The sun is in its last stubborn throes of fiery passion, fighting off the night as it closes in to engulf the rooftops, the setting half-sphere of light on the horizon almost totally lost now among the mixture of cloud cover and smoke. The smoke in question was emanating from both questionable tobacco-based products and from the hamburgers, bratwursts, kebabs and piles of onions cooking feverishly at the fast-food stands on literally every street corner, you can see the haze hanging in the air. You can almost reach out and bottle it.
It's Friday night in Assen. The night before the big race and downtown Assen has been turned into party central, the hub of all debauchery, the hustle and bustle capital of Holland, at least for tonight. And, it is notably adorned with multiple liquor stands, take-away food dispensaries, race apparel stalls, fairground games and mobile toilet units, spotlessly clean and kept that way because they charge you to use them, 50 cents, in fact.
The tiered main square and the plethora of smaller squares dotted around the local homes and businesses have soundstages erected especially for the event and a cosmopolitan mix of world music can be heard blaring well into the early hours. There is everything from meandering blues recitals to modern-day jazz to the oh-so-popular cover bands, from The Rolling Stones to Dolly Parton to Bo Diddly--it's all there for you.
There is a heady mix of people, too. There are the biker boys, still in their leathers, trying to resist the temptation of just one more beer before riding back to the many campsites that litter the surrounding Dutch countryside, no doubt in town to lay the foundations for an all-night soirée in Canvasland.
There's the soccer crowd, all gathered together in their respective team shirts, screaming at the giant screen, there for the TT but on secondary duty to make sure their home nation doesn't go unsupported. A rowdy bunch, much like the NFL's Raider nation--ready for anything and ready for you should you get in their way.
There are the families with little Johnny and little Sarah hanging tiredly around the necks of Mom and Dad as they scour the streets looking for the atmosphere that suits them best, the weary children intermittently finding a burst of energy from somewhere.
There are the locals, too. Easily spotted, they're the ones with that bewildered look on their faces as they watch yet another group of visitors trying desperately to navigate the cobbled streets en-route to Drunkville.
The whole place is kitted out in expectance of the thousands and thousands of people whose mission in life, well at least this weekend, is to push their bodies to the self-abuse limits and hope to come out the other side with enough brain cells intact to find their way home, wherever home may be. That's after the Saturday races, of course, the alcohol still pumping through the veins of many an Assen race fan as they line up to get into the Circuit Van Drenthe in time for the warm-up, the morning after the heavy night before.
But, back to the night in question.
Your humble correspondent had filed his qualifying report to the Editor, schmoozed those who needed schmoozing, made plans for future related articles and got suitably attired for the evening's festivities. With friends in tow, the usual collection of race freaks and adrenaline junkies among them, we took our evening sustenance at a bustling little Italian restaurant which had a polo-shirt proudly hanging on the wall encased in a glass cabinet and signed by the GP class of 1993, apparently won in a charity raffle and now hung center stage for all to see.
All the signatures were there, an impressive list of names representing some of the finest swashbucklers ever to throw a leather-clad leg over a motorcycle. Doohan, Schwantz, Rainey, Capirossi, Chandler, Criville, Itoh, Mackenzie, Beattie, Mladin, Barros, Cadalora, Harada, Kocinski, Reggiani, Chili, Puig, Spaan, D'Antin, Sakata--an impressive roll call indeed.
And, a nice distraction from the aforementioned European soccer championships intrusively wafting across to our table from the widescreen television perched precariously on the bar as I eat my spectacular, plate-filling, pepperoni pizza and quaff a rather expensive bottle of California wine.
Suitably fed, we made our way to the aforementioned main square, the Rolling Stones rip-off merchants trying their best to get me onside with interesting renditions of "Brown Sugar" and "Under My Thumb". Not a bad effort, although the lead singer was more Howard Stern than Mick Jagger. That said, it wasn't the worst I'd ever heard, and the well-oiled crowd, which seemed to be growing exponentially, was enjoying themselves and that, in turn, was helping the local economy, so I wasn't about to complain.
We had managed to plod up in the center of what can only be described as a Dutch TT lunatic asylum committee meeting. The many freestanding, waist-high tables surrounded by inebriated orange-shirted folk with the surface of said tables filled with every variation of alcoholic beverage known to man. The atmosphere electric, the behavior impeccable and it was just as the band leapt into a rather over-the-top version of "Paint It Black" that it happened.
Whenever I go into the host town of any race meeting, I always have a hope. That hope is that I meet one of those rare individuals who can, through conversation, enrich not only the evening but enrich my whole outlook on the sport I already love unconditionally. The individual that can re-awaken memories long-since stored in the great data bank of knowledge held inside my head, the individual who can "feel" the sport and think about the sport on the same wavelength that I do.
As the evening turned chilly and the zipper on the fleece was pulled all the way to the top, and as I looked skyward and saw the crazy punters in the distance, high above the rooftops, jumping on a bungee rope from a crane toward a pitch black hole formerly known as the pavement, I was about to be introduced to such an individual?or, rather, he was about to introduce himself to me.
From the adjacent table came forward a pot-bellied, red-cheeked, bearded chap who was making a beeline for our entourage, his face full of both mischief and inquisitiveness. We had previously seen him regaling his friends, and anyone else who passed within two feet of him, with TT stories from years gone by. We couldn't hear him with all the noise being thrown up by the "Rolling Bones" on stage, but the hand gestures and body language told their own story--and he confirmed this to be the case when we spoke.
His first actions were that of a long-lost relative greeting a family member, handshakes all around and an offer of a round of drinks. He was happy to play the host and I didn't want to disappoint him. He introduced himself: "My name is Alex, and I'm a taxi driver," he said, with all the stature of a world leader. This, after all, was his stage.
We did the obligatory introductions, and the conversation flowed between nationalism, alcohol consumption, women and all other manner of socially responsible topics, and the obvious stories about the people he had ferried around in the back of his taxi--some hilarious, it must be said. He explained how, as a young man, he had lost a leg in a biking accident and proudly described his wooden replacement, made by his own hand.
He gave us all an insight into the real state of affairs within marriages worldwide and how many men falsely believe they are the bosses in their household, according to Alex.
He opined, "I am one of four in my house. There is me, my wife and the two children but don't let that fool you and don't let any man fool you. We may be the men, but we aren't the ones wearing the trousers!"
A wise man, indeed, and a brave one for admitting what many won't.
This was however, only a preamble to the main topic of conversation. The topic he really wanted to get too--motorcycle racing. Eventually, he found the right entrance marker in the dialogue and got down to talking about what had been written across his face since he first swaggered over to greet us.
As my career path was something that fascinated him, I bore the brunt of his initiation process--and that's what it was, an initiation. He was sizing me up, trying to decide whether I was just another race fan or whether I had something to offer him by way of some real, all-out passionate opinion. He didn't want to let his guard down and tell me all until he was sure I was worth the effort.
He fired off a volley of questions, some cleverly containing mistakes, waiting to see if I really had the goods. He asked me about Rainey and about Graziano Rossi and wanted to hear my historical perspective of previous Dutch TT attendance, as well as what I thought of Fogarty. I passed with flying colors. Then came the clincher.
In his best English, he asked me outright, "So, what do you think of Valentino Rossi?"
He was desperate to hear the right answer, whatever the right answer is. Everyone will give a different view, but my response to his question seemed to be just what he was looking for.
"He's the best thing to happen to Grand Prix, and to motorcycle racing in general, since Wayne Rainey crashed at Misano and Kevin Schwantz retired," said I.
I knew I'd hit pay-dirt when his eyes lit up, he extended his hand and congratulated me on actually having something to say rather than just pontificating and wasting his time with a list of press release-type diatribe.
"You are a man who feels this, am I right? This is how I feel, too," he declared.
There was more. "I tell my son it's not all about seeing it, it's not all about simply accepting what the moment has to offer, it's what you take from it and how you feel about it that counts. It's the respect you have for such a noble sport that makes you what you are. If you love it, you live it."
That was quite some statement considering the circumstances--beer-fuelled and full of hedonistic ideas about the rest of the night after our meeting of the minds had reached its conclusion. We continued our conversation for 45 more minutes, but the blow-by-blow description is not needed here. Suffice to say we covered Rainey and Schwantz, Hailwood and Agostini, the Daijiro Kato crash, the Doohan injuries, favorite circuits, politics within the sport and much more.
Each time we reached an impasse, another suitably iconic moment or individual surfaced for us to dissect, in the nicest possible way, of course. His guard had lowered, and he was allowing me a peek into a rarely visited corner of his mind, a trusted place that he kept hidden behind the Dutch bravado, not wanting just any old soul to gain access to his inner thoughts. I was honored.
In little over an hour, I had found one of those rare people who holds the sport in the same high regard as me, not the pretend version where you feel cheated by a circumnavigation of what you should be talking about, the opposing person in the conversation knowledgeable but desperate to be elsewhere. He was impressed that I had patience to get past his sometimes patchy English and that I had persevered with him. He told me he hoped his son, who is dyslexic and couldn't write about the sport, would grow up like him and understand what it was like to feel it, not just see it. "It" being the big picture.
At the end of our summit, he left me with a final thought that I found quite compelling, as he reached for his wallet so he could buy his friends another drink. He looked right at me and said the following:
"You, my friend, understand people. You have a job where you can affect what people think and you can make them aware. I envy you and your work because I am just a small man in a big pond and nobody knows me, not really. I am a taxi driver, a former carpenter, a working man in the grandstand and I don't get close like you do. But don't ever forget I am there and I respect the sport like you. You make me proud tonight."
And, with that, he shook my hand once more and returned to his friends, his hearty belly laugh could be heard above the final number from the "Stones," his comedic excellence entertaining those not only at his table but anyone within earshot. A remarkable man--not a journalist, not a racer, not a sports pundit or any variation on the same theme. He is Alex, the taxi driver from Assen.
A small man in a big pond? I think not.