Thursday, July 7, 2005
Almost unknown in the United States, Valentino Rossi is nevertheless one of the most popular athletes in the world. In Italy, where he lives, he is bigger than the pope. In Europe, where Grand Prix racing is huge, he is a superstar ranking with David Beckham, Anna Kournikova and Tiger Woods. When he travels, Valentino Rossi is mobbed by race fans who ignore their own countrymen and chant his nickname: “Vale! Vale! Vale!”
Valentino Rossi is a charmer, a cutie, and an utterly intimidating racer who has dominated GP racing since he was 17. He has been world champion in his class for six of the past nine years. He is now the reigning world champion in the MotoGP class—the fastest category of motorcycle racing—and has been for four years running.
This year he has competed in seven championship series races and won six of them, including the last five.
Valentino is to MotoGP what Michael was to the NBA—seemingly unstoppable. From Sept. 18, 2003 to April 18, 2004 there were a total of 23 championship Grand Prix races around the world. Valentino Rossi won every single one of them. He has stood on the winners’ podium after more races than anyone in the history of Grand Prix racing.
Valentino Rossi looks like a devilishly handsome 11-year-old; he is all of 26. He earns around $6 million per year on the track, plus another $1.64 million for his endorsement of the Italian brewer Peroni’s Nastro Azzuro (“Blue Ribbon”) beer. He travels the world parrying the advances of gorgeous women with an air of bemused, comic insouciance.
Valentino Rossi’s name is Valentino.
There is a legend about Valentino, about how he came to ride for Yamaha. Nobody will ever know for sure if the story is really about money or about something else, but it may be a remarkable tale of pride, arrogance, and even valor.
The fact is that Rossi rose to prominence riding for Honda. It was widely accepted that Honda was building the best racing machines in the world at the time. It may have been assumed in some circles that the machine, not the rider, was responsible for Valentino’s string of victories. (After all, before Rossi came along, the Aussie Mick Doohan held the championship for five straight years, all atop a Honda, before losing it to the Spaniard Álex Crivillé, who rode a Honda.)
Perhaps this rankled Rossi. Perhaps, some race enthusiasts speculate, that is why, in 2003, Valentino jumped ship, saying “My work on this bike is finished.”
Valentino signed a contract with Yamaha, which hadn’t won a GP world championship in more than a decade. At the time it was considered madness, and all but his most devoted fans assumed that Rossi would pay for his sin of arrogance. But in 2004, Rossi left the Honda team sucking his fumes as he raced to another world championship.
“Is Rossi the greatest ever? The record books look that way
but he has one territory left to conquer: the Red Bull US
Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. Sure he’s odds-on favorite to win
but watch out for hungry and fast American riders as they
challenge Rossi with home-field advantage on July 10!”
ON TRACK: From left, John Hopkins, Colin Edwards,
Kenny Roberts Jr. and Nicky Hayden represent the best chance
for an American to upset Valentino Rossi this weekend.
Yeah, it’s advertising copy, straight from race sponsor Red Bull, but it is not mere hype. Not for the 100,000-plus fans who will descend on Monterey this weekend from all over the globe. Not for the 700 million-plus who will watch the US MotoGP on television, or for the global corporations who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to paste a six foot by three foot banner within eyeshot of the TV cameras.
For the fast-growing masses of Grand Prix race fans throughout the world, this weekend is one of the biggest ever, and that is true only because of the brilliant, charismatic, monstrously talented Valentino Rossi, and the chance that he might lose.
When it was last seen on our shores, Grand Prix was divided into three classes—125cc, 250cc and 500cc. These are small bikes by today’s standards, but even then, GP was the fastest two-wheeled sport in the world (regularly reaching speeds of 160mph) largely owing to the vast technological innovation with which the bikes were customized. In 2001, the 500cc class was replaced with the MotoGPs, which check in at 940cc.
Race organizers at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca took a bit of a gamble in bringing the MotoGP to Monterey. While Grand Prix has been experiencing a spike in popularity throughout Europe, Japan and Australia, it is no longer well known in the United States.
That was not always the case. For about a decade, back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Grand Prix was a big deal in the US. Laguna Seca was its headquarters, and American racers ruled—guys like Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and Kenny Roberts.
One local hero was John Kocinski, who has won more big matches at Laguna Seca than any other racer. In 1992, Kocinski won his last World Championship here. He almost did it again in 1994—the last time the World Championship was held at Laguna Seca—but was defeated by a rider named Luca Cadalora, an Italian. Today, the sport continues to be dominated by Italians—among the world’s top dozen riders are Valentino, Giacomo Agostini, Max Biagi, Loris Capirossi and Marco Melandri.
Also among the world’s top racers this weekend are four Americans:
• Colin Edwards, “the Texas Tornado,” is Rossi’s teammate. Currently ranked fifth in the world on the MotoGP, he has raced at Laguna Seca many times in the Superbike and 250 classes. He won our hearts in an interview this week in which he called Laguna Seca “the Hollywood of motorcycle racing,” even though we don’t know what he meant.
• Kenny Roberts Jr.—born in Mountain View, lives in Modesto—is the Weekly’s official hometown favorite. The son of three-time 500cc Grand Prix king Kenny Roberts Sr., our hero was himself crowned World Champ in 2000.
• Nicky Hayden, ubiquitously known as “The Kentuckian,” admits sneaking into the last GP World Championship at Laguna Seca when he was 12 years old. In 2002, he became the youngest rider to win the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Superbike title here (he placed fourth in the world). Last week, People magazine named him as one of the 50 Hottest Bachelors of 2005.
• John Hopkins, of Ramona, Calif., is a long shot, but he’s a hotshot. Having won an AMA Supersport title in 1999, he moved to MotoGP in 2002, and is coming on strong this year. The 22-year-old lists surfing as his hobby.
These four men: They are the men to root for. We say this not because of any anti-Italian feelings—this is Monterey, for crying out loud; we love Italians. We say this not because of any genuine feelings of American supremacy, nor because of any bitter feelings resulting from the fact that this writer’s sweetheart’s ex was a motorcycle racer. We urge our readers to root for the Americans for the same reason we root for the A’s when the Yankees come to town—because this is what we do in sports. We root for the home team.
And if Valentino wins, as he probably will, all we will be
able to say is: Wow.