Last year, the Daytona 200 got a face lift to celebrate the 80th anniversary of a race that started along that famous beach. Since the 1960s, the typically 200 miler has taken place inland at the NASCAR super speedway, using a variety of versions of the infield road course and the high banked oval.
At one point, Yvon Duhamel, Gary Nixon and the “class C” boys qualified wide open using just the 2.5-mile oval, in an era when tires (and bikes!) were not built for such unrestricted high speeds.
Tires have always been an important part of the Daytona story, since the banking demands durability while the infield is a traditional, “softer is nicer” road course. Most manufacturers of road race rubber have had issues at Daytona, and in the old days works riders were always worried that the start of any given season might be the year their rubber sponsor struggled at Daytona.
Also important are pit stops for fuel, and the likely required tire changes these stops allow. No other sprint event in the modern era runs to this format, and there is never-ending debate about the average spectator’s willingness to follow an event of this length, with various pit interruptions. Red Flags don’t help, and are more likely at Daytona than at most other venues.
The fact that Daytona comes at the start of the season gave the event significant weight, at least in the glory days of the Japanese motorcycle industry. In the 1970s, European tourists came to Florida to enjoy the sunshine, and organizers worked to be sure that some of their local aces had a decent shot at the Speedway.
The apex of this era might be 1974, when Giacomo Agostini made his debut for Yamaha at Daytona and won on the fearsome, twin shock TZ700 against a strong field of other pure-race two-strokes. The crowds was listed as 48,000, not counting attendance for the earlier six days of practice, other races, Flat Tracks and Super Cross.
Eventually, the feature 200 race switched to Superbike rules in the mid-1980s, as the Freddie Spencer Honda era replaced the two-strokes. This should have previewed a World Superbike race at Daytona – the France family that owns the facility provided the seed money to develop the street-bike concept – but politics intervened.
Still, we have enjoyed the World Superbike series, developed with NASCAR money, since 1988.
Even without World Championship status, Daytona attracted the top SBK teams and racers, and in the mid-1990s there would typically be at least 20 full works bikes on the huge 80 rider strong grid. World Superbike superman Carl Fogarty never won Daytona, but his entries for Honda and especially Ducati confirmed the continuing super star status of the 200.
Eventually, issues with ever increasing machine performance lead to track changes, and then the switch from open class machinery to 600-based racing. However, rather than using the established, highly competitive and popular Super Sport class, in 2005 Daytona ran to new Formula Extreme rules for built out, full race 600s.
Not surprisingly, Honda produced CBR600RRs for the Xtreme class rules, and famed Canadian Miguel Duhamel continued his win streak. However, these races were not close, since most manufacturers would not invest in the costly Xtreme class build when focus had been on production-leaning Super Sport (600cc street class) for so long.
In 2009, Daytona’s management group took over running of the AMA Series, and the feature class for the 200 became the more obvious Supersports choice. When Wayne Rainey’s new KRAVE group took over the roadracing National tour with MotoAmerica in 2015, the series didn’t go to Daytona at all.
That was certainly the end of an era.
The 200 persisted as a big club race, with decent purse, organized by the Championship Cup Series, another sanctioning group that was developed in the 1980s with the help of Daytona funding. However, it didn’t attract much attention until last season, when MotoAmerica returned for a non-Championship, but well promoted and organized, National event, with National support classes.
One of the key elements of the new 200 centres on the age-old issue of tires. While MotoAmerica is a spec Dunlop series, the Daytona 200 is stand alone, and open to a variety of rubber manufacturers. Only the World Endurance tour has a similar high profile without an over riding spec tire agreement.
Last year, Dunlop provided for the majority of the 200 runners, but Pirelli swept the podium. Tire strategy was key, and popular Triumph triple mounted victor Brandon Paasch opted to double stint his rear rubber, and still came out on top of the famed drafting battle from the back stretch Chicane to the finish line on the front straight of the Tri-oval.
In some ways, the MotoAmerica Daytona 200 has returned to the event to it’s previous status, certainly from the point of view of that a number of top racers have a decent shot at the win. The strategy required, the issues of tire wear and problems at pit stops, and the relative length of the race all combine to make the 200 a very hard race to predict.
The focus on the new FIM middleweight rules allows the class to continue to show it’s Supersport roots, even if big Triumphs and 955cc Ducatis aren’t exactly 600s! A statistical analysis suggests that Yamaha’s evergreen YZF-R6 is the likely winner, but restricted bikes like Suzuki’s GSX-R750 might be better over a race distance, especially after a year of development for the new rules – last year’s Daytona 200 was the first with the new world middleweight guidelines.
Over the years, several top guns have shown a special affinity for Daytona, and the likes of Scott Russell and Duhamel are regularly celebrated for their five 200 victory exploits. Prior to Paasch, his team-mate Danny Eslick won the 200 four times, and could tie Russell and Duhamel this weekend.
The current ace, Paasch, might not have that pedigree, yet. At Daytona he has regularly demonstrated the lateral thinking crucial to success in the complicated race. Paasch attended NASCAR’s 500 mile opener at Daytona last month to promote “his” race, and the 21-year-old from Melbourne, Florida would be building a serious, three-in-a-row dynasty if he wins On Saturday, March 11- Sunday is the rain date.
52 riders have entered the 200 this year, and a little over forty will likely start, given Qualifying percentage rules and general mechanical mayhem – always a factor on the crazy Dyno that is the high banking. The sentimental favorite is probably four time AMA Superbike Champ Josh Hayes, coming back from serious injuries suffered at the end of 2022 at Barber.
Last year, aboard his Squid hunter Yamaha, Hayes lead Daytona’s Dunlop contingent, in the lead draft to the line and earning a close fourth. The 47-year-old is once again a solid bet for the 200 win.
Attracting the most attention will be the works supported Ducati of Xavi Fores of Spain, followed closely by the factory Attack Yamaha of Cam Peterson, recovering from recent arm pump surgery. The Vision Wheel M4 Ecstar Suzuki squad of the Ulrich family have lots of Daytona success, and a strong line-up including Richie Escalante, Tyler Scott and Teagg Hobbs. Last year, the official Suzuki squad had a few uncharacteristic problems, and is overdue for a win.
Five Canadians should make the 200 grid in 2023: Vancouver’s Darren James (Ruthless Yam), Alex Coelho (MTRS Kaw), Vincent Levillain (Speed Factory Kaw) and the pair of Bridgestone-backed Yamahas of CSBK stars Ben Young and Elliot Vieira. All are capable of a top ten finish, depending on all the factors that will ruin the results for the majority of the 200’s competitors!
A front runner in the 200 a decade ago on a similar YZF-R6 the one he will race, reigning Bridgestone CSBK Superbike Champ Young defiantly knows what it takes to win. With a busy schedule packed into next Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we will soon know if any of the Canadians manage to get lucky in Florida for Spring Break 2023.
- From Colin Fraser