(Originally published June 2004)
It’s Thursday afternoon, 6pm, at the Autodromo Nationale Monza, in the Villa Reale park. The SBK paddock has been at a fever pitch all day, with two-stroke scooters buzzing precariously between teamers and scenesters, the pilots balancing freshly mounted Pirellis over their left shoulders and steadying them with their clutch hands that are otherwise unencumbered thanks to the miracle of automatic transmissions. Meanwhile, their other hands are busily managing throttle control and braking with a Gauloises sporting a 3-inch ash and pinched between their two fingers, while of course, still managing the occasional wave to a friend, rival, or umbrella girl. But things are starting to settle down, at least outwardly. The garage doors close, the hospitality tents turn quiet. Even the PA system–the megaphones from which a non-stop, 200-mph stream of Italian racing commentary (RAY-GEEEEEEEESSSSSS——LAAAAACOOOO-NNNNEEEEEEE!) assaults the eardrums all day–settles down to a subtle ground-loop buzz.
Walking down to the end of pit lane onto the track, the long front straight stretches into the distance before you. It probably looks a lot shorter in an F1 car or on a Superbike, braking from over 190 mph for the first right/left/right flip-flop. Shortly after this, the extended, high-speed “Curva Biassono” bends to the right, and walking at least, you don’t get a sense of where it ends. Much of the Monza circuit feels this way– an extended curve that seems to have no end. You just lean further, go faster, and keep your vision fixed on the ever-refreshing vanishing point. All this with trees on either side that are hundreds of years old, with branches clipped back from overhanging the track–which doesn’t stop the constant stream of weightless white blossoms detaching themselves and drifting aimlessly over the racing surface. The cacaphony of nature is almost deafening, birds in every tree. Near the Armco, dozens of tiny salamanders run to their hiding places when ever you sit down to take it all in.
How quintessentially Italian it is to successfully harmonize one of the world’s finest motor racing circuits into this natural setting. Much of the old Monza concrete banking still exists, although it is not used. Because of the steep degree of banking, it is impossible to stand more than a few feet up. But you can walk on it, and doing so sure does conjure up ghosts. If you walk to the right place, you can see the spot where Yves Montand met his end in Grand Prix, hanging in a tree with his burning Ferrari below. Walking the track, it is incredible how many ghosts seem to visit you–Nuvolari, Pasolini, Saarinen, Hawthorne, Von Trips, Fangio. The essence cannot be conveyed in a TV broadcast, it’s just one of those things that you “feel”.
One of the other things that really isn’t effectively conveyed in TV coverage is the human element of racing. When you sit down in front of Speedvision on Sunday afternoon to watch the race, you get a minute or two on the grid, the bikes are off, the camera stays with the leaders and, for a moment, the unfortunates who crash. Then it’s a couple of comments from the podium finishers while they switch hats 17 times, followed by a slow-motion shot of the winner doing a standing wheelie across the line, then the credits roll. Finito. Certainly, we’re lucky to have any bike racing coverage in the States, instead of the old days when we waited until January for Duke to put out the Season Review VHS. But the deeper story is almost always missing.
Last weekend at Monza, the story was Frankie Chili. He went into the race with a more than a 20-point lead, Laconi and Toseland hadn’t been consistent, Vermuelen is still learning, and both the spec tire rule and the weather had helped. Despite all this, the fact that Chili was leading the championship after three rounds was something of a miracle. Chili has nowhere near the resources that Corse Ducati, Foggy Petronas, or probably even Ten Kate have. He’s been riding a bike that’s several years old, and rumor has it that his number one bike is based on a 998R streetbike, with kit parts. There’s a 999 in his garage which doesn’t see much use, as Chili doesn’t have the resources to test it enough to find a cure for the front-end woes that everyone from James Toseland to Eric Bostrom seem to be experiencing this season.
At the Thursday press conference, one of the Italian journalists asked the now standard questions about MotoGP: wouldn’t the riders rather be there, is the SBK championship still important, etc. Chili, who up until then had been his typically jovial, cut-up self, got extremely serious, and spoke to the guy like an Ivy League College professor dressing down a snotty undergraduate. Not being fluent in Italian, I had to get an on-the-fly translation from another journo, but basically Chili said it doesn’t really matter where you’re racing, what’s most important is the relationship with your team. That you could be in MotoGP, on good equipment, and without that relationship, you couldn’t win. He also intimated that there were lots of bikes or riders in MotoGP who could not win, well-learned from his experience racing the Honda in 500 GP. So, it wasn’t only important which race series you were in, but what you could actually do when you got there. Clearly, the relationship Chili has with his team is a major element in his successes this year in SBK.
While every rider tries to have a good working relationship with his crew, there is a real family vibe in the PSG-1 team. After each venture onto the track during practice and qualifying, there was passionate discourse between Chili and his mechanics, and you could feel them praying for the momentum to continue at Monza. The rollup to Superpole was electric. Would Frankie be able to beat the Ducati 999 F04 juggernaut of Toseland and Laconi, and the ultra-quick Honda 1000RR of Vermuelen? Would he retain or extend his points lead? Much work would be required if they were to have a chance. Even Friday morning, where the grandstands are typically empty at an SBK race, there were Italian fans in the stand with Chili banners, sitting across from his garage, shouting words of encouragement every time Frankie came into view. Chili and his team seemed to draw energy from the fans. The times were close from the start, and by the time Saturday afternoon’s Superpole session started, all eyes were on the TV monitors. In the end, Frankie came up a little short, third place on the grid behind Laconi and Vermuelen, but in front of Toseland, Haga, McCoy, Corser, etc.–on a street-based, privateer bike. Things looked good for the race.
Sunday morning, Chili leaves the garage to the cheers of fans. First race sighting lap, bikes leave the grid. You turn your back to walk to the garage and suddenly, chaos. Frankie’s bike has blown up. What? On the sighting lap? Everyone runs to the garages, to TV monitors – all down pitlane people are saying “shit!” In Italian, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, and English. Many are rooting for Frankie, tired of Corse Ducati’s Ferrari F1-esque chokehold on the championship. Within a minute, Frankie blazes out of the pits on his 999, having gotten a scooter ride back from a PSG-1 mechanic who raced to retrieve him. Chili now has to start from pitlane on a bike which he has not set up. The race starts, everyone passes pit lane and Frankie blasts out. Immediately, he starts cutting through the pack, soon working his way up into a points-scoring position. Then he downshifts for a corner, and a huge cloud of white smoke starts to trail the 999…DNF.
Chili parks it as a collective groan seeps from the grandstands. Chili walks off the track to safety, visibly wilted. Laconi wins by a mile.
The garage door went down between races, and serious work began. Chili’s second 998 racebike, which had been up the road at a static display for fans, is retrieved and wheeled through the crowds back to the garage. Now that the 999 is down, a backup bike is needed. The expired 998 is almost completely disassembled, blown engine removed, chassis cleaned of oil, and a backup engine muscled into place. Obviously, this had never been intended. I watched a mechanic struggle with a razor for 10 minutes, cutting old gaskets off the manifolds, cleaning and prepping the block. This while other crew members race-prepped the bike which had been on display. Then three mechanics humped the engine into place, struggling and cursing, lining it up. It was hot at Monza, they were working fast and sweating. I watched them build that entire bike from nothing and when they were done, they paused, exhaled, and smiled for a moment. It put a lump in my throat.
Then Frankie came in and started joking around and laughing with the guys. Apparently the guy with the scooter who rescued Frankie on the warmup lap shot right by him, prompting Chili to wave his arms frantically “over here!” Chili pantomined the whole thing, and as everyone laughed, you could see their batteries recharging. As they rolled out the 998 for the second race, the crowd cheered, Chili waved, mounted the bike, made the sign of the Cross, and slowly rolled off. He seemed to be intensely savoring the moments rolling down pit lane, cheering crowd on his left, so many people watching him from the right of the pits, mentally settling himself, those precious, silent moments before a race when everything is in slow motion. When hope, doubt, fear, and confidence blur with adrenaline. Frankie found his grid position, no problems on the warm-up lap, then they were off.
I watched the race from his garage. Quickly, Laconi broke free, Vermuelen on his tail, with Frankie swapping third position with Toseland, outbraking him again and again, only to be passed under power. It didn’t feel fair–Chili could clearly outride Toseland, at least on this day, but he didn’t have the motor to make it stick. He had to use every trick he had learned in his 39 years. He had to push beyond what the Pirellis could bear, and every time he passed Toseland, his entire crew, his wife, journalists, fans, everyone watching in the garage clenched their fists and cheered. Would the Ghosts of Monza ride with Chili and grant him luck? Would that collective wish be granted, just for Chili to score enough points to stay in the game, if not the points lead?
Sadly, not today. The cameras suddenly switched from the Laconi/Vermuelen battle to the #7 bike, so beautifully and lovingly rebuilt, lying dusty in the gravel trap. He had lost the front-end and went down, pushing too hard, beyond what either the tires, bike, or he could take. But Frankie was up, he was OK, his arms outstretched as if pleading for this not to be true, please don’t let this weekend end here, let me get back out there. But he knew that even if the bike was OK, there was no way he could bump-start a 998. He was done. The cheering stopped abruptly, the clenched fists in the garage opened, and it was quiet. Chili’s wife, seeing immediately that Frankie was up and walking, was spared the dread of not knowing if he was OK. At such a high-speed track as Monza, walking away from a crash is a blessing, not a guarantee. Maybe the Ghosts of Monza were watching out for Frankie after all.
Later, Chili came back to the garage. His wife and team hugged him, asked if he was ok. He was, at least physically. But you could tell what he was thinking: “How many more years can I do this? How much longer can I compete without the resources? How many more hits can my body take? Couldn’t I have just had some luck this weekend? Did I let these people down by crashing? I need to keep this going, not just for me, but for all of them, and my fans.” The TV cameras focused on Frankie as he sat down in his battered leathers, and for a moment, all that inner monologue was broadcast for all to see. Chili looked up, saw his face on TV, and looked away from the cameras, flushed. His family and teammates gathered around him on their knees, and comforted him.
I had taken dozens of pictures in Frankie’s garage over the past four days, but now, I put my camera away. I backed out of the garage and walked onto pit lane, with the bikes and crew members filing past, after the victory celebrations. The sun was high, the tide of this race weekend receding. Soon, pit lane was quiet again, flags flapping in the warm afternoon breeze – Italian flags, Pirelli flags, SBK flags. And a fan’s spray-painted, homemade Chili banner, written in Italian on a bedsheet. They were still sitting there, holding it. I hoped that they, like me, were pondering the majesty of loss.