During the 2015 AMA Pro Flat Track Finale/Superprestigio of the Americas weekend in Las Vegas we sat down with new AMA Pro Racing CEO Michael Lock. He discussed his vision for the future of flat track and did not shy away from issues which have troubled the organization in the past.
Lock joined the flat track organization early in the 2015 season as a Strategic Business Consultant and took on the role of CEO of AMA Pro Racing on November 1. He brings a breadth of executive management experience to the job, having served as CEO of Ducati North America, COO of Automobili Lamborghini Americas and CEO of Triumph Motorcycles USA. Jim France, Principal of AMA Pro Racing, said of Lock in a press release that “his expertise will be critical to the long-term success of the sport” and that the decision to appoint him CEO reflects AMA Pro Racing’s “commitment to elevating professional motorcycle racing in North America.”
Michael Lock, AMA Pro Racing’s newest CEO.
It’s an interesting time for AMA Pro Flat Track and Lock has stepped into a position which will have him juggling many different elements in the coming years. Waning interest in motorcycle racing will need to be addressed, relationships with OEMs mended, a rules package commensurate with the times and technology developed and a refreshed identity for the organization established. Not to mention the day-to-day work of developing sponsorships and partnerships, collaborating with event promoters and working to ensure that the best possible show is staged during each round of the coming seasons.
Lock seems well-suited to meet the challenge. He’s enthusiastic about the sport and genuinely believes it has a bright future. His enthusiasm and optimism are critical to an organization still clawing its way out from heaping criticisms levied against it in recent years regarding its commitment to the sports it’s been charged to manage. But the staff we spoke to are more excited than ever, and operating with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Lock also has a wide-ranging vision of where Flat Track can fit into the wider motorcycling industry and has already started exploring fresh opportunities.
“I think I’ve spent pretty much most of my career working in entertainment environments,” explained Lock when asked how his background and previous professional experiences prepare him for the challenge ahead at AMA Pro Racing.
“I worked for a series of motorcycle manufacturers and they don’t really make anything anyone needs. Motorcycles, particularly big, expensive, fast motorcycles, exist only because people fall in love with them. There are few practical reasons, and even fewer rational reasons, for owning one. I’ve always enjoyed being in a space where what you’re selling is excitement and entertainment and appealing to people’s emotional side.
“I think that’s what I’ve seen in flat track racing. Here we are, we have a product that is all about fun, excitement and entertainment. My observation over the six months or so I’ve been working with the team is that the product is awesome. The racing is close, it’s exciting and there are stories to tell. But where the attention is needed is taking that product and translating it to the outside world, packaging it, positioning it, communicating it to broaden the audience. This is the eternal challenge, in any kind of non-essential industry. To be able to bridge the gap between the purity of the racing and the commercial deliverables. You can go too much one way or the other. You can have a very purist sport that is for the people that dedicate their lives to it and it will always be tiny and specialized. Or you can have something that is dumbed down for the lowest common denominator and has no integrity. The trick is to avoid both of those and produce something that is sustainable and entertaining for everybody. I think I have an insight into that.”
Lock’s work during the 2015 season as a consultant allowed him to “observe and to start distilling in my mind what needs to be done” in order to broaden the audience appeal of the sport. One of the primary objectives, according to Lock, is to open and deepen relationships with a broader selection of manufacturers (OEMs).
“We know that if they’re engaged and they compete, they will do their best and that will make the excitement of the sport better. That’s a no-brainer. We also know that if they engage and invest resources in developing bikes and promoting it that they are doing it to get a return on the investment, none of them are charities. They don’t go racing for the sake of it, they go racing to publicize their brand. So what they will do is bring attention to the sport, number one, they will bring financial resources to the sport and they will open doors to sponsors, who will then bring resources to the sport.
“But critically they’ll bring their database. If Honda comes racing, if Ducati comes racing, they bring their fans. And they have many more fans than we do. We’re the little guy looking for entrance at their table.”
This past season, AMA Pro Racing conducted a number of meetings to “find the intersections with their (manufacturers) strategy and our strategy.” Lock and his staff approached these discussions with the intention of exploring the elements of mutually beneficial partnerships, where the sport is enhanced and OEMs are able to position product in a new, exciting way to customers.
“We had a meeting with all the OEMs in Indianapolis during the MotoGP weekend back in August where, I don’t think it’d ever happened before, everybody’s in the room frankly exchanging views on their priorities, what they like and what they don’t like. We took all of that feedback away and fed that into our planning for the evolution of the sport, in terms of class structure, in terms of rule setting, in terms of what we require promoters to do, in terms of how we’re developing the content for our live streaming service, in terms of meetings and opportunities being explored with broadcasters. So we now have a much better insight into the OEM mind and then can develop so it’s attractive to them going forward.”
The impending changes to the rule book, expected to take effect in 2017, are largely a result of feedback gained from these meetings. In essence, the new rules would require teams to run a single bike for the year, as opposed to the current situation, where teams utilize larger machines for the half-mile and mile events and 450 motocross bikes for short track and TTs. This decision has elicited some criticism, including from our very own Backmarker, Mark Gardiner, who questioned the announcement in detail when it was officially announced in August. Ultimately, according to Lock, it comes down to marketing and giving OEMs a clear claim to the riders and teams they support.
“Every single manufacturer said to us, without fail, that it’s a bit difficult for us to justify making a big investment of time and money in your sport when you have a class that’s predominantly one kind of bike, but then four out of your 14 races, the riders are forced to ride a different bike to be competitive and a bike we don’t make. So now we have this absurdity that we sponsor a team and a rider and they’re riding a competitor’s machine in some of the races. Every manufacturer, including Harley-Davidson who support the sport, but even Harley said that ‘we’ve got factory supported riders and they have to ride a competitor’s dirt bike in some of the races, guys you need to sort this out.’”
L to R – Steve McLaughlin, the promoter of the 2015 Superprestigio of the Americas, Michael Lock and Gene Crouch, AMA Pro Racing Marketing & Communications Director.
As our Backmarker noted, however, the response from the paddock is a bit more varied, Lock describing it as “three-dimensional.” Since the teams and riders are the best source of input on what appropriate machinery will look like and what the variety of tracks will demand, AMA Pro Racing is relying heavily on direction from the paddock in developing the final rules package. Details will continue to be sorted through the winter and on into the start of the 2016 season. Lock said that the plan is to have a complete package ready by June 30, 2016 to give teams time to prepare for the following season. At this point, many elements, such as whether courses like the Peoria TT will remain on the calendar after the changes, remain up in the air.
Of the OEMs Lock mentioned, Harley-Davidson remains heavily committed to the sport and has “been working on a number of things for some time and you’re going to see that come.” Indian has also voiced its interest in joining the Flat Track paddock at the full factory level in the coming years. Seeing two of the most iconic American motorcycle manufacturers in direct competition on track is a narrative Lock and AMA Pro Racing would relish. Ducati, which has a presence already in its support of the Lloyd Brothers team and contributing role in bringing former World Superbike champ Troy Bayliss back for select rounds in 2015, has continued to explore ways it can expand its presence in the sport. “They’re racing guys, if there’s a chance at racing and winning, they want to be there,” said Lock of Ducati.
Triumph is another manufacturer that has had “semi-direct” involvement in the sport in recent years and Lock is optimistic that the recent overhaul of its Bonneville line portends the potential for even more involvement in the coming years. Lock also mentioned discussions with KTM, the Piaggio group, Suzuki and Yamaha. Kawasaki has already established itself as a challenger to Harley’s dominance in the sport at the hands of Bryan Smith. Lock would like to open talks with BMW as well, and to establish a course for the future with Honda, a company with a rich history in the sport. Lock is confident that we’ll see more OEMs involved in 2016, even more in 2017 and so on.
Part of Lock’s optimism derives from the tenor of the motorcycle industry as whole, which has seen a surge in the so-called retro market.
“The scrambler, café racer, flat track style of motorcycle is hot right now and has been for two, three years and is not running out of road at all. In some respects we’re coming full circle in the bike business. We’ve just spent 30 years in the bike industry chasing absolute performance and guess what, we’ve reached it.
“When you can go to almost any brand and buy a 200 mph motorcycle off a showroom floor, I don’t know where you go with that performance goal anymore because half of 200 mph will get you arrested in most states in the US. So the emphasis is shifting, and it’s almost shifting back to what it was like before in the performance war, which is motorcycles as lifestyle, motorcycles as sociable and motorcycles as something cool to take your partner out on a Sunday morning.”
The shift does not, in Lock’s estimation, mean that OEMs are any less keen on promoting their product in competition though, and flat track is fertile ground for manufacturers to test the mettle (and expand the marketing) of their machines on track.
“There’s a perfect storm there if we don’t blow it.”
In addition to developing new relationships with manufacturers, Lock is also directing talks with promoters to establish more effective collaboration at each of the events on the schedule. Lock describes AMA Pro Racing as having to “expand our footprint of responsibility” in regards to work with promoters, but in so doing to establish clear expectations for both parties and maintain continuous dialogue so all efforts are pointed at improving the fan experience.
“The promoters may well level the criticism at us that we don’t really promote the series and only see ourselves as a government for it, and I think they have a point. Traditionally we may have seen ourselves as a sanctioning, governing body, which is in essence non-commercial. But there are things they can’t or wouldn’t do that need to be done.”
As an example, Lock described the current live fan experience, which can be confusing if one is not well-versed in the class and event structure of the sport. FansChoice.tv, however, is expanding its coverage of events to include editorial content, rider interviews, results and much more. To help improve the fan experience, Lock suggests jumbotrons set-up in front of the grandstands, so fans that pay for a ticket can have as rich an experience as those at home watching on the web. The relationship would operate as such; AMA Pro would negotiate a deal for jumbotrons to be on site for each round, would ensure the set-up and breakdown of the operation and provide the content to be displayed. The promoter would share the cost of the set-up and be able to sell advertising for the jumbotron, without responsibility for negotiating the logistical details.
“It’s an elegant solution and this is the kind of thing we’re exploring piece by piece with the promoters to create an experience in which everybody wins.”
Lock is also working to expand the overall coverage of the sport, and has been helping to generate interest in non-endemic media sources like the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and Maxim. He’s also exploring the potentials in television broadcasting, since this more traditional method of coverage remains a strong selling point to manufacturers and sponsors. Television coverage is very expensive, however, and is only part of the larger communications strategy AMA Pro Racing is looking to expand in the coming years. Further development of the FansChoice platform, expanded social media presence and theutilization of emerging platforms like Periscope will all play a role in the coverage of the sport going forward. The ultimate goal is to continue raising the bar each year going forward to provide fans a truly modern sporting experience.
“I could go on all day, but these are strategic platforms, all with a goal of saying flat track needs to get bigger, better, be promoted better and be taken to a wider audience. We end up with a sport by 2020 that could compete with Supercross or baseball or any other professional sport that people go to where the fan experience is modern. Everybody is then freed up from complaining about how lousy the catering is or how far away the parking lot is, or how they couldn’t buy tickets on the internet because they have no website, they’re freed from all that to just enjoy the racing.”
Such aspirational thinking begged the question of how much AMA Pro Racing’s exit from managing American road racing has affected the focus on flat track. Lock’s response is unequivocal.
“It’s breathed new life into the staff of AMA Pro Racing because they’ve got a singular focus.”
The acquisition of American road racing sanctioning rights by Wayne Rainey and the KRAVE Group marked a new chapter in the sport, and Lock is enthusiastic about developing partnership opportunities with MotoAmerica in the coming years as well.
“The second benefit though, and I think it might have been unseen at the beginning, is that Wayne Rainey is a flat track guy,” explained Lock regarding MotoAmerica. “He gets it 100%. I’ve had a series of conversations with him and Chuck and Richard Varner over the summer asking ‘hey, how can we help each other out?’ Let’s become experts at what we both do but also look at the crossover. There is a historical precedent for the marriage of these two sports and a romance around that. I was a kid in England in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and the roll call of American superstars was almost endless in that period, Americans dominated road racing at the international level.
“They all served an apprenticeship on dirt and they had a skill set. How to turn the motorcycle and use the throttle to control corner speed which no one in Europe was learning and they dominated. That comes out of that system in America of the time. It’s a romantic story I think and I’m mindful of the fact that flat track is the American motorcycle sport. That it’s incumbent on us to celebrate it as America’s gift to motorcycle racing.
“We’re looking at a couple of projects that may or may not happen in the next 12 months, but certainly we’re both keen. I would love to support them as well, they’re a fledgling racing organization in choppy market conditions and we want to see them succeed. We’re very supportive of that and anything we can do for each other has got to be good.”
What does remain from the days AMA Pro Racing was in the business of road racing is its relationship with Daytona Motorsports Group. DMG has been one of the most heavily criticized organizations in American motorcycle racing in recent years, so we were curious to hear Lock’s description of its role in his and AMA Pro Racing’s day-to-day work now and going forward.
“AMA Pro Racing based in Daytona Beach is pretty much autonomous. We have a board of directors and those directors are drawn from wide experience of two- and four-wheel autosport, many of them involved in the NASCAR family and the IMSA family. For example there’s Mark Raffauf who is a Senior Director of IMSA which is sportscar racing but he’s a bike guy, he knows bikes inside and out and knows flat track inside and out. We have that board of expertise above us and I have a regular dialogue with them and if we’re considering strategic change in movement, I check in with them and get a temperature check on that.
“I’ve received some very good advice over the summer. It’s chaired by Jim France, who hired me and who I have a weekly meeting with. Sometimes it’s just chewing the fat and sometimes it’s, ‘Jim we’re going to run into this problem six months from now, I need some guidance.’ He’s very good for that. I’d say that he keeps his hand on the till, of making sure we don’t go too far off, or run into problems we can’t overcome. But essentially AMA Pro Racing is autonomous in its strategy. We deliver a budget and a strategic plan to the board and get it approved and get on with it.”
We were also curious about Lock’s take on Du Quoin, a point of controversy specific to the 2015 season where alleged tire tampering was discovered after post-race compound testing.
“I think as far as I’m concerned it’s closed,” said Lock of the case at Du Quoin. “There was a question over the wear characteristics of a particular tire, some of the other teams in the paddock subsequent to the event asked for a ruling on that tire. The fact is that we didn’t take custody of the tire after the event and once you don’t take custody of the tire there’s not really much you can do. I think rather than dwell on that episode I thought it best to focus our energy on not finding ourselves in that position again.”
Procedural changes will be part of the updated rules package going forward to avoid any similar happenings in the coming seasons.
“I think the situation we had at Du Quoin really put a spotlight on the fact that we did not have a complete set of processes, technical processes, at the races. Certainly not to an adequate level. We’re just about to have a two-day meeting with our technical department to start laying out how we want to tighten the processes on the event weekend and what we need to do to modernize our practices. Some of it will be reflected in the rule book but it’s really having a comprehensive set of processes to ensure we can deliver the best possible quality of sport and adherence to the rules.
“I think my takeaway from this season was that we learned a lot. Competition is getting tighter and tighter at the top and there’s more and more technology coming. We’ve already had a number of inquiries from teams, and more importantly from OEMs, for next year asking for clarification on what they can do in technical development for performance. Things like electronics, things like traction control and fueling. There are technologies available that some of the teams would like to take advantage of, but we need to make a clarification on the rules because on the one side we want technical advancement in the sport but on the other side we don’t want to press the sport out to only accommodate factory-supported teams.”
AMA Pro Racing has some big decisions to make in the coming months that will affect the future of flat track in America. Lock promotes an ambitious and expansive vision for the sport but only time will tell if that vision will translate into real-world success.
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Source : http://www.motorcycle-usa.com/2015/12/article/interview-ama-pro-racing-ceo-michael-lock/