Saturday, April 11, 2015

Is there really no more good motorcycle content? Part 2: Racing is boring.

“Racing: Don’t bother, no one cares. And modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world.”
                                                                         —Wes Siler

That’s just a throwaway line in “How To Make The Next Great Motorcycle Blog”, and it shouldn’t, by rights, be the first point I dig into in this series, but I thought I’d try to post it while MotoGP is making a rare U.S. stop in Austin.

RE: “...modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world.” If he means top level GP and Superbike racers, I agree. It’s not an accident that I’m writing this from Kansas City, on a weekend when MotoGP and MotoAmerica are in Austin (“close by” at 750 miles away.)

There are a bunch of reasons for that. Top-tier racers have become sponsor-thanking robots; they’re starting much younger and reaching the top level at an age when they have no life experience or perspective to share; few MotoGP riders speak English as a first language, which is a problem for American journalists who generally speak only English. And if a journalist gets too curious, there’s the problem of controlled access. MotoAmerica lost one of the handful of racers who had a real personality before the season even started, when Dane Westby was killed in a streetbike crash in Tulsa. Bummer.

So I get it, and I agree that I’d rather spend a weekend in KC—wondering if my grass seed’s ever going to sprout and finding the leak that leaves a tiny spot under my Vino every time I park it—than sitting in a MotoGP press conference, watching the race on TV in the media center, and trying to interpret Rossi’s mindset based on the glimpse I got of him scurrying out of his garage. The probability of me writing a good story with a unique angle is about the same in both locations, and staying home saves me a thousand bucks, all in.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that you shouldn’t bother or that no one cares.

CoTA, 2013: This guy cared enough to keep this T-shirt white for 20 years.
I did go to Austin for the first MotoGP race in 2013. I wanted to see whether fans were going to rise up in Kevin Schwantz’ defense; I was curious whether fans got good value for the price of their tickets; and frankly I was curious what it was like to attend a race as a punter, instead of a participant (at whatever level). I hadn’t bought a ticket and sat in the ‘stands for decades. 

CoTA drew a pretty impressive crowd and, unlike most journalists, I spent the whole weekend amongst that crowd. The racing itself was intense and impressive as shit, with lots of decent viewing even for those on lowly General Admission passes. The fans were happy and many were knowledgeable. There were lots of T-shirts from old GP/SBK/AMA weekends that I could tell were taken out and worn only on special occasions. And there was a really cool custom bike show downtown, along with a little bit of a sense that, for a few days at least, we were the cool kids.

So while it’s true that most American motorcyclists are ambivalent about racing, it’s not true that no one cares. And even working within the strictures of the MotoGP paddock, David Emmett, for example, manages to make a living putting up informative content.

All of that, though, was a preamble to get to this point: It’s true that top level racers are usually boring and uncooperative, and it’s true that most American motorcyclists think of top-level racing as, “A bunch of guys I’ve never heard of, doing a kind of riding that I don’t do.” 


That doesn’t mean all racing is boring, or that you can’t write racing stories that resonate with ordinary riders. Here’s how: Go race yourself; participating in even the shittiest, low-level club race is a more intense experience than watching MotoGP. You might tell a story of accessible racing that actually lures a street rider into a “new racer” school and by doing so, save someone’s life. Take up trials, or ice racing; those disciplines are accessible and will help you hone skills that transfer to the riding “real motorcyclists” do, however they choose to define it.

Go to Pikes Peak. You don’t even need a racing license to compete there. Or, go cover any "real roads" race in Ireland or on the Isle of Man; I admit they’ve tightened entry requirements at the TT so you can’t just show up and actually race there, the way I did, but you can still get great access to a cast of characters who all have the gift of craic. The best racing story I've ever personally written, was written about a race open to rank amateurs.

Or, go cover a Grand National flat track race; that paddock’s full of unguarded characters; it’s easy to get a press credential and once you’re in, you’re in. I’ve had racers invite me into their campers and offer to share their lunch with me. I’ve never met a GNC racer who didn’t volunteer his (or her) email address and phone number when I asked for it, and they all answer and speak freely. It doesn’t matter that the grandstands are full of Duck Dynasty reject, Murica-love-it-or-leave-it Neanderthals*, because the pits are full of the best kind of Americans. It’s no accident that motorcycle racers around the world hold their manhoods cheap, whilst any speaks who's made a GNC Main.

So, Wes, “Racing: Don’t bother, no one cares. And modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world"? I know what you mean, and you're right.

But you're also wrong.

*And yes, I realize that's an insult to Neanderthals.

UPDATE After I posted this, Jim McDermott (who is one of the part time motorcycle journalists who definitely does post content worth reading, by the way) noted, "Don't blame the riders, it's the sponsors' fault they're boring."

Now, I wasn't going to digress this far, but since Jim's opened that door… Years ago, when the Red Bull Rookies Cup had just started in the U.S., Red Bull invited Road Racer X Magazine to attend a session and try one of the bikes, with the first crop of young rookies. Chris Jonnum sent me to Barber, where I spent a day watching the young rookies practice and, incidentally, get trained in "media relations" by some guy that Red Bull had brought in for that exact purpose.

The first irony of this was, Red Bull had invited journalists to come and watch them train young racers to be the kind of interviewees that journalists hate. The second irony was that the main coach/figurehead of the U.S. 'Rookies' program was Kevin Schwantz, who became one of the most-loved American racers precisely because he wasn't that guy.

So, yes Jim, you're right to point out that much of the responsibility for this lies with sponsors. And I won't argue that money's the root of this particular evil. I can't, because all the "good" racing that I cite is, essentially, amateur stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Mark, I appreciate your view and I don't disagree with you, but I have to concede a point to Wes: motorcycle racing at the higher levels is astonishingly dull for the average observer and hard to make interesting to most readers (particularly when the coverage is formulaic and lacking in insight or proper technical detail). I find racing today is so clinical, so expensive, and so far beyond our conception as average riders that it's just another world. It used to be far more human, more accessible, more interesting. You saw innovation in action and a lot of different solutions to problems - today, innovation will net a new rule written against your idea.

    Wes is aiming to advise "the next great blogger" on how to generate hits and revenue. Covering racing isn't advisable if that is your (pragmatic) aim.

    I've been writing independently and doing much of what Wes is clamoring for, quietly and without fanfare and strictly free of monetizing (and I'm happy to keep it that way). I was miffed because it clearly showed Wes was unaware of what I was up to: he said someone should go get drunk with JT Nesbitt and cover his Legacy project. I did exactly that in 2013. That trip also netted an interesting travelogue, because I rode my Ducati 916 from Montreal to New Orleans so I could sleep in JT's workshop, sweep the floors, and get drunk with him in the French Quarter while discussing bikes, philosophy and design.

    I reached out to Wes regarding his piece to have a discussion about some of his ideas, but I have yet to hear anything from him. So I continue to work quietly and independently, not because I am trying to make money, but because I love it.

    Jason Cormier