The world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a policy, possibly related to how world famous it is, against releasing official attendance figures for the events it hosts. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom has it that on Indy 500 day there’s an ass in every one of the 250,000 or so grandstand seats on the premises, plus a small city’s worth of revelers going HAM in the infield. The Indy is basically Woodstock (with a demographic that’s the opposite of Woodstock’s), and it happens every year. Google Image it. It’s pretty amazing, especially when you consider that, at this point in the continuing saga of the United States zeitgeist, the race—which, in terms of socioeconomic-strata- and region-spanning popularity, used to be something like what the Kentucky Derby also no longer is—retains about as much cultural cachet as New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
On the other hand, at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP a couple weeks ago—part of MotoGP, the motorcycle equivalent of Formula One auto racing—unofficial attendance at the Brickyard was, according to media-center scuttlebutt, between 60,000 and 70,000. Not bad if you’re the promoter and you’ve designed your budget properly, but it’s impossible to overstate how wan and tumbleweed-strewn the facility—whose 1,025-acre immensity TV doesn’t even begin to capture—seems when occupied by that number of people. If you’ve been to Busch Gardens ten minutes after the passing of a named tropical storm, you have some frame of reference.
Which bothers me only because, as I found out in Indianapolis, MotoGP is 100 times more compelling and impressive than any type of four-wheeled racing, and it should be, if not a top-five sport, at least more popular than the goddamned NHL. Which it’s not. Which is offensive.
I hear your reservations, American. You’re repelled by swarthy southern Europeans, post-Hiroshima western guilt, and being reminded of your own fragility, qua human being, and of our species’ inexorable march toward oblivion.
I understand. I really do. But consider, if you would, the following.
1. The riders are humble, jockey-sized imps, any one of whom could decapitate you using only his right arm.
Dani Pedrosa, the 26-year-old Catalan who won the Indianapolis race going away, and is currently second overall in the MotoGP season standings, has a face that’s two parts Tie Domi with better eyebrows and one part Harley Flanagan with better skin. He’s five-foot-two and 112 pounds and capable of controlling a 330-pound motorcycle at speeds of up to 215 miles per hour (that’s faster than a Formula One car, by the way). In short, he’s braver, cooler-looking, and, pound for pound, stronger than anyone you know. What right do you have not to be devoted to his sport?
Also, the riders—whose fame in Europe is such that they can’t so much as check the mail without attracting mobs of rabid fans—love coming to America. They talk wistfully about moving here for an opulent-yet-obscure retirement, and they do so without the tropes of regional bigotry that natives have internalized. (Defending world champion Casey Stoner, a 26-year-old Australian in his final season of MotoGP racing, said to me that he’s hoping to settle “in Montana or Colorado or somewhere cool like that.”)
2. There's a pretty good MotoGP documentary on Netflix that will get you up to speed in less than two hours.
It’s called Fastest and it’s narrated by avowed moto head Ewan McGregor. I know that you watched Senna and that you’re still no closer to loving Formula One, but that’s different. Senna was an actual movie with standalone merit. Fastest is like a feature-length This Week in Baseball—110 minutes of cheerleading by way of thrilling highlights, rider profiles, and backstory, all couched in canny marketing rhetoric. At the center is the great Valentino Rossi. He’s the Tiger Woods of MotoGP: a seven-time circuit champion who has fallen off precipitously in the last two years. Difference is, as discussed above, he’s charming and non-loathsome. Worth a peep, I’d say.
3. The races themselves take less than an hour to complete.
Have you ever actually tried to watch the entirety of a Daytona 500 or even an F1 race? Matter of fact, have you ever tried watching the entirety of a basketball game? It’s disgusting. No one can do it. If ever there were a sport built for American television and the American attention span, it’s MotoGP racing. Seventy miles, 25 or so laps, 45 minutes, 2 PM Sunday local start time. There should be tape-delayed MotoGP event every Sunday at 3 PM ET when the NFL isn’t going on. At 45 minutes, the races leave enough spare time in an hour slot for pre- and post analysis, plus a grip of commercials. It’s genius.
4 The poignancy of the crashes is of such high order that you’ll feel newfound communion with your fellow man.
You’ve been following the NFL concussion business, you watch the odd MMA bout with the guys you went to high school with, you read that New York Times series on Derek Boogaard—you think you’ve seen it all. Sorry, but I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing as viscerally horrifying as a crash in grand prix motorcycle racing. Watch the footage of Marco Simoncelli’s final momentsin Sepang last year if you doubt me. I’ve been in press boxes during bloody hockey fights. People cheered. I’ve been in bars when MMA combatants have been knocked suddenly unconscious. People laughed. I was in the media center during qualifying in Indianapolis last Saturday when American rider Nicky Hayden lost control of his red Ducati and crashed highside (i.e., his rear wheel slid out from under him, then suddenly regained traction, causing the bike to kick upward and send him flying out in front of his runaway machine). He hit the tarmac, lost consciousness, and rolled over three or four times like a rag doll thrown from a car window. Nobody laughed. Nobody cheered. Everyone stopped working and watched the TV monitors with genuine concern until Hayden finally moved a muscle under his own power while being loaded into an ambulance.
There have been more deaths in NASCAR, but, with all due respect for the dead, it’s pretty easy to compartmentalize something so commonplace as a car accident, even one that occurs on a plane of corporate-sponsored televised hyperreality. We take for granted that hundreds of car accidents happen every day. It’s another thing altogether to watch as the guy who voluntarily climbed aboard the 240-horsepower two-wheeler and then proceeded to max the throttle, leaning 60 degrees into the corners under 2 Gs of force, gets what was, by all rights, coming to him.
This might all sound like a sick and twisted endorsement of a spectator sport. Maybe so. But think of it this way: These guys are courting death—when you’re rooting for them you’re rooting for men who are doing something that might kill them, maybe even should kill them. Thus, in celebrating success in MotoGP, you’re celebrating survival where there might just as easily have been death. If you think I’m putting too fine a point on it, you need to watch some damn races.
5. The Japanese manufacturers’ dominance of the sport will make you feel better, not worse, about all that gully shit that happened in the 40s.
The top riders are European, but the top technology is Japanese. Once in a while Ducati will snag a world championship, but most often the laurels and plaudits go to either Yamaha or Honda. The only thing worth saying about that was said a couple of years ago by Masao Furusawa, Yamaha’s chief executive engineer. “When I was a small kid, I really wanted to be an airplane engineer, but after World War II, we are kind of forbidden by United States from making airplanes. So most of the good engineers went into automobiles or motorcycles. That’s why motorcycle engineering is very important and very good in Japan. A motorcycle to us is an airplane.”
The next race is on September 16 in San Marino. I know you’ll do the right thing.
Photos 1, 2, 3 and 5 by Carter Ross