Add to the fact that this particular race is the single most important event for the Japanese bike manufacturers, as they had a lot of pride riding on this race, and whichever brand would take the checkered flag would win bragging rights for another year. Keep in mind that Honda owns this race track and they had eight factory teams entered in this year’s race out of a total of 70 teams entered. Can you say 'shotgun approach'?
I have already ridden in some big races in 2014, but it wasn’t until I arrived at Suzuka on the Wednesday before the race that I realized I would be racing for such a big team. What makes a team big? The obvious thing is exotic machinery. However, at Suzuka every team has exotic machinery, and nowadays it is harder to build an exotic superbike since they come off the showroom so wickedly fast.
Finishing the Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race is a cause for celebration!
What else? We can start with the race hauler. It needs to be big — yes, size matters — it has to have really cool graphics, and be full of spare parts that could build four more race bikes. 10 sets of OZ rims, 2 sets of Öhlins forks (the real ones)... you get the point. Next is the support van that showed up in matching colors with six guys hopping out and getting right to work. Yes, one bike, six mechanics. I don’t mean six buddies with your team shirt on either. I am talking about six qualified mechanics, each one trained in a different area.
Here's a scenario: You come in off the track and immediately the bike is stripped for cleaning, computers are hooked up, data is removed. Dunlop is never far away so they can review tire wear and temperature. Then comes an immediate debriefing by the rider to the chief mechanic, to Dunlop, and then it's straight to the physio team to work on the rider. They follow the exact same procedure each and every time. Structured, professional and following process. These are words synonymous with a big team.
A big team is not chasing the press for exposure, but rather trying to fit the press into the daily schedule. It might be a photo shoot, an article, or something for one of the sponsors. The press is chasing us. We also had two full time, legit photographers following us around exclusively for our team. At this event, we had a team of five physio specialists that also handled acupuncture (very big in Japan) and massages for the team. I utilized all of them as they tried to keep me going through the event as I had some pretty significant injuries to deal with.
I thought I knew hospitality, as my team in China caters each race weekend for the sponsors and for the team. With a big team, you can expect 2-3 people who only focus on preparing meals, make sure there are plenty of drinks available and in the case of the intense Japan heat, also make sure there is lots of ice ready. I now realize that there is a lot of exposure available at the circuit, preferential treatment, and basically an entire secret world of high rollers when you are tied in to a big team with a big budget. Our team was promoting the launch of a major movie in Japan and that added to all the chaos and press. It also added to the pressure without question.
PROS and CONS of racing for a big team…
- Big budget and well prepared race bikes
- Comfort of home, great food, treated like a celebrity
- More press and exposure than you can imagine
- Success is expected
- Excuses are not tolerated and if you are looking for any sympathy, you better get on the phone and call your mom!
- The press and exposure can become exhausting and add to the pressure to succeed
- Very little alone time
Fans line up to greet racers at the end of the Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race
If you read my blogs you already know that I never complain about all the great things that I am involved in with racing. However, I think it is of general interest to understand that not everything is as rosy and wonderful as it sometimes appears. That is not to say that being part of a big team is absolutely and positively amazing. However, there is another side to it and it involves internal competitiveness, huge expectations and, without question, the bigger crashes that happen by pushing harder than normal. Even injured, the pressure only becomes greater since all the tools are in place to fix you 'enough' to get back on the race bike for an event. Keep in mind, it is your loved ones that will deal with this when you are older and complaining about old injuries, long after the big factory race team that has moved on long ago to younger and more talented riders.
I recently went to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for a Pro 6 track day with my good friend, racer Chris Murray-Audain, and it only took me a split second to remember how much fun grassroots riding can be. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for a track day due to my Suzuka injuries, but I still had a blast and hanging out with other riders. It was a really good time and I hope to find more time to do things like that to balance some of the higher level events I am also signed up to do.