Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A MotoGP Primer

I spent a few days visiting my cousin Kerensa, who is originally from New Zealand but now lives in Melbourne. When I was planning the visit with her, she said that she and her boyfriend Raf (Rafaele) and his friend Alex (Alexandro) from back home in Italy would be going away for the weekend, and that I was welcome to join them. I was telling Rachele and family about this:

"While I'm in Melbourne I'll be going down to Phillip Island to see some race or something."
Russell stares at me. "You mean the Australian Grand Prix on Phillip Island?" Russell is a huge motorbike fan.
"Uh, yeah, I think that sounds right. Alex knows someone who is involved with the race or something."

I had no clue what I was in for.

It turns out that the person Alex knows is none other than world champion Valentino Rossi. Some argue that Valentino is the best athlete in the world, as he is the only person to win the top competition in his sport 7 times. Of course, I knew none of this as we headed down to Phillip Island.

We had a little problem when we arrived at the race since only Raf and Alex had passes to get in. Alex was sure he could get more for me and Kerensa, but had to talk to Rossi to do this. Therefore, we had to be a little "creative" about getting into the race the first day.

The backdrop for the race was amazing. I thought to myself that even though I wasn't very excited about seeing a motorcycle race, at least I got to spend a day on a beautiful beach.

Apparently this race is a really big deal. There were two days of qualifiers then the big race and people camp there for the whole weekend, making a little tent city.

As the qualifiers began, I was amazed by three things:

1. The bikes are REALLY REALLY loud. Not just, "gosh, that's noisy" loud, but the kind of loud where you can feel the vibrations in your head.

2. It may sound obvious, but they go really fast. I kept trying to photograph them but they would pass by before I could click the shutter.

3. Are you aware how close their knee gets to the ground as they turn a corner? I had no idea. The first time I saw them turn a corner I had to stop myself from screaming, "Oh my God! Watch out for your knee!"

As we were watching the qualifiers, I realized that every time a specific motorcycle went by, Alex would yell, "Vale! Vale!" I started listening to the sports announcer and noticed that he kept talking about this Valentino Rossi person. I looked around and saw hundreds of shirts with "Valentino!" and "The Doctor - #46!" on them. I opened the program and it was filled with pictures of this Rossi fellow, including a feature article that referred to him as the "Italian genius." I started to piece things together.

The passes that Raf and Alex had allowed them into where the riders had their trailers. They went back to talk to Valentino and see if he could get Kerensa and I passes. When the guys returned, they handed us the passes and showed off their new track-access passes that said, "Special Guest of V. Rossi."

The next day we watched the warm-ups then headed back to the paddock so that Kerensa and I could meet Valentino. He wasn't in his trailer so we chatted with Uche, his personal assistant and best friend since childhood. We wandered around the paddock for a while, and Raf and Alex were really enjoying watching the models who parade around in bikinis and short skirts advertising the bikes. Raf handed Kerensa his camera and asked her to take his picture with the models. He walked up to them and posed with an arm draped over a model on each side.

Kerensa gave me a sly grin then focused the camera and took their picture. As Raf was thanking the models, Kerensa whispered to me, "I just did a close up of their boobs. That's what he wanted, right?" She giggled. "You can't even tell that he's in the picture!" Hah, he's gonna be mad when that roll gets developed.

We headed back to the stands to watch the race. The energy of the crowd was so exciting. An annoying group of people came and stood right in front of us, blocking the view for our whole section. The people around us all started muttering angrily about this. Someone yelled for them to sit down. Nothing happened. Several people started yelling at them. Still nothing. Then someone threw a water bottle and it hit one of them on the back. He turned around, but then just ignored it. Suddenly, there was a shower of water bottles, wrappers, and various other items flying at these people. Finally, they sat down and we enjoyed the rest of the race.

It was really exciting. I always thought that watching people drive around and around would be incredibly tedious, but I read the program and started to get invested in the characters and it turned into a whole show. At one point, Hayden passed Valentino and I got really worried. What if he breaks Valentino's winning streak? After a few laps with Hayden in the lead, Valentino took off and tore to the front, gaining a good lead and winning the race.

#46 - Valentino Rossi

After the race, everyone climbed over the fence and walked across the track to the award stand. It was so cool seeing thousands of people storming the track.

After the award ceremony, we went back to the paddock to see Valentino. When we got to his trailer, there was a big crowd in front of his door. Things didn't look good for getting in to see him. Alex tried to sneak through the crowd and see if he could talk to him, and the rest of us waited at the back of the crowd. While we were waiting, a drunk Mister-Know-It-All came over and said, "I know how to get in. All you have to do is yell 'Rossi Rossi Rossi! Oi Oi Oi!' and he will come out. Really! No, do it. That's the way you can get him to come out!" Raf politely thanked him for his help.

When Mister-Know-It-All heard Raf's accent, he said "Oh, are you Italian? How do you say 'hello' in Italian?"

"You say it 'ciao'."

"No, that's goodbye." He repeated himself slowly, as Raf clearly hadn't understood the question. "HOW DO YOU SAY HELLO IN ITALIAN?"

"They are the same. You say 'ciao' for hello and goodbye."

Mister-Know-It-All refused to believe him. While they were arguing, Uche stuck his head out the door of the trailer and gestured to us. The crowd parted and the four of us walked in. It was great watching Mister-Know-It-All's jaw drop when this happened.

Valentino was very nice and remarkably chill, despite the fact that he had just done a huge race. Oh how I wish I spoke Italian, as everyone in there except for me and Kerensa were Italian so I understood very little of what they said.

Here's me and Valentino.

When we got to the car, I sent Rachele a text.
"I just met V Rossi."
A few seconds later, my phone rings. I pick it up and hear my nephew Michael.
"You just met Valentino Rossi?!?"
"Yeah" I casually reply.
"But . . . but . . . but he's the best motorbike racer in the world!"
"Yeah, I know. I just saw him win the Grand Prix."
"But . . . . "
"And he kissed me."
"(on the cheek)"

It was pretty great.

I was the driver for the ride home while the others dozed in the car. It was a pleasant drive, listening to Alex's Italian house music and looking at the nearly-full moon. I went through a dense patch of fog and was grateful that I learned how to drive in Minnesota since it was a lot like driving through a blizzard. Once the fog cleared I started to get a little bored, so I pretened I was Valentino Rossi and would speed up really fast to pass people and lean back and forth with the wheel when I would have to turn. I was having a great time until Kerensa was startled awake, gave me an odd look and said, "Uh, are you doing okay?" I was a little embarassed, so I drove like a regular person the rest of the way back to Melbourne. What a weekend.

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