Racing Together: Superstition

Matthew Miles investigates that most compelling of habits - superstitions

Following the release of Dorna Sports’ Racing Together book dedicated to the history of the MotoGP™ World Championship, is running some extra features contributed by some of the paddock top journalists this week. For more, check out Racing Together, which is available at Evro Publishing.

Very superstitious, writings on the wall
Very superstitious, ladder’s ’bout to fall
Thirteen-month-old baby, broke the lookin’ glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

When you believe in things that you don’t understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain’t the way

Superstition provides an illusion of control over that which cannot be controlled. Stevie Wonder sang about it. Shakespeare wrote about it. Filmmakers focus on it. Children skip rope to it - “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Comedians joke about it. Business capitalizes on it. Competition thrives on it.

Grand Prix motorcycle racing is rich with strange behaviours, eccentric habits and bizarre rituals that have emerged through the belief that certain food or drink, colours, numbers, photos, lucky charms and a whole host of other seemingly everyday items and activities may prevent ill fortune. Takazumi Katayama even had his own sorcerer.

Valentino Rossi performs the most famous ritual of the modern four-stroke era. Due in great part to the sport’s relatively recent global reach, millions have seen the nine-time world champion crouch beside his motorcycle—always the right side, regardless of brand—cradle the gleaming, saw-toothed foot peg with gloved hands and bow his helmeted head.

Rossi’s routine—what the public sees of it, at least—begins as he approaches his motorcycle. Pausing, he bends at the waist and reaches for his booted feet. Hands caress knee sliders. Upright again, he steps to the bike, squats, knees together, and reaches for the peg.

Valentino Rossi on the starting grid at Estoril © Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

Leaving pit lane, Rossi stands on the pegs and tugs at his crotch and then the seat of his leathers. Waiting for the starting lights to dim, he checks and rechecks his helmet strap and the closure tabs on his gloves like a home-run hitter anxiously anticipating the next pitch.

“Valentino definitely has the most superstitions of any rider,” says Ben Spies. “The one that stands out—most looked at, most different and kind of weird at the same time—is how he scratches his balls and picks his ass every time he leaves pit lane.

“There are only two things it can be: 1) everybody look at me; or 2) that’s my superstition. These days, if you’re wearing attire that goes up your ass every time you put on your leathers, then it’s probably the wrong thing to be wearing. You would think Valentino learned 20 years ago to wear a different pair of underwear. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but everyone knows about it and watches it, for sure.”

Kenny Roberts Jr. always scoffed at such antics. “All that stuff looks great as long as you’re winning.”

Spies concurs. “If Valentino were finishing fifth every weekend, I would be making fun of him. Before Andrea Iannone was doing well, everybody laughed at him. They called him the ‘Rossi clone.’ A lot of people said the same about Marco Simoncelli. When he started doing well, they didn’t say anything.”

Former Rossi teammate Colin Edwards isn’t convinced the Italian is overtly superstitious. “It’s part of getting to the machine and getting ready,” he says. “The only way I can describe it is like a golf ‘waggle.’ You step up to the ball, get your feet right, get your grip right, then you swing away. It’s the same thing.”

Routines can also change over time. “One weekend you’ll do something out of the ordinary, like fist-bump one of your mechanics,” says Edwards, “and you might have a good weekend. So the next weekend, he’s looking for a fist-bump.

“In 2002, I went on a big winning streak. When I got on the bike, one of my mechanics was holding the bike. I would look up at him, give him a little wink, and he would wink back. That was not part of my routine. That was part of his routine.

“I’ll never forget the last race,” recalls Edwards. “We were going for the championship. I was super focused, thinking 10 minutes ahead instead of in the moment. I got on the bike, and he just stood there and looked at me. I was thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’

“I gave him a wink, and he winked back. He later told me that he wasn’t going to let me leave the pit without giving him the wink. There are certain things that are kind of religious that you do all the time, but there are some other things that kind of find their way into the path.”

Spies says he would “repeat the same things so I knew what I was eating and drinking,” and he only got on his bike from the left side. “Even if I were stretching on the right side of the bike, I would always walk around and get on it from the left, but I started doing that because one of my knees was messed up.”

Kevin Schwantz didn’t believe in superstitions, either. “There weren’t certain days or tires,” says the 1993 champion, “or things that had happened in practice or qualifying that made races better or worse or gave me any luck—good or bad.”

Schwantz confesses that he once thought he came across a lucky pair of underwear. “Then I crashed the next race weekend. I said, ‘Those things aren’t lucky. Throw ’em away.’”

His Suzuki teammates, Rob McElnea, Ron Haslam, Neil Mackenzie and Didier de Radigues, never did anything extraordinary. “Nothing stands out,” claims Schwantz. “There was never any, ‘What the hell are you doing? Is that what you do every time before you get on the bike?’”

Schwantz did notice that rival Wayne Rainey hardly ever took off his helmet on the starting grid. “We had to sit there for five or 10 minutes,” he says, “but his faceshield was barely cracked open. He was so focused. I got to the point where I would walk up and try to distract him - ‘Hey, Wayne!’ I think it just pissed him off.”

For most of his career, Schwantz never cared how he got on his Suzuki. “Right or the left side,” he recollects, “it didn’t matter.” During his championship-winning season, however, the Texan gravitated to the left side of the bike. “My dad always said, ‘You never get on a horse but from one side, the left.’ That’s the only time in my career I did anything differently.”

Edwards followed Schwantz’s lead. “I read about Schwantz getting on the bike from the left side, and I started doing it, too. He was one of our American heroes, and I thought, ‘Well, it worked for him. So I’m going to try it, too.’ I would go out of my way to get on the bike from the left side, no matter where the pit was or which way the track went.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and faith in magic or luck, a belief that certain events or things will bring good or bad luck, a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.” Groucho Marx once remarked, “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

Much has been published about the relationship between superstitious behaviour and superstitious belief. Some who have studied the subject suggest superstitions are fundamental to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Swiss neuropsychologist Peter Brugger wrote, “The hallmark of superstitiousness in OCD is stereotyped, repetitive behavioural routines, not necessarily accompanied by superstitious beliefs in false causal attributions.”

John Kocinski was well known for his compulsive behaviour. “Kocinski probably takes the cake when it comes to cleanliness,” says Spies. “I’ve heard some strange things, like cellophane on his handgrips. I’m not making fun of him—some people just have their ways. I’m like that when it comes to different things, and it definitely makes for good stories.”

Spies admits he fixated over handlebar position and the fit of his leathers. “I could really feel when one bar was off even a little bit from the other one. My mechanics had to make a bunch of special tools for me. I was actually pretty loose with lever and shifter positions, but the handlebars became a really big deal for me.”

That preoccupation with bar position first materialized in AMA Superbike racing, recalls Spies. “The left-right-left Turn 1 chicane at California Speedway was so aggressive that pushing and pulling counter steering, I would spin the bars on the fork tubes.

“You couldn’t get two grown men pulling on the bars with their feet against the frame to move the bars, but I would spin them every time I went out for practice. Yoshimura actually had to change the bolts and clamps to stop the movement. They had never seen anything like that before.”

Spies’ leathers were so tight they appeared to be painted on his body. “Alpinestars had to pre-stretch them at the track or tighten them up if I lost three pounds,” he says. “I was really bad about that, but it wasn’t really a superstition. It was just how I wanted my stuff to fit.”

Colin Edwards, Ben Spies, NGM Mobile Forward Racing, Yamaha Factory Racing, Aragón

Edwards laughingly admits that his most public superstition also involved his leathers. “I didn’t believe in introducing my leathers to the ground in a crash. I would walk out to the front of the garage, lie down, dig in my shoulders, roll around and get a little scuff on them. Then we were good.”

He isn’t sure when, where, why or how he developed that routine, but he claims that he “did it religiously, every set of leathers. I don’t know if I ever did it in AMA, but I can remember doing it all the way through World Superbike and Grand Prix.”

Many use their gear to make a statement. “Jorge rolls one red boot and one white boot,” Spies says, “just like how Valentino has the sun on one leg and moon on the other. Valentino’s suit is like a cool tattoo. It’s his brand. With Jorge, I think it’s more a design thing.”

Mike Hailwood’s biographer, Ted Macauley, wrote about the late champion’s pre-race routine. “Mike told me, ‘I have a dreadful time trying to sleep through the night.’ After another look at his watch, about the 10th in as many minutes, he decided it was time to get ready, then changed his mind again when he registered that there was an hour and a half to go.

“He painstakingly polished his goggles instead, and all the time the music blared out from the radio. The yawns and expansive stretches were becoming more frequent. He glanced at his watch yet again and decided he might as well get ready after all. It would fill the time.

“He put the watch on the dressing table, but in a place where he could see it easily. When he struggled into the skin-tight leathers, hitching his shoulders and twisting to get his body into them, it looked as if he was wrestling an invisible opponent.

“He slumped onto the dressing-table stool, exhausted from the effort of yanking on the sleek leathers, and yet after another glance at his watch began once more the laborious polishing of goggles that were already crystal clear. His need to fill in the waiting time by doing anything to ease the tension is almost a ritual.”

Edwards believes such obsessions positively impact on-track success. “If you don’t have that, whatever that is, you’re not going to be a motorcycle racer,” he argues. “You’re not going to have the ambition—that want, that desire—to do what we have to do. You have to have that something, that quirky thing.

“I played ping pong once and got my ass kicked. So what did I do? I bought a table and played for years until I could hold my own. Then I could move on to something else. I went wakeboarding. I wasn’t as good as the next guy, so I bought a boat and went wakeboarding every day.

“Bowling. We got into the beer-and-pizza league. Those guys kicked my ass. So I was at the bowling alley every day. I bought two balls and my own shoes. I bowled a 292, and now I can hold my own. That’s the OCD I deal with.”

Bottom line? “We’re just a bunch of weirdoes,” contends Edwards. “My wife says it all the time: ‘You’re just weird.’”