From the Blog

Can the Island Classic be saved?

Without wishing to sound like a shock-jock, last week’s announcement that Team GB will not be attending the Island Classic in 2019 has sure sent some ripples through the historic racing fraternity in Australia. The Island Classic has become one of the most prestigious road race meetings in Australia in recent years, drawing crowds that have even rivalled the attendance at the WSBK events held at the same venue.

But the announcement by Team GB principal, Roger Winfield, that his team’s attendance at the 2019 event is in doubt has certainly cast a huge pall over the event in terms of its ability to draw a crowd and to maintain the high porofile that it now enjoys. I make it clear that my comments are those of a dedicated amateur and not someone who is privy to the high level negotiations that surround the event, so here is my take on the fiasco.

The IC started out as a club event, conceived by the riders of the day (late 80’s). Its beginnings were as a meeting where local historic racing competitors could race each other on the best road racing circuit in the world. For a while at least it stayed like that but, when international competitors started to show an interest the character and nature of the event started to change. It gradually grew in size and importance and, when the late Ken Wootton took over as editor of AMCN he used his position and influence to greatly increase the reach of the meeting and make it much more like the event that we know today. Fast forward to the present and the IC is an international event drawing high profile teams and competitors to the sunshine and the summer playground of Phillip Island.

Integral to the raising of the IC’s profile has been Team GB, a team whose backbone is Team Winfield Classic Racing. Run by Roger Winfield a British businessman, Team GB has taken the IC from being a club event to an event where some of the biggest names in road racing can be seen at PI, duking it out there every January. Now Roger is no rich dilettante, indulging his passion like some plaything. He is a hard-nosed business man whose approach to the IC is all business. He builds the best bikes that the budget allows, he hires the best riders and mechanics and he presents a team that is thoroughly and utterly professional. Supporting Roger’s team is a smaller group of dedicated amateurs who, between them, lifted the trophy for three years in a row against serious opposition.

However, it is no secret that constantly raising the bar each year for this event has impacted heavily upon Roger and his business. He has no large-scale corporate sponsor, per se, he is his OWN sponsor and, as everyone knows, any form of motorsports endeavour, and, especially one at this level, soaks up money at a ferocious rate. So it is not surprising that, over the last few years, rumours have gained momentum that Roger would not be returning to PI for the next year’s events. Now, being the passionate man that he is, he has consistently proved these rumours wrong by turning up, year after year and turning in the usual polished performance for which his team is famous.

I have had numerous conversations (though never an interview, sadly) with Roger over the years and he told me this year that it was “most likely” that the 2018 IC would be his last. Despite that, it came as somewhat as a surprise to me to hear that, in fact, it was. The reasons behind his decision are much more complex than what would first appear. Of course, in the end, it always comes down to money and money (or the lack thereof) has been the reason behind his decision. So, let me delve a little deeper.

Acknowledging that attracting international riders and teams to the the event would be good for everyone concerned, PI has been assisting the international teams financially for a number of years. The exact details of these arrangements are, of course, confidential but it is generally understood around the paddock that the substantial proportion of this assistance relates to shipping costs, shipping containers and simply getting the teams here and back home again. Heaven knows what that figure actually IS but you may be sure that its is substantial. Without that assistance, the international teams, made up of enthusiastic amateurs as they all are, would never be able to afford to get to the meeting.

But it seems that PI have withdrawn that deal from Team GB for the 2019 event. Instead of providing what amounts to a guarantee for Roger and his team, PI have, instead, said that they will not provide money but will allow his team to negotiate TV deals with the networks and take any profits from those deals. On the surface that sounds attractive but there are a raftload of reasons why it is simply untenable, not the least of these being that the guys and girls are racers, not media people and they almost certainly do not have the skills nor the contacts to carry out such a complex task, especially at this late stage of the year. Their research further suggests that any potential revenue would be vastly less than the present financial deal that they have with the organisers.

You may discount as a smokescreen the rumour that Team GB will not be returning due to the ban on Avgas fuel that comes into effect at the start of next year. While the highly tuned 4 stroke engines are at their best with the higher octane fuel, they can be made to run on the lower octane fuel specified and, anyway, the same rules will apply to everyone.

It certainly looks like PI are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg and it is certainly perplexing as to why they would want to do so since the absence of Team GB will drastically affect the marketability of the event. It also has not been said but the question needs to be asked about what arrangements have they made with Team USA and Team NZ since these other international teams seem to have benefitted from the same arrangements as the Poms. I sincerely doubt that either of these teams would be able to afford to turn up either if they are not being subsidised by the organisers. Team Ireland, despite two outstanding shows on a rag-tag collection of “real” P5 bikes were not invited back in 2018 and the reasons for his decision have never been satisfactorily explained either.

So, are we going to see an IC event in 2019 that is back to its roots, a club event where local and “some” international competitors compete for the trophies on “real” P5 bikes? There are a few impediments to this scenario also not the least of them being that there will be, at last count, at least 5 American bikes that are PI-specific bikes and that’s only just looking at one team.

There is no doubt that local P5 competitors will get a much better look in in the races if they are not being forced to compete against bikes that have long since ceased to comply with any of the pertinent regulations. But will they also feel aggrieved that they are being denied the opportunity to race against the best? And will the event attract the crowds that it has come to do so in the halcyon days of thinly disguised modern bikes racing as historics? The fact that the event has prospered in spite of almost total lack of promotion by the organisers speaks wonders for our local motorcycle media and for the enthusiasm and passion of local spectators. Will this continue if the high profile international element is removed? CAN it continue under these conditions?

At the moment there are vastly more questions than there are answers but the clock is ticking. There are around 5 months before the scheduled dates for the event and while it is certain that there are a host of people working on this issue behind the scenes, it is equally certain that they’d better come up with something concrete and very soon. I’d hate to see what has been gained in the last 10 years lost but it sure isn’t looking hopeful at the moment. Watch this space.