“Have you met Valentino Rossi?”
It’s almost always the first question any bikey asks when I tell them I’ve been lucky enough to score a press pass to a MotoGP, usually followed by “is Cal Crutchlow really as crusty as everyone makes him out to be?” and then the inevitable “can you get me a pit pass?”
One of the true joys of this job is that you can just phone up race organizers (actually, in the case of Dorna and MotoGP, after filling out about a million forms and promising your first born) and they will send you a little badge that basically lets you go anywhere, at almost any time on pretty much any track in the world, giving you access to things you used to only read about in glossy magazines like this.
You can then find out that, well, Valentino certainly seems like a nice guy, though it’s impossible to be absolutely sure since, even with a media pass, you can’t get within 10 metres of the poor bugger, so constantly surrounded is he by a bijillion adoring fans. Much easier to find out is that good old Cal is not nearly as prickly as he’s made out to be (unless, of course, he just fell twice in one lap as he did in the opening race this year, in which case you’re better off being anyplace other than the LCR Honda pit, even if his crew chief is a close friend).
As to what an actual race weekend is like in person, there’s actually no easy answer, no catchall generalization that fits all MotoGPs other than, when the actual participants get ready to twist their right wrists in anger on Sunday, the tension along pit row crackles like the air before the spring’s first thunderstorm. As in don’t get between Cal — or Valentino, for that matter — and his bike.
Other than that, though, MotoGP races are as different as the countries that hold them. For instance, while the race that starts the series every year — the Grand Prix of Qatar — is about as popular locally as Gordon Lightfoot (or Donald Trump, if you’re looking for a more au courant metaphor), the Assen TT is one of the best-attended motor racing events of any kind in the world. Losail may have only one grandstand — mainly because it probably doesn’t draw more than 5,000 locals (mostly ex-pats) — on race day, every inch of the TT Circuit Assen’s 4.55 kilometres is 10 and 20 deep full of some of the most rabid and knowledgeable fans in the world. The Dutch TT is so popular in the Netherlands that when you leave the track by the main highway, for the first 40 or 50 miles every off-ramp will have Dutch fans holding signs thanking you for coming to their TT. In other words, you go to Qatar to see the greatest motorcycle racers ply their trade on one of the world’s great motor racing tracks; you go to Holland to be part of one of motorcycling’s greatest experiences.
The one thing both Assen and Losail have in common is that they are wonderful, exciting motorcycle race tracks with fast, flowing straights and wickedly high-speed corners. Not as high-speed or as flowing as perhaps Australia’s Phillip Island — pretty much all the riders’ favourite racetrack except for the weather — but not a silly point-and-shoot affair where it’s all Brembos and wheelies.
Which is pretty much how one would describe Texas’s Circuit of the Americas. Designed primarily for Formula One, which favours long straights and tight hairpins so there is a slight chance Vettel might pass Hamilton somewhere other than the pits, it might as well be a paved supercross track without the bumps and berms. Essentially, one rushes up to the corners, brakes like a madman and then flips the bike onto its pegs for but a moment before hammering on the gas again. There’s a reason Marc Marquez and Honda have won this race every year since its inception in 2013.
The States’ other racetracks are — or, more accurately, were, since both MotoGPs events have been cancelled — a mixed bag. Both Laguna Seca and Indianapolis have tons of heritage. Unfortunately, only one of them was meant for motorcycle racing; even the pavement at Indianapolis was car oriented, Indy’s uneven tarmac always catching the best riders out. Laguna, on the other hand, has always been and will always be a bike track: 50 years hence, when our progeny are racing hydrogen-powered superbikes, they’ll still be talking about The Corkscrew.
But even that had its pitfalls. While nearby Monterey is extremely welcoming to the 50,000 or so bikers who showed up every year to brave California cold — the coldest winter I every spent, said Mark Twain, was a summer in (nearby) San Francisco — the local constabulary turns no blind eye to high-speed shenanigans outside the racetrack. They’d hang out right round the corner from the exit, hoping you’ve been “inspired” by Rossi and company so they can pad their local coffers.
Which is the exact opposite of attending the Misano GP, where, as you’re pulling out of the track, the street dicks will actually encourage you to pop a wheelie. And if the car traffic just happens to be bad, they will quite literally shoo local traffic off the road so that your front tire might save a few hundred yards of wear. I know it’s far. I know it’s expensive. But attending an Italian motorcycle race — any Italian motorcycle race — should be on everyone’s bucket list.
In fact, getting to any MotoGP should be considered a pilgrimage to Mecca for diehard racing fans. They may all be different — the tracks, the fans, the local atmosphere — but the most exciting place in the world to be on race day is wherever Valentino Rossi is that weekend.