Sunday, August 30, 2015

On “Motorcycle Journalism Not Suck[ing] Anymore”

I saw a FB post from Sean MacDonald the other day, and followed it to a Jalopnik/Lanesplitter story announcing the relaunch of Lanesplitter, with Sean at the helm. This all goes back a few months, to a provocative post by ex-Hell For Leather editor Wes Siler. He’d written “There’s no good motorcycle content anymore.” I responded in four parts; if you’re a real sucker for punishment, there are links to those posts at the bottom of this one.

Anyway, in a sort of response to the fuss kicked up by Siler, Lanesplitter has apparently hired his ex-partner(¿do I have that right?) to, well, as MacDonald wrote...

I once took the trouble to actually write H4L, so say how much I enjoyed a story Sean MacDonald wrote about riding through the Sierras. I hardly ever do that. And he helped to turn Revzilla into a pretty cool site. Now he's got a new gig.
He meant it, of course, as not sucking for readers of motorcycle journalism. But since I am a motorcycle journalist I first read it as a plan to make it not suck to be a motorcycle journalist.

For a moment I thought, About fucking time. Just for a moment. But when I read the Lanesplitter launch announcement I realized that it was not about improving the ‘career’ (sneer quotes sadly needed) of motorcycle journalism.

I started writing about motorcycles, and for motorcycle magazines, in the mid-‘90s. I was old then and I was really old when I briefly worked full-time and on staff at Motorcyclist. So although I’m the age of senior motorcycle journalists who made a good living and have now retired to wine country, I only just caught the end of the profitable (¿profligate?) period before the double whammy of the Internet and ’08 eviscerated print media. I’m in a weird place where I know what it was like in the heyday, but I didn’t really benefit from it. And though I’ve been a staffer, the vast majority of my motorcycle journalism has been as a freelancer. In the time that I’ve been writing for magazines, rates have dropped 70%.

Going forward, I imagine that virtually all future motorcycle journalism opportunities will be freelance, and in the age of the Internet, that sucks. I mean, if Huffington Post, with its millions of readers, won’t pay for content, how much will motorcycle sites pay? We live in the age of “You’ll get exposure” but as a full-time writer, exposure is precisely the thing I have to sell in order to eat.

Back when I still attended launches, there was at least one well-known web site (I’m looking at you, Dean Adams) that was happy to send a journalist to a press launch for nothing but the privilege of the free trip and track day. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Superbike Planet didn’t send a genuine expert in Danny Coe. He wrote exhaustive, great assessments. So why would Adams pay for something he could get for free? I don’t blame him, but that attitude’s obviously a career killer.

Let me quickly point out, then, three things that would have to change for motorcycle journalism not to suck—for motorcycle journalists
  • Pay rates have to reach a level such that writing about motorcycles is a viable job. I don’t expect to see a return to the days when I was paid as much as $2,500 for a feature story, but if you’re going to work for a few days on a feature, it’s gotta’ pay over $1,000. The baseline for pay should be, say, what you could make driving an Uber.
  • We need to get paid faster. American magazines, especially, take laughably, ridiculously long to pay for material. I once wrote a feature for Cycle World; I was not paid in the year that the story ran, I was not paid in the following year, either. I was paid the year after that. And, back then, I was carrying expenses on a credit card. I probably lost money on the story.
  • Magazines and web sites need to take responsibility for the risks motorcycle journalists take. There are plenty of Jackass/Nitro Tour wannabes who take unnecessary risks. I’m not talking about those guys; they deserve what they get. But this shit’s inherently dangerous. When I crashed and broke my wrist on a GSX-R1000 launch at Philip Island, I was out of pocket for an amount of money roughly equal to all the money I made writing about motorcycles that year. I’ve had friends who were good, sensible riders injured, crippled, and killed on the job. We need to be insured, or magazines and web sites need to just step up and pay those bills.


Does anyone need professional motorcycle journalists anymore? Looking back on it, when I started writing for magazines, I had a full-time job in the ad industry; I paid all my own riding and racing bills with those glorious ad agency pay checks. I wrote about motorcycles as a hobby. Actually, as a sideline to my hobby, which was motorcycle racing. I was as good a writer then as I am now; looking back on some of those early stories I realize there was nothing about making a living at it that was essential to doing good work.

So no, motorcycle journalism—even good motorcycle journalism—doesn’t actually presuppose a need for motorcycle journalists. MacDonald and Lanesplitter won’t necessarily fail if they don’t do the things they need to do to ensure the survival of motorcycle journalism as a job


It’s not up to Sean MacDonald and Jalopnik to do those things, but if they want to set a new standard for readers, it’s reasonable to point out that this is what goes along with setting a new standard for writers.

Links: 
The original discussion:
Is there really no more good motorcycle content?

Friday, August 14, 2015

UPDATED—Is AMA Pro Racing treating us like dopes?

UPDATED SATURDAY—See below

Over the last few days, I’ve been tracking a story about cheating. In particular, tire doping. In laying it out for you, I’m going cite a lot of anonymous sources. But as you read on, you can assume the story has been corroborated by a number of paddock regulars, including team principals and experienced riders. All those people have legitimate fears that they’d pay a price for talking to a reporter. Honestly, I would not be surprised to pay a price for breaking this story myself. But what the hell; I don’t go to that many races any more anyway. If I never get another Media Pass, it won’t kill me.

Bryan Smith (42) won the race at Du Quoin this year, but current championship leader Jared Mees (1) finished second with a tire that looked very second-hand by race end. That tire ended up being examined by Dunlop and tested for evidence of doping at Blue Ridge Labs, in North Carolina.

Fact: At Du Quoin, GNC1 Championship leader Jared Mees’ Harley finished the race with a rear tire that was visibly, dramatically worn. Mees finished in second place, behind Bryan Smith, whose tire still looked new. Seasoned observers felt that Mees’ Harley looked like it was a “good-handling” bike that night, which is usually consistent with minimal tire wear.

Fact: At the next race, Mees’ tuner Kenny Tolbert turned a tire over to AMA officials, which he informed them was Mees’ Du Quoin main event tire. The tire was visually examined by Dunlop personnel at the track. (It’s currently in Dunlop’s possession in Buffalo, NY. I spoke to Mick Jackson, Dunlop’s Manager of Product Development, and he told me he’s seen it, and “it looks like it overheated.” Jackson also specifically told me he had not seen, nor would he expect to see, any analysis related to tire doping.)

This is where things get interesting: many people have told me that the tire (or, possibly, rubber samples cut from the tire) were sent to Blue Ridge Labs in Lenoir, NC for analysis. Blue Ridge Labs frequently tests tires to see if they’ve been chemically treated in contravention of the rules of motorsports organizations like Nascar. 
This is an example of a test result for a negative test from Blue Ridge Labs. My question is, was the Mees test determined to be inconclusive because there was no chemical evidence of tampering, or because the handling of the tire/evidence was unprofessional and thus, any evidenciary value was compromised?

I believe the test was performed; I believe I spoke to the person who performed it. When I called Blue Ridge Labs, Kim Johnson, a technician there, told me that their confidentiality agreements precluded discussing the results of the test, and that I’d have to contact the person who ordered the test. To be clear, she never said anything to the effect of, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “I can’t remember any motorcycle tires coming through here lately.” It felt, to me, that we were both talking about a test that she acknowledged had taken place, without divulging any specifics about the content thereof.

I’ve spoken to one person who claims to have handled the test report; I’ve spoken to others who claim to have seen it. On balance—although I’m protecting my sources and they’re protecting their sources—the stories I’ve heard are consistent with the notion that someone privy to the test purposely showed it to someone outside AMA Pro Racing’s inner circle. 

More than one GNC stakeholder has alleged the tire “failed” the test, which is to say it had a chemical signature that was inconsistent with manufacturer-supplied samples and which suggested tire doping.

This is where things get really interesting: paddock insiders have told me they believe that, after the Blue Ridge Labs report came back, there was a conversation between AMA Pro Racing head office staff—I presume Michael Locke and Michael Gentry—and AMA Pro’s men on the ground at races, including Ronnie Jones, Steve Morehead and Al Ludington (who is now a contractor and no longer an AMA Pro employee.) I assume that would be a conference call, since some of those guys live and work far from Daytona. I hear that four out of five of those people basically asked, “What’s the penalty [to Mees] going to be?” and that they were told there would be no penalty. Furthermore, there’d be no further discussion of the incident.

The technical term for this would be, sweeping it under the rug. 

Why AMA Pro would sweep it under the rug is an interesting topic for speculation. Jared’s leading the Championship, riding for a high profile team backed by (still) the only manufacturer that’s really committed to the series. The consensus is that Flat Track’s moving in the right direction and it’s easy to imagine AMA Pro Racing doesn’t want a high-profile cheating scandal.

The problem is, great big chunks came off that tire, and you can sweep the incident under the rug, but there’s still some great big lumps in the carpet. People are tripping over them and asking, “What are those lumps?”

I’ve heard from multiple sources that Dunlop personnel at Indy for the MotoGP/MotoAmerica event last weekend openly discussed tire cheating in the GNC, in situations where more than one person could hear them. Team principals have told me that they asked for meetings with AMA Pro senior managers and were turned down. Emails to those senior managers have yielded no response. I left a message with Ronnie Jones, and he did not reply.

Suddenly a run of the mill cheating scandal is being talked about as a cover-up. And I don’t mean, Mark Gardiner’s talking about it like a cover-up. About half the people I spoke to on this story started talking by saying, “I can’t believe it’s taken this long for a journalist to get interested.”

Stakeholders have told me that they are looking into the possibility of pursuing a lawsuit, which would be based on the legal notion of a ‘civil conspiracy’. Such a lawsuit would hinge on proof that the organizers of the GNC conspired to give one team an advantage, and by doing so causing harm to other competitors. In short, people are pissed. And I don’t mean, “Oh what have they done this time?” pissed, I mean, “We’ll sue their asses!” pissed.

Tire Doping 101

Until seven or eight years ago, tire doping was not against the rules. A number of Flat Track teams routinely, openly, treated tires with a variety of chemicals. From what I understand, a common chemical was WD-40. Seriously, eh? You’d hardly think that would increase traction, but tires were soaked and heated (often just left out in the sun) and presumably the slippery components evaporated away. What you were left with was a tire that either heated up faster, or provided better cold grip. Either way, tire doping conferred an advantage, particularly in the first few laps.  

The downside was that in search of an advantage, you often ended up with a tire that suddenly got worse in the late going. So a lot of people experimented and then gave up.

Jared Mees’ tuner, Kenny Tolbert, is a guy whose name comes up when people talk about doing tire doping right. But then, Tolbert’s name comes up whenever people talk about making fast Flat Track motorcycles; he’s the best in the business.

After the AMA instituted rules prohibiting the chemical treatment of tires, it became a relatively common thing, in tech at the end of races, to clip a few rubber samples from top-3 machines and seal them in plastic “evidence bags”. I’m not sure how often those samples were tested, or how often people were caught cheating.

I know of at least one instance in which tire doping likely influenced the outcome of a race. A currently active rider, who won the race in question by a wheel-length, later admitted that he himself had doped that tire.

To be clear, no one that I’ve spoken to feels that Mees or his team have committed some outrageous, scandalous violation of the rules that is deserving of draconian punishment. Everyone agrees that he’s one of the fastest guys, if not the fastest guy, out there, on one of the best-prepared bikes. He’s a deserving champion, and I haven’t heard anyone suggest tire doping has meaningfully impacted results. If anything, most people’s attitude is to shrug and admit that if you’re not cheating, you’re not really trying.  Cheating is part of the culture of motorsport. What people are upset about is that another part of that culture is the idea that, if you’re caught, the rules are applied the same to everyone.

Note that until this year, tires were supplied by Goodyear. Now, they’re made by Dunlop. And, new compounds were introduced partway through the season, with Du Quoin being the first race in which the all-new compound was mandated. So it’s easy to imagine that a tire doping strategy that had worked in the past might suddenly fail in spectacular fashion.

Blue Ridge Labs’ Kim Johnson told me that the standard protocol is for tires or tire samples to arrive in sealed evidence bags. The significance of this is, there’s hardly an unbroken chain of evidence as far as Mees’ tire is concerned.

Ideally, officials would pull a tire off a bike right after it came off the track, bag it, seal it, and have the responsible official and the rider sign across the seal. That’s not what happened in the case of Mees’ Du Quoin tire. The tire disappeared for week, and then it was walked over to AMA Pro Officials and handed off.

There’s no proof it was the same tire, and at least theoretically it could’ve been adulterated after the race, even accidentally. That said, it would be hard to pawn off another tire, considering the unique wear pattern of the tire in question, and it’s not obvious why Tolbert would dope a tire after it had been trashed in the race. So, the tire was handled was not up to ‘criminal trial’ evidence standards and not up to the standards required to prove that an Olympic athlete is a drug cheat, but the team said it was the tire; I believe them.

I’ve spoken to at least one team principal whose feeling is, if the report indicated cheating, it would be up to AMA Pro to penalize the rider and team, and up to the rider and team to appeal. Presumably that appeal would be successful, because the handling of the tire was not up to the strictest evidenciary standard.

Mat Mladin, too, was a guy known for his ability to go very hard in the first lap or two. Ex-tire guru Jim Allen told me that Mladin’s crew chief Pete Doyle experimented with tire doping at a time when it was not specifically against roadracing rules. 


AMA Pro? What are the next steps?

When AMA Pro Racing’s communication department gets a call on this topic, it’s referred directly to Michael Gentry. He did not return my call. The official position of AMA Pro Racing, transmitted to me by Al Ludington, is that the tire was tested, tests were inconclusive, and no further action will be taken. (Al’s statement was, almost to the word, the statement that I got from a team owner who told me, “Let me give you AMA Pro’s talking points...”) 

That said, witnesses tell me that Mees’ team had to submit tire samples, which were properly bagged as evidence, after the heat races in Sturgis—and no one can remember the last time samples were taken after anything but a Main Event. So I suppose it’s safe to say Jared’s “on report”.

At this point, AMA Pro Racing has already disappointed a lot of stakeholders, who feel that the combined weight of evidence and scuttlebutt suggests that one team’s received favorable treatment. It’s going to be tough to un-ring that bell.

However, it behooves AMA Pro Racing to shed some Florida sunshine on this incident. They should release the report, and issue a statement explaining whether the chemical analysis itself was inconclusive (in which case a lot of people are misinformed about the results and it’s time to quash that rumor) or whether it was the less-than-ideal handling of the tire evidence that made it “inconclusive”. 

There’s been some weird stuff coming out of Daytona lately. The ill-considered rules I wrote about last Backmarker are really just part of the story. But in spite of that, I think every participant feels that the GNC1 class is moving in the right direction. 

If AMA Pro Racing doesn’t get out ahead of this story, they’ll set all that back. For decades now, the championship has struggled to shake off the image that it’s a Harley-Davidson playground. Now, a whole bunch of people are grumbling that a Harley-backed team and rider are getting favorable treatment.

If that’s not true, then transparency is urgently needed; AMA Pro should release the report. If it is true, heads should roll.

UPDATE

At about 6 pm Central time on Saturday, I got a call from AMA Pro's Communications Director Gene Crouch. We had a forthright conversation, most of which should remain off the record. Suffice to say, I was not encouraged to retract anything written above, nor did I hear anything that caused me to make any corrections. I will say that he seemed genuinely surprised that my query to AMA Pro Racing was directed to Michael Gentry and not him. I'm ready to accept the fact that another call might well have gone to Mr. Crouch.

Here's AMA Pro's official statement:

“AMA Pro did not have consistent custody of the tire between competition and testing. Without being able to conclusively determine that the chemicals were on the tire during competition, the company cannot proceed with issuing a penalty. The company has taken a series of steps towards implementing rules, policies and procedures to correctly handle situations of this nature moving forward.”

Based on our conversation, I'm ready to believe AMA Pro Racing when they say that they'll be clarifying rules and implementing new procedures that will keep the paddock much better informed about infractions, tests, and who passed and failed them. In the future, I expect to see tire doping test protocols that are more like the current fuel tests.

It's a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Maddo's Pipe Dream is the stuff of nightmares for race team sponsorship managers

 Reproduced from Indistincly Wild
A couple of days ago, Nzuma Nfoso — an Ubuntu tribesman in a disputed border region in Central West Africa -- became the last person on earth to watch Robbie Maddison "surfing" on a modified motorcycle, near Tahiti.

This Masai tribesman is not Nzuma Nfoso. He lives about as close to Nfoso as Regina, Saskatchewan is to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Besides, this guy's got a cell phone; he probably saw Pipe Dream in the first 12 hours it was up.
"That looks like a nice forest," said Nfoso, who his friends call 'the nose'. "I guess he's probably scaring all the animals, eh? It must be noisy. What brand is that motorcycle, anyway? I can't tell."

We froze a frame and ID'd it as a KTM two-stroke, but beyond that I couldn't help him.

"Wow, look at all that water," The Nose said, as the short movie segued into the surfing scene. "I've heard of the ocean, but this is the first time I've ever seen it."

Nfoso was fascinated by the surfers he saw in the background of "Pipe Dream", and I spent quite a bit of time explaining what surfing was. He thought that sounded quite a bit cooler than riding a motorcycle on the water.

"I mean, I have nothing against motorcycles," he assured us through a translator. "When we needed to get sleeping sickness medicine to my village after the rains, a motorcycle was the only way to transport it.

We explained that the water-bike was developed expressly to make this movie, which baffled him. 

"Does DC Shoes make shoes for surfing?” the African asked.

“No. In fact, almost everyone surfs barefoot.”

“Motorcycle boots?”

“Not that I know of.”

At that point, he proudly displayed a set of bright pink Crocs that some American had, years ago, dropped in a donation bin in a suburban parking lot. Eventually they made their way to Africa in a giant container, along with the ‘Affliction’ t-shirt he was wearing. 

“This t-shirt is crap,” he said. “But why anyone needs more than one pair of shoes is unfathomable. And these ones have not worn one bit in the last five years.”

We thanked him for his time.

“Sure, brah,” he said. “Well, I’d better get going. Hope to find a nice snake or rat for the little woman’s pot. Got to be quiet! Lucky no motorcycles in here.” He cocked an eyebrow, flared his nostrils, and disappeared quietly down a game trail.

By now, as that story reprinted from Indifferently Wild makes clear, at this point, everyone on earth has seen DC Shoes’ branded-content exercise Pipe Dream.

What’s less clear, of course, is how many people — if any — will now buy DC Shoes as a result of watching it. You see, while these viral programs are far easier to track than old-school mass-media ad campaigns, it remains quite a bit harder to quantify their impact on sales. In fact, the so-called Millennial Generation that this campaign targets don’t really spend their money on much of anything. (In that way, white American Millennials do have one thing in common with Nzuma Nfoso.)

As a once-and-still-sometimes ad guy, I can’t help but worry about the impact that a shift from paid media to branded content will have on my industry. But as an ex-motorcycle racer I can tell you there’s no doubt at all about the effect such content will have on professional motorcycle racing.

It’s the worst thing ever.

On the face of it, you’d think the rise of branded content would be an additional sales pitch for teams seeking sponsors: “You get access to a bunch of great content,” a team or racer could claim.

But what brands are actually learning is, they can eliminate the racer-middleman and go straight to YouTube, without pausing on the MotoAmerica, Supercross, SBK, or MotoGP grid. AMA Pro flat track? Hah!

Get this straight: It doesn’t matter one whit whether Robbie Madison’s lame stunt actually sells shoes. It doesn’t matter that that noisy, wasteful, no-talent (except for the engineers who designed the system) demonstration only served to irritate a few dozen surfers who actually were doing something pretty cool. Because YouTube views are the new sales, as far as dazzled Millennial marketing executives are concerned.

For whatever that cost DC Shoes — and I guess it was quite a bit, because there are about 24 names on the credit roll, and another 20 or so listed as “water & safety” — DC just scored a bigger win than they would’ve got if they’d outbid Monster Energy for Valentino Rossi’s title sponsorship, which would have cost them an order of magnitude more.

And, not only that, Maddo’s stunt was no risk... to DC Shoes. If it had failed, or gone bad, they might’ve cut together a Jackass style blooper reel, but there was no risk at all of their rider being beaten in public; no risk of an embarrassing breakdown; no risk of a late-season choke. Because there were essentially no witnesses to it, until after it had gone according to plan.

You know, during the tobacco-money-crazed heyday of motorsports sponsorship, series and some riders had their own cachet. Brands wanted their logos emblazoned on Ayrton Senna’s car because they gained something by association. But Robbie Maddison is his YouTube view count. That would worry me if I was DC’s brand manager, but like I said, views and viral propagation are the new money in marketing. These days, a sponsorship ‘win’ doesn’t look like picking a great young rider and grooming him, sticking with him through the ups and downs, and being associated with him while he proves his mettle to the audience of devoted racing fans. Winning doesn’t look like your brand being permanently associated with a sports legend. Nor does winning look like sharing the limelight with other brands on your rider's fairing and leathers, or with event sponsors. Nope, winning looks like being the one and only brand featured in your little movie.

It doesn't matter, either, that most of Rossi's or Marquez' fans can tell you what brand of motorcycle he's riding. It doesn't matter that none of the people watching Pipe Dream will have seen even one frame of video that describes any functional benefit of DC shoes. It doesn't matter that the video doesn't provide a single argument, either logical — or emotional, beyond "they once bankrolled a cool stunt" — for DC over Adidas or even Crocs.

Winning is 10 million YouTube views in a few days. That old way, that’s on life support now. How do you think Marlboro feels about the tens of millions they spent on Michael Schumacher? Their brand’s now associated with a vegetable. That’s even sadder because Schuey was, perhaps, injured by a GoPro camera mounted on his helmet. I guess even he wanted to be a YouTube star.

In another irony, ‘Creativity‘ — a website read by ad industry insiders — mistakenly described Maddison as a ‘motocross star’. Sorry, Creativity; DC and Maddo skipped the long, arduous path to fame that winds through the race tracks of the world.

Don’t get me wrong here, all of the following points are true...
  • The Pipe Dream stunt was lame
  • Robbie Maddison’s done stunts that would scare me to death — just before they actually killed me to death
  • More power to Maddo if DC paid him a fortune to do something I could’ve done.
But if all that brands want from a marketing spend is YouTube views, they’re wasting money on race teams, title and personal sponsors.

The massive viral success of Pipe Dream is another nail in the coffin of racing sponsorships. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Canepa up on assault charges? And memories of other dick moves...

UPDATE: In a long FB post that's reported on Roadracing World, Canepa explained the video by describing a bunch of stuff that went on before this video clip, and saying that he didn't squeeze the other rider's brake, but that he only touched his forearm to get his attention. If there's an official ruling on this from the Italian courts, I'll try to post it.

This track-monitor video is circulating on the internet. It purports to show former EBR World Superbike racer Niccolo Canepa purposely punching the brake lever of another rider, causing him to crash and nearly involving a following rider, too.



I don’t know for sure if it was Canepa, but someone does. In this day and age of hi-res video and computer enhancement, it should be possible to positively ID the machine and rider’s leathers and helmet. It happened at a track day, which baffles me a little bit anyway; I mean really, what does a rider of that caliber get out of riding around with club racers and calamari, anyway?

In any case, Canepa had to sign in, his bike had to have been tech’d; there should be a pretty much ironclad chain of evidence. Apparently, he’ll face assault charges (and if there’s any justice, he’ll be convicted.)

If that happens—i.e., if the guy in this video is really Niccolo Canepa—assault charges should be the least of his problems. World Superbike, the FIM, and the Federazione Motociclista Italiana should hand down a fucking draconian ban. It doesn’t look like the victim of this assault was seriously injured, but he could’ve been killed, and so could following riders.

Whenever I hear of—or see—a really fast guy pull a dick move, I’m reminded of a race meeting at Loudon, back in the ‘90s when NHIS still hosted an AMA National.

Back then, I raced in the LRRS series, so in the support classes that weekend. We had one rider’s meeting for the whole group, so there were AMA Superbike stars standing around with LRRS club racers, some of whom were pretty quick and who were signed up for both the LRRS races and AMA races. After going through the usual patter about flag protocol and the special schedule for a National weekend, the Race Director asked if anyone had anything to add. 

Miguel Duhamel piped up, reminding the fast local guys that the AMA Pros were racing for a national championship. Not to put too fine a point on it, he told them to stay off the track in the final 15 minutes of qualifying, so they wouldn’t balk the stars.

After Duhamel’s suggestion had sunk in a moment, someone in the back spoke up very clearly.

“OK, I’ll tell you what you little runt,” came the retort. “I’ll stay off the track in the last 15 minutes. But if you come past me again and try to kick me, or turn around and give me the finger, I’m going to come to your pit and beat the shit out of you.”

At that, there was an acutal smattering of applause from local fast guys, which made me think that Duhamel had made himself unpopular with more than one of ‘em.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The small matter of life and death in motorcycle racing

The deaths of Bernat Martinez and Daniel Rivas Fernandez, in the final (MotoAmerica) race yesterday at Laguna Seca, serve as a reminder that even on “good” tracks, motorcycle racing will never be safe.

The thing is, risk is what gives the decision to race motorcycles meaning. Although Martinez and Fernandez were, I suppose, technically professionals neither was earning a real living from racing per se. And they certainly weren’t being compensated on the level of other “professional athletes”.

So, why were they taking those risks?

Riding Man was, largely, written to answer that question. I’ve excerpted two small parts of it below. From my perspective, the first helps explain the appeal of motorcycle racing (which has little if anything to do with being an “adrenaline junkie”.) The second explores the way we rationalize risks which, by any rational measure, outweigh our sport’s tangible rewards.

That leaves the intangible rewards. If you’ve been a racer, you know what they are.

Risk is what gives motorcycle racing those rewards. No, we don’t race in order to take risks. But if it was completely safe, none of us would do it. 

Here’s my message to all the racers who didn’t get hurt or killed yesterday. Those guys died for you. Not willingly, of course, but their sacrifice is what gives your sport meaning and what makes the experience of racing so profoundly different than the experience most other sports.

On Saturday night, I opened a play (a first for me; and yes, I was as nervous in the audience as I ever was on a grid.) But it wasn’t as profound an experience as waiting for that flag to drop, because no one’s life was on the line. In spite of my play’s title, I’m an antitheist. So I’ll never suggest anything as puerile as praying for Bernat and Daniel, and please unfriend me if I ever repeat that trite, “Godspeed”.

But you should hold them in your thoughts, because they and so many others who went before them will make your next race a profound experience. Their deaths will impart that much more meaning to the feelings you have when you pull off the track after next taking the checkered flag.

ON RISK Pt. 1

Hemingway is famously quoted (or, perhaps, misquoted?) as having said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” This is ironic, because as a motorcycle racer, I’ve always been jealous of mountain climbers, in the sense that they don’t seem to face the same resistance from society when it comes to justifying or explaining their obsession. If you grow up in Switzerland and then live in the Canadian Rockies like I did, you meet lots of climbers. I’ve known about half a dozen people who’ve summited Everest, and I’ve always been struck by the fact that we seem understand each other well. We both appreciate a kind of self-knowledge that comes from our particular risk sports. 

There are equally dangerous–even more dangerous–pursuits. You could choose to be a rodeo bullrider or base jumper. But the danger in those sports comes from the decision to participate. It’s something you confront once per event, when you lower yourself down from that eight-foot fence and wrap that rope around your hand. You nod, and after that your survival is up to the bull. For all the control you have over it, you may as well be playing Russian roulette. In fact most winning rides are, if anything, less dangerous than losing ones. But climbers and motorcycle racers need to make a constant series of decisions–we ask ourselves, “Where’s the edge?” and constantly need to confront the fact that after removing every possible variable we’re going to be left with this reality: the best performance is inherently the most dangerous one. This is the source of a unique kind of self-knowledge and an easy mutual respect between us. 

And yet, motorcycle racers get far less credit for this in society at large. No one seriously suggests that climbing should be outlawed. I blame this discrepancy on George Mallory. He’d attempted to climb Everest in 1922, and was on a lecture tour of America raising money for a second attempt. At every stop, he got the same stupid question from reporters, “Why do you want to climb the world’s highest mountain, anyway?” Finally, in exasperation, he snapped “Because it’s there!” 

For whatever reason, the answer resonated with the non-climbing public. Taken out of context, the phrase had its own Zen. 

Mallory did assemble the sponsorship he needed for a second attempt, in 1924. Whether or not he made it to the summit is one of climbing’s enduring mysteries. He never came back down and was never seen alive again. Considering the equipment of the day (for perspective, the TT course record was around 55 miles per hour at the time) his climb was one of the greatest achievements ever in mountaineering. Mallory’s record stood for 30 years until Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man ever to summit Everest for sure. 

ON RISK Pt. 2

One of the places that’s been bugging me–frankly, scaring me–on the course is Barregarrow crossroads. Two gnarly, blind, left-hand kinks, connected by a steep bumpy downhill. But one day as I’m riding along on my bicycle, I come to the farm just before the crossroads. There’s a huge tree on the left here, and I’m making a mental note that I need to be way over to the right, in position for the first kink, by the time I get to this point. As I’m pedaling beneath the tree, I hear a cacophony overhead. Hundreds of crows are living up in the branches. In fact, the road is plastered with their shit, which is another reason to be over to the right. 

But crows. Suddenly, I’ve lost my fear of Barregarrow. 

All this goes back quite a few years. Once, I signed up for a California Superbike School session on a Honda RS125 GP bike. The school took place at Willow Springs, on the Streets of Willow practice course. As usual, I didn’t know anyone there. My lupus was acting up. Every joint really hurt, and the prospect of folding myself onto one of those tiny, tiny bikes was not that appealing. As a Canadian in the ’States, I had no health insurance. All in all, as I waited to get started, I figured I’d put myself in a very good position to make a fool of myself at best, break my body and my bank account at worst. 

I was distracted from these glum thoughts by a flock of ravens about a hundred yards down the pit wall. They were fighting over treasure: a bag of old french fries. Suddenly, for no reason, I had a sense that these birds were good luck for me and that as long as they were there, I was going to be all right. This belief sprang fully formed into my head. Like other people, the things I believe most fervently are based in utter nonsense. 

Ever since then big, noisy black birds are good luck for me. I’ve always felt that–especially on the morning of races–if I see one it’s a guarantee I won’t be hurt. And it’s always been true. 

Long after that day at Willow, in the course of my advertising career, I had to write some public service TV spots on the subject of gambling addiction. I went to a few Gambler’s Anonymous-type meetings where I learned two things. One was that gambling addicts were pathetic losers. The other was that this irrational belief that something is lucky for you has a name. Psychologists call it “magic thinking” and it is one of the hallmarks of risk addiction. 

In fairness, the big black birds have always worked for me. They’ve protected me on days I’ve seen ’em, and indeed, I’ve had some hairy crashes on mornings when I’ve not seen them. If you set out to debunk my talisman, you’d say, “The birds calm you, and you ride better relaxed. You’re tense when you’re aware you haven’t seen one, and you ride shitty tense.” That may be true. The scientist in me is a little subtler. I think that the birds are common, after all, and there’s probably almost always one to see. I think that when I’m in a state of relaxed awareness, alert to my environment, I can count on seeing one. That’s the state in which I ride well. When I internalize, when I’m looking in and not out, I don’t see them. That’s a state in which I ride poorly. 

Whatever the case, after the TT fortnight was over, I drove one of my visitors to the airport, and on the way home crossed the Fairy Bridge. Somehow, lost in thought, I failed to say hello, though I reassured myself that I’d said it on the trip to the airport and according to the letter of the legend, it is the first crossing of each day that is critical. Nonetheless, most Manx say hello on every crossing, and that had been my habit too.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Gaming the rules is part of the game

I see that the Grand Prix Commission—that's actually French for "big pricks"—have decided that Ducati will lose its rules "concessions" a year earlier than previously thought. I guess Honda and Yamaha got tired of Ducati riders qualifying and finishing ahead of their factory bikes.

The reason this bugs me is, gaming the rules has always been a part of the game in motorsport. Looking at the rulebook and figuring out how to get an advantage is one of the central skills in racing. Ducati did that better than Honda and Yamaha; they should be rewarded for it, not punished for it.

Bad form, MotoGP.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Best-laid schemes

It's hard to decide which recent PR faux pas was worst, between Harley-Davidson's full court press at the X-Games (in which race leader Jared Mees' Harley expired on the last lap) or Honda's high-profile unveiling of the RC213V-S.

The reaction to the Honda's specs has been one of pretty much across the board disappointment, in the sense that they claim an underwhelming (by modern standards) 101 hp at an overwhelming price that's near enough $200k.

Seriously? And the curb weight is more than a stock CBR600.

Ironically, both those PR hiccups redounded to the benefit of Kawasaki. Bryan Smith inherited the X-Games gold medal, and then about the time the embargo was coming off the Honda story, Kawasaki scooped 'em when James Hillier hit a verified 206 miles per hour on public roads, riding the H2R on an Isle of Man parade lap.
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' menGang aft agley
I put the question to Facebook: If you could have one bike only, and had a $5k budget to buy it, what would it be? My purpose is mainly short trips in town and I need reasonable weather protection and cargo capacity. Bonus points for long-distance and/or sport-touring capability, bonus points for bad road capability.

Of course, the KLR and V-Strom supporters soon commented in numbers, and I suppose there's a good chance that I'll go that route. I'm not really in the market yet; I have to sell at least one more bike to fill up the cash hopper.

It's an interesting point to ponder, and I've imagined myself on everything from a Burgman to a mid-'90s VFR750, to any number of BMWs. My wildcard entries range from a Piaggio 3-wheeler (which do, surprisingly, show up on the KC Craiglist every now and then) to a first-gen Ducati Multistrada (which is a bike I love, but that never shows up on CL.)

Anyway, I will obviously write about it when I buy a new bike. In the meantime, my Dream and the Bonneville are both in new homes. My TLR200 is on CL, as is the Vino, but I've priced the Vino pretty high just because it's so useful to me.

Best-laid plans, redux

David Emmett recently wrote that Honda's MotoGP effort has been in a long, slow decline masked only by Marc Marquez' rare talent (and affinity for the "real" RC213's too-aggressive throttle response.) I suppose this proves that, as of yet, the rider's wrist still counts for something; it's not all down to computers.

But I can't help but remember the times we've been through this before. Only Stoner could ride the Ducati. Even Rossi was hopeless on it. And of course, only Wayne Rainey could make the Yamaha 500 two-stroke work in the early-to-mid '90s. After Rainey was paralyzed, a string of very talented guys were stymied by that bike.

When it comes to developing a race bike, it seems there is such a thing as too much talent—if it masks underlying problems or at the very least, takes pressure off the engineers.