MotoGP Red Bull Indianapolis 2008

What Happens When You Let Someone Loose at Their 1st MotoGP

The anticipation is killing me.  I’m like a kid, waiting for sleep to claim me so Christmas morning can come as soon as possible.  There’s a swirl of bad metaphors racing around my head.  Its Ducatis and Yamahas and Hondas, oh my.  Its five days and leaving in the morning to go to my first MotoGP; and the first ever held at Indianapolis .

I’ve never been to a motorcycle race.  Ever.  I watch ’em, can’t get enough of racing in general.  When I was little, I used to “ride” the arm of our couch while dad and I caught any road race available on TV.  Leaning into corners, mimicking whoever was onscreen, I was adorable and a whole lot of dorky.

I’ve been to Indy before, seen the track, wandered through the garages during the Formula 1 pit walkabout last year.  It’s an awesome place in every sense of the word.  Steeped in history, the asphalt much narrower than you’d ever believe watching on TV.

Now its time for a brand-new medium, two wheels.  I’m planning on going to every racing event this weekend: pit walkabout, each practice and qualifying, the Indy Mile dirt track race, the 125cc race, 250cc race, and, of course, the main event Sunday afternoon.  The expectations for fun and awe this weekend are high, but I don’t quite have it in me to believe they’ll be dashed in a place such as this.

I thought that some of the excitement would go away when I arrived.  Boy, was I wrong.  Just driving past the Speedway (the public roads are right there to the edges of grandstands) puts a dopey grin on my face.  Getting tickets (general admission turns out to be a much better deal for watching the action than I’d figured), my mouth kept twitching.  You want to look moderately cool, but that cheesy, I-just-won-the-lottery grin just won’t stay hidden.  The next window over has a guy checking that his permanent paddock pass from Dorna would let him into the paddock here.  I nearly mugged him.  Or offered myself as some sort of servant for the weekend.

Checking into the hotel a few minutes from the track brings back good memories from last year’s F1 walkabout.  I’ve got nothing to do tonight but relax and check the schedule.  I don’t want to pay for parking, which means I’ve got to be at the gates when they open.  Thankfully Thursday is 9 am, not oh-god-thirty like the rest of the weekend.  I also check out the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the Indy Mile: gorgeous grounds with pretty brick buildings.  There’s only one problem, and that’s choosing between the AMA Rookie Cup race and dirt track.  I’ll think about it tomorrow.

Speaking of Thursday, where’s the traffic?  I expected to have to wait in a queue for the free parking, but the streets are bereft of all but what appears to be normal morning traffic.  Getting into the Speedway is crazy: go here, no go there, no one knows anything.  Except, where we parked ends up being right in the middle of the action, and an empty lot for the rest of the weekend.

Mission one of the morning: find a great place to watch the race.  Right away one presents itself.  It’s at pit out and just past Turn 1, providing a great view of Turns 2, 3, and 4.  Should be great fun to watch from here, especially with the all rain all the time forecast for the weekend.  Great to watch now, too as riders are walking and bicycling the track already.  Dad claims one nearly ran into his workout partner checking me out, so my day is off to a great start.  (I’m a woman, if you missed the byline.)  I also watch the Safety Car learning the course and seemingly having a lot of fun at it.  That twitchy grin thing keeps happening.

That would be a Red Bull Rookie Cup unloaded KTM crate.  I like to call them baby tiger cubs.

That would be a Red Bull Rookie Cup unloaded KTM crate. I like to call them baby tiger cubs.

Continuing the search for a good viewing area, we check out an observation mound and find a spot in front of a grandstand where we can see Turns 6, 7, 8, and 9.  It’s also a short walk from the first turn complex, so moving during the race won’t be too bad.  The demo rides are about to open, but like renting a car I need another year before I’m legal.

Through the day, Ralph Sheheen and Greg White are interviewing various riders for the crowd.  They start with some of the Red Bull Rookie Cup Riders, both AMA and MotoGP.  They’re just over half my age!  I decide that I will call them baby tiger cubs, because they’re hungry but they still play with their food.  All kidding aside, these kids are super impressive.  They have massive amounts of dedication to travel far from home and family and quite a bit of poise in answering questions in a second language.

Another great element of the spectacle here is the interactive vendor area.  You name a company dealing with motorcycles, its here displaying its wares for fans to look at, climb on, and drool over.  There are some gorgeous custom bikes and Kimi Raikkonen’s 2004 Ferrari F1 car.  Words tend to become single-syllable wows or moans sliding out of a gaping jaw.

It’s another of those twitchy grin moments, walking under the grandstands on the front straightaway and onto pit lane.  Many of the bikes are out, and the crews are busy with their Thursday prep.  Unfortunately, some of the garages never open or remain tantalizingly half-closed (like Dani Pedrosa, where you can see legs moving around, but nothing else).  I get that they want to work and don’t want anyone to see something they secret, but this is supposed to be a time for the fans and nothing gets a fan more hyped up than seeing something they usually can’t see.  It just seems like a promotional opportunity lost.

However, I don’t see anyone complaining.  There are many, many fans here, more so than attended the F1 walkabout in 2007.  It’s great to see riders wandering around, being very approachable and generous with their time to the fans.  And, to see the fans who are obviously very excited to be here (the group of guys who are wearing scrubs and multi-colored fuzzy wigs, to be specific).  Or the fans who are more surreptitious: the IMS head of security, Charles Burns, who walked past Nicky Hayden’s bike, stopped, pulled out a camera, and snuck a picture in.  It’s the little things that are making this event so great.  Even the autograph hunters are good, asking the Red Bull KTM 250cc team principle for his autograph, much to his surprise.

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that, while riding, Valentino Rossi’s face looks much like that special helmet with his grinning mug on it.  I think I’m right, mainly because that’s exactly what his face looks like as he goes zooming by on a scooter, checking out the track with what looks like his race engineer on behind.

"I carve good line on my scooter. I go very fast on my scooter."

"I carve good line on scooter. I go very, very fast on scooter. eeeeee!"

Friday morning, first practice, sopping wet, crazy muggy, and I get to coin a new term.  Ducatistini: the little bits of Casey Stoner’s Ducati left on the track after his massive highside with one minute left in practice.  Of course, these conditions let me simulate another experience.  If you squint your eyes, tilt your head, look into the wind, and focus on the raindrops, you might just convince yourself that you’re at Silverstone or Donnington or Brands Hatch.

Standing where we are, at pit out, it’s possible to see the riders’ initial reactions.  For example, Ben Spies’ eyes are as round as saucers.  We’re also right next to the Red Bull Rookie Cup tent/seating area.  From time to time, a few of the baby tiger cubs come outside, stick their hands up, and make pouty faces at the still-raining sky.  The guys standing next to us are from Germany , and every now and then they get on the phone and say “listen!” and shove the phone next to the fence as a bike comes out of the pits.  I’d be doing the same thing if I knew someone who’d get how cool this all is.

Crossing the bridge over the Hulman straightaway is another twitchy grin moment: you can’t see anything, but you can feel the vibrations of the bikes as they streak underneath you.  The next thing I know, my mother is calling to say that the Red Bull website says that there is a “Tornado Warning” for IMS.  It takes the entire family a few minutes to realize that it’s just a reference to Colin Edwards.

Watching practice in the wet makes me really hope that at some point this weekend the track dries out.  They should be screamingly fast.  Still, though, some of the riders’ styles in the wet are entertaining: John Hopkins looks like he just throws it in as fast as possible, until it looks like he goes “eeeee” inside the helmet, gets nervous, and backs off the throttle a bit.  Tons of fans are braving some very icky conditions and lots of mud.

Saturday is a complete about-face in the weather, with warmth and the sun appearing in the afternoon.  It makes the qualifying lines look like poetry.  I never want them to stop.  Just keep going, and turning, and accelerating, faster, and faster.  Alas, the world does not revolve for me and qualifying lasts only one glorious, sunny, breezy hour.  It ends with Rossi at the top, finally displacing Casey Stoner and his perpetual pole positions.

Saturday night, it’s off to the Indy Mile.  Apparently, the event hasn’t been run since 1999, so putting it on MotoGP weekend is a guarantee for a big crowd.  (Estimates place attendance at 14,000 and I didn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t also in Indy for MotoGP).  Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m a roadracing snob.  If it doesn’t happen on asphalt and include both right- and left-hand turns, I’m probably not watching.  The Indy Mile was awesome.  No kidding.  Those guys are crazy, and crazy fast.

I am convinced that you have to be certifiable to just shove your leg out there going into the turns.  Leaning into a corner and dragging a knee makes sense to me.  Watching these guys angle the front end in, the back end out, and shove their foot into the dirt makes me concerned for their mental health.  But, damn, if they aren’t fast.  Now, too, Nicky Hayden’s racing style makes perfect sense.  Previously, I thought he was just kind of sloppy; not racing with the precision of, say, Valentino Rossi.  Finally, I get it.

Also, kudos to Hayden for attending the Indy Mile with his injured heel.  He could have stayed in the motor home all weekend, just riding when he had to, but he was a trooper participating in all the meet-and-greets and public events that he did.  The fans really appreciate that sort of dedication.  Also in attendance at the Mile was the great Kenny Roberts, telling the story of the famous TZ750 dirt tracker.

Race day dawned beautiful, but with a red sky’s warning to the weather ahead.     For a while, it seemed as though the hurricane would hold off its arrival until after the races.  The Rookie Cup race went off without a hitch, despite some serious sliding around.  The 125s really muscled each other around, until the pack sort of spread out.  I don’t really know the riders or teams that well, so there was less rooting for a rider and more cheering good racing.  One kid looked like he was down and out, sliding in Turn 2, but he managed to right the bike without ever falling off or hitting the grass.  Unfortunately, Hurricane Ike felt the need to make his presence known with increasing wind and rain and they red-flagged the race.

Waiting for the eventually cancelled 250cc race was, looking back, miserable.  At the time, I’m not sure I had a comprehension of how cold and wet and wind-tossed I was getting.  Mainly, there was a sense of dread that both the 250 and MotoGP races would be put off.  Once the 250 race was cancelled, it was just standing and waiting until 3 o’clock.  With no reserved seat, there was no way I was moving, just breaking out the rain gear and waiting.

Everyone else was waiting, too, so it was an immense relief when the rain stopped and the track workers came out to get rid of some of the water.  After the start, going through the first turn and into the second, I was surprised no one had an off.  Honestly, I am surprised everyone finished the race, with the wind picking back up and the rain falling again on the drying track.

Standing in one place feels better to watch someone being reeled in than television coverage, or watching split times.  It takes a little longer, but is almost more satisfying to see the gap come down in a noticeable chunk of space.  Similarly, to watch a rider increase his lead without the aid of coverage of the rest of the lap is a visceral experience.  You feel it more intensely.  Watching that happen on Sunday with Rossi and Hayden was simply fantastic.

Two more laps and Hayden would no longer be in front of Rossi.

Two more laps and Hayden would no longer be in front of Rossi.

There was also a great battle going on between Andrea Dovisioso, Casey Stoner, and Ben Spies.  In the early stages, too, Chris Vermulen was riding very aggressively, as least through turns 2, 3, and 4.  With the PA system and radio broadcast of the commentary going in and out, it was hard to tell what was going on where I couldn’t see.  Adding to the uncertainty was the weather, blowing hard enough that we had to turn away from the track whenever possible to keep rain out of the eyes.  It must have been truly terrible conditions on the bikes.

Jorge Lorenzo just about had 2nd from Hayden when the red flag was brought out.  Even though the rain stopped and the sun shone during all the restart confusion, the wind got worse and worse.  Adding to the evidence of dangerousness was the fact that the Yamaha display tent had fallen in and people were hurt.  In total, it was a well-fought race in extremely difficult conditions.

I am amazed by the numbers of fans who attended through the miserable conditions Friday and Sunday.  The inaugural race put on a great show for both the dedicated MotoGP fans and those casual fans of anything at the Speedway .  It was particularly gratifying to see the bikes perform in all conditions, from the bright, hot sun of Saturday’s qualifying, to the soaking rain of Friday, the drying Saturday morning, and the hurricane Sunday.  Just goes to show that not all events at Indy have to have clear, dry weather.

That grin still hasn’t left my face, nor has the excitement.  Nothing has quite sunk in.  I’m still that dorky kid, thrilled to see some racing and to hear the engines, to feel the vibrations and to see the poetry in motion.  I wanna go to Motegi now, and Phillip Island and Singapore and Valencia , and next season, too.


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