For the latest #ThinkingForward interview with the sport’s leaders, we speak to BSB supremo Stuart Higgs on the eve of the new season, examining what fans are looking for from motorsport post-pandemic and why superbike racing retains its visceral appeal.
“Television gives you a dimension, but there's no substitute for standing with the wire fence pressing into your chest as you watch someone hurtling through a bend at 160 miles an hour, the front wheel dancing, the back wheel fighting for grip, the rider wrestling the bars. That spectacle is what drives people,” muses Stuart Higgs as he reflects on the enduring appeal of British Superbike racing, one of the world’s premier domestic motorbike series. This year BSB has a record entry of 33 bikes or 11 rows on the grid and the narrative for the season is ‘the clash of champions’, with defending champion Tarran Mackenzie, against two-time champion Josh Brookes and returning champion from 2018 Leon Haslam. Former world superbike champion Tom Sykes is also in the field that kicks off on Easter weekend at Silverstone.
BSB is all about relatable young riders who aspire to reach the big time, mixing it up with established heroes. It’s always unpredictable right down to the final weekend and for that reason has enjoyed a strong following, promoted across UK circuits by Jonathan Palmer’s MSV business. What has changed, especially since the pandemic, is that fans desperate for experiences are increasingly treating BSB rounds like mini-festivals, attending over the weekend, rather than a single-day visit. It’s not on the level of the packed campsites at Silverstone for the Formula 1 British Grand Prix, but it does have something of the same feeling.
“Where before it was one person coming for a day, it's now transformed into a family-type festival destination event,” says Higgs. “We’ve now got over 5,000 people on site. And that kind of festival feels it's a nice way of living. And with travel outside of the UK still going to be a little prickly, I think people are happy to spend their recreational time in the UK; it's very sociable, good value for money and they get to see the spectacle of fine sport.
“I think (the key is) accessibility. It’s a fine balance. In some other motor sports, there is a massive divide between the fans and the competitors; access is retained to be at a very premium level. But we've tried to strike that balance between a good racing level and an appropriate level of access that makes it feel a good value proposition. This is high-level motorsport with a big audience. And there's a feeling of prestige, this is a shiny show.”
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but the sport has to adapt to the changing times. There are no female riders in BSB this year, but there have been a few in the past and with trailblazing female BSB team owner Faye Ho actively promoting young female riders through the junior categories, it is a priority and surely it won’t be long before a female rider is competing at the front of BSB. In other respects, Higgs and his team have their eye trained on two main concerns for the future.
“From the sporting side, we are essentially a production-derived series,” he says. “So the hardware that's used in the championship is dictated by trends of manufacturers, so we've got to be reactive to what technological evolution is coming downstream. Obviously, energies and consumption of energy is a massive consideration. Tokenism is to be avoided because it comes at a huge cost. If it's in the wrong direction is very expensive. If the last two years have proved anything it’s that you've got to always be ready for the unexpected and the series has weathered two years of incredible disruption.
“Then from the public point of view, there's a lot of distractions now; everyone is competing for people's Saturday and Sunday spend, whether it be retail destinations, leisure parks, short-haul flights, gaming, and esports. There’s a purity to what we offer; an outdoor speed spectacle that gives an entertainment return for a wide demographic from kids through to adults. That is what we've just got to keep nurturing, making it more accessible. ‘Real people doing real sport’. I think that is still the biggest USP of what we offer.”