Monday, January 24, 2011

Banned in Backmarker: Throwing them in the deep end

A few years ago, when the Red Bull Rookies Cup started up, I wrote one of the few Backmarker columns that was flat rejected by the (then) host site. I chafed when Toriano Wilson was killed the next season. I was reminded of this virtually unpublished opinion piece last summer after the tragic death of Peter Lenz, but didn't post it then, because I didn't want to pile anything on his parents' grief.
In an unguarded moment last season, Kevin Schwantz told me, "I've seen some young kids who start racing for the wrong reasons; they've got parents pushing them into it."

Now the first RBRC test of 2011 is only a few weeks away, and this still needs to be said...

Throwing them in the deep end

When I was nine or ten years old, growing up in Switzerland, I had a phys-ed teacher named Mr. Knöpfl (spelling approximate, rhymes with “’kin’awful.”)

I was scrawny and unathletic. Depending on your point of view, I was also plain lazy or a prematurely jaded realist; I knew I was going to be picked last and lose first in any activity from dodgeball to high jump, so putting in an effort or getting emotionally involved was just stupid. You might imagine that Mr. Knöpfl’s class was one of the ones that I was glad to escape from every summer.

Except that there was no escaping Mr. Knöpfl.

Because all summer long, my primary destination was a huge outdoor swimming pool. The pool, in a nearby town called Divonne, had a 10-meter diving platform at one end. On the way to the top, there were intermediate stages at 3- and 5-meters, too. That fascinated me.

Damned if Knöpfl didn’t spend the whole summer at that diving platform, too. He was not a big guy. He smoked. But he was built like a brick shithouse and was a nearly Olympic-caliber diver. So he’d lounge at the poolside then languidly get up and stretch, to make sure the ladies were watching. Then he’d climb up and do a perfect half-twisting gigolo from a pike position and rip the entry. The ladies watched all right. They applauded.

I didn’t aspire to the fancy stuff, but I made it my mission to dive off the progressively higher platforms. The 5-meter one actually seemed pretty high to me, since at the age of 10 I was still only 2’11” tall and weighed just 28 pounds. It was a real commitment to even climb to the 10-meter level, especially because going back down the ladder was strictly forbidden by the lifeguards.

Up I went. At the top, it didn’t seem twice as high as the five. It seemed fifty times as high. I seriously thought the slight summer breeze might blow me onto to the pool deck, where I’d smash myself to jelly. At first, I couldn’t even bring myself to hang my toes over the edge.

It’s not like there was much traffic up there. But every now and then someone else climbed to the upper platform and I just waved him through. Hardly anyone dove from up there. The few showoffs that ventured up just jumped, usually with their arms held out sort of like they were being crucified, but making little circles with their hands. They shrieked all the way down.

I was up there for ages. Gradually I worked my way right to the edge. But I never had to work up the courage to actually jump, because after watching me agonize up there, Knöpfl snuck up, grabbed me around
 the ribcage, and flung me down into the pool.

“I thought you needed some encouragement,” he said, while I clung, sputtering to the edge of the deck afterward.

The thing is. I did need it. And even now, when I happen to be in a pool with a full-height platform, I get a little frisson from climbing way up and diving off it. (Funny, but despite the popularity of Jackass and the X-Games, there’s still not much traffic up at the 10 meter level.) So I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to that conceited prick.

And I suppose you’d think that after seminal experiences like that one, that I’d be in favor of the recent tendency to start kids roadracing at younger and younger ages, with the goal of feeding kids into world championship-level racing in their mid-teens. But I’m not.
Me at 12, looking very pleased with myself - perhaps after taking credit for leaping from the highest diving board at the pool. Photo by Ron Lamb (thanks!)
One reason I don’t approve is that motorcycle road racing is inherently far too dangerous for anyone to participate until they can make an informed judgment of the risks involved. A thirteen or fourteen year-old who is already racing 125 GP bikes doesn’t fully understand those risks. Those kids are being launched on their “careers” at an age when it’s (at best) impossible to determine the degree to which they were influenced by their parents’ desires. At worst, they were completely driven by the need for parental acceptance.

Before you start composing your scathing email response, I’ll point out that I’m well aware that kids take part in lots of other organized activities where injury (even death) are possibilities. They play football and hockey; cheerlead and go on school camping trips, etc. If that’s your counter-argument, you win. Because in any argument between a genius and a moron, the moron always wins. And only a moron could possibly argue that those activities are “like” road racing in terms of risk.

Not that it matters whose idea it was to go racing. When I was a kid, I’d’ve given anything to have a dad that’d buy me an RS125. But kids that age can’t make a mature decision about racing, or anything else. That’s why when they show up at the track, they don’t sign their own waivers. Their parents sign the waivers. For that matter, when the dentist finds a cavity in one of those kid’s mouths he asks their parents if he should fill it right away, he doesn’t get the kid’s opinion.

Still disagree with me? Fine. Have your tweener or early teenage daughter come over to my place. We’ll watch some porn flicks. Maybe she’ll decide to partake in some adult activities. Oh wait. I could be arrested for that, since every civilized country has laws defining a minimum age of sexual consent. Because influenced by parents, media, peer pressure, etc., and left to their own devices, teenagers will willingly choose to do things without fully understanding the risks and consequences.
Beware the youth cult

I don’t even like children, so I don’t know why I’m trying to protect them. But there’s something inherently seductive about the idea that you can only achieve greatness in any field of endeavor by starting very young. Partly, it gives the rest of us an excuse for our own failings. In any subculture, there’s a tendency to simplify complex moral distinctions by confusing some single skill (however complex) with inherent human value. Child prodigies lend themselves to this because they’re obviously “special.”

It’s true that Valentino, Dani, and even Nicky were essentially trained from birth to be motorcycle racers. But I don’t believe that there’s anything about the sport that inherently means they had to start that early to reach the top level. Road racing is not like women’s (read: “prepubescent girls”) gymnastics, where a set of tits would make many moves impossible. Those new MotoGP bikes are cramped, but you can still fit on them after your testes have dropped.

I am sure that for every child prodigy in motorcycle racing you could (if you looked) find a Troy Bayliss; a guy with as much or more talent who did a bit of schoolboy motocross, then did other things; surfed and raced bicycles, and came to road racing when he was old enough to have a driver’s license, having actually worked to buy his first “real” motorcycle. (Bayliss was still a club racer in Oz, well into his twenties.)

As motorcycles get more adjustable and complex, and as teams get larger, slightly more mature riders are more likely to have the communications, interpersonal and teamwork skills needed to function at the highest level. The thing is that if MotoGP’s gatekeepers–the team managers, sponsors, agents and promoters–convince themselves that they “need” a gifted (as opposed to “earned it”?) young rider, no one over 20 will get a look. And in a sport where you’re only as good as your equipment and support, the commandments of the youth cult (Thou shalt not yet need to shave) will quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Indeed, as those gatekeepers look amongst the lower echelons for future talent, it’s easy to see a 14 year-old who’s running at the front of a 19 year-old pack and conclude that he’s the one with natural potential. But if that youngster has 500 races under his belt and a 19 year old next to him has been in 50 races, the older kid is the one who’ll first cut the next second off his lap time. When kids learn complex skills very young they learn them deeply and well. Their “natural level” is that much higher. But they often learn those skills completely unconsciously, so when they do reach a plateau, they’re unable to think their way to the next level.

It’s not as though starting the kids young gives them a longer career, either. Careless Chucker–oops, my mistake, I meant to say Carlos Checa–notwithstanding, you’ve only got so many crashes in you. The younger you start, the younger you’ll quit. I doubt anyone will ever race MotoGP until he reaches the FIM’s mandatory retirement age (which, in case you’re curious is 50.)

Pushing that average entry age down five years just lowers the average age, and the average retirement age, by the same number of years. And that leads me to something fundamentally unfair about youth cults. (And it’s not that I’m a no-talent, arthritic, middle-aged, ex advertising writer. Although that’s pretty crappy, too.)

Paid pro racers are the tiny tip of a pyramid. Below them are self-funded pros, amateurs and novices. Even at the very base of that pyramid most riders are already in their twenties. I hope that those guys at the base of the pyramid aren’t hoping to make it in MotoGP because they’re virtually all destined to flunk out before reaching that level. Luckily, there are other good reasons to race. But it’s not good for the sport if, as a 20 year-old amateur, you can’t even dream about breaking out.

Imagine that “the system”–pocket bikes at 5, Metrakits at 10, Red Bull Rookies Cup at 13, a 125 ride at 15 (in that class, the mandatory retirement age is 28!), 250s at 16, and a MotoGP ride at 18–serves to select ultra-talented, charismatic champions. Oh, will managers and sponsors leap to the conclusion that that’s the new path all champions must follow. Events like the WERA finals or the GSX-R Cup–that used to be great talent spotting opportunities–will be dead ends.

All future champions will be drawn from a pool of people who have only an accident of birth to thank. If their dads are obsessed (and frankly irresponsible) parents who’ll set them on the championship track where they can have 100 mph crashes before they’re 12, they’ll have the chance to get to the top. Other kids–with just as much desire, talent, drive, and potential–will have parents who say, “Not until you’re older,” or “I can’t afford to pay for it.”

Kids who have to get jobs, save up money to buy race bikes… those kids will enter the sport on a career track that simply doesn’t lead to MotoGP. That would suck.

In my mind, as I composed this argument, I imagined a different way of doing things. I imagined a different kind of talent search in which some sponsor would look for riders over 20, 25, shit, even over 30, who have paid their own dues. Club racers. Grassroots guys (and gals) who currently toil in obscurity. Give the fastest over-20 guy a 125 wild card ride, the over-25 guy a 250 wild card, and have the over-30 guy get a MotoGP test-riding deal. I can hear IRTA saying, “Over our dead bodies,” already. But although I can’t prove it, I know that there are people out there, now utterly anonymous, who could do the business if they were given a chance. They just weren’t born with a silver throttle in their hand.


  1. Great article Mark!

    I have been saying similar things for a few years now. I am 38 years old and race a nicely outfitted Honda RS125 myself. I find the whole thing very conflicting. I really enjoy racing. I enjoy racing against the kids that are likely the future of the sport. Hell, I enjoy getting beat by them. I do not enjoy watching children ride over their heads with tons of pressure. The RBRC is not good for kids and is probably not good for the sport. There were pro racers long before there were child racers. It is not necessary.

  2. Intelligent article Mark!

    Several years ago, I founded a family trail riding club. We grew to include approximately 30 families and used to put on really great camping and trail riding weekends. I came to recognize that the kids all learned to ride hell for leather fast pretty quickly. They didn't need much help learning "how to ride" but what they sorely lacked was the knowledge required to recognize a dangerous situation as it developed and what to do about it. This realization came home in very sobering terms when two boys on a particularly dusty day managed to ride away from parental supervision and tee-bone one another in low visibility conditions. The result was a helicopter life flight to Loma Linda Hospital. Both Boys came thru the experience with only a few scars that hopefully one day chicks will dig. However, it reinforced in me the role of parental moderation. That filter should counter balance the youthful urge to twist the throttle always a bit harder. In addition to creating an event we dubbed the Safety Safari wherein we taught kids and newbie riders safe riding tips and trail etiquette, I enjoyed leading trail rides for newer riders. However, we did have one gung ho father join our club with his young teenage son. After only a handful of trail rides under his belt he began constantly pimping his son and often other more experienced riders to dice and mix it up on the trail. The inevitable result was that on virtually every ride we took he would end up wadding his bike and sometimes taking others down with him. I quit riding with the guy. I was more than a bit concerned when only weeks later I heard that he had enrolled his son in a "motocross school" and was pushing his son to start racing in the 125cc class. The kid was fearless and rose to the challenge and by all reports was getting faster and faster. Meanwhile Dad kept buying newer bikes, and a race trailer and all the equipment to make any serious privateer proud. Junior was racing and dad was crew chief. In less than a year, the dad had taken the kid from never having trail ridden (either of them) to all out competitive moto-cross racing and paying for private moto-cross lessons. Ultimately I was saddened to hear that the boy cased a landing badly on a big triple and had suffered a brain injury at age 14.