Trackside Tuesday: The Mind-Killer

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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.

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