Interview: Suzuki's Mel Harris
by dean adams & susan haas
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Suzuki have ruled the roost in AMA Superbike racing for a lot of the last few years through a combination of the best riders and the machinery that pushes the technological envelope of the rule book. Combine those two things with and a talented crew and they've had a great recipe for success.

With the Daytona MotorSports Group proposal possibly removing the 1000cc bike classes from the series and moving the emphasis away from the technology of the bikes and going in a more NASCAR-like "it's all about the entertainment" direction, Soup asked Suzuki's Mel Harris for his opinion of DMG's directions and how it affects Suzuki's racing program and their ability to "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday." Oh, and we asked him about the meeting he had with Daytona Motorsports Group, too.

Q. I wonder, Mel, if you could give me your side of the story regarding the visit you had last week from Roger Edmondson and the Daytona Motorsports Group.

A Sure. They came in and they gave their presentation to us, and they basically gave us a format of next year racing MotoST, which would have three classes - 75 hp, 90 hp, 120 hp - and Daytona Superbike 600. Now. If you go back and look at MotoST, I have two bikes right now that are being raced in there. John Ulrich's team has raced an SV1000. That bike was discontinued, so I don't see much of a future there. The Light class, the 75 hp, we have the SV650. That may or may not be discontinued in another year or so. They're considering some other options there. So if that happened, I would be out of racing. And to look at it from - as you know, I wear more than one hat, not only Suzuki, but I'm still in the industry, too - and I'm looking, geez, Honda has nothing, Yamaha has nothing to race, Kawasaki would race in one class. So that's MotoST. So then you go to the 600 being a Superbike, that's basically Formula Xtreme class, as we see it now, with a few more enhancements. I don't think that that's what people want to go see.

As a manufacturer, that's not what we want to do. I race to sell product. My success over the last few years has propelled Suzuki up to the top sportbike-selling company among the Japanese manufacturers. So what I win with on Sunday, I sell during the week. Now. My 1000s are what we showcase. All the manufacturers want to showcase their open liter bike, and it's great competition between all of us manufacturers. Now, if we're going to go out there and just showcase our 600s, what are we going to do with the other bikes that we have to sell in the line, too? I mean, with the 1000s, we can sell - then we race the 600s, that's what we're selling. It's very competitive between the four manufacturers on those models. So it was very disappointing to be told, "This is the format that we're looking at," and being told - because I asked over three times, "What about the 1000s?" - and I was told all three times, there was no 1000s in their vision.

So. Finally, after getting my harping on it enough, he finally said, "Well, would you put four guys on the grid in a Superbike?" And I said I could do that. And I said I think one other manufacturer could do that. But I said I don't think two (other) manufacturers could do that. So then you don't have a 16-rider or a 20-rider grid. If you only have a few riders, it's not accomplished. So it's kind of like, well, what if we run a Superbike the way it is now? You guys be in charge of that, and you have to put four riders on for each team. Well, as you know, who else could do it besides me, and you also know two guys that probably couldn't do that. So that was something they said they would take under consideration. So they left it - they left here, and basically I know they went to Yamaha, and I think you can talk to Keith McCarty. He'll tell you what his feedback was after they digest it over there. And then he went to talk to Bruce Stjernstrom, and he went to talk to Ray Blank. And I will not put words in what those guys say, because it's hearsay, but Ray kind of indicated to me they talked more about the GrandAm racing and NASCAR things than they did [motorcycle] roadracing.

And I got a strong opinion that they want to be like NASCAR with the Superbike series. If you look at that, basically that would mean riders first, the sponsors are second, and the manufacturers are third. Well, motorcycle racing, the manufacturer's got to be first. Because we're selling the product to support this. If we don't sell the product, there's nothing going on. Not that our riders aren't important, and not that our sponsors aren't. They are important to us. But the manufacturer's got to sell product to be able to go racing.

So, disappointment? You better believe I was super disappointed. I know some of my staff has made numerous calls to some of the people from, they say, is their current staff, showing a lot of disappointment in what they presented. And I explained, I said I can remember when Formula USA came about, to have a liter open class, because they weren't able to race anyplace else, and they wanted to keep that open liter class. If you remember, Doug Gonda used to have that WERA series, and people participated, because they wanted to have the best bike. So I think that - I think they need to do a lot of reconsideration of what they're thinking, and - I just think they need to get really up to speed on what is happening in the industry today, and what the manufacturers are doing.

Q There are those that say with the slowdown of bike sales that might be the worst possible time to have this proposed. Would you agree?

A I agree. I agree 100%. And if you even want to go a little further, they were talking about spec gas and spec tires. Okay. One of the problems we had was trying to get people to develop a better tire to keep up with the motorcycle. Well, all sportbikes coming from Japan just don't have Dunlops on them. So Dunlop is doing their homework getting the tire up to speed to handle the bikes, but don't we need the other companies to do the same thing? They may make a better tire. So why do you go with just one company? Then, actually, to me, it looks to me like, on a manufacturer standpoint, that's going to cost me more money. Because now, you get some benefits from using a certain tire. But if everybody uses that tire, then those benefits aren't going to be received. And the same thing with the fuel.

So I understand they want parity. And you know, I'm a guy that you'd say, "Geez, you've got to be against that." But if all the manufacturers sat down and agreed to rules for 2009 which kind of went more to production-based, and probably we should see a little bit more parity, I think that was a major accomplishment in our industry. And why are we going to throw that out the window and go to something totally new?

Q Do you feel a little hard done by the AMA in all this?

A Well, I think (Rob) Dingman got thrown into something that he had no experience at, at all. When Dingman was at the AMA prior to this, he was involved in government relations. Probably didn't even know hardly what a race bike was. I think he's an individual that maybe doesn't want to come talk to all of us, because we probably have a much stronger background in racing than what he would. And you know yourself, if you do not have a big background and so forth, you have to do a lot of dancing before you can maybe do the song. So I think he just was not sure how he could approach this, and so without being sure and maybe without having all the experience, it was easier for him to not hit it head on, but go around and do it the way that it was handled here. And it was handled pretty weakly.

I got an email with an embargo on it the night before the announcement was going to be made in Daytona, and I had been told through a third party that went out there to talk to them on behalf of the manufacturers, that we would be consulted first before anything happened. And this did not happen at all.

Q So you don't?

A I think we feel - I think everybody feels let down by the AMA, period. I think there was ways that the AMA could have corrected a lot of problems that was out there, but I don't think they had the strong enough management or the right people to get down there and dig in the trenches and do things. They either had people that were way above the worker bees, or they didn't have enough worker bees getting the right direction to be able to make things run satisfactorily. There's been a lot of good people in the AMA, and some people were dismissed for crazy things, some people were dismissed because they should've been dismissed. But I don't think the AMA handled it correctly. I don't think Dingman handled it correctly. And I think that as a manufacturer - or as a stakeholder in the AMA, I think that we were all let down, and we're all being led down the wrong path.

Q Suffice it to say, next time the AMA comes to the manufacturers with its hand out, you're going to strongly consider the situation.

A Well, Dean, if you look at the amount of dues the AMA receives from the manufacturers, the dues is not very substantial. We pay a lot of other fees along the way. Fees for handling the contingency, fees to go racing, fees for the hard card or the things like that, that we have to have for our people. There's a lot of fees like that, that are paid. I'm sure we're still going to be paying those to somebody, if not the AMA, for the future, if we have to go racing with that group. Because basically, I think they want to keep some of the AMA title around. But I think it is still pretty much up in the air as to, say the AMA comes and wants a lot more money, or wants a bigger fee to be a member of the AMA, I think that'll be looked at very hard before that would happen. The current level is very minimal. And I donate to things like the Hall of Fame and different projects that they run like that, because I think that's important to our history and our culture. But if they come to me and say, "Okay, we're going to increase your dues for a manufacturer to be a member of the AMA, and it's going to cost you, say, $100,000 more than what it does right now," I think the answer would be a resounding "No way."

We're going to really ponder anything that they propose from now on. It's not going to be the quick decision (it once was) . Before we looked at it as 'yes, we're partners and we're stakeholders in this together'. But I think we've kind of set new boundaries now, and I think we're going in separate directions.


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