I’m sitting here trying to remember what I was doing 20 years ago. Generally speaking, I know that I spent a lot of time in my car that year. Back then there weren’t online classes, so “distance ed” meant living in one area code and driving to classes in another. I was going to library school at Wayne State in Detroit, and living and working in Kalamazoo. I knew I-94 way better than I wanted to. But if I try to think about what August of 1996 specifically looked like, I’ve got nothing. And this particular weekend of August? This specific date, August 18th? Forget it.
I’m also trying to think about just how many twists and turns my life has taken since then, how many different towns, jobs, directions… oof. I’ve never been the type of person to take the shortest distance between point A and point B. My path has meandered a lot, plenty of false starts and redirecting, detours and scenic routes. Some say that I’m fortunate that I’m the kind of person who has a wide array of interests and abilities, directions that my life could go — but really I’ve always envied those single-minded people who have that one thing that they do and do well, for whom there are no other options. The people who know exactly what they are meant for and spend their lives dedicated to becoming a master of their craft.
One of those people knows exactly where he was 20 years ago today: in Brno, Czechoslovakia, standing on the highest step of a MotoGP podium for the first time in his life, celebrating his first win in the world’s premiere class of motorcycle road racing. He was a 17-year-old Italian kid with an impish grin, a 125-cc Aprilia motorcycle, and a “you ain’t seen nothing yet” attitude.
And he was right, because 20 years and 9 world championships later — including being the only rider in history to win titles in all 4 grand prix classes (125, 250, 500 and MotoGP) — Valentino Rossi is hailed by many as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. And this weekend, he’ll be back in Brno. Because he’s still racing.
Motorcycle racing is a young person’s sport. It demands lightning quick reflexes and judgment, a strong but small frame, and a skeleton that’s still mostly intact. Racing takes its toll on a body, and many of the news items I read during race weekends contain accidents and injuries from which these riders need to bounce back as soon as possible. The average age of the other 20 current riders in the MotoGP class is 26. The current points leader for the 2016 season, Marc Marquez, is 23. Maverick Viñales, who recently signed with Yamaha to be Rossi’s teammate next year, was in diapers when Rossi mounted that first podium back in 1996. At 37, Rossi is an old man in racing terms. Yet not only is he still racing, he’s still up in the top three worldwide along with Marquez and Rossi’s current Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo. In fact, if it weren’t for the now infamous #SepangClash with Marquez in the penultimate race of 2015, Rossi would have most likely taken his 10th world championship in 2015. The guy is still that good.
Okay, disclaimer time: I’m not a sports writer. Heck, I’m not even a sports fan. And I’m definitely a newly minted follower of racing, having long been one of those naysayers with no idea what goes into motorsports who assumed it was a lot of “go fast, turn left.” But once F introduced me to motorcycle racing with a trip to a local racetrack a couple of years ago, I realized how completely wrong I’d been, and I emerged from that day at the track kind of hooked. I’m sure I’ll be waxing rhapsodic about my first encounter with the sound of racing bikes in another post somewhere down the line. Plus, I’m a bit of a statistics junkie, so I have a lot of fun following along with all of the MotoGP standings throughout the season. (If someone could come up with a way to play fantasy racing instead of fantasy football, I’d be one of the first in line.)
But Valentino Rossi fascinates me. Sure, he’s an impressive and multifaceted package: Incredible skill on the track that has prompted many to consider him motorcycle racing’s G.O.A.T. An incredibly loyal following and fanbase worldwide. A prankster image he’s acquired (and for years actively cultivated) juxtaposed with a savvy business sense. A desire to keep giving back to the sport by developing a training “ranch” in his hometown and debuting his own Moto3 racing team in 2014. But more than any of that, to me it’s simply the fact that he’s still at it.
Rossi has made Forbes’ list of the 100 highest paid athletes in the world several times, breaking into the top 10 in 2009. He’s started his own company, VR46 Racing, which designs, produces, and sells not just his own apparel and merchandise, but that of several other racers and teams. He clearly could have retired more than comfortably several years ago. And with roughly a bajillion records in the sport, it’s not like he has anything left to prove. I think that for Rossi, racing is simply that one thing. He’s spent his life dedicated to becoming “The Doctor,” the master of his craft. He knows exactly what he is meant for and he isn’t about to stop now. He fascinates me because he has that single-minded drive and focus that I envy so much. What I wouldn’t give to be able to think back 20 years from now and know that today is the day that started me on a trajectory so clear and straight that I’m still on it and have never looked back.
At this week’s press conference before the Brno race, Rossi was asked where he sees himself 20 years from now. He responded, “In another 20 years I will be very old. So, I hope still to race with something, for sure not with MotoGP. Maybe with some car, more safe, more slow.”
Considering what “safe” and “slow” must mean to someone for whom a typical workday hits speeds of nearly 200 mph, I for one look forward to watching Valentino Rossi behind the wheel in 2036. Forza Vale!
If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about The Doctor, Monster Energy recently released a 5-part series of mini-documentaries about Valentino Rossi. You can check out the first of the series here: