As the AMA and MotoGP motorcycle racing seasons prepare to kick off this weekend in Daytona, Florida and Losail, Qatar respectively, I thought I might take a moment and address all of my non-motorcycle-racing-fan readers out there. See, I don’t know how much time I’ll actually spend talking about it, but from now until November motorcycle racing will take up a probably excessively significant portion of my brain. (I can only beg forgiveness for my bikeless ass living vicariously through riders several orders of magnitude better than I am.) So, for those of you who don’t follow racing, I thought I’d set out a brief racing primer and explain why I like it (and you might, also).
Motorcycle Roadracing in a Nutshell
Most motorcycle roadraces (with prominent exceptions such as the Suzuka 8 hours, the Isle of Man TT, the Daytona 200, and others) are sprint races. The riders start from a grid rather than a NASCAR-style rolling start, and run a designated number of laps to the finish. Races are normally around 40-50 minutes long, with a “warm-up” lap before the riders grid up for the start, and a “cool-down” lap after the race is over where the crowd is waved to, celebratory wheelies and burnouts are done, fists are shaken at rivals, and so forth.
Barring serious problems, there are no pit stops, no tire changes, no fuel-ups. There are no driver-to-pit-crew radios. The only indication of how you’re doing is the pit board that you pass once a lap, in which your crew will put information on your lap time, how the gap between you and the riders in front of or behind you stands, etc. Once you launch from your start box, it’s just you and the other guys on the track. Every man for himself.
In most series, points are awarded for finish positions, for the winner down to about 15th place. No one else scores points. Usually, there are no points for laps led and so forth as there are in NASCAR. You can lead every lap, crash on the last corner, and score no points.
Qualifying varies by racing series. In most, though, there is a timed qualifying session in which every rider is on the track at once, trying to set their fastest time. The pit crews attempt to tweak the setup as closely as possible as riders jockey for position, trying to draft opponents on straightaways while denying their own draft to others, attempting to psyche out opponents by either throwing off a ridiculously fast lap early to demoralize them or lulling them into false confidence before a sudden last-lap charge. Riders attempt to disguise where they are strong and weak, attempt to mislead opponents as to their preferred racing line through given corners, and so forth. The head games are interesting.
Motorcycle racing is wildly popular in Europe and is becoming so in Asia. In a few countries (such as Spain and Italy) it’s ridiculously popular, with motorcycle racers enjoying rock-star status.
Cars vs. Bikes
Car racing and bike racing have similarities, of course. I enjoy auto racing from time to time, but in general, I find motorcycle racing much more compelling. It’s tough to muscle a stock car around an oval for 500 miles, I don’t dispute that. But it’s an entirely different physical challenge, in my opinion, to ride a roadracing motorcycle at the edge of the envelope for an hour. On a motorcycle, you’re constantly adjusting your body, moving from side to side on the bike, ducking behind the windscreen on the straights and withstanding huge g-forces on your wrists and shoulders under heavy braking.
There’s lots more room on a race track for motorcycles, and so you often see more lead changes as riders experiment with different racing lines, or make a pass going into one turn only to blow the entrance to the next one, allowing your rival to pass you back.
On a motorcycle, you can see the guy moving around. You can watch his body language – is he relaxed or tense? How does the presence of another rider around him seem to affect him? Did he just flip that guy off?!?
And, of course, there are the crashes. All racing is a matter of pushing the envelope, of keeping your vehicle just within the limits. In auto racing, if you make a small mistake, you may bump the wall, maybe blow out a tire and require a limping trip to the pits so you can go back out and maybe fight for 15th or 20th place. On a motorcycle, if you make a small mistake, you may recover…or the bike may immediately slide out from under you, cartwheeling through the gravel traps and straight into the spare-parts bin. Your armored racing leathers may allow you to slide to a stop with no injury, or you could have a bone or three broken as you tumble from 200mph down to zero. It depends on a number of factors, luck not the least of them.
Tires are also quite important in motorcycle racing, as is logical if you think about it. On a Formula One car, there are four contact patches about the size of a sheet of paper. One a MotoGP bike, the contact patch for both tires put together is closer to the size of a credit card. That’s not much rubber between you and disaster when you’re leaned over, knee on the ground, at 160mph. That tire has to be able to put over 200 horsepower to the tarmac and last the entire race distance. That’s a pretty tall order.
There are lots of other types of motorcycle competition: trials riding, motocross, or even the freaky combination of motocross and roadracing known as Supermoto (click here to watch a cool video of some crazy Supermoto fun). But for me, motorcycle roadracing is where it’s at.
Give it a shot, maybe you’ll get hooked, too. The first AMA race of the year at Daytona is on Speed TV this Saturday at 11am Eastern, the opening round of MotoGP is Sunday evening at 6pm.
Here’s a few YouTube peeks at the kind of things you might see:
An excellent head-to-head race of 125cc GP bikes from 1998, in which a 15-year-old Italian (Marco Melandri, #13) beat a cagey 22-year-old Japanese veteran (Kazuto Sakata, #4) to win his first Grand Prix race.
The infamous last lap of the Jerez MotoGP race in 2005, showing several lead changes between fierce rivals (Valentino Rossi, #46, and Sete Gibernau, #15) and one of the most controversial finishes in recent GP history.
Highlights of the 2006 German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring (apologies for the German commentary) showing some hard passes, a few crashes, and a finish in which you could almost throw a blanket over the first four bikes (#46 Valentino Rossi, #33 Marco Melandri, #26 Dani Pedrosa, and #69 Nicky Hayden). According to legend, at the moment captured around 1:31-1:33 in this video, Nicky Hayden cut off Dani Pedrosa so closely that he got rubber from Pedrosa’s front tire on his side from knee to armpit. When’s the last time a NASCAR or F1 jockey could say that?