Trackside Tuesday: The Mind-Killer

06/11/2013 @ 10:57 am, by Scott Jones16 COMMENTS


The more time I spend photographing MotoGP, the more fascinating the riders become. In the past few years I’ve come to believe that, while superior physical differences (their reflexes and fine motor skills) are significant, it’s the mental differences that are the most interesting.

I suppose anyone who has ridden a motorcycle even a bit beyond one’s comfort zone can appreciate some part of the physical aspect of riding a racing bike. For most of us, even the speed of racers in local events is impressive compared to our street riding.

By the time we consider Grand Prix riders, their level of performance is so high that I suspect most of us have very little idea how challenging it is to move a motorcycle around a track that deftly.

While the skills with throttle, brakes, and balance are on a level similar to the best athletes in other sports, I think that what really sets motorcycle racers apart is their ability to overcome fear.

We all know motorcycle racing is dangerous. Our pedestrian lives are full of smaller dangers from which we are protected by many security measures intended to allow us to live our lives in safety.

Motorcycles racers have little more than helmets and leathers and, usually, gravel traps to slow them down. But sometimes there’s a concrete wall in the wrong place, and to get on with business, they have to put that danger out of their minds and twist the throttle.

After Marc Marquez crashed in FP2 on Friday, HRC tweeted: For those of you interested, Marc lost the front at 320 km/h, and the bike actually crashed at 280 km/h.

I have never gone 199 mph (320 km/h) in anything but an airplane, insulated from the speed and enjoying the safest mode of travel. So I can only imagine what it must be like on a motorcycle. I do know from experience that while at first, speed is exciting, after a time you get used to it and are ready for more.

So for GP riders to go 200+ mph on a motorcycle is nothing like what I’d be feeling should I somehow find myself zipping along at that speed on a MotoGP bike. Further, then, I can only image what losing control, if ‘control’ is the right word, at that speed must be like, and I can only image what crashing at 174 mph (280 km/h) must be like.

I’m pretty sure I’d want nothing to do with motorcycles for a while, even if I did somehow come away with injuries no worse than those Marquez sustained. And for some time, I’d look nervously at every concrete wall I encountered.

(That wall is something that, had Marquez hit it and been killed, would’ve had people outraged about why it survived as long as it has. The riders have been complaining about it in safety meetings for years. Tamburello at Imola was dangerous for thirteen years, but it took Senna’s fatal accident to force a change to the track layout. And since Marquez rode the day after his crash, Mugello’s concrete wall, a few meters from the fastest section of the track, it still there. Sadly, the cost of moving it is probably a few million euros plus some racer’s life.)

As I photographed Marquez on Saturday in pit lane, he sat in the Repsol box, chin heavily bandaged, his team going about their business. He scratched absently at the bandage, rubbed a finger over this edge of white tape or that. He glanced at the TV monitor by his side, looked at Santi Hernandez’ clipboard when the crew chief had something to say. Other than the very obvious bandage, there was nothing in his behavior to indicate how close Marquez had come to disaster the day before–until he stood up. Then he reminded me of Crutchlow and his broken ankle at Silverstone, Rossi on crutches, Doohan shuffling to his bike in a futile attempt to prevent Rainy from taking his world title. The body had suffered from the crash, but the mind seemed to have put that experience securely in the past.

I expect the injuries to my mental state would be much more profound than the physical effects Marquez dealt with. Crashing a motorcycle at 174mph and getting out of bed the next day is remarkable.

But getting out of bed, spending hours in the Clinica Mobile with the physical therapist, then qualifying the same motorcycle you crashed on the day before, going faster than you did the day before, and then setting the quickest lap of the race… ‘Remarkable’ is simply not a strong enough word for that response to the fastest crash in MotoGP history, and given the proximity of the wall, a crash that might easily have cost him his life.

You may say that I’m making too much of Marquez’s post-crash behavior and performance. If so, we have arrived at my point. As ardent fans, we grow accustomed to the extraordinary because we see it in this small group of individuals so often.

Just as the next plateau of speed becomes familiar and no longer remarkable, so does this aspect of the motorcycle racers’ mind. Again and again we see them push their fears to the backs of their minds, as they push their equipment and their abilities to the limit.

I’ve been writing specifically about Marc Marquez and his response to his accident. But I also have to mention that every other rider had to deal with the fact that he or she had to pass that same section of track at his or her limit, lap after lap.

“That could happen to me,” is a common thought for people seeing an accident. Being able to put that thought away and perform at the limit in spite of that feeling is not common at all. That these riders are able to do it is another thing that makes them so very interesting.

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 blogTwitter, & Facebook.

All images posted, shared, or sent for editorial use or review are registered for full copyright protection at the Library of Congress.

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

  • sideswipeasaurus

    Well thought. It’s this same mix of ability and determination that makes each and every one of them on the grid heroes of a sort to me. We may have favorites for one reason or another but we should be fans of them all and disrespect none.

  • TonyC

    “I think that what really sets motorcycle racers apart is their ability to overcome fear.”

    I do think that motorcycle racers simply do NOT have fear. Or at least their threshold or tolerance for fear is much higher than us mere mortals.

  • Calisdad

    Crashing at that speed is the best thing that could have happened to MM at this time. I’m sure some would disagree but IMHO he’s been brought along a bit too quickly- for the benefit of Honda and perhaps the fans. Surviving with relatively moderate physical injuries may or may not have been a blessing. As you say his mental state injuries only he is aware of.

    It was also reported that Stephan Bradl was clocked at over 217mph. I think that’s great- IF it can be done without collateral damage. If the sport is to evolve so must do so without compromising safety.

  • Silas

    Perhaps they’ve all been trained by the Bene Gesserit?

  • Slangbuster

    “The addiction of Racing makes Heroin seem like a vague craving for something salty”. Nice read Scott.

  • TexusTim

    I must not fear. fear is the mind- killer. fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and thru me.
    And when it is has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see it’s path. where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain…….quote Frank Herbert “Dune”.
    I have lived by this all my life, it is what helped me overcome many challenges of my youth. terrible foster care,dysleysia, poverty you name it I had to deal with it.

  • Chaz MIchael Michaels

    MM narrowly escaped death.

    how the hell fast was Rossi going when he hit the tire barrier/wall?

    Other, lesser riders, riders of common ability, who have been able to overcome fear (or they had no fear) are sadly probably no longer with us.

    A guy I work with races on weekends and he estimates there’s a death in the semi-pro series he races in about once every 3 years. I was shocked. I put that at 5-times more dangerous than hanging out in Alaska in the grizzly maze speaking to hungry bears.

    Danger, safety, and the love of the sport-can these concepts get along?

  • Malcolm

    From my limited experiance racing motorcycles relative to these gods of speed.
    The crash can be put to oneside as once you are out on the grid the focus is on the here and now, the competition, the challange.
    The crash is not dwelled on it can’t be there is not enough room for it to be processed. You are completly focused on the job at hand.
    Having said that all my crash experiance has been somewhat slower than at the speed these guys are traveling at. But I believe the process in their minds would be along these general lines.

  • “I put that at 5-times more dangerous than hanging out in Alaska in the grizzly maze speaking to hungry bears.”

    Or roughly equivalent to commuting on LA freeways 5 days/week.

    Not to make light of anybody’s demise, but it’s a 100% certainty that one will die. It’s never a matter of if, it’s always a matter of when.

  • JW

    My take on this is a little different. Could it be that facing fear head on (which I think MM does) at the front of his mind allows his raw talent to come out. Rather than saying “I have no fear” and trying to cover it up, the effort and energy to cover up fear hinders performance. Respecting the truth of fear produces better results than bullshitting yourself by saying you have none. Every champion has fear

  • “Every champion has fear”

    Yep, I have to agree with that. Having no fear whatsoever means that one is simply unequipped to make rational decisions regarding safety. These guys hanging it out at the very limit are dependent upon making all the right choices. If you listen to guys such as McPint or Molyneaux discussing fast laps at the IOMTT, you’ll regularly hear them discussing how scary certain sections are.

    Fear is healthful. Being able to process it in useful, non-paralyzing fashion separates these guys from common folk.

  • smiler

    It is the best solution to improve safety. But by the studs of modern racing Merguez crash although fast was hardly dangerous. He was going in a straight line and corrected his mistake before getting off the bike.
    Clearly I would have wet myself and likely never got back on a bike. But considering accidents of earlier racers I cannot see the significance of his crash. Bigging up the likely future of MotoGP.
    Barry Sheene came off when his rear wheel locked up at 175mph. Faster and he essentially high sided the bike. His leathers looked like something from Robinson Crusoe. The accident at IOM TT last year that saw the rider fly 200 yards from the road and just over a dry stone wall. De Puniet and Cal’s tribulations which involved injury, rehab and having to get back on a bike battered and in pain. Now for me that is overcoming fear.

  • pooch

    Great article Scott. Marquez is indeed remarkable – even when crashing, he seems to showyou something very special after it. We may have never seen the likes of MM93 before. Every week, I’m wondering what Marquez will do in the next race. And people think MotoGP will struggle without Rossi ? Not with guys like this around, it wont!

    Stay healthy Marc. Right now you are the brightest light in MotoGP’s future.

  • Chaz Michael Michaels

    After pondering this article overnight…I recall in the movie Faster or possibly its sequel riders do admit to being scared and having fear.
    Lorenzo recalls a crash that gave him a concussion that scared him and he worried if he’d be the same after it or if the fear would be too much.
    Rossi talks about the fear he felt when he first rode a motoGP bike.
    Hopper talks about fear.

    I think JW’s comment has it right. These guys acknowledge the fear they feel but they face it, they use it to get better. …they feel fear, it’s how they use it that is different.

  • Sean

    After having suffered a racing crash and being as close to dead as you can be without actually being dead, I was back on a bike less than two hours after leaving the hospital. It was only a Virago, but I can’t ever explain to people why I was driven to get back on asap. I wouldn’t say I have no fear, not by a long shot, I just have a need to ride. I think that there are a good number of professional racers (in all disciplines) that probably have the same drive, the same attachment to their sport. After reading about the young man who is paralyzed and still rides dirtbike, I can totally understand his desire to ride, whatever it takes.

  • Well seen and well told, Scott, you’re absolutely right. But what you could add is that TV footage, with the usage of tele-lenses, diminishes a lot the real-life speeds of Grand Prix Motorcycle. Standing on the right handside of the track at the point where riders start to break at 340 km/h per hour is frightnening at first.
    One last thing : Marc Marquez specified to us during the press debrief that he first lost the front at 338 km/h, not 320. Something to give a normal motorcycle driver nightmares for afew nights…
    Keep up with the good work and congratulation for awesome pics.
    Thomas Baujard.