More than 30,000 diehard speed freaks flooded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon. And although they were at the most hallowed of America's car racing meccas, they weren't there to watch NASCAR or IndyCar. They turned out to watch the most high-powered, sophisticated and expensive motorcycles on the planet at the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, the 10th race of the 2015 motoGPseason.
Considered the F-1 of motorcycle racing, the motoGP circuit includes 18 races in 14 countries (two in the U.S.) and features $3,000,000 motorcycles, straightaway speeds that top 200 mph and hairpin turns where riders are often only mere inches apart. “When I watch motoGP I understand, appreciate and envy what they’re doing all at once,” says actor Josh Brolin, a longtime motoGP fan who’s come to Indy for the race. “The discipline of the sport. The science. It’s beyond intense. It’s better than drugs.”
Stroll around the 116 year-old IMS track grounds and it’s clear to see motoGP embodies the word "international." Fans waving flags from Europe, Asia and South America. Team drivers hail from ten countries including eight Spaniards, four Italians and three Brits. Sponsors are all primarily foreign. Yet this isn’t to say Americans don’t love motoGP. Motorcycle enthusiasts have descended on Indianapolis from across the country .
“MotoGP is the most amazing dance between man and machine,” explains Andria Yu, who traveled here from Maryland with her boyfriend to see the race. “Some of the allure is danger, but what I love most is the ultimate perfection and skill it takes to be competitive here.”
Some fans wear #93 jerseys, showing support for Mark Marquez, the 22 year-old Spanish phenom who won the GP title in 2013 and 2014, his first two years in motoGP. Others support Nicky Hayden, a.k.a. "The Kentucky Kid," the lone American rider and 2006 champ. Yet one visit to Gasoline Alley, the IMS (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) paddock, shows who the majority of fans have come to see. A massive crowd has gathered outside the Movistar Yamaha team garage. Their shirts and hats and posters all adorned with #46 and the moniker “The Doctor,” hoping for a glimpse of motoGP’s biggest star—and arguably the best motorsports racer on two OR four wheels—Valentino Rossi.
Since 2000 Rossi has started 261 races, landing on the podium 169 times (85 of them wins) en route to seven motoGP titles. No other pilot in the sport’s modern history comes close. Yet perhaps more remarkable has been the 36 year-old’s recent renaissance. It’s been six years since Rossi claimed the motoGP crown and 7th place finish with the Ducati team in 2011 had the motorcycle racing cognoscenti thinking he was done. But last season the Tavullia, Italy native was runner-up and today, the halfway point of the 2015 season, Rossi sits atop the standings. “The most interesting thing is that he’s not the fastest on the grid,” says Marquez. “But he’s getting 100% from every situation. Every weekend we’re learning more from him.”
Rossi, seen swigging Champagne after Sunday's race below, isn’t simply adored because of his talent. It’s also because of his personality. Despite staring down death for a living, he’s always smiling. Laughing. He’s like no other character is sports. He has “VLF” stitched on his leathers (Viva La Figa—Hurray for Pussy). He’s dyed his hair green, dressed up like Robin Hood, brought his own inflatable swimming pool to the track. Once, during a race, he took one arm off his bike to "flip off" a fellow rider—while riding through a turn at 100 mph (the two later got into a fist fight at a press conference).
His persona and riding style have attracted tens of millions of devout fans across the globe as well as a bevy of celebrity fans such as Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. “I met him at Laguna Seca racetrack ten years ago when he was in his prime,” says actor and comedian David Alan Grier, another celebrity motoGP aficionado. “Yet I like him even more today because he’s the ‘old man’ and just when’s he’s supposed to be slowing down it’s motivating him more.’”
Despite rain in the forecast, spirits at the track haven’t soured. By noon the stands are filling up, the infield motorcycle vendor tents are buzzing with fans buying up bike gear and team schwag, and everyone is chowing down on racetrack junk food and drink, from smoked turkey legs and fried Oreo churros to Redd’s Apple Ale, Miller Lite tall boys and enough Red Bull to give heart palpitations.
At 2 p.m., the bikes take their places in the starting grid. Despite the overwhelming crowd support, Rossi’s fans have limited expectations. Other than a win in 2008, his only other podium at Indy was a third place. On Saturday he qualified 8th, and is starting from the third row. And a wet track would slow everyone down. But as the bikes scream off, Rossi’s fortunes improve. Rain didn’t fall and Rossi, aided by a strong start, quickly found himself in fourth place behind Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo and Honda Racing’s Marquez and Dani Pedrosa.
The last thrilling ten laps see some of the best racing of the season, including precision passing and white-knuckle speeds. When the checkered flag flies, Rossi, to the delight of the crowd, finishes third, retaining his place atop the season standings. “He’s so special,” says Brolin as climbs down from the stands and heads for the airport. “His staying power. His talent. Without Rossi there is no rivalries. And without real rivalries there is no sport.”
Photos by Andrew Wheeler