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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Czech Please

Some ideas are good, some ideas are bad, and some ideas are just plain stupid. Truth is, most ideas never get beyond the beery happy hour “wouldn’t it be cool if” stage. So when Mixo and I came up the idea to go to travel around Europe going to MotoGP races, we had no clue which category it would fall into.

Originally, the plan was to document not only our adventures, but to compare the different countries, the fans, the atmospheres, and anything else we could think of so that if a person wanted to attend a European GP they could use it as a guide of sorts. We hoped it would be a fun and entertaining read, even for those who have no interest in motorcycles or motorcycle racing (heathens).

In the beginning of our journey we went to Jerez, Spain where we were inexplicably as unprepared for sunshine as we were for rain and we got both burned and drenched. We had no GPS and spent a lot of time exploring the Spanish countryside while hoping to randomly stumble upon either our hotel or the racetrack, depending on which direction we were going.  At Jerez everything was new and we stared wide-eyed at the perfectly lined up trucks, the massive hospitality tents, the bikes, the fans, the, well, the everything. We were Alice in Wonderland getting sucked through the rabbit hole into an unfamiliar world and all we could do was stand there, mouths agape and stare in amazement. And occasionally point at something. Maybe snap a picture. Usually out of focus.

Now, after six Grands Prix in six different countries, we have learned a few things. We are no longer complete neophytes standing sunburned in the rain with our ears bleeding because we forgot earplugs. We now carry hats, sun block, and raingear. We even have earplugs on a string that, when not in use, dangle around our necks like cheap, ear waxy pendants.  
We no longer drive around aimlessly trying to find the track or desperately play charades for directions. Nope, we now have a functioning GPS (which we often ignore just to piss it off) and almost never get lost.

We do still stand around with our mouths agape, stare in amazement, and occasionally point at something, but now our pictures are in focus.
We even know a couple of people in the paddock now and are occasionally recognized by some of the racers. Sure, they still think we’re stalkers, but now they smile or say “hi” before zipping away on their scooters or ducking behind the velvet ropes.

In a way it’s all a bit surreal. Not the outlandish extravagance of the MotoGP circus, which is beyond surreal, but the fact that we travel to different countries all over Europe. Places we’ve never been.  Different currencies, different languages, different customs, yet, when we get to the paddock we see the same people. We see the same trucks. The same bikes, scooters, R.V.’s. Everything.
It’s nice.

So there was a tiny bit of sadness in knowing that the Czech GP or the “Cardion AB Grand Prix Ceske Republiky” in Brno, Czech Republic was to be our last GP of the season. It would seem, however, that we saved the best for last. Or at least one of the best. 
Jerez was good, but he Brno circuit has unequivocally the best general admission hillside seating available. It is every bit as good or better than the grandstand seating at the Sachsenring and offers views of huge sections of the circuit and multiple corners. There are also plenty of ginormous TV screens to watch when the action is on a different part of the track.
And this was only practice
The only thing somewhat lacking was in the vendor areas. There were about a million tents to get food, but they all sold exactly the same items. I’m guessing they were part of the track guest services and not independent vendors. It was good, but after three days of grilled meat sometimes a guy just wants a salad.
There also were no independent vendors for riding gear.
We always like to check out the bike gear available in different countries and possibly pick up a bargain or two, but so far as we could find there wasn’t so much as a helmet display anywhere. Which was a bit disappointing seeing as how with the exchange rate the Czech Republic is downright cheap. You can buy a car six donkeys and a virgin bride for, like, 20 bucks. Beer? A euro. So we figured a leather jacket and helmet couldn't be more than a few pennies.  

They did have, however, some outside the motorcycle industry vendors. We have seen Dewalt and Stanley at other tracks with big booths full of jackhammers, chainsaws, and screw guns, but in Brno they were joined by a Czech company selling mechanics tools and pit gear. While strolling around the display I found the coolest tool ever; a shorty 10mm open box wrench on one end and a, wait for it, a bottle opener on the other.
How have I gone this long in life without one? I knew that I must have one and so asked the guy how much it was. He informed me that it could not be purchased, it could only be won. 
Like Excalibur.

Except I didn’t have to pull one out of a stone. All I had to do was use their air wrench to unscrew six lug nuts, pull a wheel off, put it down, pick it up, put it back on, install the lug nuts, tighten them, and then put the air wrench back in it’s holder. I have no idea what time was required to win, but I did it in less than a minute.
And I am now the proud owner of a 10mm wrench that can also open bottles. It’s a major award!

The Czech GP has been called the “third Italian GP” because all of Italy pretty much goes on holiday for the month of August which allows tons of Italian race fans to make their way north and attend. While it is true that a massive number of Italians were there we also noticed just as many people from Germany and Germany-Lite (pronounced Austria).
A staggering number of the locals had turned up as well.

Judging from the flags on display, this was one of the most international crowds we’ve experienced so far. Everywhere we turned there were several different languages being spoken simultaneously. English was a rarity, but we did bump into a couple Irish guys at one point. Who we could not understand.
As for communicating with Czech people, well as has been proven time and again, I am not a language, um, good talking person, but this was the first place where we didn’t even know the basics. Nothing. Not even “hello” or “thanks” or important stuff like “one beer, one cider, and two of those sausage-y meat things”.

Fortunately, pretty much every Czech person we met spoke English. And usually more clearly than the Irish. So even though it felt like a cop-out we didn’t really have to try and speak the local language. Though, I did thank a few people in French. And a few others in German.
Just because.
We also found the Czech people to be incredibly friendly, although years of communist rule has apparently taught them that smiling equals weakness, they were completely hospitable, good natured, and generally, lovely.
They are also crazy about motorcycle racing.

The entire town of Brno was aware of the races. That may not seem like a big deal, but compared to England where not even the hotel desk staff knew there was motorcycle event just down the road, the fact that every bus stop and billboard in Brno was advertising the MotoGP seems significant. It was also in all the local papers and on the nightly news.

Not only did everybody in town know about the events at the racetrack, but the center of Brno itself was shut down on Friday and Saturday nights to have a huge two-night party for the race fans. The local businesses stayed open late and vendors set up temporary bars and cafes. One of them even trucked in sand to make a beach for their tiki-themed bar.

Everyone we met was having a good time and there were no attitudes or troublemakers. Nobody was carrying around invisible suitcases and trying to look tough. The only inharmonious thing all night was a table of drunk guys who decided it was a good idea for them to sing.
It was not. 
There was a stage set up and a Miss Grid Girl (or something like that) beauty contest was going on. The first girl who stepped up to the microphone and said in her very heavy Czech (think Boris and Natasha) accent, “hello ladies and gentlemens” pretty much had Mixo’s and my vote.

Chaloo, ladies and gentlemens...
As a light rain turned into a heavy downpour, people ducked into doorways or under vendor tents. That is until the Miss Grid Girl (or something like that) contest began the swimsuit portion of the program. As the women on the covered stage strutted their stuff the gentlemens in the crowd proved that guys everywhere are willing to stand out in the rain in order to see pretty girls in bikinis.
And why not? After all, we stand out in the rain to see motorcycles go around in circles. 

Another thing about the crowd at Brno was that we saw much fewer examples of random, drunken, insanity as at other tracks. There were decidedly fewer people with “46” shaved into their hair and fewer fans who showed up in animal costumes, and we didn’t see a single cross-dressing Viking, but what the Czech fans lacked in outright lunacy they more than made up for with enthusiasm. The energy coming from the packed hillsides was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. They exploded every time the bikes went past.
Every bike. Every time. Practice, qualifying, or race.

Sure people had their favorites. A roar went up every time Rossi, well, every time Rossi did anything, actually. But they cheered for everyone else as well. There were several different riders’ fan clubs there, but mostly people were there to see really fast motorcycles being ridden at the limit by the world’s most talented racers. 
And they were not disappointed.

The 125 race at Brno was one of the best races we’ve seen all season. If you have not had a chance to see this race do yourself a favor and check it out. There were more high-speed passes being made than at a round of naked speed-dating.
On the cool down lap second place finisher Johann Zarco pulled over and handed his bike to a shocked corner worker, then hopped over a barricade and ran up a hill to greet members of his fan club. It was a nice acknowledgement of their support, even if it did confuse the hell out of one security guard.
Zarco, his fan club, and one confused security guy

The 125 race had set the bar high for race drama, but the Moto2 guys seemed up for the challenge. Once again the fans were treated to one of the most thrilling races so far this season. Honestly, the lead changed more often than a Wall Street trader’s underwear. Every time a pass was made or a guy ran wide every single man woman and child in the crowd stood up and gasped.
It was like the entire population of Rhode Island simultaneously sucking wind. When a rider made a daring pass no matter who it was or for what position everybody cheered as though it was their favorite rider going for the win.
These folks just love to watch racing.

At the checkered flag it was Italy’s Iannone followed by Spanish rider Marc Marquez, German Stefan Bradl, and Alex De Angelis of San Marino. How close was this race? Look at your watch; note how long it takes for the second hand to move once, that’s how long it took for all four bikes to cross the finish line.  After a 20 lap race the difference between winning and not even making the podium was less than one second.
Battle for the lead of Moto2 (yes, they really are that close)
Our buddy, Marc VDS rider Mika Kallio had a good race clawing his way back from a disastrous qualifying which saw the Finn start from 30th position to finish 13th and in the points. Unfortunately, his teammate Scott Redding went the other direction when his bike developed a problem and he ended up a lonely 26th. American Moto2 rider Kenny Noyes finished 20th.

After the two support class races the big bikes had some serious shoes to fill. Mixo and I grabbed a spot on the front straight to watch the start. We were so close when the bikes launched that it felt like a bomb went off in my pants and at the same time someone hit me in the chest with a pinball machine.
In a good way.

You know, like when you’re out shopping and try one of those vibrating massage chairs. Like that, except it’s a vibrating massage full body suit and someone has turned it all the way up to eleven.
Seriously, you gotta try it.

As for the race itself, well, this season has seen some epic battles at the front of the MotoGP class, this was not really one of them. Casey Stoner on the Repsol Honda was so much faster than everyone else, especially after poor Dani Pedrosa crashed out while leading that it was obvious by the fifth lap who would win. By halfway the bikes were evenly spaced and the finishing order was pretty well set. That is not to say, however, that any single rider let up in the slightest. They were all full throttle, 100% every lap. 

Rossi put in a decent performance on the Ducati, but it was clear that the boys from Bologna still have some serious work to do before that bike will be competitive. It looks slow and hard to turn. I hope they get it sorted by next season for Hayden and Rossi’s sake (or whomever will be riding it).

2 Repsol guys and a cray person
One bright spot was a rejuvenated Marco Simoncelli who was riding like his old self again. He was riding like his head was on fire and the only way to put it out was to go warp speed. 
Or bury it in a gravel trap. 
It was nice to have to unpredictable Italian back on form and his efforts were rewarded with a third place finish. Even if he did look like a crazy homeless guy on the podium.
Andrea Dovizioso on the third Repsol bike was the runner up making it a clean podium sweep for HRC.

Homeboy Karel Abraham DNF’d after what looked like a spectacular engine failure. And when I say “homeboy” I mean it, literally. His father actually owns the Brno circuit.  Not too shabby.

When all the racing was done for the day, including the Redbull Rookie’s Cup race 2 in which the top nine bikes all crossed the finish line within the same second! We headed into the paddock for one last stroll around. 
It was a painful moment because we knew that this was the end of our grand journey and because we know we may never again breath the rarified air of a MotoGP paddock, but mostly it was painful because we had walked about a million miles.

Seriously, our feet really hurt.

Klaus und Hammer’s Big European Moto Adventure has been the time of our lives and Mixo and I have a few people to thank for making it all possible. So, “Thanks”(you know who you are) and thank you for reading along.
Stay tuned right here for some seriously bad ass pictures of fast motorcycles and the people who love them.  

Now, go buy a ticket to your local race.
The End

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Yu vant krout mit zat, ya?

eni Motorrad Grand Prix Deutschland

link to some pictures (more to come soon) 

Our German GP adventure began, as these things often do, at an airport. This time it was the Berlin airport. We landed, grabbed our gear from the Soviet era baggage claim, and headed for the rental car office. In France we had a Renault, in Italy we had a Fiat, and in England we had a, uh, well, it wasn’t English made, but it did have the steering wheel on the wrong side. So here in Germany we were looking forward to picking up a Mercedes, Audi, BMW, or even a Volkswagen. The fine German engineered piece of automotivation waiting for us in the parking garage was (drum roll please) an Opel!  A yellow one. That’s like going to a steakhouse and ordering soup. Uh, I think someone made a mistake. This is Germany. You guys sell E-class Mercedes in vending machines. You hand out VW’s to beggars on the street.  What the heck are we supposed to do with a yellow Opel?
To be fair the Opel is a decent economy car, but we had visions of zipping along the Autobahn comfortably, at the speed of sound, while having our buttocks massaged by luxurious leather awesomeness.  
That was not to be. 

On the non-speed limited sections of Autobahn the Opel could barely manage a tad over 160kph before, well, before it just wouldn’t go any faster. And that was downhill. With a tailwind. Anything over 140kph produced a sound from the engine similar to the one in my guts after eating my first bratwurst mit sauerkraut.  In other words, something was going to happen and it probably wasn’t going to be good. But, unlike my undies, the car was rented so it was full speed ahead and don’t spare the horses.

Driving on roads where the speed limit signs are blank reveals why the Germans build cars that are generally fast, stable, and over-engineered to a neurotically anal standard. It became even more obvious as our rented paint-shaker-on-wheels reached its terminal velocity. The engine was howling, the whole car was shaking, the pedal was mashed into the floorboards, and we were hooting and hollering thinking that we were really boogying Autobahn style as a black, (German made auto) caught us, passed us, and disappeared into the distance so effortlessly the driver was holding a schnitzel in one hand and a copy of “Hasselhoff Quarterly” in the other. I bet his butt was even being massaged by leather luxuriousness.

Stupid Opel.

German people drive very, very fast. Sure, the Italians drive fast too, but with the Italians they’re doing it not only in defiance of the speed limits, they’re doing it because of the speed limits. They just like to break the rules. If Italy abolished speed limits and told the Italian people to drive as fast as they could, the Italians would respond by removing the engines from their cars and attaching very old donkeys.
Germans on the other hand, like rules. Even though there are no speed limits on some sections of the Autobahn, there are rules. Honestly, they’re the same rules as everywhere else, but in Germany, they actually follow them. So German people drive on the right and only pass on the left. They use turn signals. They do not speed up when someone is overtaking, in fact they will get out of a faster car's way. They may be driving fast, but they are doing it in an orderly fashion. Very controlled. There is no chaos. This is Germany and disorder is verbotten.

After a couple hours we got off the main Autobahn and onto secondary streets. We drove through pastoral scenes of bucolic bliss, gentle rolling hills full of crops, small villages dating back hundreds of years, and thick woods. If it sounds pretty you should see what it looks like because it, um, is. 

As the sun was just starting to set over a nearby hillside and the clouds were lit in blues, pinks, and purples it was so peaceful, so beautiful, so quiet and solitary that I looked over at Mixo and quietly said, “where in the heck are we and how much further to the hotel?”

Thanks to her navigation and the GPS we were on the right road and did finally find our hotel in a tiny, ex-silver-mining village just past the intersection of nothing and nowhere. It’s a pretty cool little joint and unique compared to a typical hotel. The main house dated back to, um, a really long damn time ago and was originally a private residence. Now it’s a hotel and restaurant, but is still owned by the same family.
The main house has a restaurant, two bars, a huge dining room, and a massive foyer furnished in dark wood, big chairs, and dead animals. There are also rooms for rent obviously, but we had reserved one of the “cabins” elsewhere on the property. 
By “cabin” I mean a smallish, self-standing structure, made of wood. You know, the type of place most often seen in horror films accompanied by at least one audience member yelling, “don’t go in there!” Fortunately for us, Mixo and I don’t believe in hockey mask wearing psychos with machetes. That's just stupid Hollywood nonsense. 
Werewolves on the other hand are totally real and this cabin is probably in the werewolf "Top ten best buffet spots in Germany" guidebook. Luckily, a beautiful and completely full moon was just cresting a nearby hillside.
Early the next morning we were delighted to wake up and find that neither of us had been eaten. So we had a nice German breakfast of eggs, fresh fruit, and some kind of sausage-y meat thing and headed for the track. We followed the GPS over rivers and through the woods and arrived at Sachsenring in less than a half hour, completely by back roads and without any traffic. 

Track attendance on Fridays is usually fairly light given that it's only a practice day. But when we parked the car and went in we found the track already had a sizeable crowd. And we were early. Ok, it wasn’t fat-guy-in-small-lederhosen crowded, but it was an impressive number of people for a Friday.
Also impressive was the shear number of vendors. Sure, the typical tents were there, hawking MotoGP swag, but there were also dozens of independent stands selling food and drinks. There was so much food available it was like gluttony porn. And by “food and drinks” what I mean is meat and beer. Never before have I sausage a thing (ba-dum, thank you. Tip your waiters).

Everywhere we went, throughout the massive spectator area the sweet, smokey smell of grilling meat mingled delicately with the wafting scent of beery beer goodness. Everywhere we looked people were holding little tufts of bread with a wiener sticking out both sides. There were more wieners of different sizes, colors, and shapes all over the place it was like a Mohel's worst nightmare. And beer. lots and lot's of beer. There was a beer tent shoved into every nook and cranny. I mean, I know it sounds like a stereotype; the typical German caricature of a guy wearing lederhosen, eating sausages, and drinking beer by the barrel. Well, its actually not true and really to be fair we only saw one guy wearing lederhosen.

Normally, I don't eat unspecified meat products being prepared outside by people with unknown hygiene standards, but, this time, well, it smelled really, really good. Before I knew it there was a knockwurst-brat-thing in one hand and a hotdog with sauerkraut in the other.  This was a problem, a big problem because not only was I not that hungry, I also had no more hands to hold my beer.

I never ate sauerkraut before because, well, because it’s nasty. This stuff looked and smelled awful, but the taste was sweet and delicious. Unfortunately, about ten minutes later there was, um, well, let’s just say there was a foul wind blowing out of the south. And the windy conditions were forecast to last all day. Possibly late into the evening. 

We wandered into the paddock area and while we were standing around I looked over and saw CardionAB Ducati’s Karel Abraham. He was just sitting there so I went over and to say hi. These moto-celebrity types are usually pretty skittish so when he didn’t immediately zip away in a cloud of scooter exhaust I asked him about the dust up last week during testing at Mugello with Honda rider Casey Stoner.  I may have worded the question along the lines of “don’t take any (crap) from that (guy)”. He laughed and seemed sincerely sorry that the whole thing had happened. I told him that there were plenty of people in the US who are on his side and rooting for him. 
He smiled and said, “that’s really good to hear. Thanks”. The dude is just a genuinely nice guy and anyone going to Laguna or Indy should cheer like mad for him.

After the final wheel had been turned for the day we headed to the aus fahrt, but most of the rest of the fans were still hanging out at the beer tents, sausages in hand. They didn’t seem to realize or care that the on track action was over for the day. For them it was just an all day, all night beer and wiener bonanza. I don’t think the track even closes. How cool is that? Fans get to hang out as long as they want with plenty of food and drink available. It's almost as if the organizers want people to have a good time at the event. 

For those camping out there is a massive campground conveniently located a short stumble from the track's main entrance. Though it is up a hill. A pretty steep hill, actually. But thankfully the path has lots of strategically located rest areas (pronounced beer tents) along the way, should a person find it necessary to take a breather and rehydrate.

Speaking of which, we needed bottles of water for the next day so we stopped at a grocery store on our way back to the hotel. The doorway was obscured by a group of largish German biker types who apparently had never even made it to the track. They were drunkenly singing, laughing, and generally having a good time. This type of behavior from Germans makes Jewish people nervous, but we walked in anyway.

As we went into the store one of the large, drunk, happy German guys said, um, well I don’t know what he said because I don’t speak German. Mixo on the other hand, does speak Swedish, which is very close to German, and she took German for three years in school. She also had no idea what he said, but it sounded friendly.

We picked up three gigantic bottles of water, some fresh fruit, two six packs of German beer, and a bunch of other stuff I don't remember. At the register our bill was just over ten Euros. We looked at each other then at the cashier and asked if she had scanned everything. She assured us that she had. Wow, Germany is cheap. In Finland that same list of items would have required filling out forms, getting a loan, and possibly a body part or two. What else can we buy?

Back at the hotel we settled in to the over-sized dining room chairs and ordered up some dinner. The menu was made up entirely of, not surprisingly, German food. I had a schnitzel (which does not mean I had to change my pants). Not only was it fun to order, but it was also delicious. And consumed with beer it had the beneficial side effect of warding off the werewolves for another night. It was almost as if our cabin had been enveloped in a protective cloud of some sort. Because we once again had not been eaten. We headed for the track, after some breakfast. 

One of the really nice things about the Sachsenring circuit is the layout. There are huge elevation changes including a long steep drop on the back section and an uphill front straight that requires riders to get the last turn just right or they’ll be left for dead going up the hill to the finish line. Turn one is a slow, downhill, right that caught a lot of guys out on Friday. After that the track reaches a low spot called the “Omega” because it looks like, you guessed it, a horseshoe.
Then it’s uphill to what is possibly the longest turn on any track anywhere. It’s actually numbered as turns five and six, but guys go through there in one fluid motion. The bikes are on the side of the tire for an impossibly long time and the lean angles on the slight banking here seem to defy several laws of physics. At the exit the track flattens out and most guys get the rear wheel sliding as they pour on the gas for a good drive down another hill. This whole section offers fans great viewing from either grandstand seats or grassy hills, but they do fill up pretty quickly.
Next comes a very high speed left, cleverly named “7” and another left “8” before heading back uphill to yet another pair of left turns. Finally they get to turn right just as the track drops down a three-story hill. There are no viewing sections here and that’s a real shame because it is a pretty cool place to watch the action. There are three grandstands at the bottom of the hill, however, where fans who don’t mind a lot of walking can go to watch the riders climb the hill to the last corner.  
No matter where a race fan wants to spend their time at Sachsenring it’s a good bet that they’ll have a decent view of an exciting part of the track. And be in close proximity to a beer tent. And knockwurst. And schnitzel. And, you get the point. 
Fortunately, toilets are also generously scattered throughout the facility and are pretty easy to find with large white flags that read, cleverly, “toiletten”.
As for the German race fans, they were generally a pretty loud, drunk, and extremely friendly group of people. It’s actually hard to accurately describe this crowd without resorting to stereotypes that may seem unflattering.

So I’m not going to try.

Let’s just say the Shultz was strong at Sachsenring. It was like hanging out with several thousand Lennys (Of Mice and Men). However, this was also one of the most friendly, good natured, and brown socks with sandals wearing crowds we’ve come across yet in our adventures. They're also goofy wackos. I mean, what possesses a grown man to build a hobbyhorse contraption, drag it to the racetrack, and sit on it reading “Der Spiegel” while dressed as a Viking and drinking beer with his friends? Who are also all dressed as Vikings. Except for one guy. Who was dressed as a monk.

Then there was the caveman with football helmet hanging out with “poor-choice-of-headgear-guy”. The two men dressed as doctors carrying around a, well it was a, we’re not really sure what it was, but they were either rooting for Valentino Rossi. Or not.

So Germans are a little quirky, big deal,  they are also die hard race fans. At other tracks the crowd thins immediately following the last MotoGP event of the day, which means most people miss out on things like the Redbull Rookies Cup races. In Germany when the last MotoGP bike had been safely put in the garage most of the crowd were still in their seats. 
The Redbull kids got to do their thing in front of packed stands and cheering fans. And they put on a great show. An Italian kid, Valtulini, won and Germany’s own Alt took second, much to the delight of the fans. Another Italian, Argino, was third and Finland’s Joakim Niemi put in an outstanding performance to finish in ninth.

There was still a ton of people watching when the ADAC Junior Cup riders had their fifteen laps of fame. By 6:15 in the evening when the WC Sidecars went out for their 2nd qualifying practice there were still spectators all the way around the circuit, the vendors were still vending their meat and beer goodness, and nobody seemed anxious to be anywhere else. This is what they had come for, this is what we had come for, this is why people get off the couch and go to the track. To enjoy a three day orgy of food, beer, fuel-injected mayhem, and the company of several hundred-thousand like-minded motor heads. Then again, some of them may have just needed an excuse to wear funny hats.
Meanwhile, the hillside camping area looked as though it was approaching critical mass. There were events planned for Friday and Saturday that included live bands, dance parties, and at least one Fahrerpräsentation, whatever the hell that is. Sadly, a personal appearance by the "Hoff" was not on the schedule. But that was just the program of official planned events. From the looks of some of the noise making contraptions on display, some people had their own agenda of fun. We were just hoping they wouldn't go all German and invade the cornfield next door for more space.

Later that night, in our cabin, we could hear explosions. They were no doubt coming from the track. Yes, I’m sure that’s what those noises were. Revelry from the campground, of course. The low booming sounds certainly had nothing to do with me making another dubious choice at dinner that evening. Nothing I tell you.

Sunday morning, race day, dawned and once again, werewolves had not eaten us so we headed out.
On the drive we found out a few interesting things; one, that German police are useless at directing traffic and two, if we thought Saturday was crowded we hadn’t seen anything yet.

Our previously clear back road route was now clogged with traffic as we approached the track. Par for the course, really. We’ve been stuck in traffic at every track so far. It’s to be expected on race day, but ordinarily the police sit at intersections and direct the traffic so things flow smoothly. We figured that the police here would display typical German efficiency and organization. 
The cause of the backup turned out to be a simple intersection. Usually, not a big deal, and especially odd since there were two uniformed officers directing traffic, well not exactly directing traffic so much as standing on the sidewalk and watching traffic. Oh well, they were probably just waiting for orders from a higher up. Either way, we missed the 125 warm up.

By the time we did finally park and get into the track we found it had been overrun by the Germans. The place was packed. Stuffed like the world’s biggest bratwurst.  It was crowded and smelled funny, just like my lower intestines.
All the other GP’s we’ve been to have had huge crowds as well, but unlike the Spanish, Italians, English, or even the French, the Germans do not have a single countryman to cheer for in MotoGP. Not one.

They do have Stefan Bradl who is leading the championship on the Viessmann Kiefer Racing Moto2 bike and is the first Moto2 rider featured on the official program’s cover, but the premier class remains as German free as non-alcoholic beer night at a comedy club. Or J-Date.  
Yet, there is not an empty seat in Sachsenring.
I bring this up because there are exactly three Americans currently earning a living in MotoGP. Three. And the US MotoGP round at Laguna Seca is next week. The Indianapolis round featuring all the classes including Redbull Rookies is August 28th. Get off the couch and go to the track. It’s fun.  Or have you not been paying attention?

Every motorcycle race fan needs to go to a GP this season because of the 125s and because of history. And because after this season the 125s will be history. This is the very last season of two stoke grand prix motorcycle racing. Ever.
The 125 race at Sachsenring was, like so many this season, great racing and a ton of fun to watch. At a track like this one, with so many elevation changes, it’s critical on a 125 to get every corner exactly right because the bikes don’t have enough horsepower to make up for rider mistakes.  The Moto3 bikes will certainly be cool, and the racing great, but I will miss the sight, sound and especially the smell of real two-stroke race machines. See them while you can.

Mixo and I were extra excited for the Moto2 race because the Finn, Mika Kallio, had qualified on the third row. For the first time this season he had a bike that was working and a good grid position so an excellent result was almost certain. Almost.

We found a spot with a view of the starting grid and put up our Finnish flag. The bikes went out for the sighting lap, came around, and lined up in their starting positions. We could see Mika’s team on the grid. But no Mika. The clock was ticking down to the warm up lap and still no Mika. Oh come on! This cannot be happening. He’s on the third row for crying out loud.  
Through our telephoto lens we could see Mika on the other side of the pit wall and the mechanics frantically working on his bike. The clock was ticking away and the bike was in pieces. Mixo and I were beside ourselves. The flag went green for the warm up lap and the rest of the 40 some-odd bikes, that all managed to make the grid, sped off.

It was a deflating moment to say the least.

Then a glimmer of hope as Mika was back on his bike and heading down pit out. It looked as though he would make the start after all. Mixo and I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was short lived. When the red lights went off to start the race and the field launched towards the first turn, Mika Kallio was not there.
His team had failed to fix the problem.

One of the best and worst things in motorsports is that it is a team effort. If the team is motivated, dedicated and good at what they do then there is no limit to what a rider can achieve. That’s why most successful racers keep the same crew for many years even when switching manufacturers. Even when switching racing series.
By the same token, if a crew is unorganized and incompetent there is very little a rider can do on his own to overcome the team’s weakness.

I'm sure that professional Moto2 mechanics are some of the best, but if a bike works one day then a change is made and the bike does not work anymore, the smart thing to do is change it back. That's not rocket surgery. Yet, when Mika came in from morning warm up and told his Marc VDS mechanics that the bike wasn’t working anymore did they undo the changes made after qualifying? 
No, they did not. 
What they did do was change a bunch more stuff and turn a bike able to qualify on the third row into a bike that could not finish a single lap.  Bravo, Marc VDS mechanics, bravo. For your next trick why don't you stab yourselves in the eye with a flamethrower.

We ran into Mika later and he looked like a kid whose ice cream had just fallen on the ground. He told us what had happened, but not once did he lay even a hint of blame anyone. Our blood was boiling, but Kallio simply said, “that’s racing”. He’s a class act and deserves to be on a class team.

In the race, Bradl fought an extremely hard battle with Marc Marquez, but at the checkered flag it was the young Spaniard on top and Bradl second. On the cool down lap every German in the place was on their feet and enthusiastically cheering Bradl’s effort.

The MotoGP race was one of the best and most interesting races so far this season. Which, I admit, isn't saying much, but it was like watching three different races in one and none of the winners were determined until the checkered flag. In the end Spaniard Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda took top honors while Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo edged out the fading Honda of Casey Stoner for second. The top finishing American was Ben Spies who steadily reeled in the, newly conservative and thus boring, Marco Simoncelli the whole race and finally overtook him in the last corner on the last lap to take over fifth position. Someone must have given Marco a serious talking to because he used to ride the bike like an unhinged lunatic with a death wish (pronounced Italian). He rode the bike like he was having angry make-up sex with it. You never knew if he was going to make a clean pass on another rider, crash his brains out trying, or put everyone in the hospital. No matter what happened he often showed flashes of the kind of brilliant riding only a few have ever displayed. 
And it was awesome.
Now he's just kind of seems to be riding around trying not to hurt anyone's feelings. I don't think the crazy monster will stay in its cage for long, though. at least I hope not.

Further back in the field, it was another disappointing weekend for Ducati, but the Rossi faithful where unbothered by yet another thumping of their messiah. One of them even hopped the fence on the cool down lap to give Rossi an Italian flag to carry around, an honor usually reserved for the winner of the race. The ninth place, nine-time World Champion, declined the offer with a confused shrug.

A few people left after the MotoGP race no doubt trying to beat the traffic, but there were still plenty of people on hand for the second Redbull Rookies Cup race. They even stuck around for the sidecars. As did the vendors. Heck, there were probably a few Henriks and Helgas just hanging out, eating and drinking all weekend, and had no idea a motorcycle event was even going on. They just came for the beer and stayed for the schnitzel, but at least they bought a ticket and showed up. They were also treated to some great motorcycle racing in the process.

We didn’t really know what to expect from Germany or the German fans, but they are some of the friendliest and most enthusiastic motorcycle race fans in Europe. Of all the races in all the countries that we’ve been to so far The Motorrad Grand Prix Deutschland is probably on the very top of the list for places to visit again one day.  

Yep, like that last sauerkraut-topped bratwurst I ate as we headed towards the aus farht, the German GP will be with me for a while.

Thanks for reading. Our next (and last) race will be the Czech GP. Can't wait. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mugello MotoGP July 2011

Gran Premio D’Italia
Mugello, Italy

Remember when you were a kid and there was a toy you really wanted? Then one day you finally get it, only to find that the instructions are in a foreign language. The next thing you know it’s lying on the floor in a million pieces along with all your hopes and dreams. That’s because language can sometimes prevent people from enjoying things to their fullest. 

One place I have always wanted to visit is Italy. Probably because of the food. Lasagna in particular. My amazing language learning skills means I don’t speak a single word of Italian.  Well, that’s not entirely true, I do know how to say “lasagna”. Oh, and I know how to say “ciao” (pronounced “chow”, but you have to say it as if you don’t have a care in the world). Plus, I have a spot on Italian accent. Assuming all Italians sound like Vinny Barbarino. Or the Godfather. So I figured we’d have no problems.

We landed at the tiny airport in Firenze (that’s Florence to you), claimed our luggage, and stepped outside to take in our first breaths of actual, honest to goodness, Italian air. We were overwhelmed. Was emotion? Was it inspiration? No. It was heatstroke. Italy was freaking hot! And not just hot, mind you, but humid. Humid like the rainforest, humid. After living in California and then Finland we had forgotten all about humidity. Our hair, on the other hand, had not and two seconds later we were both doing fair impersonations of Marco Simoncelli. Ciao.
At the rental car office we were issued the keys to none other than a new Fiat 500 with a five-speed manual and a diesel engine. In black.  It’s a cool little car and one that will be available in the US (without the diesel engine of course). The only issue was, even though we travel pretty light, a rear seat had to be folded down so our bags would fit in the “trunk” which is basically a rear glove compartment.. It’s a small sacrifice considering we got over 45 miles to the gallon despite my driving like an unhinged lunatic. Ciao!

After picking up the Fiat and driving a few, oh I don’t know, inches, we observed that, in Italy, there is an utter and complete lack of anything resembling traffic laws, rules of the road, or basic self-preservation instincts. The right of way on Italian roads goes to whoever doesn’t yield. Like a giant game of chicken. Therefore, the idea is to drive as fast as possible everywhere, all the time, and swerve often, don’t even think about hitting the brake, and never under any circumstances use a turn signal. Instead, just honk the horn. As long as you don’t crash into anyone else, it’s all good. When any of the bazillion cars, bikes, or scooters do inevitably try to occupy the same space at the same time, the general rule of thumb is; so long as nobody is killed and nothing is on fire, it’s all good. Ciao.
After months of getting used to driving with the oppressively strict rules and pathetically low speed limits in Finland, I found driving in Italy to be, well, dangerous, insane, stupid, and quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had while driving a car.
Out braking another tiny car into a sharp left turn as our tires squeal for traction was amusing. Four wheel drifting the Fiat over bumps thorough a second gear right turn had us giggling like kids who just discovered porn for the first time. Having a big Porsche SUV go up the inside of us on an exit ramp, his tires howling as they reach the edges of available traction, was enlightening. And that was just on the drive from the airport to the hotel. Which was less than a mile away.
I love driving in Italy.

There are two ways to get to the track from our hotel. One involves a fairly straight, multi-lane, divided highway followed by a fairly straight single lane road. This is the route that any sensible person who wanted to get from one place to another quickly, conveniently, and safely would take as the other is slightly more circuitous. By slightly more circuitous I mean the route resembles a plate of cooked spaghetti. That has been dropped on the floor. Over a mountain. No sensible person would take this road. It is narrow, winding, and has only one lane in each direction. It is lined in some places by either a stone wall or a steep drop off. In others by a building, but then in some spots the side of the road is a nice, soft, grassy, um, ditch. To make matters worse it is driven regularly by Italians who consider the lines on the road to be mere suggestions and a speed limit to be the speed at which a car spontaneously combusts and / or disintegrates.

Just getting to this road requires driving through Firenze, a task that will make even the best sat-nav’s head explode. At one point our Tom-Tom just gave up and kept telling us, “left turn ahead”. Even in Italy, if you make four lefts in a row it’s called a circle. By the third lap we not only started to recognize buildings, but people started to recognize us. And point. And laugh.
As for the more sensible and direct route, well, I have no idea. We were too busy driving with the lunatics, sorry, with the locals on the back road. And laughing the whole time. I was overtaken across a solid white line, going into a blind turn, while going well above the posted speed limit. By a scooter. With two people on it! One of them was wearing a suit. Ciao.
Eventually, I got the hang of things and started passing slower cars wherever it was possible, but as we approached a person driving slower (pronounced “sensibly”) and I failed to use a short turn lane to pass going into a tight left hander, Mixo scolded, “you could have made that pass. An Italian would have done it”. This from the same woman who in Finland informs me every five minutes of the various traffic laws I may be violating. When questioned about this inconsistency she just shrugged and said, “hey ciao. When in Rome.”
We did make it to the track safely and without incident, well ok, we did make it to the track in one piece. So that was good. We also had a new understanding of how and why Marco Simoncelli rides the way he does. He’s not taking extraordinary chances and making stupid passes, he’s not being overly aggressive or dangerous. He’s just riding the bike like your average Italian commuter.  Without the horn.

Mugello is Ducati’s home race and the fans we met were clearly hoping for a good showing from the boys in red from Bologna. Ideally, the Italian fans wanted an Italian rider to win the Italian Grand Prix on an Italian bike. For that to happen Valentino Rossi would have to win on his new, next-year’s-chassis-with-this-year’s-engine, bike. A tall order made worse because his longtime crew chief and all around smart mechanic guy, Jeremy Burgess, would not be in attendance. To say it was a long shot would be like saying that there might be a couple names that end in “i” in the local phonebook. Still, the Italian fans were hopeful.
After all, Valentino Rossi has had more fans than every other rider in every single race in every single country so far on our adventure. That means more Spaniards were rooting for Rossi than for Lorenzo, who is the current MotoGP World Champion and a Spanish person. It was the same in France, and it was the same in England. So it’s understandable that here in Italy Rossi is more popular than the Beatles, Elvis, or a doughnut buffet at the policeman’s ball. Combined.
The number of people wearing yellow in support of Rossi was overwhelming. It was everywhere. Yellow hats, yellow shirts, yellow, uh, everything. It’s a damn good thing that Rossi’s favorite color isn’t black or MotoGP races would be positively Goth.
The only other recognizable color was red in support of Ducati.
There was so much red and yellow at Mugello that it looked like two armies had a battle with mustard bombs and ketchup missiles. And both sides had taken heavy casualties.
Honestly, if it wasn’t yellow or red than it had Rossi’s number 46 on it. More often than not, it was both. There were thousands of 46’s on flags, banners, and t-shirts. A 46 was spelled out with empty beer cans on a lone hillside, and there was more than a few unfortunate hairdos supporting the 46.  
In the paddock the crush of people around the Ducati trucks, desperate to catch a glimpse of Rossi or snag a coveted autograph was massive, even bigger than at any other track. As Mixo and I were standing nearby taking pictures, the throng was parted by security like the, well, like the Yellow Sea as Rossi left on his scooter. He was only inches away so I said; “Viva la figa” (a reference to a slogan on his leathers) and he slowed down, smiled, gave me a pat on the back, and said, “ciao” before speeding away. Now, I’m not usually star-struck, but I have to admit that made me giggle like a Japanese schoolgirl. No wonder everybody likes this guy. He’s nice.
Later, we randomly bumped into another remarkably nice guy, Rossi’s teammate Nicky Hayden. He was staring at me like he recognized me so I told him that he did. He asked, “where from” and I wish now that I had thought up a better answer. So Nicky, if you’re reading this I am not, repeat not stalking you.
Ordinarily, Mixo and I like to wander around the campgrounds and meet the local race fans because that is where most of the wonderful nuggets of random insanity grow. So far it has been an amazing experience to meet people from different countries, with different backgrounds who do not speak the same language, but share a common love for all things motorcycle and motorcycle racing. However, Italian race fans love Mugello.
They love it like Lenny loves small furry animals. Which is why various areas of the track are not accessible without the specific ticket to that area. We were therefore denied entry into any of the camping sites including the vast general admission hillside overlooking most of the track. And this time there would be no inebriated members of the RAF to get us in (reference from Silverstone). I was willing to buy a camping ticket just so we could experience the legendary party that is the Mugello campground, but all that was available were full 3 day passes and, well, no, that was not in the budget. The moral of the story is if you go to a GP (and you should) do some research and plan ahead. Know where you want to watch and what tickets you will need.
For qualifying we ended up in a section of bleachers just outside the paddock area with a good view of “Savelli” just past “Casanova” and before “Arrabbiata”. Look I didn’t name the turns, I’m just telling you what they’re called. Ciao.
125 qualifying went off without a hitch and looked promising for a close battle. The MotoGP session started dry but after about ten minutes the sky turned black and the conditions became soft and brown as the rain fell. Most of the riders went to their garages and most of the fans went into hiding or went to the restroom or went to a food vendor for that dried ham stuff. Look, I can barely pronounce it much less spell it.
When a few bikes came back out I assumed it was to test wet settings as there is no way to improve a dry qualifying time once the track is wet. I think, though, that those that did come back out did so specifically and solely for the benefit of the fans. After a few laps Colin Edwards was going around the track, off the race line, and slowing at every single spot where spectators were sitting in the rain. He then not only waved, but also seemed to be thanking them for sticking around. Colin Edwards is a good dude.
Almost the entire MotoGP field was soon on track and slowing down to wave at the fans. Tony Elias came ripping through “Casanova” and seemed startled to find Nicky Hayden on the exit, off the race line, and waving to the fans. It took him a second, but Elias slowed, sat up, looked over, then sheepishly started waving. Just as he passed the last section where any fans could see. That’s ok, Tony, it’s the thought that counts.
On race day the forecast was for clear skies and high temperatures. There would be none of the previous days’ weather shenanigans, which had included rain, wind, hail, and I’m pretty sure at least one small tornado because afterwards a girl was looking for her small dog.
We got to the track early and started wandering the paddock when we bumped into our Finnish friend, Jukka, who works with Mika Kallio on the Marc VDS Moto2 team. He told us that Mika didn’t feel well due to not being able to sleep the night before. I figured it was because he was starting from his best ever grid position and was nervous, but apparently it was because of the massive, loud, disco inferno party that went on all night just up the hill from the paddock. And the fireworks. And the un-muffled chainsaws (sans chain). And of course the ever popular and ceremonial bouncing of the motorcycle engines off the rev-limiter / burn-outs.
Next time we go to Mugello, we will be camping.
Mika appeared from the RV and indeed looked pretty tired so we wished him good luck and headed to the bleachers. We knew it would be packed and if we had any chance of seeing anything we would need to get to the back row of the bleachers, get there early, and stay there all day. So we did.
We usually like to roam around a bit during the day, but staying in the same place did offer some advantages. We could watch all the bikes from the same angle so it was interesting to see (and hear) the difference between where the fast guys would get on the brakes and throttle compared to the, er, less fast guys.
The fact that the Moto2 bikes all have the same engine would lead a person to think that the races would be a toss up. And though the races are often close and the winners far from predetermined, some guys are just plain faster than others. The difference is how each rider uses that available power. Go to the track and see in person how many different riding styles are used to hustle the bikes as quickly as possible around any given section of racetrack.  Some guys are super-aggressive on the bike and look like they’re boogieing, but end up on the bottom of the time sheets. Other guys can look like they’re hardly breaking a sweat and top the list. Maybe it’s all down to how well a rider can set up the bike or maybe it’s due to how well the team can interpret and deliver what the rider needs or maybe it’s just the guy with the skills and stones to hold the throttle open longer and brake later. Like your average Italian commuter, on his Vespa.
During the hour between the Moto2 and the MotoGP races a debate raged in our section of the bleachers.  How did I know it was a debate? Well, I may not speak Italian, but I do speak fluent hand gesturing. They were arguing about who was going to win so I interjected, “Simoncelli, primero” and followed with “you heard it here first”. That was greeted by the ceasing of hand gestures and lot of blank stares. Then one guy, approving my prediction that an Italian (though not THE Italian) would win asked me who would come second. “Ben Spies” I told him. This he also had no problem with. One of the other guys blurted out, “anyone but Stoner” to which they all gesticulated their agreement. “Or Lorenzo” another offered, more gesticulating of agreement. Then the first guy asks with a pleading tone, “and third?” I just shrugged as saying Stoner or Lorenzo would have obviously ended our budding friendship and possibly my life as well. A smallish, older gentleman put his hands together in prayer and just said “Rossi”. They all agreed, knowing it was a long shot, but hoping for a miracle.
As MotoGP races go this one was a pretty good. Meaning that there was passing, actual lead changes, and no major crashes that took out half the field. However, Simoncelli did not win, Spies did not come in second, and the Rossi miracle was not to be. Though, every time he came around or made a pass the entire 82 billion people in attendance went wild. They didn’t care if the pass was only for 6th. I can only imagine what would happen if Rossi was actually fighting for the win. People would probably just spontaneously combust right on the spot out of shear excitement. There would just be little piles of ash with bit of yellow fabric in it all over the place. 
Meanwhile, there was an Italian in the lead group mixing it up for a win. By half race distance the fans had noticed and were cheering for Repsol Honda’s Andrea Dovizioso. With gusto. He may not have been their first choice, but he is fast, he is Italian, and he was up front fighting for position.
At the checkers Lorenzo got the win, Stoner got third, and Dovi, the underrated Italian took second. He was bookended by two World Champions. Not too shabby.

At most other tracks the end of the race signifies the time to gather up the things you brought; clothes, coolers, furniture, children, whatever and go home.
At Mugello the end of the race means it’s time to unleash pure, unadulterated, and unrestrained mayhem. Ten bazillion people quickly found their way over, under, or through gate, fences, or walls and onto the racing surface. Most headed directly for the front straight and the pit garages like a swarm of locusts ready to devour anything in their path. The guards were helpless to stop the flow and the uniformed police who had been standing at a gate moments ago were now huddled in the paddock tunnel. Soon there were bicycles on the track, then scooters, then street bikes. There were so many two wheeled vehicles on the track it looked like rush hour in Beijing. They were going in both directions around the circuit, narrowly missing each other. Some were in t-shirts, some had no shirts, and nobody was wearing a helmet. I saw a guy two –up on a scooter doing a wheelie. Many were trying to go as fast as they could through the traffic or pop a wheelie or do a burnout. There was enough moto-stupid going on to make a full-length movie called “Ways to injure yourself and those around you”. Meanwhile, thousands of people were still streaming in from all directions. People were having their picture taken while laying on the track. Or sitting in the gravel trap. One guy was doing a headstand on the curbing. A father was showing his young son the proper way to charge up to and climb over a tire wall. People took bits and pieces of debris, or gravel or whatever wasn’t nailed down as a memento. A couple guys grabbed the hand truck from a marshal’s station and were busy taking turns riding it around, until one of them crashed into the gravel trap. Then they all wanted to crash into the gravel trap. Then they took pictures of each other crashing into the gravel trap.
And all this time there are more and more bikes, scooters, and any other motorized contraption people brought with them racing around.
It was an absolute catastrophe. It was absolute chaos. And it was absolutely fantastic.
Apparently, this happens every year. The track has tried to stop it, but their efforts were about as successful as a guy selling French olive oil in Sicily. Now they just open the gates and let the fans do their thing. What a great attitude to have towards your customers.
By the time Mixo and I got back into the paddock it had been overrun. The funny thing was that for an unruly crowd seemingly bent on total destruction, everyone was actually, pretty, um, civilized. Behaved, even. Nice. We had expected to find the paddock a smoldering ruin, but it was just fine. Swarming with people, but fine none the less. It was by far the safest unhinged riot that I have ever been caught up in. 
By the time we made it back to the hotel we were tired, sunburned, and hungry. The poor Fiat 500 was now in need of tires, a good washing, and probably a new motor. 

Italy was one of the best trips I have ever taken. The Italian food, the Italian fans, the Italian food, the Italian scenery, the Italian food, the Italian attitude; I love it all. Did I mention the food? 

More pictures to come in a separate blog



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Silverstone MotoGP June 2011

Here is the article we did for Roadracingworld about our adventures at the British Grand Prix from Silverstone. Keep checking this space. We have a ton of pictures and a full report from the Isle of Man TT will be coming right up.

Click on this link to RRW >>

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Le Mans part 3

Finally we got the final part of our blog from Le Mans posted to Road Racing World.
More to come in the next week with pictures and blogs from our Edinburgh, Isle of Man and Silverstone and a some from our Normandy beaches. A bit backed up but we'll get to it one day.
Click on the RRW link for the story >>

Thanks for following our stuff

Klaus and Hammer

Monday, May 23, 2011

Klaus und Hammer do Le Mans- part deux

This is our blog from Saturday qualifying at Le Mans MotoGP

Klaus und Hammer

Link for RRW article >>

Coming up Sunday.. Race day

Klaus und Hammer do Le Mans- part one

This is the first race day blog from our trip to Fraaaaaaance for the MotoGP.
So grab some wine, a little cheese and read it.

Klaus und Hammer

Link for the RRW article >>