Will The Next American World Champion Please Step Up?

Who was the last American World Champion? Ben Spies. Who will be next?

“Everyone” wants an American to win a World Championship. Wayne Rainey wants an American to win a World Championship. I know I do, and I’ll bet you do, too.

The last American to be a conquering hero in a professional motorcycle road racing World Championship was Ben Spies, who famously won the World Superbike Championship in 2009, which was his very first year on the global stage. Since then, there have been several American riders who have tried to win a World Championship, including Josh Herrin, Jake Gagne, and PJ Jacobsen, while other American riders like Josh Day, Damian Jigalov, Sean Dylan Kelly, and others have forged creative pathways in the hopes that they would lead to a World Championship.

The 2009 season was a magical one for Spies. He was at the top of his game, he was racing for a true factory team, and he was aboard a new-model Superbike that proved, and is still proving, to be a dominant machine not only in World Superbike, but in national racing series from South Africa to the U.S., and practically everywhere in-between. Of course, I’m talking about the crossplane crankshaft Yamaha YZF-R1.

It’s an understatement that American riders hoping to follow in Ben Spies’ footsteps on the world stage haven’t fared nearly as well as “Elbowz” did. But it hasn’t been because of lack of effort or talent. Josh Herrin won the AMA Superbike Championship in 2013, but his year in the Moto2 World Championship proved to be more detrimental to his career than helpful. Sacked before the season ended, he showed up at New Jersey Motorsports Park for the final round of the 2014 AMA Pro Racing season, and he was a man without a ride. But, he “put himself in the store window” that weekend in New Jersey and went to work rebuilding his career, which resulted in him almost starting over when he took a job racing an R6 in the MotoAmerica Supersport series in 2015.

Jake Gagne won the 2014 AMA Pro Daytona SportBike Championship, was seen as one of America’s rising stars, and was considered by most to be every bit as talented on a road racing motorcycle as Cameron Beaubier is. He got a shot to race a Honda in World Superbike during part of 2017, and then he came back for 2018 and raced a Honda in World Superbike again for the full season. As this story is being written, Gagne is without a ride of any kind so far for 2019.

Was it a mistake for Herrin and Gagne to race in the World Championships? At this point, you could argue that it was, but the experience certainly steeled both riders’ determination and honed their racecraft. After all, seat time is seat time, and they were both very much in the deep end racing against the world’s best. The biggest problem in both instances was that their teams were nowhere close to topnotch efforts like the Yamaha Factory World Superbike team was that Ben Spies raced for.

Herrin worked hard to claw his way back to prominence, winning races along the way here in America, which has culminated in him being selected for a coveted, full-factory MotoAmerica Superbike ride aboard a Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 for 2019. It’s truly one of the feel-good stories of the decade. As for Gagne, we hope for the best for him because he is a talented rider and a solid citizen. It would be great to see him back in the MotoAmerica paddock racing again and winning.

PJ Jacobsen’s story is slightly different. Jacobsen eschewed professional road racing in America fairly early on, in favor of racing in Europe, including the Spanish 125GP Championship and the British Superbike Series. And, it did lead him to racing in World Supersport for five seasons, followed by a World Superbike ride aboard a Honda in 2018. But he ran into a similar situation as Herrin and Gagne did: racing for a team that wasn’t quite ready for primetime. And now, Jacobsen is almost in the same predicament as Herrin was in 2015: having to practically start over by racing in MotoAmerica Supersport instead of Superbike. Although, admittedly, there were other factors that led to Jacobsen racing in Supersport instead of Superbike in 2019.

A lot of other riders have taken a shot at racing in Europe and/or the World Championships, and it reads like a who’s-who of American road racers. Everyone from Roger Hayden, to Jason Pridmore, to Josh Hayes, and including the aforementioned Josh Day, Sean Dylan Kelly, and Damian Jigalov. Also, lest we forget, former MotoAmerica rider Joe Roberts is currently racing in the Moto2 World Championship, so the jury is still out on him. We wish him all best as his racing career continues to develop, and the same goes for former MotoAmerica riders Brandon Paasch, who is racing a KTM RC250 Moto3 bike in the British Motostar Championship, and Nic Swensgard, who will compete this year in the British Junior Supersport Championship aboard a Kawasaki Ninja 400.

Cameron Beaubier “put himself in the window” overseas by racing at a round of the German Superbike Championship in 2015, and then, he followed that up by competing at the Donington round of the World Superbike Championship aboard a PATA Yamaha R1 in 2016.

But Beaubier, who has now won four professional motorcycle road racing championships in America, is being cautious. He’s seen the somewhat slippery slope that Herrin, Gagne, and even Jacobsen, went down. Beaubier is making good money here in America, he is winning races and championships, and his career is still very much on the upswing. Like Spies, he wants to make sure the right pieces are in place – a solid team, a fast bike, and a paid ride – to give him a legitimate shot at being an American World Champion.

What if Beaubier never goes to a World Championship? What if he only races in MotoAmerica Superbike? Mat Mladin won seven AMA Superbike Championships, and it’s a record that’s seemingly impossible to eclipse.

Or is it?