If you wanted better proof that the American motorcycle industry is struggling right now, take a look at the expected attendance figures for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which is expecting its 77th gathering to be a bit smaller than in past years.
Some of that is to be expected, of course, after 2015 rally’s record year of 739,000 visitors; but for 2017, numbers are expected to be on par with the disappointing performance seen in 2016, which had 463,000 people in attendance.
For comparison, an average year for Sturgis sees 500,000 to 600,000 motorcyclists thronging to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Under normal circumstances, I would say that if you missed the World Superbike / MotoAmerica round at Laguna Seca this weekend, then you missed a great weekend of motorcycle racing.
Of course, the deaths of Daniel Rivas and Bernat Martinez have written a tragic ending to an otherwise great story, and their passing is still being felt around the industry, both here and in Spain.
Before that tragic race started though, Dorna released the attendance figures for American round, quoting 52,704 people in attendance over the race weekend. Breaking things down by day, that’s 12,436 fans on Friday, 18,559 fans on Saturday, and 21,709 fans on Sunday.
This accordingly means that World Superbike fan attendance for 2015 is up 6.7% over last year’s total attendance, which was 49,408. It should be noted that attendance in 2014 was up 20% over 2013, the first year of WSBK’s return to Laguna Seca.
Sunday was a pretty good day for British motorcycle racing fans. The first four finishers in both World Superbike races were British riders, and wildcard Kyle Ryde rode a thrilling and aggressive race to finish on the podium in his first ever World Supersport race.
And yet less than 16,000 spectators turned up to Donington Park to watch the action.
When you factor in the creative mathematics which goes into generating spectator numbers at sporting events (motorcycle racing is not alone in this), and then take a wild stab at the number of attendees on some form of freebie or other, then the actual quantity of punters who handed over cold, hard cash for a ticket is likely to be disappointingly low.
Once upon a time, British fans flocked to Brands Hatch to watch WSBK. Though the claims of 100,000 at the Kent track are almost certainly a wild exaggeration, there is no doubt that the circuit was packed.
Fans thronged at every fence, filling every open patch of ground to watch their heroes in combat. So what went wrong?
Mugello is a special place, and a special race. One of the things that makes it so special is the atmosphere, the massed crowds that arrive on Thursday and Friday, and party noisily until Sunday night, filling the Tuscan skies with the sound of fireworks, engines being held against their limiters, popping exhausts, and very, very loud Italian pop music (or as was the case on Saturday night as we left the track, Jingle Bells composed entirely of fart noises).
They aren’t here. The hillsides are not exactly empty, but the sparse scattering of tents that dot them are a very pale imitation of the wall of color that used to cover the grass at Mugello. The roads are relatively quiet, bikes fairly few and far between, and travelling to and from the circuit is not the nightmare that it has been in previous years.
So why haven’t the crowds come? There are lots of reasons. First and foremost the state of the Italian economy, of course. As in Spain, unemployment in Italy is rising, and those who still have a job are more careful about spending money. High ticket prices don’t help, of course — a general trend at racetracks around the world. Holding the race in mid-July, when the locals would rather be heading to the beach, rather than in early June was another reason.
And then of course there is Valentino Rossi. The Italian legend qualified in 10th on Saturday, and realistically, his chances of battling for the podium are virtually non-existent. And it’s not just Rossi, competitive Italian riders provide thin pickings for the locals to support. There is certainly a chance of seeing an Italian victory on Sunday, but the odds are stacked against it.