By Larry Lawrence
Is newly-crowned AMA Superbike champ Josh Hayes as good as Mat Mladin or Ben Spies? How does he compare to past AMA Superbike champs such as Wes Cooley, Eddie Lawson, Fred Merkel, Doug Chandler, Doug Polen, Miguel Duhamel, Scott Russell or Wayne Rainey? Just where does Hayes, the rider who just turned in the most dominant season of any rider in AMA Superbike history, fall in the pecking order?
Comparing riders of different eras always brings out spirited debate as well as criticism. I once wrote a piece in Cycle News simply pointing out that in motocross those who considered Ricky Carmichael versus Bob Hannah the best rider in AMA Motocross history was largely based on one’s age. Those over 40 generally say Hurricane and while the younger generation has no doubt its RC. You would have thought I sparked World War III. The letters to the editor came fast and furious for weeks.
In terms of ranking AMA Superbike riders, specifically where Hayes fits in, on paper it should be a no brainer. The stats he threw up this season are simply staggering, not to mention record setting. It was a dream season for the likable rider from Mississippi. Hayes scored an amazing 16 wins this season. Think about that for a second. His wins just for 2012 alone would rank Hayes in the top 10 on the all-time AMA Superbike wins list; in fact it would put him tied for seventh with Rainey. Granted, we’re talking the doubleheader era here, but still that record alone should put Hayes in consideration for all-time best.
Along with posting the record for most wins in a season, Hayes also established the new mark for most consecutive wins (ten), tied the record for most consecutive poles (eleven) and most poles in a season (ten). He also moved into a tie for second with most Superbike titles (three), and moved past Duhamel for sole possession of second-place on the all-time Superbike wins list (33).
We’re talking the most epic of epic seasons here.
Yet it doesn’t feel like it.
As I see it, the problem Hayes faces in terms of his place in history is not one of his own making. It’s simply this – Hayes’ competition is weaker than Minnesota-made hot sauce.
Sorry, but a fact’s a fact.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so frank in my assessment of the rest of the Superbike field, but I’ve followed the series since its inception in 1976 and I can say that this is truly one of the low-water marks of overall talent of the series. With the exception of the first couple of seasons of the series and perhaps a short period in the mid-1980s, AMA Superbike has never seen such a dearth.
Of the entire field this season the only other rider I get excited about watching race other than Hayes is Danny Eslick. For sure Eslick is a little rough around the edges, but holy shit is he fun to watch or what?
What about Blake Young you say? Yes… Young ranks on one of my all-time AMA Superbike lists – all-time most overrated. What he did after crashing at Road Atlanta and coming back to win gave a lot of people hope that he was the real deal, but by Mid-Ohio and beyond Young showed that he didn’t quite have the right stuff to run with Hayes.
As far of the rest of the field? Excuse me I feel a yawn coming on.
I mean seriously… let’s look at the rest of the top 10.
You never know which Roger Lee Hayden is going to show up from week to week. Usually it’s the leisurely one. Josh Herrin on a Superbike? His racing lines resemble something drawn up by a spasmodic three-year-old on an Etch A Sketch.
Geoff May is an earnest rider who’s hit a talent ceiling. Ben Bostrom brings it strong… once or twice a season, whether he needs to or not. Larry Pegram is a great team owner and TV reality star. Steve Rapp, a scrapper but a little long in the tooth and Chris Ulrich’s body is an orthopedic surgeon’s retirement fund.
So in spite of his gaudy numbers Hayes is a victim of his competition. The fans and journalists I’ve talked to all respect Hayes, but no one I know puts him on the same level as a Ben Spies or Mat Mladin.
If pressed I’d say Hayes is most like Fred Merkel, at least in terms of his AMA career. Like Hayes, Merkel put up some astounding numbers in AMA Superbike, but for most of those years he was the lone factory rider racing against a field of privateers.
Merkel’s legacy was saved by two things – he beat Wayne Rainey head to head in 1986 and then of course he went on to win two World Superbike Championships.
If a decent World Superbike ride is available maybe Hayes should consider making the jump, even it means a pay cut. It’s about the only way I see him getting the kind of respect he deserves.