The death of Carlin Dunne, at Pikes Peak, serves as a reminder that racing motorcycles on real roads will never be safe.
Risk is what gives the decision to race motorcycles meaning.
Riding Man is an exploration of this idea. I’ve excerpted a part of it below. It helps explain the appeal of motorcycle racing, which has little if anything to do with being an “adrenaline junkie” and rarely results in meaningful financial reward.
That leaves the intangible rewards. If you’ve been a racer, you know what they are.
Risk is what gives motorcycle racing those rewards. No, we don’t race in order to take risks. But if it was completely safe, none of us would do it.
Here’s my message to all the racers who didn’t get hurt or killed yesterday. Carlin Dunne died for you. Not willingly, of course, but his sacrifice is what gives your sport meaning and what makes the experience of racing so profoundly different than the experience most other sports.
Hold him in your thoughts, because he and so many others who went before him will make your next race a profound experience. Their deaths will impart that much more meaning to the feelings you have when you pull off the track after next taking the checkered flag.
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Hemingway is famously quoted (or, perhaps, misquoted?) as having said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” This is ironic, because as a motorcycle racer, I’ve always been jealous of mountain climbers, in the sense that they don’t seem to face the same resistance from society when it comes to justifying or explaining their obsession. If you grow up in Switzerland and then live in the Canadian Rockies like I did, you meet lots of climbers. I’ve known about half a dozen people who’ve summited Everest, and I’ve always been struck by the fact that we seem understand each other well. We both appreciate a kind of self-knowledge that comes from our particular risk sports.
There are equally dangerous–even more dangerous–pursuits. You could choose to be a rodeo bullrider or base jumper. But the danger in those sports comes from the decision to participate. It’s something you confront once per event, when you lower yourself down from that eight-foot fence and wrap that rope around your hand. You nod, and after that your survival is up to the bull. For all the control you have over it, you may as well be playing Russian roulette. In fact most winning rides are, if anything, less dangerous than losing ones. But climbers and motorcycle racers need to make a constant series of decisions–we ask ourselves, “Where’s the edge?” and constantly need to confront the fact that after removing every possible variable we’re going to be left with this reality: the best performance is inherently the most dangerous one. This is the source of a unique kind of self-knowledge and an easy mutual respect between us.
And yet, motorcycle racers get far less credit for this in society at large. No one seriously suggests that climbing should be banned. I blame this discrepancy on George Mallory. He’d attempted to climb Everest in 1922, and was on a lecture tour of America raising money for a second attempt. At every stop, he got the same stupid question from reporters, “Why do you want to climb the world’s highest mountain, anyway?” Finally, in exasperation, he snapped “Because it’s there!”
For whatever reason, the answer resonated with the non-climbing public. Taken out of context, the phrase had its own Zen.
Mallory did assemble the sponsorship he needed for a second attempt, in 1924. Whether or not he made it to the summit is one of climbing’s enduring mysteries. He never came back down and was never seen alive again. Considering the equipment of the day (for perspective, the TT course record was around 55 miles per hour at the time) his climb was one of the greatest achievements ever in mountaineering. Mallory’s record stood for 30 years until Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man ever to summit Everest for sure.
A few years ago, after the course was fully paved and it was impossible to even pretend this was anything but a proper ‘real road’ race, there were a couple of fatalities on Pikes Peak and the organizers summarily decided to drop the motorcycles from the program.
At the last minute, they reversed that decision. They adopted a plan devised by Paul Livingston and backed by Ducati, to better prepare rookies for the hill. And they limited the number of motorcycle entries.
I imagine the death of the race’s star rider will make the organizers reconsider that reprieve. Pikes Peak’s no TT; the organizers have a very limited appetite for high-profile fatalities. I personally wish they could see past it, and preserve America’s last real, ‘real roads’ race.
Why should we keep racing at Pikes Peak? Because it’s there.