Amidst a global pandemic and harsh international travel restrictions, the AMA’s Government Relations Department helped countless athletes enter the U.S. to compete
By Kali Kotoski
January 26, 2022
Expectations were high as the date of early October’s MotoGP race at the Circuit of the Americas race in Austin, Texas, approached in 2021. The race marked the first time the series would return to the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the world and caused countries to wall off their borders with onerous travel, testing and quarantine restrictions. And it was only the second race not on European soil after series promoter Dorna successfully held a race in Qatar in March.
While some global athletic competition was slowly returning to normal, with foreign-born athletes competing in the NBA, MLB and other bread-and-butter American sports, the COTA MotoGP event was a huge test for the sport of professional motorcycle road racing, and one that proved that it is indeed possible to pull off a massive logistical event in unprecedented times.
“We had people telling us it was impossible to [have this race] and that we wouldn’t be able to get into the States,” said Dorna’s Chief Sporting Officer Carlos Ezpeleta. “It was really important to have the championship back in the USA, and it would have not been possible in any way if not for the AMA.”
By Ezpeleta’s count, the AMA’s Government Relations Department — spearheaded by Director Michael Sayre — helped 1,825 racers, mechanics, support staff, announcers and the entire paddock pass through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection protocols with National Interest Exceptions (NIE) waivers — a category of travel documents used by athletes, humanitarian workers, government officials and public health professionals to bypass specific prohibitions on international travel while standard, Non-Immigrant Visa (NIV) services remained suspended.
“The COVID-19 travel ban prohibited travelers coming from the EU, UK, Brazil, China, Iran, South Africa and India from entering the United States,” said Sayre. “But with the NIE waiver, the MotoGP paddock was by far the largest group I assisted during the roughly two years of the travel ban. But it was not the first.”
When the travel ban was first instituted in the U.S. it came soon after the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross event at Daytona, as COVID-19 fears started upending the globe. The ban pumped the brakes on the series and led to widespread uncertainty.
Spanish AMA Supercross rider Joan Cros was left with only one choice — return to Spain to see how things would eventually shake out.
“I had family and friends and the Spanish government telling me I had to return because at that point there was no telling how bad the pandemic would get,” Cros told American Motorcyclist. “But when they eventually announced that the final series championship race would happen in June  in Salt Lake City, Utah, I knew I had to try to make it.”
And try he did, though Cros ultimately failed to get permission to enter the U.S. despite his story circulating on Spanish national news for weeks, receiving a signed letter by Utah Governor Gary Herbert granting permission, and spending countless days visiting the U.S. Embassy in Madrid and trying to get on a flight.
“For nine days I would go to the airport with the proper paperwork, and every time I was denied. The U.S. Embassy wouldn’t even consider the letter from the governor,” he said, adding that it was a bureaucratic nightmare. One of the problems, Cros said, was that he was a privateer trying to navigate new travel rules alone.
In early 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security didn’t have an exemption for professional athletes, but that soon changed with an order that allowed professional athletic organizations to coordinate with the DHS to allow athletes, team staff and league officials to enter the U.S. with an NIE waiver.
But this presented a major challenge for the AMA’s Government Relations Department. Although GRD staff was very familiar with departments in the Executive Branch and with agencies that impact motorcycling, such as the Department of Transportation, Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, Sayre and his team had not previously interacted with DHS or U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the agencies that oversaw that specific part of the COVID-19 travel ban. Plus, competitive motorcycle racing was not originally included as a sport accepted in the order.
“We had never really dealt with DHS or CBP before,” Sayre said, “and didn’t even know where to begin. We needed some assistance to connect the dots.”
Marshalling AMA allies on Capitol Hill, Sayre and his team reached out to the Co-Chair of the Senate Motorcycle Caucus, Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, then the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Through Senator Peters’ staff, Sayre connected with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Coronavirus Coordination Cell, and work began immediately to ensure that motorcycle racing was included in the exception to the travel ban.
What Sayre had to do to get motorcycle competition accepted by federal authorities was manifold. He had to coordinate with promoters to establish a detailed COVID safety plan for events, with specific guidelines for international participants, and also produce a letter justifying the standing of a given race series as being critical to the national interest. This letter had to make clear that a given race series was the pinnacle of the discipline, could demonstrate the economic impact of its events, and that international participation was vital to maintain the standing of the series.
With the help of promoters like Feld Entertainment and the AMA’s own Racing Department, Sayre and the AMA successfully got motorcycle racing accepted by Customs and Border Protection. But there were two caveats: One, only professional-level events were allowed under NIE status, which left amateur racing in the lurch; and two, that Sayre had to be the singular point person for anyone trying to enter the U.S. to race motorcycles for the entirety of the travel ban under AMA-sanctioned racing and Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) events.
Spain’s Joan Cros was the first to receive an NIE waiver with the help of the AMA for the 2021 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season, an FIM World Championship.
“Michael [Sayre] assured me that the waiver would come, but there was still a lot of uncertainty with how 2020 went for me,” said Cros. “But when it did come in December of 2020 for the 2021 season, it was great! I also got a waiver for my mechanic and my wife to come over for a month. Really, I wouldn’t have had a chance to compete without the work of Michael.”
News of Sayre’s assistance soon made the rounds, and Cros admittedly helped fuel demand in the Government Relations Department by handing out Sayre’s contact to other international riders desperate for guidance.
Sayre’s efforts affected professional roadracing, as well. For Louis DeNaples III, Principle at Warhorse Powersports Group (which had just acquired Ducati New York and launched a new joint venture team with Ducati New York, North American Warhorse and HSBK Racing), Sayre’s help was invaluable as the group entered the 2021 MotoAmerica Superbike series for the first time.
“With it being our inaugural season on a Ducati Superbike,” DeNaples, said, “we knew we needed to find a world-class rider capable of taking on the challenge of a new bike and a new program. So when we came across the French racer Loris Baz, it was absolutely critical to get him here for our efforts.”
But just getting Baz over on a NIE waiver was only a part of it. Almost as crucial was getting approximately 70 percent of Baz’s Italian support staff to the U.S., which included a crew chief, mechanics and an electrical engineer.
Despite assurances the team would receive NIE waivers, DeNaples knew that any hurdle could cripple the effort, so he had to invest in a second team if an NIE was not granted or if one of the team members tested positive for COVID-19. Luckily, there was no crisis and the team got to compete.
“From a team’s perspective, there is so much going into a race, and just getting somebody into the country is last thing that comes to mind,” DeNaples said. “Luckily, Michael and the AMA were heroes for us.”
After nearly two years of travel restrictions and the countless numbers of people helped by Sayre, not to mention many sleepless nights, late-night international calls and reams of meticulously compiled paperwork, the U.S. lifted all travel restrictions on November 8, 2021 for all fully-vaccinated travelers.
“This is extremely good news for anyone from a country on the travel ban list who wants to race a motorcycle in the U.S. in 2022,” Sayre said. “Professional and amateur racers can expect the closest thing to a ‘normal’ race season in the U.S. we’ve had since the pandemic started.”
While the AMA stepped up to an unprecedented challenge and, under tight restrictions, ensured that competition could continue during two years of global upheaval, it also has positioned the organization to be well-armed to deal with any future events, explained Mike Pelletier, AMA’s Director of Racing.
“We have learned a lot through this and so have our athletes,” said Pelletier. “Now that we have proved we can do it, we know going forward that we can manage uncertainties. Our efforts also put the AMA in league with major sporting associations like the NBA and NFL.”
To stay up to date on the latest developments in the AMA’s Government Relations Department and the work it does across the board, subscribe to the AMA’s Action Alerts at americanmotorcyclist.com/subscribe-rights. For fully vaccinated international travelers, visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website at dhs.gov to learn about the new protocols.
This story originally appeared in the January edition of American Motorcyclist. To read the whole issue click HERE.