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‘Drive to Survive’ or Ride to Thrive? MotoGP looks to break out of F1’s shadow after $4.2 billion deal

Austin, Texas CNN —
With the ink barely dry on a $4.2 billion deal that saw Formula One owner, Liberty Media, add MotoGP to its portfolio, the sport’s new proprietors had their first chance to run the rule over their investment last weekend, as motorcycle racing’s elite landed in Austin, Texas for the annual GP of the Americas.
The Circuit of the Americas (COTA) plays host to both MotoGP and F1, and a cursory glance at the grandstands showed the bikes have some way to go before they can match their four-wheel cousins, which attracted 432,000 spectators to the circuit for the 2023 F1 Grand Prix.
A question on the lips of fans and teams alike was how Liberty can help their beloved but – for Americans at least – niche sport go from simply surviving to thriving Stateside.
One thing that MotoGP has in its favor is its frequently raucous unpredictability, a far cry from the sometimes-processional nature of F1.
“Liberty does not think that the sport needs fixing, and we agree with that,” Carlos Ezpeleta, Dorna’s chief sporting officer, told reporters on Thursday.
Reigning double world champion Pecco Bagnaia agreed. “It’s very difficult to say what they can improve,” he told CNN. “I think it’s already a really great show, but it has to be more popular.”
MotoGP’s Chief Commercial Officer, Dan Rossomondo, speaks with passionate zeal when describing its competitive racing: “Tell me another sport where a guy can be leading on the last lap, the world champion, and just falls, and is done – he doesn’t get fifth, he doesn’t even get a point, he gets nothing, zero?”
Rossomondo also believes that the success of F1 runs deeper than the famously successful “Drive to Survive” series.
“’Drive to Survive’ was a huge part of their success, but they got a lot of other things right, and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t see. They did a lot of things to take advantage of ‘Drive to Survive,’” said Rossomondo.
What that documentary series delivered in spades was human drama, making household names out of F1’s competitors and their teams. Six-time premier class champion Marc Marquez says that must be the goal of the new owners.
“I’m happy with the news, I mean what they did with Formula One was super big and was a huge difference,” Marquez told CNN.
“The target is to try and arrive at the young generations and to create big names in the past, like when it was Valentino (Rossi), (Dani) Pedrosa, (Jorge) Lorenzo, (Casey) Stoner, all big names that arrive to more people, and this will be a matter of investing, invest in MotoGP and invest to grow the show.”
Roland Sands is steeped in US motorbike history. Jonathan Hawkins/CNN
Wildcard
A wildcard thrown into the mix to attract more fans to COTA this year came in the form of the King of the Baggers, a class for tricked out Harley Davidson and Indian bikes. What started as a wacky racers-style experiment has evolved into a serious proposition, with a paddock of experienced riders and sizeable budgets behind them.
The Baggers’ appearance on the COTA card brought an entourage of its own, including Roland Sands, a legendary former racer and designer of custom high-performance bikes, as well as a line of products and apparel.
The epitome of the cool California custom scene, Sands believes MotoGP must work harder to convince US audiences to engage with it.
“Americans aren’t going to care about Europeans going around in circles on motorcycles, until there’s a reason for it,” he explained.
“You’ve really got to build up characters, and you want this feeling of knowing who’s behind the helmet, and Liberty have done a fantastic job of not just doing that (with F1), but also telling the backstory of the teams. Now you feel like you’re in the know.”
Sands also believes the language barrier is an issue for any docu-style MotoGP series in the US, with Spaniards and Italians dominating the sport.
Maverick Viñales’ team greets him at the finish wearing Caped Crusader masks. Jonathan Hawkins/CNN
Make it a party
“If you’re going to do it for America the show’s gotta be in English, number one, because nobody here wants to watch subtitles,” said Sands.
“You need character development, and you gotta make it a party, you gotta get it to a point where people are watching it in a bar. I mean now people will watch soccer here. They get up early in the morning and they go to bars, and they drink beer.”
Rossomondo disagrees, citing F1 and European soccer’s success in the US as supporting evidence.
“There’s a cultural attachment to global sports in the US. I look at how the Premier League has done, I look how F1 has done, and that’s a big thing, so we are global, and that’s a cool thing,” Rossomondo told CNN.
“People say, ‘your guys don’t speak English’, but that’s okay, I mean when was the last time you heard Lionel Messi do an interview in English? You haven’t. So, I think that’s part of the opportunity in the US.”
Sands says the sport needs to find a new Valentino Rossi, the charismatic Italian who finally retired from the sport in 2021.
“What did Rossi bring to the sport? And why was he so fantastic and why did he help MotoGP grow the way it grew? It’s like, people cared about him, he was personable, he was funny, he celebrated, he gave people visual reasons to like him.”
Maverick Viñales leads the field during the MotoGP Of The Americas – Sprint on April 13, 2024 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images
Three-time MotoGP world champion Wayne Rainey now runs the MotoAmerica series, which nurtures US motorcycle track talent, as well as King of the Baggers. He says the sport has always been off the radar in the States.
“When I was world champion my neighbors didn’t know what I did; but I would go to Spain and I couldn’t leave my house, because everybody knew what I did,” the 63-year-old told CNN Sport. “The US is 3,000 miles wide and we have all these different states, so it’s hard to get a foothold here.”
“When we introduced King of the Baggers four years ago, people were like, ‘what are you doing Wayne? I thought you guys were trying to raise future GP stars?’ added Rainey.
“But it’s all about entertainment, right? We need entertainment, and now Baggers are here at MotoGP, strictly to help build the crowd, build the excitement, and in the end it’s about entertainment.”
Wayne Rainey is a three-time MotoGP world champion. Jonathan Hawkins/CNN
Intensity
Walking the paddock at COTA on Thursday was Natalie Cardenas, her husband, Christopher, and sons Silas and Jack.
“We’ve been to every single race in Austin since it opened,” Natalie beamed as she outlined her passion for MotoGP. “The riders, the intensity of the bikes, just riding around the track, our sons love it.”
“I watch a little bit of Formula One,” Christopher told CNN, “But MotoGP is my primary sport, that’s what I really, really love, and for me it’s the actual racing, so not just the riders, the bikes and livery.
“It only comes to America once a year, so to get to experience it in person is amazing.”
On the track, Sunday’s grand prix could scarcely have delivered a more compelling finale to the weekend.
After Marc Marquez crashed out dramatically having briefly taken the lead on his Gresini Ducati, Maverick Viñales hauled his Aprilia back from a disastrous start that left him in 11th place to claim an imperious victory, ahead of rookie sensation Pedro Acosta’s GasGas machine and a resurgent Enea Bastianini on his factory Ducati.
MotoGP’s Chief Commercial Officer, Dan Rossomondo, is a passionate advocate of the sport’s global footprint. Jonathan Hawkins/CNN
Caped crusader
The victory meant the Spaniard was the first in the MotoGP era to claim a GP win for three different manufacturers and he celebrated in style.
With Viñales sporting a helmet adorned with the Batman logo, his team greeted him at the finish wearing Caped Crusader masks, and the rider donned a cape and mask of his own for a ticker-tape blasted podium ceremony.
The feeling among paddock and fans alike is that once people get a real taste of MotoGP’s compelling ingredients they will want more. Liberty Media had brought an 11-strong delegation to COTA, and it is hard to imagine that they would have left without a spring in their step.
Sands evangelizes about the sport’s raw materials: “We have to get the riders out there and get people introduced to them and explain why they should care about them, and then why the sport is so gnarly.
“It’s beautiful to watch, it’s incredibly intellectually deep, the reasons why the bikes work the way they work, why they don’t. It’s way more technical than any motorsport, right? And it’s also way more visible than F1 cars, because you’ve got rider style, it’s got all the makings for something that’s incredibly interesting.”

web-interns@dakdan.com

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