The life of a privateer motorcycle racer
Hollywood underdog stories are cliché, scripts so predictable we know the storyline before the movie begins. Our hero moves in anonymity, perfecting their talent with sweat and toil, waiting patiently for their big break. When that opportunity comes we all watch and applaud their inescapable victory. We cheer as Rudy gets to finally take the field for Notre Dame or Rocky defeats Apollo Creed.
Even though we know how the movie ends before it begins we still buy tickets and watch because we love the underdog story. Silently we sit, watching, waiting, hoping that the underdog’s battle, fueled by inner desire and passion for the sport create skills that lie in wait, ready for their one shot to show the world what they can do. On that day, when a lifetime of preparation meets opportunity, their talent and heart overcome all obstacles and give us the ending we know is coming but crave nonetheless.
We love the underdog story.
But that is Hollywood fiction, predictable, textbook, even boring. Outside of the movie theater the underdog’s obstacle between current reality and future success is never scripted, anything but predictable, and definitely not easy to overcome.
In motorsports that obstacle is even more formidable because there is a machine involved, a specialized, expensive machine through which a rider’s will and talents are manifested. Technical regulations aim to level competition as much as possible but horsepower and technology cost money. Engines don’t buy themselves, suspension doesn’t grow on trees, tires don’t fall from the sky and MotoAmerica Superbike racer Max Flinders still has to pay for a hotel room. Sometimes.
Don’t be surprised if you have never heard of Max Flinders. Some have, most have not. However that is part of the underdog script, unknown, under the radar and under-supported. Such is Max Flinders. Max has never won a MotoAmerica Superbike race and never finished on the podium. If you want to find his name on the race results you have to scan down toward the middle. He has few sponsors, no entourage, and his truck driver is also named Max Flinders because, well, it’s him.
It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up. Max’s scarred race leathers.
But that is the way it has always been, just him and his father.
“When I was 17 I was racing a Yamaha R6,” Max explained during a chat at MotoAmerica’s stop at Laguna Seca. “My dad told me we couldn’t race next year unless I found a team.”
So he did what any underdog does. He fought.
“I literally walked around the paddock and talked to everyone I could. I met Tim Ivanoff and his rider was unable to be there to ride their Harley XR1200 so he gave me a shot.”
Max, like a prize fighter, was ready to strike.
“I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity,” he said. “I went out there and finished better than his rider did all season. On the same bike.”
The 25 year old Englishman, now residing in Exeter, New Hampshire has been racing in MotoAmerica’s premier class with the same tenacity that got him there, but with little else for support.
“It’s always just been me, my dad and Tim,” Max explained. “We have volunteers that come in now and then and help out. We don’t pay them. We might be able to buy them some food but that’s about it. Unfortunately this season Tim can’t be here for family reasons so literally, it’s just me and my dad. Although this weekend we did have one volunteer.”
This is the Thrashed Bike Racing team. All of them.
Try that anywhere in any premier class of motorsports. I dare you to ask to volunteer for Kurt Bush’s NASCAR pit crew. See what happens when you walk in off the street and ask to help out in Josef Newgarden’s Indy Car pits. Go ahead and ask Eli Tomac if you can come and lend a hand with his Supercross team. But for Max Flinders, the long shot competing in the premier class of North America’s motorcycle road racing championship, volunteers are welcome and needed.
Being Max means being resourceful.
As I talked with Max I noticed the couple sitting behind him. The couple had a timeshare in Monterey they were using while they watched the MotoAmerica races at Laguna Seca. Their house guest for the weekend? Max Flinders. They invited Max to stay with them so Max could save the hotel money. Being Max means being resourceful with money and manpower, or sometimes, girlpower.
“This weekend my dad’s plane showed up late so it was just me and my girlfriend setting up the entire pits by ourselves. We worked all day Thursday and late into Thursday night.”
Max with girlfriend Courtney and tires in tow back to his pits.
Thin budget, thinner help. For contrast, stop by Jake Gagne’s pits. He has a suspension technician, a tire technician, several mechanics, a masseuse, a chef, a coach and definitely does not drive the truck himself from race to race. I doubt Jake is staying at a stranger’s timeshare to save money and his girlfriend is definitely not setting up his pits in the paddock.
Max feels the strain. “I am constantly doing things myself while my dad is working on the bike doing everything he can while I’m talking to fans, carrying things. If I can sit down for a little bit it’s a nice rest.”
Max is accessible, approachable and grins relentlessly.
Max hides his fatigue behind the most magnetic personality in the paddock. He is accessible, approachable and grins relentlessly. Think of the super friendly guy you talk with during your backyard barbecue. You talk bikes, share a beer, laugh, joke around and you think that you have just met one super nice guy, who just happens to be one of the fastest motorcycle racers in North America.
“Me and the team are friendly to everyone. We have made a lot of friends and we have some volunteers. We are always personable because you never know who you are going to meet.”
Max chatting with the author, doing what Max does best, taking time for people. At least he got to sit down for a bit.
On stage during paddock parties, signing autographs or talking to fans, he is the racer too nice to believe. How can someone so affable be such a demon on the track? He has no air of superiority, no ego to itch and like any underdog, little support.
“We have a bike with a motor that’s a year and half old. It’s a dog. Some of the horses have definitely escaped. It’s a superbike motor but it’s definitely not super anymore. I’m pushing. My dad has set up the bike the best that it can be. The suspension feels great and the bike is riding really well but I am losing bike lengths on the straightaways. I catch them in the corners but on the straights I just watch them slowly pull away. It’s kind of difficult.”
Money is not the cure for all that ails us, but it can buy horsepower and technology.
“The big budget teams have so much data that they can tune the bike for every foot of the track: more engine braking here, less engine braking there, more traction control here, less there. Us? We have one setting for the entire track. I tell my dad that we need more here (pointing out to the track) but if we add more here it’s worse there.”
Max is the subject of my favorite racing photo. Here, Max prays with chaplain Raymond Rizzo before a race while his girlfriend holds the umbrella. His humble posture tells you everything you need to know about him.
Money can also buy a transport truck. In April before the Texas round of MotoAmerica in Austin, Max’s truck puked transmission parts in Alabama, stranding him there until a MotoAmerica technical inspector rescued him. Max gets by with a little help from his fans.
If Max drives the truck, what drives Max? What makes a 25 year old criss-cross the country in a dilapidated box truck carrying a clapped out Yamaha R1 race bike and only marginal hope of a podium finish?
Racer, pit crew, truck driver.
“This is my passion,” Max explained. “I love it. I race for me because I love it, but I also race for my dad. He’s as passionate about it as I am. When I am out there he knows how good I am as a rider and he knows that what I’m riding is not anything compared to what is out there. If I came in and was like, ‘Oh, the bike is slow’ and gave up, that’s not doing anything for him, for me, or my fans. I want to do well for everyone who is cheering me on because everyone who knows what is going on here knows that it is David vs Goliath. And one day, David is going to win. One day I’ll catch a break and I’ll show everyone what I can really do.”
While Hollywood underdog scripts are predictable, reality and racing are not. So Max, on his sun glow yellow #88 Yamaha R1, fights with the heart of a champion at every race, on every lap and through every corner, a heart that keeps us tuned in to his story, watching, wondering, hoping that one day Max Flinders will get the ride on a bike that puts his talent and grit on full display.
“When that happens,” Max declared, “everyone better be watching.” We certainly will be.
*Photos by author and Geoff Nickless
The “Max Machine” at rest. We noted the Road Dirt stickers.