Racism in the paddock


Will there ever be a Lewis Hamilton of MotoGP, a black king of motorcycle racing? Of course there will be.

Who does best at what often has much to do with culture, race, class and geography, but while international motorcycle racing is an overwhelmingly white sport, a black racer has already climbed the highest heights. American James Stewart has won world and US championships in motocross and Supercross. Thus it is only a matter of time before a black, Asian or Chinese racer gets to the top of MotoGP.

James Stewart. Photo: Yoshimura

But despite the success of Hamilton and Stewart, the odds are stacked against black people in car and ‘bike racing. I’ve spent three decades working in motor sport and my own experience tells me that the paddock is more racist than most areas of modern life.

Only weeks ago I heard a well-respected figure in the higher echelons of ‘bike and car racing refer to Hamilton as “Sooty”, and we all know that this person is by no means the first to hit the twice Formula 1 champ with a racist slur.

It’s the same in MotoGP. I’m not suggesting that the paddock is a ferment of racism – there are many kind, intelligent and liberal-minded people around – but I believe there’s more racism within than without.

A few years ago I heard a factory MotoGP rider say the words, “the older I get, the more racist I get”. I know a factory MotoGP team owner whose derisive term for all journalists was “press n*****s”. I know a famed factory mechanic who, when discussing the death of Pakistan’s British cricket coach Bob Woolmer a few years ago, declared that it “serves him right for working with P***s”. And I’ve heard a couple of ‘bike racers refer to black music as “that n****r s**t”.

I think, but I’m not sure, that the situation is getting slightly better, but even football, where many of the greatest stars are black, still struggles with the spectre of racism.

If you are surprised, you shouldn’t be. After all, MotoGP, like some other sports, proudly declares its sexism before the start of each event, parading scantily clad women on the grid for the sole purpose of selling stuff.

And what is sexism, but just another side to the same coin as racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other prejudice? They are all essentially the same thing: a lack of respect for those who are different to you, or as DJ/comedian Kenny Everett once put it, “a receptacle for people’s spare hatred”.

Or to expand on the theme in view of current events, French philosopher Voltaire nailed it 250 years ago, writing “Tolerance has never brought civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage”. It’s amazing that, a quarter of a millennium later, so many people still haven’t got the hang of it.

Willy T Ribbs, one of the first truly successful black racers, was outspoken about racism in NASCAR
Photo: Dan Wildhirt

Funnily enough, I suffered homophobic bullying some years ago when a few paddock Neanderthals got it into their heads that I’m gay. I never took it as an insult, which only confused them further. Aside from sniggering taunts as I wandered down pitlane, this strange behaviour reached its climax at a very well-oiled team victory dinner, during which the team owner and a former rider grabbed me from behind and inserted their tongues into my ears, all the while grunting and groaning. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I decided to see the funny side. Not that I had much choice.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are all dirty marks on racing that I will be happy to see washed away, one day… hopefully.


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