By Michael Gougis
Gloves Off: When The Win Is All That Matters…
“I just want your best game…”
– The Color of Money, 1986
Hustling pool is the name of the game in the famous Paul Newman-Tom Cruise movie, The Color of Money. It’s not about winning. It’s about keeping the other player in the game long enough to bleed them dry of cash. And that means deliberately losing sometimes, and sometimes playing well enough to just beat them, baiting them into making the next bet, and the next. The psychology of the hustle is well-known, and it works. Someone is paying to keep all of those lights on in Las Vegas, and it’s not the casino owners…
For the pool hustler, their ultimate skill level is a well-guarded secret. Keeping it a secret is their greatest asset. That way, their opponent really never knows what they are going up against. The opponent is betting on hope, faith, belief, not knowledge. And when two skilled hustlers go against each other, it’s a poker game as well as a pool match, and the mind games are as fascinating as the next shot.
Racing isn’t always about winning races.
Sometimes it’s about a team keeping sponsors happy, even if it costs a win. I’ve seen teams throw away their best shot at a race win because, as riders cycled through pit stops, their rider wound up in the lead and they kept the rider out well past the optimal pit window for a tire change. It was worth more to the sponsors to see the rider in front for a few laps than to optimize their chances for a win.
Sometimes it’s about a team’s bottom line. A professional racing organization exists to pay the bills. If a less-competitive tire manufacturer is willing to foot the team’s entire racing budget for a season, maybe they sign that contract, even if it means that your chances of race wins are lessened.
Sometimes it’s about a rider managing points with an eye on a Championship. Joan Mir is undoubtedly talented, but he’s the 2020 MotoGP World Champion in part because he managed to stay upright when others around him – well, didn’t. Riders who win Championships know when to take the points for second, or fifth, instead of throwing it down the road and leaving the track with no points.
And…let’s not even talk about team orders.
Bottom line is that for the professional racer, there are a lot of times they’re not battling for the win or riding at 110%, and there are reasons for that, even if we as fans don’t necessarily like it. As fans, we understand it. But we know we’re not seeing their best game.
That’s why the last race of the mi-bike Motorcycle Insurance Australian Superbike Championship, presented by Motul, a few weeks ago is well worth a watch.
At the last round at Wakefield Park, Wayne Maxwell and Troy Herfoss were the class of the field, but with multiple races on the cards for that round, neither could afford to absolutely throw caution to the wind. Each of them was counting points with an eye on the Superbike title.
The next-to-last race was an exercise in strategy, with Herfoss out front on his Honda CBR1000RR-R, trying to slow the pace enough to back Maxwell’s Ducati Panigale into the pursuing pack. The plan was to give other riders a chance to get in front of Maxwell and take points away from him, allowing Herfoss to gain points on Maxwell in the title chase. It was intellectually interesting, but we knew that neither racer was riding at their limit. Ultimately, it ended with Herfoss’ machine malfunctioning, allowing Maxwell to clinch his second ASBK Superbike title.
That left the final race. And that was a joy to watch. With nothing left to battle for except for pride and race prize money, Herfoss and Maxwell bolted to the front and were gone. They were at their absolute, on-the-edge, thrilling best. For 18 laps, they gave no quarter, racing clean but as hard as they possibly could. We, as fans, got to see their best game.
And Herfoss and Maxwell knew they’d seen the best of each other, too. It’s worth it to watch the cool-down lap. The pair pull up next to each other and actually embrace while still riding. Then they flip their visors open and, while still riding, have the kind of conversation that only those who have put everything on the line in competition can understand.
It is awesome to watch talented people do the thing they are skilled at. But it’s even more awesome when you see them at their absolute best.
The final race starts at about the 6-hour mark in the video below: