Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva narrowly defeated Jair Bolsonaro Sunday to reclaim the Brazilian presidency. To the casual onlooker, it might seem like a joyful refutation of Bolsonaro’s pugnacious authoritarian streak, but mostly it reminded me to dig up this pitch for the short-lived but much appreciated Pastime that was (rightfully) rejected in early 2019 just after Bolsonaro had won the last election. I hadn’t looked at it since then, but while it weakly tries to unite too much and I never did figure out an ending I liked, it may also serve as a timely reminder of how much still needs doing down there, or anywhere, and of how much it takes to make dreams a reality.
To wit: Bolsonaro is out, but Lula is back in. Eric Granado finished second in MotoE in 2022. Diogo Moreira is currently eighth in his rookie season of Moto3. There are no signs of a Brazilian MotoGP round for the foreseeable future.
After 29 years of motorcycle racing competitively, 22 of them at an international level, Alex Barros was going home. Despite offers from the World Superbike paddock, the 37-year-old would return not to the production-based championship in which he’d dabbled during 2006, but rather to Brazil and his family following confirmation that Pramac d’Antin Ducati would not be retaining his services for the 2008 MotoGP season. With the door closed on another run in the premier prototype class and no rides competitive enough to fight for a title in World Superbikes, it was time to call it a day.
“I’m really happy with my career,” he reflected on the eve of his final MotoGP weekend at the 2007 Valencia Grand Prix that November. “I never believed I could race for 21 years in the world championship. I tried to win a world championship, I couldn’t, but I’m really grateful for my career and everything motorcycle racing has given me … This is the world championship, and time passes, so I don’t feel sad. I feel happy.
“It’s been such a pleasure. Some moments have been difficult, but life is like that. I’m just grateful to everybody who [has] believed in me and given me the chance to race for so long.”
In 1986, Brazil was coming out of a 22-year military dictatorship with the unelected José Sarney in charge and still merely an embryonic version of what would become a powerhouse BRIC economy years later. Sarney was in the process of correcting the hyperinflation Brazil suffered after explosive growth in the 1970s. He had been president for less than 17 months and his Cruzado Plan in effect for only six when army captain Jair Bolsonaro penned an alarming column on wages in the weekly magazine Veja that September.
Bolsonaro criticized low pay for military officials and said commanders were firing officers because of budget cuts rather than bad conduct. The Glicério native was promptly arrested and detained for 15 days despite receiving letters of support from right-leaning army peers dissatisfied with Sarney’s democratic government. Two years later, he was acquitted. Veja would use him repeatedly as an army source.
“It’s really important to finish your career in good shape, and I can do different things now. I have so many plans.”
When Alex Barros left Brazil for the FIM’s 80cc world championship as a 15-year-old in 1986, he’d won virtually all he could domestically: back-to-back Brazilian moped champion; 50cc Brazilian champion; 125cc Brazilian championship runner-up; 250cc Brazilian champion.
While he was abroad, Alex flew the flag for the federative republic. The São Paulo native started his international career on a featherweight Rieju bike in the 80cc class, then quickly jumped onto a 250cc Yamaha before snagging a ride with the factory 500cc Cagiva team as a 19-year-old in 1990. The breadth of machinery he would ride over the ensuing 18 seasons is impressive: factory 500cc Suzuki, satellite 500cc Hondas, MotoGP satellite and factory Hondas, factory MotoGP Yamaha, privateer World Superbike Honda, satellite MotoGP Ducati. He finished his career as one of six Brazilians ever to race at a world championship level and one of only two who had won a grand prix in any class (Adu Celso-Santos, with a single victory in the 350cc class in 1973, was the other). Notorious both for his late braking and frequent crashing, Barros was nevertheless a genial, exciting rider who may have lacked the killer instinct for a title run but could never be discounted if the racing was close. Seven wins, 32 podiums, four poles, and 13 fastest laps – plus another win, six podiums and two fastest laps on the superbike – made a career of it.
When he returned to Brazil at the end of 2008, Alex laid low and considered his next career move. He took his talent to four wheels for a while, but his heart, as it turned out, was still in bikes.
The thing he wanted to do revealed itself gradually. By 2011, the pieces were in place: He had helped create a domestic superbike series. Set to run its first season in 2012, SuperBike Brasil was not an innovative idea, but it was one the country sorely needed if it was to have any hope of fostering rider talent that could make it on a global level. Designed to aid young riders who could then be shipped off to Europe – which meant Spain, the modern hub of racing at an international level – the series would feature multiple support classes and superbikes as the main attraction. And either because he couldn’t resist or because he knew his worth as a star attraction, Barros put his money where his mouth was and not only ran a team but returned to riding – and winning.
Jair Bolsonaro started his political career with the “values”-oriented Christian Democratic Party as a city councilman in Rio de Janeiro in 1988. Two years later, he was elected a federal deputy and served seven consecutive terms, outlasting even his own party, which merged with another to form the Brazilian Progressive Party in 1993 – the year he gave a speech to the Chamber of Deputies calling for the closing of Congress and advocating the return of a dictatorship. “We will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy,” he said.
Bolsonaro maintained a low profile otherwise, though, and it wasn’t until 2014 that real attention came when he received the most votes of any congressman in Rio. By March 2016, Bolsonaro was ready for a presidential run. In the two years of campaigning that ensued, he left the Brazilian Progressive Party and became the nominee for the Social Liberals, another far-right party. In a period when the economy was collapsing, crime was on the rise, Lula was under federal investigation and impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff were already in motion, Bolsonaro’s stern brand of law and order seemed just the antidote for a nation sliding toward crisis.
Once getting SuperBike Brasil up and running had been accomplished, Alex Barros generally ran his own team and worked to attract attention and money to the effort over the next few years, riding only sporadically. But in 2017, he made the decision to compete in a full season for the first time since his MotoGP retirement. At 46, he would be riding a superbike against a field of some 18 riders in all eight rounds and 11 races. That’s how it looked on paper, anyway; in reality, the field was weak. Alex scored two wins and finished a comfortable second overall in the eventual overall classification aboard a Honda. Formidable opposition came exclusively from 20-year-old Eric Granado, the seventh and most recent Brazilian to have made it to world championship bike racing. A few uninspiring years in Moto3 had cooled Granado’s prospects, however, so he was back home regrouping with a Honda superbike ride of his own. The other nine races went to him.
For 2018, Barros switched from Honda to BMW. There was nothing to prove here, but a mixture of manufacturers at the front always looks better from the outside. Even so, Granado swept each of the first four races from pole and as the field returned to Interlagos for a third time in mid-August, you wouldn’t have expected anything special to unfold.
Praise for Alberto Fujimori and Augusto Pinochet. Promises of relaxed gun legislation. Shoot first, ask questions later. Eliminating affirmative action policies for black Brazilians. Protests against land reserved for indigenous peoples. Limiting LGBT+ rights. Purging rival party members. Expanded nuclear and hydroelectric power at the cost of the Amazon. Enough to get Jair Bolsonaro stabbed on the campaign trail in early September. But not enough to stop his campaign.
It’s early October 2018 and I’m sitting at home alone on the couch in my apartment with my laptop at an unspeakably late hour of the night. It’s that time of week where the texts have stopped rolling in and I’m sick of loading up my public library account’s For Later shelf. My tolerance for Bandcamp deep dives has disappeared. I’m too tired to cook but too restless to sleep. Frustrated, I get up to make myself tea just to give my body a different way of expending energy for a few minutes. I pace the full length of my apartment, pause to stare emptily out my windows, sip from the mug.
YouTube is the first URL that rolls off my fingertips when I return to the computer. When I don’t know what I’m looking for on there, it inevitably ends a handful of ways, all evidenced by my personalized homepage (I’ve already logged into a Google account for refreshing Gmail). I scroll past the white label deep house edits and full-length Bob Ross episodes and assorted cartoons – there’s always one suggested playlist I can’t explain – and stop when I see what rabbit hole I know I’m about to fall down again: Motorcycle Racing – Topic.
Birthed from Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, YouTube started life as a dating site called Tune In Hook Up. PayPal employees Steve Chen, Chad Kurley and Jawed Karim registered the name on Valentine’s Day 2005, and “Me at the zoo” was posted on April 23rd. The site has since ballooned to be the second most visited on the internet behind Google, which owns and makes some $4 billion off it annually. Around 1.9 billion users in 91 countries log in each month to navigate more than a billion hours of video in 80 different languages. There are 3.25 billion hours of video watched per month, 30 million visitors per day and 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. Machine learning plays a central role in organizing all of this content and feeding it to receptive users. Once you start clicking, intricate algorithms are there to ensure you don’t stop.
No one knows exactly how it all works. There are academic papers and countless articles on SEO best practices and, somewhere, a data warehouse that’s processing this information, but that’s as close as most of us will ever get to understanding how we wind up watching what we do.
The stakes at Interlagos are pretty low. Never mind a passing knowledge of it, I don’t know anyone even online who’s aware a Brazilian superbike championship exists. Granado is the clear class of the field. Barros is the biggest name. I have no idea who the rest of these guys are.
Some of that is down to me only following journalists covering international events, but some of it is the bikes themselves. Domestic superbike series have, much like the World Supers, fallen increasingly out of favor with the public over the last decade in part due to changing market conditions – consumers have generally drifted toward café racers and the like, mirroring the shift in the automotive market of sedans giving way to SUVs. Inevitably, politics also play a role: Where once MotoGP and World Superbikes were promoted by separate organizers and competed against one another for fans, now only one group controls them both. And it has decided MotoGP is the priority.
All of that is both figuratively and literally continents away for me as I click play on this video. I’m here because it’s a full race uninterrupted for free. I’m ready to be entertained. And at 14 laps, this won’t take long even if it’s boring and I don’t understand a word the commentator is saying.
Like any other sport, races take different rhythms. This one unfolds about as close to perfect as you can come as a spectator – a pure one-on-one at the front where every time you think the race has settled into its internal logic, one or the other rider surprises you somehow. Barros leads away from pole after a clean start under blistering sunshine. Alex gives a little look over his shoulder at the start of the second lap and can already see this is going to be between him and Granado, who has quickly recovered after a poor start; the rest are already a second or more adrift.
At the start of Lap 3, Granado slips past Barros to plunge down Reta Oposta before they trade the lead again at Turn 4, then again as Barros slips back past Granado at Ferradura. Shortly after at the end of Lap 6, Granado gets a great drive coming out of Juncao and carries the momentum through Arquibancadas to slide past Barros to start Lap 7. But just when you think he’s pulling clear, an extraordinary trailbrake into Turn 1 at the start of Lap 9 allows Barros, riding tidily behind him, to close in. Alex slips past into Turn 4 and seems to have closed the door when Granado makes space to get back through by the slimmest of margins.
Ordinarily, this kind of position-swapping slows both riders down and allows those in pursuit to close. But it’s just past halfway through the race and no one else is in even the longest camera shots; you’d think they were riding alone. Perhaps in sympathy, the TV director cuts to the midfield for brief respite. Nothing much is happening back there the way it is at the front, though, so we return to the leaders after a single shot, a single turn.
It’s evident by now that with all that sloppy trailbraking, Granado is burning up his rear tire, which Barros knows as he stalks in pursuit. I can’t look away. This kind of riding is sloppy and slow by every measure but still spectacular to the most untrained eye, a chaotic vibe that has me riveted. At the start of Lap 10, Alex dives under at Turn 4 again after catching a slipstream. I’m thinking Granado’s finished because he’s been all over that Honda the entire race and there’s no way his tires have enough left in them even at this relatively short distance.
But Alex has been using his tires, too, and at the start of the final lap, Granado – leg literally flying off the peg as he squeals audibly into Turn 1 – throws his Honda up the inside of Barros, who has to pick up his BMW to avoid a collision. The whole lap from there is waiting for the final corner to see if the older rider is close enough to get a decent run on the younger one to the finish line. It doesn’t disappoint: You can hear Eric’s rear tire crying out for traction as he backs into Juncao trailbraking wildly for the final time. Barros homes in. Granado fights his Fireblade the whole way, but Barros has found the steam his BMW needs to out-drag the Honda. His bike snakes erratically from the slipstream and, by the closest of margins – 0.032 of a second, if the transponders are to be believed – Alex Barros has somehow done it again. At 47 years of age, he has beaten a guy less than half his age, the only remotely elite rider in the field.
I watched a lot of races in 2018, but this had to be the best. It wasn’t just a triumph for Barros. It was a triumph for SuperBike Brasil, for motorcycle racing, for Brazil, for YouTube, for machine learning, for progress. It was enough to make a viewer feel triumphant, too.
All of Jair Bolsonaro’s hateful rhetoric and aggressive policy nevertheless struck a chord with voters. When Lula’s candidacy for the democractic socialist Workers’ Party was rejected in September thanks to corruption charges and Fernando Haddad had to step in as the new Workers’ Party leader, the way was clear – Bolsonaro’s only serious challenger was eliminated. He promptly won the election on October 28th with 46% of the vote and was sworn in on New Year’s Day 2019.
Eric Granado won the SuperBike Brasil championship on December 2nd and shortly after announced he would be returning to Europe for the new five-round MotoE electric bike class in 2019. After the opening day of preseason testing, a massive paddock fire destroyed all 18 motorcycles and resulted in a hasty rescheduling of the season opener from March to May. The future will have to wait.
Alex Barros decided not to ride in SuperBike Brasil for 2019, but he will still be pushing for young riders – Diogo Moreira is his current pet project – and keeping the lines of communication open with teams in the Spanish championship. He surely also has something to do with the return of MotoGP to his homeland, which agreed in mid-2018 to add a Rio-based round from 2021 onward. “We would be thrilled to see MotoGP return to Brazil, and this memorandum of understanding is fantastic news for the championship and South American fans,” enthused Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta upon the announcement.
The forces of order and progress are on their way. Of course I see them, of course I should know; I’m watching it all unfold from the comfort of my couch behind the safety of my laptop screen.