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by dean adams
Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A man called Elbows. When Ben Spies hit WSBK he single-handedly changed the way people felt about WSBK riders.
image thanks, pops yoshimura

"Do you mind if I borrow some charge," Ben Spies asked me as he simultaneously plugged his iPhone into my laptop. He pulled out a chair, sat down next to me, leaned his long body back and propped his head on his hand. We were in Portugal, at Portimau, for the final WSBK race of the 2008 season.

Portimau was new to the WSBK calendar that year and its "new" vibe was hard to miss—dirt had been painted green to simulate grass and the local government had just put in an overpass and widened the access road only the week before. Nevertheless, the American contingent was strong. Then Honda Supersport rider Josh Hayes was racing the final races of the championship, John Paolo Canton of American Ducati was present, and Troy Bayliss was competing in his last-ever race weekend. No one alive wanted to miss it.

And then came Spies, arriving with his Yoshimura crew chief Tom Houseworth.

Presidential historians, if they are wise, don't even begin to try to summarize history until years after the president leaves office. When trying to put events into permanent context, the lens of time and distance brings clarity.

Looking back now, at Spies' WSBK debut, through that lens, it all comes clear.

You see, Spies had won three AMA Superbike titles, but he was mostly unknown to the European media in Portugal that day. Even in the Portimao media center, surrounded by the press, he largely stood alone, looking out he window, or spent his time strolling around the paddock, ignored by the media and the public at large. Surely bored and in need of human contact, Spies resorted to hanging out with an American media dork, namely, me.

With seventy-five people conversing in different languages as a backdrop, Spies asked me all about my family, taking a certain interest in my eldest son, John, who was just a few years younger than Spies. Terminally shy, Spies did not let many people, male or female, peer past his sunglasses or anything else. It was difficult to see, then, what was in store for Spies, what he would accomplish, and how it would rearrange the legacies of so many other WSBK riders.

But now, six years later, in 2014, the only way to sum up that last WSBK weekend of 2008 was to term it the end of an era. After the battering he took in his MotoGP career, Bayliss had returned to WSBK, won the title and was now leaving, retiring from the sport. That alone made that Portimao weekend an epoch for the books.

It was also the very last time that the world could reasonably believe that the men then racing in World Superbike were the very best Superbike riders in existence.

Spies changed that forever.

Nori Haga, one of the greats of WSBK. Admittedly he had a new bike, but when Spies took over Haga's ride at Yamaha, he dominated and won the title.
image by dean adams

Before Spies, in WSBK, to win, a manufacturer needed to hire a rider from a very select clique. The best rides went to riders like Bayliss, Troy Corser, Nori Haga, Carlos Checa, or Max Biaggi. Riders from America were largely shunned, and it wasn't until the middle of the 2009 WSBK season that we all discovered how flawed that thinking had been.

"Excuse me, are you Ben Spies, from the AMA?" a French journo' asked Spies as he sat at my table.

Uh-huh.

"What brings you to Europe?" he asked Spies, "looking for a ride?".

"I'm ridin' for Yamaha," Spies answered, not the least bit insulted.

Reminded, the French journalist wished Spies good luck with replacing Nori Haga on the Yamaha squad, inferring he had big shoes to fill. He mentioned that he might want to interview Spies later if he had time, and begged off.

That thinking, that Spies had really bitten off a mouthful by jumping into WSBK, wasn't uncommon; I have to admit I wondered at times early on if he was up to it.

Now, so many years later, it's interesting that Spies didn't really have big shoes to fill at all. Instead he leaned that lanky Texas frame back and then stomped on the whole of WSBK. He forever changed the way people thought about the riders who made up WSBK in 2008 and 2009.

For four or more years Spies had been pushed to the brink both on and off the track by his AMA teammate, Mat Mladin. Spies' crew and Mladin's men were on the verge of raining blows on each other, and team members often stood between the two riders, not letting them get within swinging distance.

What that environment culminated with was Spies being basically a racing Marine fresh from The Mat Mladin Boot Camp. In one of his first meetings with the Yamaha World Superbike team, at Portimao, Spies told them that he expected to win the World Superbike title in his first year and if he didn't he was going to be very, very angry.

Ex-racer Massimo ("Maio") Meregalli, team manager, corrected Spies. Spies had a two year WSBK deal with Yamaha, so the plan was for Spies to get his bearings in 2009 and then make a run for the title in 2010.

Ah, no.

Spies confirmed he'd made no mistake; he expected the title in his debut year. Nothing less.

Spies was aided in his dream WSBK title year by keeping the same--and only one he's ever had--crewchief he had in AMA: the very capable and talented Tom Houseworth.
image by dean adams

On the Monday after the opening Portimao WSBK event, Spies rode the new R1 for the first time. When Tom Houseworth took Maio and the rest into the back section of the track to watch Spies ride, Maio and the Yamaha team were nearly giddy. Spies had terrific speed, and his elbows-out flair was just as clear.

In his first—and only—season of WSBK, Spies rode to the absolute limit of the equipment. And in some cases it became a new limit. While the World Superbike championship had seen riders spin the rear tire on the wheel before—the tire would catch traction and before the electronics could soften the blow, the rear tire would slip slightly out of place--no one in WSBK had actually done that to front tires though, before Ben Spies.

The American WSBK rookie braked so hard that the front tire spun on the rim. After the first instance, the tire manufacturer called a meeting with the team and alerted them that this was happening and that it was uncharted territory for them. At the same time, the brake supplier to the Yamaha team mentioned that they had never seen a rider consistently brake as hard as Spies, that the data consistently showed numbers they saw, if ever, just briefly, in qualifying.

When Spies went into full attack mode, he rode like it was Mladin he was trying to out-brake. At least once, he actually, impossibly, spooned the front tire right off the wheel, causing him to crash, the Yamaha lying in the gravel trap with the front tire hanging, humbly, between the fork tubes. The tire manufacturer's response was to ask Spies to please not brake that hard, that their tires, in the future, would need to be re-engineered to withstand "Spies mode".

"When I think back to that World Superbike season," Spies says, "I don't really think about winning the championship or even any of the stuff that went wrong, like running out of fuel at Monza (a mis-calculation made by current Rossi crewchief Silvano Galbusera). What I think about is that first race of the season."

Phillip Island in Australia was the first round of the 2009 World Superbike championship.

Surely bored and in need of human contact, Spies resorted to hanging out with an American media dork, namely, me.
"It pisses me off so bad when I think about that race at Phillip Island. I did the pole pretty easy and then I wanted to win the first two races of the year. I wanted to let them know, mostly the team, how serious I was. But then in the first race Biaggi just totally sawed my front wheel off. I was pushed off, then got behind someone who blew their motor. I finished like sixteenth."

It's interesting that the turning point of the season was, for Ben Spies, that very first race.

"Second race, I was like, 'Oh, okay, you guys want to play it that way? I passed Biaggi on the outside. I put my head down and went as fast as possible for as long as possible."

Spies won the second-ever WSBK race he entered.

His original contract with Yamaha called for two seasons in WSBK, then a move to MotoGP. After about seven rounds of the WSBK championship, though, everyone saw that there was little point in Spies doing a second year of WSBK.

After Spies had finished with World Superbike, Max Biaggi, Ruben Xaus, Regis Laconi, Nori Haga and Carlos Checa were not all-conquering Superbike riders, the very best riders to race the class.

They were, post-Spies, just good riders.

ENDS

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