Unsung Motorcycle Heroes: Steve McLaughlin
Itâ€™s fair to say that those who work in the motorcycle industry do so out of their love for bikes and our two-wheeled sport/hobby. It doesnâ€™t really matter if youâ€™re a PR agent, a journalist or a factory representative, a person could earn more money if their job was instead in the automotive field. Meanwhile, there are thousands of moto-loving people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to promote and help enhance the world of motorcycling, routinely without any fanfare whatsoever.
Thatâ€™s why weâ€™ve decided to shine a little light on some of the people who have devoted significant portions of their lives to nurturing and advancing how we use and enjoy motorcycles in a multi-part series about those who help develop motorcycling and boost its exposure. â€”Kevin Duke, Editor-in-Chief
Can it still be altruism if your goal is to turn a profit? I think it can be, when your plan gives as much pleasure to as many people as Steve McLaughlinâ€™s schemes have over the years â€“ beginning with when he pretty much invented â€œSuperbikeâ€ racing in the early 1970s. While he was doing that, he was also a seriously accomplished roadracer, who, as a matter of fact, won the first-ever AMA Superbike race: The date was March 5, 1976, the place Daytona International Speedway. (Steveâ€™s on the left in the photo above, with erstwhile Yoshimura Kawasaki teammate Wes Cooley).
â€œThere was little doubt it (Superbike) would become the premier class in the U.S.,â€ McLaughlin writes from his home in Germany. â€œWhat people didnâ€™t see at first was that the Japanese had stopped building the TZ750 shortly after they started production. By â€™83, they hadnâ€™t built a new (TZ) bike in almost 10 yearsâ€¦ Kenny Roberts, Rainey and Lawson werenâ€™t happy, because Yamaha would build those guys a one-off out of their GP bikes; everybody else was having to compete against them with bikes that could almost be called â€˜Vintage.â€™ To me, Superbike was the only future for the States.â€
Throughout his racing career, from the late â€™60s until he retired in 1980, McLaughlin â€œgave backâ€ by being a ridersâ€™ representative to the AMA, a role that exposed him to the need for a return to production-class racing. While still roadracing professionally, he worked with Mike Goodwin to promote â€œthe Superbowl of Motocrossâ€â€“ whatâ€™s now Supercross. And when he wasnâ€™t doing that, he was working in the auto industry for Ford, then VW, then Datsun â€“ where he became its youngest national manager at 27.
â€œIn 1981, I went into business on my own, and a couple of years later Bill France II, and his brother Jim France, asked me to help them change the premier AMA class from the two-stroke-based formula to Superbike. That went well, and by 1988, it led to World Superbikeâ€¦â€
That first year of World Superbike was the first FIM world championship to have worldwide TV coverage for all its races, something neither Grand Prix nor motocross had at the time. Today of course, Dorna owns both MotoGP and World Superbike, and while its President Carmelo Ezpeleta has stated World Superbike has second-rate riders, to a lot of people WSBK has become the more interesting series â€“ maybe for the same reasons it took over AMA racing 40 years ago?
McLaughlin sold World Superbike at the end of the first season and started another company that produced races in Mexico, Australia and all over Europe, during which time he developed a partnership with German marketing company Moto Motion International. With them, he organized and promoted nine FIM Grand Prix in Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany between 1990 and 1997, before creating the Pro Superbike series, which raced throughout western and middle Europe from 1990 to 1999 â€“ again usually with live TV, produced and directed by McLaughlin himself.
So whatâ€™s he doing back in the States promoting flat track, of all things? His latest company SMI, promoted several flat track events last year, including the Sacramento Mile (where I had the pleasure of meeting him), and the end-of-season Superprestigio of Las Vegas.
â€œI keep doing it because I like the challenge,â€ Steve says. â€œGene Romeroâ€™s been telling me since he retired in 1978, â€˜flat track is deadâ€™: Thereâ€™s the challenge. I am a motorcyclist, a son of a racer who was a son of a racer (Steve and his father, John, are both in the AMA Hall of Fame), a motorcycle dealer. I love the sport, I love bikes, and overall the people are the best. Okay, social media has created the ability for anyone who can type to get his or her opinion around, and God knows motorcyclists are the biggest gossips in the world, with high school senses of humor and witâ€¦
â€œThe (Las Vegas) Superprestigio was an interesting event, and there are many reasons the attendance was poorâ€¦ several my fault because of bad timing, but there is also a problem with flat track that damn near killed American roadracing, and thatâ€™s all the â€˜armchair expertsâ€™ making negative attacks about everything, which creates a toxic atmosphere… a bit like saying how bad a book or a movie is before you see it! The truly sad part is these same folks â€˜love flat trackâ€™ and really would like to see it betterâ€¦â€
But racing is like promoting: Itâ€™s costly and thereâ€™s riskâ€¦ which are the exact things that make them both exciting. Last year I lost a bit over $ 300k. I did a supercross at the Coliseum in 1999 and lost that on the weekend, and one of the MotoGPs my partner and I owned in the â€™90s, we lost over a million. It happens, but if youâ€™re not a big boy you shouldnâ€™t play the big games. U.S. flat track is American motorcycle racingâ€™s history, itâ€™s the “first extreme sport,” and I believe we can make it big againâ€¦ Supercross size, no, but TV- and sponsor-worthy, yes. And I like a challenge. For a couple more years at least!â€
For 2016, Steve and his company, SMI, are promoting at least three flat-track events: April 9 at COTA (MotoGP weekend), the May 21 Sacramento Mile, and the July 30 Charlotte Half-Mile. If you donâ€™t make it to one of them, well, why donâ€™t you love America?