Whenever a racer jumps from one series to another, you never know for sure what the change will bring about. In other words, in all forms of motorsport, winning the championship in a development series does not guarantee success in the next rung up. This, of course, makes sense: As a competitor moves up the ladder, the competition gets tougher—and so does the pressure to succeed.
Looking at the very top levels of motorcycle road racing, some riders have had great success in the lower ranks and then hit a wall when they arrived in MotoGP or World Superbike. Others, such as Valentino Rossi, have been successful every step of the way. What is clear from this year’s Superbike World Championship—even though it’s only six races old—is that Ben Spies very likely fits in the Rossi category.
Now, while many pundits are ridiculing the Suzuki MotoGP team for deciding to retain veteran Loris Capirossi for 2009 and, in so doing, prompting Spies to jump to another series with another manufacturer (Yamaha), no one could have predicted how well the Texan would fare. Sure, there were hints: Spies is the three-time AMA Superbike Champion and, in winning those titles, he beat teammate Mat Mladin, a six-time champion.
But let’s face facts: The Yoshimura Suzuki team for which he rode in America is arguably the most dominant team in any form of motorsport in any era. A few races into the U.S. championship this year, Mladin is well on his way to another title after bringing the team their 51st consecutive win. No, that’s not a typo; that’s 51 victories in a row. (Quick aside: If you’re any manufacturer other than Suzuki, at what point should you have decided to tear everything down and start all over from scratch, because their approaches are clearly not working.)
Of course, even if the other riders were nowhere to be seen from 2006-08, there was some merit to having beaten a perennial champion such as Mladin. In previous seasons, too, there were signs that Spies had something special. He was just 16 years old when he began his professional road racing career, riding for Valvoline Suzuki in the old AMA 750 Supersport series. A year later, Spies captured his maiden win in the series, at Pikes Peak, and added a further four podium finishes to his season tally.
In 2002, the Texan switched teams, but maintained his ties to Suzuki; riding for Attack Suzuki, he raced in the AMA Supersport and Formula Xtreme championships, earning a number of top-5 finishes along the way. The following year was a breakout season as Spies joined the factory American Suzuki team and won the Formula Xtreme title on the strength of five wins. That same year he also won a Supersport race and finished seventh in the Daytona 200.
From there Spies was put on a further two-year regimen of development consisting of the Supersport and Superstock series. In 2004, he captured a single Supersport win en route to fourth place in the title chase; he took two Superstock victories and grabbed fifth in the championship. Nothing terribly earth-shattering yet, though—for that kind of news, we need to look to 2005.
That was the year that Spies graduated to the Superbike class full-time, pitting his talent and determination against teammate Mladin, one of the most talented and determined riders ever to wear a set of leathers. Spies spent much of the year learning from the master and used that information to capture his first Superbike win, at California Speedway, and take a further 13 podium finishes. He ended up second to Mladin in the final championship standings.
This performance was enough to earn Spies a spot on the factory Yoshimura Suzuki team for 2006, partnering with Mladin. Success was immediate. The then 22-year-old gave the veteran everything he could handle—and more—winning 10 races and scoring seven more podium finishes. During one stretch, Spies captured six straight wins and forced Mladin to rethink his own riding style in order to fight back. In the end, the younger rider won his first AMA Superbike title with an eight-point advantage over his teammate.
But if 2006 was an impressive showing by Spies, 2007 was even more so. Not only did he manage to hold off Mladin to win his second consecutive Superbike championship, he also captured the AMA Superstock crown as well. In Superbike competition, Spies won seven races, powering his way to a single-point edge over Mladin at season’s end. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming star rode a different Suzuki GSX-R1000 to eight Superstock wins. Impressive.
By this point in time, Spies and his handlers had their eye on a move to a bigger stage, but there was still more work to be done at home. For a third successive season, the Yoshimura Suzuki rider beat his teammate—and everyone else—to win the AMA Superbike championship. Last season was one for the books; Spies earned 10 wins including an all-time series record seven in a row and finished 95 points ahead of second-placed Mladin, the biggest gap in series history. He also became the fourth rider in history to score three consecutive AMA Superbike titles and secured third place in career Superbike wins with 28.
Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Spies also spent a good portion of the year showcasing his talent for teams in the higher echelons of racing. He subbed for the injured Capirossi in the Rizla Suzuki team at the British Grand Prix and came home in 14th place. Spies also campaigned a third bike for the same outfit in the two American rounds of the MotoGP World Championship at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Indianapolis, and finished eighth and sixth respectively.
This is where there pundits start howling; Spies supporters figured that these results were enough to cement a place in the factory team for the Texan, but that didn’t prove to be the case. So, when the factory Yamaha Motor Italia team from World Superbike came calling, Spies was all ears. A contract was signed and that was all she wrote on the former AMA Superbike champ’s move to MotoGP, at least for now.
If Spies’ accomplishments with the Yoshimura Suzuki team in America could be considered as requiring any kind of asterisk due to the team’s all-conquering nature, then his feats
in World Superbike require none. Sure, the Yamaha R1 is a competitive bike, but the manufacturer has never lifted any of its riders to the title in the series’ 20-year history; for surefire championship success, the reckoning was you needed a Ducati or maybe a Honda.
Yet, three races into the new campaign, Spies has already proven that the R1—in the proper hands—is a major force. In the season-opener at Phillip Island, the 24-year-old qualified on the pole by nearly 0.4 seconds, a massive gap in this business. Although the Texan sailed off-course on the opening lap to avoid contact, he recovered to finish in 16th place. Then, Spies made up for that by winning the second race in only his second World Superbike start, battling with veteran stars Noriyuki Haga and Max Biaggi the entire way.
“The first race was pretty rubbish for me,” Spies said after his opening weekend, “but I knew I could come back in race two and fight it out. The second race was really tough, I had a couple of attempts to break the lead, and watched Nori as much as possible to see where the opportunities were, [but] we were both keeping the pace really high. We got it done in the end.”
Round two, held at the Losail circuit in Qatar, was even more startling. Once again, Spies qualified on pole, but a slow start in race one saw him at the tail end of a five-rider lead pack. He patiently chipped away at the race until it was again a three-rider duel with Biaggi and Haga, and then rode off into the distance. In the second race, Spies completed the first lap behind only Biaggi and Haga, but soon dispatched both to take his first double-header victory and third win of the young season.
All did not go quite so smoothly in Valencia. Although Spies qualified on pole again with a lap seven-tenths faster than the next quickest rider, Haga proved unbeatable in both races. In race one, Spies fell while attempting a pass for second place on the ninth lap, giving him the first DNF of his new career direction. The second race went better; the Yamaha rookie earned second behind Haga, but was never really able to challenge the veteran.
“Race one was unfortunate for me,” Spies reported afterwards. “I was pushing really hard to make up for an electrical issue going into the corner and crashed. We tried as hard as we could in race two to make it up. I guess I just didn’t have the speed today. We’ll come back at Assen and try to step it up.”
Thus, six races into the season, Spies has three wins to his credit. Unfortunately for the new star of the series, Haga also has three wins under his belt, along with second-place finishes at each race that Spies won. So the Japanese rider has a 40-point lead in the championship, is riding better than ever and is riding for Ducati Xerox, the perennial powerhouse team in the series.
Whether Spies wins this year’s Superbike World Championship is almost irrelevant at this point; his entry into the series has been so successful, he’s booted the other major pre-season stories from the headlines.
BMW is racing for the first time in the series with former champ Troy Corser and speedy veteran Ruben Xaus; both are showing signs of speed, but there’s little interest in their progress. It’s a similar case with Aprilia; they’ve returned to the championship with former GP stars Biaggi and Shinya Nakano in the saddle, but they’ve been reduced to supporting roles.
The same goes for former Grand Prix winner Carlos Checa (who was supposed to be an outside shot at the title) and MotoGP refugee John Hopkins (who predicted he’d be winning races early on). Things are worse still for Spies’ teammate, Tom Sykes—the British rider has been completely overshadowed in the Yamaha Italia team; although he’s regularly in the top ten, his best finish is a sole fifth place.
Predicting this level of success for Ben Spies on the global stage would have been difficult, even with all his accomplishments in the U.S. But one thing’s for certain: He’s the real deal—and it may not be too long before he’s taking on the likes of Rossi, Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo on an even bigger stage.