Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Motorcycle Road Racing

I was having a terrible time finding facts and figures relevant to this blog post, so finally I just gave up, and so this is going to be more about some personal experiences of mine as a racing fan than about racing per se. If you want some facts and figures to fill out what I have to say here, all I can do is sincerely apologize. Short of some large university library which might have back issues of Cycle magazine going back to the mid-1970's, I don't know what would help here -- and no, I don't know of any library which has those back issues in the stacks.

And so, for example, I can't tell you which AMA road race it was in 1977 in which Kenny Roberts went from last to first in the first 4 laps. Normally by that time in AMA's 750cc premier-class road racing, Roberts would qualify in pole position, zoom out into the lead immediately, settle into a pace which was comfortable for him and faster than anyone else, and win the race easily. He'd win unless he had mechanical trouble. Impressive, but also, since no one was challenging Roberts' dominance, also somewhat monotonous. Before the start of this particular race, Roberts was sent from the pole to back of the starting grid because his bike was leaking oil. And after 4 laps, he was in front. And Cycle magazine proclaimed that those 4 laps demonstrated that Roberts was -- beyond a doubt - the best motorcycle road racer in the world.

That pronouncement showed the provincial outlook of American motorcycle road racing at the time. Maybe Roberts was the best in the world, but an AMA -- American Motorcycle Association -- road race wasn't going to prove it. Then as now, the world class of mororcycle road racing is that organized by the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme), with races all over the world contested by riders from all over the world. Now and then an FIM rider participated in the AMA's most prestigious race, at Daytona. Giacomo Agostini, one of the FIM's all-time greats, won at Daytona in 1974. Roberts left the AMA for the FIM beginning in 1978, and won the world championship in 1978, 1979 and 1980 -- but it wasn't completely lopsided. It's not completely unreasonable to contend that Barry Sheene might have been as good or better. (Sheene himself was never the slightest bit shy about saying so.)

In 1978 I stopped following road racing. I turned 17 in 1978, and it had become clear that although I liked watching road racing, I was no kind of fast rider myself. I can do some things really well, others I can't. Racing a motorcycle might be one thing I can't even do as well as average. Also, lack of skill aside, I was getting too big for road racing. There haven't been many champions over 6 feet tall.

Maybe Roberts was the greatest ever, but you can't say it's beyond a doubt. Not at all. But he did change some things. In the mid-70's he started to freak people out by dragging his knees around corners. He put big pads made out of duct tape on the knees of his racing uniform. Eventually all road racers were dragging their knees, and all road racing uniforms had built-in knee pads. In the 1970's, there was an obituary in Cycle for a road racer who'd died in a crash. The writer talked about the first time he'd seen this racer, when he was "dragging his elbows" around a corner. Back then, "dragging his elbows" was a euphemism and an exaggeration of how far this guy leaned the bike over.

Toward the end of the 2012 FIM road racing season, almost 35 years after I'd stopped following AMA road racing, I tuned back in, this time to the FIM premier world class, now called MotoGP, and saw that now sometimes the riders literally drag their elbows through some turns. I saw that world-championship racing had gone from 2-stroke to 4-stroke engines, I heard about this guy named Valentino Rossi who'd won 9 world championships and was very popular. Very soon Rossi became my favorite rider. What can I say, he's extremely charismatic. He's not movie-star handsome, he kind of looks like a happy puppy with a pop-eye and matted curly fur. He always seems to be in a good mood. His face and hair and voice and personality are somewhat like those of a younger Roberto Benigni.

And although he's 35 years old and 35 generally seems to be too old for this sort of thing, Rossi is still one of a handful of the fastest riders. But, you see, there's this kid Marc Marquez. At the beginning of the 2013 MotoGP season, seconds before the race started, the announcer said to keep an eye on Marquez cause he was special. Turned out it's been really easy to keep an eye on Marquez cause he's usually out in front or close to it. He won the 2013 world championship, youngest-ever top-class champ, and a week ago he clinched the 2014 championship with 3 races left in the season. Earlier this year it seemed like Marquez was just going to whup ass unmercifully. He won the first 10 of the season's 18 races. But, he's crashed in 3 of the last 4, so hold on, this still might be a contest. There's Rossi, and then there's Gorge Lorenzo, a 2-time champ, and then there's Dani Pedrosa, who's finished 4 seasons in 2nd in MotoGP and has about 3 times as many race wins as anyone else who's never won the season championship. The Repsol Hondas ridden by Marquez and Pedrosa have orange wheels, might sound silly to you if you're just reading about it but it looks wicked cool. After a couple of seasons out of contention it looks as if the Ducatis might be as fast now as the Repsol Hondas, and the factory Yamahas ridden by Rossi and Lorenzo.

Or faster. Ducatis are wicked cool. They're Italian, and they're desmos. Desmodromic valve drive was still fairly new in production vehicles back in the 1970's, introduced to the wider world by Ducati, and the Ducatis still are almost the only desmos around. That's wicked cool. Look Ma, no valve springs!

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