Canadian Thunder Series: The Factory’s Race – Part III

img_6674Streamers of champagne arc and forth from the podium, and smarter spectators are ducking for cover as those on the box today, BMW’s Oliver Jervis and Michael Taylor, and Ducati Toronto team racer Paul Penzo, celebrate their victories. The racers are engaged in a congenial battle, the foaming vintage mixing with the drizzle.  Amongst this bon-homme and boisterousness, representatives from BMW and Ducati are looking on.

One can’t help but infer the representatives’ satisfaction at seeing their racers take the medals.  Amongst the personalities, conflict, camaraderie and drama of the Canada Thunder Series there is an underlying goal.  Rob Trottier of Ducati Toronto (Rev), manager for the Paul Penzo’s team and one of the progenitors of the Canadian Thunder Series, puts it succinctly.

“Originally this was the Buell-BMW Cup, a series designed as a marketing class.   When Ducati joined, the name changed.”  What does remain is a consensus amongst the “factories”, what the audience sees on the podium is not a racer but a brand – in the end that is the core reason for any brand’s participation in the event.

Manufacturer participation has changed the tone of the Canada Thunder Series, made it maybe feel a little less family, but Trottier has a balanced attitude towards this outgrowth of the series.  “As more money comes into it [the series], it loses the family flavor, becomes more professional. When the series started Darren James [of the Ruthless Racing Buell team] was the only one with a trailer.”

Trottier admits that “the class has changed, it used to be one big family.”  Now that sense of family seems more tightly centered on the brands, the three of whom have as much at stake in the Canada Thunder Series as the racers on the track.  Buell, Ducati and BMW are providing contingencies to racers on their respective brands who land on the podium, as well as backing teams, directly or indirectly.

The contingencies are incentives, pushing competitors that much harder towards the podium but it’s undoubtedly the spectators that truly benefit from such a structure, watching the racing in an already close class become more competitive.  Still, if the Canada Thunder Series is about building the public perceptions of brands then the manufacturers have as much stake in the outcome as the racers.

A moderate amount of media analysis reveals that BMW may have the most to gain on the tracks of the Canada Thunder Series.  The series gives the roundel mark a chance to call back to a racing history, that fell short after Reg Pridmore’s 1976 US Superbike Championship win on a modified R 90 S.  It’s a history that has been smothered under years of products whose marginal athleticism has been cloaked in luxury.  Now BMW is attempting to re-invent itself, BMW-light if you will, and the Canada Thunder Series could be a valuable tool in that re-invention.  Currently this “re-branding” crusade centers on BMW’s R1200S, a horizontally-opposed twin with a relentless advertising campaign that pounds home the words, “Sport, Sport, Sport”.

For spectators of the Thunder Series, that phrase may be more evocative of the cartoon sound a R1200S makes cart-wheeling across the track after a grinding cylinder head initiates a high side… Grind! Sport!  Sport!  Sport! Grind!  The R1100S’s used in BMW’s own boxer cup series used shortened cylinder heads for increased clearance to minimize such incidents.  No such modifications are allowed in the Canada Thunder Series, as a result BMW’s racing aspirations have supplied spectators some of the most spectacular crashes of the season.

Even three weeks later, in Shannonville, witnesses are using uncomfortable words like “altitude”, “loft”, “trajectory” and “impact” to describe Chris Duff’s round 6 “get off” at Shubenacadie, NS.  Duff went down and broke his foot in some four places in a high-side that saw his BMW R1200S tear itself to pieces in a series of impacts.  Today Duff’s teammates, Michael Taylor and Oliver Jervis, stay upright in the wet, taking the day with first and second.  One hopes such wins are enough to counteract the still talked about spills in the public’s eye.

Nothing can diminish the fact that in the hands of the exceptional Taylor and Jervis the R1200S showed its blue and white racing colors.  But considering this, a harkening back to the days of Pridmore is likely premature.  That this series is a limited class, not open to all stock bike configurations, quickly steals the thunder from such allusions – Pridmore was up against the best bikes of the day in an open class.  A quick examination of the lap times reveal that the fasted thunder series laps are within 3 seconds of the pro-600s – still over the course of a 14 lap race the cumulative difference would put the big BMW’s out of the running.

While BMW may be struggling to regain its sporting underpinnings and racing stature, Ducati continues to trade on its racing heritage.  One is hard pressed to think of a better place for the company to showcase its track bred DualSpark air-cooled L-twin that powers the Paul Smart.  The primary message here is clear; the SportClassic may look “retro” but the PaulSmart 1000 is modern enough to hold it’s own in this class.

There is a second quieter message, though, to racing the PS1000, and that is how accessible a racing SportClassic can be.  Driving the point home, Rob Trottier levels his gaze on Paul Penzo’s race bike, “You could build that bike in a weekend.  It’s almost all stock.”  That the PS1000 goes on to take third makes a bold statement.  Still the racers are candid comparing the PaulSmart to the BMWs.

“It needs more power,” says Paul Penzo, “we’ve got the handling, but the BMWs can still pull away on the straights.”

Evidence of that statement is easy to spot by even the casual race observer – over the course of today’s race in Shannonville it’s the BMW riders who are pushing more though the corners, braking harder going in and losing the tail dramatically more.  Should the Ducati teams find more power in the L-twin next year to take the R1200S on the straights BMW may well be ousted off the box.
Almost diametric to Ducati trading on its history is Buell, which seems a brand trying to shake itself free of its heritage.  Its is no secret that the American brand has been in an ongoing war of perception since its inception – a technologically innovative bike wrapped around a tuned Harley Davidson Evolution engine.  For Buell as a brand the Canadian Thunder Series is another battle in the war to prove that the pounding heart of the XB12R and X9R is not that of an arrhythmicly thudding cruiser.

If there’s a problem at the heart of treating the Canada Thunder Series as a “marketing effort”, it’s that the placing a bike or racer on the podium reaches the eyes of a very select audience – namely the race enthusiast.  That constitutes a clear case of preaching to the converted and one wonders if the cost of that sermon matches its marketing value.

“Around $125,000 all in I think,” says an industry representative when asked the cost of a modest non-Thunder Series Racing effort for a team of two, “but don’t quote me on that, and don’t name me.”  That all the manufacturers participating in the Canada Thunder Series refused to comment on the cost of their racing efforts is telling, and some quick napkin addition even more so.

Two bikes, an A and a B, per racer, tuning, fairings, and race prep for those bikes – would very conservatively put each ride at $20,000.  Next add airfares and hotels into the mix for seven races spanning the country, a rough $1000 a member per race weekend seems spendthrift.  This is before bike transport (truck, trailer and fuel), tires, fuel, race contingencies, entry fees and marketing costs are considered.

The $125,000.00 question is whether the money put into racing in the Canada Thunder Series is equal to the value it brings back to BMW, Buell and Ducati.  Media coverage for the races is sparse. Canadian Biker, Cycle Canada, and OneWheelDrive.Net have all covered the featured the series, but I, like many other magazine readers, will admit to most often flipping thru to the next review when confronted with a racing article.

Paul Penzo is recapping the race with a boyish glee, “I was faster through [turn] 1 and 2 but the moment I got off the line it [the wet track] got really slippery.”  His commentary could easily be seen as a metaphor for the manufacturer’s marketing efforts surrounding the series.

The big three seem reluctant to follow a tried and true dry line by using their own marketing machines to get word of the series out to the public.  Press releases are conventionally cost efficient means of feeding the series to editors, journalists and other media outlets, but some two months after BMW’s racers dominated the podium in Shannonville no press release has been issued.  Considering that Chris Duff is a member of the Schenker/BMW Financial Services Team as well as Manager of Marketing for BMW Motorrad in Canada the lack of coverage is vaguely ironic, though it must be noted that BMW was more diligent about issuing release earlier in the series.  Metaphorically, sometimes taking an innovative line will win you the race, other times it will see you slide into the rhubarb, but one has to make the effort to pass the competition.

After the battle for the podium, I ask BMW Motorrad’s Canada Director, Norm Wells, how he feels.

“I’m smiling so hard my teeth hurt.”

Still, if wins like this are going to bring a more a more lasting smile to the manufacturers then the Canada Thunder Series needs to be seen one part of a larger, more structured marketing effort to ensure that word of the Canada Thunder Series reaches the public.  That means a willingness on the part of the brands to share their racing successes and struggles in the media, but also coordinating with the race organizers and hosting venues to ensure awareness of the event outside the small circle of existing race enthusiasts.

Beyond a coordination of marketing efforts there is another blocker to drawing in fresh fans, the cost of attending.  At the gate I’m greeted by a $50.00 CDN entry fee for the weekend of racing (or $35 for the Sunday) and as a consumer I feel stung.  If I were a local in Monterey, CA I could attend the MotoGP under general admission for the comparable price of $55.00 USD.  Slopping around the mud-field of Shannonville, it’s hard to see the value in that entry fee and I wonder if the cost at the gate is a major blocker to racing in Canada achieving a good foothold.

Still, what you don’t get at MotoGP is access.  Unlike the Thunder Series there is no walking up to Rossi and having a chat, nor is the view of the race as good.  Shannonville, despite its worn grandstands and marginal pavement, provides a view from the “cheap seats” of near 95% of the long course track.  It’s the kind of spectator’s experience that Laguna Seca has actively sought to avoid.  This year the placement of a promotional banner for Red Bull effectively blocked the general access hillside view of the corkscrew.  The drink gives you wings and that’s good cause you’ll need them to see the races.  One of the reasons cited for the banner placement was that the presence of the spectators here was distracting the racers, which begs the question, “Who is the race held for?”

There is no such question in Shannonville, or one expects throughout the Canadian Thunder Series.  With enthusiasts from both sides of the grandstands mingling, those who race and those who watch, few other race series are as transparent and embracing.  I’m standing in Paul Penzo’s tent post race and listening in on his conversation with some friends.

“Next year I have to beat him [Oliver Jervise],” says Paul Penzo, “but this year it was just so cool to make him nervous.”   On a balance sheet and in hindsight one can’t help but look at the marketing effort that the Canada Thunder Series represents with a critical eye, but then when you get into the pits and into the stands it fails to matter – a portent to future obsessions perhaps.  Racing, like motorcycling as a sport, defies practical rationalization, and the smell of race fuel and sound of Canadian Thunder could prove just as addictive.


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