Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indy, the MotoGP, the journey, the scene....

Here's a terrific piece from, my favorite motorcycle racing site. As you'll recall, Tamar and I and our friend Corey were there - in the weather, in the amazing Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in the crowds of genuine fans of top-level motorcycle racing.

Tamar and I aren't big Dan Hicks fans, but everything else in this piece rings solid true...

Indy Recap--Deer Don't Like Dan's Hot Licks
by jim mcdermott
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Heading home thru Virginia, dinosaurs first combusting then puffing thru the twin exhausts of my bike, it was easy to let my mind wander back to a great weekend in Indianapolis. I had the cruise set to 75, it was late and used up stormheads were backlit by a huge moon. Obscured light shimmered behind the clouds, a black mother-of-pearl glow that lit the prehistorically dark hills shouldering the highway. Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks crooned "Waiting For The 103" over the stereo, a newfound musical discovery (for me) whose eclectic sound always elicits a strong response from first time listeners, either love or hate.

Like most people, I didn't really know what to expect from the first MotoGP held at Indy; the setting was never going to be as picturesque as Laguna Seca; no crashing waves, wet seals or dry lakebed. And of course, no Corkscrew. I always watched the Indy 500 when I was a kid, on ABC's tan-sportscoated Wide World Of Sports, when the race was huge and AJ Foyt owned it. Other than a few dim 70's memories of teeming grandstands on Memorial Day, Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just a name to me.

I arrived in time for first practice on Saturday. Unlike most racing circuits which are set back from main roads to help contain noise and provide parking, Indy is literally right on the street. On Georgetown Road, a hulking gray line of grandstands hang over the curb, like WWII aircraft carriers sitting in dry dock. Across the street, residents offer parking on the lawns of their small cottages, $10 on Friday, $20 on Saturday, $50 on Sunday. Some provided camping for the wet dogs who rode their bikes to the races. From gaudy trailer stands, carnies hawk hot nuts, knockoff event shirts, and send fresh marks scavenging for left-handed screwdrivers. A traffic cop thrusts a hand out to oncoming traffic, wiggles his fingers and hustles you towards the Speedway entrance. You descend just underneath the track to get inside the circuit; during practice, the MotoGP bikes roar onto the front straight, directly overhead.

Once inside, you notice the high wire fences, which jut out over the tarmac in front of the grandstands. In a high speed shunt, they'd stop a car from flying into the crowd, preventing the kind of tragedy that killed 80 spectators at the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hour race. The arms which hold the wires have been discolored by rusty decades, in fact oxidation is evident on many of the metal surfaces at the track. This is not to say that Indy is falling apart; more that it is aging majestically, like an original, unrestored Iver Johnson motorcycle. There is history in every beam here, every rivet, a presence which no other American racing facility possesses. I've felt this at Monza in Italy......Imola too. It is imbued into such places thru epic victories, heartbreaking loss and profound tragedy. If you take care to listen, the echoes of the countless millions who cheered in these seats over 100 years can still be heard, on the edge of the wind, once the motors are quiet. The wonderful Speedway museum features Indy racers from 1911 thru today, and a trove of racing ephemera, including legendary Mercedes F1 driver Rudi Caracciola's entire trophy collection.

The stuttering report of MotoGP bikes, idling down pitlane on their speed limiters, snapped me back to 2008. The track was soaked, but riders still shot down the narrow front straight at close to 200 miles an hour thru the spray. The weather made for drama all weekend, rumors of an early race, a delayed start, a cancelled event, but Sunday afternoon came around and they rolled onto the grid. The wind picked up and made the rain hurt your face. I rolled up my jean cuffs, put on a ten dollar Indy rain parka/trash-bag with logos, and headed to the Turn 9 Grandstands for the start. Within a couple of laps, it was clear that Hayden and Rossi must have had a bigger bowl of Wheaties that morning, as neither, especially Hayden, were displaying any real concern for the awful track conditions. The rest of the field seemed quite spooked, and most looked as though they were running a tiptoe pace in comparison. Of course, Hayden's riding style is the most visually dramatic in MotoGP, sliding the RC212V thru the corners, getting out of shape and catching it without backing off. It will be a treat to see him manhandle the Ducati next year. As the laps counted down, almost inevitably, Rossi caught Hayden and won it, riding the Yamaha with finesse, control and visible genius. These two guys were in a different race than everybody else out there.

Ben Spies certainly impressed with his 6th place finish, besting many experienced riders on equal or better machinery. Earlier in the year, I thought Spies' next stop should be World Superbike, but I was very wrong. He seems to have more fire in his belly than half the guys riding in MotoGP. He didn't boast or make predictions, he kept it on two wheels and wasn't satisfied to row around in 16th place. It will be a real drag if Ben doesn't end up in the Blue Riband class for 2009.

Downtown, the place to be on Friday and Saturday was South Meridian Street, the streets closed off for bike-only parking. The crowd was similar in size to Monterey's Cannery Row during the Laguna Seca race weekend, but there were a lot more cruisers, less European bikes, even chunky girls in sweatpants riding stretched Hayabusas. And it was much rowdier - despite a road sign which flashed "Ride Proud, Not LOUD", open-piped machines rorted up and down the streets, mere feet away from the local constabulary, who didn't seem to be that bothered by the ruckus. Speaking of the streets, they were renamed after riders for the weekend, so you'd look up and see Freddie Spencer or James Toseland's name on a signpost above you. Banners advertising the GP were ubiquitous, posters in every restaurant, even the menus had the Red Bull/Indy MotoGP logo imprinted on them. This is the way races are promoted in Italy and Spain, not America....I've attended four MotoGP races at Laguna, and while they do a superb job making the event visible, this was at an altogether higher level. I stayed at The Hampton Inn, which gave each guest a laser engraved paperweight commemorating the inaugural race. Thankfully, they didn't pay for it by quadrupling their room rates.

So would I go again next year? Absolutely. Indianapolis has a totally different vibe, blues bars and ribs versus Monterey's karaoke and crab legs. Wives and girlfriends will of course prefer California, Indy being perhaps more of a man's man, pure motorhead event. The weekend was damned good fun, with nonstop weather drama- I gave BBC commentator Charlie Cox a frantic, windswept ride to the airport on the back of the Harley. Balancing a pillion on wet streets was a bit nerve wracking (must NOT dump the frakking broadcaster), but Coxie made his flight just in time. I left Indy Monday morning with a 600 mile ride in front of me, praying for dry weather. I got my wish, but I still has some drama to get thru.

Eastbound at midnight on I-64, Virginia is a deer's world, and I was just riding in it. Singing along with the CD player, no vehicles near me for miles, I almost didn't see the animal as it took tentative steps onto the highway. My headlight caught a quick glint of nocturnal eyes and I got on the brakes, hard. The bike sat down on it's suspension, slowing fast, but still headed towards the flank of the deer, as the front tire howled loudly over the music. Startled, the doe did a quick double take, then bounced back into the woods. I passed by at a walking speed, heart pounding, awfully glad for the rubber squeal which frightened the animal out of my path.

On second thought, it was probably the Dan Hicks tune that scared her off. I'm pretty sure the deer was a first time listener.


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