“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who live in it after we are gone?” -Winston Churchill
Every hero battles an enemy, achieving their glory by overcoming foes that cause corrosive self doubt and questioning of their skill. This fire of testing purges the slag and hardens their resolve, screwing their courage to the sticking place despite violent opposition. In World Superbike racing, that violent opposition weighs just 370 lbs. with over 230 horsepower.
With more power than a family sedan and weighing a pork chop more than an offensive lineman after a Thanksgiving dinner, a race-ready, 1000cc Superbike is a brutal scalpel. Any motorcycle can kill you, these just do it quicker.
Their riders are smaller than you might think because in a race where 1st and 2nd place can be separated by tenths of a second, every ounce counts. Weighing 30 pounds less than the opposition gives lighter riders an edge, so the jockeys who tame these steel steeds are fit, compact and light, possessing keen vision and quick reflexes. Few things put those reflexes to the test like the famed Corkscrew at Laguna Seca.
Arguably the most iconic turn in motorsports is a perfect place to absorb MotoAmerica and World Superbike racing’s violent beauty. A quick flick to the left enters riders into the Corkscrew complex of curves. It’s a blind drop, plummeting over 5 stories in only 450 feet of track length. With such a steep drop, there are few reference points with only treetops visible, so aim for the second tree from the left. Toprak Razgatlıoğlu high-sided here last year and the steep drop gave him plenty of air time to ponder what went wrong.
Road Dirt’s Ryan Nolan caught up with MotoAmerica rider Jake Gagne for his Corkscrew narrative. Jake has raced this track with MotoAmerica and World Superbike, taking Nicky Hayden’s spot on the circuit after Nicky’s untimely passing. Being a California native, Jake knows this track.
“Coming up the hill (from Rahal Straight) you can’t see your braking marker”, he said. “It’s blind. You just see sky. It gets really light on the way down obviously. The front wants to float. But as soon as you dig it in to the right, the tires and the suspension load and you can actually get some really solid grip. To see it trackside though, it really is pretty gnarly.”
“But I love Turn 1 going into 2. It’s the fastest part of the track. It feels like you’re almost catching air sometimes. As you go over the top, you take away lean angle so it can kind of spin a bit.”
Spin a bit?? How fast is he going in Turn 1 when this spinning is going on? The radar gun at the top of the start/finish bridge will flash 156 mph for the slower riders, up to 161 mph for the best. A Superbike has only two contact patches, each roughly the size of a credit card. The riders who put this ferocity to the pavement enough to spin the tires at over 150 mph are on the bleeding edge between skill and sanity, out in the air with little protection, one missed braking marker from a helicopter ride to the E.R. Heroes for sure, right?
I was working security on pit lane during Sunday’s Superpole race, eyewitness to the spectacle at Turn 1. Turning away from the race, I looked back at the security gate separating pit lane from the paddock, and standing there was a father and his nine year old son.
Dad was short, thin, had a flat billed cap worn sideways, was massively tattooed and sported a white tank top. His son had bowl cut blond hair poking out from his white cap and he had a dual fisted death clutch on a paper goody bag that held a souvenir he guarded with all of his being. The father rested both hands on his son’s shoulders as his son stood in front of him. Both of their chins were on their chests as they gawked at the bikes flying by like jet fighters on a strafing run. Then they turned and left.
My heart strings tugged. I couldn’t help it. Leaving my post I jogged after them, hunting them down in the paddock crowd. Passing them, then getting in front of the boy and dropping to one knee on the asphalt, I said, “Hi, my name is Ted Edwards and I volunteer here at the track. Would you like to get up close to the race?”
The boy turned over his shoulder to his dad, “Can I dad?” Dad said nothing, his chin was back on his chest. To me, that meant yes.
I guided them through the first fence, then the second fence that separated pit lane from the paddock. “Stand here, but don’t cross this line,” I said, “otherwise you will be on pit lane.”
Close enough. Riders streaked by in front of them just beyond pit wall, accelerating in lurid, three inch high wheelies up the front straight to their 160 mph entry into Turn 1 that Jake Gagne loves so much. Unmuffled exhaust tones pounded their chests and tortured their ears. Bikes moved across their field of vision quicker than their eyes could focus and became technicolor blurs of brutality focused like a bullet on a singular target. Complete sensory overload. The heroes of the sport had showed up for work.
Unmuffled exhaust tones pounded their chests and tortured their ears.
Between raucous, low altitude fly-bys of Superbikes, the dad informed me that he and his son watch racing together constantly, talking about the races, following the riders, playing the video games and studying the tracks. Having never been to a race before, he bought tickets on a whim and surprised his son.
As I watched the looks on their faces, I knew that this would be a lifetime memory between them. The father had invested his time and money where it mattered most- memories for his son. When they left, he extended his hand and we exchanged a long, firm handshake.
They walked away, the father’s hands still on his son’s shoulders, a perch his hands never left. Then, the son looked over his shoulder back at the track, and smiled.
That father is my hero. I never learned his name.
Sometimes, we look in the wrong places for heroes: sports, movies, music, social media or elsewhere. Trophies earned by Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies that weekend, rewards for their bravado, will gather dust on the shelf someday. I witnessed the painfully slow gaits of Alvaro Bautista and JD Beach as they walked gingerly through pit lane, forcing their freshly crashed bodies back on the bikes in Race 2. Neither scored any points all weekend, their efforts in vain.
My heroes spend quantity time with their kids taking them to the races, going camping or spinning wrenches with them in the garage. True heroes are in their living rooms, dancing silly dances with their kids, building forts out of rearranged couches and old blankets, reading Dr. Seuss books by flashlight. Our admiration should go to the fathers who take their daughters to dances, mothers who teach their sons how to bake and families that play never- ending games of Monopoly, trusting the youngest in the family to be the banker.
Heroes help their kids with impossible math homework, take them fishing, or just take them for a walk. They are the parent that holds down the fort at home while their spouse is away serving their country.
My favorite hero is the man I witnessed driving the white truck pulling a travel trailer. There were three motorcycles in the truck bed, one for him and one each for his two kids. In my imagination, this family is headed to the woods, the sand dunes or possibly the local track to refine their skills, find foes to conquer and periods of self-doubt to overcome together.
One day, those kids will revere this man who sacrificed his hard earned paychecks, putting his investments into their lives instead of a bank account. He has no sponsors, no one gives him bikes or parts for free and he likely has no trophies for his shelf. This hero, and others like him, know that time and money are best spent making life-long memories happen, preferably by motorcycle.
Because in all the world, no amount of trophies or fame has ever added a second of time.
*Photos & Jake Gagne interview by Ryan Nolan