Backmarker: At the Superprestigio

January 13, 2014
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.'

Baker kept it close in the early going  but this is nothing compared to the way Marquez consistently pushed him right to the wall on corner entries every time he got the chance. It was kind of a fight between a pit bull and a spaniel  but you had to admire the smaller dogs spirit.
Baker kept it close in the early going, but this is nothing compared to the way Marquez consistently pushed him right to the wall on corner entries every time he got the chance. It was kind of a fight between a pit bull and a spaniel, but you had to admire the smaller dog’s spirit.

An American in Barcelona

By now, you know that in ‘Superfinal’ of the Superprestigio dirt track race in Barcelona, AMA Grand National Champion Brad Baker came together with Marc Marquez in a battle for the lead. Marquez ended up on the ground, and Baker won. So, the Superfinal went almost according to the script; after all it’d been clear from the first practice that Baker and Marquez were the two fastest guys in the building, although they didn’t share the track until the final race of the night.

“It would have been perfect if we’d been racing for the lead those last few laps,” Baker admitted ruefully.

Marc Marquez and the event organizers would have agreed with him, but not me. You see, for a writer, perfection isn’t perfect. Before any story really gets interesting, something has to go wrong.

I landed in Barcelona last Friday. Baker had already spent a day at Marquez’s practice track, which I was sorry to have missed. Brad and I briefly crossed paths in the event hotel, before he split to swap out the triple clamps on his bike. (It was at the workshop of the Suzuki team that Kenny Noyes rides for in the Spanish CEV national championship.)

Despite having been awake about 36 hours, sleep was hopeless, so I took to the streets. Barcelona—even on a cool, overcast Friday afternoon in the middle of winter, had more bikes than you’ll see in Daytona next Bike Week. They weave in and out of traffic and lean aggressively into traffic circles. Scooters are the first choice, including Burgmanesque maxis that have never caught on in the US; medium displacement naked bikes; tiny two-stroke race reps… I even saw a beautiful ’70s-vintage Montesa. At many traffic lights, there are two different stop lines, one for cars and another—a few yards ahead—for motorcycles. Yes, every green light is basically a two-wave start.

Barcelonas sidewalks are wide  and the cops tolerate scooter and motorcycle parking pretty much anywhere.
Barcelona’s sidewalks are wide, and the cops tolerate scooter and motorcycle parking pretty much anywhere.

In the US (and in the UK) some racers and fans imply that the reason there are so many Spanish riders in the World Championship these days is that Dorna—the company that owns the commercial rights to MotoGP—is also Spanish. Now that I realize how many people ride in Spain, I no longer subscribe to such conspiracy theories.

I planned to work my way over to the Palau St. Jordi arena, in order to pick up a press credential and check out the track. In a tapas joint, I struck up a conversation with an Englishman in a Sideburn T-shirt, who was also in town for the event. He told me about the small-but-enthusiastic UK short track scene. Last year, 35 of them came down to attend Kenny Noyes’ dirt track school at Motorland Aragon. The Superprestigio’s ‘Open’ category was filled out by a big British contingent, who had high hopes for Alan Birtwhistle; he’s their fastest guy.

By the time I got to the arena, they’d pretty much finished laying down the track. I looked for my contact, Jordi Castels. Jordi was the hands-on guy, running the show for the promoter, Jaime Alguersuari. (If that name rings a bell, it’s because his son, who is also named Jaime, drove for the Red Bull F1 team.)

When I found Castels, he was walking the track with a familiar guy wearing a Springfield Mile T-shirt; it was Kevin Clark, the Grand National Championship’s ebullient flag man. Clark adds something to the show that you really have to see to appreciate. “Basically,” he told me in his flat Boston accent, “I get paid to play in traffic.”

The nuts-and-bolts of the event were handled by Jordi Castels. I asked him if hed ever made a dirt track before. Yes  he replied  in 1991.
The nuts-and-bolts of the event were handled by Jordi Castels. I asked him if he’d ever made a dirt track before. “Yes,” he replied, “in 1991.”

The next time I checked my email I realized that AMA Pro Racing had sent out a press release “on behalf of Cycle World” saying that the Superprestigio would be live-streamed on the magazine’s web site. I realized that Clark was going to flag the race in his AMA Pro Racing uniform, which might create the impression that the Daytona organization had something—or indeed anything—to do with bringing the reigning Grand National Champion to Spain.

That night at the hotel, I asked Brad whether he’d talked much with Marquez at the practice track. He hadn’t; a lot of the other World Championship riders had sought him out for a little impromptu Grand National coaching, but Marquez held back.

“He’d come over to look at my bike’s setup, but he didn’t really ask me for advice,” Brad said. Then he added, “He wants to beat me on his own. That’s what I’d do, too.”

I also ran into Merle Scherb at the lobby bar. He’s a part time GNC rider and a riding coach at Colin Edwards’ ‘Boot Camp’. Merle met Bradley Smith when he came to Colin’s dirt track school. When Smith decided to participate in the Superprestigio, he got back in touch with Scherb, saying he wanted to come to Texas for a refresher course.

Merle said, “Why don’t you bring me to Spain instead?” Then, he decided to actually enter the event, in the ‘Open’ class for non-World Championship riders. So in the end, three guys held up the U.S. honors: Brad, Scherb, and Kenny Noyes who is an American citizen but who’s lived and raced in Spain so long that one of the local papers described him as ‘quasi Spanish’.

Montjuic Park is also the site of the Catalunya National Art Museum  seen here. Palau St. Jordi  where the race was held  was just on the other side of this building.  It was no Daytona Municipal Stadium!
Montjuic Park is also the site of the Catalunya ‘National’ Art Museum, seen here. Palau St. Jordi, where the race was held, was just on the other side of this building. (It was no Daytona Municipal Stadium!)

Race day morning at Palau St. Jordi, I felt as if a little bit of Du Quoin, Illinois had been dropped into the heart of Catalunya. The hallways and rooms under the grandstand, where gymnasts like Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes had padded around in slippers during the ’92 Olympics, echoed to asymmetrical clonks and scrapes of steel shoes. Bikes were crowded in pit boxes while riders shuttled wheels to the tire truck parked just outside.

I watched the first few sessions from up in the main TV camera box, where I could get a good view of the whole track. Two things were clear from the start: Brad and Marquez were the fastest guys in their respective divisions; Baker was a pro among amateurs, passing through the field like a breeze through a screen door and Marquez was… well, he was his regular self, the bike moving around under him, often looking ragged, but generally keeping it on its wheels. The other thing that was obvious was, there was nowhere near enough water in the dirt. The track was dry-slick and the air was thick with red dust in minutes.

Down under the stands, I found Brad surrounded by several people from the event organization team, talkin’ dirt.

“You’re not going to screw it up,” he said emphatically, “because it’s screwed up now.” It needed a lot more water; more than they could hope to lay down with the only water ‘truck’ we’d seen, which was a sort of weed-spraying rig behind a quad with maybe 10 or 20 gallons of water in a little plastic jerry can. Brad tried to explain that it should have been much wetter during the rolling process and that now that it had been rolled, it would be better to grade the surface, wet it, and re-roll it. They reluctantly agreed to add as much water as they could during the long break scheduled between the end of practice and the beginning of the show.

“What they don’t understand is that I’m not just a rider, I’ve been building these tracks since I was this high,” he told me after they’d gone off in search of their grader operator. “My family have a logging and construction background. I’ve had my own track since I was five years old. I’ve been operating that equipment, maintaining my track, since I could barely reach the controls. Once, when I was driving our long-nose Kenworth water truck, one of our neighbors told my dad, ‘There’s no one driving that truck!’ because I was so short he couldn’t see me from the ground.”

Marquez puts on his boots. Film at 11.
Brad Baker talks dirt with the organizers. By following his advice  they improved the track a lot between practice and racing. But  in addition to bringing over AMA Pros flagman  they should have brought in an experienced track guy. You know the way Eskimos are supposed to have 50 words for snow  Pro flat trackers have that same nuanced appreciation of dirt.
(Above) Marquez puts on his boots. Film at 11. (Below) Brad Baker talks dirt with the organizers. By following his advice, they improved the track a lot between practice and racing. But, in addition to bringing over AMA Pro’s flagman, they should have brought in an experienced track guy. You know the way Eskimos are supposed to have 50 words for snow? Pro flat trackers have that same nuanced appreciation of dirt.

Although their pit boxes faced each other, 30 feet apart, Marquez and Baker hardly acknowledged each other in the lead up to the night’s racing. When I mentioned that Marquez’s fastest lap was only a tenth off his own fastest, Brad told me sternly that Marquez’s times had been inconsistent and that short track races were won by the guy who makes the fewest mistakes.

The rest of the ‘Open’ category riders were crowded into a long hallway under one grandstand. Brad was pitted in with the ‘Superprestigio’ category riders from the World Championship in a separate—larger but still spartan—pit area. He had a crew of three young guys from something called the Monlau Technical School which is sort of an MMI for Grand Prix mechanics. I’m not sure who Marquez’s crew were; I presume they were some of the guys who look after him in MotoGP.

There’d been grumblings in Barcelona about the ticket prices. I think the cheapest seat was 30 Euros. Spain’s in the middle of a disastrous recession, with the result that the arena was at most half-full. Journalists, of course, don’t have to pay for tickets and the press room was standing room only. The event was broadcast live on Spanish network (not cable) TV.

In Spain, rock stars wish they had Marc Marquez’s status. But Brad was also a huge draw; he was interviewed for television more than once, and print journalists who normally write about MotoGP hung on his every word on the subject of flat track. Less than a month earlier, when a journalist asked him if he could name the Spanish capital, he hazarded “Frankfurt?” Nonetheless, he was a great ambassador that night.

Once, while we watched a scrum of reporters around Brad, the organizer looked at me archly and said, “So Mark, now our event really is super prestigious, isn’t it?”

The show was all lasers, with an earsplitting announcer, and a bewildering series of heats in which both Marquez and Baker appeared several times. Behind them, a few riders impressed; there were some solid amateurs among the Brits, and several of the MotoGP riders looked good. But from midpack back, it was crashfest. That didn’t bother the people in the stands; those who came seemed to enjoy it.

Almost every race was listed on the schedule as a ‘Final.’ I’m sure most of the fans wondered, as I did, exactly how the eight riders who were to start the two final Finals (Open and Superprestigio) were actually being selected.

Marc Marquez films Brad  with his GoPro  for a future home video.
Kids got skillz.
(Above) Marc Marquez films Brad, with his GoPro, for a future home video. (Below) Kid’s got skillz.

Brad and Marc both won their respective finals—Brad handily but Marquez had to work for it after he had a big moment, nearly high-siding himself.

Anyway, everyone knew that even the final Finals weren’t the real races; we were all waiting for the Superfinal: the last race of the night, pitting the top four Open class riders against the top four riders from the World Championships… The Marc and Brad Show.

Twelve laps only took three minutes or so, so I didn’t have a lot of time to make notes, as I watched from a camera niche high above Turn 1, looking down the front straight towards the motocross-style gate.

Those two got holeshots together, and opened up a little gap right away. Brad pulled a classic outside/inside move on Marc, right beneath my viewing position, but Marc repassed. I scribbled a quick note: BB letting him lead? For a few laps, it was a pretty good semblance of a short track race, and Marc looked, I dunno, like maybe he’d been watching video of Sammy Halbert.

After a minute or two of being pushed right to the edge of the track twice a lap, Brad had enough. Besides, he’s raced the real Sammy, and Marc Marquez is no Sammy Halbert; he pulled the same move he’d used to pass the first time, sliding under the tiny Spaniel in Turn 1. Except (at least, this is how Baker saw it later) Marc turned in on him and went down hard.

By then, the two of them had opened up a big lead and Brad slowed way down in the cushion, twisting around in the saddle to make sure Marquez was getting up. For a moment I thought Brad would just wait, or was hoping for a red flag and restart. But then he put his head back down. Marquez was well and truly out of it a lap later, after he looped it in the same turn; he didn’t even make the podium.

I scampered down a back staircase into the press center, wondering whether there were any hard feelings. Marc arrived first, and stood in front of a TV as if trying to will it to bring up a replay of the crash. The organizer’s press maven reminded anyone who would listen that Marc had won Superprestigio – the main, according to them – just not the Superfinal, but no one was buying it.

Weve all been there. Just not on national TV  with millions watching.
The stands werent full  but the media center was.
(Above) We’ve all been there. Just not on national TV, with millions watching. (Below) The stands weren’t full, but the media center was.

Baker didn’t sugar-coat his version of the crash, saying, “He could’ve given me a little room, and squared me up in the next corner, but that’s flat trackin’.” Still, he was gracious in victory, praising the MotoGP riders’ dirt skills, wishing Marc hadn’t crashed, and offering him the chance to be Grand Marshal at the Indy Mile next season.

Where did that come from, I wondered? Actually, his first offer was, take a few laps on my XR750. When someone pointed out that Honda would never let Marquez ride a Harley, the Spaniard was let off that hook. I, for one, wish someone would bring out an RS750 Honda (Chris Carter, are you reading this?) so that Marc could turn a few demonstration laps.

After the press conference, Brad and I walked alone back to his pit. In the tunnel, he quietly admitted, “Yeah, I could’a spanked him if I’d wanted to.”

Brad’s mechanics were already busy stripping his suspension parts and exhaust off, so they (the parts, not the people) could return to the US the way they’d arrived, in Baker’s luggage. Ernesto, our eternally patient driver, took us back to the hotel for a shower, then on to a lavish dinner in some club with a rope line. I suppose that was the first and last time I’ll ever be waved right in. Normally, I wouldn’t be caught dead in any club that would accept me.

After dinner (and, from the sound of it, a few glasses of wine) Jaime Alguersuari took the microphone from the DJ and gave a long speech in Catalan, a language in which I have about 20% comprehension. What I can tell you is that I heard ‘Brad Baker’ a few times, and ‘the world’s greatest dirt track racer’, but I never heard ‘Marc Marquez’.

In Spain, dinner time is this old man’s bed time, so I begged off after the second dessert. I was on a plane early the next morning (I’m on it still, as I type this) so I can’t tell you if Baker and Marc partied the night away, but from what I saw, there was every indication that The Bullet is welcome again next year. I even heard the strangest rumor, that AMA Pro Racing had discussed the possibility of holding a National in a foreign country. I’m sure there’s no substance to it.