Right now, somewhere, there is a twenty-three year old street rider who will try his hand at club roadracing for the first time this Spring. In his mind his goals are probably to have fun, learn some race craft and maybe, just maybe, win some amateur club races.
On the drive home from the racetrack after a particularly successful weekend, perhaps while stopped at a red light, his battered van filled with a bike and camping supplies, this 23 year old club racer will let his mind wander. ‘Wouldn’t it be something if I could turn this into career, get noticed by a factory and get a factory ride? Turn that into a factory World Superbike ride?’ he’ll think to himself.
When the light turns green, his mind will slam back into gear and he’ll know that the reality of the situation is that twenty-three year old club racers don’t become factory World Superbike riders.
Unless they’re Troy Bayliss that is.
It wasn’t as if Bayliss had never raced before. Troy Bayliss raced motocross as a teen, did okay, then dropped out of racing and took up the noble trade of painting cars in a auto body repair shop in Australia.
Painting cars in Australia is not a bad life, the money is okay and if you play your cards right you can own your own shop and hopefully work yourself to death before all the chemicals from the paint kill you. Bayliss painted cars for eight years, got married, had kids and made a life. And if wasn’t for a speeding ticket and a Kawasaki sport bike sitting in a dealership window, he may have never left that life.
In his quiet, affable way, Bayliss explains how he turned a club racing career in Australia into a Ducati Corse World Superbike ride. “I was a spray painter for ten years. I did my apprenticeship… I was 17 or 18, and did ten years of spray painting in the same place.
“I always knew I was pretty good on a motorbike because I used to race junior motocross when I was about ten or 11, and I used to go really fast. I knew I was fast, I just never rode a motorcycle from when I was about 14 ‘til I was 23.
“That all started when I lost my license in the car, just for, you know…being 17 and a bit silly. So I had to buy a bicycle to ride to work. I met this guy who actually races pushbikes (bicycles) for a living now, but he got me into bicycle riding. I would go out training every morning, and I’d ride past the motorbike shop and they had this ZXR750 staring at me through the window. For some reason, the bug bit me again. So I bought the bike and paid it off for a few years. That started me racing again. I had the bike for a couple of months and I thought, ‘this is crazy on the road,’ so I took it to a club race and off I went.” Bayliss was 23 years old.
Once at the track and fitted with leathers and a number plate, Bayliss did something few new club racers do: he left the bike alone and just rode it, never changing anything but tires and fuel. He concentrated not on jetting or gearing or which tire works where, but just on going as humanly fast as he could go on that motorcycle. He learned that going six inches wide on the exit of this corner gave him another mile and a half on the straight, that it was pretty easy to pass other riders on the brakes; little lessons like that made him a better rider.
Of course, the fact that Bayliss and friends had no idea what they were doing helped.
Bayliss recalls, “I didn’t have any car, so we used to take the back seat out of my father-in-law’s van, put the bike in there and take it to the races. Me and (father-in-law) Max knew nothing about racing. All we did was put petrol in my bike and race.”
Ignorance is bliss. “We’d be sitting in the pits, and look at all these riders working on their bikes, we’d look at each other and say, ‘What are they doin’? Why are they workin’ on their bikes all the time?’. It was quite funny.”
Bayliss passed all the tests that fast club racers usually fail. He jumped up to the regional level, with more power and stiffer competition and still won. He started doing national level Supersport racing in Australia and went right to the front. That was a characteristic of his riding, that more times than not, really no matter what, he was at the front. Sometimes he won, sometimes he crashed and sometimes he finished back, but he was at the front time and again. A rider with that quality is hard to ignore even if he is too old to get a factory ride.
Then a man named Mat Mladin, who was riding for Kawasaki Australia, crashed an Ultralight airplane and cleaved his ankle and would sit out several races. Kawasaki needed a replacement rider and Bayliss, who not only has a good on-track record but a can-do attitude off, was chosen.
Though painful, Bayliss recalls what transpired, “I was racing 600 Supersport. Mat has an ultralight airplane, and he crashed and broke his leg. So I had a chance to race the Team Kawasaki bike. I qualified on the pole on my first time on the bike; I was dicing for the lead with one lap to go. I thought, ‘I’m gonna win,’ and that was it. I passed on the inside and hit the guy, fell off, and broke my wrist.”
To quote Bill Murray: and then depression set in.
“I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ll never get another chance’, Bayliss recalls.
However, a good rider who can go to the front, even if he does crash is worth more to teams than a rider with a million safe seconds to his credit. Winning, after all, is the point of racing. Kawasaki called Bayliss. Mladin is leaving, still interested? “Mat left, and I ended up getting to fill his place,” said Bayliss.
Cut to the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. Bayliss in a guest ride qualifies the Suzuki 250 sixth at Phillip Island and finishes in that same spot—just behind Tetsuya Harada, equaling the Suzuki’s best finish of the season. Four spots in front of him at the line is arguably the best 250 rider in the world at the time, Max Biaggi. Bayliss fought tooth and nail for the whole race, ran as high as second and afterwards the established stars of GP complained about his aggressive riding style. It was dangerous and not in the spirit of the class, they muttered. Bayliss didn’t pay it much attention. He wasn’t there to lay down a red carpet for them.
The cool aspect of Grand Prix racing is that it’s televised in most of the world, and several gents in England saw what Suzuki-mounted Bayliss, who, again, was too old to get a factory ride, could do with an opportunity.
Next thing you know, old Jed’s a millionaire, or actually riding a factory Ducati in England. No more Australia, real job or paint mask.
Bayliss confesses that in this period he and his wife would occasionally look at each other across the table while eating dinner and marvel where life had taken them.
England: reasonably bad food, omnipresent dark clouds and 100 year old racetracks with jumps in them. Bayliss got down to business, but he screwed up and the team screwed up at different points during the first season. Aaaarrggg. Then the next year both of them improved and Bayliss won the British Superbike title.
The British press took a liking to him, even. In fact, everybody likes him. Bayliss is like that handy can-do kid you knew in high school shop who, even if he didn’t know how to operate a wood lathe, would help you with your foot-stool project.
Were you not a bit concerned about the racetracks in England, I ask Bayliss. Some make Loudon look like a marshmallow bag in comparison. He shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘Didn’t seem that bad to be honest. I mean, they were better than they were in Australia. The tracks I saw in America didn’t look that safe either too be honest.” (Bayliss for the record only raced at Daytona, Sears Point and Laguna Seca)
Ducati Corse were impressed with this man from Australia living in England and racing their bike. There came a point where they realized they needed a good man in America to try and nab that title. Bayliss became that man.
Shortly after the decision was made, I talked to Mat Mladin and mentioned the Bayliss to Vance and Hines rumor. Even on the phone you could tell he took interest in this development. And with Mladin, it has been my experience, he rates rivals riders as either ‘bring it on’ or hopeless. Bayliss was bring it on material.
Not knowing any of the tracks, not having ever as much as seen America before, Bayliss went to Daytona for the Dunlop tire test with the Vance and Hines Ducati team. And then all kinds of doors open for him.
It’s late in the afternoon at Assen. Jet lag has hit me and I need a place to crash for a few minutes. I swing through the Corse hospitality unit, watch Frankie Chili’s seven year old son Kevin (named after Kevin Schwantz) play video games on the Playstation console. He has been playing for hours, silently, his eyes never moving off the screen. Different people come over to talk to him, or the girls running the hospitality unit try to chase him off and he does not move, does not acknowledge their existence.
I walk up the stairs, find an empty room and sit down in a chair, my head collapses to the table and I try to nap.
From the video game area downstairs I hear a familiar voice. It is Bayliss, who has stopped by to get a coffee. He too watches Chili’s son play the video game. Then they are alone in the area for a while with just me above them, eavesdropping. Bayliss talks to Kevin and Kevin ignores him, but shouldn’t.
“What you going to be when you grow up?” Bayliss asks the lad. “You like motorcycles? Sure you do, they’re the best ain’t they? You think you’ll race them one day like your daddy? Well, your daddy is a legend. You know that? He’s a legend. He’s one of the greats. You know that? I can’t believe I’m racing against him.”