In a sense, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 is practically a young pup when compared to professional motorcycle racing’s Daytona 200.
While NASCAR celebrated the 64th running of the 500 three weeks ago, Daytona International Speedway plays host this weekend to the 80th edition of the 200, one of the most important races on two wheels.
But this year’s edition of the 200 will also be starting off in a new direction as well, as MotoAmerica assumes permanent sanctioning and control of the prestigious event from the American SportBike Racing Association.
Leading the pack, so to speak, will be MotoAmerica president and founder Wayne Rainey, one of the most legendary racers on two wheels.
In 95 starts during his legendary Grand Prix motorcycle road racing career, primarily from 1988 through 1993, Rainey earned 24 race wins (including the 1987 Daytona 200) and 65 podiums, and won three consecutive 500cc World Championships (1990 through 1992).
Rainey formed MotoAmerica in 2015 to return Superbike racing to some of its past glory. And while this year’s Daytona 200 will not be a points-paying event to kick off MotoAmerica’s 11-race season, it will be part of the series points championship beginning next year.
“We’re just very happy to be back at Daytona,” Rainey told Autoweek. “It shows that the series is growing, that Daytona wanted us to be there, the manufacturers want to be there, the riders want to be there, the international community wants to be there. So we expect this to be the annual kickoff for us and expect it to get bigger and bigger as each year comes.”
MotoAmerica has been a labor of love for Rainey, who was paralyzed from the chest down after suffering a severe spinal injury in a racing accident in the 1993 Italian Grand Prix. While the injury ended his racing career, Rainey was determined not to let it keep him away from the sport.
After getting valuable advice on how to cope and live with his condition from the late Formula 1 team owner Frank Williams, himself a quadriplegic, Rainey has remained active in the sport for much of the past 30 years – only from a wheelchair rather than onboard his trademark Superbike.
Now 61, Rainey is excited about how MotoAmerica will continue to grow, with the Daytona 200 to be its premier event going forward.
“The Daytona 200 is crucial to us,” Rainey said. “It’s the oldest race in the U.S. and it’s considered the (season) kickoff, the one everyone wants to win. There’s a lot of international riders that come and race and compete at this event.
“And when you talk about going back to the Daytona 200, like we are for the first time since MotoAmerica started, this is our eighth year and there’s a lot of riders that want to come and want to win this race just because of the history of this race. So it’s been a long time coming.”
The 200 will feature the best of the best when it comes to Superbikes, including Ducati, Triumph, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki. Support races during the weekend will also include other brands such as Harley-Davidson.
“When we first took over the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) Superbike sanction in 2015, the championship was struggling somewhat,” Rainey said. “So one of the first decisions we made was to not go to Daytona because the participation in the series was just not there from the amount of teams required to make the Daytona 200 possible again.
“So here we are, eight years later, and now we’re going to have over 150 riders in Daytona. There’s been a resurgence in MotoAmerica, it’s very important for the manufacturers to win this race because they promote it all year, and certainly to have it on the riders’ resumes, for sure, to be a winner of the event.
“Daytona is really special because it’s a 52-lap race, it’s 200 miles, you’ve got to make a couple of pit stops, fuel the bikes up, it’s nine to 15 seconds, they hold about just under five gallons of fuel. They’ll also be changing tires and stuff front and rear a couple of times during the event.
“So, it’s more than just starting the race and racing to the finish because you have to make these pitstops, everybody on each team has to do their job, and riders have to stay out of trouble. There’s over 60 bikes out there racing, 200 miles long, it’s a very grueling race, and one that seems like it goes on forever.”
Rejuvenating the American Championships
Rainey lives in Monterey, California, a short distance from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where a corner that follows the legendary Corkscrew on the track is known as Rainey Curve.
He was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in 1999 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007. He also was named a Grand Prix Legend by motorcycle racing’s global governing and sanctioning body, the Federation Internationale de Motoclclisme (FIM) in 2000.
After his accident, Rainey remained in the sport for a few years, primarily as team manager for Marlboro Yamaha. It was a way to keep himself involved in the sport and be as close to the bikes short of riding again.
“After my racing accident, I was still able to run some international racing teams, but then I had a son, so I stepped away from racing,” Rainey said. “Then when my son went off to college, I started looking around the industry again, and I saw that there was not as many Americans racing up through the American championship that had a chance to go on and race into the world championships.
“That was the main reason why I got involved in with MotoAmerica, I wanted to rejuvenate the American championships, make it competitive again, and then to see the racers race up through the class structure and to be competitive enough that they could have opportunities to go race in the world championship. So after eight years, it’s been very gratifying.
“The series is working. Last week was the kickoff for MotoGP in Qatar and we had three former MotoAmerica champions on the grid. This is why I got involved, to make it competitive, and we’re seeing the fruits of that labor.
“Being on this side of the sport, as far as running the series, it’s very much like it was when I raced. I needed my whole team to provide me the best package I could. And then on Sunday, you put your helmet on, you go race and you get the results.
“It’s the same way with running the series, we have a team of people that put on MotoAmerica. Each event is run at a very high level and it’s very gratifying to see how that works.”
While the Daytona 200 will not be part of the points championship, MotoAmerica will contest an overall 11-race schedule this season at the following tracks: Daytona, Circuit of the Americas, Road Atlanta, Virginia International Raceway, Road America, Ridge Motorsports Park, Laguna Seca Raceway, Brainerd International Raceway, Pittsburgh International Race Complex, New Jersey Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park.
Since forming MotoAmerica in 2015, Rainey and his staff have built an organization that continues to grow both at-track as well as on TV, including over 900 hours annually of global programming with Fox Sports, FS2, ESPN and ESPN Latin America, MAVTV, MotoAmerica on Facebook as well as its Live+ streaming service.
MotoAmerica is part of the American Motorcyclist Association, the largest organization of motorcycle riders in the country with more than 200,000 members. That includes not only racers but also folks who ride a motorcycle just for the sole enjoyment of it.
MotoAmerica’s Electric Future
Like many of its four-wheeled major manufacturer counterparts such as General Motors, Ford, Tesla, Honda, Toyota and others, MotoAmerica has begun to embrace the transition from gas-powered internal combustion motors to electric motors.
“A few of the electric manufacturers have reached out to us, and some have sport bike heritage that would look the part, look like proper race bikes,” Rainey said. “So it’s something that we are exploring at the moment.
“There could be an electric class next year that we’re looking at. We had a manufacturer reach out to us this year, we couldn’t do it at all the events that we wanted, so we decided to delay it a year. But we think it could start happening next year.”
While Rainey does not foresee MotoAmerica going all-electric anytime soon, it does have its appeal and curiosity.
“The power is there, but it’s a little bit heavy at the moment,” he said. “But the motorcycle is so much feeling and laptime is generated by how the engine puts its power into the tires and that’s everything.
“With the electric, it’s a little bit linear, so it’s a little bit different feeling than an internal combustion engine. So there’s some points with traction control and wheelie control and all the aids that we have now to help the riders go faster around the racetrack with some of these electronic gadgets.”
Given how motorcycles such as Harley-Davidson make a distinct sound from their engines, that is another element that MotoAmerica is keeping in its development of two-wheeled EV technology.
“(Sound) is so important to our customers and fans,” Rainey said. “This is the new technology; electric is here to stay. We see all the car manufacturers going that way. And some of the racing series in the world championship, they have an electric road race class, so it’s there.
“I think as far as the sound goes, that will develop. I think the manufacturers that build these electric motors, they will be able to make some sort of sound that will become normal and we’ll all get adjusted to it.
“I think the young generation that is there now will be more inclined to accept it, whereas maybe for us dinosaurs, it’s going to be a little bit of a change. But it’s coming.
“Hearing a motorcycle go around the track, especially when they break loose, or do a wheelie or are accelerating through the gears, it’s a sound that is soothing to the ears. I don’t know if I’ll see it my lifetime, but you never know.”
Getting Back on the Bike
While Rainey is not only an inspiration as MotoAmerica’s leader, just being around racing has also inspired him as well. He climbed aboard a specially-built bike in 2019 for an exhibition run in Japan, hitting 130 mph.
Three months from now, at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, Rainey will climb back aboard the same Yamaha Superbike he won his third and final world championship in, back in 1992. Yamaha technicians have made several modifications to allow him to once again feel the need for speed.
“I know, it’s crazy, isn’t it?” he said with a laugh. “The bike has been in the Yamaha museum in Japan. It has electric shifting buttons on the left handlebar, I’ll strap my boots on with bicycle cleats and it’ll just be careful with the throttle this time.
“I’m very excited but also a bit anxious because this bike is a beast. It’s the only bike of its kind in the world. It’s very rare.
“If we can get it up to 100 mph, that’d be more than enough. I’m just going to be going out there, going through the gears, just enjoy the ride and wave to the fans. And if I get a chance to go fast, you bet I’m going to.”
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Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski