One of my favorite writers covering MotoGP racing today recently put out a book collecting selected works of his from the past 10 years, which makes for a great introduction to the sport for new fans and will provide insights even for seasoned fans. But he published a limited print run and they're sold out.
So why am I telling you about a book you can't buy? Because, frankly, you didn't want to buy that 700-page hunk of tree pulp anyway. Shipping from the UK was exorbitant. And now there's a Kindle version. Those electrons are far more portable! I suggest you be pleased you missed out on the paper version and consider the electronic version for $7.99 at Amazon.
So, technically, there's nothing new in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Racing" by Mat Oxley. This is a collection of previously published pieces. But I guarantee you'll learn something new, actually several new somethings, even if you're a long-time fan of racing, like me. I like Oxley because he brings to the reporting task the insight and knowledge of a former racer, combined with the professionalism of a writer who's determined to be fair, clear-eyed and accurate.
A lot of fans would benefit from reading this collection. I periodically run into newborn MotoGP fans whose knowledge consists of two years of watching TV and who are convinced that the 800 cc era is ancient history and the three greatest racers of all time must be Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, because those are the ones they've personally seen, and Casey Stoner, because they've heard of him. If you're one of those newcomers, this book is a great way to meet Mike Hailwood and consider why he might be the G.O.A.T. If you think today's racing is "too sanitized" and there's too much focus on safety, revisit the chapter titled "MotoGP's Darkest Day" and learn about Monza in 1973. Renzo Pasolini's Harley-Davidson (yes, that's right) seized on the first lap and he and Jarno Saarinen crashed in front of the pack, Saarinen bouncing off an unprotected barrier and thrown in front of the oncoming bikes, with crashing motorcycles setting fire to hay bales. Despite 14 riders down and Pasolini and Saarinen dead, officials didn't stop the race.
Chapter 71, titled "From Ago to Stoner: How MotoGP Technique Evolved," is a great place for any new fan to start, if he or she wants to sound at least minimally knowledgeable about how the sport — and the relationship between man and machine — evolved during decades past.
Oxley goes on an American road trip to visit the legends from the days when U.S. roadracers dominated: Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Kevin Schwantz. Then he does the same in Australia, interviewing Casey Stoner, Mick Doohan, Troy Bayliss, Jack Ahearn and Wayne Gardner. To illustrate how times have changed, just compare the stories of Ahearn, living in the back of a van, cooking cans of soup over a camp stove and siphoning off free race gas to put in his van to get to the next round, with Doohan, living his post-racing days in his seaside mansion and commuting by helicopter to his job at his luxury private jet company. Not that Doohan doesn't deserve it all, for the suffering he endured. If not for some unorthodox medical procedures, Doohan would just be a one-legged former motorcycle racer only mentioned in the "what might have been" discussions, alongside Saarinen.
The book doesn't just give voice to the already-famous guys, though. Today, when I ride my bike to a track day, tape it up and ride around just for fun, then ride it home (no big deal, really), a paddock full of guys with $75,000 worth of pickup truck, trailer, track bikes, generator and canopy look at me like I'm crazy. Oxley introduces us to Trevor Nation, a British rider who did a thousand-mile ride to Portugal on a Suzuki GSX-R750 with his gear and spare parts on the back to race two rounds of the old F1 series on the same bike, and not as long ago as you might think. The worst part was when one of the saddlebags sagged onto the exhaust and his gallon of milk exploded.
We hear a mechanic tell about using tweezers to assemble the tiny parts in a five-cylinder, 125 cc Honda RC149. We meet fathers Dek Crutchlow and Chicho Lorenzo, the latter of which runs motorcycle training programs around the world using the techniques he taught Jorge as a child. We see the sneering British press refer to the Japanese engineers in Honda's first effort at the Isle of Man TT in 1959, saying "their performance must be low and their efficiency probably won't improve."
Oxley also asks the questions we might ask ourselves, if opportunity and nerve allowed. Such as how Dani Pedrosa feels about being the best racer never to win the MotoGP title (displacing Randy Mamola from that dubious honor). And why Rossi turned down one of the most coveted positions in the world, Ferrari Formula One driver. (It comes down to the simple fact that he likes motorcycles better. We also meet John Surtees, who also liked motorcycles better, but did make the move to Ferrari because he felt forced to and thus became the only man ever to win GP titles on both two wheels and four.)
Quibbles? I'm not a fan of the title and there's a smattering of typos, though probably nothing a typical reader (i.e., not an OCD-afflicted editor like me) will notice. So really, not much to complain about.
Bottom line: If you're looking for a holiday gift for a racing fan, this sure as hell beats shelling out $130 for a Ducati fleece jacket.