Over the last few decades, motorsport has changed its image more than any other sport in the history of the world. Gone are the days of Barry Sheene and James Hunt smoking, shagging and swearing their way through life. Instead, to be at the top of the tree in just about any discipline of the sport today, you’ve got to be a gym-obsessed, clean-eating, media robot. Ok, the shagging probably still goes on, I’ll give you that. But what’s happened to the motorsport mavericks of yesteryear? And how come there’s only a slack handful of top racers today that dare say what they actually mean; rather than what they’ve been told to say by a smartly dressed PR person? What’s changed? 44Teeth investigates…
Remember the good old days? When beer was so many pence a pint, rather than so many pounds, and you could tell whether someone was a boy or a girl by the clothes they wore. Things were a lot different back then. Motorcycle racers weren’t jewellery wearing prima donnas with too much gel in their hair; they were warriors, battling for wins aboard machines that were constantly trying to kill them.
When the cigarette manufacturers were more than happy to pay their substantial salaries as long as they were winning races, it wouldn’t have even crossed the mind of a team manager, a sponsor or a press manager to ask a rider how long they’d spent in the gym that week. Or how the vegan diet is going. A photo of a top rider sat at a bar with a fag hanging out his mouth would have put a much bigger smile on the team PR Coordinator’s face than a snap of him on a rowing machine… as long as he was smoking the right brand.
And if you are old enough to remember the 70s, the 80s and even the 90s, you’ll no doubt remember peoples language being rather different on telly and in the newspapers. Back then, people were a little (ok a lot) less concerned about political correctness and the need to say the right thing, which quite often made for much more entertaining post-race press conferences and interviews. If rider A thought rider B was a twat, he’d let us know, rather than beating around the bush. You don’t get that any more.
Nowadays, although there’s a lot more money in motorsport, it’s spread pretty thinly across the whole industry. In a lot of cases, that means data engineers, suspension technicians and engine builders are being paid as much, if not more, than the riders they serve. And the money doesn’t come from cash-rich cig companies looking for a way to lose some money anymore. It comes from businesses that are seriously looking to increase brand awareness in the most efficient way possible.
If you are earning a wage as a motorcycle racer in the 21st century, you’ll know full well that keeping your job isn’t just about how fast you can ride; you’ve got to bring more to the table than a few wins. You’ve got to look good in front of a TV camera, always knowing what to say and when to say it (or more importantly what not to say and especially when not to say it) without forgetting to thank Red Bull, Monster Energy, Nescafé, or whoever’s going to be sending you a cheque on Monday morning.
These days, with social media playing such a big part in everyday life, it helps if you look good in front of your own camera too. Heaven forbid you forget to let your adoring fans know how you got on in the gym this morning. Seeing pro riders constantly post irrelevant shite on social media might seem a bit cringy, (or a lot cringey). But when your job is to earn money from bike racing, having a massive Instagram reach is only going to help your prospects of picking up a decent sponsor. Or in some cases, a ride for the next season. A big following is just added value for a team’s sponsor, as well as personal ones.
Poke your politics…
Unfortunately, every now and then we see a competitor who’s fame as a ‘celebrity’ surpasses their notoriety as an athlete and they start using their reputation to push political agendas. But that’s a discussion for another day. And besides, it’s more of a Formula One thing anyway.
But every rider knows there’s someone almost as fast as them (or faster) waiting to step into their shoes. And as soon as they put a foot wrong, be it on the bike or off it, they’ll be there. That’s why you’ll never see video footage of a current MotoGP rider snorting cocaine off a hookers ring-piece. Or a WSBK rider pissed-up and scrapping with a nightclub bouncer – which if you ask me is a crying shame. I liked it best when our racing role models were real people that did normal stuff. But it’s a dog eat dog world out there and although there’re still one or two characters that are capable of putting a smile on your face, I don’t think we’ll ever see a return of the ale swigging, tab smoking bike racing champions of the past.
That said, on the track GP racing is as good as it’s ever been. It’s fast, exciting and usually pretty close. So on reflection, I think we’ve got it pretty good, don’t you think?