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
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
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.