Trackside Tuesday: The Face of a Champion

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Even before I met Max Biaggi in 2011, I had the sense that here was someone who takes himself and his racing pretty seriously. From the immaculately trimmed facial hair, to his manner in the pit box, to his long career as a motorcycle racer, if there is anything he takes lightly, it is certainly not racing.

Some riders are approachable, quick to smile, who naturally put others at ease even on race weekends. Biaggi is not among this group. But I didn’t appreciate just how intense he is when he’s at work until, as one of my contributions to benefit Riders for Health, I decided to ask him to sign a print I was donating at last year’s Miller WSBK round.

I had brought a matted print of Biaggi from 2010 with me, and as I approached the track on Saturday morning I considered that it would likely fetch a higher price, and thus a greater donation to Riders for Health, if it bore Max’s signature. So I set about getting that done with no idea how easy or difficult it might be.

First I approached the Aprilia media officer, a pleasant fellow who worked with me, half in Italian and half in English, to come up with a plan to approach his star rider. He suggested we talk to someone in the pit box, someone who knew Max better than he did in his recently acquired role with the team.

We descended into the Aprilia garage and found someone whose exact role I never understood, but who also liked the idea of doing something for Riders for Health. He did not, however, care to be the one to bring it directly to Max. The three of us considered the situation and appealed to one of the senior mechanics, who gave us a sympathetic look and said in gestures instead of words that he wanted no part of the business.

We stood to the side of the box, waiting for inspiration, and I wondered if the plan were doomed. Max spoke to mechanics as if discussing matters of life and death. Team members approached him respectfully, presented their concerns for his comment, and left him alone. In some garages the guys joke and there is music in the business of racing motorbikes. In Max’s garage, it’s more like a war room, its business deadly serious.

Someone new appeared and my colleagues brightened. It was a friend of Max’s, someone we could approach for counsel. A sotto voce discussion in Italian followed with wise nods and tentative smiles, then a group decision to proceed. Max would probably say ok. By now I was the least important player in the drama, merely the fellow holding the thing that wanted signing.

Biaggi was about to grant a TV interview, and we, safety in numbers, waited patiently until the camera crew left. Finally we could wait no longer, and we mentally pushed the friend out into the unknown. He approached Max and leaned in to explain the situation. Behind large sunglasses Max was inscrutable as he listened. What would happen? It seemed to take much longer to explain than it should have, but perhaps time was passing slowly because of the suspense.

Eventually Max uttered a few words, then gave a short nod and the friend, relived, smiled and returned to us. He explained that Max was willing, as long as I promised this was for Riders and not going to appear on eBay. I promised and was invited over, where  I produced my work for his inspection as I held out a new Sharpie. Oddly, the moment changed dramatically, because as I was standing next to Max Biaggi, he was suddenly different from the character we’d observed and been intimidated by.

Saying Max was ‘friendly’ would be not quite right, but face to face he was no longer the remote, uber-professional I’ve watched for so many years. He seemed to relax, signed his name, smiled and then disappeared, but not before putting on the stone face again as he left the box.

I thanked my new pals, delivered the signed print to the Riders booth in the paddock and was left to consider the experience. I don’t think I could’ve asked for it to have gone any better, and I appreciated Max’s willingness to trust me and to do something to benefit Riders for Health, even though it had not been arranged ahead of time. The adventure left me more sympathetic toward Max Biaggi than I might previously have been, because since then he’s been something more than the deadly serious professional racer.

But certainly he remains that at his core. After winning his sixth world title, Biaggi said: “The 2012 season was tight to say the least: we started off well, winning at Phillip Island after completely revamping my team, but we also had some difficult moments. We definitely worked for the title and maybe that’s why it’s an even sweeter victory.”

Based on my personal experience with how he operates at work, I expect we can only guess at what winning a championship truly means to someone who takes himself and what he does so very seriously.

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