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Menace to Society or Just a Motorcycle Racer?
by dean adams (1998)

"How old's your boy?" asked Anthony Gobert, the famed former Lucky Strike Suzuki rider and current Vance and Hines Ducati star pilot, as he and I sat against the pit wall at Daytona last December at the Dunlop test.

We were watching my son John play vigorously with a toy truck in a scrap of dirt he'd found. 

He's four years old, I told him. Gobert watched the lad for a few minutes and then asked how many children I have. In response, I rolled my eyes and told him just one, and based on this one, it'll be some time before I have another. Kids, as you parents out there are aware, can be a handful.

Gobert smiled and said, "Yeah, my parents said they had to wait five years before they had my little brothers." He stopped for a moment and said, "I think I was kind of rough on them." 

It doesn't take much imagination to conjure up images and situations of a pre-adolescent Anthony that might have been just a tad bit trying for his parents.

While the post-adolescent Gobert might now sound understanding of his parents' plight, based on press reports, he probably still gives them plenty of cause for consternation. A turbulent young man, he likes to party and to live like he rides--on the edge. Whether it's a day of motocrossing with his pals in Australia, or teasing the strippers at the Pink Pony in Daytona Beach, the kid likes to have fun and he doesn't really care who knows it, even if it means Mick Doohan gets offended. (As you might recall, Gobert referred to Doohan as "the Queen Bee" last year when the two had a slight altercation.) Gobert's renown throughout the GP world didn't end with pissing off fellow riders. He'd had a makeshift hot tub installed in his motorhome and his post-race parties were memorable, so I've been told.

Somebody needed to warn the boy before he found himself jobless last year. In the current Grand Prix climate, too much fun will shorten a rider's career faster than getting a right thumb ground off in a crash. Accepted behavior now is to smile for the cameras, thank your sponsors, sign some autographs and get back to the hotel as fast as humanly possible without ruffling any feathers. Young Gobert was ushered into GP with Garry Taylor and the whole Lucky Strike armada predicting he'd be the next Kevin Schwantz. Only they forgot to tell Gobi that they wanted someone who could ride like Kevin Schwantz but who acted like the squeaky clean Freddie Spencer, a devout Christian from the start who didn't need to be born again like so many riders.

How times have changed for guys who make their living competing on a motorcycle. 20 years ago upstanding citizens of this country would have pursed their lips and vilified Anthony with two little words: "motorcycle racer." The occupational title "Motorcycle Racer" was a direct synonym for "Hell-Raiser" and everyone knew it. In that era racers were not known for their volunteer work with the poor, for being deacons of the church, or for their politically correct viewpoints. Rather, they were known for tearing around on motorcycles, for being drunk two hours after the checkered flag flew, for ripping doors off of hotel rooms and for starting massive food fights and things of that nature. All one had to say about another man was that he was a "motorcycle racer". No further description was required, and no, he wasn't invited to Sunday dinner.

All that has changed. Thanks to efforts by the American Motorcyclist Association and American Honda, the reputation of normal street-riding motorcyclists in this country has improved so vastly within the past twenty years that, should you ride your motorcycle to work everyday, you won't be immediately ostracized. For the most part, motorcyclists today are recognized as fairly normal and upstanding citizens of this country.

The image of the professional motorcycle racer has improved as well. How that happened is a little more difficult to explain but one word might suffice: NASCAR. One can make several accusations against NASCAR and it's influence on racing in America: namely, that it has helped to dumb-down the normal motorsports fan to the point where pushrod engines and identical racetracks with a maximum of four corners at each venue are now considered interesting. Be that as it may, there is still no doubt that NASCAR is the most popular form of motorsports in this country. 

Furthermore, it has managed to drag the rest of the motorsports legions kicking and screaming into the 1990's. Motorsports (including motorcycle racing) and NASCAR have shaken off their whiskey-running, food-fighting, hooker-laden past and now the drivers are expected to act professionally and have spot-free behavioral records.

While responsible behavior on the part of such role models is to be lauded, at the same time you've got to admit, there's something to lament in all this political and social correctness. It's as if they threw the baby out with all that dirty, stinking bathwater. Personalities have been extinguished. A squeaky-clean reputation is what it takes to make it in most major motorsports series, and if a rider can't censor himself, there are those who'll do it for him.

Lest you doubt such Orwellian-control exists, here's a case in point: last season I tried to get a Superbike or Supersport try-out for a rider I felt had paid his dues and could deliver the results a factory team demands. The test never happened. My guy was not given a factory try-out for the simple reason that the factory racing managers suspected that he smoked cigarettes. They didn't know for sure. They didn't have any proof, photographs, or affidavits. They merely suspected he smoked and based on that, his try-out on a factory Supersport bike was given a definite and irrevocable veto. 

"Our legal department would have a fit with that," they said.

Correspondingly, let us now examine how much this sport has changed from just several decades ago. I wonder how many of the 1970s dirt track and roadrace brethren could pass a modern day drug test, and jeez, Grand Prix riders used to have a drink before the race started. And bear in mind they all smoked.

Riders today wouldn't dare talk bad about their tires or another rider's tires for fear of a scolding by their team manager. Back then, though, the start of a Loudon national in the mid-1970s was postponed for twenty minutes. The AMA referees wouldn't let the race begin until the rider who'd just taken a rifle and shot down the Michelin man balloon confessed to the crime. Ken Roberts never did confess; he just stared back at the refs with that steely-eyed glare of his. (Truth: Roberts was bored before the start, took a small-caliber rifle out of his motorhome, and shot the fat man down. Being a Goodyear-sponsored rider at the time, he felt it was his responsibility.)

Or take for instance another great America rider, and hell-raiser, Gary Nixon, who allegedly drove a car, with a bunch of friends inside, into the Atlantic Ocean after one not so pleasant Daytona 200. It was widely talked about and they say a photo of the car covered in water was published in the Daytona Beach newspaper. 

If a rider did that today and the photo ended up in a newspaper, his manager would be pulling every legal trick he could to permit his rider to keep his job.

Freddie Spencer was an exception to the above shenanigans and, in a way, he and Anthony Gobert have many similarities. Gobert has, like Spencer did have, such unsurpassed mastery of the front end of a racing motorcycle, such sure control, that competitors are rendered speechless when they see it. Off-track too they share the trait of going against the prevailing mood of the era in terms of behavior. So much so that both could be considered outcasts. Spencer was lily-white and a puritan in an era of racing when his rivals were hell raising madmen drunk with talent and alcohol. 

Meanwhile, Gobert finds himself racing motorcycles in an era when the riders he races against are predominantly robotic, non-quotable, sponsor-thanking androids. Their behavior is akin to that of someone preparing to enter a Trappist monastery. They haven't yet taken a vow of silence, but it seems that they have taken a vow to mention their sponsor's name as much as possible and to act as if fun were a sin. 

There are a few notable exceptions, (thank-God); Gobert's rival, Mat Mladin, likes to mouth off now and then and Steve Crevier is not shy about letting his personality shine through, but riders like this are becoming a rarity in this age of imposed gentility.

Here's a thought: if those same behavior mandates were in place years ago as they are now, when a rider is turned down for a factory try-out because he is suspected of smoking, would any of the following riders - Dave Aldana, Eddie Lawson, Kenny Roberts, Gary Nixon, Kevin Schwantz, or Scott Russell - ever have landed a factory ride?

Back to young Anthony, who, if you haven't figured it out yet, is no choirboy. He has been accused of and perhaps has even tested positive for smoking something a bit stronger than tobacco. What's my read on the lad? I've known Anthony since 1995 when I interviewed him for this magazine at Monza and in my opinion, he's a bit refreshing. In 100 percent of my dealings with the boy he's been . . . normal, or as normal as any twenty-two-year-old-hell-raiser-millionaire-with-green-then-red-then-blonde-hair can be. Maybe I catch him on good days or maybe he's a great actor, but he seems to be an okay kid from my observations.

As a rider, I think he's the most talented rider I have ever seen early in his career. I'll qualify that by saying I didn't see the very early days of Doug Chandler. (Actually I did, but the Rainey versus Schwantz rivalry overshadowed everything in those days.) And that Miguel DuHamel, in my opinion, was a late-bloomer of sorts, although he won the Daytona 200 in something like his fifth-ever AMA Superbike race.

Gobert went to the front on Superbikes quicker than anyone I have ever seen. He won the third World Superbike race he entered, on a bike he hadn't seen but a month prior. There's a moment of time that is frozen inside my brain from the 1996 World Superbike races at Laguna Seca, the year it was Kocinski versus Gobert. Little Rock John had the pole and the field covered, somewhat, and Gobert had to push to keep him in sight. He would make these amazingly aggressive runs down the hill from the Corkscrew and try so desperately to run the bike on the inside line. Entering the last corner leading onto the straight he would literally have the front wheel folded over and be muscling and stopping the bike while it collapsed on his left knee. Words hardly begin to describe what Gobert was accomplishing that sunny afternoon in Northern California. I've seen a lot of races, and a lot of riders come and go in my time, but I have never seen anyone ride like that in my life. I remember looking over at fellow writer, Tracy Hagen, who was working a lap chart for me, and he too was keenly observing Gobert's riding technique. We stared at each other in disbelief. Gobert soon crashed doing just what I described, but he came back in race number two and, riding exactly the same amazing way, won.

Now young Anthony comes to America to ride for the Vance and Hines Ducati team, which is either a public relations disaster waiting to happen or the best thing to befall the Vance and Hines team since Lawson rode for them in 1993. Gobert comes here with a plateful of responsibilities: win races, take the championship, and prove himself a worthy of a GP ride, again.

I for one welcome him. Not just because he's a talented rider who deserves a second chance. But because he's a throwback to the origins of our sport, to when being a motorcycle racer meant a hard-living, knuckle-busting occupation that most men passed on simply because most men cannot do it. This is not a sport where a man gets behind the wheel of a large automobile and "races" around in circles until everyone that is going to crash or break, does, and then ten laps from the end, they race. This is motorcycle roadracing, and to the men that do this, the normal rules have never applied, Nor should they now. 

Sure, I know the riders must act responsibly and professionally for this sport to continue to grow, but I also know there's something wrong with the system when arguably the most talented young guy in the world isn't riding a 500 or a Superbike on the world level. 

Especially when so many that can't match him are doing just that.

ENDS

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