Anyone who says that they completely understand riders is a liar.
William Dunlop, nephew of the late, great Joey Dunlop, was killed last weekend while competing in a race at the Skerries 100, a street circuit in Ireland.
Dunlop, 32, was on the verge of retirement and had opted out of the recent IOM TT in order to tend to his growing family. His death makes three men in the Dunlop family who have been killed while racing motorcycles. His Uncle Joey was killed in 2000 and William’s father was killed in 2008, both while racing. Does three deaths while racing constitute a family curse? Probably not when a trait within the same family is the ability to go very very fast on a motorbike.
Riders are unique individuals, maybe the most unique in sport. When ability, desire and confidence manifest in a top rider they create a being who can perform laws of physics-bending on a motorcycle. But that in itself unleashes something within them that very few of them can ever turn off. It’s beyond the search for the next adrenaline rush; their ability to conquer machine, conditions and equipment–and most importantly win–sets fire to something in their very soul that most can never fully extinguish. Only a few of them can truly walk away from racing and find any happiness. Some hide it better than others but only a scant few can just walk away and say no more. Kevin Schwantz, Casey Stoner and Kel Carruthers had the strength of conviction to segue into a non-racing life existence after racing, but they are in a frightfully small club. American racing great Gary Nixon died at 70 fully convinced that he was nearly as fast he was when he was 23; and if you’d offered him a top ride he’d have probably taken you up on it. A bus-load of lesser known riders from the 1970s, 80s and beyond feel this same way but don’t make it as publicly known as Nixon did.
When Troy Bayliss decided to come out of retirement and fill in for an injured rider on the Ducati WSBK team, a man who had closely worked with him sent Bayliss a text message asking him to re-consider his decision, stating plainly that there was nothing left for TB21 to prove, that the risks at this stage were staggeringly enormous. Bayliss texted back, “Death before dishonor.”
With many a veteran rider, caution is the best plan. Case in point: when Ronnie Jones (57) finished inside the top ten at the Springfield Mile a month or so back, several of King Kenny Roberts’ intimates chatted privately and vowed not to speak of Jones’ success with the King, afraid of how that information might combust in Roberts’ 66 year-old head. Could King Kenny Roberts finish on the podium in 2018 AMA dirt track if he were on a fast Indian? Don’t.
The tired cliche of the deceased motorcycle racer is that they died doing something they loved. I’ve never been convinced that this is accurate. I can’t really see the similarities between a despondent Jorge Lorenzo, seemingly in the depths of depression because he finished sixth in a race and the smiling Sunday street rider whose perma-grin is marred only by the bugs in his teeth. Do top riders love motorcycles like you and I? Some do, probably. But it’s not the motorcycle they love, court and desire, it’s the winning.
Top riders like the late Mr. Dunlop are blessed with rare skills and a sense of competitiveness that mortals will never understand. They don’t really get out of bed eager to do a 7:55 AM call for first practice. They probably race because it is one of the few times in their lives that they feel whole. In their souls they are motorcycle racers, and to not race is more painful than the knowledge that if fate deems it so racing will take from them everything.
They are riders. They are blessed. They are cursed. All of them.