Photos by Nish Nalbandian
The distant thrum of the racers’ engines on the far side of the track grows louder as they approach our turn.
Their pitch deepens and spikes depending on whether the riders are negotiating a hairpin bend or a high-speed straightaway while surpassing speeds of 200 miles per hour.
When they reach us, the horde of rabid competitors, each jockeying for an edge over the others, bank their bikes so sharply they drag knees and elbows on the asphalt.
When they come out of the turn and pull back the throttle, I can feel the collective force of the most sophisticated, high-performance two-wheel chariots on the planet reverberating in my chest as if I’m hit by a bolt of lightning.
Now, I’m not usually one to indulge in such overwrought hyperbole, but MotoGP is by far one of the most badass sporting event I’ve ever witnessed firsthand.
My friend and photographer Nish Nalbandian, with whom I cover the war in Iraq and has seen his fair share of amazements and the awe inspiring, agrees with me.
“It sounds like they’re tearing at the fabric of the space-time continuum,” he says after the riders’ latest pass on the turn where he’s set up his camera just a dozen or so yards from the action.
We were given privileged access to this point by MotoGP’s organizing body, providing a couple of motorcycle racing neophytes like us with a perspective on the drama for which the most ardent fans would trade their first-born. It’s not fair, I know.
Through his lens, Nish captures the racers tucked into their riding-crouch, making man and machine one in their pursuit of high-speed excellence, a portrait of beauty and “grace under pressure” to quote Hemingway.
There I go again – getting way too gushy over my new love. I’ll try to cut it out, I swear.
My loving ode to MotoGP racers isn’t just reserved for the likes of its stars like Valentino Rossi, but also for the lesser known and up-and-coming riders that continually replenish the well of racetrack heroes.
It’s useless. I’m just going to lean into my newfound sappiness for MotoGP. You’ll just have to bear it.
Before one race we meet 20-year-old Spanish rider Maria Herrera, the only female competitor in MotoGP. She speaks in a mild manner about her affinity for the machismo-driven world of motorcycle racing and off-track ambitions like painting. She seems perfectly adorable.
Later on the track, I see her whip around bends with expertise and flair, her braided ponytail dangling from her mirrored visor helmet amid the pack of victory-hungry riders in the hunt for a championship.
That’s when I realized I was hooked, deciding then and there I wanted to see more races. As a journalist I wanted to dig deeper into what compels riders to push beyond the outer envelope, well-past the point of safety, as evidenced by the numerous crashes I saw during practice laps and the races.
Fan Michael Wilson says he hates seeing riders wipe out, though loves the sport because “even the best riders push their bikes past their limits” trying to win. “The cream of the crop are so close they have to push hard.”
Wilson’s point about the near-cutthroat way in which riders quest for the checkered flag makes my having missed out on MotoGP, until now, all the more confounding considering my own penchant for thrill seeking and high-speed motorcycling.
I’ve logged lots of miles zipping up and down the East Cost more than half a dozen times while riding at the outer limit of what my bike can handle. Before that, I wiped out in less-than-spectacular fashion on single-track trails in El Salvador and New Zealand and have even ridden in Iraq while embedded with US forces in Baghdad.
So I know what it means to seek two-wheel thrills.
I’d always been vaguely aware of MotoGP, though never given it serious consideration. “Why was that?” I ask myself while purchasing racing-related t-shirts at the Austin race and checking the schedule for the next stop on the race circuit.
I’m not the only one that’s missed out either. Though the sport is enormously popular around the world, my fellow Americans aren’t typically among the multitudes that obsess over the sport.
I ask longtime MotoGP fan and Essential Moto founder Mitchell Nicholson why he thought it hadn’t caught on in America.
“The problem with (its lack of) popularity in the US is that we can’t see ourselves as one of the racers,” says Nicholson, noting the conspicuous dearth of American riders currently at the top levels of the sport.
He also makes a good point about the instruments of their speed being foreign to most Americans.
“With sports like NASCAR, which is huge in the US, anybody can watch because anybody can relate to what it’s like to drive a car. But with motorcycles being such a small part of the on-road community in the US, it’s hard for someone to picture themselves doing the things that MotoGP racers do when they haven’t ever ridden.”
Having spent most of the last couple of decades living and working outside the United States, I can say from experience there are a hell of a lot more people riding motorcycles in say Brazil, Nigeria or even Afghanistan, than there are in the United States.
Bikes are an essential mode of transport for those that can’t afford a car, which likely numbers in the billions. I’ve seen bikes loaded with three or more passengers. Toddlers straddle the gas tank in front of dad while mom rides side saddle behind him holding a baby or a chicken. Sometimes both.
Motorcycles are tasked with doing everything a car stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic can’t. Bikes are the answer to getting where you need to go when the masses are mired in four-wheel gridlock. They can split lanes and bear loads greater than their own weight, making transport, and even survival, possible for the poor.
In a sense, motorcycles help make the world go round in ways most Americans will never appreciate. We largely treat bikes like toys, not tools. So for the rest of the world who rely on bikes every day, seeing them ridden for pleasure, is a real treat.
That doesn’t mean Americans are doomed to miss out on the glories of MotoGP. During the race weekend, I spoke to lots of US-born fans about why they fell for the sport.
“It’s simple really,” says Vinny Robelotto, who along with his wife Tina traveled from Tucson, Arizona to see the race in Austin. “It’s the fastest men, on the fastest bikes, riding the fastest track in the world.”
If it’s one thing most Americans, including myself, can appreciate, it’s superlatives. We love rooting for the fastest, the most daring and the winningest. We share in their exuberance when our favorite players, drivers or teams win and agonize of their defeats and setbacks as if they were our own.
MotoGP offers all that drama in droves plus the thrill that’s only attainable when you discover a new romance. Trust someone whose just been smitten. Take MotoGP out on a date and by the end of the night I guarantee you too will be professing your undying love.
Carmen Gentile has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous bouts of unrest throughout the world. He was seriously injured while reporting in Afghanistan, an experience he chronicles in his book “Kissed by the Taliban.”
Nish Nalbandian has photographed more than 35 countries worldwide covering everything from wars to sporting events, back alleys to luxury resorts. His recent photo book, “A Whole World Blind,” chronicles the struggles of armed Syrian rebels and civilians in and around Aleppo. The book has been roundly praised for its sympathetic depiction of the horrors there.