I’ve spent almost my entire career working in racing – predominantly sportscars, but also some limited motocross (and yacht racing!) as well. I remember telling my parents way back when that I wanted to work in racing, and while I wouldn’t say that they exactly squelched my ambitions, the gist of their feedback was “well, great, but maybe you should look at something a bit more realistic, too.” Working in racing has gained me a very intimate look at some very iconic places – I have very strongly-held and emotional memories of the time I’ve spent at Le Mans and Laguna Seca in particular – but more to the point, it’s allowed me to get to know racers as friends, understand what makes them tick. I wouldn’t say that racing has been a particularly lucrative career path (yet), but it’s fulfilled quite a few adolescent fantasies of mine, and that’s worth a great deal to me.
In the last several years, I’ve come to appreciate a few different forms of motorsport that I hadn’t previously. As a kid, I loved Formula One and ChampCar/IndyCar (or whatever it was called before the evil Tony George took over), and I absolutely loved Ferraris. Emerson Fittipaldi was my guy when I was a kid, particularly in IndyCars. I used to cut out the Fittipaldi wheel ads from the back of Road & Track as a kid, just because of the pictures of Emmo in his helmet. Lately, I’ve learned a great deal about motocross/supercross and the heritage there – this in large part to a personal relationship with the folks at Troy Lee Designs, for whom I have a huge amount of respect and admiration. Something that happened to me in 2004 really changed my mindframe though.
I was working as Marketing Director for The Racer’s Group, and we were interviewing drivers to drive the 2005 Grand-Am Daytona Prototype season with us at our office in Sonoma. Our secretary called my office and said that I had a visitor, and to my surprise, Max Papis was waiting for me at the front desk. I sort of put aside my hero worship for a second (Mad Max was one of my favorites, too) and sat down for a talk with him. Publicly, Max comes across as this big flamboyant Italian superstar guy, but privately, he’s very quiet and humble. He’s definitely got an edge to him – he knows he’s good, knows he’s a winner, all that – but I was shocked at what a normal guy he is. I got to know he and his wife Tatiana that next season – I just about shit my pants when I met Tati’s Dad that year, because he’s Emerson Fucking Fittipaldi, ferchrissake – and I’m very fond of their whole family. For a bunch of folks who are well and truly racing royalty, man they’re down to earth.
In any case, Max said something to me in response to my gushing praise for him, that he was one of my racing heroes. He says (in his great cocky Italian accent), “you know who I think is hero? MotoGP riders. All that power and speed, and they hang on with their knees and hands!” He had this expression on his face that made me know he was serious, so despite not knowing the first thing about motorcycles or racing them, I checked it out. I mean, if Mad Max thinks these guys are nuts, they must really be something, yeah?
I became a fan in 2006, the year that Nicky Hayden won the MotoGP World Championship for Honda, beating the iconic Valentino Rossi, among others. I’ll never forget Nicky’s victory lap around Laguna Seca with his Dad on the back of his GP bike, and the look of pure redneck joy on his face. I’ve since met a couple of Nicky’s brothers and good lord, what a family. Those are some RED, RED necks. Great to see guys like them – with their drawls and their y’alls – race so well. 2009 is shaping up to be Ben Spies’ year in World Superbike, and I love it. Again, lanky Texan kid, thick-ass accent, just plain whupping the Euros and the Japanese riders in WSBK. Well, all the Japanese except Nori Haga, I guess.
What’s REALLY nuts though, is the Isle of Man TT, which is coming up this weekend. If you’re not familiar – and you should be – it’s a time trial-format race, one rider at a time, around a 34-mile course that’s run on public streets. Not Le Mans-style public streets, either, with their safety barriers and armcos, but just plain-ass streets. You know, with rocks, houses and cattle wire right in the runoff areas. Deadly. There’s all sorts of classes of races there, including sidecar racing, wherein some unlucky bastard flings his weight back and forth on a sidecar to counterbalance the bike and driver, and in 2007, the winning dude averaged 130mph+ on the course, for a 17-minute lap time. That’s nuts. Nice little promo/preview video here. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE7H6f9PVwk[/youtube]
Valentino Rossi shows up there this year to have a look and pay his respects, and he comes up with a great line describing the whole affair: “I don’t expect a road like this to be a track and it is unbelievable to be going flat out around it on a Superbike. You need to have two great balls!”
“Two Great Balls.” I think I’m starting to see what Mad Max was on about.