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Phillip Island braces for Stoner-free era

Former Moto GP world champion Casey Stoner of Australia prepares for an exhibition race at Albert Park ahead of the Australian F1 Grand Prix
Former Moto GP world champion Casey Stoner of Australia prepares for an exhibition race at Albert Park ahead of the Australian F1 Grand Prix

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The retirement of Casey Stoner will be keenly felt at Sunday's Australian MotoGP, where the two-time world champion's domination was a guarantee of solid crowds and a comfort to organizers under pressure to rein in costs.

Stoner, who pushed his Honda to a record sixth straight victory at Phillip Island last year before bowing out of the sport at the age of 27, will hit the bucolic seaside circuit again but only for an honorary lap with fellow Australian world title-winners Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner.

Stoner's valedictory appearance lured a bumper race-day crowd of 55,000 last year, with leather-clad enthusiasts riding thousands of miles from distant states to farewell the local hero whose family sold their farm to finance his boyhood dream.

Organizers will be happy with 40,000 turning up this year and have pinned their hopes on 20-year-old Marc Marquez's bid to become the youngest world champion - and a forecast of sunshine at Phillip Island's notoriously changeable weather.

"It'll be tougher without Casey Stoner here, we had an unbelievable strong amount of revenue growth from Casey Stoner's decision to retire last year but that will be difficult to match," Australian Grand Prix Corporation (AGPC) CEO Andrew Westacott told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday.

"Because if we're not getting the same level of attendance, we're going to be short of revenue."

Australia's appetite for world class sport and major events has seen motorcycling's premier championship make a stop Down Under since 1989, with Phillip Island hosting a race for all but six of the years.

Like the higher-profile Formula One race held at Albert Park circuit a two hour drive up the road to Melbourne, the MotoGP has long been subsidized by taxpayers, albeit far less controversially than the four-wheel race which has posted losses of above A$50 million ($47.40 million) in recent years.

As boss of both races, Westacott has one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport, caught between government officials determined to reap political capital from hosting prestigious events while demanding Organizers cut costs.

The AGPC managed to trim the loss for last year's Australian MotoGP - which it termed "government investment" in its annual report - to A$5.95 million from the previous year's A$6.59 million, a decrease of about 10 percent.

FUELLING SPECULATION

The annual report budgeted for another decrease in the taxpayer outlay to A$5.24 million for this year's race, but Westacott suggested it would be difficult to boost last year's revenues of $12.6 million without the Stoner factor.

Little wonder the nation still pines for the hard-bitten rider, who signed off disillusioned with the tour and has spent this season repeatedly denying he is set for a comeback.

World champion for Ducati in 2007 and for Honda four years later, Stoner has since had an unsuccessful stint in the second tier of Australian V8 Supercar racing, driving on a one-year contract for Red Bull, and said last month he would take a break from the competition.

He fuelled speculation of a return to motorcycling by agreeing to test for Honda earlier this year but the team made it clear there were no plans for him to ride as a wildcard at any races this season.

Both Gardner, Australia's first premier class champion in 1987, and five-time champion Doohan have speculated Stoner will change his mind.

"He could be on a bike as early as next year if he wanted to be," Doohan told an Australian MotoGP podcast this week.

"He still knows how to ride and he's still young enough. He's an immensely talented rider so anything's possible - but if he was going to come back, 2015 is going to have to be the year. Anything beyond that, it's going to get more difficult."

Westacott was also keen to apply gentle pressure.

"Casey makes his own decisions, he always has... I'd say wait and see what happens next year," he said.

Boasting at least one premier class world title winner in each of the past three decades, Australia has punched above its weight in elite motorcycling, but may be set for a fallow period if Stoner keeps his distance.

Local enthusiasts will hope 18-year-old Queenslander Jack Miller, who has shown promise in the Moto3 category, can continue his improvement with Red Bull KTM after signing with the champion team last month.

"Local talent is important in any sport," Westacott said.

"Successful Aussies bring bigger crowds whether it's tennis, cricket, rugby union or even the Socceroos. MotoGP's no exception.

"We've gone through the Gardner era, the Stoner era, the Doohan era. There's youngsters like Jack Miller. Maybe we've got the Jack Miller era coming."

($1 = 1.0550 Australian dollars)

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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