Rides, Rallies and Events Recap

Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas - Austin, Texas

Written by  May 1, 2013

The world visited Austin, Texas on the weekend of April 20, 2013. Loudly.

The setting was Austin’s stunning, brand new Circuit of the Americas race facility, and the event that brought them in was the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas. This race is the second of 18 races in the Moto GP circuit. Austin hosts one of only three such races in the United States, the other two being at Indianapolis and Leguna Seca. The rest of the series takes riders and fans alike to such far-flung places as Qatar, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Australia, and Japan.

With so few races and such a worldwide audience, Moto GP draws fans from all corners of the globe. They wore their favorite racer’s number, the racing team’s colors, and flags proudly displaying their home country. They literally wore the flag in some cases, as several fans looked like some patriotic super hero with flag/cape flying.

Even before you arrive at the Circuit of the Americas facility (lovingly referred to as “COTA” by the locals), you realize that you are in the middle of a festival of some kind. You can hear the racers roaring around the track from miles away as the line of cars and street bikes are entertained by the Red Bull stunt flying team in the air above. Skydivers landed on the track before the event began, and a squadron of airplanes did a flyover. Television crews, complete with a chase helicopter, broadcast the event worldwide.

COTA is a masterpiece of architecture and engineering, purpose-built for hosting events such as this. It features a 20-acre Grand Plaza on three sides of the track hosting concessions, retail, restroom facilities, and entrances to spectator seating. A 251-foot-tall observation tower provides a 360-degree panorama of the circuit, and (gulp!) a partial glass floor that is not for the faint-hearted. At the base of the tower is the Austin360 Amphitheater, which is an open-air concert venue that can accommodate 14,000 fans for concerts and staged events.

All of this is surrounded by the racetrack itself – a 3.4 mile Grand Prix style course with 20 corners, and a main grandstand that can seat 9000, complete with suites and box seating. Elsewhere along the track are other grandstands allowing fans to choose between straightaway or corner views. This facility can host more than 100,000 fans in its various grandstands and berms. One of the most sought-after seating locations is Turn 15, where I sat.

Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix is the premier championship of motorcycle road racing. It has evolved over the years to its current state, which is divided into three classes: MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3. All three classes use four-stroke engines. In recent years there have been changes to every class, with 250-cc two-stroke engines being replaced by the new Moto2 600 cc four-stroke class. The former 125-cc two-strokes were replaced by the Moto3 250-cc four-stroke class with a weight limit of 65 kg (including fuel). The engine capacity for MotoGP is now 1,000 cc. Grand Prix motorcycles are specifically built for this circuit.

Race day features one race in each class. The first event is Moto3, which features riders up to age 28, although the majority of the racers are in their mid- to upper-teens and early 20s. Moto 3 races go 18 laps.

Next comes Moto2, which relies heavily on the skill of the rider because all the bikes are almost exactly the same – engines are produced by Honda and tires by Dunlop. Only steel brakes are allowed (no carbon fiber). The bike’s electronics may be chosen from a few sanctioned producers with a maximum cost of 650 Euro. Needless to say, it’s not so much the bike as the skill of the rider that wins the checkered flag in Moto2. These races go 19 laps.

The third race is the granddaddy of them all – Moto GP. These 1000-cc bikes are limited to four cylinders with a maximum bore of 81 mm, or 3.2 inches. Teams are usually sponsored by one of the major manufacturers, but teams that are not may seek Claiming Rule Team status, allowing independents to enter at a lower cost and less-restrictive rules.

Leading up to race day (usually Sunday) is a weekend full of events and activities. On Friday, riders are allotted time to practice on the track, and this makes for a full-day of watching riders familiarizing themselves with the turns and straightaways, sometimes quite tentatively. Saturday is for qualifying, with only the top riders advancing to Sunday’s races. Watching the qualifying events is quite a thrill, with riders essentially going it alone and really diving into corners and blasting it wide open on the straightaways. It is amazing to see the bikes screaming around the corners, tipped at such an angle that the rider’s knee is mere centimeters above the ground, only to have them come upright and shift to the other side for the next corner. We saw one nasty wreck from our vantage point on qualifying day, in which Czech rider Karel Abraham clipped Australian Bryan Staring, sending them both off their bikes. Abraham broke his collar bone and was out for the weekend.

The racetrack is only about 30 feet wide, making race day quite a nail-biter. The first few corners are jam-packed with bikes, so a rider’s starting position goes a long way in trying to get away from the crowd.

On this day, the Repsol Honda team could not be touched. They outclassed all contenders with their smooth-shifting transmissions and just-the-right-amount-of-grip tires. From where I sat at Turn 15, after coming out of the corner there was a brief straightaway where the riders went through three gears. All other bikes popped and backfired loudly as they switched gears, but the Honda team’s transmissions glided through the progression without a peep. By the time the first turn had been rounded, the Hondas were gone, and the only real battle for position was between Spain’s Danny Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, both on the Repsol Honda team. Marquez took the checkered flag in the end and had led most of the way.

Nine-time MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi finished a disappointing sixth, and local Texas hero Colin Edwards was sidelined early and didn’t finish the race.

The vendors around the facility included all the major street racing bike manufacturers as well as many apparel, parts and gear, souvenir, and food and drink stops. Concerts featuring local bands were held throughout the weekend on the stage of Austin360, and stunt riders provided shows to admiring onlookers.

An interesting part of the experience at this year’s Moto GP was the newness and almost temporary nature of the COTA facility itself. This is only the second event held there, with Grand Prix auto racing having been the inaugural event last November. A track official told me that they were working on the facility right up to the day before that event. You could tell from looking around that COTA is nowhere near complete, including the temporary nature of the trackside grandstands in some places and the obvious room that has been left for future developments. Still, the facility and track are amazing and beautiful, and I for one, am looking forward to going back for next year’s race.