasn't looked for an escape route; he's looking at a gap, but that gap's closing--he's looking right the point of impact.

Although it's easy to second-guess this poor bastard, it's now a certainty that the car's momentum is going to carry it into his lane. It would have been better if he was at either the extreme right, where he could've used the center lane as an escape road, or on the far left, where he could've stayed on the brakes as long as possible, and at least attempted the left turn.  



He's finally on the brakes, but still hasn't scrubbed much speed. And, our worst fears are confirmed, the car's fully entered his lane. A crash of some kind's impending, but remember Gardiner's Rule #7: A low-side is always better than riding into an impact.

A maximum braking effort followed by a banzai left turn will probably result in a survivable (but still extremely fast and dangerous) low-side into the hedge. Again, although it would take impressive presence of mind to realize it, and racer-level machine control to negotiate it, there's a viable route behind the car. But even if the rider had the skills, he'd have to have been planning it a second or two earlier.



His little scream, as he realizes what's about to happen, is heart-rending. In the video, his mum says, "He had no time to take evasive action." He certainly has no time now. Although he's on the brakes, his speed's still barely changed. Considering the vectors involved, serious injury or death are now inevitable.

It's worth noting that the car driver admitted that he hadn't seen the motorcyclist. That was obviously the immediate cause of the accident. But even if he had seen him, the guy'd been driving down a road, meeting oncoming traffic traveling 60-70mph. When he saw a motorcycle up ahead, he couldn't have expected it to close at a 50% greater speed. The car driver might have turned even if he had seen the motorcycle.

I'm not blaming the motorcyclist (although his illegal speed was also a contributing factor.) But what the fuck?..  This accident was completely avoidable. As a motorcyclist, you should never assume you've been seen unless/until you've made eye contact with drivers, and you should never, ever assume they realize you're going 100 miles an hour.