After one round of racing we’ve learned the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class is certainly not immune to the harsh economy of 2009.
For the past five seasons the category has enjoyed unprecedented growth and exploded with new teams, fresh sponsors, unique motorcycle makes and more races.
In 2009 the class is clearly in a state of decline. At least for now. Several prominent racers were left without a ride, most notably three-time series champion Angelle Sampey, who many considered to be the most marketable dragbike racer today. Sampey’s former tuner and six-time NHRA champion crew chief George Bryce also begins the NHRA season on the sidelines for the first time in decades.
Former event winners Chip Ellis, Chris Rivas, and Peggy Llwellyn are without deals. Longtime class standout Antron Brown is flourishing in Top Fuel and will most likely never return, and 2003 class champion Geno Scali appears to be retired.
The lack of funding has been felt by every professional class in the NHRA. Just ask the Bernstein’s who recently ended a 30-year relationship with mega-sponsor Budweiser. It just so happens that the Pro Stock Motorcycle class has taken one of the hardest hits. The class is marketed to sponsors as one of the best values in the NHRA, but when times get tough, it’s the easiest to cut. The motorcycles don’t go to all 24 NHRA events, and let’s face it, motorcycles don’t make great billboards.
The class may be in a bit of a downturn, but clearly it’s still as unpredictable as ever. Who took Hector Arana in the office pool to win the opening race of the season? Arana scored just the second victory of his 19-year racing career and amazingly he did it by overcoming reaction times of .186 and .120. Lights like that in a class full of tree-cutters usually put you on the trailer quicker than a four-tenths amber flash. Nonetheless Arana did it the old fashioned way by posting low elapsed-time of every round.
Arana established what should be a trend in the class this season. When a Buell rider finds that magical tune-up at a specific track that rider will also find his/her way to the winner’s circle.
The brand parity in the NHRA may be more equal than ever in 2009. Several of the past few season’s dominant Buells are not entered in competition and Suzuki racers Matt Smith and Karen Stoffer appear to have the power to win any given race. Also despite the NHRA rule change, the new four-valve Screaming Eagle V-Rods are still front-runners, but don’t seem to have a decided advantage. Unless of course they are waiting until the Countdown to flex their performance muscles. Byron Hines is a smart man and Eddie Kraweic winning the championship last season was a shining example that the mantra to claiming the NHRA championship is the same as the tune in the NFL – It’s not the most dominant who wins the title, it’s who peaks at the right time.
Kawasaki fans will have fun watching how quick Ryan Schnitz and Rob Muzzy can make their state-of-the-art ZX-14 go. Although it wasn’t the run of the event, Schnitz’s 7.18 in round No. 1 represented a major improvement for the team. Last season the bike never ran quicker than 7.32 in official competition. Muzzy is again proving why he is a motorcycle god. Muzzy is a true innovator and is slowly doing what many said could never be possible by making a late model Kawasaki competitive. He’s had a ton of technical hurdles to leap over and he’s doing it with very little help from anyone, including the NHRA. If Muzzy and Schnitz had been campaigning a Buell for the last three seasons, I’d be willing to bet they’d have at least one championship.
With the departure of several powerful teams from 2008 the gap between No. 1 and No. 16 on the ladder is sure to widen. There are a few eager and talented new racers ready to fill in the cracks, but the big question is, how long will they be able to keep up with the more heavily-funded teams? If the economy remains dismal look for some less-than-full fields in 2009.
Nonetheless, in terms of parity and unpredictability the class is still leagues above the Schultz and Myers show of the early to mid 90s. As Arana proved in Gainesville, anyone can win on any given Sunday. Who’s next?