In the past 30 years, America has produced some of the world's best motorcycle road race riders, whether the public is aware of it or not. Previous super stars from the United States on the world scene have included Kenny Roberts Sr., Freddie Spencer and Doug Polen.
While the number of great American riders on the foreign scene has decreased in years, Ben Spies, a current and long time resident of Longview, Texas, has been making some major splashes in the World Superbike season in his rookie year thus far.
And this weekend, Ben Spies makes his triumphant return to Miller Motorsports Park in Colorado for the only round of the World Superbike series in America. Arriving with five wins out of twelve races, a second and third, and a record-tying six straight pole positions, Ben Spies is aiming to continue his impressive 2009 rookie season on a track he knows well.
More importantly, Spies is looking to establish himself as an American and International icon, hoping to win the world title in his rookie season.
Coming into this weekend's round, Spies remains third in the point standings, 88 points behind leader Noriyuki Haga, a long-time veteran and superstar of the series riding a factory Xerok Ducati.
Previously, Ben Spies has been a three-time American Motorcyclist Association Superbike champ, winning the premier road-racing championship in America from 2006-2008 for Yoshimura Suzuki on a GSXR-1000. In addition, Spies is a former champion of the now defunct Formula Xtreme and Superstock classes in 2003 and 2007, respectively.
Now, the 24-year-old Spies rides for the factory Sterilgarda Yamaha World Superbike team of Europe (formerly Yamaha Motor Italia) and has shown he can be the next in line of great world champions. Despite never seeing four of the five tracks in the first five rounds, Spies has shown he has the natural talent and desire to win on the world level.
For the uninformed, there are two major world motorcycle racing championships. One is World Superbike, which utilizes production-based machinery made by manufacturers such as Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, and as of this year, BMW. Such motorcycles can be purchased in some form from a showroom floor.
The second series is MotoGP, which is essentially Formula 1 on two wheels. Motorcycles used in MotoGP are highly customized, featuring parts not available to the general public.
While not extremely popular state side, World Superbike is among the top-five sports throughout Europe, especially in Italy. It's kind of like the NHL in some ways; popular, but still second tier to other sports, mainly soccer.
In previous years, MotoGP was seen as superior to World Superbike as MotoGP had all the major sponsors and marketable riders. At one point, the World Superbike field was reduced to two factory teams. But in recent years, the factories and rider talent has returned to World Superbike.
One major component lacking was a rider from America though. The last rider in World Superbike was fellow Texan Colin Edwards, riding a then-factory Castrol Honda RC51. After Edwards won his second title in 2002 (in spectacular fashion, winning nine straight races to claim the title over Australian Troy Balyiss in the final round), he to defected to MotoGP.
Late in 2008, after it became apparent that the factory Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team would not sign Spies, he decided to chase his dream on a factory Yamaha. Without a doubt, Spies appears to have made the right move with his current statistics and promise of the future.
While only a one-year deal, Spies is already in the midst of a long-term contract extension with the team. One big reason is the all new 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1, which Spies has claimed from the onset that the bike has "gelled" extremely well with his riding style.
While down on power to the bigger Ducati 1198Rs of Haga and teammate Michel Fabrizio (currently second in the point standings, three ahead of Spies), Spies has found ways to make the bike work and win in the process. More importantly, Spies has made it known he is ready to battle to the end of the championship, besides the 88-point deficit he now faces.
Luckily for Spies, Miller Motorsports park has been good to him; he has won five out of the last six races since 2006 at Miller. Add in some additional motivation, as in his last race in Kyalami, South Africa, Spies was forced to pull out after a broken gear shifter while leading. Haga went on the win the race, putting Spies in a major hole in terms of the championship chase.
History may be on his side though.
The last American rider to win a World Superbike race in the U.S.A. was Colin Edwards in 2002. After his second-leg win at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, Edwards went on a major comeback, closing a 58-point gap in just eight races to take the 2002 title, as previously mentioned. Can Spies begin a similar streak and overcome Bayliss' replacement, Noriyuki Haga?
Early season success says yes. If Spies continues on his torrid pace of winning and dominance, he too can become the next American road racing star abroad and in his home land of the good ol' United States.