Backmarker: Austin’s Power

May 2, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

A random fan  plunked on the grass in front of me. Coincidentally his t-shirt commemorates the last race Id attended as a regular fan.
A random fan, plunked on the grass in front of me. Coincidentally his T-shirt commemorates the last race I’d attended as a regular fan.

It’s been a long, long time since I just attended a motorcycle race.

Back in the ‘90s I was in a bunch of them, and after 2002 I worked at a bunch more in one capacity or another – usually as a journalist – but I haven’t just attended a race, as a fan, since the days when Kevin Schwantz was racing a 500cc two-stroke.

That changed when, on the spur of the moment a few weeks ago, a couple of friends talked me into a road trip down to Austin, to check out the zooty new Circuit of the Americas and the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas. Three-day, General Admission tickets were only $89, and by sharing gas and motel costs, it seemed like something even a motorcycle journalist could afford.

I know, I know… ‘sharing gas’. Let me get this out of the way right now: we didn’t ride down from Kansas City. And frankly, since rain, gale-force winds and temperatures in the 40s prevailed for the first 500 miles of our trip, we were happy to be ensconced in Bill’s Toyota Venza.

When I lived in Texas, I frequently heard the state capital referred to as ‘The People’s Republic of Austin’. That drew sneers from the rest of the gun-totin’, Republican-votin’ state, but the presence of a well-funded university and large arts community makes it a pretty cool place to visit. Since it’s located in the Texas ‘hill country’ the roads off to the west of town actually have some curves in them. Freezing temperatures are rare; all in all it’s a pretty good motorcycle town.

One of the better-known local shops is Ducati Austin; you may remember that, a few years back, the shop fielded a 1098 Superbike for Ben Bostrom. On Thursday afternoon, as we entered Austin on I-35, we pulled off at Ducati Austin to check out a free event sponsored by Dainese. Kevin Schwantz was in the house, signing posters and a few shirts that had been printed up, protesting the track for banning him.

Much has been written about the Schwantz-COTA debacle, which reached a new height during the MotoGP weekend, when Carmelo Ezpeleta was served with court papers while he ate breakfast in the Austin Four Seasons hotel.

This was a colossal f-up by Dorna. The question isn’t, can it put on a MotoGP race in Austin without Kevin Schwantz? Obviously, it can.

It isn’t even, how much could the tiny-but-vocal group of race boycotters hurt attendance? The answer is, not much.

The question is, how much would it help the race if Schwantz was an active supporter and promoter? In the long run, it would be cheaper and better to put on the Austin MotoGP race with #34 on the team.

I have to admit the first exposure to the track is pretty breathtaking. The massive tower is like a cobra swaying over the circuit. There was a surprising amount of traffic on Friday; more than I expected for a practice day. We turned into the circuit and were directed past lot after lot, including some close-in lots that had not been opened. Finally, after it appeared we’d been directed right back out of the facility, we ended up in a field at the far end of the circuit. The first unpleasant surprise was that even way out there, it cost $20 – more than that days’ ticket was worth – to park there.

Online, I’d seen a notice from the track that no outside food or coolers would be allowed in. Sure enough, guards poked through one woman’s bag and made her remove a couple of ziplock baggies full of carrot sticks and sliced peppers. I understand the whole, “make them buy our food” thing, but I have to sympathize with anyone who insists on eating healthy; that was not an option at COTA.

Once we were past the guards, my friends and I found ourselves on a ‘grassy’ bowl looking down on Turn 11, a tight left that riders enter after a short chute and which in turn leads onto the long, undulating back ‘straight’. I was immediately struck by the relatively good viewing for General Admission fans, though I noted that the big screen TVs, which had been present in this area for F1, had not been mounted for MotoGP.

The observation tower dominates the track. Trip to top:  25. I think it should be free if you want to climb the stairs.
The observation tower dominates the track. Trip to top: $25. I think it should be free if you want to climb the stairs.

Over the next few sessions we walked back towards Turn 1 and throughout that journey we found quite a few great vantage points, including some with visual access to TV screens and better audio quality, enabling us to hear track announcements. The screens and announcers helped us to keep track of what was going on since, in this era of TV-centric sports, the numbers on the bikes are now far too small and stylized to actually be legible. I did find myself pondering the paradox of the jumbotron, however; I liked seeing action from other parts of the track when there was no action close to me, but the screens are weirdly compelling, and I sometimes had trouble tearing my eyes away, to look at racers coming by in the flesh.

The organizers got bonus points from me for even leaving some nice elevated viewpoints available to GA spectators, from the various track bridges, on Friday and Saturday. Those viewpoints were blocked off on Sunday, probably to ease pedestrian flows.

On Friday evening, we ventured into hipster territory: East Austin, to check out The One Show. That was worthy of its own column, and I’ll save it for a future Backmarker. Suffice it to say that when I lived in Dallas, people used to tell me, “You’d love Austin,” which was at best a backhanded compliment coming from a real Texan. Anyway, I see what they mean about it. It’s a cool town and I’d be willing to bet that it will become a favorite layover for the denizens of the MotoGP paddock.

Saturday was warmer, which was a welcome change from Friday’s high winds and unseasonable cool air. (The previous day, I paid $4 for a cup of coffee, mostly so I could hold onto something warm.)

That huge tower doesn’t overpromise. The track’s a prime example of Tilke’s F1-scale ambition when it comes to layout, and takes great advantage of topography (whether it’s natural or man-made.) There are plenty of spectacular vistas from which you can see several corners.

Food prices at COTA were steep  to say the least.
No outside food or drink allowed  and healthy choices were nearly non-existent.

But that cost-was-no-object layout also telegraphs the fact that COTA’s after cost-is-no-object fans. Out around the circuit, hawkers offer Bud Light for $8.50. And in the central food area, an oversized hot dog was $14. Curly fries were $10. Even a bottle of water was four bucks, and fountains were few and very far between. Walking miles around the circuit I think I saw two of them. I suppose that wasn’t a big problem in the mild weather we had Saturday and Sunday, but it is South Texas… next time they hold the race, it could be 105 degrees; if it is, the absence of shade and water will be a real problem. As it was, the absence of toilets was already a problem.

The track calls itself Circuit of the Americas, and the event was Red Bull’s Grand Prix of the Americas. Not of ‘Texas’, or ‘America’, but ‘the Americas’. Texas has a large and growing Latino population, and tapping into the whole Central American theme probably works for them. I saw lots of fans who’d ventured north from Latin America. For the moment, all the MotoGP events that take place anywhere in North or South America happen in the U.S.. Next year, Argentina gets a race that will give South Americans a ‘home’ GP, but it’s clear to me that COTA and Dorna have realized that Central America is a significant market. It probably helped that positioning when eight of the nine available MotoGP podium steps was taken by a Spanish-speaking rider.

So what about the racing?

At the end of the day, I came away pleasantly surprised. Despite the constant criticism of current rules, especially of traction control, I enjoyed watching the premier-class bikes. I have a feeling that processional races are more of a problem on TV than for fans out there on the hillside; even if they’re not passing, they’re hounding each other and it makes for a pretty compelling spectacle.

Most journalists, even the ones with coveted Dorna accreditation, actually watch races on TV in the press room surrounded by jaded hacks. When they they leave the media center, they remain within the secure confines of the paddock or, if they’re photographers, they’re protected from the crowd by 12-foot catch fences. It was useful for me to watch the big race packed like a sardine on the hillside by Turn 1, because the fact that the experience was shared actually changed the nature of the experience. The fans weren’t bored, so I wasn’t bored.

In Shakespeares day  the people too poor to sit in any of the three tiers of seats at the famous Globe Theatre were dubbed groundlings. Here  MotoGP groundlings such as your humble scribe find a patch of grass in Tilkes Stadium section -- an homage to Hockenheim.
In Shakespeare’s day, the people too poor to sit in any of the three tiers of seats at the famous Globe Theatre were dubbed ‘groundlings’. Here, MotoGP groundlings such as your humble scribe find a patch of grass in Tilke’s ‘Stadium section’ – an homage to Hockenheim.

Even in practice sessions, I always had lots to watch for, including subtle mistakes that TV producers ignore. It was nice seeing riders blow the braking zone in Turn 1 and miss the apex; that was exactly the kind of error I’d make, though I admit I’d make it at a much slower speed. And even with TC, riding at that level does not look nearly as easy to me in real life as it does on the feed.

The new qualifying rules are a little arcane, but they lend real drama to the third practice session. Being in the top 10 at the end of that session guarantees a rider a top-12 grid position. That’s trivial for the fastest half-dozen guys out there, who are always going to be in the top 10. And it’s all but impossible for most of the CRT teams. But, the slower prototypes and the fastest one or two CRT riders turn FP3 into a mid-pack dogfight.

I admit, the CRT machines were forlorn out there. There was, almost from the get-go, little doubt that Honda would dominate. The question wasn’t which brand would win, but rather which factory Honda. Once, in practice, I swear I thought Pedrosa was going to take out his young rival on purpose, as he left the pit exit.

Even at that, I liked the story of the weekend, in which Marquez manhandled and visibly overrode his bike in practice and qualifying, giving Pedrosa the hope that he’d crash or at least make a mistake in the race. But, in the race, the kid was a metronome. It was a deserving and historic win.

I felt for Lorenzo. Of all the active riders, his is probably the talent I wish I could have for my own. He rode smoothly and near-perfectly all weekend; when I wrote, up there, that I enjoyed watching great riders make the kind of mistakes that I make, I didn’t mean Jorge. But the Yamaha just wasn’t up to the task. Neither was Rossi; it remains to be seen how he fares on tracks where his experience confers an advantage, but my guess is that he’ll have his work cut out for him just to stay ahead of Crutchlow.

Then there are the poor Ducati fans, forced to parse results searching for anything resembling good news. For that matter, the same applies to American fans. Between Nicky and Colin, the U.S.A. has two contenders for ‘Mr. Congeniality’, but we all know that prize is given to people who couldn’t possibly win. Kevin Schwantz just wrote, somewhere, that Colin should have retired a couple of years ago. And Spies, after struggling at his home race has now said that until he can rehab his shoulder, he’ll stay off the bike altogether. Apparently, the injury’s causing him terrible chest pain. Perhaps his heart’s not really in it.

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