Friday, May 23, 2008

Motorcycle Racers: Too Tough?

Are motorcycle racers too tough for their own good? Should they be forced to sit out races when they're injured? That is the argument that has been rumbling on since Jorge Lorenzo broke his ankles in a massive highside in China. Boremula One "racers" wouldn't be allowed near an F1 procession with those kinds of injuries, so is it right for motorcycle racers to brave the pain and keep going?

Motorcycle racers are a separate breed, possibly from a different planet in the case of Lorenzo. They tend to pick up injuries all the time, since it's hard to slam into gravel or tarmac at 100mph without bruising, tweaking or breaking something or other. If you banned anyone with an injury from taking part, it would rule out half the field. Even so, the arrogant, lolly-sucking Spaniard has re-written the rule book by scoring a pair of podiums on his cracked ankles, posing no risk to other racers except to their self-esteem.

British Superbike saw a similar story at Brands Hatch, where race 2 was won by Cal Crutchlow, who had dislocated his ankle in the previous round at Oulton Park. OK, the race was red-flagged a few laps short, but Cal was still in the lead after nearly 20 laps, despite having the kind of horrible injury that would keep most people off their feet for months. Bike racers really are that tough. They race with painful injuries because it would be a whole lot more painful to sit at home watching the race on telly, and both Lorenzo and Crutchlow have shown in recent weeks that they weren't just showing up to make up the numbers, they were out to win despite their injured trotters.

When Nicky Hayden won his MotoGP title at Valencia, he hadn't told anybody that the outrageous torpedo attack from his team-mate Pedrosa in the previous race had seriously aggravated an old injury, and the Kentucky Kid couldn't raise his arm above his head. Even so, he raced, scored points and won the title. Mick Doohan narrowly missed out on the 500GP title when he raced with a leg that very, very nearly had to be amputated, and was only saved by the crazy genius they call Doctor Costa. Doohan went on to win a bucketload of races and titles in subsequent years, but what on earth was he doing near a motorcycle with his leg in that state?

Bike racers aren't like normal people.

It was a relief when British Superbike racer Karl Harris was ordered not to race at Brands Hatch by his team, to give injuries including a broken foot time to heal. "Bomber" Harris is probably the toughest rider in BSB. If you don't follow the series, just imagine a cube of solid muscle wearing leathers and a crash hat. Harris had suffered a horrendous crash, through no fault of his own, when Tom Sykes fell off his Suzuki, which then smacked Harris full in the face, knocking him off his bike and into an air fence at high speed. This Youtube video shows it happening, with Harris on the dark blue number 5 Yamaha getting whacked in the mouth by the powder blue Suzuki (about half a minute into the vid, and shown in frightening slow-mo at about 1:30 in).

It is incredible that Harris walked away from that, but after another couple of crashes in the treacherous conditions at Oulton, the team took the brave decision to tell Karl not to race at Brands. Luckily, his team boss Rob Mac is probably the only person in the pitlane tough enough to give Harris an order like that. Most other team bosses would be too terrified. (It brings to mind the line from The Breakfast Club: "Two hits. Me hitting you, you hitting the floor.")

It's a judgement call. When do you tell a racer that he is too badly hurt to race? Probably when he's not at the front of the championship battle, because any ex-racer would rather have creaky joints than regrets. That's why Lorenzo and Crutchlow are still racing with their knackered ankles.

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