Tuesday, October 11, 2011

'H' could stand for 'has-been'. Or hero...

As I rode in to work on Sunday, I mulled over John Hopkins' bad luck in finishing second, by .006 seconds, in the British Superbike Championship. Hopkins had an amazing season in the UK, riding unfamiliar tracks in a new team. He was in the hunt all year and but for -- take your pick -- his MotoGP hand injury or a machine problem in the second leg of the final BSB triple-header, he would have won the championship in his 'rookie' season over there.
Hopkins, though only 28, has already seemed washed up as a result of injuries at least once. Now, he's a battered vet, but he nearly won the British Superbike Championship on his first go.
Hopkins is not old; he's still in his twenties. But a year or two ago, he seemed done in by Schwantz-like repeated injuries. When he dropped from MotoGP to an American Superbike Championship series satellite team, many in the motorcycle racing world classified him as a has-been. His career trajectory was definitely down. His old mentor, John Ulrich, found a place for him at M4 Suzuki but even Ulrich felt that Hopkins had misrepresented his race fitness.

As I trundled along my commute, my thoughts ranged to two other 'old' riders who've also had good seasons. Josh Hayes, who's pushing 40, won his second AMA Pro Superbike title in a thrilling final too. He finally came to the fore after toiling in a series where if you weren't on a Yoshimura Suzuki, you had no real chance of winning. (And, even if you were, you had to beat Ben Spies and/or Mat Mladin.) He's another guy that, just three or four years ago, you would have said was destined to 'best of the rest' status -- which is not too attractive to sponsors and team owners in a sport that places a pedophile's priorities on youth.
All things come to those who wait. In Hayes' case, he had to wait for  AMA Pro to level the Superbike playing field in the U.S. His 2011 title defense was as hard-fought as his 2010 series, despite the absence of nemesis Mat Mladin. Now, he's slated for "a few laps" on a Yamaha MotoGP bike at the end-of-season test. I suppose that if he goes well, he might be in line for a wild-card ride (or three) in the U.S. next year, but there's no chance he'll actually move to MotoGP -- he's far to old. Not in reality, just in the minds of the motorcycle racing powers-that-be.
Then there's Nicky Hayden, 30. Although he may 'only' be languishing in seventh place in the MotoGP standings, 2011's been a season of redemption for him, too. Sure he won the AMA Superbike title in 2002 in dominant fashion, and won the 2006 MotoGP Championship, but he's also struggled for long periods. In those years when he was the 'B' team-mate at both Honda and Ducati, he continued to shoulder the 'A' testing load.
It could just be me, but Nicky Hayden seems a little less haunted this year. Is it that now the world's seen that even Valentino Rossi can't ride the Ducati MotoGP bike? And that Nicky's occasionally out-qualifying Rossi?
It must have been frustrating when Stoner could make the Ducati GP10 work (at least some of the time) and Nicky couldn't. Then, Ducati teamed him with Valentino Rossi for 2011. I guess we all knew who the teacher's pet would be in that class.

But it turns out that even the greatest living motorcycle racer couldn't make the GP11 work. Despite the fact that Ducati is (obviously) putting most of its efforts into Rossi's side of the garage -- despite the fact that Rossi gets all the best new stuff first -- Hayden's outridden Rossi several times. So no matter how long it's been since his last win, Nicky's had a few moral victories this year.

Where I'm going with this is that after a decade of increasing pressure to start kids road racing at younger and younger ages, there's still rewards to be reaped from experience and perseverance. I know that plenty of young riders would have looked at all three of these guys at the beginning of the 2011 season and thought, "I should have that ride."(OK, kids would look at two of the three and think that; most would admit that Yamaha would have been crazy to let Hayes walk away with his #1 plate.)

That's especially true of Hopkins in BSB. Most young racers (whose attention spans are scarcely longer than a fruit fly's) had forgotten his stalwart years in MotoGP (where he put in a yeoman's effort racing for teams in which winning was really not even possible.) Many European riders resent Hayden's Ducati deal, which they see as a reflection of the importance of the U.S. market to Ducati's sales.

So, many 'young guns' probably think they deserve those guys'  rides. But the truth is, no kid could have done anywhere near as well as these 'old guns' in their respective teams/situations. So what's with the obsession with pushing kids as young as 12 into road racing?

Hopper, Hayes, and Hayden didn't put in creditable seasons this year because they started racing as little kids. They racked up good results this year because of the years of toil they put in after they stopped being young guns.

I don't really know what Hayes' early childhood riding experience was; I do admit that both Hopper and Hayden were racing at a pretty high level from a pretty young age and that both of them were backed to the hilt as kids by supportive families. Nicky started out as a dirt tracker. (If he'd stayed racing flat track, he would have won multiple Grand National Championships by now, but he'd probably still need an off-season job, so I don't begrudge his switch to asphalt.)

But when I talked to him by phone earlier this season, he told me that he never rides flat track -- even mini-bikes -- in the off-season any more, because it screws him up for his MotoGP bike. So Nicky's early riding experience is definitely not the experience he put to use to out-ride Valentino Rossi several times this year.

My point in all this is, your kid doesn't have to be a young gun to succeed. You don't have to rush your kid into road racing. This year, even the guys who once were young guns succeeded because of the experience they amassed over years of ups and downs on the way to becoming old guns.

To teams and sponsors I say: Sure, keep an eye on those young guns. But bear in mind that Suzuki, Yamaha, and Ducati would be way behind where they are now if they'd hung up their old guns a season or two ago.

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