I don’t remember the first time. I remember things surrounding the first time but not the thing itself. I remember welcoming the torrential rain left over from Hurricane Ike on my sunburned arms. I remember a crowd full of people enthusiastically booing Dani Pedrosa on the grid and cheering Nicky Hayden’s crutches on the podium. I remember Valentino Rossi. I remember Nico Terol.
I don’t remember much of the second time, either. A brief mental snippet from Saturday morning as bikes stream past – two seconds, maybe three. Enough to know that it was real and that I did not just imagine it or Nicky Hayden’s flat-track demo laps or Jay Leno chilling trackside in denim or a crowd full of people politely clapping Dani Pedrosa on the grid and cheering Ben Spies on the podium. I remember Toni Elias. I remember Nico Terol.
The third time I saw Marc Marquez race in person was different. He was riding a MotoGP bike for one. He was on pole gunning to remain undefeated through the first ten races of 2014 for another. He was in his moment as the best motorcycle road racer on the planet.
Spoiler alert: This is another sermon on greatness. Greatness is a quality reliant on perception, I know, and everyone’s got a different view from where they sit. For last Sunday’s seventh annual Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, mine happened to be trackside. This is what I think about on vacation.
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What I’ve found in a lifetime of motorsports fandom is that those who don’t like it or understand the appeal return to this point that watching it just seems so boring. It’s driving or riding, they say; I do that in my own car or on my own bike everyday. It’s a fundamentally pedestrian task and not much happens in between the crashes. I can turn left for four hours. I have balance and I could ride a motorcycle. Why would I want to watch something so mundane?
On the one hand, baseball fans should get some self-awareness, football fans should ask themselves what they could’ve done with their lives if they were given back the minutes lost to TV timeouts, and soccer fans should watch more Whitecaps-Crew MLS matches. I don’t have a good argument for hockey; I don’t need one for golf.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see their point when racing is at its worst – if the stakes are low (lawnmowers) or if it’s artificially generated excitement to the point of exhaustion (NASCAR) or if it’s so processional it doesn’t look like a race at all (Formula 1), the critique is self-evident. That, plus a lack of context despite America being the most blatant motoring culture on earth, doesn’t make a rebuttal easier.
Motorcycle racing, though, is an olive branch to skeptics. When we return to the question of why sports matter to us, the simplest answer again and again is that it reflects who we are and who we want to be, a personal present and future-perfect state expanding the limits of what we know to be possible right in front of us. And better than any other form of racing, motorcycles allow spectators direct viewing access to that projection of self.
Anyway, it’s fun to watch. The on-board gyroscopic cams, the ultra-slow-mo sequences Dorna uses constantly these days, the spectacle of seeing a bunch of riders leaning from left to right as they muscle bikes through a sequence of corners from a hovering helicopter above, that’s something.
Watching it trackside? That’s something else.
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One of the many reasons NASCAR was the fastest growing sport in the US for years is because its marketing department knew how to package and sell it to the people: Here is everything you love about stadium sports rolling along for about the same amount of time as a football game at 200mph. It’s easy to watch in person and even easier to watch on TV.
MotoGP isn’t like that. Riders turn left and right. There are hills and valleys. There are kinks in straights. Depending on the track (and who the architect was), you don’t have a lot of great vantage points to see bikes for more than 15 seconds. Indianapolis being Indiana, there’s virtually no elevation change, but there are plenty of turns. Come race day, you’re jockeying for the same coveted patch of grassy knoll under a blazing sun (or relentless rain) as hundreds of other people for what effectively amounts to hearing bikes for 40 minutes, watching them on a giant video monitor for 35, and seeing them with your own eyes for the handful that are left.
If that sounds like a raw deal, consider this: Indianapolis Motor Speedway was selling General Admission three-day passes for $70 this year. That’s only fractionally more than what you paid when the race debuted there in 2008. For that money, you can get in the gate, sit in the main tribune on the home straight, hit a few spectator berms lining the infield, and go just about anywhere but the pits for an entire race weekend watching the world’s best in a National Historic Landmark.
For every visit, I’ve leisurely strolled the confines during Saturday’s practice and qualifying sessions to soak up America’s strange motorcycling culture and take a look at the race bikes from different vantage points around the track. There are a few close-up views through the Snake Pit complex of the first four corners and the aforementioned knolls; this is where you can best see riders at maximum lean as they negotiate corners. There’s also a higher likelihood that someone will spill, if you’re that sort of person.
On Sunday, you’ll find me firmly planted in the covered paddock grandstand on the front straight. From there, you can keep tabs on action in the pitlane, see the bikes at full chat (Dani Pedrosa set a new top speed record this year at 216mph, incidentally), stick around for the podium celebrations afterward, and do it all protected from the mercurial sun.
Which is great, though it pales in comparison to the most exciting part of the weekend: The six seconds or so from the moment the official at the back of the grid waves a green flag to show the all-clear to the moment the lights go out and the race starts. There’s nothing quite like feeling the benches shake at the raw power of 23 MotoGP bikes as they set off for Turn 1 (though a terrible approximation is available on YouTube). The tension is evident. The excitement is palpable. The roar is distinctive. It’s an awesome spectacle.
As they stream away to lean into the first corner and enter the Snake Pit, it’s interesting to compare how everyone rides even from the distance of a few hundred yards. And here, yes, is where we return to Marc Marquez.
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Riding a bike fast is pretty simple. If someone is turning left, they stick out their left knee and lean that way; if right, the reverse; if straight, they tuck in behind a windscreen to reduce drag and make themselves more aerodynamically efficient. Those are the basics. Provided you have limbs that work, you can do it, too.
Riding at MotoGP level makes this art a treaty with science. What brand of engine you have, what chassis you’re sitting on, what tire you’re using – all of it affects how you lean and tuck.
For Yamaha riders like Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, smooth throttle delivery makes the difference. Because Yamahas are not as outright powerful as Ducatis or Hondas, carrying speed through a corner is critical – they can’t win on sheer horsepower so riding faster through turns is where time is gained. This is one reason Lorenzo has become known as such a metronomically smooth rider (and frustrating roadblock for those stuck behind). It’s also one reason why tracks with hard braking (Le Mans, Aragon, Motegi) are not Yamaha’s strongest.
Hondas are as powerful as Ducatis but as easy to maneuver as Yamahas – because Dani Pedrosa or Marc Marquez can win on sheer horsepower, then, the key becomes managing that power. To most effectively carry corner speed, a bike needs to have as much rubber on the road as possible to maintain a higher center of gravity – the more you lean, the more you’re on the edge of a tire. Rossi and Lorenzo have learned to keep the bike upright to preserve that speed.
Until last year, that worked as an effective counterbalance to Honda guys like Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso and (less so) Casey Stoner, all of whom leaned with the bike at greater angles but had to pick up faster to get the power down.
Marquez, however, employs the same technique Rossi and Lorenzo do to a more extreme degree, using his body position to hang off the bike in a singularly radical fashion – it always looks like he’s falling off. The advantage is that he can also afford to lean in just that little bit more when he needs to turn in more sharply and reposition the bike on the racing line. He has the ability to ride all around a line most riders have coached themselves to follow religiously.
Television has a tendency to exaggerate this but, even at a distance, Marquez’s style is immediately distinguishable in person – there is never a question of which Repsol Honda you’re watching.
The third time I saw Marc Marquez race in person was different. He didn’t just win and he didn’t just win from pole; he won from pole as only he can. Everyone’s got a different view from where they sit, objectively speaking, but it doesn’t matter what position you take as witness to the fact – Marquez is a motorcycling Mona Lisa whose eyes follow you wherever you stand, a resonant tautology whose pretense of truth remains self-evident. Of course it’s great.
I’ve got bad eyesight and it’s gotten worse since I started writing this. It’ll keep getting worse and someday I’ll need glasses. But this? This is forever. The memory is immutable.
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It was a long drive home. For some reason, I kept getting stuck behind trucks – pick-ups, vans, tractor-trailers, SUVs, vehicles that make judging the traffic ahead impossible. By Monday morning, the pathos of your average weekday had resumed at the usual clip. There were emails to catch up on and minor crises to sort through. There was a farmer’s tan to show off as a reminder of what it’s like to see sunlight for more than five minutes a day. There were timesheets to be approved so people could get paid.
One of the guys I manage strolled over with his for my sign-off shortly after getting in. He’s a soccer fan by trade but also maintains a peripheral awareness of various other sports; we’ve bantered about the Bulls, Nigerian baseball and Manchester United before. We’ve also talked MotoGP. It’s a way of humanizing myself as a boss, I guess, in showing that I have an interest in something outside of work. Few bonds transcend socioeconomic and cultural divides better than sports, after all.
We exchanged pleasantries. “Heard about Marquez,” he offered, lifting his brows and widening his eyes in disbelief as he set down his hours for the week. He’s not an avid fan but even he understands the gravity of the achievement, even he knows there’s not much to talk about for now. We both shook our heads a little as I scribbled my signature.
Yeah, I thought, but you really should have seen it.