Dirty tricks of the track: here's a story I wrote a few years ago...
Dirty tricks of the racetrack
Racing is all about going fast but sometimes there’s a rider in your way. So what do you do then? Get dirty. Mick Doohan, Niall Mackenzie and King Kenny Roberts discuss the dirty tricks employed by desperate racers
‘Motorcycle racing,’ as Max Biaggi once famously said after a rival accused him of dodgy riding. ‘Isn’t ballroom dancing.’ Pretty obvious, really, but bike racing is much nastier than that, and probably more bitchy too. It’s more like high-speed rollerball, though more subtle. There’s not a half-successful racer in the world who doesn’t get up to some kind of mischief in his quest for glory (though in researching this story I quickly realised that it’s only retired riders who’ll talk about this kind of stuff), while the more evil riders commit truly heinous crimes that risk rivals’ lives.
There’s the standard dirty tricks that everyone does – like gently moving a rival off line when braking into a corner, or easing an opponent away from the grippy line mid-turn. Then there’s the nastier tactics – like shutting the throttle halfway through a corner to force someone into taking drastic avoiding action, thus losing them vital time. And then there’s the seriously dangerous stuff – like running a rival onto the grass at high speed, or deliberately colliding with them, or hitting their kill switch, or shutting their throttle or punching or kicking them.
Even legends like King Kenny Roberts and Mick Doohan happily admit to getting dirty. It’s just what goes on, it’s a war out there. Like it or not, bike racing is a ferocious game of testosterone-charged heavyweight boxing with high-powered engines attached. Maybe it’d be cool if it was all nice and gentlemanly but that’s not how it works. Even back in the so-called chivalrous days of the 1950s and 1960s there are tales of be-goggled racers gobbing at each other mid-race! And if these revelations makes you watch bike racing with a more cynical eye, so be it. If you want peace and love, there’s always Songs of Praise.
Roberts wasn’t one of the really bad guys. He insists that he never knocked anyone off when he was doing GPs, but the hard-knocks dirt-track scene in the States was different. ‘One time says the King who won a heap of dirt-track crowns before taking back-to-back 500 titles in 1978, ’79 and ’80. ‘He came over after and wanted to know why I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘Well, the reason I knocked you down is that you put your clutch lever on my foot’, so he started shouting that I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘Yeah, and next time you do that I’ll knock you down again’. You know, it’s just one of the things, if anyone does something like that to you, well, sorry… But normally it’s the guys who aren’t so quick who have all the tricks, the quick guys don’t need them so much. Like me and (Barry) Sheene were real clean, we never did anything and we never had to. I never even thought about it, other than that time Freddie aced me off the track in Sweden (an infamous move that won Spencer the 1983 500 title). I thought about doin’ something the next race but I still couldn’t allow myself. Every guy has his style, every guy has his bag of tricks, and when you race them enough you start to learn who does what.’
Five-time 500 champ Doohan, who ruled the mid-1990s GP scene with a pitiless talent, was renowned as much for his ruthless aggression as for his awesome skill. ‘I wouldn’t say I’ve knocked people off the track but I’ve maybe ‘lifted’ them off the track,’ he says. ‘Like when someone thinks they can go around the outside, you just pick up and modify your line. They’re already committed, so there’s only one place left to go, and that’s normally off the track. I guess it’s a good way to bring cocky people back to earth, just to let them know that it’s not like this is your first race.’
Doohan had a couple of famous run-ins with a young Anthony Gobert in ’97. Goey had made the mistake of goading Mighty Mick in the press and he paid the price on track. ‘As much as everyone thought Goey was so great, he just had no race craft back then,’ Doohan recalls. ‘You’d do quite a clean move on him, then he’d come at you from a different angle, so it was like, ‘Hello stupid, try this!’, and the next minute he’d be off the racetrack. Then he’d come in complaining about dirty riding, but I wouldn’t try to intimidate somebody when I’m not up to their speed and have nowhere near as much race craft.’
Even former British champ, GP nearly man and all-round nice guy Niall Mackenzie had his moments of malevolence, like Snetterton BSB ’98, when he rammed team-mate Steve Hislop off the track. ‘Steve had some kind of effect on me, maybe because he’d done something to me earlier in my career, so I had no problem running into him and compromising everyone’s safety,’ he says, laughing at the madness of it all, as racers do. ‘It was the last lap and I’d considered doing it at the Bomb Hole but I wasn’t close enough, so I did at the chicane. I just ran into the side of him, we both ran off the track and it cost us first and second, which Rob (McElnea, their team manager) wasn’t too impressed about! I frightened myself thinking about it driving home that night, because if I’d done it at the Bomb Hole we’d have both been in hospital.’
Earlier in his career, Mackenzie remembers competing in the European final of the infamously crazed Yamaha 350LC Pro-Am series at Hockenheim and dealing with a much-feared French rival in homicidal style. ‘The Brits ganged up on this guy,’ he remembers. ‘Me, Ray Swann, Graham Cannell and Kenny Irons decided he was a bit hot, and he was little, so we knew he’d be really fast down the long straights, so we bullied him. We took turns during practice – you get in a big slipstream thing there, you get to the front of the queue, then you get slipstreamed, so every time it was his turn we’d just run him off the track.’ The Frenchman returned to the pits in tears and didn’t cause any problems on race day.
I remember similar stuff going on at the Isle of Man TT – the last place you’d expect riders to threaten each other’s lives. Perhaps thinking he was still riding Pro-Am on a relatively safe short circuit, Cannell drafted by me and cut across my front, the rear end of his bike just missing my front wheel. The idea of this trick isn’t necessarily to knock a rival down, just to cost him some time and scare him witless. I’ll leave Mackenzie to explain how the front-end chop works: ‘That goes on a lot, still does. The guy behind has to back off because the rear of the bike is so solid, so when you get a collision, it’s going to be the guy behind who goes down.’ And in endurance racing, the funny guys at the Bol d’Or would hit your kill switch as they drafted past you down Ricard’s long Mistral straight. All very amusing, unless there’s another rider just behind.
Everyone always used to say that Mackenzie was too nice to be world champion. But what about someone like Loris Capirossi, who won the ’98 250 world title by ramming Aprilia team-mate Tetsuya Harada off the track at the last but one corner of the last race? Capirossi is just like Mackenzie – sweet as pie off a bike, transmogrified on track. That’s racers for you – it’s a Jekyll & Hyde deal. ‘Unless you’ve been a rider you don’t understand the red mist thing,’ explains Mackenzie, who reckons the Capirossi collision wasn’t premeditated. ‘He could see the championship going, so he took a chance, sometimes there’s no time to calculate the consequences. At worst he probably thought they’d collide, run wide and it’d be a scramble to the finish line but the red mist confused his judgement. I don’t think it was a desperate attempt to take out Harada.’
Doohan reckons he was more victim than villain during his career. ‘I’ve been done by guys who put you off the track even in a straight line,’ he says. ‘They draft you and when they’re beside you they lean into you, put you on the white line, so you’ve got to shut down, or go on the grass. (Wayne) Gardner did that to me down the front straight at Phillip Island in 1990, at around 290kays. He drafted past and started pushing me over. I had to throw my foot off the inside ‘peg, it was the only way to shift some weight to stop me going off the track. That was pretty blatant. And (Luca) Cadalora ran me onto the grass coming out of a six-gear right-hander at Shah Alam once, just ran up beside me and actually pushed me off the track. I’d never go that far. I’d say Gardner, Cadalora and Biaggi were the three worst guys I raced with. Biaggi even tries to intimidate people on slowdown laps.’
Gardner angrily refutes Doohan’s version of events at Phillip Island: ‘To suggest that I was a dangerous rider is a complete insult. I didn’t come anywhere near him, I passed him fair and square, but that’s when I had the broken fairing, which was dragging on the road, and I had a broken wrist, too. I remember quite clearly the bike wanting to steer to the left down the hill. Maybe the draft was bigger than normal because the fairing was half off, in fact I think they were thinking of black-flagging me at the time.’
Intimidation is the real deal. These mad stabs aren’t just about winning a position there and then, they’re about establishing a reputation with other riders. If everyone knows you’re a nutter, they’re more likely to get out of your way, so next time you’re on track together, you’re going to have an easier time overtaking them, and they’re going to be more wary of overtaking you. ‘Intimidation is what it’s all about,’ agrees Doohan. ‘If you do that kind of stuff enough, it gets to the point where people know as soon as they see you: ‘I may as well shut down now because it’s not like he’s going to do me any favours’. Sure, there’s plenty of times I scared the hell out of people, and if they ran off the racetrack that was their problem, but I’ve never intentionally put anyone off the racetrack. It’s just a matter of keeping your position on the track, and perhaps modifying your position from where you’d be if there was no one else there, for no other reason than to intimate other guys and mess with their heads. Luca established his reputation with me by pushing me onto the grass at Shah Alam, so I knew that if I came up on him again, I’d have to pass him fairly swiftly or he might put me in a position I didn’t want to be in.’
Mackenzie again: ‘You need to establish your reputation from day one. You’ve got to stamp your authority and make everyone believe that you’re not going to back off, because if you do back off, next time they’re not going to let you in. If someone like Troy Bayliss shows you a wheel, you know he’s coming through. And in car racing, Michael Schumacher has definitely got that respect, and he knows that they know he’s there.’
Of course, racers live by the sword and die by the sword; you try and intimidate the other guy, but if he’s bigger and badder than you are, maybe you’ll regret having had a go next time you come across each other. ‘You definitely remember who did what to you,’ says Roberts. ‘It’s a highly dangerous sport but you have a zone you’re comfortable with, then you have aggression and then you have anger. So it’s like: ‘I’m not goin’ to give that asshole an inch because he didn’t give me an inch last time’.’
Schumacher has been disciplined by F1 bosses for overdoing his king of the track act, but official retribution is rare in bike racing, maybe because squeezing rivals is so routine. Occasionally riders do get nailed, like 125 hard-nut Manuel Poggiali, who was disqualified from May’s Spanish GP for brazenly knocking down fellow teenage headbanger Alex de Angelis. Or perhaps they cop an official reprimand, like when Biaggi ran Valentino Rossi onto the dirt as they swept onto the start-finish straight at Suzuka last year. In fact both riders were censured for that incident, because Rossi shouldn’t have been so naïve as to believe that Biaggi would give him the space to run past on the outside. In other words, this is motorcycle racing – you should know you’re not the only maniac on the track. Following that clash, FIM president Francesco Zerbi wrote an open letter to the pair: ‘to reproach you both, in order to invite you to more attentively and correctly control your actions and reactions, without taking anything away from your fighting instinct, your desire for victory, your skill, your courage and the sporting qualities that a true champion shows to all the world.’ Yeah, right. Ten weeks later Rossi and Biaggi were boxing each other’s lights out at the Catalan GP…
Invariably riders get let off the hook because most of the crimes committed on track are so subtle, and because they’re very much a part of bike racing. After all, it’s the ducking and diving, the feints and the parries and the scary moments that make the sport so exciting to watch. For example, what Biaggi did to Rossi at Suzuka is an everyday ploy in tight situations. ‘Sometimes you don’t get a good drive out of a corner but you casually use all the track even if you don’t need it,’ explains Mackenzie. ‘You know the guy behind may get a good drive and try to go round your outside, so you use all the track and the kerb, because there’s no way they’re going to want to use the grass.’
Riders use a similar tactic on the way into corners. Mackenzie again: ‘You brake a little longer than normal, so the guy behind can’t turn in where he wants to, because you’re still there braking. You just slow it all down, hit the apex as normal, and the other guy has to file in behind or run off the track.’
Some riders do the same kind of thing mid-corner – just ease off the throttle, so whoever’s following has to back off, run off line and, er, maybe crash. ‘I was never really guilty of that,’ says Mackenzie. ‘ But I know a lot of people who did do it, Gardner definitely did, and I know (Eddie) Lawson gave him a few warnings, told him the next time he tried it he was going to be in big trouble. I remember Gardner doing it at the last turn at Laguna Seca because it’s so slow. You just get off the throttle and then get back on it, the bike pretty much stops and the other guy has to pick up. It’s not hugely dangerous but it can cost whoever a lot of time because they get off line and then they’re probably in a too tall a gear. It’s a dirtier tactic, I didn’t use it because I felt like it could cost me time, and it’s definitely risky because the guy could run into you and you’ll both be down. But it’s very effective if it works.’
Shifting rivals off line is even more effective nowadays, because roadracing has become like dirt track, with a narrow grippy line, beyond which there’s little traction. ‘The thing is that bikes have got a lot more grip now, so you don’t get the variation in lines that you used to,’ explains Roberts. ‘You used to be able to watch at a chicane and say, ‘That guy’s got the right line and that guy hasn’t’, but now everyone’s got the same line because they’ve all got so much corner speed. So there’s only one part of the track being used – maybe a metre or a metre and a half – and the rest of the track isn’t so grippy. So it’s like dirt track, where you’ve got the grippy notch. You see a guy coming and you just move out to the edge of the notch, and that leaves them nothing.’
And if that doesn’t work you can let a rival come alongside on the straight and just shut his throttle. Sounds crazy, but the late Kenny Irons (who died in a freak accident at Cadwell in ’88) once did just that to 250 rival Pete Hubbard at Brands. Hubbard’s bike was quicker, so Irons took his left hand off the handlebar as they approached the finish line and grabbed Hubbard’s right hand, easing the throttle shut. Mackenzie and Irons were big mates and the Scot remembers the Luton rider’s tactics with great affection. ‘He did some scary stuff to me but he always did it with a smile on his face, just for a laugh.’ Racers are strange people, with a strange sense of humour…
This story is from my book THE FAST STUFF. You can can buy the ebook here