Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marquez: In strictest confidence...

The 2014 MotoGP season has one dominant storyline so far, and it's "How many wins will Marquez score in a row?" The modern record set by Mick Doohan is in sight; winning every race this season is entering the realm of possibility. (UK bookmaker William Hill is taking bets at 9-2.)

A couple of races ago, Lorenzo had a dreadful weekend and was forthright in admitting that he'd been spooked by changeable conditions and memories of a previous crash. That was an example of a lack of confidence screwing a racer's competitiveness. We can all relate to that (at least, any of us who've raced at any level.)

What's more interesting though, is what's happening to Marc Marquez. You see, there are a lot of sports where being confident provides a psychological edge, but motorcycle racing (and in particular, road racing on modern circuits) is a rare example of a sport where confidence provides a physical advantage.

Let's take golf as an example of a sport (OK, a game) where confidence provides a psychological advantage. A player in his groove will find himself in situations where he could play a safe shot, or take a bigger risk for a higher reward. He'll take the riskier shot and, as long as he makes it, get an advantage over his competition. But his confidence has little impact on the statistical probability that he'll make the shot. Or, a baseball pitcher who feels confident will throw a fastball up and inside against a power hitter, looking for the strike rather than risk walking him on balls. That pitcher's confidence may earn him an extra 'k', but confidence doesn't actually affect hitters' performance. So in those situations, the confident player is really just betting that his luck will hold.

In MotoGP however, confidence literally makes a racer faster. At that level, everyone is operating within a narrow 1% band between keeping it on its wheels and crashing. In that narrow band, rider inputs have to be incredibly smooth. Although riders work hard and make forceful inputs in order to get the bike from upright to maximum lean in fractions of a second, there are many moments when they have to be very, very careful not to make any extraneous inputs.

Ironically, while they're sweating buckets, fighting arm pump, and their pulse is racing, they need to relax. A little tense grab at the brake--something a mortal rider wouldn't even notice--a little tense grip in mid-corner that transits the tiniest extra steering input; stuff you and I do all the time... if you're riding at the MotoGP level, that stuff is the difference between winning and crashing out. 

If a rider's tense, he's more likely to do something--something he probably won't notice and which will likely pass undetected even on a data-logged MotoGP bike--that will make him crash. Tense riders can't feel the smallest signals that the tires are transmitting up through the suspension and chassis, to their butt, if their butt is clenched too tight. That's what my old friend, mechanic, and ex-racer Ken Austin was getting at when he told me, "Great riders ride in a state of grace."

It's also what Valentino Rossi was trying to get back to, when he fired his longtime crew chief at the end of last season and the real reason that change of personnel seems to be working.

Every now and then, a MotoGP rider shows he's merely human (who was it that left his pit lane speed limiter engaged on that crazy start in Germany?) But don't kid yourself; they're not like us. Everyone has otherworldly speed, physical skills, and racecraft. And the rulesmakers have done a good job of ensuring that there's little to choose between the top factory rides. So a tiny advantage results in a big difference in the points table.

Right now, that 1% band that all MotoGP riders operate in seems nice and wide, and comfortable, to Marc Marquez. He's operating in the 1% of the 1%, and can get to the edge of the edge without making the micro-mistakes that come from carrying doubt in the mind and tension in the body.

Even his last few little crashes haven't shaken his confidence, which is literally making him the best rider. Lorenzo's a cool customer, and normally the smoothest guy out there, but he knows how hard it is to get back to that place.

The question is, will anything shake Marquez' confidence? He may be -- he will be -- beaten in some individual race, but he will not be seriously challenged by any rider harboring even the slightest self doubt.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Speaking of the ill, and dead: Charles Everitt

I just heard that Charles Everitt, who had a long career as a motorcycle writer, finally died the other day. Facebook being what it is, and my pool of FB friends being skewed towards motorcycle journalists, I couldn't help but see dozens of comments to the effect of "Godspeed, Charles".

Everitt was already on the backside of his career by the time Mitch Boehm hired him to work at Motorcyclist, in about 2005.

Motorcyclist had a small staff; Tim Carrithers had been there the longest thanks to a truly weird and deeply dysfunctional codependent relationship with Boehm. The art director, Todd Westover, had hung in there a while but he was a little insulated by the nature of being an art director; he didn't really have a dog in the fight when, as a bunch of writers, we debated the content of the book. Aaron Frank was a good guy whose personality may have been preserved because he worked at a safe distance out in Wisconsin.

But other than those guys, it was a revolving door. I replaced a previous short-timer named Peter Stark (not the billionaire industrialist of 'Iron Man' fame; some other Peter Stark.) I remember going for lunch one day and listening to Boehm slander Stark relentlessly. On the way back, riding up the elevator, Boehm mused about all the ways he could fuck the guy's career up, including making up lies he could spread. I was, like, "Mitch, you're talking about doing things that could get both you and the magazine sued, you know that, right?"

Toxic, eh?

Meanwhile, I was—despite being the oldest guy on the masthead—the new guy in terms of being a magazine staffer, and I could not believe how those fuckers managed to find the drudgery in such a fun job.

I guess the magazine was still a little understaffed (by all accounts it was very profitable at that time, and they could've afforded a larger, Cycle World-style payroll, but why?) Anyway, Boehm needed one more guy who could produce readable copy. "Who the fuck is this guy?" I wondered when Everitt arrived. He'd been shacked up, up in Portland, eking out a living writing motorcycle books; I didn't recall his days at bike mags going back to Cycle but I think he was often a managing editor, which is not a position that has a high exposure to readers.

So when he arrived, he was the oldest guy; older than me by, like,  a year. But he looked about 78. He had some kind of health problem, and I think part of his motivation to move down to L.A. and get an actual job hinged on getting health insurance.

Compared to Everitt, Boehm and Carrithers were a pair of regular Pollyannas. If there'd been a dark cloud over editorial meetings before he showed up, they were positively moribund afterward. Nihilist though he was, he was canny too; he realized that compared to the other magazines being published on our floor; Sport Rider, Motorcycle Cruiser, and Dirt Rider, Motorcyclist was now about half-a-man overstaffed. If I could be split from the herd, there'd be more salary to go 'round. He knew he had to act fast, too, since it was becoming apparent to readers that I was the only entertaining writer on the masthead and before long there'd be an outcry at my disappearance.

Plus, he just hated the fact that I was openly gay. By which I mean I was always happy to come into work; I never concealed the fact that I loved doing my job. (What did you think I meant?)

But seriously, folks, those three loved to whinge about how hard done-by they were. I probably shouldn't have chided them for it but I did, and I reminded them that the people we actually worked for—the readers—all had real jobs which were far worse than ours. In fact, most of our readers would have happily used their vacation days, and paid to do our jobs for a couple of weeks every year, while calling it the best holiday ever.

So, with some help from Carrithers, Everitt set out to alienate/shun me. No matter what story I suggested, his knee jerk reaction was, "We did that at Cycle." As if, thirty years later, you couldn't revisit anything.

We all proofread each others' stuff. The protocol was, if you found a mistake, you highlighted it and sent it back to whoever'd written the piece, but Everitt would excoriate me in the proofs, and then send them directly to Boehm, to make sure Boehm saw and noted every mistake I ever made before I could correct it. I thought, at the time, he might even have been sneaking into my office to edit errors into my copy.

Everitt wanted me gone at any cost to the magazine. There was a 'garage' section at the back of the book, and he convinced Boehm to sequester me back there. That way, they could keep me out of the personality and riding stories that I excelled at, and ensure I was working in my weakest area.

It didn't matter that at the time, Carrithers had had some accident and didn't really want to ride at all, and Everitt could hardly climb onto a motorcycle, so by locking me in the garage (so to speak) they basically ensured that all their riding stories were shit. But it worked for Everitt, because I had lots of opportunities to fuck up on technical details.

Not that he limited his attacks on me to technical errors. Once, in some 'garage' context I wrote about sitting in your garage, with your bike up on a workbench, just sitting looking at it while drinking a beer. I.E., something we all do, all the time. I mean fuck, doesn't every real garage have a small fridge just for that reason?

Everitt scrawled a huge note on that copy, to the effect that WE COULD BE SUED for suggesting that readers drink beer, even in the privacy of their own garage, while their bike was in pieces. Boehm sided with that opinion, and Everitt copy-edited 'beer' into 'a frosty beverage'. Eye roll. I pulled my name off that story, rather than have anyone think I'd choose so dated a turn of phrase.

Boehm sided with Everitt from the start. (I had earlier made the mistake of disagreeing with Boehm, which turned him off me.) Still, he must've been a little conflicted because one afternoon he suggested, "Why don't you go out for dinner with Charles tonight and get to know him?"

That was unappealing, but I figgered I had to. Charles was staying in a hotel near the office, and I arranged to meet him at his room, around six. He suggested that we have a drink there, before going out to eat. He then poured two drinks; at least ten ounces of Wild Turkey, or some fucking bourbon or other in large tumblers. He handed one to me; it was probably more hard liquor than I'd consumed, in total, in my life to date. He drank his as if he was actually trying to quench a thirst.

Before going out to eat, he opened a small suitcase of the type a starlet might use to carry a ridiculous quantity of makeup. The case was completely, completely full of prescription drugs. I'm talking like, a quantity of drugs you'd have if you were getting 'scrips from eight doctors at the same time. It was Johnny-Depp-as-Hunter-S-Thompson; he opened a few pill bottles and dumped several pills from each into the palm of his hand. Forget counting them—he was just kinda' eyeballing the size and color of the pile to regulate his dosage. He washed 'em down with my drink, rather than have it go to waste. He must've been at least 50% liver by weight.

It went downhill from there, although the next day at work, I ran into friend—who shall remain anonymous—who worked for one of the other magazines on our floor.

"As I was driving into work this morning," she told me. "I noticed this scruffy guy, shuffling along; he hacked and spat onto the sidewalk, and I was just thinking, 'What a horrible old man' as I passed him and realized it was Charles!"

By the time I realized how committed Everitt was to getting rid of me, it was too late. In hindsight, I should have taken him aside right at the beginning, kneed him in the balls as hard as I could or sucker-punched him in the solar plexus, and told him, "If you ever cross me, I'll kill you." But realistically, he was such a decrepit specimen that such a tactic might've left me facing a murder rap.

Within a month or two of Everitt's arrival, Boehm called me into his office. There was some HR bitch from our corporate overlords waiting in there, to fire my ass. It was a real, "big corporate" firing. She told me, "If you sign this form right now agreeing that you won't sue us, you'll get some nominal severance payment, but if you don't sign it, you'll just get paid to end of this pay period."

After I said, "No thanks" to signing away my right to sue, I learned that in the state of California, it's nearly impossible to sue for wrongful termination. Luckily, since I was a Canadian and they'd made all kinds of promises to employ me during the visa application process, I was able to sue for wrongful hiring. They settled out of court for a few grand, which was a moral victory and (I hope) made Boehm's life at least a little miserable, while he explained that to his bosses.

Looking back on it, as unpleasant a cast of characters as Boehm, Everitt, and Carrithers were, I loved my Motorcyclist gig. Walking down into the garage under the Death Star building on Wilshire, and picking a set of keys off the rack; choosing any one of a dozen cool new bikes to ride... that had somehow gotten old for those bitter bastards, but I reveled in it. I'm still bummed when I look back on the sorry end of my brief career as an actual magazine staffer.

It was a funny thing, about life after Motorcyclist. When I worked there, the only magazine Boehm openly plundered for ideas was the UK magazine Bike. We literally handed the latest issue around the table at editorial meetings. Yet a few days before he fired me, I'd made some suggestion for a story that was 'Bike-ish'. Boehm angrily said, "If you like those British magazines so much, why don't you go work for them?" And indeed, after he fired me, I made a living writing features for Bike, and ended up getting a regular gig as a columnist in Classic Bike.

I guess at this point, what you want to read is how, in hindsight, I've come to realize that poor Charles was a sick old man, who desperately needed a salary and health insurance; that he must've been in pain and was obviously multiply addicted. And how a few years later the magazine business went in a death spiral anyway, so my 'career' as a full time motorcycle journalist was bound to end even without Charles' help.

You want to read that in the fullness of time I've come to realize that everything worked out OK, and that I've buried the hatchet.

Fuck that.

I don't know if Everitt was always an asshole, but I know he was always an asshole to me. I should be careful saying, I hope he rots in hell, because if there is a hell there's a good chance that I'm in for a mighty uncomfortable afterlife, too, for reasons that have nothing to do with my time at Motorcyclist.

Besides, if there's a hell, Everitt's already sucking up to Satan and will ensure that I get a terrible assignment down there!

So I'll just leave it at Godspeed, Charles.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A one-day belated nod to Joey Dunlop

I missed the 14th anniversary of Joey Dunlop's death yesterday, so here's a one-day belated nod to the greatest 'real roads' racer of my time. I count myself lucky to have witnessed his 26th and final TT win, at the 2000 Senior.

Not long after, fans found themselves asking, "Where the fuck is Talinn?"

The answer is, in Estonia. You may be excused for asking, "Where's Estonia?" too. Even I had to double check and confirm that it's one of the Baltic states (along with Latvia and Lithuania) just west of St. Petersburg, Russia and just south (across the Bay of Finland) from Finland.

Anyway, Talinn is definitely not nowheresville. It's the capital of Estonia and its medieval 'old town' is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Talinn was the site of a fairly big road race, dating back to the 1930s. The 6+ kilometer 'Pirita' course began near the old Pirita convent, which gave it it's name. Originally, it was a mix of asphalt and sand. Much of the course ran through a forest, and racers never knew when a spectator would dart out of the trees to cross the road.

Interestingly, the course was not far--as the gull flies, across the Baltic Sea--from the Turku GP track in Finland, which was another rough and ready circuit.

Estonia fell into the Soviet orbit after WWII, and the course was used for the Soviet championship. (If I spoke Russian, there'd be a great book in the Soviet championship, I'm sure.) In 1963, it was slightly shortened and the start-finish line and pits were moved.

It was like Joey, to load up his van with a few race bikes and drive across Europe to comparatively obscure race meetings, and he had competed at Talinn before. In 2000, he won 600 and 750cc races before the 125cc race, which took place in the rain. He was killed when he crashed his RS125 into the forest.

Within hours, the Estonian Government web site was replaced with a tribute to Dunlop and, later, a marble memorial was placed at the scene of his crash. The course was used until 2006. The road surface is now considered too degraded for racing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Harley-Davidson's EV announcement shocked the faithful. Here's why the company's announcement strategy is actually brilliant

Earlier this week, I was flown in to see and (however briefly) ride the Harley-Davidson LiveWire. It was shown to the public for the first time at Harley-Davidson of New York's trendy new TriBeCa flagship store. 

Harley-Davidson president Matt Levatich, and the company's CMO, Mark-Hans Richter were in New York for the event. Both of them, along with the other execs I spoke with, cleaved to the official story: there are no official plans to produce or market the LiveWire. 

If Harley-Davidson is to be believed, the upcoming 30-city 'Project LiveWire'—10,000 public test rides on hand-made prototypes costing well over $250,000 each—is all an elaborate market research project. The Motor Company is only conducting the tour to get a general sense of the interest in electric motorcycles.

None of the experienced motojournalists at the 'reveal' believes that. The bikes we saw—Harley built a total of 39—are far too well finished, and too resolved in their design. Andy Downes, the editor of MCN, bets there will be a production announcement within 18 months.

When really pressed, Harley execs' fallback position is, "Maybe when battery technology makes the next jump." Say, when energy densities are 50% better than they are now. But no one in the battery business expects an increase like that in the next year or two, so that's not it.

Before I saw the bike in the metal, and rode it, I thought the whole "market test" story had been concocted to avoid comparison with existing e-bikes of generally comparable specification, say the Zero S and SR, or Brammo Enertia or Empulse. But even after my ten-minutes-in-Manhattan-traffic first ride, I realized that Harley has nothing to fear from bikes like those. The LiveWire (its limited, 53-mile range notwithstanding) is fucking cool.

So, what gives? Why would Harley spend tens of millions to build a fleet of LiveWires, then deny plans to put an EV into production?

The short answer is, because Harley's existing customer base, the Live-to-Ride-Ride-to-Live-Helmet-laws-suck-Support-the-troops-Drill-baby-drill-If-you-can-read-this-the-bitch-fell-off-Show-me-the-birth-certificate-No-new-taxes-Theres-no-replacement-for-displacement, dyed-in-the-leather Harley purists hate the idea.

I buttonholed one Harley exec and made him admit that, out on the interwebs—on Harley forums—Duck Dynasty-reject Harley riders don't just not want an e-bike, they actively resent the whole idea. The exec angrily told me, "Those guys hate us [Harley management] anyway! They already say that the panhead was the last real Harley. And besides, they don't buy new motorcycles."

I've gotta' give him that; they don't. But what about the 35 year old welder, who's making good money in North Dakota thanks to the fracking boom? Or the 45 year old dentist in the Chicago suburbs, or the 55 year old grocery store manager in Albuquerque?

True story: After the launch, I rode my corroded Triumph Bonneville home from the Kansas City airport. As I trundled along, I was slowly passed by a guy riding a new-ish Harley-Davidson 'bagger'. He was in his sixties, portly, with a neatly trimmed white beard. An absolutely typical suburban grandpa, of the type you'd find at the Rotary, or Elks Lodge, or maybe in a small-town Chamber of Commerce. Except, he was wearing a shiny black leather jacket, with an elaborate, embroidered grim reaper across the back. And there was a little chrome skull on his rear fender.

My point in telling you this is, the guys who do buy new Harleys aren't buying them because they love the engineering; they're buying them because the Harley brand is wrapped up in the rebellious, badass 'authenticity' of those grizzled panhead riders. That is what allows the welder, the dentist, the store manager, and grandpa to tell themselves, if it ain't Harley, it ain't shit.

Then it hit me: the grandmaster-level-chess-player strategic genius of Harley's 'LiveWire tour' story—the genius of claiming that they have no specific plans to produce it.

I mean, the bike I saw was proof they do have plans to produce it. And if you need more evidence, Harley's openly recruiting engineers with EV experience on their web site. The Project LiveWire bikes are finished; if there are no plans to put it into production, why recruit high-dollar EV specialists? Because, LiveWire, or LiveWire 2.0 is, definitely going to be mass produced. Which makes the whole "It's just a market test story an elaborate subterfuge. Why lie to your best customers? Bear with me another minute while I set up the strategic context...

Given: Harley-Davidson is the only motorcycle manufacturer that shows up on lists of the world's most valuable brands. The thing is, it's completely wrapped up in both small- and big-C conservative values. Take away the motorcycles, and Sturgis would be a Tea Party rally. These are people who resented having compact fluorescent light bulbs rammed down their throats.

Given: Harley's existing customers don't just not want an electric Harley; they view EVs as a tree-hugging liberal boondoggle. EVs, in their view, are actually unAmerican.

Given: As strong a brand as Harley-Davidson is, its customer base is very old. They say, Fifty is the new thirty; they say, 60's the new 40. Seventy may even be the new 50. But 85 is still 85. Harley needs a long-term strategy to attract younger customers.

Given: Harley's attempts a making smaller, lighter, sportier gas-powered motorcycles—bikes that could appeal to younger riders—have always failed. (And, by the way, Harley-Davidson's dealer network hated it the last time Harley tried to compete with those rice rockets. Harley created the Buell sport bike brand in an effort to compete with the Japanese manufacturers. Dealers felt that Buell was pushed on them by management; they never supported the brand, and it ultimately failed.) 

There are some things that, when you hear an executive say them, you know  are not true. For example, if the CEO of your company calls you all into the auditorium and says, "Let me make one thing clear: There will not be layoffs," it's time to run out and print 1,000 copies of your resume. I was reminded of that when Mark-Hans Richter, Harley's Chief Marketing Officer, emphatically said, "This is authentic. This is on-brand."
Someone at Harley-Davidson—and it had to be someone right at the top—came up with a daring plan to leapfrog right over more tech-savvy manufacturers like Honda and BMW, by going all the way to an EV. Honda doesn't have an e-bike yet, BMW doesn't (not a proper motorcycle, anyway). The only e-bikes on the market have been cobbled together by startups with no dealer networks and, frankly, not much style or marketing savvy.

By producing an EV, Harley-Davidson would attract a young, liberal, urban market that until now has been inaccessible to America's oldest and most conservative motorcycle company. Harley-Davidson executives in Milwaukee secretly contacted Mission Motors, in San Francisco, and contracted them to engineer an electric drivetrain. By tapping Mission—the most advanced motorcycle EV research & development company—Harley ensured that the LiveWire would be state-of-the-art.

But Harley still had one insurmountable problem: No one thinks EVs will be more than 10% of the market any time soon, and announcing an EV was bound to freak out its existing customer base.

That's why calling Project LiveWire a market test was a communications-strategy masterstroke.

Harley's going to take its LiveWire prototypes on a 30-city tour across the U.S. It's not even bringing the machines to Sturgis, or Daytona, or any of the places where old-school Harley riders gather. But you can be sure Portland will see the LiveWire. And because the bike is fucking cool—and it's just a twist-and-go (no clutch or gears) and very easy to ride—it's going to appeal to young hipsters, tech nerds, chicks... people who've never thought of themselves as 'the Harley type'—or even motorcycle riders. 

Mark my words: within a year or two, Matt Levatich will stand up in front of a crowd of Harley faithful and say, "We weren't even going to make the LiveWire, but the free market has spoken. Customers are demanding a LiveWire of their own."

Between the lines, Harley-Davidson will tell millions of Duck Dynasty rejects, "Hey, we're a for-profit company, and the market has spoken, bro'. That was democracy in action." 

Harley-Davidson's current customers resent EVs and the liberals who drive them (or soon, ride them.) But such petty resentments are trumped by a knee jerk belief in the sanctity of a free market. After all, there's nothin' more 'Murican than the profit motive. 

So after the LiveWire tour, Harley-Davidson will address its existing customers, and actually use their deeply held conservative values to justify the decision to put the LiveWire into production.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A note from the Dept. of 'Holy Shit!'

I know that you all want me to write about the Harley-Davidson LiveWire launch, but a.) I don't want to scoop, who sent me to New York, and b.) I am still digesting the aspects of the story that I plan to expand upon here on my own blog.

In the meantime, though, while we were all distracted by the idea that Harley-Davidson had gone all liberal and green on us, a story of almost equal significance almost slipped through the cracks.

What I mean is, after selling the commercial rights to AMA Pro Racing to Daytona Motorsports Group, the AMA just got back into the business of putting on a national championship.

Admittedly, the AMA has teamed up with Supermoto USA, to put on a national supermoto championship -- a class that AMA Pro Racing allowed to die on the vine five years ago. Still, I have to wonder if this isn't more evidence (along with John Ulrich's Superbike Shootout series, and rumors that Dorna's considering a North American regional championship) that DMG's monopoly over top-level motorcycle racing here in the U.S. is under threat.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The AMA strikes another blow against helmets

It's been a busy week here. So, if you got a breathless email from the American Motorcyclists Association on Wednesday, proudly highlighting the AMA's ongoing lobbying effort to prevent the use of crash helmets, you might have thought, "Gardiner's going to go all ape shit over this." Then, after a few days passed, concluded that I am beyond caring what the AMA's lobbyists do, in Washington.

Not so.

To recap: Earlier this year, a Congressional committee drafted a new law that would, in part, have expanded the remit of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by allowing NHTSA to lobby state governments to encourage helmet use by motorcyclists. But, on Tuesday night, that particular house resolution was passed with a change to wording that to maintain a long-standing gag order on NHTSA; it's legally prevented from any activities that would encourage state governments to mandate the use of crash helmets. You can read a complete synopsis of the situation here.

To be clear: NHTSA--the National Highway Traffic SAFETY Administration--is barred from telling state governments that motorcyclists should wear crash helmets.

I repeat, to be extra-clear: An organization nominally created for the express purpose of improving traffic safety and promoting research and best practices in traffic safety is legally gagged, when it comes to the single most important thing motorcyclists can do, in order to improve their safety. Crash helmets? No, NHTSA can't talk about 'em.

That's a situation Wayne Allard, AMA vice president for government relations, applauds.

"We are happy that the House members accepted the language in the amendment," said Wayne Allard, AMA vice president for government relations. "Lifting the ban on NHSTA lobbying would have given Washington bureaucrats free rein to spend taxpayer money to lobby states and legislators to create laws that infringe on our rights as motorcyclists."

Elsewhere in the official AMA Press Release dated June 11, the AMA clearly describes "mandatory motorcycle helmet laws" as "unnecessary regulations" on motorcyclists.

What the fuck, eh? Let's be clear: by far the greatest single effort by the AMA as it currently exists is: Let's make sure that no states pass helmet laws; let's fight the existing helmet laws.

I'll bet the AMA's shitty lobbyists went fawning to the NRA's big swinging dick lobbyists Tuesday night and said, "You know the way you guys prevented the Center for Disease Control and the Surgeon General from characterizing epidemic gun violence as a public health issue -- something it so totally is? Well, we did that too! We prevented NHTSA from saying that open head wounds are bad for motorcyclists. So, um, is that chair free? Can we sit with you?"

Fuck off, AMA, just fuck right off.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Karl Harris' death means—and doesn't mean—for the TT

After a relatively safe Practice Week, the TT paddock was rocked by fatalities on consecutive days when Bob Price died Monday, followed by Karl Harris on Tuesday.

I mean no disrespect to Price when I write that his death is, at most, a footnote to this year's TT. He was a popular guy, I hear. He was a good rider. But he was a relative unknown.

Not so Karl Harris. 

To be fair, Harris (seen here during a late-winter visit to the Isle of Man, before he first came to race) said, "I've always wanted to do the TT just never had the opportunity so it is really something to look forward to. I've got a lot of work to do looking at on-board DVDs so it's going to be a learning process but it will be fun."I'm not saying he was lured or entrapped; he came of his own free will. That's not what this post is about.
Get your special hate-mail pen out if you will, but I’m going to tell you a story about the TT anyway. This is my opinion, I guess, based on many conversations I had on the Island, with members of government, TT volunteers, Manx-based journalists, and countless stakeholders in 2002, when I was there as rider, writer, and journalist, and in subsequent years when I returned as a journalist. It's an impression that had to be compiled, instead of something I could ever have received in an organized press briefing, because the TT organizers are not to damned transparent with journos.

My take on it is that when David Jeffries offed himself at the TT in 2003, it was nearly the end of the event. I think that the Auto-Cycle Union, which had always put the races on, told the Isle of Man, “OK, we’re done. Never again.”

The event only continued when the government of the Isle of Man stepped in to act as the organizer, promising to indemnify the ACU if it would continue to act as a sanctioning body only. The IoM took on that role because—although there are plenty of Manx voters who hate the TT—it remains popular with a majority of Manx people, and it is invaluable in promoting the Manx ‘brand’, which is essential if the Island is to keep attracting international business. 

The grassroots organizers of the TT—hundreds and hundreds of volunteers—continued, for their part, because they were desperate to see it through the centenary TT, which was then just a few years hence, in 2007. Over the years, I've put this thesis to many people with knowledge of the inside workings of the TT, off the record of course, and never had anyone tell me that I was completely off the mark. [Until now, see note below from David Cretney, a guy I genuinely like.]

2004, then, marked the beginning of a new TT era. When Greenlight/Duke Video’s media rights came up for renewal, the television coverage was transferred to a different production company that produced a far superior program. New fans were drawn in—people who didn’t miss Joey Dunlop and David Jeffries. 

The course was—to the extent possible—smoothed and made somewhat safer. Hazards that were padded only by haybales in my day were protected by airfence. The race director started canceling practices and races in heavy rain. Practice mileage was cut when morning practice was eliminated. The qualification standards were tightened, to minimize speed differentials. Those steps all did, probably, make it a little less dangerous.


The organizing committee knew that if they were to attract new young fans, they needed new young riders. They began a program of actively recruiting a whole new kind of TT competitor. They looked for younger guys who had serious speed, even if they’d only raced on ‘circuits’ their entire lives. 

Promising riders were brought over to the Island for a look at the races, and if they liked what they saw, they were invited back in the off season to lap on open roads (and drive around in cars) with TT veterans like Milky Quayle. During the off season, the organizers sent out gushing press releases about the new, high-profile Newcomers that would be taking on the Mountain Course the following spring. Just between the lines was the message, "See? We're not an anachronism, or just a bunch of crazy old Irishmen. Look at this cool young guy who also dreams of the TT." They reserved a spot on the schedule for Newcomers, to go out on speed-controlled laps behind experienced riders. Most importantly, those hand-picked Newcomers were seeded in established teams, so they went out on bikes properly set up for the TT.

Paul Phillips has done a bang-up job as Motorsport Manager for the Isle of Man. As much as anyone, he deserves credit for resurrecting the TT after the dark days of 2003. When Karl Harris agreed to race on the Island, he said,  “Karl Harris is undoubtedly one of the most naturally talented riders on the British scene in the last ten years and I’m sure that with proper application he can build a great TT career for himself. He has all the attributes to make a great TT racer and I’m sure fans will look forward to seeing him on the Isle of Man this year." He wasn't wrong, exactly, but his premonition hasn't come true either. (Photo: Stolen from MCN)

If you had to pick a poster child for that new-rider program, you’d pick Karl Harris. 

In the early 2000s, he’d been a multi-time British Supersport champion. He raced successfully in British Superbike championship, too, recording 12 podium finishes before gradually souring on that series. He was a guy with close-to-world-class speed.

And, he lapped at something like 118 miles an hour in his first year at the TT. He was on everyone’s tip-sheet as a future TT winner.

But all that raw talent, and good coaching, and a good bike, didn’t save him when some problem occurred at “Joey’s”, a fast bend on the way up the mountain. 

I think that until Tuesday afternoon, there was a real sense among TT organizers that they’d worked out a system to identify, recruit, and nurture future TT stars. That may be the case, but there’s no safe way to lap the TT course at competitive speed. 

Where does that leave the TT? Well, the death of Karl Harris will not be the death of the TT any more than the death of Simon Andrews will be the death of the NW200. The TT will go on. But those deaths might give other fast young guys, currently racing on circuits, second thoughts about the merits of trying the Mountain Course on for size.

After DJ’s death in 2003, which was ghastly even by TT standards (a marshal once described it as a “broom-and-shovel job” to me) I said, the TT will continue until 2007, because there’s just too many people who want it to reach 100, but after that, it’s one high-profile disaster away from being shut down. 

I still believe that’s true. Even though the TT’s more popular and better-known now then it has been at any time since the 1960s, its existence is incident-to-incident. 

The event faces existential threats in the form of either a spectator disaster (the incident last year at the bottom of Bray Hill could easily have been far worse) or deaths of marshals or popular local racers, which could reduce local support (the two most successful local riders in recent memory, Milky Quayle and Conor Cummins, have both dodged death on the course.) Or, a major star like Guy Martin, Ian Hutchinson, or Michael Dunlop could take himself out in a manner that turns a significant percentage of current supporters into naysayers.

There has always been a sizable minority of the Manx population that is against the TT. Any incident that turns 10% of the event’s supporters against it will result in a majority of people who’d prefer to end the event.

A few days after this went up, I got this message from David Cretney, who negotiated the transition in event management, post-2003...

Dear Mark,
I hope you are keeping well. I have just been copied in to your piece about the TT. I have to say as the person who negotiated the deal for the Isle of Man to take over the running of the TT after 2003 your theory is completely incorrect. It was a long held ambition of many in the Motorcycling fraternity on the Island going back 20 or 30 years that we felt the Island had all the strengths to run the event completely without having to have the ACU en masse come to the Island.
My proposal was actually resisted my senior people in the ACU but my working relationship with the then Chairman enabled the proposal to succeed.
It was myself and the then CEO of Tourism who recognised the need to radically improve safety and the commercial aspects of the event.
After 2007 further impetus again took these issues forward.
Thanks for your longstanding interest it would be good to catch up again sometime.
Best wishes,