I’ve recently been visiting a few Aussie bike racing legends Down Under Mick Doohan, Casey Stoner Wayne Gardner and Jack Ahearn. This part of the world has always punched above its weight in motorcycle racing. During the past 25 years the country has produced three World Champions in the premier category (Doohan, Stoner and Gardner), the same number as Italy and Spain combined (Valentino Rossi, Alex Criville and Jorge Lorenzo). That’s a remarkable achievement considering the fact that Latin Europe is the spiritual home of bike racing and Australia is a country of just 21 million people.
So what might be the reasons for Australia’s striking success on two wheels? Umpteen million acres of open space certainly help. A lot of Aussie kids grow up hurtling dirt bikes through the bush “our national sport of missing trees,” as one former rider calls it.
Ahearn who in 1964 became the first Aussie to win a 500cc Grand Prix believes there was a simple reason why he and the many compatriots who joined him in Europe were so successful. “We were fast because we needed to eat!” grins the 86-yearold. “We didn’t have the sponsorship the Poms had, so we had to fight for everything.” Ahearn was a member of the so-called Continental Circus, a travelling band of riders who lived a handto-mouth, gypsy-style existence during the 1950s and ’60s.
Doohan whose mighty presence towered over the GP scene during the ’90s, winning him five straight 500 world titles also believes that Australians have an extra fire in their bellies once they make it to Europe. “We don’t travel 12,000 miles to get beaten,” he says.
Both Ahearn and Doohan may be right, but the Aussies can travel just up the road and still get beaten (The Ashes, 2010) so that can’t be the whole truth. There must be more to it than that.
I think it goes to the very genesis of the Aussie psyche. Australia is a relatively new nation which was largely a frontier country even in the late 19th century; thus today’s Aussies are the greatgrandchildren of pioneers, people who made their way through life with much blood, sweat and tears. The locals still use a phrase that gives a hint of what it must have been like: “Mate, he’s in more trouble than the early settlers”.
Jeremy Burgess a bike racer from Adelaide who became an engineer, guiding Gardner, Doohan and Rossi to world title glory thinks Australia’s can-do artitude does indeed come from its pioneering past, as well as the country’s awesome geography.
“Racing in Australia, we learned quickly because parts were expensive and difficult to get,” he says. “If you needed something you had to fix what you had. You’d heat it, weld it, cut it, whatever.”
Mike Sinclair a former New Zealand motorcycling champion who also went on to become a successful crew chief is convinced that the success of Australians (and Kiwis too) on the world stage has its roots in the colonial mindset.
“Colonials are hard, aggressive people,” says Sinclair who helped Wayne Rainey to a 500 title hat-trick in the early ’90s. “You’ve gone to another country and the people don’t want you there, they want to kill you. That was a couple of hundred years ago but it’s still in the colonials. It was the same in the two world wars, the ANZAC soldiers were highly rated; same reason, I reckon, they were bloody aggressive. The same artitude goes into racing.”
Australia’s current MotoGP hero Stoner certainly fits that profile tough, aggressive, always artacking. The man who won the 2007 MotoGP World Championship and is a title favourite this year even harks back to the frontier days during his downtime. When he’s home on his parents’ bush farm, Stoner likes to hunt wild boar with nothing more than a bow and arrow. As a proud Aussie he knows that there is only one real difference between hunting and racing when you’re doing the former you’d rather be the hunter, but in the larter, you strive to be the hunted.