On Thursday afternoon in his home state, two-time World Superbike champ and long-time MotoGP pilot Colin Edwards announced that his racing days would come to an end following the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Edwards’ impending retirement not only closes the book on an illustrious career, it further underlines the suddenly shaky foothold the United States has in the Grand Prix world — and with relatively little hope for a swift return to form.
It’s a precarious position for a nation that utterly dominated the sport from the late ’70s through the early ’90s. At the very least, the United States could count on solid representation in motorcycle racing’s premier category, with one or more (and often many more) factory-backed American riders holding down grid positions dating back to the pre-Kenny Roberts days, when Pat Hennen and Steve Baker were works 500GP championship contenders in the mid-1970s. That remarkable streak came to a halt just this year.
Along with the latest development announced on Thursday by Edwards (who, incidentally, hasn’t been a factory rider for a few years now and has more recently been subjected to the role of CRT/open category rider), you also have the shock retirement of Ben Spies following the 2013 season. Spies, a fellow Texan and former World Superbike champ, was expected to carry the flag for the next decade. However, an unfortunate combination of poor luck and nagging injuries saw his international racing career spiral to a conclusion every bit as quickly as it had ascended a few years earlier.
And then you have the ‘demotion’ of former MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden, who was a works Honda and Ducati pilot from 2003-2013. He’s now saddled with an uncompetitive open class RCV1000R production racer on which a placement at the bottom of the top ten must be considered an achievement. After years of claiming to have zero interest in going World Superbike racing, the Kentuckian openly mulled the move for ’14, if only briefly. And if this season continues along its early trajectory, you have to think subsequent offers that could see him shift from MotoGP also-ran to immediate WSBK title threat will only become increasingly tempting.
Forget factory rider, it might not be long before there isn’t a single American rider in MotoGP in any capacity.
Reigning AMA Superbike champ Josh Herrin is looking to battle his way up through the ranks via Moto2. While admittedly the ideal pathway into MotoGP, Moto2 is a brutal testing ground, and one in which Herrin has been thrown into the deep end. The class is swarming with proven Grand Prix race winners and a rider sitting just one second off of first place in Moto2 is very often a rider sitting outside the top 15.
Herrin’s success or failure is doubly important for American hopes as it could also impact the chances of other aspiring American GP pilots. Former factory KTM 125GP rider Cameron Beaubier is widely tipped as the nation’s brightest prospect, but even if the 21-year-old did the impossible and immediately took it to Yamaha USA teammate Josh Hayes — undoubtedly among the very fastest Superbike riders to be found anywhere in the world — Beaubier’s potential from an international perspective may very well be tied to Herrin’s Moto2 results considering the Georgian’s status as the most recent American Superbike champ.
One might try to debate the granular particulars of their respective campaigns, but that’s asking a lot for MotoGP paddock talent scouts to take into consideration, especially when they have so many fleet young in-paddock European riders to select from.
Beyond Beaubier, it’s not easy to highlight another American who could be MotoGP-ready in time to quickly replace the evaporating current crop. Perhaps P.J. Jacobsen or another enterprising rider like him will crack the code by taking a detour through the British paddock and work up from there.
Ironically, the desperate nature of the situation may just prove to be the biggest boost to an American’s chances of breaking in. Paddock politics that once worked against riders from the USA could start to shift in their favor. No doubt Dorna will be highly motivated to ensure that prospective attendees of the Austin and Indy GPs will continue to have someone to root for well into the future.