Jonesing for Indiana: Moto-GP Comes to the Midwest

by Ben Goebel

I am a firm believer in always riding to motorcycle races. So after months of planning, bike maintenance and packing, I was off for the inaugural running of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s MotoGP round.

feature109aArriving at the edges of Speedway, Indiana (yes, the suburb that is home to the track is called Speedway) on Wednesday, I saw the start of the signs. All the residential side streets have signs in the owners’ front yards. Race Day Parking, Park-a-lot, Park Here, Chuck’s Park Here, UParkHere. Some of the signs are new, some very old. Some are cardboard and magic marker, some are elaborate, professionally done. The community surrounding the track rent out their yards during race weekends. Race fans from all over stay in backyards RV’ing it or camping rather than staying in hotels. (During major races, hotels can be full despite their inflated rates.) The locals enjoy this and count on the extra revenue. The camping and its attendant revelry create a festival-like feel, especially at night.

I would be staying where I had stayed for F1 – Kenny C.’s back yard. Kenny’s sign is 15 feet high and electrified. Kenny’s business cards say Race Parking. He had expanded since I saw him last. He had purchased the house next door and the accompanying double lot. The fenced double lot had two massive oak trees and no other features (“gets in the way of parking.”) Kenny could fit about 20 full-size RVs and 50-plus cars on both his lots.

Instead of the portable, on-site sanitation used previously, he had built a permanent bathroom on the back of the garage with no entrance to the garage. His shower is for rent for an extra charge. A real toilet and (cold) running water: I would be living it up this time.

The town, as a whole, rallies behind its biggest tourist attraction. Whenever there is a race, it is a major news item. This race was a little different. This would be the first motorcycle race held here since 1909. There were multiple motorcycle events planned around town, including trick ramp jumping and stunting competitions. Saturday night the police blocked off a half-dozen streets for a massive gathering in the downtown warehouse district. They went as far as to rename those street signs with some of motorcycling’s most famous racers past and present. There was even a Grand National motorcycle dirt track event in town.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway was taking a big chance hosting this race. They had to do a lot of changes to the course layout to get the MotoGP show to come to town. Would they come? Kenny was guessing 125,000 spectators would show up, but he figured it would be the weather that determined whether the people in the surrounding states would come to plump up the final attendance figures.

Waking up at Indy is never a problem. Thursday morning’s slumber was shattered early by the sound of a WFO 2-stroke minibike going down the road. Today was going to be the nicest weather of the race weekend. The interesting thing about watching road racing is that if you have ridden a motorcycle for any amount of time, you can hardly believe what you are seeing. Apparently defying the laws of gravity and time and space, the riders flirt with the absolute edge on every corner.

MotoGP is the premier level of motorcycle road racing competition. In 2002, the bikes were “cost is no object”: 990cc, 326-lb, 230-bhp 4-stroke prototype machines. This is about the weight of a Honda Rebel 250 and approximately the power of a new V-6 Toyota Camry. The machines are valued at multiple millions of dollars each. In 2007, engine size was reduced to 800cc. The new, smaller motors favored a higher cornering speed technique rather than a brake hard/power out of the corner style. The bikes have electronic traction control that helps the rider get the massive power to the ground without high-siding like on the older 2-stroke 500GP bikes.

The MotoGP series goes from early spring to late fall and travels all over the world with stops in places like Spain, Italy, Qatar, and now Indianapolis. The teams travel the world racing for points to win the championship. The popularity of MotoGP in many countries is like Pro football or NASCAR here. This season has seen some of the best racing in recent history. Some say that the 800s favor the high corner speed style and physical diminutiveness of the 250 GP riders who have risen to the top premier class.

feature109bAs the traction control computer programs improve, there has been lots of discussion as to whether this diminished an aspect of the sport. Corner throttle application used to be done with an extraordinarily sensitive right wrist. Now, riders trust the program to handle it. When hundredths of a second separate the top five bikes, every little bit counts. The better the TC program, the earlier the rider can get on the throttle. That adds up to precious feet at the end of the straights. MotoGP’s 4-wheeled brethren, Formula One racing, started down the TC path around the turn of the millennium. They recently banished TC in F1 and it is much more of a show again.

Will TC be banned in MotoGP? Only time will tell. Some say it won’t because it is a safety issue. Unlike cars, the riders get ejected from the bike (high side accident) if it goes wrong. One interesting point about electronic TC is that if there is inclement weather, the field is somewhat leveled, almost as if no one had traction control. In these conditions, riders’ wrists manage the throttle, while their own brains sense for traction.

Thursday was the pit walk-through. This is a very rare opportunity in MotoGP. These machines embody all the cutting-edge technology of each manufacturer. The machines are highly guarded from prying eyes. Because of this, the fans were kept back 75 feet by fences. This made no difference to the fans that were lined up seven deep to catch a glimpse of their favorite riders. When they finally started some of the bikes, everybody jumped (then cheered) even though they were expecting it. The bikes are un-muffled and tuned within an inch of their lives. You feel them as much as hear them. The fans were here from all corners of the globe. While walking, one could hear a different language every 10 feet. This was truly an international crowd.

Dream of dreams for a gear head, the paddock was alive and swarming with activity. Team members and all team equipment were color-coordinated and well branded in their respective liveries. Corporate sponsorship plays a big part in the game. There wasn no open access like at an AMA Superbike round. The pit doors were shut and you could not see any of the bikes or the mechanics working on them.

Scooters play a big part in MotoGP. The riders and crew use them to cover the vast distances between the various areas at the track. They are like everything else in MotoGP; team color-matched and heavily branded. Things slowed down as dinner approached and the teams made their way to their private kitchens and team chefs. The smells were divine. You can’t go flat out and focused all weekend on junk food.

Friday’s practice was the first time most of the riders would ride at Indy. And it was raining. As the riders learned the new track, it was interesting to hear the electronic TC mush the engine note. That night it rained. A lot.

Saturday’s wake up call was the 125cc GP bikes screaming in unison. Saturday’s qualifying was done in the dry. The difference in the engine note was huge. The engines were really pulling hard and laying down big power. Would the weather hold?

Sunday. “Race day” starts at 6:30 am with two aerial bombs exploding, followed by non-stop helicopter traffic. No rain. The early fans are already making their way to the track. The group I rode in with consisted of a Honda XL185, KTM super motards, a Suzuki Burgman scooter, an Italajet Dragster and my in-line four. What a sound we made together.

All makes and models of motorcycles were represented in the track parking lots. As it gets closer to race time it starts to rain. Then there are some spotty sun teasers. Soon after the start of the race, the hard sideways rain and winds start. This storm system is aftershocks from Hurricane Ike. It came down so hard that only 20 of the 28 scheduled laps were completed. When the race was called, Italian favorite, Valentino Rossi, was in first, Kentuckian Nicky Hayden, in one of his best finishes of the year, clinched second and young Spaniard, Jorge Lorenzo, 250 GP world champion, got third. I said my goodbyes and blasted Kenny’s secret back way out of town.

feature109cHeading west rather than following the traffic north, Ike kept on bearing its head. Mile after mile of pounding rain. The cloudbanks were so low on the horizon it looked like they were on the ground. By now it was getting dark. The rain in the ditches started to get higher with every mile until it started encroaching onto the roadway. Luckily, the rain stopped before I got into Chicago.

Riding through Chicago in the rain is challenging, to say the least. Soaking wet, I decided to forgo eating dinner and to instead pay money to drive on Illinois’ crappy roads.

Would the trip have been better without the inclement weather? Sure. Would the weather keep the people away? No way. The fans could have cared less. Was the Indianapolis round of Moto GP a success? While the track rarely posts weekend attendance figures, it did this time. About 175,000 people made the trek to enjoy the racing, in storm conditions. That’s motorcyclists for you. Passion.

M.M.M.

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