Rating the Riders of MotoGP: Ben Spies

01/14/2014 @ 11:12 am, by David Emmett14 COMMENTS


In the last of our series looking back at the riders of 2013, we come to the unluckiest man on the grid. Ben Spies’ season was a thing of nightmares, ending with his decision to retire. Here’s a review of his year.

Ben Spies – Championship Position: 21st – Rating: Attitude 9/10, Luck 1/10

Up until Qatar 2012, Ben Spies’ career had been something of a fairytale. Talent spotted by his later crew chief Tom Houseworth, he took the fight to Mat Mladin in the AMA and beat him fair and square.

He won the World Superbike title at his first attempt, on tracks he hadn’t seen until Friday morning practice. He grabbed two podiums in his rookie MotoGP season, then a win in his second season after moving up to the factory Yamaha team. And then it all went horribly wrong.

After a series of bizarre mechanical mishaps throughout the 2012 season, Spies suffered major shoulder damage in a crash at Sepang. He had already decided to leave the factory Yamaha team, signing with Ducati to race at Pramac.

After surgery to fix the damaged tendons in his shoulder, Spies turned up at Sepang in February 2013 only to find the going tougher than expected. He skipped one day of testing, then tried to make a return three weeks later, but found himself struggling once again.

It was a sign that all was not well. Spies struggled at Qatar, and knew he was in trouble for his home race in Austin, Texas. He gritted his teeth and suffered the consequences, sustaining a severe pectoral muscle injury trying to compensate for the weakness in his shoulder. He was forced to skip Jerez and Le Mans, and tried to race at Mugello when the muscle tear had healed.

But in Italy, Spies discovered his shoulder was still too weak to control the bike properly. He took the brave and sensible decision to pull out, afraid of endangering the other riders if he found himself unable to control the bike.

It was the first of a series of brave decisions, the next one being to give his shoulder the rest it needed to recover, a decision he should have taken in the first place. He skipped Barcelona, Assen, the Sachsenring, and even his beloved Laguna Seca. He returned at last at Indianapolis, now fully fit and fully recovered. Finally, he could get his 2013 season underway.

But Ben Spies’ well of ill fortune had still not run dry. On Saturday morning, Spies left the pits during free practice, and found himself highsided onto his left shoulder, separating it in the process. He had yet to shift into second gear, so he was riding without traction control, and was thrown from the bike as a result.

It was his own fault, Spies admitted, he should have remembered that the traction control was only engaged once the bike was out of first gear.

More surgery ensued, to fix his left shoulder, and to clean up his previously injured right shoulder, but there was little news from Spies’ camp after surgery. Then, two months later, Spies announced he was retiring from motorcycle racing completely.

The medical prognosis on his shoulder was that though it would recover enough for him to function perfectly well in normal life, it would probably never be strong enough to cope with the forces involved in motorcycle racing. Ben Spies was now an ex-racer.

There were many moments of bravery through the 2013 MotoGP season, but this was perhaps both the bravest and the toughest. Spies had to admit both to himself and to the outside world that he would never be able to race again at the highest level.

As a true racer, he understood that he would never be able to accept competing at anything less than the highest level, and he decided to bow out, rather than fool himself into believing it would get better in time. Spies faced up to cold, harsh reality, and handled it with aplomb.

Ben Spies faced a lot of criticism over the past couple of seasons, some deserved, most not. He faced even more criticism of his decision to retire, but that criticism stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of injury. There were fans comparing Valentino Rossi’s leg injury and Jorge Lorenzo’s collarbone injury to Spies’ shoulder, apparently unaware of the anatomy of the shoulder.

The shoulder is the most complex joint in the human body, capable of a huge range of motion. But that mobility also makes it vulnerable, especially when exposed to the forces involved in motorcycle racing. With so much connective tissue involved, and so little blood flow to repair it, even seemingly minor damage and mean it is useless for racing. Spies recognized that, and accepted it.

Spies’ decision also flies in the face of accepted motorcycle racing wisdom. You race unless you are injured, which seems like a reasonable point to make. However, when people talk of injury, they demand visible proof – a plaster cast, bones protruding through flesh, something they can see.

They are not prepared to accept invisible problems, internal injuries, shoulder problems, or as Casey Stoner found out, debilitating conditions such as lactose intolerance. For the sake of the health of future racers, we can only hope his case will stand as a lesson to others, and they will learn to distinguish between injuries they can recover from, and those that they cannot.

Photos: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

  • KSW

    Well written and thoughtful, David. As an ex competitive athlete I can’t say how important decisions like knowing when to quit are. Personally, I’ve non-healing scaphoid fractures in my left wrist from a skateboarding injury. I was a top ranked east coast competitor and won many contest’s and most radical skater awards. The decision to not go with pins in my wrist was due to the long term need to replace them. “You have a 50/50 chance of being able to live with the pain” I was told. I took the live with the relative pain option as opposed to a life of pin replacement. Numerous head injuries where a result of both my gymnastics (2 time junior olympic all around champion) and skateboarding. The final blow was a motorcycle incident that left me with damaged frontal lobes and no sense of smell among other brain related issues. So, thirty days after leaving the hospital I did get back on that horse and ride again, I’m a competitor. The truth is I’ve had to take a pill ever since to keep my brain chemistry in a functioning state. So, I can’t do pushups, ride a road bicycle with low bars on a sport bike among other limitations but I do still ride and wrench. I know that a serious off with be devastating but living is essential. The long term effects are much greater with injury than we are willing to admit or believe when we are young. Ben has seemingly acknowledged the long term effects and decided a long happy, healthy life is better than a few more years on the track. Smart thinking. For many who race IMHO the wrong decision is made and probably for the short term money. The long term though, requires every penny made be saved as the mounting health care cost’s later will be more than expected. It’s also the reason that I have a penchant for giving back to the riders thru charity or other means. I was lucky enough to continue on and be productive despite my injuries and the hours, years, it took to sort out the brain issues. A big congratulations to Ben on a successful life on track and well made decision. Memories can’t be taken away by anyone, only dementia. Now, get back out and start living, doing, no matter what it is that makes you happy.

  • vman

    I high-sided in a practice a bunch of years back. Slowest I have crashed (70ish) with the most damage. Snapped my clavicle , crushed the joint and separated it from the humros . Took 10 screws and a plate almost a year to recover and will never be right (plate is still in there). I went back to racing for a bit and did ok for a weekend warrior but def felt like my edge was dulled, you suddenly think “man if I hit this shoulder again its not going to be good”. I can’t imagine trying to tame a MotoGP bike with it and run at that level. Its gotta suck to have made it to that level and have to bow out so early, on the other hand he did make it.

  • chaz michael michaels

    One of my favorites of all time is Ben Spies.

    I still can’t believe his career is over. It can’t be…can it?
    If the fall can be so swift the rise from the ashes can be also.

    Watching Ben Spies race, cheering for him–it’s been a joy.

  • Frank

    Thoughtful posts vman and KSW. It’s good to hear about others’ experiences. I count myself fortunate everyday that I have been able to ride for years and avoid serious injury. That being said, I know the risks and KSW – you are right: ‘living IS essential.’

  • TexusTim

    some of you are going to hate on me and so be it..but spies (and mum) lack of ethice is what cause the start of hi bad luck this one first http://www.roadracingworld.com/news/updated-with-attorney-comment-tribunal-orders-2009-superbike-world-champion-ben-spies-to-pay-former-agent-19-million-for-wrongful-termination-of-contract/ then he fought it rather than accept it and was held up when he had his motgp career to focus and and his luck got worse http://www.visordown.com/motorcycle-racing-news-moto-gp/spies-former-manager-sues-for-19-million-dollars/13442.html so I call it karma and the karma monster bites big sometimes

  • James Rogers

    I’m looking forward to hearing him in a commentary booth on a regular basis. His stints with the BBC crew while he was injured were always very interesting and he definitely has the chops to persue that as a way to stay connected to the sport if he so chooses.

  • Thurston Howell III

    Ben Spies: Attitude 9/10, Luck 1/10 Mary Spies: Greed 10/10

  • tonifumi

    Mat Mladin was asked to comment on why he thought Ben retired. I 100% agree with his assessment.
    Ben obviously had talent, and bad luck but in no way was his attitude 9/10.

  • Chaz Michael Michaels

    what’s the deal with people hating the guy’s mom?! So weird.

    I’ve read the banter “…she’s his manager…she’s into his racing…she goes to his races.” This is bad why?
    and then I’ve read the blog nonsense where people write thier little eye witness accounts of her getting out of line (as if anyone commenting here would know anything).

    Ben Spies mom is greedy? What the hell does that even mean? so odd. Take any other athlete…”ya, Derek Jeter he’s ok…but his mom? asshole…and so greedy!” WTF??

  • Phil

    A real shame he can’t back to what he does best. WSBK

  • SBPilot

    @ Chaz Michael: Because his Mom is also his Manager, and the rider’s Manager is a riders lifeline. The Manager finds the rides, finds the sponsors, does all the business talk with teams, companies etc. and if the manager f**ks up somewhere, the rider is left in purgatory. She probably burned a lot of bridges and hence, his son Ben has no rides open to him.

  • proudAmerican

    @SBPilot: I don’t see it that way. Ben’s mom has always been his manager. She didn’t seem to be much of a hindrance to his career as he ascended from AMA, to a factory WSBK bike (and title win), right to MotoGP on a satellite Yamaha (remember the Ben Spies Ru…er, uh, I mean the Rookie Rule), and then to a factory Yamaha.

    His factory Yamaha M1 was a hindrance to his career when the bike continually failed on the racetrack. His body was a hindrance when he crashed hard, causing serious damage to that body.

    His mom may not have won any friends on the world circuit, but if Ben was still healthy and winning races, he wouldn’t be denied big contracts and big money just because the manufacturers and sanctioning bodies don’t like his manager (mom).

    His ultimate downfall was his inability to race due to traumatic injuries suffered while racing.

  • Kevin White

    I would probably go Luck 1/10, Attitude 6/10 at best.

  • Mark B


    You are incorrect, Bens mother hasn’t always been his manager, read the links, you’ll see one of the guys proven in court as being his manager for 22 months, including his SBK title win period.

    And his mum owned a majority share of Speez Racing, plus power of attorney – and Ben didn’t know?

    Man, I’m glad my mum isn’t my manager.