extends its heartfelt condolences to the family of Red Bull Rookies Cup racer Toriano Wilson.
A hearty salute, and godspeed to you, Toriano.

Throwing Them in the Deep End

By Mark Gardiner

Author note: Two years ago, when Red Bull announced the first, MotoGP Rookies Cup program for Europe, I wrote this essay but couldn’t find anyone willing to risk Red Bull’s wrath for publishing it. It became relevant again when 14 year-old Toriano Wilson was killed in a Rookies Cup race a couple of weeks ago (VIR, August, ’08). Wilson was the first Rookies Cup racer to be killed, but not the first young rider who died in association with the Rookies Cup. Connor LaFrance (also 14) was killed at a track day at Barber Motorsports Park in September, 2007. He was there practicing in advance of the Rookies Cup tryouts. Although it was unrelated to the Rookies Cup, this past Spring 13 year-old USGPRU racer Alex Lyskawa was killed in an incident similar to Toriano Wilson’s crash. This carnage is uneccesary.


When I was a scrawny, 2’11” tall, 28 pound 10 year-old growing up in Switzerland, I had a phys-ed teacher named Mr. Knöpfl (spelling approximate, rhymes with “F’kin’awful.”). I was hardly the phys-ed teacher’s pet. The only reason he cut me any slack at all was that a couple of times a year, the whole class went on multi-day ski trips and he was impressed by my willingness to ski straight down the fall line of virtually any slope. Still, you might imagine that Mr. Knöpfl’s class was one of the ones that I was glad to escape from every summer.

All summer long, my primary destination was a huge outdoor swimming pool. The pool, in a nearby town called Divonne, had a 10-meter diving platform at one end. On the way to the top, there were intermediate stages at 3- and 5-meters, too. That fascinated me.

Damned if Knöpfl didn’t spend the whole summer at that diving platform, too. He was not a big guy. He smoked. He was,however, built like a swiss shithouse and was a nearly Olympic-caliber diver. So he’d lounge at the poolside then languidly get up and stretch, to make sure the ladies were watching. Then he’d climb up and do a perfect half-twisting gigolo from a pike position and rip the entry. The ladies watched all right. They applauded.

I didn’t aspire to the fancy stuff, but I made it my mission to dive off the progressively higher platforms. The 5-meter one actually seemed pretty high to me. It was a real commitment to even climb to the 10-meter level, as going back down the ladder was strictly forbidden by the lifeguards.

Up I went. At ten meters, it didn’t seem twice as high as the five- it seemed fifty times as high! I seriously thought the slight summer breeze might blow me onto to the pool deck, where I’d smash myself to jelly. At first, I couldn’t even bring myself to hang my toes over the edge. It’s not like there was much traffic up there. Every now and then someone else climbed to the upper platform and I just waved him through. The few showoffs that ventured up just jumped, usually with their arms held out like they were being crucified, making little circles with their hands. They shrieked all the way down.

I was up there for ages. Gradually I worked my way right to the edge. I never had to work up the courage to actually jump because, after watching me agonize up there, Knöpfl snuck up, grabbed me around the ribcage, and flung me down into the pool. “I thought you needed some encouragement,” he said, while I clung, sputtering, to the edge of the deck afterward. The thing is: I did need it. Even now, when I happen to be in a pool with a full-height platform, I get a little frisson from climbing way up and diving off it. (It’s funny, but despite the popularity of Jackass and the X-Games, there’s still not much traffic up there.) So I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to that conceited prick Knöpfl.

I suppose you’d think that after seminal experiences like that one, that I’d be in favor of programs like the Red Bull Rookies Cup. But I’m not.

(Disclaimer: I’m sure it seems as though I go out of my way to bash Red Bull. I don’t. I love a lot of what Dieterich Mateschitz and Co. do, especially the way they support Wings for Life and have helped to underwrite the USGP. If you’re under the impression that Red Bull is the only sponsor I criticize, it’s just because almost all the funding in our sport seems to come from that one company. If another sponsor steps up, I’ll be happy to bite its hand as it feeds us, too.)

First of all, motorcycle road racing is far too dangerous for anyone to participate in until they can make an informed judgment of the risks involved. A thirteen or fourteen year-old child can’t do that. Most 20 year-olds can’t either, but that’s a separate issue; they’re old enough to vote, join the army or work in the sex trade so we shouldn’t draw the line at racing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying those kids in the Rookies Cup don’t want to be there. They do. Desperately. It’s just that they can’t possibly know what risks they’re taking, or a have a mature grasp of the consequences.

Before you start composing your scathing email response, I’ll point out that I’m well aware that kids take part in lots of other organized activities where injury (even death) are possibilities; football, hockey, school camping trips, etc. If that’s your counter-argument, then you win...because in any argument between a genius and a moron, the moron always wins. Only a moron could possibly argue that football carries an equivalent risk as road racing. In the millions of tackles in high-school football last year, what teeneged athlete ended up looking like Roberto Locatelli did after Jerez in 2007? Locatelli was on the same track, wearing the same protective gear, and riding a very similar motorcycle to the ones used by the Rookies. The only real difference is that Locatelli was older and much better than the Rookies.

Rookies Cup racers usually have significant family support and guidance. No one plucks these kids out of 9th grade and drops them in front of 100,000 screaming fans on a 125cc Patriot missile. At that age, the families make a conscious decision to get these kids involved in the sport. How does one determine the degree to which the Rookies were influenced by their parents’ desires, though? At what point does parental guidance become more of a “push” from the older generation?

Not that it matters whose idea it was to go racing. When I was a kid, I would have given anything to have a shot at something like the Rookies Cup. (No way did I have the talent, but I’d stack my raw desire up against any kid’s.) This has nothing to do with adolescent ambition, though. It’s about the age of consent. When a dentist finds a cavity in one of the Rookies’ mouths, he asks their parents if he should fill it. He doesn’t get the kid’s opinion. At that age, kids can’t make an informed decision about anything that weighty either on a legal or a practical basis. That’s why the parents, not the kids, sign waivers at the track.

Still disagree with my contention that the Rookies are too young to decide their course of actions? Fine. Have your early teenage daughter come over to my place. We’ll watch some pornos. Maybe she’ll decide to partake in some adult activities. Oh wait. I could be arrested for that, since every civilized country has laws defining a minimum age of sexual consent. Influence by adults, the media, or peers, and left to their own devices, teenagers will willingly choose to do things without fully understanding the risks and consequences.

The other problem I have with the Rookies Cup is this: I don’t want motorcycle road racing to become a youth cult, and that’s what’s happening now. It’s not all Red Bull’s fault. The path was laid out when the FIM put an age limit on the 125 class, but the cult is crystallizing around the Rookies Cup.

There’s something inherently seductive about the idea that you can only achieve greatness in any field of endeavor by starting very young. Partly, it gives the rest of us an excuse for our own failings. In any subculture, there’s a tendency to simplify complex moral distinctions by confusing some single skill (however complex) with inherent human value. Child prodigies lend themselves to this because they’re obviously “special.”

It’s true that Valentino, Dani, and even Nicky were essentially trained from birth to be motorcycle racers. I don’t believe, though, that there’s anything about the sport that inherently means they had to start that early to reach the top level. Road racing is not like women’s (read: “prepubescent girls”) gymnastics, where even B-cups would make many moves impossible. Those new MotoGP bikes are cramped, but you can still fit on them after your testes have dropped.

I’m sure that for every child prodigy in motorcycle racing you could find a Troy Bayliss. He did a bit of schoolboy motocross, and then did other things; he surfed and raced bicycles, and then came to road racing when he was old enough to have a driver’s license, having actually worked to buy his first “real” motorcycle.

As motorcycles get more complex, and as teams get larger, teams will require riders that have the communications, interpersonal and teamwork skills needed to function at the highest level. This suggests they'd do better with more mature, not less mature, riders.

But as MotoGP’s gatekeepers–the team managers, sponsors, agents and promoters–convince themselves that they need a “gifted, young” rider (as opposed to “experienced”), no one over 20 will get a look. It’s not good for the sport if a 21 year-old amateur can’t dream of breaking out.

Indeed, as those gatekeepers look amongst the lower echelons for future talent, it’s easy to observe a 14 year-old who’s running at the front of a 19 year-old pack and conclude that he’s the one with natural potential. But if that youngster has 500 races under his belt and a 19 year old next to him has been in 50 races, the older kid is the one who’ll cut the next second off his lap time. When kids learn complex skills very young they learn them deeply and well. Their “natural level” is that much higher. But they often learn those skills completely unconsciously, so when they reach a plateau, they’re unable to think their way to the next level.

It’s not as though starting the kids young gives them a longer career, either. Carlos “Careless Chucker” Checa notwithstanding, you’ve only got so many hard crashes in you before your body says “enough”. The younger you start, the younger you quit. No one actually races MotoGP right to the point when they reach the FIM’s mandatory retirement age (it’s 50 if you’re curious.)

There’s something fundamentally unfair about youth cults. (This coming from a never-was, arthritic, middle-aged, ex-advertising writer, mind you...) Imagine that “the system”–pocket bikes at 5, Metrakits at 10, Red Bull Rookies Cup at 13, a 125 ride at 15, 250s at 16, and a MotoGP ride at 18–serves to select ultra-talented, charismatic champions*. Imagine that it happens just the way Red Bull and the FIM hopes it will. Will managers and sponsors leap to the conclusion that that’s the new path all champions must follow?** Events like the WERA finals or the GSX-R Cup, which used to be great talent spotting opportunities, will be dead ends.

All future champions will thus be drawn from a pool of people who have only an accident of birth to thank. If their parents are obsessed (irresponsible?) enough to set them on the championship track where they can have 100 mph crashes before they’re 12, they’ll have the chance to get to the top. Other kids with just as much desire, talent, and drive will have more responsible parents who will say, “Not until you’re older,” or “I can’t afford to pay for it.” and these kids will be marginalized.

I imagine a different way of doing things in the Rookie’s Cup. I imagine a talent search in which Red Bull would look for riders over 20, 25, shit, even over 30, who have paid their own dues. Club racers. Grassroots guys (and gals) who currently toil in obscurity. Give the fastest over-20 guy a 125 wild card ride, the over-25 guy a 250 wild card, and have the over-30 guy get a MotoGP test-riding deal. I can hear IRTA saying, “Over our dead bodies,” already. There are obscure, anonymous, yet talented racers out there who could do the business,though, if they were given a chance.

This discussion is all just conjecture, though, as the corporate and sanctioning powers that be are well-entrenched in their position of throwing the Rookies off the deep end prematurely. Until the youth-worshipping, child-sacrificing Red Bull Rookies Cult broadens its focus, the Grand Prix racing community will continued to be subjected to a dangerous brand of (Red) bullshit.

*Like Dani Pedrosa. Hahahahahahahahahaha.

** The year he won the title, people openly suggested that Nicky Hayden, at 26, was over the hill; that he’d be unable to resist much younger riders like Melandri and Pedrosa. He shut them up with his championship. But the following season–after only two races–people said Nicky was screwed because you can’t come out of superbikes and ride the new 800s. Come on. As if virtually all the 800 contenders didn’t have their reflexes and instincts recalibrated by the 990s. They’re all riding on the same baseline now. The subtext of such arguments–that you have to be in our special club, riding on our special tracks, that you have to go 125-250-MotoGP in order to win, that we have to know you and have vetted you as a teenager–is elitist and exclusionary to say the least.

Mark Gardiner is the author of Riding Man