Some say that the technology in Supercross racing has gone too far. The bikes have become faster and the jumps bigger, and therefore the racing has become more dangerous. Fifteen-year-old racers are hitting 120-foot jumps, without the ability to both understand and properly prepare for the inherent risks within. A few years back, a young kid crashed on a jump and died of brain injuries on the spot. Less lethal injuries occur all the time. There’s a saying in motorcycle racing that it’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the sudden stop. In MotoGP, riders usually can slide to a gradual stop out on the shoulders of the track. Serious injuries and deaths typically only occur if a MotoGP a rider is hit by another motorcycle. But in Supercross, riders are coming back to earth abruptly and fast. There’s the landing to deal with, and then there’s getting landed on to deal with. Riders are essentially wearing beefed-up polyester and a chest protector and knee braces, and for the most part the gear they choose to wear doesn’t protect from serious injuries. They’re required to wear a helmet and high-end boots, but chest protectors and neck braces are optional, not mandatory. Neither are adequate for preventing injuries. One of the reporters with me, who is a former rider, says that because of concussions, he basically didn’t remember the summer of 2008. Travis Pastrana is, it’s discussed, a few brain injuries away from totally going kaput.
In the stadium, there’s a distinct smell of high-performance fuel. It is unusually pungent — and the first thought on entering is that there’s something wrong with the ventilation. The high whine of engines echoes through the big dome; between the fuel and the noise and the bikes flying through the air and the fire and the girls the whole thing feels fittingly circus-like. This entertainment-oriented setup has registered with the American crowd. Supercross is significantly more popular in the US than MotoGP, despite MotoGP being more popular with the global audience.
For today’s race, Honda’s top rider, Trey Canard, is hurt. (He was injured in Detroit when he landed on another rider during qualifying.) Honda’s rookie, Cole Seely, is the hopeful here in Houston. Seely is 25 but looks 16. He’s calm and quiet, and before the race, hanging out in the paddock area across the street from the stadium, he seems nearly unaware that he’s about to ricochet through a dirt course made to filter the best riders in the world out from their lesser brethren. Things are casual. He signs autographs. Does an interview.
Then he excuses himself into the trailer and we head back to the stadium, awaiting the start of the show. Flames burst forth into the stadium sky, and an announcer starts the spectacle. In the 450cc race, Seely lands the holeshot and spends the rest of the race extending his lead. Out front, he looks casual and composed, kind of dancing the bike through the course. He’s a fluid and beautiful rider, and without the stress of passing, he’s able to pilot his bike elegantly to an enormous lead. As the checked flag rises, Seely launches through an overhang that sends flames into the air. He wins.
The Grand Prix
Sunday, April 12, 2015 | Austin, TX
On Sunday, I drive back to Austin to watch the final day of the MotoGP. The weather shows no signs of rain, and the track stays dry. With the sun out, everything becomes more vibrant — fans turn out and the grandstands, about half full, are lively. Models under umbrellas walk the paddock area before heading to the starting line. An announcer calls out the days’ events on a PA. VIPs mill about in the paddock and the VIP seats. Overall, it’s a lot of stimulation: Hot bikes, fast speeds, hot girls, free drinks, hot weather, high security (in trying to access the starting area, my tags get rejected for the first time). The women in the VIP section wear stylish outfits, from jumpers to plaid shirts to Daisy Dukes to leather. Valentino Rossi (as of publication, the MotoGP points leader) is the most popular MotoGP racer. His nickname is “The Doctor”, and there are many who wear his shirts. “He’s basically a brand,” I’m told.
The millions of dollars that the teams put into the bikes, the lifetimes of R&D that go into the construction and tuning, the perfectly cleaned and pneumatically dried parts — they all lie under the control of the small, jockey-like man on the bike.
It’s all a bit ridiculous in the way that fans of sports can be ridiculous, but, through it all — and with access to the paddock area, the spectacle spreads everywhere — the people who stay unbelievably focused are the engineers and mechanics. I am shuffled through the Repsol Honda garage, and inside the garage, life seems quasi-boring. This is engineer land, where a tweak to the software is more striking than the bikini-topped Red Bull girl who walks by outside. These are just a bunch of nerds, getting million-dollar bikes into ridiculously precise shape. And for now, most of their work is done. The bike is ready for the race, happen what will.
This is the point where MotoGP becomes spectator friendly and not just engineer dorky — this is where the element of the unexpected is introduced most robustly. You see it with the rain, you see it when a dog runs on the track. Weird things happen in Free Practice and Qualifying, sure, and people have to improvise and make due. But when the race comes, it’s go or nothing. As all the racers line up and set off around the track, the millions of dollars that the teams put into the bikes, the lifetimes of R&D that go into the construction and tuning, the custom-machined components, the perfectly cleaned and pneumatically dried parts — they all lie under the control of the small, jockey-like man on the bike and the men and elements around him. Anything can happen in 21 laps.