We all know that racing motorcycles at a high level isn’t as easy as the top lads make it look. But for most, riding the bike is the easy bit. Because there’s a lot more stress involved in forging a career as a professional motorcycle racer than you might think. In fact, a lot of the people that you think are professional racers, probably aren’t. They’re probably plumbers, or furniture salesmen during the week. So what’s going on and why is the motorcycle racing industry such a ruthless one?
One of the biggest issues stems from the fact that racing motorbikes costs a lot of money. They’re expensive to buy, expensive to run and expensive to repair (or replace) when the inevitable happens. So a race team, whether it’s at grass roots level or Grand Prix needs cash to operate. And plenty of it. So what often happens is, a race team will sign the rider that can bring the most cash to a team, whether they’re the fastest applicant or not.
That means as well as being fast, if you want to get anywhere in the bike racing game, you’ve got to be really good at finding sponsors. In fact it’s probably the single biggest challenge facing most riders in the UK today.
A lot of people seem to blame the telly for the fact that motorcycle racing isn’t a ‘mainstream’ sport, and therefore overflowing with cash in the way football is. Their argument being that if BSB and the like was on BBC1 on a Sunday afternoon, everyone would watch it. And if everyone watched it, all the big companies would want to get involved and there’d never be a shortage of cash in the paddock again.
And whilst I’ve got no evidence to dispute that, I don’t buy into it. The fact is that there are still a lot of people watching bike racing, be it BSB, WSBK or MotoGP. You might have a few extra people watching if it was easier or free to watch, but I don’t think that’d make the difference that some people think it would. I certainly don’t think a few extra TV views would make finding a ride or a sponsorship deal any easier for the average superbike rider.
As per most industries, there are a handful of people at the top that do considerably well, financially. Or considerably better than most, anyway. And these tend not to be the superstar riders. They tend to be team bosses, circuit owners or at least on the board of directors. As we all know, an industry works if everyone gets a fair slice of the pie. Unfortunately though, when the big wigs have had their fill, there’s rarely enough pie left to go round.
That’s why the majority of people racing in the BSB paddock are firing as much of their own money into their racing as they can afford, with only a few of the lucky ones being able to top it up with some help from the odd sponsor. As an outsider, you’d have to say it’s an industry model that’s quite unsustainable. The reason it’s still here though, is because of one thing. Passion.
Passion is why 99% of people start racing bikes, and it’s why 98% of people continue to race them. And it’s why so many people are prepared to let bike racing bankrupt them. It’s a strange world, where some people put so much in, others take so much out and everyone just seems happy for it to continue. But whilst it is continuing, you’ll have riders with genuine world-class talent knocking it on the head at 28 years old (like Taylor McKenzie). And BSB winners having to get up on Monday morning to go to work (like half the grid).
Motorcycle racing is a ruthless industry, but I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon. There are too many people desperate to do it, and there aren’t enough decent rides or sponsorship deals to go round. You could be on top of the world one moment, winning races left right and centre, and then one mistake later you’re out the door. Because there’s always someone ready to take your place.
Ruthless as it is, motorcycle racing is still the best thing in the world. It’s no wonder so many people are addicted to the buzz of hurtling round the first corner at 100mph, knee on the floor with 40 bikes all within spitting distance of each other. Because there’s no hit like it. That’s why, despite never really winning anything, I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can.