Sunday, May 26, 2013

Roger Willis' tales of TT trophies

This morning, I rode down to the Crab Shack, on the breakwater at Peel on the west coast of the Isle of Man. Roger Willis rocked up -- he's the author of 'The Nazi TT'; the story of the Nazi's determination to win the Senior TT in 1939. Over a kipper bap and tea, Roger told me two equally amazing stories about how the Senior, and Junior TT trophies survived the war. The Senior trophy was won by Georg Meier on the indomitable BMW Kompressor, of course; the Junior trophy spent the war in Italy, after being won by a Benelli rider. I'll try to schedule a formal interview with Roger sometime in the next few weeks. Until then, a teaser: JUnior silverwork spent the war buried in Mr. Benelli's garden. The Senior one -- the most sought after award in motorcycling -- was, luckily, transferred out of bomber range. It ended up in Vienna. After the war, an RAF officer tracked the trophy down, but was dismayed to find that it was in the Russian sector. Through channels, the British prevailed on the Russians to liberate the trophy and repatriate it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

MotoGP's gay question: confronting the elephant in the room, 2008

A little less than five years ago, I had dinner with a friend of mine here in Kansas City. He'd been a VIP at the inaugural Indy MotoGP event, and had run into a paddock insider who, in the course of pointing out various people at one moment pointed to some guy and told my friend, “...and that's Rossi's lover.”

My friend asked for clarification and was told that this was something lots of people knew but didn't openly talk about. The source was a guy who worked in a PR capacity with Fiat, who had worked with Rossi a bit.

I asked my friend, "Was your guide pointing out 'Uccio'? Rossi travels to all the races with some buddy named Alessio Salucci (aka Uccio) from his home town, and I don't think their relationship is sexual, but I can imagine that others might..."

My friend, however, didn't remember the name of the person described as Rossi's lover.

I raise this topic now because at the pre-Jerez press conference a couple of weeks ago, David Emmett -- of fame -- asked the assembled stars why there'd never been an openly gay MotoGP rider. The assembled riders, of course, were mostly pretty young; they've grown up in an era of increasing acceptance of public homosexuality, and were nonplussed by the question. But I'll bet you that privately, the organizers and 'old guard' of the sport were displeased by David's question.

While I didn't read any comments from Rossi himself, he was the elephant in the room. Other people with a stake in the story pointed out, at some length, that Rossi's relationship with Uccio wasn't 'gay', that Uccio had a child, and that Rossi's been squiring some hottie lately, but the couple kept her out of the limelight.

When a friend of mine returned from the 2008 MotoGP event and reported that it was an open secret that Rossi was gay, I was doubtful. I had another friend who had better-than-average access to the factory Honda team when Rossi'd ridden there, and I asked that guy about it, off the record. The person I asked, who obviously must remain anonymous even now, was someone I thought would be well informed but very conservative with his opinion. I expected him to quash the 'rumor' out of hand. I was surprised when, after a pause to consider his response, he said, "Well, I wouldn't say 'gay' but I could believe he was bi, and I don't think he's the only one in the paddock."

Meanwhile, back to the summer of 2008...

In telling me that story, my friend wasn't expressing any judgement of his own as to the truth of the rumor. He was telling me the story because he felt the experience of hearing it was interesting. (He was a huge Rossi fan and his admiration was not dimmed by being told Rossi was gay. My friend's girlfriend was certainly bummed by this 'news,' however.)

My first thought was, well that would explain why I've never seen paparazzi photos of him cavorting nude with some Italian supermodel on a private beach (though I'd certainly never seen him cavorting with hot guys, either.) My second thought was, it would probably be harder to come out in Italy than it would be here.

The first thing I said out loud to my friend, just as he said almost the same thing was, "If he was gay, it would sure be interesting if he came out."

A day or so later, I posed this question on my Facebook page: Is Valentino Rossi the most famous gay athlete? Back then, I had about 120 Facebook ‘friends’, who were almost all either motorcycle journalists, or motorcycle racers. That was 2008, remember, before FB privacy had eroded. At the time, there was a general sense that Facebook posts were quasi-private as opposed to quasi-public.

My reason for posing the question was to make my 'friends' question their own values. That required the question to be framed in a provocative way. Had I written, 'I don't know or care if Rossi's gay, but hypothetically speaking, how would that make you feel?' no one would have noticed.

The question attracted over 20 responses in a few hours -- a record for me at that time -- and triggered vitriolic backchat. So much so that for the first (and, I think last) time, I actually deleted a post. People basically told me, “You’ll never work in this town again,” which was relevant since I was earning most of my living writing about motorcycles. Only Simon Hargreaves, at the great UK magazine Bike, seemed to understand the spirit in which it was asked.

Anymore, I don’t give a shit. But I always wanted to clarify my own position – not on the question of Rossi's sexual preferences, but on the reasons I had for questioning it. And, I thought of all this again when MotoMatters opened Pandora's Box at Jerez.

The (mostly) negative reaction to my Facebook question could be divided into two categories: comments from people who felt the question was simply off-limits, and from those who felt that even the implication was an insult to Rossi and basically anti-motorcycling. (One member of the AMA Hall of Fame accused me of trying to destroy the whole sport.)

Before I address those two categories of response, I'll give you full disclosure: I slept with him.

Just kidding. He's not my type.

But seriously... When I posed that question, he was keeping MotoGP afloat, and every MotoGP stakeholder should’ve contributed to a billion-dollar life insurance policy on him, to cover their losses should anything happen to him – because if anything had happened to Rossi, the sport's whole fan base  would have evaporated.

But was the question per se off-limits?

One point of view is that public figures are still entitled to private lives. I'll call this the Sean Penn argument. And I don't buy it.

When you accept the rewards of celebrity – money, preferential treatment, etc., – there's a quid pro quo, and it is that many of the fans who fund your infinitely-better-than-average lifestyle are, in fact, justifiably curious about your lifestyle. Of course they are, they paid for it.

This was especially true, IMHO, in Rossi's case. His elaborate, choreographed victory-lap celebrations were part of a conscious plan to blur the boundary between on-track and off-track fame.

It was especially, especially true given his tendency to play unseemly (and in his case unnecessary) head games off the track. Both Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau were dogged by 'gay' rumors at the time when Rossi delighted in skewering them.

To the best of my knowledge, Rossi never said, to the fawning, sycophantic journos and paddock insiders who fomented those rumors, “Hey you guys, that's over the line.”

The rumor-monger my friend ran into at Indy was not alone. Other MotoGP insiders kept their thoughts to themselves (in public, though not in private) because #46 was MotoGP's Brahmin and it was a career limiting move to say anything that could be perceived as harmful to him.

Some people felt my question was off limits because they'd adopted the don't-ask-don't-tell position taken (until recently) by the U.S. military.

Although I'd probably come down on the it's-a-personal-decision side of that argument where private citizens are concerned, there is a well-developed philosophical position that holds that gays in general, and role models in particular, have a moral imperative to come out. Watch 'Milk,' starring the noted paparazzi-puncher Sean Penn, for more insight into this position.

Finally, some people felt the question was off limits because they interpreted it as an anti-gay slur from me. Since anyone who knows me or has closely read my work over the years knows that's ridiculous, I won't bother debating it.

As for the people who felt that even posing the question was a slur, all I can say is that the tone of the responses suggests that I was correct to assume it would prove provocative.

Like David Emmett, I find it ironic that a sport that's wrapped up in notions of rebellion and individualism remains, in fact, staunchly conservative.

Frankly, I never got over Wayne Rainey's accident, and have had only an outsider-looking-in/comparatively dispassionate interest in 500GP/MotoGP since then. That said, I'm a committed supporter of underdogs everywhere, so while I now feel a bit sorry for Vale, in 2008 I rooted for the field, not Rossi.

Back then, he made winning look too easy, too often. I watched too many elaborately planned victory celebrations that made me realize that in Rossi's mind, winning was a fait accompli.

If I had known he was a closeted gay, I would have liked him a lot more, because it would suggest that he carried a burden off the track. He'd seem more human, less godlike. (I admit that there's a good chance I'd find him quite human in person.)

If he was gay and came out, it would make millions of homophobes, around the world, question their own values and prove that Rossi was as brave off the track as he is on it. That would cost Rossi in particular and MotoGP in general a lot of fans, but it would gain Rossi one fan: me.

For the record, I don't think it's ever gonna' happen.

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UPDATE July 15

In two months, this post has been hit enough to put it in the all-time top-10 posts on this blog. But in the last week or so, I noticed that traffic's been ramping up even more. I wondered, "Has this rumor been given new currency?"

So, I did what anyone would do, looking for a news story. I Googled "Is Valentino Rossi gay?"

Actually, I didn't get that far. Because as soon as you hit the space bar after the word 'Valentino' in that search, Google fills in these options...

I clicked the fourth option, and didn't see anything that would explain an uptick in traffic to this post (except that this post is listed as the third result.)

Anyway, for what it's worth, the Google options suggest that it's a non-issue. Sure, Google fills in the answer 'homosexual' in that fourth slot, but come on... the implication is that more people wonder if he's dead than if he's gay. Clearly, they didn't see him ride at Assen if they think he's dead. It's possible, of course, that some people asking about his marital status are doing so because they wonder if he's gay, but I think it's far more likely they're wondering if he's available.

But seriously, it occurred to me that no matter what attractive male celebrity you Googled, you might get the 'gay' question as a prompt. Nope, that's not the case...

In Brad Pitt's case, the fourth question was, "Is he going blind?"

Then I thought, What if it's just a question asked about conspicuously unmarried male celebs? I Googled actor Michael Fassbender, and got...

Hmm... Given the fascination with Fassbender's, ah, equipment (which apparently got Charlize Theron's full attention, when she saw it on a film set) it's almost surprising a lot of gay guys aren't trying to find out if Fassbender (ahem) 'bats' for the other team. But no, the question that dogs Rossi isn't, apparently, asked of all celebs.