Monday, January 13, 2014

Writer's Notebook: Barcelona

Spain's in the midst of a crushing recession, although I didn't personally see that much evidence of it. Maybe what I was seeing was actually evidence of Europe's social safety net. 

Barcelona's a nice place to be a tourist; there's good public transit, better-than-average bar food, striking modern buildings that, I presume, were just finished in time for the bottom to fall out of the economy. That said, I did keep my record intact, which is that every time I spend any time in a big European city, someone tries to pick my pocket. I'm now about five for five vs. the gypsies.

Of course, Barcelona's famous for Art Deco architecture—especially the work of Antonio Gaudi. I took the Metro out to Sagrada Familia, a Gaudi church that is one of the 20th century's masterpieces. Or, at least, it will be if they ever finish it. It's surrounded by Starbucks, KFC, and a Burger King.

When I went to pick up a credential, the press officer opened her eyes wide, and told me, "You're a very famous journalist!"

I assured her that she was thinking of some other guy, but she was adamant. To prove it, she opened up that day's Periodico newspaper, and flipped to a story about the Superprestigio, which described the whole social media campaign I conducted to get Brad an invitation. The writer made a point of quoting me as saying that if the MotoGP riders failed to invite him, it could only mean they were 'gallinos'--chicken.

This hairpin turn was part of the old Monjuic Park circuit.
During the long siesta between qualifying and racing, I was desperate to get away from the noise, dust, and exhaust, I walked out into Montjuic Park, where the arena was located. The 'mont' in the name is for 'mountain'; it's on a huge hill that dominates the city. 

For years, there were motorcycle and car races on the roads around and through the park. The F1 circuit abandoned Montjuic in 1975, after an accident killed a driver and five fans. Occasional Grand Prix, TTF1, and World Endurance Championship motorcycle races were held until the '80s, along with Spanish Championship events. Kenny Noyes' dad Dennis clinched a championship the very last time anyone raced there. Dennis was so popular in Spain that the Spanish equivalent of the AMA once passed a rule, which came to be known as "the Noyes rule", that foreigners could accumulate points in the Spanish domestic championship.

Back in Montjuic's heyday, Spain was still under the control of Francisco Franco. Political niceties meant nothing to the Generalissimo; the country had trade barriers that basically made it impossible for the Japanese manufacturers to sell there.

Eventually, to get around the situation, the major Japanese manufacturers all bought into Spanish subsidiaries. Honda bought Montesa, Kawasaki bought a piece of Derbi. Yamaha invested in Sanglas, a maker of unloved police bikes. And Suzuki invested in Puch, an Austrian company that made mopeds in Spain. (My first motorbike was a Puch Condor.) The only manufacturer who was too proud to sell out was Senor Bulto.

Of course, by 1980, Bultaco was out of business.

The huge building that dominates Montjuic from Plaza Catalunya is the Museo Nacional d'Art Catalan. Yes, Catalunya thinks of itself as a separate nation, complete with a secessionist movement. A crowd of people sat appreciatively as a busker, an excellent flamenco guitarist, played a song it took me a while to recognize: Time in a Bottle, by Jim Croce.

Inside the museum, there was a swing band playing, and at least two hundred swing dancers. So it was U.S. music inside and out.

I meant to ask Baker about the amount of time he spent on the rev limiter; more than anyone else. I wonder if it was just that he didn't have the right gearing available, or if for some reason he likes riding on the overrun. At the end of every straight, his bike stuttered like a tobacco auctioneer.

Although Bradley Smith wasn't particularly fast, I thought he looked smooth and controlled most of the time. I was impressed with his workmanlike attitude, which was consistent with the observations of experienced MotoGP journos, who have for the most part defended him against critics who say he's not the most deserving guy for his ride.

Before suiting up, Smith goes through an elaborate and typically methodical stretching and loosening up routine, involving calisthenics, various elastic devices, and a roller. Other riders have said, "If I did all that, I'd be too tired to ride!"

It's a cliche to say that in Spain and Italy, guys like Marquez and Rossi are treated like rock stars. But I was taken aback to see way people--lots and lots of people--just want to be around Marc. He was pretty relaxed and available in his little pit box, signing autographs and flashing his toothpaste-commercial smile for a never ending series of photos. In many ways, it was a lot like a typical flat track pit scene, except that of course all the people who had access to the Superprestigio pit were industry insiders. Still it was nice to see MotoGP coming a little down to earth (or at least, clay.)

Baker signed a lot of autographs too, something he did especially enthusiastically if the seekers were, shall I say, date-worthy. The closest I heard to him speaking Spanish was a cheerful, "Hola, girls" when two cute ones approached. He says he's going to try to learn a little Spanish, for next time. He might find it difficult; they have a different word for almost everything.

Here's how I look at Brad Baker and Marc Marquez coming together, and having Marquez crash out of the 'Superfinal' last Saturday night: Baker told me--and I believe him--that he intentionally held a little bit back in order to give the fans a race to watch. If you accept that there was no chance that Marquez was going to win, then crashing out of a battle for the lead was the most honorable outcome.

Marc deserves a lot of credit for insisting there there'd even be a Superfinal. In the hotel, the night before the race, Bradley Smith's dad/manager was certain that this would be the first and last time a Grand National Champion would be invited to participate, because, he said, the promoters wouldn't countenance their hero being beaten.

"By agreeing to the Superfinal," the MotoGP insider opined, "Marquez has gone from a situation in which he was a certain winner to one where he won't even finish on the podium."

That, it turned out, was a little harsh; Marquez certainly would have finished second if he hadn't crashed.

The influential MotoGP blogger David Emmett came up to Brad after the races, and said, "I thought that you and Marc, on dirt, were like Lorenzo and Marc in Grands Prix; you and Lorenzo are both very smooth and controlled, and Marc was all over the place, the same as he is on a MotoGP bike."

But, David, bear this in mind: Marquez crashed out of a lot of Moto2 races, too. In a year or two he might be all over the place and still be on his wheels at the end of the night. The point is, he beat Lorenzo.

This wasn't the first time that AMA flat track has represented in Spain. In the early '90s, Solo Moto held an American style flat track race on a dog track. They brought in several top U.S. riders, who explained that it wasn't just a dog track, it was a dog of a track.

Still, I can guarantee you that more people watched Baker win the Superfinal on Spanish television than have seen any AMA flat track race in decades. My guess is that more Americans watched and followed the Superprestigio than have watched any Grand National in decades. So when I heard a rumor--that's probably all it was--that AMA Pro Racing had discussed holding a National in another country for next season, I couldn't help but fantasize: How cool would it be to bring the top 10 guys in GNC points, and their bikes, over to Spain for the final race next year?

Jaime Alguersuari is the publisher of Solo Moto and a legendary figure in Spanish motorcycling. After the banquet, he hugged me, thanked me, and made me promise I'd come back next year. "I think," he said while refusing to let me go, "that today, Barcelona was part of the United States. "

I guess exposing thousands of Spanish racing fans to dirt track makes up, in some small way, for exporting Starbucks and KFC, eh?

What with interviews and thank yous, we were the last people to leave Palau St. Jordi on Saturday night. Brad's mechanics offered to help carry out his gear bag. As people divided up the load to lug out, he said, "I'll carry the hardware." He's a racer: leaving with the trophy is what it's all about.

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