It’s easy to forget that motorcycle racing is a sport for children. Their courage on track is remarkable, and even more so because of their young age. They start at five, four, sometimes three, riding their tiny motorbikes around the paddock or on dirt tracks in rural towns and lonely desert spaces and sometimes in organized series such as the Cuna Campeones Bankia.
At this moment there are thousands of kids either on their little machines or wishing they were riding, counting the minutes until they get to put the helmet back on and ride, perhaps just for the joy or perhaps with dreams of a world championship.
They have various levels of support from adults, ranging from the tolerant, to the indulging, to the demanding. As in all endeavors, most of the individuals either don’t reach their potential due to other demands on their time, energy or budget, or they approach that potential, and are judged to have too little talent in their bodies and minds to warrant moving to the next level.
Those who have the talent and desire, and are lucky enough to be recognized as such, might receive the support to compete at higher and higher levels. And sometimes by the onset of adolescence these kids are worldly and experienced in the ways of competition, travel, sponsorship, and so on.
Maverick Viñales started racing minimotos at 3 years old. In 2007 and 2008 he won the Catalonian 125cc Championship. He is now 17 years old, already a champion and G.P. race winner, having finished 3rd in his first two seasons.
Marc Márquez climbed aboard a factory Honda last weekend at Valencia at the tender age of 19. Being not quite single-handedly responsible for the removal of the inconvenient Rookie Rule (money had a lot to do with it, as well as his talent), Marquez must now, at 19, negotiate the world of top level motor sports and all that goes along with it.
Viñales recently made dramatic news by walking away from his team while still contending for the Moto3 title, stating conflicts of interest with his personal/team manager who had not revealed to him offers from other teams for the 2013 season. At Valencia Viñales announced he had renewed his contract with the same fellow in spite of the former allegations. A tough spot to be in at 17 years old.
At 19 Márquez brings his undeniable riding talent to the Repsol Honda team, and he brings his immaturities as well. One colleague in the paddock described Márquez as a liability for all associated with him, given his past and frequent adventures leading to injuries, his own and that of other riders unfortunate enough to get in his way.
Now that he’s on a MotoGP bike, the potential for more disastrous consequences of these errors in judgement is greater, and given his competitive spirit, he will be after results immediately. Perhaps if he were introduced to the premier class on a satellite team, with lower expectations, everyone might be safer. Perhaps not.
Viñales and Márquez are only two examples of young men dealing with situations of great complexity. Certainly both of these teenagers are much more talented and experienced than I was at their ages. But if I consider my own level of maturity at 17 and then at 19–well, I would’ve been a disaster on all fronts, and fortunately my lack of talent spared me these particular failures.
But we’ve also seen older, more mature individuals show strain from the challenges these kids face when it comes to living in the spotlight. Media attention, sponsor demands, and growing numbers of fans telling you in person and on Twitter how great you are, it all complicates a life off the track, while the life on track involves the risk of debilitating injury and loss of life.
Sometimes I wonder as I make my living photographing young men (and in the case of Elena Rosell, a young woman) what responsibility I share for their well-being. As a father of two young girls, I constantly consider how best to encourage my own kids to explore their abilities and interests while at the same time safeguarding their emotional and physical well-being.
If my own kids showed the talent and passion required to excel at motorcycle racing, I’d too probably encourage them to find their limits and see how far they could go, though I’d be a nervous wreck the entire way. I’m sure the fathers of Viñales and Márquez, both of whom accompany their sons to race weekends, feel the same paternal conflicts of wanting both accomplishment and safety for their kids.
For my own part, I remind myself often that many of the brave souls in leathers and helmets are still just that: kids. They are kids who risk their lives for their enjoyment and for mine because we both feel our own kinds of passion for motorbike racing. Perhaps there is no way to reconcile the risks of motorbike racing with the youth of most of its participants.
But as an international community, we do well to remember at all times how young are our heros in leathers, and as fans, journalists, businesspeople, to guard their well-being, physical and spiritual, as if they were our own kids.
Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blog, Twitter, & Facebook.
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Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved