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Thirty one years ago I stood in an old army tent on the outskirts of a Swedish aerodrome phoning over the story proclaiming Freddie Spencer as the only rider to win both the 250 and 500cc Championships in the same season. It was one of those regular very long nights.
That very first sentence of your carefully constructed copy dictated down the phone was a true indication how long the night was going to be. If asked how you spell that by the copytaker, when starting the opening paragraph with the words Freddie Spencer, you knew any thought of food or a beer that night had long gone.
In 2015 I hosted the Jorge Lorenzo’s press conference after he won that dramatic final shoot out in Valencia to clinch the MotoGP™ World Championship. Six hundred journalists, photographers and cameramen had descended on the Spanish circuit from all over the world to witness and report the battle. For well over an hour, still dressed in his leathers, Lorenzo told the story of the race and the Championship, first in English and then Spanish. His words and pictures were beamed round the world in seconds with millions of people worldwide watching, listening and reading how he’d won his third MotoGP™ world title. Not one journalist asked him how he spelt his name.
GoPro™ Hang out: Nick Harris
In many ways that historic Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp in 1985 was the start of the media revolution. It had little to do with technology but much more understanding just how important the media was for the sport. Big sponsors, mostly from the tobacco industry arrived to pour millions into grand prix motorcycle racing and understandably they demanded some reward for their massive investment.
Before the arrival of those tobacco companies, lack of facilities and in many cases care about the media made grand prix reporting and photography a constant battle. The media centre was usually the smallest and darkest building in the grand prix paddock while in places like Anderstorp an old flapping army tent was our home for the weekend. Around 50 permanent journalists and photographers would travel to each round with the calendar only consisting of European races until Argentina and South Africa joined in the early eighties.
Passes had to be applied for at each individual grand prix and there were always problems. You could put up with all these inconveniences as long as you got access to a phone that worked. Without a working phone you were struggling, completely stymied in getting your reports, gossip and features into the hands of the totally unsympathetic Chief Sub Editor back in London. He just wanted the copy to pull apart and criticise and was never slightly the bit interested about phone lines – just file the copy. Sending BBC radio reports without a phone was virtually an impossible task.
Getting that copy back to the beloved Chief Sub was done in two ways. Early copy from practice, qualifying plus features and gossip was dispatched by telex. An operator would sit in the media centre and duly type your copy into a machine that would produce a tape with holes in. The contents from this unreadable tape were sent down the line to London where it was miraculously turned back to copy. The only way to get the results back to the office was also by telex, but only after you had painstakingly typed out every single result from grands prix that sometimes had six classes.
After the races you had to find, beg, steal, or borrow a precious phone with a connected international line plus an operator at the end of it who understood what reverse the charges meant. You would have to make a big decision either to stay at the circuit and risk the phone line or go back to your hotel, who could never understand why you were on the phone for around three hours on a Sunday night. At least in some hostelries they would provide a sandwich or even a beer to gulp down while explaining the complexities of the 50cc race to a bored copy taker at the other end. What a thankless task it must have been for those copytakers taking up their precious hours on a Sunday night listening to our drivel. The regulars were great and could type almost as fast as you spoke. The newcomers could make the difference of a couple of hours. It was pot luck.
Finding that precious phone was my number one priority of the weekend. At Rijeka in Yugoslavia the only way to get phone lines into the circuit were to divert them from local houses. The whole operation and most important allocation of the lines were down to a local lady who spent a great deal of the grand prix weekend sampling the delights of a particular local brew. The result? Total chaos. Even when you managed to get a phone the lines were often blocked by somebody, usually a relative, phoning the number to speak to somebody at their house where the original line came from.
There were no press conferences during the weekend. The only way to talk to riders was to find them in the paddock or grab a word with the successful ones before and after they jumped on the podium. It turned into a game which both parties enjoyed. Eddie Lawson was the master and you had to be smart to catch him. One journalist actually lay down on the steps of his motorhome, making it impossible not to stop and speak between the laughter.
Matters were reaching a breaking point and when the riders formed their association IRTA the press followed suit with IRPA. Led by two doyens of the sport, Dennis Noyes and Hans van Loozenoord, there was even talk of delaying the start of a race by putting a line of desks across the start line but revolution was in the air. Things had to change, rather like when the riders threatened with their own World Series, but this time it was the tobacco companies that led the charge. Dismayed by the lack of media facilities provided by the circuits, they brought along their own. A press room with phones and faxes, regular press conferences with their riders plus some pretty lavish hospitality.
It really was a case of the tail wagging the dog and the organisers and Promoters realised they had to follow suit. They did and things improved almost overnight.
Then in 1987 at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, a gentleman turned up at the sports hall that double up as the media centre with something called a fax machine. Mr Fax, as we quickly called him, could not convince us that if we put in a piece of typed paper in his box of tricks it would appear at the other end in London. We tried it and then rang the office, phones were no problem in Japan, and Mr Fax had been telling the truth all along. No more typing out the results and no more tape with holes in it. We were on our way.
At the same Japanese Grand Prix I remember there was no hot water available which meant the photographers could not develop their films into prints. One enterprising snapper used a scalding hot can of tea from the many hot drinks machines. The prints appeared fine although smelt a bit strange. Either you developed your films at the circuit or gave the journalist returning to London a bag of films which he got developed back in the office. The journalist then chose the pictures needed for the newspaper from a contact sheet. Getting that bag of films from the photographer before the end of the last race to race to catch the ferry or plane home could be a problem. I remember having a bag of films thrown across the track from the inside of the La Source hairpin at Spa Francorchamps dodging the sidecars competing in the last race of the day.
A Day in the life: Nick Harris
Today instant access to all information, wherever you are in the world, is just part of everyday life. Whether it’s pictures, video or just old-fashioned copy it’s available to the world’s hungry media 24 hours a day. Dorna have embraced all this modern technology to provide a superb media service but have still managed to personalise it by providing opportunities for all journalists with access and opportunities. At least five press conferences every grand prix weekend, exciting pre-event activities and a permanent pass system that cuts out so much hassle for the MotoGP™ regulars. The teams have followed suit with media briefings at the end of every day and there is no more chasing round to find the likes of Eddie Lawson.
In very much the same way as the racing itself it’s a very different story to 30 years ago but those basic principles remain the same. In racing it’s still all about winning and in the media it’s about filing the copy or photographs on time. Perhaps not as good fun but we all tend to look back through rose tinted spectacles or in the riders case, goggles and visors.
Old principles never die.
2 years ago
2 years ago