Motorcycle USA’s Habitual Outsider Goes Inside
Gordon Howell, Pole Position Travel.
Back in the mists of pre-history when I reported on GPs for a living – well, sort of a living but it was fun regardless – life was, in many ways, much easier. Journalists became friends with riders and, if they liked you, they would share a beer and a tray of frites with mayo.
Roger de Coster was always the class act in the motocross GP paddock because he had a fridge which worked and that invariably meant a cold Coke.
These days, with PRs intervening between the riders and the press, being a journo isn’t what it was. Paddock access is vastly more limited than in the olden days where a library ticket bearing a blurred photograph, plus a fake letter of accreditation, was often all that was needed to get close up and personal with the factory riders and bikes.
Today, if you want to see inside a top outfit you need to do one of two things. Option #1 is to put a million dollars into a team and then you really will get the full VIP treatment.
The second route is to become a customer of Pole Position Travel who will offer largely what a team sponsor gets – but for $999,150 less!
The Head Honcho of Pole Position is Gordon Howell – a New Englander who did his post graduate computer science degree at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. As well as a good education he also won the heart of Jana – a lovely Czech lady. Clearly, the journey across the Atlantic was worth the effort.
The young Howell worked on some high-tech, high-prestige projects and was no doubt on his way to being another .com billionaire and then the IT bubble burst – and suddenly life became a lot tougher.
One of Gordon’s projects was an IT system for tourism companies and it was this which became Pole Position Travel – combining his love for GP racing with his skill in electronic enterprise.
Customers who didn't book with Pole Position Travel waiting in line for the pit lane walk-through.
Clearly this was a marriage made in heaven – and a honeymoon for Gordon and Jana at the first round of the 2005 MotoGP season in Qatar. Gordon explained with a long, lingering smile, “That was one hell of a honeymoon…”
Now Pole Position Travel has re-located from Scotland to the Czech Republic and has earned a reputation as the leading supplier of premium MotoGP packages.
Gordon explains: “We do sell race tickets on occasions but this is not our main business. Our customers tend to be hardcore motorcycle racing fans. Often they have raced, or been involved in teams. They are all serious about motorcycle racing and want more than being just a spectator sat in the stands – not that there is anything wrong with that.
“This is why Pole Position packages usually include VIP parties, the opportunity to meet riders and team members and get the inside story on what is really happening in World Championship racing.
“The Kawasaki Team Experience is an extension of this idea. The Kawasaki team are just the nicest people in the world and they were happy to let a small number of our customers join them for the whole weekend of a World Superbike round – to eat with the team, meet team members and have a true VIP garage tour.
“It’s the nearest thing you will get to being a team member.”
After dinner on Saturday night, I had the chance to chat to Biel Roda, one of the two brothers who owns Provec Racing – the official Kawasaki factory team in World Superbike. I was interested in why he should allow non-team members into their inner sanctum.
Biel is so laid back that he is almost horizontal, and he was clearly pleased to have “civilians” in the team.
“We’re happy to have a few Pole Position customers – but not so many that the work of the team is affected. Maybe two tables (about 16 customers) maximum, like we have this evening.
) The paddock party at Donington World Superbike 2014. (Below
) Pole Position VIP party.
“We also want the right sort of customer. Gordon is careful with his clients and this is what we need. We wouldn’t want anyone shouting or upsetting anyone.
“We have a very happy team. The core of it is Catalan and we all know each other very well. It’s an interesting challenge to keep all the nationalities and cultures – we have Dutch, French, Japanese and English, as well as Spanish – all working together happily and so we need to be very careful about guests.
“But if they are respectful of what we are trying to do then we’re happy to have them – and with a budget as big as ours the extra income is nice too!”
The respect factor is king. One of the key attractions of the package was billed as dinner with Tom Sykes. However, Tom was deep in serious, heavy duty conversation on Saturday evening and ate just with one team member and we all left him alone. This is the respect that Pole Position and Provec expect. It’s no point in getting tense if things don’t work out precisely as the brochure says because being with a team is a dynamic situation.
So what do you get? To start at the beginning, customers have the second best parking at Donington – P2. P1 is for the real VIPs and P2 goes down a level to journos, team members and guests.
You then get the all-important paddock pass – and this really is vital because without it you are constrained to the spectator areas.
Inside the paddock are all the good things. It’s not only the opportunity to be mowed down by a plethora of world class riders commuting to and from their garages to their motorhomes – and let’s face it, what’s more desirable than being killed by a top 10 World Championship rider on an actual, authentic team scooter? There is also the paddock entertainment, lots of lovely young ladies who will pose for pictures and, in our case, Kawasaki’s very swish team hospitality center.
This was particularly interesting for a number of reasons. First, we were made to feel really welcome – not intruders. We were greeted by a charming young Provec Kawasaki lady and she treated us with the same courtesy as she did the rest of the team. We ate what the team ate; sat where the team sat and were made to feel absolutely at home.
However, downstairs was the location for the heavy duty action. It was here, rightly and properly in private, that the riders and serious VIPs lived. As always, equality is a wonderful thing – but some people are more equal than others.
Donington is something of an exception in the World Championship calendar because its facilities are very old fashioned. Our tickets did give us grandstand seating but the area was dire, situated on the start/finish straight and with poor viewing.
Because I know the circuit so well, I took us to watch on the outside of Redgate, just on the drop down to Craner Curves. This was excellent with a big screen TV in front and viewing for maybe a mile of the track.
Normally, Gordon’s guests would have excellent, sit down viewing in a grandstand.
What was definitely special was the garage tour. Gordon took us in through the back of the Kawasaki garage and we stood inside the team barriers and, once more, felt like guests – but not intruders.
For me, this was the most exciting and interesting part of the trip not only because the speed of the mechanics working on the factory bikes was amazing – their hands were a veritable blur – but also because several of these mechanical wizards could service the machines at the same time without tripping over each other. Truly, team work personified.
As we left the Kawasaki garage, disappointed customers who had paid for their pit lane walk were being turned away because of a lack of time. With no queuing or waiting plus the chance to be on the inside of the pit barriers, Pole Position really did make us feel like VIPs.
This brings us to the key question. Is the package worth $850? This needs answering honestly. First, we were given the Kawasaki element of the weekend courtesy of Pole Position
and Provec Racing
but, had we not, I would have happily spent our money on it.
The part of the package which we didn’t have was the hotel – included in the $850 – but we know this was a good place to stay.
We were made to feel really welcome by the team and got a genuine feel of life inside a World Superbike paddock and this made the experience very special.
It’s also worth remembering that World Superbike racing is vastly better than MotoGP. This is not just because I am a patriotic Brit having seen Tom Sykes give a demonstration of World Superbike racing at its best, but rather because the racing is fast, furious, unpredictable and the battles go all the way down to last position. In simple terms, it’s just so much more interesting and exciting than MotoGP.
In every way, it was a great weekend and our thanks to Pole Position
for their hospitality.