Monday, July 20, 2015

The small matter of life and death in motorcycle racing

The deaths of Bernat Martinez and Daniel Rivas Fernandez, in the final (MotoAmerica) race yesterday at Laguna Seca, serve as a reminder that even on “good” tracks, motorcycle racing will never be safe.

The thing is, risk is what gives the decision to race motorcycles meaning. Although Martinez and Fernandez were, I suppose, technically professionals neither was earning a real living from racing per se. And they certainly weren’t being compensated on the level of other “professional athletes”.

So, why were they taking those risks?

Riding Man was, largely, written to answer that question. I’ve excerpted two small parts of it below. From my perspective, the first helps explain the appeal of motorcycle racing (which has little if anything to do with being an “adrenaline junkie”.) The second explores the way we rationalize risks which, by any rational measure, outweigh our sport’s tangible rewards.

That leaves the intangible rewards. If you’ve been a racer, you know what they are.

Risk is what gives motorcycle racing those rewards. No, we don’t race in order to take risks. But if it was completely safe, none of us would do it. 

Here’s my message to all the racers who didn’t get hurt or killed yesterday. Those guys died for you. Not willingly, of course, but their sacrifice is what gives your sport meaning and what makes the experience of racing so profoundly different than the experience most other sports.

On Saturday night, I opened a play (a first for me; and yes, I was as nervous in the audience as I ever was on a grid.) But it wasn’t as profound an experience as waiting for that flag to drop, because no one’s life was on the line. In spite of my play’s title, I’m an antitheist. So I’ll never suggest anything as puerile as praying for Bernat and Daniel, and please unfriend me if I ever repeat that trite, “Godspeed”.

But you should hold them in your thoughts, because they and so many others who went before them will make your next race a profound experience. Their deaths will impart that much more meaning to the feelings you have when you pull off the track after next taking the checkered flag.


Hemingway is famously quoted (or, perhaps, misquoted?) as having said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” This is ironic, because as a motorcycle racer, I’ve always been jealous of mountain climbers, in the sense that they don’t seem to face the same resistance from society when it comes to justifying or explaining their obsession. If you grow up in Switzerland and then live in the Canadian Rockies like I did, you meet lots of climbers. I’ve known about half a dozen people who’ve summited Everest, and I’ve always been struck by the fact that we seem understand each other well. We both appreciate a kind of self-knowledge that comes from our particular risk sports. 

There are equally dangerous–even more dangerous–pursuits. You could choose to be a rodeo bullrider or base jumper. But the danger in those sports comes from the decision to participate. It’s something you confront once per event, when you lower yourself down from that eight-foot fence and wrap that rope around your hand. You nod, and after that your survival is up to the bull. For all the control you have over it, you may as well be playing Russian roulette. In fact most winning rides are, if anything, less dangerous than losing ones. But climbers and motorcycle racers need to make a constant series of decisions–we ask ourselves, “Where’s the edge?” and constantly need to confront the fact that after removing every possible variable we’re going to be left with this reality: the best performance is inherently the most dangerous one. This is the source of a unique kind of self-knowledge and an easy mutual respect between us. 

And yet, motorcycle racers get far less credit for this in society at large. No one seriously suggests that climbing should be outlawed. I blame this discrepancy on George Mallory. He’d attempted to climb Everest in 1922, and was on a lecture tour of America raising money for a second attempt. At every stop, he got the same stupid question from reporters, “Why do you want to climb the world’s highest mountain, anyway?” Finally, in exasperation, he snapped “Because it’s there!” 

For whatever reason, the answer resonated with the non-climbing public. Taken out of context, the phrase had its own Zen. 

Mallory did assemble the sponsorship he needed for a second attempt, in 1924. Whether or not he made it to the summit is one of climbing’s enduring mysteries. He never came back down and was never seen alive again. Considering the equipment of the day (for perspective, the TT course record was around 55 miles per hour at the time) his climb was one of the greatest achievements ever in mountaineering. Mallory’s record stood for 30 years until Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man ever to summit Everest for sure. 


One of the places that’s been bugging me–frankly, scaring me–on the course is Barregarrow crossroads. Two gnarly, blind, left-hand kinks, connected by a steep bumpy downhill. But one day as I’m riding along on my bicycle, I come to the farm just before the crossroads. There’s a huge tree on the left here, and I’m making a mental note that I need to be way over to the right, in position for the first kink, by the time I get to this point. As I’m pedaling beneath the tree, I hear a cacophony overhead. Hundreds of crows are living up in the branches. In fact, the road is plastered with their shit, which is another reason to be over to the right. 

But crows. Suddenly, I’ve lost my fear of Barregarrow. 

All this goes back quite a few years. Once, I signed up for a California Superbike School session on a Honda RS125 GP bike. The school took place at Willow Springs, on the Streets of Willow practice course. As usual, I didn’t know anyone there. My lupus was acting up. Every joint really hurt, and the prospect of folding myself onto one of those tiny, tiny bikes was not that appealing. As a Canadian in the ’States, I had no health insurance. All in all, as I waited to get started, I figured I’d put myself in a very good position to make a fool of myself at best, break my body and my bank account at worst. 

I was distracted from these glum thoughts by a flock of ravens about a hundred yards down the pit wall. They were fighting over treasure: a bag of old french fries. Suddenly, for no reason, I had a sense that these birds were good luck for me and that as long as they were there, I was going to be all right. This belief sprang fully formed into my head. Like other people, the things I believe most fervently are based in utter nonsense. 

Ever since then big, noisy black birds are good luck for me. I’ve always felt that–especially on the morning of races–if I see one it’s a guarantee I won’t be hurt. And it’s always been true. 

Long after that day at Willow, in the course of my advertising career, I had to write some public service TV spots on the subject of gambling addiction. I went to a few Gambler’s Anonymous-type meetings where I learned two things. One was that gambling addicts were pathetic losers. The other was that this irrational belief that something is lucky for you has a name. Psychologists call it “magic thinking” and it is one of the hallmarks of risk addiction. 

In fairness, the big black birds have always worked for me. They’ve protected me on days I’ve seen ’em, and indeed, I’ve had some hairy crashes on mornings when I’ve not seen them. If you set out to debunk my talisman, you’d say, “The birds calm you, and you ride better relaxed. You’re tense when you’re aware you haven’t seen one, and you ride shitty tense.” That may be true. The scientist in me is a little subtler. I think that the birds are common, after all, and there’s probably almost always one to see. I think that when I’m in a state of relaxed awareness, alert to my environment, I can count on seeing one. That’s the state in which I ride well. When I internalize, when I’m looking in and not out, I don’t see them. That’s a state in which I ride poorly. 

Whatever the case, after the TT fortnight was over, I drove one of my visitors to the airport, and on the way home crossed the Fairy Bridge. Somehow, lost in thought, I failed to say hello, though I reassured myself that I’d said it on the trip to the airport and according to the letter of the legend, it is the first crossing of each day that is critical. Nonetheless, most Manx say hello on every crossing, and that had been my habit too.