Ben Spies Helping to Put America Back On MotoGP Map
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Texan Ben Spies had less than a week to savor his first career MotoGP victory, shuttling off from the podium at Assen, The Netherlands, to Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello for the Grand Prix of Italy.
Spies finished fourth Sunday on his Yamaha Factory Racing machine in Round 8 of 18 at Mugello, where Jorge Lorenzo of Spain prevailed on his Yamaha. Spies, who qualified second, now sits sixth in world championship points, 78 behind 2007 MotoGP World Champion Casey Stoner of Australia and Repsol Honda Team. Stoner (152 points) has a 19-point advantage over runnerup Lorenzo, while Italian Andrea Dovizioso is third on his Ducati, 33 points behind the leader.
Spies, 26, led every lap en route to his breakthrough MotoGP win on June 25 at TT Assen. It was the first MotoGP victory by an American rider since Nicky Hayden won the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix on July 23, 2006 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California. Spies’ victory came midway through his second full MotoGP season.
Spies, from Longview in East Texas, will join fellow Americans Hayden of Ducati Team and Colin Edwards of Monster Yamaha Tech 3 in the Red Bull Indianapolis GP on Aug. 26-28 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In April, MotoGP officials signed a 10-year agreement to compete at the Circuit of the Americas road-course under construction outside of Austin, Texas, beginning in 2013.
Spies recounted details of his first win and commented on a variety of topics during a
teleconference before heading to Italy:
Question: It certainly was a rush job having to go from Assen to Mugello after your first win. How has that victory resonated with the team?
Spies: “We’re still enjoying it. The team has got really good confidence and morale. But we can’t get in over our heads and think we can do that all the time. We’ve got to know and understand that it is possible; we can do it. It definitely takes a little bit to realize what happened.”
Question: You led from entering the second turn of the first lap at Assen all the way to the finish. What were you thinking as the 26-lapper played-out?
Spies: “It was quite a strange race but also a very fun race. We got out to the lead, and once I got to a three-and-a-half, four-second lead, I wanted to see what Casey’s pace was. When he started taking a tenth and two-tenths out of me, we could put it back and go faster. Once I realized we had the pace to win, I just rode as hard as I could without making any mistakes to keep the gap.
“Toward the end of the race, we got more comfortable and went faster and pulled the gap out. With about eight laps to go, I realized what was going to happen. We definitely could win the race. Then I thought: ‘I can’t make mistakes. I can’t slow down and think too much. I’ve just got to stay in the same rhythm I’ve been in the whole race and continue to churn out the laps’ – and that’s what we did. And actually the gap went up to six-plus seconds. It was a great situation the middle of the race, having the gap the way it was, because it kept me riding hard until the end. We had to stay concentrated and basically race myself for the last six laps and do that.
“It was a great race. I think a lot of the stories about people hearing noises in the bike and things like that are when it’s the first win. It’s the first MotoGP win for me, but we’ve led races before. So it’s more of a comfortable feeling. But the bike was great. Didn’t have any worries at all. Just needed to keep it clean and not make mistakes and bring it home.”
Question: You had a memorable moment last year at Indianapolis, qualifying on-pole and kind of announcing yourself. How much does your win mean in terms of growing motorcycle racing? Do you think of yourself as someone trying to maybe help other Americans get turned onto MotoGP?
Spies: “It’s difficult because in Europe, obviously, motorcycle racing is like NASCAR in the States. So it’s hard. But if I can help that and be of any assistance basically to build the MotoGP reputation in the U.S., that’s the goal. That’s what we want. I race for Yamaha to help them sell motorcycles, and they give me motorcycles that we can win with. That’s always the goal, not just what we do on the racetrack but what happens afterward. That’s definitely the goal, to help MotoGP become bigger in the U.S.”
Question: You were supposed to test next year’s 1000cc bike at Mugello, and now that test has been pushed back to Brno, in the Czech Republic. Have you had any involvement with the development of that bike so far?
Spies: “Yes-and-no. We obviously haven’t ridden the 1000 yet, and we’re going to be riding it later. But we haven’t been doing a lot of work, even with the 800, just with different chassis setups and trying things that will move over to the 1000. But I think it’s actually a blessing in disguise that we’re going to ride it a little bit later because when we ride it, we won’t just have the bike to ride. We’ll have the bike to ride plus parts to test to give the engineers a better direction to go for the second test.”
Question: You said something at Assen about the Yamaha being fast enough at the top end but not really as fast out of corners or under acceleration. Is this due to electronics preventing you from getting all the power you need?
Spies: “It’s always a combination. It’s not always what even the rider feels and what is seen on TV. When we want acceleration, that’s what we want right now with the bike. But there’s many things (to consider). There’s traction that starts the acceleration. There is electronics. There is the engine power. The bike is always basically harnessed by how much power you can put down with traction and wheelies, and maybe the bike will wheelie more if you put more power to it. There’s such a fine line in so many departments that add up to what the bike does coming off the corner.
“So we do need to work on it. It’s not just one thing. It’s not like we’ve got to throw in an engine that’s got 20 more horsepower. We’ve got to figure out how to get it to the ground, and we’ve got to figure out the electronics to go with it. It’s a complete package that we are working on and we’ve made it better. But definitely that’s where we need to work on the bike, to get it to accelerate out of the corner.”
Question: What is your reaction to the repaving of the infield portion of the road course for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP? As a guy who rode there the very first year as a wild card in ’08 and last year, you’ve seen the surface evolve. What’s your reaction to the news that the whole course now is pretty much going to have the same asphalt?
Spies: “It’s always great when the track is investing and making the surface better for the riders. But there’s also some things with bumps and things like that you can figure out as a rider, it’s good to have that. Where some riders complain about the bumps maybe you figure it out better, you have the line better around, or things like that.
“All-in-all, I’m much happier that it’s been repaved and I’m very much appreciative of Indy doing that. But there’s also some times you’ve kind of figured out how to go fast on what was there last year. But it’s the same for everybody. So we’ve just got to go there and know that we’re going to get fresh pavement the whole track, which is a great feeling. It’s nice to know. There’s always 50-50, but I’m much happier that they have repaved the track, and it will make it a little more consistent for us riders.”
Question: There’s a lot to talk about the Bridgestone tires and the compounds you guys race on. What is your take on the performance of the Bridgestones on the first lap? Is it something you can work around? And were you one of the riders who agreed to take on the softer tires if they were made available at Assen?
Spies: “I was for the softer tire, which would have been fun. I would have raced on the same tire that I raced on in the race, in any case. But with the way the Bridgestone tires work, it’s a lot of rider confidence. The more heat you can get into them at a faster rate, the better they work. And there is a fine line of learning how to do that. It’s very difficult to even explain, even if you do it to the riders. The Bridgestones are great tires. We do need to work on the heating up of them in the first couple laps. But again, it’s one of the things that’s the same for everybody. We nailed it that day and had the pace right off the bat, and that made the race a lot easier.”
Question: Professional athletes are confident. You guys don’t get to the top rung unless you believe in yourself. But is there an extra sense of “knowing” now because you have won at this level?
Spies: “Always. Coming into MotoGP, we’ve come from AMA, winning titles from AMA, winning the World Superbike title. When we came to MotoGP, we were Rookie of the Year last year. So there was a lot of media and a lot of good supporters behind us. But as a rider, when you go a year-and-a-half without winning there’s a little thought like, ‘OK, am I going to win a MotoGP race? Or if I do, when is it going to happen?’
“Now that it’s happened, it’s a whole lot of relief. And also in the back of my mind now (is that) it might not be every weekend, it might happen one more time this year, it might happen this weekend and it might not happen ever again – you never know. But at least I know in my head that when the bike is right and I’m riding well, I can win a MotoGP race and I can race with the fastest guys out there. So it’s good for the confidence, for sure.”
Question: You went down hard at Silverstone in England. Do you have any lingering issues from that crash?
Spies: “A little bit. I’m 100 percent on the bike, riding. But there still…I have a little bit of pain in my lower back. I did take a big, big hit on it. At Assen, physically, it didn’t slow me down at all. But moving around every day I can feel that I hit the wall going 25 or 30 miles an hour. That’s what we have to do sometimes, race with a little bit of pain. That’s our job. It’s not going to slow me down. I would say I’m definitely 90 percent full-fitness, for sure.”
Question: You now are a winner at the highest level of international motorcycle racing. Would there be extra significance for you to win at Indianapolis on home soil?
Spies: “For sure. That was my best weekend last year. You always want to do good in front of the home crowd. You always say you’re going to push to the limit and try harder. But any racer, it doesn’t matter if were in Malaysia, I’m in Italy or America _ for those 45 minutes on Sunday, I’m pushing the absolute most I can out of me and the bike. My third place at Catalunya, I rode with the same mentality as I did in Assen. It came together at Assen.
“You always hope when you’re at your home Grand Prix that everything comes together and you’re able to do it for the fans. There’s always extra incentive there, but the pace you run in the race is 100 percent for all the riders. It’s the same. You just hope it does come together this year in Indy again, and we could do it again. We can maybe win another race. But it’s definitely difficult.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments