Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marquez: In strictest confidence...

The 2014 MotoGP season has one dominant storyline so far, and it's "How many wins will Marquez score in a row?" The modern record set by Mick Doohan is in sight; winning every race this season is entering the realm of possibility. (UK bookmaker William Hill is taking bets at 9-2.)

A couple of races ago, Lorenzo had a dreadful weekend and was forthright in admitting that he'd been spooked by changeable conditions and memories of a previous crash. That was an example of a lack of confidence screwing a racer's competitiveness. We can all relate to that (at least, any of us who've raced at any level.)

What's more interesting though, is what's happening to Marc Marquez. You see, there are a lot of sports where being confident provides a psychological edge, but motorcycle racing (and in particular, road racing on modern circuits) is a rare example of a sport where confidence provides a physical advantage.

Let's take golf as an example of a sport (OK, a game) where confidence provides a psychological advantage. A player in his groove will find himself in situations where he could play a safe shot, or take a bigger risk for a higher reward. He'll take the riskier shot and, as long as he makes it, get an advantage over his competition. But his confidence has little impact on the statistical probability that he'll make the shot. Or, a baseball pitcher who feels confident will throw a fastball up and inside against a power hitter, looking for the strike rather than risk walking him on balls. That pitcher's confidence may earn him an extra 'k', but confidence doesn't actually affect hitters' performance. So in those situations, the confident player is really just betting that his luck will hold.

In MotoGP however, confidence literally makes a racer faster. At that level, everyone is operating within a narrow 1% band between keeping it on its wheels and crashing. In that narrow band, rider inputs have to be incredibly smooth. Although riders work hard and make forceful inputs in order to get the bike from upright to maximum lean in fractions of a second, there are many moments when they have to be very, very careful not to make any extraneous inputs.

Ironically, while they're sweating buckets, fighting arm pump, and their pulse is racing, they need to relax. A little tense grab at the brake--something a mortal rider wouldn't even notice--a little tense grip in mid-corner that transits the tiniest extra steering input; stuff you and I do all the time... if you're riding at the MotoGP level, that stuff is the difference between winning and crashing out. 

If a rider's tense, he's more likely to do something--something he probably won't notice and which will likely pass undetected even on a data-logged MotoGP bike--that will make him crash. Tense riders can't feel the smallest signals that the tires are transmitting up through the suspension and chassis, to their butt, if their butt is clenched too tight. That's what my old friend, mechanic, and ex-racer Ken Austin was getting at when he told me, "Great riders ride in a state of grace."

It's also what Valentino Rossi was trying to get back to, when he fired his longtime crew chief at the end of last season and the real reason that change of personnel seems to be working.

Every now and then, a MotoGP rider shows he's merely human (who was it that left his pit lane speed limiter engaged on that crazy start in Germany?) But don't kid yourself; they're not like us. Everyone has otherworldly speed, physical skills, and racecraft. And the rulesmakers have done a good job of ensuring that there's little to choose between the top factory rides. So a tiny advantage results in a big difference in the points table.

Right now, that 1% band that all MotoGP riders operate in seems nice and wide, and comfortable, to Marc Marquez. He's operating in the 1% of the 1%, and can get to the edge of the edge without making the micro-mistakes that come from carrying doubt in the mind and tension in the body.

Even his last few little crashes haven't shaken his confidence, which is literally making him the best rider. Lorenzo's a cool customer, and normally the smoothest guy out there, but he knows how hard it is to get back to that place.

The question is, will anything shake Marquez' confidence? He may be -- he will be -- beaten in some individual race, but he will not be seriously challenged by any rider harboring even the slightest self doubt.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Speaking of the ill, and dead: Charles Everitt

I just heard that Charles Everitt, who had a long career as a motorcycle writer, finally died the other day. Facebook being what it is, and my pool of FB friends being skewed towards motorcycle journalists, I couldn't help but see dozens of comments to the effect of "Godspeed, Charles".

Everitt was already on the backside of his career by the time Mitch Boehm hired him to work at Motorcyclist, in about 2005.

Motorcyclist had a small staff; Tim Carrithers had been there the longest thanks to a truly weird and deeply dysfunctional codependent relationship with Boehm. The art director, Todd Westover, had hung in there a while but he was a little insulated by the nature of being an art director; he didn't really have a dog in the fight when, as a bunch of writers, we debated the content of the book. Aaron Frank was a good guy whose personality may have been preserved because he worked at a safe distance out in Wisconsin.

But other than those guys, it was a revolving door. I replaced a previous short-timer named Peter Stark (not the billionaire industrialist of 'Iron Man' fame; some other Peter Stark.) I remember going for lunch one day and listening to Boehm slander Stark relentlessly. On the way back, riding up the elevator, Boehm mused about all the ways he could fuck the guy's career up, including making up lies he could spread. I was, like, "Mitch, you're talking about doing things that could get both you and the magazine sued, you know that, right?"

Toxic, eh?

Meanwhile, I was—despite being the oldest guy on the masthead—the new guy in terms of being a magazine staffer, and I could not believe how those fuckers managed to find the drudgery in such a fun job.

I guess the magazine was still a little understaffed (by all accounts it was very profitable at that time, and they could've afforded a larger, Cycle World-style payroll, but why?) Anyway, Boehm needed one more guy who could produce readable copy. "Who the fuck is this guy?" I wondered when Everitt arrived. He'd been shacked up, up in Portland, eking out a living writing motorcycle books; I didn't recall his days at bike mags going back to Cycle but I think he was often a managing editor, which is not a position that has a high exposure to readers.

So when he arrived, he was the oldest guy; older than me by, like,  a year. But he looked about 78. He had some kind of health problem, and I think part of his motivation to move down to L.A. and get an actual job hinged on getting health insurance.

Compared to Everitt, Boehm and Carrithers were a pair of regular Pollyannas. If there'd been a dark cloud over editorial meetings before he showed up, they were positively moribund afterward. Nihilist though he was, he was canny too; he realized that compared to the other magazines being published on our floor; Sport Rider, Motorcycle Cruiser, and Dirt Rider, Motorcyclist was now about half-a-man overstaffed. If I could be split from the herd, there'd be more salary to go 'round. He knew he had to act fast, too, since it was becoming apparent to readers that I was the only entertaining writer on the masthead and before long there'd be an outcry at my disappearance.

Plus, he just hated the fact that I was openly gay. By which I mean I was always happy to come into work; I never concealed the fact that I loved doing my job. (What did you think I meant?)

But seriously, folks, those three loved to whinge about how hard done-by they were. I probably shouldn't have chided them for it but I did, and I reminded them that the people we actually worked for—the readers—all had real jobs which were far worse than ours. In fact, most of our readers would have happily used their vacation days, and paid to do our jobs for a couple of weeks every year, while calling it the best holiday ever.

So, with some help from Carrithers, Everitt set out to alienate/shun me. No matter what story I suggested, his knee jerk reaction was, "We did that at Cycle." As if, thirty years later, you couldn't revisit anything.

We all proofread each others' stuff. The protocol was, if you found a mistake, you highlighted it and sent it back to whoever'd written the piece, but Everitt would excoriate me in the proofs, and then send them directly to Boehm, to make sure Boehm saw and noted every mistake I ever made before I could correct it. I thought, at the time, he might even have been sneaking into my office to edit errors into my copy.

Everitt wanted me gone at any cost to the magazine. There was a 'garage' section at the back of the book, and he convinced Boehm to sequester me back there. That way, they could keep me out of the personality and riding stories that I excelled at, and ensure I was working in my weakest area.

It didn't matter that at the time, Carrithers had had some accident and didn't really want to ride at all, and Everitt could hardly climb onto a motorcycle, so by locking me in the garage (so to speak) they basically ensured that all their riding stories were shit. But it worked for Everitt, because I had lots of opportunities to fuck up on technical details.

Not that he limited his attacks on me to technical errors. Once, in some 'garage' context I wrote about sitting in your garage, with your bike up on a workbench, just sitting looking at it while drinking a beer. I.E., something we all do, all the time. I mean fuck, doesn't every real garage have a small fridge just for that reason?

Everitt scrawled a huge note on that copy, to the effect that WE COULD BE SUED for suggesting that readers drink beer, even in the privacy of their own garage, while their bike was in pieces. Boehm sided with that opinion, and Everitt copy-edited 'beer' into 'a frosty beverage'. Eye roll. I pulled my name off that story, rather than have anyone think I'd choose so dated a turn of phrase.

Boehm sided with Everitt from the start. (I had earlier made the mistake of disagreeing with Boehm, which turned him off me.) Still, he must've been a little conflicted because one afternoon he suggested, "Why don't you go out for dinner with Charles tonight and get to know him?"

That was unappealing, but I figgered I had to. Charles was staying in a hotel near the office, and I arranged to meet him at his room, around six. He suggested that we have a drink there, before going out to eat. He then poured two drinks; at least ten ounces of Wild Turkey, or some fucking bourbon or other in large tumblers. He handed one to me; it was probably more hard liquor than I'd consumed, in total, in my life to date. He drank his as if he was actually trying to quench a thirst.

Before going out to eat, he opened a small suitcase of the type a starlet might use to carry a ridiculous quantity of makeup. The case was completely, completely full of prescription drugs. I'm talking like, a quantity of drugs you'd have if you were getting 'scrips from eight doctors at the same time. It was Johnny-Depp-as-Hunter-S-Thompson; he opened a few pill bottles and dumped several pills from each into the palm of his hand. Forget counting them—he was just kinda' eyeballing the size and color of the pile to regulate his dosage. He washed 'em down with my drink, rather than have it go to waste. He must've been at least 50% liver by weight.

It went downhill from there, although the next day at work, I ran into friend—who shall remain anonymous—who worked for one of the other magazines on our floor.

"As I was driving into work this morning," she told me. "I noticed this scruffy guy, shuffling along; he hacked and spat onto the sidewalk, and I was just thinking, 'What a horrible old man' as I passed him and realized it was Charles!"

By the time I realized how committed Everitt was to getting rid of me, it was too late. In hindsight, I should have taken him aside right at the beginning, kneed him in the balls as hard as I could or sucker-punched him in the solar plexus, and told him, "If you ever cross me, I'll kill you." But realistically, he was such a decrepit specimen that such a tactic might've left me facing a murder rap.

Within a month or two of Everitt's arrival, Boehm called me into his office. There was some HR bitch from our corporate overlords waiting in there, to fire my ass. It was a real, "big corporate" firing. She told me, "If you sign this form right now agreeing that you won't sue us, you'll get some nominal severance payment, but if you don't sign it, you'll just get paid to end of this pay period."

After I said, "No thanks" to signing away my right to sue, I learned that in the state of California, it's nearly impossible to sue for wrongful termination. Luckily, since I was a Canadian and they'd made all kinds of promises to employ me during the visa application process, I was able to sue for wrongful hiring. They settled out of court for a few grand, which was a moral victory and (I hope) made Boehm's life at least a little miserable, while he explained that to his bosses.

Looking back on it, as unpleasant a cast of characters as Boehm, Everitt, and Carrithers were, I loved my Motorcyclist gig. Walking down into the garage under the Death Star building on Wilshire, and picking a set of keys off the rack; choosing any one of a dozen cool new bikes to ride... that had somehow gotten old for those bitter bastards, but I reveled in it. I'm still bummed when I look back on the sorry end of my brief career as an actual magazine staffer.

It was a funny thing, about life after Motorcyclist. When I worked there, the only magazine Boehm openly plundered for ideas was the UK magazine Bike. We literally handed the latest issue around the table at editorial meetings. Yet a few days before he fired me, I'd made some suggestion for a story that was 'Bike-ish'. Boehm angrily said, "If you like those British magazines so much, why don't you go work for them?" And indeed, after he fired me, I made a living writing features for Bike, and ended up getting a regular gig as a columnist in Classic Bike.

I guess at this point, what you want to read is how, in hindsight, I've come to realize that poor Charles was a sick old man, who desperately needed a salary and health insurance; that he must've been in pain and was obviously multiply addicted. And how a few years later the magazine business went in a death spiral anyway, so my 'career' as a full time motorcycle journalist was bound to end even without Charles' help.

You want to read that in the fullness of time I've come to realize that everything worked out OK, and that I've buried the hatchet.

Fuck that.

I don't know if Everitt was always an asshole, but I know he was always an asshole to me. I should be careful saying, I hope he rots in hell, because if there is a hell there's a good chance that I'm in for a mighty uncomfortable afterlife, too, for reasons that have nothing to do with my time at Motorcyclist.

Besides, if there's a hell, Everitt's already sucking up to Satan and will ensure that I get a terrible assignment down there!

So I'll just leave it at Godspeed, Charles.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A one-day belated nod to Joey Dunlop

I missed the 14th anniversary of Joey Dunlop's death yesterday, so here's a one-day belated nod to the greatest 'real roads' racer of my time. I count myself lucky to have witnessed his 26th and final TT win, at the 2000 Senior.

Not long after, fans found themselves asking, "Where the fuck is Talinn?"

The answer is, in Estonia. You may be excused for asking, "Where's Estonia?" too. Even I had to double check and confirm that it's one of the Baltic states (along with Latvia and Lithuania) just west of St. Petersburg, Russia and just south (across the Bay of Finland) from Finland.

Anyway, Talinn is definitely not nowheresville. It's the capital of Estonia and its medieval 'old town' is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Talinn was the site of a fairly big road race, dating back to the 1930s. The 6+ kilometer 'Pirita' course began near the old Pirita convent, which gave it it's name. Originally, it was a mix of asphalt and sand. Much of the course ran through a forest, and racers never knew when a spectator would dart out of the trees to cross the road.

Interestingly, the course was not far--as the gull flies, across the Baltic Sea--from the Turku GP track in Finland, which was another rough and ready circuit.

Estonia fell into the Soviet orbit after WWII, and the course was used for the Soviet championship. (If I spoke Russian, there'd be a great book in the Soviet championship, I'm sure.) In 1963, it was slightly shortened and the start-finish line and pits were moved.

It was like Joey, to load up his van with a few race bikes and drive across Europe to comparatively obscure race meetings, and he had competed at Talinn before. In 2000, he won 600 and 750cc races before the 125cc race, which took place in the rain. He was killed when he crashed his RS125 into the forest.

Within hours, the Estonian Government web site was replaced with a tribute to Dunlop and, later, a marble memorial was placed at the scene of his crash. The course was used until 2006. The road surface is now considered too degraded for racing.