Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Marco Simoncelli didn't think it could happen to him

Last Monday, I wrote about risk in the context of sports like motorcycle racing. Today, I'll close that loop, with an excerpt from Riding Man that addresses the techniques that motorcycle racers use to deal with the psychological stress those risks entail. 

It's a statement of the obvious: racers are acutely superstitious. We've all seen Valentino Rossi's going-on-track ritual, that begins with his deep squat and tugging his bike's foot peg and ends with him pulling the leathers out of the crack of his ass as he rolls down pit lane.

Of course, those rituals are part of a mind-clearing exercise and in some ways actually do help to protect riders, but they don't confer any real luck; he did all that stuff, I'm certain, before he rolled out onto the track in Sepang. Then fate cruelly threw Simoncelli directly into his path.

Did Rossi think, "That could have been me," or was it, "I wish it had been me"? Is he now mulling over last Sunday morning in Sepang, looking for the thing he did do to bring him such bad luck? Or wondering what good luck charm failed him?

The truth is, you can't really race motorcycles without an inner belief that "it can't happen to me." While I was on the Isle of Man researching Riding Man and preparing for the TT, I saw plenty of superstition on the part of racers, and came to term with my own 'magic thinking', as I processed the risks associated with the upcoming race. I addressed those topics in a chapter I called...

Hello, Fairies

The Manx Motorcycle Club annual dinner is pretty much the social event of the winter on the Island. The mayor of Douglas, the Island’s governor, and the leaders of Manx industry such as they are, they’re all guests; Jack Wood had to pull strings to get me a ticket.

I show up a couple of hours early, to attend the club’s annual meeting. Picture a large room full of men in blazers. Several men with snow-white hair announce their retirements. In order to fill their positions, gray haired men are nominated. Nominations are seconded. All in favor say ‘Aye’. The Deputy Clerk of the Course’s term was not up, but he’s unfortunately deceased. He too is replaced. Finally, a new President literally assumes the mantle, as a large medal is hung around his neck on an elaborate sort of necklace. Jack Wood is made an honorary life member. I am the youngest person in the room, or so it seems.

The business of the club attended to – the races presumably preserved for another year –we go back downstairs for drinks. I sit down on a padded bench, beside a guy who is carrying so much weight that he braces an arm on an expansive thigh to prevent his body simply flowing in the direction of gravity. He wants to talk, though it leaves him breathless. When he asks me what I’m doing here, and I tell him, he gets a little defensive. A writer? Am I here to skewer the TT? But I’ve become adept at allaying such fears; I’m here to ride in it, after all, how could I be against it?

Every now and then, someone comes by to say ‘hi’ to him, and offers to buy him a drink. Once, he makes a motion to get up, and a man twice his age puts a hand on his shoulder saying, “No, I’ll get them.” It turns out that he’s the director of the Island’s Emergency Planning department. He enumerates the good things that the TT has given the Isle of Man; a much bigger hospital and better ambulance service, and top flight orthopedic surgeons that a little place like this would otherwise never have.

We go in for dinner. I’m seated at the press table next to Norrie Whyte, a legendary British journalist who tells me he’s been to every MMC dinner “since Read won in ’60.” Then he complains that no one can write any more. There’s a toast to “The Queen, Lord of Man” and after a few brief speeches Tony Jefferies (current champ David’s uncle, and head of the racing clan) is wheeled up onto the stage for a keynote speech that he could give in his sleep, or at least completely drunk, which he is. “He makes me look like a teatotaller,” says Whyte with admiration. Somewhere in there, a meal is served and there’s a swirl of conversation from which I note only a fragment, “That’s the trouble, isn’t it? These young guys are trying to ‘short circuit’ the TT course.”

Standing at the bar, afterwards, I meet two riders, an old guy and his protégé. The old guy is Chris McGahan, an Englishman who nearly made a career of racing, back in the ‘70s. Since then, he’s specialized as a ‘real road’ racer, doing the major Irish meetings, the TT and Manx GP, and a few public road races on the continent.

Chris, who’s probably in his fifties, looks like an ex-lightweight boxer who stayed in shape. Long arms, strong hands and shoulders; his most noticeable feature is a pair of large ears, the tops of which stick out horizontally like wings. “They call me ‘wingnut’,” he grins. In a room where men outnumber women at least 20:1, he seems to have two dates. (The MMC Annual Dinner was actually stag until the mid-‘90s.) The younger guy is Sean Leonard, Irish. “Dere’s noothin’ known about racin’ dat Chris don’t know,” Sean tells me.

They’ve hardly stopped drinking when they call me around 10 a.m. the next morning. They’re going to drive down to Castletown to meet a sponsor, then cut a couple of laps of the Mountain in a borrowed car. Do I want to come?

Chris spins one yarn after another. Famous old racers, fast women; smuggling booze back across the channel from continental races, smuggling stowaways on the ferry to the island for the TT; serious substance abuse continuing right up to the green flag; choose any four from columns A, B, and C. He’s driving as fast as he’s talking. Suddenly, with Chris hurtling along in mid-sentence, Sean blurts, “Fairy Bridge!”

No Island native crosses the little stone bridge without saying ‘hello’ to the fairies. Sean says it, and so does Chris, injecting his “Hello Fairies,” in the middle of a sentence. I say it, too. They kind of laugh it off, like, ‘we don’t actually believe it…’

We park at a pub, and go in. It’s maybe 10:30 a.m., I’m thinking what, tea? Brunch? They stand at the bar and order pints of beer. “What about you, Mark? What’ll you take for a livener?” I order a pint of Guinness, and a second, before the sponsor shows up with his wife. He’s a dapper guy, younger than McGahan (and me, for that matter) but dressed older; he wears a pocket watch on a gold chain. There’s a bit of business done, as Chris discusses plans for a vintage bike, something they’re planning to build for one of the Manx GP classes.

I beg off the third pint, while we socialize. The sponsor, I learn, owns a scrapyard somewhere “on the mainland” but his involvement with Chris isn’t really a business proposition; in ‘real roads’ racing, sponsors provide bikes or money so they can hang out with riders, maybe that’s why the riders tend to be such characters.

We head back north in the car, and pick up the course at Ballacraine corner, about six miles into it. Chris is again in running commentary mode, driving even faster now. As we go over the various “jumps” and bumpy areas on the course, Chris takes his hands off the wheel and makes handlebar waggling movements. Sean reaches up and grips, tightly, the handle above the passenger-side door.

Just past Ballaugh, we come to a white cottage and Chris slams on the brakes. “Gwen’s always got tea and cakes for racers,” he says, then as he gets out “Wait here while I see if she’s in.”

Gwen’s become a minor celebrity, known as the ‘lady in white’. She stands in her garden, for every TT practice session and every race, rain or shine. She always waves as the racers pass, and many of them claim to acknowledge her, though she lives on a bumpy stretch of road so they don’t wave back as much as raise a finger or waggle a foot. For decades, she always wore a white dress, until she was made an honorary corner marshal and issued a white coverall. She’s an honorary member of the TT Rider’s Association, too. There was even a time when the ‘newcomer’s bus tour’ used to actually stop at her cottage, and everyone would troop out and meet her (later, on my bus tour, we didn’t stop. I assume she’s getting too old.)

When I ride past her cottage on my bicycle, I look in the big front picture window. The parlor walls are covered with photos and TT mementos, but I’ve never seen any movement in there. In fact, I’ve been wondering if Gwen is still alive. I’d like to meet her, but it’s not destined to happen. Chris jumps back into the car. “The door was open, but she’s not in there,” he says, and we’re off again.

Back in Douglas, we spend four hours in another bar, “The owner’s one of our sponsors,” Chris says, and we begin drinking as though someone else will pick up the tab. When I finally beg off, they can’t believe I’m not coming with them to the next party.
There was no way Sean Leonard was going to cross the Fairy Bridge without saying ‘hello’ to the fairies. Michelle Duff’s (she was previously Mike, but that’s another story) final words of advice to me before I left were, “Say ‘hello’ to the fairies from me.”Nowadays visitors tend to think, "How quaint, the simple folk still believe in magic." But motorcycle racers are superstitious, too.

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 out 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 alright. 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.

(Author’s note: Long after that day at Willows, 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 to 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 which is critical. Nonetheless, most Manx say hello on every crossing, and that had been my habit too.

As I was worrying through this very thought, I noticed a crow hopping in the road ahead of me. I got closer and closer I actually said, “Hey, take off” out loud. But it didn’t. I thought about slamming on the brakes, or swerving, and did a quick visual check to ensure the road was otherwise clear. Then I thought, “Don’t be stupid, they always wait to the last second to get out of the way.”

But it didn’t. I hit it and killed it.

I was fucking aghast.)

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