What is and Never Could Be

PedrosaCOTA1It’s been four months, I know, but we should go back over some groundwork together. As a reader of this experiment, good for you: You know your limits. You embrace hypothetical supercontests. You have time to read the legalese between EA Sports and the NCAA. You snagged Yeezus the hour after the hour it leaked to ensure you got a decent rip. You know Messi’s first name. You see baseball as a New York-everything else binary. You follow the important Tumblrs. You care about The Roots on Fallon. You get it.

There are, of course, things you don’t know or get. You don’t know about Rodan live in their prime, say, or life writing poetry under Pol Pot. You don’t get motorsports. Again: Good for you, you know your limits. A delusional Dale Earnhardt Jr. commercial? Sordid tales of French all-nighters three months ago? If you click on the Categories sidebar to the right long enough, any Chipotle pitstop can eventually seem effortless.

You know it’s easy to visualize experiencing “The Everyday World of Bodies” in person with the help of a VHS rip to YouTube. You know it’s easy to compartmentalize the struggle of a ruthless dictatorship when you parse out the prison lit. You get guiding a 160kg piece of machinery at 200+mph when you’re doing it from the comfort of your wireless Xbox controller. You’re also smart enough to know these are approximations. You don’t really know Rodan. You don’t know Pol Pot.

And you don’t get having to guide a 160kg piece of machinery at 200+mph year after year, on the best piece of engineering available, with the highest and darkest forces of sports and politics backing you, for millions of dollars, and losing. Dani Pedrosa does. And it’s about to happen again.

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I’ll spare you the Google search you were just about to do: Daniel Pedrosa turns 28 tomorrow. He’s from Spain and he’s good at racing two wheels on pavement. Eighth best in the history of organized motorcycle racing, to be exact. Mentored by ex-racer Alberto Puig and with the backing of Spanish telecom giant Telefónica, Pedrosa went from being the runt of the talent-scouting Movistar Activa Joven Cup litter to a force in the junior classes of world championship grand prix bike racing.

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It worked like this: Applicants put their name into the Joven Cup pool and you got selected if you met the requirements (in a similar fashion to how the more internationally minded Red Bull Rookies Cup works now – Vice can fill you in). If you won or caught Puig’s eye, you got help to ride 125cc at the world level and learn race craft and setup. If you were good at that, you graduated to the middle ground 250cc class to hone your chops with a more powerful bike. If you had the success, the right people backing you, and enough interested parties, you made the great leap to MotoGP, motorcycle road racing’s highest honor.

A few guys managed that over years of tutoring. Pedrosa was one of them. After erratic results early on, he matured to become the premier underclass rider of the early 2000s: It took three years for him to win the 125cc title in 2003, but he subsequently doubled as champ in the 250s. There was no point in hanging around to win a third of those, so for 2006, the decision was made to promote him to MotoGP with the blessing of Honda and a whole host of interested parties.

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This is where it gets messy.

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Honda is the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer on earth and has been since 1959. You know them because they are everywhere and, because of that, for several years have had the heaviest hand in motorcycle racing policy.

Telefónica is the fifth largest telecom provider on earth. You don’t know them because you’re not in Spain or Italy or South America, but they’re larger than Verizon (#18) and AT&T (#20) and for several years had a heavy hand in motorcycle sponsorship as sponsor of the premier satellite Honda team.

Repsol is the 15th largest oil company on earth. You don’t know them because you’re not in Spain or Italy or South America, but they’re in the company of Sunoco and Petronas and Lukoil and for several years had a heavy hand in motorcycle sponsorship as sponsor of the factory Honda team.

The math for this would have been easy if Repsol had agreed to co-sponsor the factory Honda team with Telefónica in 2006. Telefónica reasonably asserted that they had nurtured Dani Pedrosa’s success all the way to the pinnacle of the sport and felt they should duly be part of his eventual spoils. Repsol disagreed; as primary sponsor of Honda Racing Corporation’s A-team since 1995, they saw no reason to compromise. Fists were shaken, contracts rewritten, threats made. The expected boardroom kerfluffles ensued.

When the last lawyers’ briefcases closed in the fall of ‘05, Repsol had won exclusive rights to MotoGP’s incoming golden boy – Dani Pedrosa would be riding for them in his rookie year. Telefónica vowed to withdraw from the sport and never return. The loss felt significant but manageable; Telefónica had been sponsoring teams for years and it seemed shortsighted on their part given MotoGP’s increasing popularity. A triple world champ with support from the most successful manufacturer joining the top tier of a booming sport with the bullish world economy as a backdrop? Telefónica’s loss.

As expected, Pedrosa was up to speed immediately when the lights went out and finished second in his first race. He won his fourth. He was mathematically capable of winning the championship until the second-to-last race of the year. He was the most successful rookie since Valentino Rossi. A rules change for 2007 reducing the size of the bikes seemed to suit his 5’2” 112 lb. frame perfectly. It felt like the space was already being cleared for a Trophy of Champions and a season or more to call his own. It was a different time, obviously.

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MotoGP’s 800cc era is its least loved. The bikes were smaller and less noisy, less wild, more precise, and more electronics-driven. Races were largely processional. To the average fan, that also describes the man most associated with ushering the era in. Some still call him “Pedrobot.”

But Dani Pedrosa didn’t win an 800cc world championship. Honda misjudged the 800cc rules they helped muscle into existence and made only decent bikes for a few years. Ducati wound up winning the 2007 title with a former 250cc nemesis of Pedrosa’s, Casey Stoner. 2008 and 2009 went to Valentino Rossi over at Honda’s archrival Yamaha. 2010 went to Jorge Lorenzo, another rival of Pedrosa’s from the 250 days, also at Yamaha. 2011, the year everyone finally agreed 800s were a bad idea, went the way of Stoner (now teammates with Pedrosa at Honda). In the first year of the re-consecrated 1000cc formula last year, Lorenzo won again.

There are a lot of reasons for this, most of which I’ll save you – Marca already laid out Dani’s injury history (and that was two years ago, which doesn’t account for a refractured collarbone earlier this year) and there are only so many times you can revisit the curse from ’06 or the yacht exam thing or the détente with Lorenzo. The point is that he’s lived his prime as one of the four best riders on earth – they called them “aliens” for awhile, that’s how predictable it got to see them on the podium – and of those four, he’s still the only one without a MotoGP championship to his name. Maybe you get the unbearable lightness at work here.

He’s tied (with Lorenzo) for second in this year’s running at the time of this writing. He’s won twice this year. There are 25 points for a win, 20 for second, 16 for third, and so on. He’s 34 down on the leader with five races to go. It seems premature to say he’s out of it, but the problem this time isn’t Lorenzo, or Rossi, or the recently retired Stoner. The problem is the leader. Who also happens to be the new guy on the other side of the Repsol garage.

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See if this sounds familiar: Spanish motorbiking boy wonder gets promoted to international 125cc competition under the watchful eye of an ex-racer and a Spanish industry giant, takes three years to win his first championship, then terrorizes the underclasses before graduating to MotoGP with the factory Honda team where he promptly finishes on the podium in his debut race.

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Except Marc Marquez didn’t stop there. He won on just his second time out in March at the new Circuit of the Americas. He has retired once and been on the podium in every other of this year’s 13 races. He has won four in a row. He is breaking decades-old records, and he’s doing it with a breathtaking riding style and the kind of goofy “Who, me?” smile Valentino Rossi wore in his prime that wins the hearts of both gullible fans and your disinterested girlfriend. He is the guileless bellwether.

In contrast, Dani Pedrosa’s quiet demeanor and occasionally surly disposition has never endeared him to fans. He is a hard read in interviews and, unless you’re part of the Catalan media, economical in his words. His wins feel like belabored poetry – rhythmic and occasionally dazzling but mostly jejune. He has been carrying the weight of expectation of his manager’s own failed dreams, the world’s largest bike company, and an enormous oil conglomerate for nearly a decade. It shows.

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You get where this is going. Of the five remaining tracks, Dani’s won at almost all of them before, but he hasn’t won this year since France in May. Jorge Lorenzo has won the last two races since Marquez’s four-race win streak. The momentum on track and media talk off it seems to revolve around those two, as though Dani was an invisible second. He can’t even score a victory in the press.

Aragon is tomorrow morning. Marquez is on pole. You know that sometimes stars align. You know that life is not straightforward. You know that the world keeps turning even when you’re interning. And now you know that Dani Pedrosa has raced for a well-connected mentor, a telecom giant, an oil company, the most powerful motorcycle manufacturer in racing, teammates, and fans. Can he finally win a championship for himself? You’ll know that soon enough, too.

If he doesn’t, consensus says he stays mortal down here with the rest of us. That’s reductive. Pedrosa is a transformative character who has gone from the perennially resented favorite to an exhausted, run-down underdog with an extensive highlight reel missing, if you even want to call it that, only one thing as his moment passes. Belabored poetry is still poetry and suffering is the most fundamental of feelings, after all. Can any of us get it the way he does?

“The purpose of the poetry is not to dazzle us with an astonishing thought, but to make one moment of existence unforgettable and worthy of unbearable nostalgia.”

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Milan Kundera wrote that sentence. Maybe you know the book.

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