(Jerez de la Frontera) An hour after sun-up on race day, the road leading from Jerez to the racetrack was clogged, both lanes filled with spectators, cars, motorcycles and police trying to keep traffic moving smoothly.
By the time the 125 race started, there were, no exaggeration, fifty thousand motorcycles parked in and around the Jerez circuit, all of them sport bikes. The word "fan" is a derivative of the word fanatic, and the Spanish truly are Grand Prix racing fanatics. The race at Jerez is their Daytona, only that they do it in opposite fashion of the American Bike Week fans, in that 100% of the enthusiasts in town for the festival attend the race, unlike in America where five hundred thousand motorcyclists attend Bike Week and only ten percent go to the race.
The Spanish have a case of unadulterated love for live Grand Prix racing. Just getting to the track is a headache of mammoth proportions on Saturday or Sunday. Both qualifying and the race are carried live by Spanish television; why not just stay home and watch? That is obviously not an option, as the city of Jerez is a ghost town any time there is action at the track. Only the dirt poor children sit idly at the curbside, waiting for the motorcycles to return. If you're Spanish, and you have the resources, you drum up the seven or ten thousand pesetas ($40-$75) and you buy a ticket to the race.
Like cattle, the Spaniards are directed to either the stadium seating on the front straight where a nice bench, cool drinks and cigarette girls tossing packs of smokes and t-shirts to the crowd await, or to the more popular seating on the surrounding hills. Some banks of these hills are covered with soft grass, but the best viewing section, the bluff area above the track that includes both the trying slow and fast right-hand corners, is very primitive. No benches, no grass and really no level surface to sit on.
The fanatics in this section of the track sit on the dirt hillside with no trees to shade them. Acquiring a good view from this area means arriving shortly after dawn and staking your claim, then waiting in the hot Spanish sun until the races begin, six hours later.
As they wait, the crowds drink shots of Jack Daniels from the vendors, sing, do the wave, make tents and sunshades from newspaper to keep themselves out of the unbearable and relentless Spanish sun, light potent firecrackers and throw them at the photographers next to the track, and then holler requests to borrow the photographer's sunscreen. The nerve.
Packed against each other elbow to elbow by the time the 500 race starts, the Spaniards aren't concerned really with suing each other or killing each other or using signs to encourage women to expose themselves, as densely packed Americans probably would be. No, they're there for the race.
The King of Spain, Juan Carlos helicoptered in for the '97 race as he did a few years ago when I was here. The Sunday morning traffic was momentarily dispersed by six all-white vans filled with Carlos' bodyguards. Spaniards in autos and on motorcycles who couldn't be bothered to move out of the way for ambulances or the police, dutifully moved over for the King's men. Out of the white vans the guards formed a loose perimeter around the King and some patrolled the paddock looking for problems, their eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses and their bodies contained in expensive three-piece suits, despite a heat that would have you sweating in a white t-shirt. Bulges under their suits made you aware that although they weren't carrying automatic machine guns this year, they did mean business. Every briefcase, camera case and purse in the paddock was searched. King Carlos, a tall, balding man with the walk of royalty (he rides too, keeping several motorcycles in his collection) has the most highly-polished leather shoes I have ever seen. He gave some words of assurance to Spain's favorite rider Alex Criville and then kicked back and waited for the race to begin.
Words do not exist in the English language to adequately describe the furor the Spanish fans whip themselves into before the racing begins. There is a deep, emotional anticipation of the events that is strictly European and transcends anything seen at an American sporting event or race. When the 500s come out to make their warm-up lap, the Spaniards go crazy, lighting off thousands of deafening firecrackers, smoke-bombs, screaming at the top of their lungs and trying their hardest to will the Spanish riders on. During the race, each time the pack goes by, the attendees applaud loudly. The riders, especially in the lead pack, race in a wall of screaming fans the entire time they're on track.
After last year's disaster, when the rabid fans couldn't contain themselves and gate-crashed the track in an attempt to touch Alex Criville (who then lost his nerve and the race); this year the fencing was doubled. In the more popular sections of the track, a second fence was built two feet in front of the existing fence and the top of both fences was given a fresh coating of barbed wire or more gruesome pointed poles to gore anyone feeble-witted or just plain excited enough to try and scale it.
It seemed to do the trick, and this year the Spanish fans were contained in body if not in spirit, until the very end.