Monday, December 19, 2011

Advertising makes it happen. Now, who's got the 'nads to write the check?

I had occasion to revisit the nexus of my two previous lives -- motorcycles and advertising -- the other day, when I found myself writing about the nadir of motorcyclists' image in U.S. pop culture, in the early 'sixties.

Motorcycles were bad news after the breathless coverage of the Hollister ‘motorcycle riot’ in 1947. Those greatly exaggerated tales inspired The Wild One in 1954. Then, Hunter S. Thompson published ‘Hells Angels: The strange and terrible saga of outlaw motorcycle gangs’. It’s likely that Thompson’s account of life with the Hells Angels was almost as apocryphal as press accounts of Hollister had been, but by the mid-‘60s, the image of motorcycling in the U.S. could hardly have sunk any lower.

The American Motorcyclist Association wrung its hands and plaintively painted the outlaw crowd as ‘one percenters’, claiming that 99% of riders were regular folks, but the media sure weren’t buying it -- probably because that story didn’t sell newspapers.

It wasn’t the AMA that set motorcycles back on the road to respectability, it was Honda. Hollywood and the media had knocked motorcycles down, and Honda’s ad agency, Grey Advertising, knew that Hollywood had a role to play in redeeming them, too. Grey conceived the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign and pitched an audacious media plan to Kihicharo Kawashima, the head of American Honda.

Grey proposed running a pair of television commercials during the 1964 Academy Awards telecast. That would put two 90-second ‘nicest people’ ads in front of more than two-thirds of the U.S. television audience. Buying the two spots cost $300,000, which was enough to give Kawashima pause; it was the equivalent of the gross revenues -- not the profit mind you, the gross revenues -- on the sale of about 1,200 Honda 50s.

This is not the original, 90-second, 'You meet the nicest people on a Honda' ad. The original is not available on YouTube and in the spirit of full disclosure I should admit that while I've seen the campaign's print executions, I've never watched the original commercial. (Please, please, American Honda, scour your archives, digitize a copy, and post it!) 

The truth is, most people in the ad business felt that Grey Advertising was well-named. The agency had a reputation for safe, middle-of-the-road creative. That said, the strategic thinking behind the 'nicest people' campaign was worthy of Don Draper (and in one Mad Men episode, the fictional Sterling Cooper agency actually pitches the non-fictional Honda company business!) Overall, the real campaign played to Grey Advertising's strengths and Grey's tendency towards insipid creative was OK; the campaign was, after all, aimed at the middle of the bell curve. 

About a decade later, Grey was still at it. This ad, featuring a young John Travolta, acknowledges the first -- 1973 -- Arab oil embargo/price shock and the ensuing recession; the short-arsed motorcycle cop is probably a tip of the (half) helmet to Robert Blake in 'Electra Glide in Blue.'

Kawashima needn’t have worried. That ad campaign didn’t just plant Honda in the minds of millions of hitherto non-riding consumers, it helped convince the country’s media that it was not in their commercial interest to alienate the entire motorcycle industry. Life Magazine ran a famous photo of a drunken biker at Hollister in 1947 (the ethically questionable shot was set up days after the actual ‘riot’.) When Honda started buying full page ads in the ‘60s, Life’s editors stopped running negative motorcycle stories.

That $300,000 advertising investment really gave me pause, too. That was the equivalent of about $2,000,000 in 2011 dollars. I don't know, offhand, what American Honda's best-selling (current) motorcycle is, but if the company spent 1,200 x that model's revenues on a single night's advertising, it would amount to a lot more than two million bucks.

American Honda won't spend that much this year. Hell will freeze over before we'll see a breakout motorcycle ad in this year's Academy Awards or Superbowl. I get occasional press releases from manufacturers claiming year-over-year sales growth, and it's possible we've seen the worst of the post-2008 meltdown/housing bubble. But don't kid yourself; the motorcycle business is in the fucking toilet. Why is it that there's no chance American Honda will show that kind of leadership today?

Mister, we could use a man like Kawashima today.

I stole this pic from Honda's 'history' site. It's captioned as follows: Holding up the You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda. poster are Kihachiro Kawashima (then general manager of American Honda), left, and Takeo Fujisawa (then senior managing director of Honda Motor), second from right. I'm guessing the tall guy is from Grey Advertising.

For a slightly different take on Honda's rise in the U.S. (and a look at one of the 'nicest people' print executions) you can read this blog post by FrogDesign's Adam Richardson.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Blind Man - an excerpt from Riding Man

There’s a natural evolution in motorcycle racing. Almost all racers have families and friends who race. Most amateur racers are their own mechanics; they start early, by borrowing their dads’ tools. Whether they should be mechanics is debatable (I suspect that my inability with tools may have improved my results; at least I never hurt my bikes’ performance.)

Over time, the typical clique of racing friends shrinks, as guys get tired of being injured or broke or backmarkers or some permutation of those three. Those left gradually coalesce into two groups: riders and mechanics. Sometimes, the mechanics are the handful of guys who are honest with themselves and ready to admit they don’t have the speed to get to the next level. Sometimes they run out of money to race, but can’t give up the scene. More rarely, they have a gift for it. The French have a great expression for this: they call it having “les doigts de fee,” which literally means “a fairy’s fingers”. The first mechanic I ever knew went a long way towards making me believe that a mechanic’s skill with tools was almost a magic power.

When I was a kid, my dad worked for a big international company. The company moved our family from Canada to Switzerland, so he could run their Geneva office. Our home was in Tannay, an agricultural village that looked down over orchards and vineyards to a big lake. Under Swiss law, at 14 I was allowed to ride a 50cc moped. In surrounding countries, mopeds had three-speed transmissions, but in Switzerland, models sold to teenagers had the top gear removed from the box. Thus, in theory, they were limited to 30 kilometers an hour. Trust the Swiss to take the fun out of everything.

I counted the days down to my fourteenth birthday anyway. My parents bought me the Cadillac of mopeds: a Puch Condor. To start it, I pedaled it like a bicycle. The pedals came in handy for assisting the motor on steep hills, or when we were racing out of slow turns (though digging the inside pedal into the pavement at maximum lean was definitely to be avoided!)

All the kids I knew had similarly restricted bikes, and we endlessly attempted to eke out a little more power. Since every single time any other kid went faster was a serious personal insult, our own neighborhood ‘arms race’ made the U.S.-Soviet debacle seem like an episode of Chip and Dale.

One night, mulling over the possibilities of increased compression, we decided to skim our cylinder heads. Unencumbered by knowledge of milling machines, we cast about for a suitable tool. We found it in a neighbor’s basement: a belt sander. Not one of us waited to see if it worked for anyone else first. We’d have got better results skimming our own stupid heads. Over the next few nights, quite a few local mopeds (which were often left parked outside front gates, in the convenient shadows of stone walls and overgrown hedges) lost their heads.

At every gas station; there was always a special premix pump for motorbikes only. We’d decide how much fuel we were going to buy, which was never much. We told the attendant how much fuel – and what percentage of premix oil – we wanted.

Knobs were set, and a handle was pulled down, sort of like the handle on an expresso machine. The customer was reassured to see a little spurt of oil sprayed onto the inner wall of the glass ‘fishbowl’ on top of the pump. Then a second handle released the gasoline, which swirled in after the oil, dissolving it. It was a special mixture – different than buying gas for a car – that may as well have been a magic potion. All of us idiots concluded that by reducing the percentage of oil to 2% from the recommended 3%, we could get 1% more gasoline, with a concomitant increase in horsepower.

Of course, nothing we did had any impact on performance at all, except to occasionally make it much worse. The top speed of every bike was pretty much determined by the luck of the draw, though since I was the smallest rider, I could pull taller gearing

While the bikes were simple and generally pretty rugged, we were awfully hard on them. We rode without helmets, so it’s amazing we didn’t find ways to kill ourselves, even at sorely restricted speeds. Low-siding on cow shit was a common excuse; once, I took to the ditch at full speed when a tractor and trailer laden with 200 bushels of apples emerged from a hedgerow in front of me. Damage from such wipeouts had to be repaired at the local shop. If my bike would still roll, it was an easy push; just up the street from my house.

The mechanic’s shop was basically a two-bay garage, which along with a tiny beauty salon, made up the ground floor of a two-story house. He worked on bicycles and mopeds, while his wife was the beautician. In general, his customers were not spoiled foreign children, they were real Swiss; farmers, cops, shopkeepers and like, who relied on motorbikes for day-to-day transportation. The wives and girlfriends of those guys were the customers for the mechanic’s wife. All of them were xenophobes, and their treatment of foreigners usually ranged from outright scorn to something resembling the Amish concept of ‘shunning’, unless money was changing hands.

If I was pushing in the bike, or walking in to pick it up, I’d always make a little noise, sort of like throat clearing, to warn him of my arrival. He was an intimidating character for a 14-year-old to deal with. He was old. 60 or 70. Tall and gaunt. Shaking his hand was like grabbing a bunch of walnuts. When he talked to me, he’d walk up to the sound of my voice, but stare straight out over my head. That was because cataracts had, long since rendered him completely blind. Hiscorneas were as opaque as a boiled trout’s.

He did everything by feel. Routine maintenance, stuff like fitting a new inner tube and tire, was absolutely no problem; sighted mechanics could do that with their eyes closed too, maybe. But he rebuilt top ends, replaced brake shoes; stuff that utterly baffled me. A few hours a week, he had a sighted assistant that came in, but usually he was alone. When I went there, there was always some little thing he’d borrow my eyes for, like having me read the tiny numbers on a carb jet.

Occasionally, I’d stop by his shop just to fill up my tires. (The Condor actually came with a bicycle pump for the purpose, but you had to pump like a madman to overcome leakage in the pump itself. He had a pump powered by a foot treadle that allowed me to run the rock-hard tires I preferred for minimal rolling resistance.) When I asked if I could borrow his pump, he always sternly warned me to replace it exactly – exactly – where I’d found it.

Luckily for him, the bikes he worked on were simple. They were all piston-port two-strokes, whose basic design hadn’t changed since the introduction of the NSU ‘Quickly’ in about 1947. When my bike arrived at his shop for the first time, though, he was fascinated. Until then, most Swiss-market mopeds were sold with rigid front forks, like a bicycle. Mine had an inch or two of suspension travel, thanks to a bogus leading-link arrangement in which a little block of rubber served as both spring and damper. He spent a long time ‘looking’ at it, stroking and probing the workings with his fingers, memorizing the arrangement of the parts. It was not long before he got the chance to repair those forks.

He had a name of course, but we just called him ‘the blind man’. By the time I was old enough to get a moped, my family had lived in Switzerland for several years, and I spoke fluent French. Other foreign families came and went every year or two, so I occasionally introduced new customers to the blind man, and acted as a translator. Since his ability was so extraordinary, I sort of ‘showed him off’, I guess. He always took the work. He and his wife were making their living about five bucks at a time, so there was no turning away paying jobs.

After Switzerland, my family moved back to Canada, to Calgary. Out west. Cowboy country. It seemed good, for me, because I could have a bigger bike. I ended up getting a finicky, disc-valve Kawasaki. While it ran, it was just fast enough to illustrate the fact that despite my intense desire, I was incapable of intuiting just how people rode motorcycles really quickly. My inability to keep it going was one of the reasons I ended up giving up motorcycles for a long time.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Intolerance is un-American

A few weeks ago, the manager of the grocery store where I work (on my day job, obviously. I don't practice motorcycle journalism in grocery stores -- that's what Starbucks is for) took me aside. He told me that someone in North Carolina had written an email to the store, complaining about the contents of some of my blog posts. Why would that particular fucktard write my employer and not me? Well, obviously, to harass me by encouraging my employer to fire me, or at least lean on me to silence me.

I didn't see the letter, so I have no way of knowing whether it was my liberal political bias that infuriated the writer, or whether it was the generally atheist and foul-mouthed nature of some of my 'rantier' columns that triggered this cowardly and un-American personal attack.

The manager of the store where I work seemed a little unsettled by even having to raise the subject. I got the feeling that this was something that had been discussed at the head office, and that maybe corporate counsel had weighed in. If that was the case, they'd certainly realize that there's nothing in this blog that could possibly be interpreted as hate speech, or seditious. Although Missouri (the state in which I reside and work) is a so-called right-to-work state (it would more accurately be called a employer's-right-to-fire state) and the company could legally have fired me on the spot, I imagine that the company realizes that firing an employee for exercising his right to free speech is not going to generate a wave of positive press.

I should point out that I've written some highly-politicized posts, and I've written posts in which I named my employer, but that my employer was never cited in any of those volatile posts. Nothing I've written about my employer could be interpreted as particularly negative.

So the fucktard in North Carolina had to read some post that infuriated him, and then dig through the blog to find some other post in which I mentioned my employer by name. Then, said fucktard had to figure out how to contact my employer and craft a letter which had the intent, obviously of either silencing me or punishing me for my views by getting me fired.

Nice, eh?

I should say that, thus far, my employer has been careful not to say "Don't write any more of that stuff," or "You're on report,"  or anything like that. In fact, the only thing I was told was, "You're entitled to your opinion."

I volunteered to remove any direct reference to my employer by name, and in fact have gone back through earlier posts and redacted the company's name. That makes it hard to even write about working, but then I had a brainstorm. Obviously, I have a bit of a potty keyboard when I'm writing here on; I figure, joke you if you can't take a fuck.

But when I used to make a living writing for other sites and pubs, if I had to insert swearing (for example as part of a direct quote) I used to replace the offending words with symbols drawn from math or other alphabets, the way comic book artists sometimes fill a speech bubble with swirls, exclamation points and daggers to indicate a character is swearing without running afoul of censors.

For example, I'd insert fake words like 'Ƒü©≮' or '$#!+'. People knew that those character strings meant 'insert swear word here' but had no idea they specifically meant 'fuck' or 'shit'.

It occurred to me that I could do the same thing vis-a-vis the name of my employer. If I insert this character string - ₮Ʀ@Ƌ’⋲® √⦰⋲$ - in place of my employer's name, people will know they should insert the name of some grocery store in there, but won't have any idea which specific business I'm referring to. I mean, those characters aren't even part of the regular English alphabet.

Let me make this clear: I love ₮Ʀ@Ƌ’⋲® √⦰⋲$. It's a great company that's built a great business by making grocery shopping fun and providing solid values to customers. Really, it's a shame I have to keep their name a secret now. I have a smile on my face every day that I walk in there. I work my ass off, even when assigned the most thankless tasks in the store, from processing spoiled food to cleaning the toilets. I have huge respect and admiration for the brand they've built, and am constantly fascinated by what I learn from them. I like my co-workers and enjoy my customer encounters. I have every reason to think that most of my customers support my employment and enjoy dealing with me.

That said, the writer in me is sorry that ₮Ʀ@Ƌ’⋲® √⦰⋲$ didn't actually just fire me once they'd mentioned the letter complaining about this blog. I mean, every now and then I write a motorcycle-related post read by several thousand people, but my political rants are typically read only be a few hundred people. Firing me for the content of this blog would be a public relations dream come true for me, and guarantee many thousands of new readers for my non-motorcycle writing. I guess, strategically, if the company was going to fire me, it 'should' have fired me for some other reason and never mentioned the letter, since now that I know about it, it opens up a host of First Amendment issues, to say nothing of a possible suit for libel (or do I mean slander?) against the sender. But I have no reason to think the company will fire me, or even really disagrees with what I've written. Why should they? It's all true.

Who is the North Carolina fucktard anyway? That's the interesting question. I'll definitely take legal steps to get the letter - if ever/as soon as - the fucktard gets the 'satisfaction' of getting me fired. I highly doubt that I'm the only target of this fucktard, and I imagine many similar letters have been sent. I imagine that even if the sender's information was redacted, I could eventually identify the sender by finding matching letters elsewhere on the web.

I doubt, in fact, that the North Carolina fucktard is really an individual fucktard. I'm too good at arithmetic and probability to think that amongst the few dozen readers of my typical political posts - many or most of whom agree with me - there's some individual reader who disagrees so violently that they'd go to that much trouble to silence me. It's possible, I grant you, but not likely.

It's more probable that some group like the Koch brothers have funded a group of kochsuckers who, using tools like Google Alerts, are searching the web for people like me, and then engaging in an organized harassment effort. If you were going to conduct such an effort, North Carolina would be a good place to base it, since it is an American Taliban stronghold.

Either way though, whether that letter was written by a lone nut job, or whether it was part of an organized fatwah, my only real comment is this...

Intolerance is un-American.

Oh, and by the way, Ƒü©≮ you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For shame

With the onset of winter (and a certain degree of media fatigue) the Occupy movement has either cooled off, gone into hibernation, or is entering a new phase; pick one, depending on your point of view. But, before winter set in, I watched video footage of what might have been the movement's defining moment.

I write of the pepper-spraying of UC Davis students. The clip below begins with a striking image, of a portly cop casually spraying mace, with about as much apparent emotional involvement as you'd expect to see if he was spraying his roses for aphids. When it gets really compelling though, is when a large group of students surround the UC Davis police chanting "Shame on you!" The students first surround and then put the cops to rout armed with... camera phones.

As defining moments go, getting pepper sprayed while at an Occupy sit-in doesn't really compare with being shot at Kent State, but in today's far-more-mediated culture, that may be all it takes.

Moron helmet-cams. Oops, I meant 'More on' helmet cams

That footage, a recent op-ed piece from the L.A. Times, and the funny clip I posted the other day of the wild turkey attacking a motorcyclist, reminded me that I've been meaning to write about Anthony Graber, a Maryland motorcyclist who was busted for speeding by a gun-wielding off-duty cop. Whatever punishment Graber actually got for speeding and reckless driving was probably justified, because he certainly was riding like a fucking moron.


It would not have made the news but for one thing: he was wearing a helmet camera, which recorded the bust. When he posted the video on YouTube, Maryland prostitutes, oops, I meant 'prosecutors' obtained a grand jury indictment against Graber on felony wiretap charges. He could go to jail for up to 16 years.

Here's (some of) Graber's video, which is still available on YouTube...

There's a lot that I find interesting about this. First, let me say again, Graber (who, at least prior to this incident was a U.S. military serviceman) was riding like a complete moron. Did he deserve to get pulled over? Hell yes. Did he deserve a monster ticket and/or loss of license? Definitely.

But what else is happening in the video? Enough to keep Sigmund Freud busy for a second career. First we see Graber speeding and wheelying through traffic. Let's be honest about motorcycles as phallic symbols; maybe that's not always the case but the whole wheelying-in-traffic thing... "Look at what I have between my legs, LOOK AT ME, WATCH, I can make it STAND UP."

God damn it, that's tiring.

When he takes that off ramp after his speeding and wheelying session and comes to stopped traffic, he just stops too even though he clearly had space on the shoulder to filter forward. Really?!? After breaking every traffic law you can think of, you just stop when you reach the first congestion point? Graber wasn't just riding like a moron, he obviously actually is a moron because one of the cars he passed was the off-duty cop we later see busting him, and it's obvious that on-duty cops were also on his tail, because there's a marked car visible a minute or two into the stop.

So far into the video, the universe is unfolding about as it should, but let's now dissect the behavior of the second moron to make an appearance in Graber's video, the off-duty cop who busts him.

Freud himself once apparently said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and I guess sometimes a motorcycle's just a motorcycle, but pulling a big wheely as you pass a cop is basically challenging a guy who is more than likely an ex playground bully to a pissing contest (and let's not get into the high probability that the cop's already on a hair trigger thanks to 'roid rage' - an investigation into one New Jersey doctor found that he'd prescribed steroids and HGH to two thousand cops.)

The cop, who was just effectively cuckolded while driving his anonymous, effeminate car jumps out to confront Graber, who is still straddling his own giant, powerful substitute dick.

So what does the cop do? He pulls out his own substitute dick! Yes, he draws his gun on Graber.

OK, let's think this through for a second. Cops and the media have gone to great lengths to convince us all that they operate in a deadly maelstrom of violence almost all the time, and that amongst other things any traffic stop can become a life-and-death confrontation at any moment. Nothing could be further from the truth, in point of fact. Being a cop is nowhere near as dangerous as, for example, being a farmer. By far the largest danger in a traffic stop is, in fact, simply traffic -- something we motorcyclists deal with every time we ride.

But even if you grant cops the infinitesimally small chance the guy they're pulling over might pull a gun on them, IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN THE GUY'S ON A FUCKING SPORT BIKE!!!

This is not the first time I've heard of stunters being arrested by cops with drawn guns, and it's total bullshit. Have you looked at a modern sport bike? They're so densely packaged you'd be hard pressed to find a spot to carry a pen-knife, and if you could find one, it would take 10 minutes and, probably, an allen wrench to get to it. There was absolutely no chance Graber was sitting on a .45.

So what was the message sent by the drawn gun, if it wasn't a dick comparison? Was it, "If you pop the clutch and take off, I'll put one in your back"?

If all this wasn't pathetic - two morons who deserve each other - it would be pretty funny. I love the moment where the cop says, "Show me your hands." Hey, idiot, he's on a motorcycle. You can SEE his hands. He's not rooting around in the dark recesses of his car. Graber, hilariously, responds by taking off his gloves.

"My hands. Uh, sure, you can see my hands."

And now, the third moron enters the picture (figuratively speaking.) Yes, the Maryland prosecutor who charged Graber with operating an illegal wiretap.

You're fucking kidding, right? Wrong.

So what are the facts here?

1.) Graber's camera was ON HIS HELMET, IN PLAIN SIGHT
2.) He was videotaping in a public place
3.) U.S. courts have, over and over, upheld citizens' rights to videotape police actions
4.) You can be sure the Maryland prosecutors will happily use Graber's tape as evidence against HIM.

As Jonathan Turley, the law professor who wrote that L.A. Times op-ed piece noted, without a videotape Rodney King would have been just another guy with a prior record claiming that the LAPD had abused him. Cameras have become the public's best weapon against police excess.

To Graber, and that idiot cop, and the Maryland prosecutors who maliciously persecuted Graber in order to deflect criticism of the gun-wielding arrest, to all three I have this to say...

Shame on you.
Shame on you.
Shame on you.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving wrap-up, Part 1

For those Backmarker readers who think turkeys and motorcycles don't mix, I offer up this video to confirm the feelings you already have...

This helmet-cam footage reminds me that I've been meaning to write about another issue that involves helmet cam use -- the incident in which a U.S. serviceman living in Maryland was pulled over by the cops for speeding. When he posted helmet-cam footage of his arrest on YouTube, he was charged under state wiretap laws, which is total bullshit but not something I've got time to go into in the 15 minutes I have at the computer before I must head back into work. (Yes, in retail, Thanksgiving is a one-day holiday... at best.)

In the meantime though, I noted another vidclip of motorcycles playing a role in the continuing 'Arab Spring' uprisings... This one shows motorcycles being used as makeshift ambulances to transfer the injured from Tahrir Square in Egypt, when things turned violent there again (earlier this week.) While I doubt motorcycle transport is the best way to move anyone severely injured, bikes are what they have at their disposal, and can maneuver better in crowded quarters.

That at least shows motorcycles being used by the side in the right. It can be contrasted by this video from the Denver Occupy Wall Street scene, in which a motorcycle cop gets pushed over by a protester.

It didn't take much of a shove to bring this hog to its knees, which suggests that a.) a thousand-pound Harley may not be the best bike to ride on wet grass, or that b.) this cop is probably not the one who the Denver PD should send to represent its motor pool at this competition...

Oops, gotta' go. I've got much more to write, but you might have to wait until Sunday to find out what I did on my own Thanksgiving, or to read the text of a speech, which was leaked to me, that President Obama will be making in a rare 'do-over' of a Presidential Thanksgiving Address...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Reading the 'E' leaves...

There was quite a buzz around the all-electric KTM Freeride trail bike launched at the recent EICMA show. I'm sure, given the high level of resolution displayed in most KTM products (and given KTM's long heritage in off-road motorcycling) that the Freeride will enter the market as the best thought-out and put-together entry in the nascent EV-dirtbike category. That said, in pursuit of light weight they've admitted that battery life could be as short as 20 minutes, under an expert rider. This puts the Freeride into the 'backyard use' category. There's not enough battery life to ride even a few miles to your off-road rec area, nor is there enough battery life to justify transporting the bike any distance.

By contrast, the 300cc ICE-powered Freeride will, I think, turn out to be a gangbusting success; I bet it will offer far superior off-road capability than competing bikes like the Yamaha 250, and it will really be that machine you can ride to the trails and back. It will be five or ten years before improvements in battery energy density give us a 200-pound motorcycle with that kind of range, so ICE it is. But surely taking the pickup truck out of the equation not only makes this a far more affordable solution, but a greener one, too?

EICMA's thunder (or should I write 'lightning'?) was stolen on the EV side though, by the release of pics of a Honda electric sport bike, the RC-E which will be unveiled to the public at the Tokyo show.

Wow, eh?

Months back, my friend James Parker, who designed the latest iteration of the Mission electric sport bike, told me that soon, a major OEM was going to enter the electric sphere, and when they did, it would be with amachine that no upstart company could compete with.

That was in a conversation in which I suggested that Mission really had backed away from its initial strategy to actually become a motorcycle manufacturer. At the time we talked, Mission had already done some work on a Honda-backed R&D project involving a hybrid race car. I interpreted James' comment as meaning that in his opinion, small companies like Mission, Brammo, or MotoCzysz were about to be steamrolled by Honda.

I wondered, "Does James know, or has he seen, a Honda project involving some of Mission's technology?" I didn't ask him, because I knew that if he had seen it, he'd have been sworn to secrecy, and I didn't want to put him on the spot. Anyway, we'll presumably learn more at the Tokyo show, about how close the RC-E is to turning a wheel.

Which brings me to my last point...

Another thing you read here first was that there would be no TT Zero race in 2012. Well, that was wrong. My friend Steve Hodgson recently cited (on his Facebook page) a Manx Radio report that there will be a race for EV bikes at the 2012 TT.

In my limited defense, I wrote that there would not be another TT Zero race unless and/or until a major OEM showed interest. Now, I wonder if Honda looked at last year's disappointing results and realized it has a chance to introduce the RC-E with a historic first, by lapping the TT course at over 100 miles an hour. Amateur Honda historians, like me, will already have noted that the 'RC' nomenclature assigned to this bike is what Honda gives to a 'homologation' bike -- a bike built for racing purposes, and then minimally adapted for road use.

Is this the first zero-emissions vehicle to lap the TT course at over 100 miles an hour? Uh-huh.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wrapping up #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday

Well, it's Friday and a work week's come and gone since #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday. That's not very long, but it is already quite a bit longer than the amount of time it took motorcyclists all over the world to conceive of a global event, carry it out, and move on.

Almost ten thousand people read the post in which I originally suggested that not just MotoGP riders but all of us should rev our bikes as a way of both commemorating Marco Simoncelli and drawing our community together. That was, by a wide margin, the most-read post ever on Backmarker.

I originally posted that suggestion last Tuesday. Overnight, someone re-tweeting a link to that post created our Twitter hashtag, and late last week we got some support from motorcycle media (including the Cycle World and Ultimate Motorcycling web sites,, and even some mainstream media (The Daily Mail newspaper in the U.K.)

The #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday Facebook page drew nearly 1000 members in just a few days, and now dozens of people have uploaded videos of themselves, alone and in groups, revving their bikes. #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday -- a search term that didn't exist at all on Google until last week, now brings up many pages of links related to the event.

In the end, it didn't matter that the MotoGP riders just stood by their bikes and watched fireworks. What was important was that ordinary motorcyclists all over the world had a way of showing their own solidarity with a fallen comrade.

So here's one more Note from the Dept. of Modest Suggestions: let's make 10:30 in the morning on the first Sunday in November the official day of mourning for fallen motorcyclists. It's well timed for it. It's the end of most racing seasons, the date's about half-way between the Day of the Dead and Rembrance Day (in the Commonwealth) or Veteran's Day (here in the U.S.) In much of the Northern Hemisphere, it's about the time bikes are put up for the winter.

Sure whenever May 20 rolls around, someone writes an essay about the crash that killed Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini in one fell swoop; we remember Joey Dunlop on the anniversary of his death; those guys will never be forgotten. But as a group, we tend to acknowledge the deaths of other riders but briefly and then move on, usually after concocting some story about how that can't happen to us.

But I'll keep saying this: While we don't ride or race motorcycles in order to take risks, risk gives the decision to ride or race meaning. If it was completely safe, or even pretty safe, it would be a completely different sport.

When I was a club racer, I was at some social function where someone introduced me to a stranger by saying, "This is my friend Mark. He's a motorcycle racer."

The guy shook my hand and said, "So you're a motorcycle racer. Golf's my game."

I smiled and said, "That's nice."

But what I thought was, "You idiot; do you really think those two things can be equated? Imagine the most intense pressure situation in all of golf. What would that be? A playoff hole at the Masters, and you can hole a 6 foot putt for the win? A putt you should make, right? But just long enough that you might not. You'd get some pretty bad butterflies alright. And you know what? If you missed it, you might -- for a moment -- wish you were dead. But you wouldn't ever actually be dead. As a motorcycle racer, you live with the realization that cost of any error in judgement can be catastrophic."

So yes, risk gives our sport meaning. That's why most people don't do it; why no matter how many people ever watch MotoGP, motorcycle racing will never be a mass-participation pastime. And why despite the fact that the risks are obvious, every now and then, we have to be reminded that even with continuous improvements in track safety and gear, and all the precautions we take to avoid tragedy, tragedy lurks around every corner. If it didn't; if the sport of motorcycle racing could ever be made completely safe, it would just be another game.

So when a Simoncelli dies out there on the track, his death gives your sport a depth that a mere game will never have.

Shakespeare (as usual) totally got the idea that risk imparts meaning to reward. He makes a great case for this idea in Henry V's epic "Crispen's Day" speech.

We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'

The strangest thing happened as I finished up this post. I thought I'd look up the day of St. Crispian's feast. It's October 25. Marco Simoncelli died on the 23rd -- the closest race day to Saint Crispian's.

All for now, MG

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Her diary, his diary

Kudos to whoever wrote this! Thanks for making me laugh, and I hope you don't mind me sharing it -- Mark

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Monday morning crew chief: Hayes' shot? Not. But, he gets the job done

In a tumultuous couple of weeks in MotoGP racing, one of the bright spots was Josh Hayes' job subbing for Colin Edwards.

The final race of the 2011 season could have been a non-event for Yamaha. Lorenzo was scrubbed -- still nursing a flayed finger, and there had to have been a question mark about Spies' health, after he was withdrawn in Sepang. Colin Edwards would not be racing for Tech 3, either; he proved to have been more injured than he'd looked at first, after the Simoncelli incident. And the whole weekend was, of course, colored by the fact that it was the first one after #58's death. All in all, the cold and rainy weather was apropos.

Cue Josh Hayes, who had been scheduled to 'test' a Yamaha M1 after the race at Valencia. This started out as a lark, really -- just a way for Yamaha USA to eke out a little more publicity from their AMA Superbike Championship. Suddenly, though, with not one but two riders out of commission, Hayes was invited to actually race.

There are those who described Hayes' opportunity as 'his shot' which, sadly, it was not. At 36, no one is seriously going to consider hiring Hayes as a MotoGP regular. People hoped that maybe Hayes would set the cat amongst the pigeons, the way Troy Bayliss did at the end of the '06 season. That was not going to happen because Bayliss had three big advantages over Hayes: he'd already ridden the track, he'd already tested the bike, and he was, after all, Troy Bayliss.

The powers-that-be in MotoGP don't want to give fans the impression that there are a bunch of guys pushing 40, languishing in national series around the world, who are just as fast as 'real' MotoGP riders. When a national rider like Josh Hayes is parachuted into the World Championship, they want to see him right at the bottom of the time sheets. Will they bring him back for a few more (U.S.) races in 2012? They'll be balancing the risk of embarrassment if he does too well, against Hayes' popularity in the U.S. 
People set, as a goal for Hayes, at a minimum finishing above Cal Crutchlow; that would have been totally unrealistic under the circumstances -- unless, maybe, it had snowed. In fact, over the course of the race, Crutchlow eked out an advantage of about one second per lap.

That's no insult to Hayes, who handled his first MotoGP race weekend perfectly. In shitty practice conditions, he kept the bike rubber-side-down and put in plenty of laps. Just not wrecking the equipment is a huge first step in building a rapport with any new team, and not taking anybody else out helps to build acceptance in the wider paddock. He seized an opportunity to top the time-sheets in the morning warm-up (a fluke, but still pretty cool) and then kept his head in the race, avoiding trouble with Katsuyuki Nakasuga, and passing series regulars when he got the chance. He finished ahead of Loris Capirossi and Tony Elias, who aren't exactly chumps. By any realistic standard, the goal for a first MotoGP weekend -- especially at the end of a season when you're the only newbie out there -- isn't to do something great, it's to avoid doing something stupid.

At the end of the day, seventh place in a MotoGP debut is eyebrow-raising, no matter who didn't start or who was taken out in the first lap. There will be those who'll say that Hayes got a gift last weekend, but that's not true. There's no such thing as being gifted positions in motorcycle racing. If Hayes had ridden over his head in the U.S. series, he'd be the one home recuperating from some injury. When someone crashes out in front of you, you beat them just as surely as if you'd stuffed them in Turn 1 and pulled off a nasty block pass.

Motorcycle racing is all about concentration, confidence, and focus; new stimuli (to say nothing of an unfamiliar bike, tires, and track!) are all concentration and confidence sappers. Hayes is now far more familiar with the M1 in particular, and MotoGP in general; getting that first race under his belt without a mishap sets him up to do even better next time, when he'll know what to expect.

What I'd like to see happen now is, I'd like to see Yamaha decide to enter an extra bike for him in the  U.S. MotoGP rounds next season. And give Hayes at least a couple more testing opportunities. I think that if they did that, by the time he was in his third or fourth MotoGP race, he'd be mixing it up in top half of the field, even at races with a full grid and all the 'names' healthy and up on two wheels. Note that that is what I'd like to see, not necessarily what MotoGP wants to see (read photo caption for more on this.)

Would even that earn him 'a shot'? No. No chance. He's old enough to the father of the riders who'll get their shots at MotoGP stardom in the next couple of years. Is that unfair? Yes, totally. But motorcycle racing's become another youth cult. Get used to it. Josh Hayes will retire from motorcycle racing before he's ever seriously considered for a contract in the world's premiere series.


What Hayes would earn from that kind of showing -- and he's really almost earned it already -- is the right to say, "If I'd been given the right breaks, I could have raced with those guys."

I once read a mainstream media sportswriter describe Hayes as, "the nicest professional athlete I've ever met," but every racer has to have a massive ego. The racer's ego in Josh Hayes already knows he could'a been a contendah, but the chance to prove that to a wider public would almost be as valuable, to him, as a legitimate shot.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

We made noise for Marco Sunday

When I got home from work on Saturday night, the first videos had already been uploaded to the #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday Facebook group, by bikers in Australia. I worked late into the night last night, and had to get up early this morning to go back into work.

Commuting by motorcycle, in Kansas City, in November, is chilly business. So instead of spending any time checking stats or responding to postings on #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday, I had to put on extra layers, go downstairs and take the cover off the bike (and hope that it would start at these temperatures.)

It did start, and as I rode off, my thoughts were of the race in Valencia, which had yet to happen -- and of the on-track tribute to Marco, which by then had already taken place. In the end, they didn't rev the bikes on the track; I suppose the MotoGP organizers never had actually agreed to that suggestion. But they had a ceremony in which most of the bikes in all three world championship classes did a slow lap of the track on a cold and rainy day, then stopped at the start-finish line.

I suppose it was just too much trouble to rev the bikes; God knows what it would cost if you blew one up. So, in Valencia, they shot off fireworks. Which, if you've been to a MotoGP race in Spain you know they shoot quite a lot of fireworks off anyway. There was some sincere mourning to be done, but as far as the people who actually run MotoGP are concerned, the purpose of this display is to help get back to business as normal. A really meaningful tribute would be to say, for one race everyone will run their bikes without any logos at all; just race numbers and the base paint color. That would remind us that what is important are the things we do for love, not money.

As I left my neighborhood heading towards the highway I take to work, I turned a corner that's always wet. There must be a broken water main there. This morning, as I took that bend, the Triumph stepped out. That was nice; it did something to my mood, because I rode to work at quite a spirited pace. I was passing cars on the highway as if they were pylons in a slalom.

At 10:25, I looked out the window of the grocery store and there was another motorcyclist parked beside my bike. It was Kansas City sustainable architecture guru Jim Van Eman, on his Ducati. I pressed another [NAME OF EMPLOYER REDACTED] employee into service as a videographer (thanks Lindsay!) and clocked off for five minutes to run out and rev my bike with Jim. Since the store's a zoo on the weekend, I had no time to chat with my friend; I literally ran out, revved the bike, and ran back in. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur; as you'll hear when I get my video posted, I had a murderous head cold.

I got off work at four p.m., and since last night was the night we turned our clocks back from daylight savings time, the sun was already low in the sky. All the way home up highway 71, I raced my own shadow. Neither of us could eke out an advantage. I didn't have to stop until I got to the bottom of the off-ramp near my house. There was a guy there, holding a cardboard sign that read
Anything helps
God Bless

He looked at me and called out, "Nice bike!"

I have almost no voice, thanks to this cold, so I just nodded and gave him the thumbs-up. When I finally pulled into my parking spot, I turned the bike east and my shadow fell behind.

Despite the fact that it was cold; despite the fact that I have a cold; despite the homeless guy's comment that the Triumph is a nice bike even though it's actually a piece of crap... Despite all that, it was a good day to be a motorcyclist and to be alive. That's something that #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday has helped many of us to remember.

Ciao, Marco

Saturday, November 5, 2011

#MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday is a go!

The first video has already been uploaded to the #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday Facebook group's page -- by Jason Rogers. No, he wasn't cheating, it was already 10:30 on Sunday morning in Australia.

Pascal Bompard, another Aussie, recorded this video, too.

I worked an afternoon shift in the grocery store, and I work Sunday morning, too. So I'll be out in the parking lot of the [NAME OF EMPLOYER REDACTED] store on Ward Parkway in Kansas City at 10:30 CST.

As for what all this means... It's been a long day for me, I'm sick with a terrible cold, and I have to get some sleep because I have a long day of work at my day job ahead of me tomorrow. Yes, organizing global events is just a hobby for me.

So figuring out what #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday really means is a task for another day, when it's had time to sink in. In the meantime, many of you will read this before it's 10:30 on Sunday where you live. Make a plan to get out and rev your bike for 58 seconds -- preferably with other motorcyclists. Whether you do it alone or in a group, please video it if you can, and upload it to our Facebook group page. Even if you don't video yourself, add your comment, tell us what you did and where, and how it felt.

OK, I've gotta' go. It's T-11 hours here in Kansas City.

#MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday -- update Saturday at 1430 GMT

Well, the number of people who plan to make noise for Marco Sunday is increasing. People have joined the #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday Facebook group from all over the world.

On Sunday morning at 1030h, motorcyclists will stop what they're doing, and rev up their bikes for 58 seconds to honor the memory of Marco Simoncelli. Hopefully, lots of them will do it in groups, and I hope that many of them will upload their video tributes to the #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday Facebook group page.

As I'm writing this post, it will be 10:30 on Sunday morning in Auckland NZ in about seven hours. That will be one of the first places motorcyclists will make noise for Marco. Motorcyclists in Moscow will get their chance in 16 hours; Mexicans in 26 hours, and finally, motorcyclists on Maui will make noise for Marco in 30 hours.

Over the course of the 24 hours, our wave of sound will travel around the world. We'll literally wave good-bye.

People have already asked, "How do we make this an annual event?" The timing is about right; smack in the middle of the two-week period that begins with the Day of the Dead and ends with Remembrance Day.  At the end of the racing season, and the riding season in many countries. Maybe this should be the day and time, henceforth, when motorcyclists honor their dead.

There's a part of me that wishes that #MonsterEnergy and #IMS (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) to say nothing of Honda, would get behind the #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday group, since they have the media clout to really help to spread the word.

I guess that, despite the fact that those businesses have whole departments devoted to marketing & communications, and have employees with titles like 'Director of New Media', etc, they can't be expected to respond to a movement that will be conceived, grow up, and stage it's demonstration in less than a week. In any case, maybe it's just as well if this is a truly grassroots effort, with no hint of commercialization.

Anyway, #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday is less than a day away for most of us now. Check your battery; if you've put your bike away for winter, gas it up again. If you make a video, please try to title it, or hold up a sign telling us where you are.

Ciao, Marco!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Memorializing Simoncelli, in a way he'd appreciate - Updated

OK, we've got a hashtag #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday. I guess that's proof, along with thousands of blog hits overnight, that my idea of a round-the-world wave good-bye is resonating.

A blogger in Valencia, ISA (link to her site in comments below) says the time is set for 1030h. So 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning it is. Valencia is almost exactly half-way around the world from the International Date Line, so #MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday will begin in the western Pacific about 12 hours earlier and end in Hawaii about 12 hours later. The big noise in Valencia will be right in the middle of the 24-hour wave. That's perfect.

#MakeNoiseForMarcoSunday = 58 seconds of revving your bike in memory of #58, at 1030h Sunday, November 6. keep checking this blog for details.

Original post follows...

I read that the FIM proposed a minute of silence on the grid at Valencia, as a way of memorializing Marco Simoncelli. Marco's dad Paolo suggested, instead, that all the riders rev up their bikes -- that would be something Marco would have preferred.

So, here's a note from the Dept. of Modest Proposals: Let's all do that.

I propose that we find out from the FIM when, exactly, they plan to rev up the MotoGP bikes for Marco. Then I suggest that at that time on Sunday, in each time zone around the world, motorcyclists stop what they're doing, and rev up their bikes.

The effect of this will be to create a wave of revving motorcycles that will travel around the globe, beginning in the western pacific and circling the globe, back to the International Date Line, over the 24 hours of next Sunday. We'll literally wave good-bye to Marco. We can rev up our bikes for a little under a minute -- say, 58 seconds.

Even a few years ago, organizing a global farewell would have been impossible on such short notice. But in this day and age of Twitter and Facebook, it might just be possible.

I think it would be great if motorcyclists took a short video of the bike-revving, and posted it to YouTube. Then, if they post the YouTube link in the 'Comments' section of this post, I'll embed all the videos on a page devoted to "58 for 58, times 24".

If I pick up RTs and reposts of this entry over the next day or so, I'll post more detailed instructions, and contact the FIM to find out when, exactly, the Valencia moment will happen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A note from the Dept. of Devil's Advocacy

A couple of months ago, MCN (the UK motorcycle tabloid, not Motorcycle Consumer News in the U.S.) contacted me and asked me if I wanted to participate in a sort of printed 'debate' about the state of motorcycle racing in general and MotoGP in particular. They wanted to pair me with another 'expert' (a term I'm using loosely, obviously) to argue for/against Traction Control. 

Since I had a choice of what side of the argument I'd take, and since everyone seems to be against TC, I naturally chose to defend it.

Here's what I wrote...

Traction Control's not the real villain

Let’s set aside the fact that Traction Control is beneficial on road-going motorcycles. They say “racing improves the breed” and whether the latest TC systems - look at the Aprilia RSV4 or BMW S1000RR - grew out of those companies’ racing programs or not, they have allowed ordinary riders to explore their machines’ performance envelopes in much greater safety. ABS, similarly, is a huge boon to riders who are mere mortals.
So the question is not simply, “Should we ban TC?” The question is also, “Do we really want top-level racing series to rely on technology that will look increasingly primitive as road bikes continue to evolve?” 
My answer to the first question is, “You can try but it didn’t work here in the U.S.” And my answer to the second is a simple, “No” on philosophical grounds. On principle, I believe that top-tier race bikes should be more advanced than ordinary road bikes.
Even if you don’t share my philosophical position, there are other reasons to think twice about a simple ban of TC. It’s easy to look back over the last decade or so, and point to TC as  ‘the new thing’ that cocked MotoGP up. But other factors have also conspired to produce processional races on one-line tracks. 
The overall engineering packages of motorcycles are increasingly homogenous. So are the development paths taken by young riders; the Red Bull Rookies Cup is a blatant attempt to produce cookie-cutter future stars. Smaller grids limit diversity and restrictive licensing and qualifying rules have made lapped traffic a thing of the past. Even the tracks we race on are getting smoother and smoother. And most importantly, almost all major championships now use control tires.
So the racing’s still thrilling in the 125 class and it’s wild-and-wooly in Moto2, but as the grids shrink in MotoGP and the risks (both physical and financial) of over-riding the machine increase, riders literally toe the same line. Why isn’t this a debate about riders and the culture of motorcycle racing? Sheene vs. Roberts; Rainey vs. Schwantz... If you could put those guys in a time machine and have them race contemporary MotoGP bikes, the races would not be parades.
And banning TC is not that simple. There was about a decade when the Yoshimura Suzuki team here (in the AMA Superbike Championship) had a clandestine TC system developed by computer guru Amar Bazzaz. Yosh had great riders in Mat Mladin and Ben Spies, but part of the team’s long dominance was simple cheating. 
Here’s another lesson from America: Our Grand National flat track racing scene is still full of lurid slides and wheelies. Bar-banging last corner passes determine almost every race. Yet the series struggles to attract young fans - perhaps because the bikes being raced are far more primitive than any modern street bike.
In the final analysis, while banning Traction Control seems like a quick fix, it’s a certainty that within a few years, un-traction-controlled racers will lap at slower speeds than production bikes with advancing state-of-the-art TC - and that will suck. Petrolheads all want to see the fastest and the best bikes doing battle. The answer is not more restrictive rules, it’s a less-restrictive attitude, and it has to pervade the sport from top to bottom.

Author note: I wrote this before Simoncelli's fatal crash. Looking back on it now, and reading me sort of rhetorically asking, "What would Kevin Schwantz be doing, if he was here now?" makes me reflect on the fact that Simoncelli was the young rider most like Schwantz in every way, physically and emotionally, but also in his balls-out riding and acceptance of frequent crashes in the search of the absolute limit. 

Simoncelli's Sepang crash began with a hairy knee save after over-riding and/or over-braking into that corner. If he hadn't been hit by Rossi and Edwards -- if he had pulled off the knee save, he'd've seemed even more Schwantz-like.

Trying that hard comes with a price.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Marco Simoncelli didn't think it could happen to him

Last Monday, I wrote about risk in the context of sports like motorcycle racing. Today, I'll close that loop, with an excerpt from Riding Man that addresses the techniques that motorcycle racers use to deal with the psychological stress those risks entail. 

It's a statement of the obvious: racers are acutely superstitious. We've all seen Valentino Rossi's going-on-track ritual, that begins with his deep squat and tugging his bike's foot peg and ends with him pulling the leathers out of the crack of his ass as he rolls down pit lane.

Of course, those rituals are part of a mind-clearing exercise and in some ways actually do help to protect riders, but they don't confer any real luck; he did all that stuff, I'm certain, before he rolled out onto the track in Sepang. Then fate cruelly threw Simoncelli directly into his path.

Did Rossi think, "That could have been me," or was it, "I wish it had been me"? Is he now mulling over last Sunday morning in Sepang, looking for the thing he did do to bring him such bad luck? Or wondering what good luck charm failed him?

The truth is, you can't really race motorcycles without an inner belief that "it can't happen to me." While I was on the Isle of Man researching Riding Man and preparing for the TT, I saw plenty of superstition on the part of racers, and came to term with my own 'magic thinking', as I processed the risks associated with the upcoming race. I addressed those topics in a chapter I called...

Hello, Fairies

The Manx Motorcycle Club annual dinner is pretty much the social event of the winter on the Island. The mayor of Douglas, the Island’s governor, and the leaders of Manx industry such as they are, they’re all guests; Jack Wood had to pull strings to get me a ticket.

I show up a couple of hours early, to attend the club’s annual meeting. Picture a large room full of men in blazers. Several men with snow-white hair announce their retirements. In order to fill their positions, gray haired men are nominated. Nominations are seconded. All in favor say ‘Aye’. The Deputy Clerk of the Course’s term was not up, but he’s unfortunately deceased. He too is replaced. Finally, a new President literally assumes the mantle, as a large medal is hung around his neck on an elaborate sort of necklace. Jack Wood is made an honorary life member. I am the youngest person in the room, or so it seems.

The business of the club attended to – the races presumably preserved for another year –we go back downstairs for drinks. I sit down on a padded bench, beside a guy who is carrying so much weight that he braces an arm on an expansive thigh to prevent his body simply flowing in the direction of gravity. He wants to talk, though it leaves him breathless. When he asks me what I’m doing here, and I tell him, he gets a little defensive. A writer? Am I here to skewer the TT? But I’ve become adept at allaying such fears; I’m here to ride in it, after all, how could I be against it?

Every now and then, someone comes by to say ‘hi’ to him, and offers to buy him a drink. Once, he makes a motion to get up, and a man twice his age puts a hand on his shoulder saying, “No, I’ll get them.” It turns out that he’s the director of the Island’s Emergency Planning department. He enumerates the good things that the TT has given the Isle of Man; a much bigger hospital and better ambulance service, and top flight orthopedic surgeons that a little place like this would otherwise never have.

We go in for dinner. I’m seated at the press table next to Norrie Whyte, a legendary British journalist who tells me he’s been to every MMC dinner “since Read won in ’60.” Then he complains that no one can write any more. There’s a toast to “The Queen, Lord of Man” and after a few brief speeches Tony Jefferies (current champ David’s uncle, and head of the racing clan) is wheeled up onto the stage for a keynote speech that he could give in his sleep, or at least completely drunk, which he is. “He makes me look like a teatotaller,” says Whyte with admiration. Somewhere in there, a meal is served and there’s a swirl of conversation from which I note only a fragment, “That’s the trouble, isn’t it? These young guys are trying to ‘short circuit’ the TT course.”

Standing at the bar, afterwards, I meet two riders, an old guy and his protégé. The old guy is Chris McGahan, an Englishman who nearly made a career of racing, back in the ‘70s. Since then, he’s specialized as a ‘real road’ racer, doing the major Irish meetings, the TT and Manx GP, and a few public road races on the continent.

Chris, who’s probably in his fifties, looks like an ex-lightweight boxer who stayed in shape. Long arms, strong hands and shoulders; his most noticeable feature is a pair of large ears, the tops of which stick out horizontally like wings. “They call me ‘wingnut’,” he grins. In a room where men outnumber women at least 20:1, he seems to have two dates. (The MMC Annual Dinner was actually stag until the mid-‘90s.) The younger guy is Sean Leonard, Irish. “Dere’s noothin’ known about racin’ dat Chris don’t know,” Sean tells me.

They’ve hardly stopped drinking when they call me around 10 a.m. the next morning. They’re going to drive down to Castletown to meet a sponsor, then cut a couple of laps of the Mountain in a borrowed car. Do I want to come?

Chris spins one yarn after another. Famous old racers, fast women; smuggling booze back across the channel from continental races, smuggling stowaways on the ferry to the island for the TT; serious substance abuse continuing right up to the green flag; choose any four from columns A, B, and C. He’s driving as fast as he’s talking. Suddenly, with Chris hurtling along in mid-sentence, Sean blurts, “Fairy Bridge!”

No Island native crosses the little stone bridge without saying ‘hello’ to the fairies. Sean says it, and so does Chris, injecting his “Hello Fairies,” in the middle of a sentence. I say it, too. They kind of laugh it off, like, ‘we don’t actually believe it…’

We park at a pub, and go in. It’s maybe 10:30 a.m., I’m thinking what, tea? Brunch? They stand at the bar and order pints of beer. “What about you, Mark? What’ll you take for a livener?” I order a pint of Guinness, and a second, before the sponsor shows up with his wife. He’s a dapper guy, younger than McGahan (and me, for that matter) but dressed older; he wears a pocket watch on a gold chain. There’s a bit of business done, as Chris discusses plans for a vintage bike, something they’re planning to build for one of the Manx GP classes.

I beg off the third pint, while we socialize. The sponsor, I learn, owns a scrapyard somewhere “on the mainland” but his involvement with Chris isn’t really a business proposition; in ‘real roads’ racing, sponsors provide bikes or money so they can hang out with riders, maybe that’s why the riders tend to be such characters.

We head back north in the car, and pick up the course at Ballacraine corner, about six miles into it. Chris is again in running commentary mode, driving even faster now. As we go over the various “jumps” and bumpy areas on the course, Chris takes his hands off the wheel and makes handlebar waggling movements. Sean reaches up and grips, tightly, the handle above the passenger-side door.

Just past Ballaugh, we come to a white cottage and Chris slams on the brakes. “Gwen’s always got tea and cakes for racers,” he says, then as he gets out “Wait here while I see if she’s in.”

Gwen’s become a minor celebrity, known as the ‘lady in white’. She stands in her garden, for every TT practice session and every race, rain or shine. She always waves as the racers pass, and many of them claim to acknowledge her, though she lives on a bumpy stretch of road so they don’t wave back as much as raise a finger or waggle a foot. For decades, she always wore a white dress, until she was made an honorary corner marshal and issued a white coverall. She’s an honorary member of the TT Rider’s Association, too. There was even a time when the ‘newcomer’s bus tour’ used to actually stop at her cottage, and everyone would troop out and meet her (later, on my bus tour, we didn’t stop. I assume she’s getting too old.)

When I ride past her cottage on my bicycle, I look in the big front picture window. The parlor walls are covered with photos and TT mementos, but I’ve never seen any movement in there. In fact, I’ve been wondering if Gwen is still alive. I’d like to meet her, but it’s not destined to happen. Chris jumps back into the car. “The door was open, but she’s not in there,” he says, and we’re off again.

Back in Douglas, we spend four hours in another bar, “The owner’s one of our sponsors,” Chris says, and we begin drinking as though someone else will pick up the tab. When I finally beg off, they can’t believe I’m not coming with them to the next party.
There was no way Sean Leonard was going to cross the Fairy Bridge without saying ‘hello’ to the fairies. Michelle Duff’s (she was previously Mike, but that’s another story) final words of advice to me before I left were, “Say ‘hello’ to the fairies from me.”Nowadays visitors tend to think, "How quaint, the simple folk still believe in magic." But motorcycle racers are superstitious, too.

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 out 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 alright. 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.

(Author’s note: Long after that day at Willows, 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 to 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 which is critical. Nonetheless, most Manx say hello on every crossing, and that had been my habit too.

As I was worrying through this very thought, I noticed a crow hopping in the road ahead of me. I got closer and closer I actually said, “Hey, take off” out loud. But it didn’t. I thought about slamming on the brakes, or swerving, and did a quick visual check to ensure the road was otherwise clear. Then I thought, “Don’t be stupid, they always wait to the last second to get out of the way.”

But it didn’t. I hit it and killed it.

I was fucking aghast.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

A writer's notebook, Simoncelli, and a meditation on risk

The last week or so, there's been several moments when I've found myself thinking, 'That would make a great topic for a blog post,' but I just haven't had the time to jot down more than a reminder to myself.

The hip Hell for Leather site's been paying a little attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement; first covering the NYC cops' apparent use of their scooters as juggernauts, bowling over protesters. Then, they ran this story about Greek rioters using motorcycle gear for protection from police batons, etc. Are they taking a side? It's not yet clear.

Another disgruntled ex-motorcycle journalist, Mark Williams -- the long-time editor of the great UK magazine BIKE -- has taken to blogging about wider topics, and his blog's definitely worth reading.

I've been meaning to weigh in on the (hopefully final, for a while) sale of Cycle World magazine. Then I decided that, instead, I'd conduct a lengthy interview with America's greatest bike mag editor, Cook Neilson.

Cook, who studied Lit at Princeton, was the editor of Cycle from the late '60s through the late '70s. Picture this: When Cycle moved from New York to L.A., they moved into a space that was 25% office and 75% shop. Cook and Phil Schilling developed and built a motorcycle, in their own shop, that Cook used to win the 1977 Superbike race at Daytona.

That interview's epic, and I'll probably finish writing it up and post it in a month or two on the Motorcycle-USA web site. I wish Cycle World well I guess, but it's no Cycle.

I was going to write about two 'Love Ride' motorcyclists being killed in L.A., and point out for the nth time that rides for breast cancer, autism, toys for tots or whatever the hell else you want to benefit are misguided. The only thing we, as motorcyclists, should ride to benefit is spinal cord research. Breast cancer, autism, and toyless tots are all worthy causes, but we should be collecting money for the thing that most affects us, as riders. The only reason we don't is that we're all too scared to even raise the subject.

Oh, and my friend John Stein's amazing history of motorcycle drag racing is about to come out, and that's newsworthy too. All that was stuff I was hoping to write up when I finally got a couple of days off early this week.

Then Marco Simoncelli was killed in Malaysia. That changed everything.

I haven't seen the crash. Since I don't have a television, I wasn't watching it and I won't see it on the internet because my personal policy is not to purposely watch a crash that ends a career. It's just a thing with me; a place I draw the line.

Simoncelli's death, though, underlines the inherent risk in motorsport. The best gear, the safest tracks, the best corner workers and the Clinica Mobile will never take all those risks out of racing. In fact, if racing ever was made completely safe, it would also become boring to me.

Risk, as a philosopher might say, informs motorcycle racing. We don't race in order to take risks, but risk gives the decision to go racing meaning. About 15 years ago, when I was working my way up through the amateur ranks as a club racer, I realized that I wanted to explain that to a public that took a very simplistic view of risk sports. I knew that in order to come to terms with the topic, I would have to go and race in the place where that risk was most obvious. To fully understand that topic, I had to race on the Isle of Man, in the TT.

Although what Marco Simoncelli did for a living was very dangerous compared to, say, soccer, MotoGP is very safe compared to racing in the TT. Simoncelli was the first MotoGP rider to die in a race since Daijiro Kato in 2003. TT riders are killed every single year.

My book about the TT, Riding Man, is largely a meditation on risk and today and Thursday, I'll post a couple of the most relevant excerpts. Here's the first one, a chapter of the book called...


The TT course is lined with memorials to riders. Some of them are big, permanent features of the TT course. The Guthrie Memorial on the climb up the mountain, which is really just a cairn; the Graham Memorial which is anA-framed chapel that looks west down the Laxey Valley; and now the Dunlop Memorial, a bronze statue up at the Bungalow. They’re the exceptions to the general rule, since Guthrie and Dunlop died on other circuits (Guthrie at the German Grand Prix in ’39, and Dunlop in Estonia in 2000.) Even Graham’s chapel was built far from the bottom of Bray Hill where he crashed and died. Officially, little is done to remember the fallen.

The vast majority of TT memorials are much smaller and unofficial; they’re placed by friends and families at the very spot their loved one died. At first, you don’t see them. Then you notice one because it’s relatively prominent, or because it’s new or freshly cleaned. As you get sensitized, you start to see more and more of them, notice ever subtler and older ones, see the ones that are set further back in the weeds. Eventually, you realize that no matter where you choose to stop along the course if you know what to look for, you can see something that commemorates a fallen rider.
They are permanent plaques in stone or metal, screwed to fences or set in the ground. They are personal mementos, stuffed animals or flags or photos, tacked to trees or jammed between rocks. They are flowers, long dried, brown, wilted and molding, or gone altogether leaving a faded bit of ribbon gradually fraying in the constant wind.

Alpine Cottage is a fast but normally innocuous right -hander between Kirk Michael and Ballaugh. The turn-in marker for this bend is the nearby bus shelter. When I stop to study the corner’s line I notice that the bus stop has a ceramic plaque set into its wall, low down in one corner almost at ground level.


A mile or so down the road, just over the bridge at the entrance to the town of Ballaugh, there’s a fine bronze bas-relief set in a white stucco gate. It is a portrait of a man and since he’s wearing a pudding bowl crash helmet, I’m pretty sure it’s a memorial. I make a note of the name Karl Gall and the date1939, with an eye to checking on them next time I’m in the library.

Later on, I do go to the library and pull the 1939 volume of the local paper. Gall had been one of the leading German riders of the 1930s. In the ’38 TT, Gall had crashed hard at Waterworks and been badly hurt. He’d announced his retirement after that. But as war clouds gathered, the Nazis were determined to wring as much propaganda value as possible from international motorsport. The BMW, DKW and NSU teams all got Nazi support, but it came with heavy pressure to deliver results, especially at prestigious events like the TT. Gall was persuaded to take one more shot at the Senior, on BMW’s all-powerful, supercharged ‘kompressor’ twin. In practice, he lost control going over Ballaugh Bridge, and was flung headfirst into that gatepost. His team-mate, Georg Meier, ended up winning the last prewar Senior on an identical machine.

One time, Steve accompanies me on a bicycle lap. It’s nearly the death of him. I collect him at Ballacraine, which is already a pretty long ride from his house, considering that he doesn’t cycle or get much of any other kind of exercise. We set off up Ballaspur and haven’t gone too far – we’re near Laurel Bank – when he calls out for me to stop. At first I think he just needs a rest, but he leans his bike against a low stone wall and starts to climb over it. “Come here,” he says “I want to show you something.”

It drops away so the wall is only a couple of feet high from the road, but it’s a five-foot jump to the damp and musky forest floor. The Neb, a little stream, gurgles a few yards away. Hidden here behind the wall amongst fiddleheads are three little plaques devoted to Mark Farmer, a popular rider who died in 1994 while riding a Britten.

“I came here once and noticed that one of these plaques had been removed,” said Steve. “I thought ‘Bloody hell, someone’s stolen one of them,’ but the next time I looked it was back and all polished. They’d just removed it for cleaning.”

We clambered back over the wall. As we got on our bikes, Steve said, “I’ll tell you what my friend… I don’t want to be polishing your memorial around here.”

After a while, I start to get a little paranoid about the memorials, about the danger. Then one day I stop to study Kate’s Cottage. There never was a “Kate”, ironically. The cottage belonged to the Tates, but at one TT years back, an excited commentator got tongue-tied and blurted out something about “Kate’s Cottage” and the name stuck. It’s a hairy-looking spot; a narrow, fast, blind, downhill kink with – on top of everything else – a constant trickle of water that flows from a crack in the pavement right on the natural racing line, leaving it damp on all but the hottest days.

Dodging cars, I walk down through the corner to look for (more) hazards on the exit. There, I notice a commercial florist’s bouquet that’s been tied to a concrete fencepost with ribbon. It’s been there a long time, I can tell. There’s a tiny white envelope attached to it; the kind that comes with any basic commercial bouquet, which would normally contain a card with a message from the sender. I slip a finger into the envelope, which has been softened by the elements. It’s empty. No card. No clue who it might have been for, or from. I realize that there is some faded writing on the envelope itself. It says “34th milestone (Kate’s)”.

Something about this one, in particular, sticks in my mind. Sometime later, I walk down the Strand in Douglas and look in on a florist, when it hits me: It wasn’t that someone put the bouquet there, they phoned it in. That was why there was no message in the envelope: there was no recipient, at least no one who needed to read anything. The florist had just written the delivery address down on the envelope, and gone out and tied it to the fence.

The people, friends and family who gather in small groups to place the more permanent memorials are – at least in part – doing something for themselves. Getting ‘closure’, to put a pop pscyh label on it. But whoever phoned in that florist’s order was doing something very different. He or she was never going to see the flowers; they were going to be placed by someone with no connection to anything. And really, except for me, they were destined to go almost unnoticed. It was less a public thing than a private message to an anonymous rider, as if he was still out there somewhere, lapping the course.

Something about that flips a neuron in me, and I suddenly realize that, read as a collective, the hundreds of memorials are not sad. Although they often express loss, “You’ll be missed,” not one of them condemns the TT. If anything, they celebrate it as the high point, which it was, of every life thus recalled.

I don’t want Steve polishing my memorial here either. But I can not think of any place I’d rather have one.

Thanks for reading. Check back next Thursday for a second excerpt from Riding Man -- one that will explain why Marco Simoncelli almost certainly didn't think it could happen to him.