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Apr 15, 2011

MotoGP Fan Blog And Photo Essay: Joshua And Mixo’s Great Jerez Adventure

Mobile vendors work the crowd. Photo by Klaus&Hammer.
FIRST PERSON/OPINION

By Joshua Steinberg

Things are not always as they seem. Everyone knows that. It's a lesson that we learn as children. Sometimes it's a lesson learned the hard way. Like when we discover that even though an umbrella seems like it would make a great parachute it will not actually slow your descent from a second floor window. Also, grass seems like it would be soft. It is not. Thing is, we never really learn that things are not always what they seem because throughout life we are constantly surprised when something does not meet our expectations.

Sometimes it's good and we say, "what a nice surprise." Like when you come home after a long trip to Spain and find that only one of your cats has peed in the bed when you had expected all three of them to do it.

And sometimes it's a disappointment. Like when you pick out a seemingly delicious dessert from behind the glass at your favorite Las Vegas buffet only to find that the main ingredient tastes like sawdust. "Yeeech didn't expect that."

It has to do with expectations. If we expect something to be really great and its just OK then we get disappointed. Even though it was fine. If we expect something to really suck and it only sort of sucks we're happy. Pessimistic people are often not disappointed, I guess. So is the glass half full or is the glass half empty? It kind of depends on how thirsty you are and what's in the glass.

So for our trip to Jerez, Spain for the second round of the 2011 MotoGP World Championship, my wife Mixo and I tried to keep our expectations realistic: Have the most fun any two people could ever possibly have. Ever.

We decided to fly from our new base in Finland into Madrid, rent a car, and drive the 630 or so kilometers down to Jerez. A good plan, but first we needed to find the car rental booth. Most airports have signs with easy to understand symbols for these types of things. We did find one sign. It had a car and a key. I figured it meant rentals, but it could have just as easily been for a parking lot. Or a locksmith. We followed the sign past several fellow travelers most of whom were scratching their heads and looking around confusedly. Soon, the "key and car" signs had disappeared and we still hadn't seen the car rental so we asked a uniformed airport security guy. Who didn't speak a word of English. So after much pantomiming and randomly saying the few Spanish words we know, the nice man finally pointed us in a direction. It was the wrong direction.

We did eventually find the rental office and got our car. A nice little four-door Opel. When we tried to exit the parking lot, there was another problem. Rental cars are prized by those thieves who need an underpowered and cheap car so most airport rental lots have security devices such as a row of spikes to flatten the tires if you go out the wrong exit. They are usually clearly marked to prevent people from accidentally driving over them. I know what you're thinking, and no, I did not run over the spike strip. There is no spike strip at the Madrid airport. They don't need one because they have a much more clever theft prevention device; a parking lot with no exit. Oh, you can follow the signs, where available, but they will only lead you in circles through the narrow lanes full of similar looking cars. After 20 minutes of that we decided to just crash through the chain link fence. OK, I decided to crash through the chain link fence. Mixo suggested we try a previously unexplored corner of the lot. It was unexplored because to get there we had to drive the wrong way up a narrow one-way lane. Naturally, that's where the exit was. Along with the old man who's job it was to check our paperwork and open the gate. By hand. Ah, Spain.

The Malaga airport is much closer to the track so if you want to go the Jerez GP and you're not up for a fairly long drive I suggest booking your flight there. It should be noted, however, that just because Malaga is closer does not guarantee a shorter drive. Spanish road signs, where available, are generally clear, legible, and designed to efficiently get people lost. On secondary roads they are mostly non-existent and when you do find one it won't help unless you are fluent in Spanish. And have a map. And know where you're going. And how to get there.
We got lost several times while trying to find our hotel in the dark and eight hours into a six-hour drive we finally made it. Not bad considering we met a couple that had flown in to Malaga and they were still trying to find their hotel. For last year's MotoGP.

The next morning after a refreshing four hours of sleep, we headed out to the track. We had directions, we had daylight, and we had coffee. There would be no problems finding our way this morning. Except our directions were in English and the road signs, where available, were in Spanish. Also, there are no stop signs or traffic lights. They use traffic circles.

It's a good system and much faster except when you don't know which one of the several roads off the circle to take and, you guessed it, there are no signs.
We decided that every motorcycle we see is probably going to the track so the smart thing to do would be to follow a large pack of bikes with Spanish tags. Worked like a charm. Until they all went different directions. Apparently, they were also lost.

At that point we were just using the sun for bearings and hoping the track would magically appear. Not a good sign.

Some bikers we passed on the side of the road were using what appeared to be a compass and sextant. Another had climbed a tree and was attempting to spot the track through binoculars.

We found a gas station and pulled in. Using all the Spanish I could remember from the 8th grade I asked feebly, "donde esta cirquito de Jerez?" Blank stare followed by a lot of words I didn't understand.

We were desperate so I started twisting an imaginary throttle and making engine noises, Mixo joined in and soon we were having an imaginary race. A second guy came over presumably to watch the show and the two guys had a conversation in Spanish then the first one looks at us and offered clear, concise, perfect directions directly to the track. In Spanish.

As we pulled out of the gas station I started to turn left, but Mixo said to go right.
We did eventually find the track. Mixo was right. As usual.

The Circuito De Jerez grounds are gigantic. There is a ton of grandstand seating as well as massive amounts of hillside general admission spots that offer excellent views of the track. On the long walk from your car to your seat there are vending areas where you can get all of your MotoGP swag and if you're hungry from the hike there are several tents offering an assortment of unrefrigerated meat hanging in the breeze. We didn't try any because, well, we wanted to see if we could make it the whole weekend without going to the hospital.

One thing you may have a hard time finding is a trashcan so the local custom is to find the largest pile nearby and toss your detritus on top. It's all part of the experience. If you want Disneyland, go to Disneyland.

Friday, April 1 was the first day of free practice and the weather was warm, sunny and perfect. The crowd was excited, but sparse in the morning as, I suspect, most people were still lost. It was kind of nice because we had free run of the place. There were no restrictions on grandstand seating and all the prime general admission spots were empty. We were even able to get right down next to the track as the MotoGP bikes went out. It was pretty cool.

When a MotoGP bike goes by at full tilt boogie it emits a sound that will rattle your bones, split your ears, and vibrate the ground underneath you. It's like standing next to an exploding bomb (except without the death side effect). The sound will raise the hairs on the back of your neck and punch you in the chest at the same time. It is electric. It is primal. It is awesome and it must be experienced in person.

On TV these machines look smooth, controlled, and graceful, like a ballerina skillfully executing a, uh, that thing that ballerinas do. Up close and in person, though, if these bikes are ballerinas they're the kind who will smile at you as they steal your lunch money and stab you in the face with a chainsaw. They are pure psychotic violence.

The physical effort required to control one these things turn after turn, lap after lap is huge, but the mental focus needed would make an ordinary person's head explode. It's like playing a game of chess against Garry Kasparov except if you make a mistake you go sliding down the pavement at triple digit speeds instead of losing a pawn.

We spent the day taking a ton of pictures, scoping out the best viewing spots, and getting really, really sunburned. Turns out I had forgotten to pack my hat and we had no sun block. Being California transplants now living in Mixo's homeland of Finland, we were for some reason unprepared for hot and sunny weather. So on the way back to our hotel we went searching for big, floppy hats and some sun block. And yes, we got lost.

On our way through town we noticed that the local police had closed off several streets and had put up barricades all over the downtown. We figured it was to contain the inevitable beer fuelled moto-stupid, but it looked like they were expecting a riot. Naturally, we made plans to attend. After freshening up.

When we returned downtown, which looked right out of a spaghetti western, we found it transformed from a sleepy little hole in the wall to a very loud little hole in the wall. We had decided to walk from the hotel (yes, we got lost), which turned out to be smart move as every inch of parking space had been jammed with motorcycles, almost all of them sportbikes. The sidewalks, restaurants, and cafes were overflowing with people. Most were wearing leathers or race T-shirts and though it was clearly a gathering of bikers there was not a single pair of chaps in sight. It was a carnival atmosphere filled with the sound of a thousand simultaneous conversations about motorcycles. In Spanish. It was interesting to note that the Spanish spoken by Spaniards is different than the Spanish spoken by, say, Californians. In Spain the letters "z" and "c" are pronounced as a "th" sound and the last part of words tends to get left off. The effect is that people seem to be speaking super fast. And with a lisp.

The beer was flowing, the food was cooking and the entire mood was happy. There were no troublemakers, no fighters, nobody with any chips on their shoulders or anything to prove. To be honest I was expecting naked guys doing burnouts, drag races up the sidewalk, and general anarchistic moto-shenanigans, but this crowd was relaxed, friendly, and somewhat sedate. The whole thing seemed surprisingly safe, tame even. Every once in a while the sound of a four-cylinder sportbike hitting the rev limiter could be heard in the distance. Actually, that could be heard quite a lot. But it wasn't just random dead-revving. There was a rhythm to it. It sounded like people were playing a specific tune using a bike engine. Oh, this we had to see.

It wasn't hard to find. In one of the jammed parking lots, which by now resembled the world's largest used bike dealership, there were a group of young Spaniards jumping and chanting in time with a revving engine. I have no idea what the tune is, but we heard it over and over again throughout the weekend. It was everywhere. We even heard someone practicing it in his back yard, getting it just right before performing it in public. We decided that it was the Spanish motorhead national anthem.

Things in town hadn't even started winding down by 2:0 a.m. and we wanted to get to the track early so we called it a night. We grabbed a taxi, told him where we were staying and he took us there. He did not get lost.

After another refreshing couple hours of sleep we headed back to the track. We actually knew exactly where we were going this time so, yes, we got lost.

Saturday was practice in the morning and then qualifying in the afternoon so we figured the crowd would be a little bigger. We were right. We got there earlier than the day before and there were already way more cars in the parking lot. The sun was just coming up full and already it felt warmer, more humid than a day earlier. The grandstands were now off limits without a specific ticket and the prime general admission spots were a little crowded so we searched out a new vantage point and found the area inside Turns One and Two. The sun was fully up now, I still had no hat, and my face was starting to steam. I knew my sunburn was bad when a guy in a plastic bib tried to put butter on me (bah-dum!) So we decided to wander the paddock in search of shade.

The paddock at a MotoGP race is surreal. Every team has a tractor-trailer or three and they're all painted in the team's colors with the riders' name and number. I don't know how they do it, but every single one of the 50 or so trucks was backed up to the teams' garages in exactly the same spot. If you were to shine a laser down the row it would hit every single truck. Call me a dork, but that's damn impressive. Then there was the hospitality trailers, which not only have slide outs, but also slide ups, slide downs, and slide all arounds. These luxury behemoths looked like permanent restaurants complete with furniture and full bars.

Buzzing in between, through, and around all of the trailers was a constant flow of traffic. Most people were on foot, but every few seconds someone would go zipping by on a scooter. Sometimes it was a photographer lugging a huge lens, sometimes it was mechanic pulling a cart full of tires, and sometimes it was a MotoGP star. I almost got run over by Dani Pedrosa. How embarrassing.

There was a constant crush of people surrounding the Ducati trucks, desperate to get a glimpse of Valentino Rossi. Most of the other trucks were largely left alone, odd given that this was Spain and several of the top riders, including reigning MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo, are Spanish.

Everywhere in the paddock people were moving. Nothing was static. On one side were tire guys feverishly fitting race rims with fresh slicks, on the other were mechanics in team colors quickly carrying parts. Men in suits talking on cell phones paced, scooters zipped in and out of the crowd. You could stand in one spot and hear five different languages simultaneously. Some impossibly tall umbrella girls in skintight spandex outfits came walking past and, uh, then, um, well that's sort of all I remember from that point.

By the time the Moto2 guys were on track for Free Practice 3 at 11:10 most of the fans had shaken off the previous night's festivities, found the track (yes, they got lost), and made it to their seats. The grandstands were mostly full except for the higher priced seats, which have a backrest, but not a better view and the crowd was getting lively. In one section there were a couple guys who showed up in full scrubs, including masks. They carried around a stretcher and when a bike crashed in that corner they all ran down to the fence, tossed a large ham on the stretcher and ran back to their seats. Excellent lunacy.

The Spanish fans are ridiculously fun. There were examples everywhere of completely random craziness. There was the regular looking normal guy sitting on a cooler by himself in the bushes next to a gigantic sandwich. Odd enough, but when Mixo tried to get a shot of the enormous loaf the guy reached into the bushes, produced a large Godzilla head, put it on, picked up the sandwich and started acting out a little scene. I was laughing so hard I didn't even notice that baked into the bread was the word "VALE." It seemed that whomever we pointed the lens at automatically started posing and acting silly. See a group of tough-looking Spanish biker dudes? Not problem, just point a camera at them and they start hugging and pretending to kiss each other. Amazing.

Back in the pits we stalked, I mean, randomly bumped into Marc VDS Moto2 rider Mika Kallio. Mika is from Finland so Mixo and he had lots to chat about, but being Finns they thought it best to just mumble polite greetings and then stare at the ground for a bit.

We were both pretty tired of walking around and qualifying was about to start so we headed for the area inside Turns One, Two and Three. It's a nice spot because it's not too crowded, you can see at least one video screen, and you can watch the bikes in three different turns.

Watching the Moto2 bikes come into Turn One was inspiring. Every single bike either had the rear wheel in the air or was completely sideways just as the rider would pitch it in to the turn, yank open the throttle and hold on as the rear tires would squirm under the load and the bikes drifted left to the rumble strips, full power, bounce off the rev limiter, back off and toss it hard on the front tire into Turn Two.

Watching MotoGP from the Turn Three exit we could see the riders lay down dark patches of rubber as the rear tires spun under full throttle, feel the concussion from the exhaust, and smell the spent hydrocarbons of exotic race gas. It just doesn't get better than that so I looked at the guy next to me and said, "Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?" He didn't get it.

By the time Qualifying was over at 4:00 p.m. we were cooked. We had had too much sun, too much walking, not enough sleep and pretty much no food. So we headed back to the hotel with the plan of forgoing the downtown antics and getting a good night's sleep. And yes, we got lost.

Sunday morning we were up and on our way to the track before 7:00 a.m. in order to avoid what would certainly be a monstrous crowd. As we went through the downtown area there were a lot more people on the road than we had imagined. A lot of them were walking. And wearing go-out clothes. And looked really tired. That's when we realized these folks weren't on their way to the track they were on their way home. From the night before. Now that must have been a party, naked burn-outs or not.

Inside the track the excitement and anticipation was palpable. It felt different than the previous two days. Different even from qualifying. It felt like something really big was going to happen. Unfortunately, it was also felt cold and wet. The hot and sunny weather of the last two days had been replaced by clouds and sporadic rain. That meant the teams only had the morning warm-up session to find a good wet-weather setting for the bikes. The changing conditions held another challenge. If a guy goes out on rain tires and the track dries during the race his tires will melt and give no traction. If he goes out on slicks and it starts to rain the tires will not drain the water and will offer no traction. Make the right choice and you could win, make the wrong choice and you could crash. And you thought your job was tough.

One thing about wet races is that because of the reduced traction the speeds are lower and any power advantage one bike may have over another is neutralized. Rain is the great equalizer. The Ducati and Yamaha teams were not unhappy with the change in weather.

Ordinarily, for the fans, rain at the track pretty much sucks. Mixo and I have been to races where the slightest hint of bad weather emptied the grandstands. Those who remained just hunkered down and, mostly, suffered through the day.
But this is Jerez and the enthusiastic Spanish crowd hardly seemed to notice the weather. The grandstands and the now-muddy hillsides were packed by the 9:10 a.m. start of the Moto2 warm-up session. The party atmosphere remained even though most of the 120,000 people in attendance had arrived on motorcycles. They just donned rain gear, ponchos, helmets, garbage bags with head holes cut out, or whatever else to stay dry and kept on partying. These people wouldn't let a little rain dampen their spirits. They had inflatable mattresses to sit on and tarps to cover up with. Everywhere I looked there were umbrellas, wigs, and funny hats. This was just one gigantic party and nobody was going to let the weather spoil it.

Mixo and I, on the other hand, still had no hats, no rain gear, not even a plastic garbage bag to cover up with. We had, despite going to hundreds if not thousands of races, somehow managed to be as unprepared for the rain as we had been for the sun. That's just pure talent.

We decided to watch the races from the inside of Turn One again because we wanted to experience, up close and in person, the lunacy that is a Moto2 start. We were not disappointed. Watching 39 bikes frantically jockeying for the same piece of real estate at the same time with nobody giving any quarter is pure motorsport chaotic poetry. It's like the frankfurter I ate in the Frankfurt airport; didn't fit in the bun and something bad was probably going to happen.

Miraculously, all the bikes got though cleanly and we were treated to some great racing. Lap after lap, the crowd cheered every pass enthusiastically despite the soggy conditions. At one point it was raining pretty hard and I noticed that a section of the grandstands opposite us was completely covered by a large, green tarp. The people underneath it never stopped singing and cheering. It looked like the grandstand had grown a giant green mouth to cheer with.

On the hill to our right the occasional pipe bomb exploded and everywhere around us was the constant sound of air horns, cowbells, singing and cheering. Rain, what rain?

The MotoGP race was, uh, interesting to say the least. It had drama, intrigue, conspiracy theories, and most importantly, brilliant riding by some of the most talented motorcycle racers on the planet.

The crowd definitely had their favorites. I had figured that the Spanish riders would be the most popular, but it would seem that Italian, Valentino Rossi, was the clear fan favorite. Even more surprising was that American Ben Spies got a huge, enthusiastic, and sustained cheer when he passed Spaniard Dani Pedrosa for second place. The crowd's least favorite rider had to be Australian Casey Stoner, who was taunted by the crowd after he made a rude gesture to the corner marshals in Turn One. Stoner felt that the marshals did not offer enough assistance to him after he landed in the gravel trap. How he got in there in the first place will be the topic of discussion for a long time.
"The incident" as it will surely be known forever, happened when Valentino Rossi, trying to take full advantage of the rain's equalizing effect, passed Casey Stoner into Turn One. Rossi lost front-wheel traction, crashed and collected Stoner. Stoner's Honda ended up on top of the Ducati and Rossi appeared to be stuck under the pile. The corner marshals rushed to free Rossi, put him back on his bike, and Rossi was back in the race. After all that they turned their attention to Stoner, but when the Honda refused to fire right up, the marshals quit trying, thus putting Stoner out of the race. That's when he made the rude gesture. Stoner's actions may be regrettable, but his frustration is understandable. He was leading the MotoGP World Championship going in to Jerez and a DNF would drop him to third in points. Also, Rossi ended up in fifth position so Stoner potentially could have salvaged a lot of points if he had been able to re-enter the race.

For his part, Rossi, immediately after getting off the bike at the end of the race went to the Honda garage and apologized to Stoner and his entire crew. He accepted full responsibility, admitted he made a mistake, and made no excuses. He showed again why no matter what bike he rides or where he finishes the race people all over the world cheer for him.

It sucks when things like "the incident" affect the outcome of a race. Then again, if it were possible to sit down and figure out who will win a race based on horsepower, weight, tires, etc. then there would be little need to actually run the race. It's the variables that make it unpredictable. It's that unpredictability that makes it exciting. The excitement is what brings out the lunatic fans. And the fans are who make going to the track so much fun.

In Spain the race fans are some of the nicest, friendliest, and genuinely happiest people I've ever stood out in the rain with. In the three days at Jerez we didn't witness a single argument, fight, or altercation of any kind. There was no pushing or shoving for a better view, in fact, people even lowered their umbrellas in the rain so as not to block the person behind them. The track staff was helpful and, amazingly, seemed to have no attitudes or authority issues. Even the Special-Forces looking security guys were nice.

Heck, the track didn't even obscenely over charge people for water, food, beer, or race programs. They actually seemed to want people to have a good time and come back next year. It was weird.

The next morning we had a long drive back to Madrid even without including the extra time it would take to get lost so we decided to turn in early.

Our plan was foiled by the hotel kitchen, which operates on Spanish time, meaning it was closed until 8:30. The bar was open, though, so we bellied up and I was finally able to use the only complete Spanish sentence I know: "Dos cervezas por favor."

Sitting there was a group of Frenchies who had ridden in from France on sportbikes including a ZX750R that was purchased for less than 500 euros. Then there was the nice couple from the U.K. They had been along with us on the first night's trip downtown and had been appalled at the utter lack of any truly stupid behavior on display. They assured us that if we go to Silverstone (we are) we'll all meet up and there will be proper hooligan moto-insanity. I'm pretty sure that means naked burnouts, sidewalk drag races, and perhaps a bike bon-fire just for good measure. I'm looking forward to it.

We also met another English guy who told me he started going to motorcycle races in the 1930s and hadn't missed a single British road race since. All those old races that are today the stuff of myth and legend had been witnessed first hand by this guy. He had been there, met the people, smelled the smells, and experienced it all first hand. His son had brought him to Jerez for his 90th birthday. How awesome is that?

We all sat around the bar, drank bad beer (except the French who drank bad cognac), swapped motorcycle stories (some of which may have almost been true), discussed "the incident", and bonded over the fact that no matter what our background is or where we came from or what language we speak or what we believe in, we all have this one thing in common: We were all at the 2011 Jerez MotoGP and, yes, we all had gotten lost.

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