Trackside Tuesday: Chemin Dangereux

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Going through images of the 2008 British GP at Donington Park, I got to thinking about what a strange road it has been for Ben Spies. It started when Loris Capirossi was injured and Suzuki needed a rider to wild card at the event. Ben was their hot young AMA Superbike champ, and together with Mat Mladin, accounted for years of utter Suzuki dominance in the class.

I spoke briefly to Ben that Thursday as his #11 was displayed to replace Capirossi’s #65 for the first time. As soft-spoken and affable as ever, Ben didn’t seem over-awed by MotoGP, but just got about his job of not crashing Loris’ motorcycle. He would later go on to win the World Superbike title, and was rookie of the year at Tech 3. Again, all with his typical composure.

Since then we have seen his rising star take a sharp turn to port. He has managed to show signs of his potential, such as his win at Assen last year. But this year in particular he has been a frightful reminder that talent, hard work, and a good machine are not quite enough for success as a motorbike racer. As Ben’s bad luck has refused to come to an end, I’m not the only one in the paddock thinking about it. In Ben, the riders have another walking reminder of the uncertainties they face.

MotoGP riders are several things at once. They are human beings like the rest of us, and at the same time they are much, much better at riding motorcycles than most of us will ever be at anything. They face mortal peril every time they mount up to do their job and they manage that risk by cultivating confidence in their equipment and abilities, while intentionally not thinking about what might happen if either fails at the worst time.

When off the bike (which due to testing limits is most of the time), they have many opportunities to consider if what is happening to Ben Spies could happen to them. Short of a career-ending injury, could they become the next talented rider to lose a MotoGP seat for some reason other than merely not being good enough? Are they the next Marco Melandri? John Hopkins? Are they the next Ben Spies?

Given the treacherous career path these riders tread, certain examples of longevity are even more remarkable. Colin Edwards, Loris Capirossi, Nicky Hayden, and others have made long careers of riding at the top-level. Each has reasons for deserving their long runs, but each also avoided what Ben is going through. For a MotoGP rider, to make it to retirement in one piece, and on your own terms, is an accomplishment in itself.

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: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved