Ben Spies Interview: Goodbye, Or See You Later?
The following interview was done by Polish MotoGP journalist and TV commentator Mick Fialkowski back in October 2013 and published in Bikesportnews in the UK amongst others. As well as writing in English, Mick writes in Polish for the website and magazine MotorMania, as well as the Polsat Sport website.
Spies is hopefully feeling better by now, but by how much, we'll probably find out next weekend as the former World Superbike Champion is set to attend his home MotoGP round at Austin, Texas, as a spectator. Can he ever come back as a rider?
With former AMA and WSBK Champ Ben Spies announcing his retirement following two horrid seasons in MotoGP, Mick Fialkowski asks him why and if he's ever coming back.
As the likes or Marquez, Rossi and Crutchlow spend the off-season gearing up for 2014, Ben Spies has other priorities, recovering from a double shoulder injury which forced his recent shocking retirement from motorcycle racing at the age of just 29. 'Right now, when I wake up in the morning, I'm still in a lot of pain with both shoulders,' the Texan says from his house in Dallas in a first interview since announcing his retirement exactly a month earlier. 'The left one, which I've injured at Indy this year, was a pretty bad separation, it was a grade five, the three tendons that attach the AC joint to your shoulder they weren't even connected. That was pretty big but I don't think it will be too much of a problem, hopefully, for the long run. The right shoulder, the one from Malaysia of last year; all I can say is it's been over a year since I've had the first surgery and I haven't gone a day without waking up without pain or it troubling me. It will be tough. I don't want to say never but when I talk to the doctors they always say that for doing normal things in normal life it shouldn't be a problem but racing a motorcycle or playing golf, I'm going to be restricted in a lot of things and that just comes with the nature of the injury and the damage that I've done inside my shoulder that you can't really fix. When you have the rotator cuff and torn labrum stuff, it's pretty severe and that's why the second surgery was done to my right shoulder to try and fix some of those problems. It still feels like it's not at 100%, that's for sure.'
Spies, a three time AMA Superbike Champion went on take the World Superbike title on the factory Yamaha in his very first attempt in 2009 winning 14 out of 28 races, before making the switch to MotoGP, with a rookie season on board the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team followed by a two-year stint in the factory Yamaha team, taking over from Ducati-bound Valentino Rossi alongside Jorge Lorenzo.
Talented and spectacular on track but introvert and quiet off it, Spies worked hard and methodically with longtime crew chief Tom Houseworth, winning the Dutch TT at Assen in the first of his two seasons at the factory Yamaha squad. However high expectations for 2012 were never met after a series of mistakes and devastating bad luck which turned the golden ticket into a highway to motorsport hell. But Ben has no regrets. 'For me just to be in MotoGP was a big accomplishment,' he says, having scored a total of six podiums from 55 premier class starts. 'It was a difficult time for me the whole time because MotoGP was completely different to what I grew up racing but I think we've put in a couple of good years. I don't think it was bad. We've never been able to win a world title or anything like that but even when things are right, I don't know if we had enough talent to beat Jorge and those guys and that's all there is to it. I feel that we could've put together better years but I can't be too disappointed because the riders over there are the highest calibre in the world and I don't know if we ever could've won. We only won one race which is a lot better than most and I can be proud of that and where it happened would be the place I'd want it to happen if I could only win one, Assen is one of the most historical races. I'm proud of it.'
The tale of two shoulders
Spies injured his right shoulder crashing out of a damp Malaysian Grand Prix at the end of 2012, but having signed a factory deal to ride for the Pramac Ducati team, he was desperate to try the infamous Desmosedici. '2012 was horrid but I don't ever consider 2013 a season for me,
he explains having only taken part in the first two races, before injury forced him out for most of the year. 'In hindsight me coming back for the first Malaysian test and the race at Qatar, honestly, by what the doctors say, it was too soon. But I'm a typical athlete and I was going to do it anyway. The bike we were on at that point wasn't going to win races but where I was in the field it was clear I wasn't a 100% and I was just trying to make things happen, to get through it until it would get better. Then when we went to Austin, on a Sunday morning I had a really hard twinge in my chest. It felt like I just got stabbed with a knife. What happened was that I had a few anchors in my shoulder that were holding it all together and those had moved and got into my chest muscle, my pectoral muscle and it tore right where the peck goes into the shoulder. That all happened just because my shoulder wasn't strong enough. I wasn't able to do the things that I needed to do on the bike so I was compensating in weird ways, using muscles that shouldn't really be used.'
Spies missed Jerez and Le Mans before coming back for round five at Mugello but he had to pull out after practice. 'I came to Mugello and tried to race but I wasn't strong enough and that's a physical track. I came out of a corner, had a little bit of a moment – it was nothing, not something I'd tell the crew, but enough that I got a bit of a headshake and I couldn't let go of the throttle before the last corner because I was only hanging on on one arm and I didn't have the strength. That was a point where I knew I was in trouble, I'm not a 100% and I'm just out here making big risk.'
Having missed the next four more races, Spies came back at Indianapolis but by the third practice session his weekend, season, and career, were over. 'I want to clear that up. Nothing was wrong with the bike or anything like that. Basically when you turn the traction control off with a pit-lane limiter, if you don't go to second gear it doesn't turn on. It's like the Yamaha but the Yamaha would only do that if you did launch control, like what happened at Lorenzo at Laguna Seca a few years ago, but that's only in launch control mode. I didn't know that about the Ducati. I thought that it was the same way. That's another mistake that I clearly would've known if I had been racing. It was just something that would've been second nature to me and it wasn't. When you come out of the box at Indy, you never hit second gear in the first four turns. I came out, was in first gear, gave it normal throttle as I normally would, highsided and separated my left shoulder really badly.'
Can Crutchlow and Rossi do it?
He never pointed any fingers but the Ducati is quite a handful anyway. 'I never got to push it to its limits, which are obviously a lot closer than the other bikes but the steering is the hardest thing to work around now,' says Spies, nicknamed 'Elbowz' for his distinct elbows-out riding style. 'All the riders say the same thing and it's true. We can change a lot of different things but the problems with the bike were always the same. It had a lot of understeer. But straight line braking, it was great. It's got a hell of a motor in it and a hell of a transmission too. People always ask why it works so well in the rain, and the reason is that you can only go so fast through the corners in the rain. The rain has its limit and those limits are within the bike and so it's a lot more even in the rain. Ducati has a little bit to go with the bike but it can happen. But I never got to push the bike to its limits or ever got close to them.'
Cal Crutchlow is next in line to try his luck on the Ducati in 2014. 'If anybody can do better on the bike, he can do well on it, but I think there are a lot of big problems that you're not just able ride around. What that bike needs to go fast is a looser style, somebody that doesn't mind the bike bucking around a little bit, moving. If you look at Ducati in the past, in every series they've ever ran, even World Superbike, their bikes are a little bit looser and they move around a little bit but they work really well. That's what the bike does need. For the future, you never know the direction they're going to go, but Cal's riding style could suit it. Right now there haven't been a style we've seen that's been able to make it really work. Nicky, Dovi, Valentino – their styles are completely different but still they couldn't get anywhere with it so hopefully they'll start in a new direction and hopefully with Gigi Dall'Igna going there it can be really good. They do have a long way for sure but I think now, this year, they're doing it in the right way.'
By leaving Yamaha for Ducati, Spies made way for Valentino Rossi's return on the M1 but the 9-times champion's results were a far car from his heydays, with just a lone victory at Assen to show. 'Not taking anything away from Valentino because he's done what he's done in the past on different bikes, but ever since Jorge has been in MotoGP, raw speed-wise he's been faster than Valentino. Even the first year when Valentino won the title, Jorge had more speed, he just didn't know how to harness it. He had a lot of things to learn. The bike from then, 2008-2009, has really been just evolutions. Nothing really major has changed with it, so the riding style is very similar, even from the 800s to the 1000s. Valentino did kind of what I expected. He won at Assen and put on a great show there. It would've been nice if Jorge had been fit there because we saw what he did with a broken collarbone. I think he was the man of the weekend. Valentino was always a little bit off the front group all year. I don't think that's anything that the bike doesn't suit him or he doesn't suit the bike. There's always an evolution of riders too, just like bikes. He was the king for a long time and when you look at Jorge and Marquez now, I just think they're naturally a step ahead raw speed-wise. I think that's fairly normal, that happens. Valentino did a great job but to get that raw speed back as fast as Jorge and Marc and those guys, it will be tough. It's not going to be easy.'
MotoGP's new world order
With Spies on the sidelines and Rossi off the pace, 2013 was all about Marc Marquez vs Jorge Lorenzo, with the Repsol Honda rookie coming up on top after a few 'too close for comfort' moments. 'I think what you have is somebody coming from Moto2, that's similar to World Superbike, where you can get in there when a gap opens, slow the bike down mid-corner, whatever and change the race up. In MotoGP, the passes that happened over the last three years, were either because of a mistake or the guy that's been behind setting the pass up for three or four laps. It's because the MotoGP bikes are so perfect and corner speeds are so high, for them to pass it takes a lot of planning and getting ready for it. With Marc, if there's an opening, he's like 'screw it, I'm going, I'm jumping in there'. People are not ready for that and it's changing the way the racing is. Also, the way the MotoGP bikes work, it can get sketchy at times and be a little closer, unsafe. There's a fine balance of that, for sure. I think what he's doing is good for watching the sport. If I was up racing with him, I'd be a bit leery, just how the bikes are. But if I was on a World Superbike, the way they race, it would be normal. The only thing Marc needs to realize sometimes is when he's braking behind somebody. He's always been pretty bad about getting up and behind somebody. It's not his weak spot, but it's a spot that can catch him out. But everything else he did, he did right, becoming the youngest ever MotoGP World Champion. He was incredible this year.'
As electrifying as the title battle was, Spies has an idea about how to improve the show in MotoGP: 'The problem that I see with MotoGP racing, from a stand point of watching in on TV is that everything is such a high level. When you're going into a race and your bike is a little bit off and you know it is, you can't play with the bike in the race, you can't manipulate it as a rider; move back a little bit, do this or that, to make it work. In World Superbike, where you have tyres that are at a much lower level and heavier bikes with more pitch and weight distribution, you can do different things to make the bike work, where with a MotoGP bike you can't. I've always said 'man, if they'd just stick on some tyres that just basically suck but last the race you're going to see much closer racing'. In World Superbike you have five different manufacturers that can reach the level of the tyres and the last ten laps of the race, the real winner wins. In MotoGP the race is over in the first three laps. That's what I did learn with MotoGP; the bike is a lot of it in the setup. The rider definitely has to get it done but the first part of the equation is the setup of the bike and the package of the motorcycle.'
End of the road?
Ben Spies has only been officially retired for over a month now, but rumours are already doing the rounds about 2014 only being a sabbatical before he comes back in two years time. As it turns out, that's not on the cards, at least for now. 'I wrote something on Twitter and I think a few people maybe took it out of context or thought that I've said I was going to come back out of retirement,' says the 29-years-old, who now gets to spend more time looking after his cycling team, his Stackhouse burger joint in Dallas as well as working with the Texas Department for Motorcycling Safety. 'The thing is, mentally, when you want to do something but physically you can't do it, that's when you can get hurt worse and that's what happened to me at Mugello when I came back too soon. Personally, I'd love to come back and be at the level that I was but if I can't do that, I'm not just going to be out there filling numbers if I can just be 70-80%. It's just not me to do that. I don't want to have a further injury to what I already have. I'll not put myself or other people at that risk. Right now I'm trying to see where I can be again but knowing the injury that I have and what's wrong with my shoulder, it's going to be tough to come back, pretty difficult. It looks pretty bleak but you never know if things might change in the future '
If he comes back too old for MotoGP, would he consider doing a John Hopkins and jumping over to British Superbikes? 'I've always followed BSB. A lot of good riders came from there. I wish AMA was a higher level, like it used to be there. Any form of racing, trust me, I'd love to be able to do it but until that's the case, I'll be helping out in some other ways in motorcycle racing. I'll be at some races. I'm not going away from the scene completely, that's for sure.'
Ben Spies is a class act in more ways than one. He even took the time out during the interview to thank the readers and fans who stood by him through thick and thin. Against the odds all through his career; first as a youngster taking the fight to the experienced Mat Mladin in AMA Superbike, then as an American in World Superbike, and eventually a Superbike rider stepping up to MotoGP, here's hoping this is just another obstacle to overcome for the Texan and it's not goodbye but see you later!
The (R) one to miss
He might have raced the MotoGP winning M1 for three years straight but that's not the one Spies will miss the most. 'I would have to say, and anybody that has ridden Superbikes and MotoGP bikes will say this, the most fun bikes to ride are the Superbikes. They move around more, they slide around more. There's just more stuff going on. They're not as fast, expensive and loud but when it comes to riding them and having fun doing it, Superbike is the most fun. It's more like Moto2 with how the bikes are sliding and are much more even. I'll probably miss my World Superbike the most. That was a fun bike to ride. It wasn't the best bike in the series, as people found out after I won the title, but it was a really fun bike to ride, I enjoyed it.'
No love lost with Mladin
7-times AMA Superbike Champion, Yoshimura Suzuki teammate and bitter rival, outspoken Aussie Mat Mladin had a brief comment to make after Spies' retirement, calling the Texan 'a ****ing pussy', but Ben isn't really bothered, or surprised. 'Do you expect anything less of him?' he laughs. 'I don't because I've raced him for many years. All I can say is, as a racer I have a lot of respect for him and I've always said this; I respect him as a racer. As a person, I don't have much respect for him, which most people don't, but he's entitled to his opinion. The thing is, he nor 90% of the paddock or racing world really know my injuries. If he feels that way about me then I guess after racing him four years and beating him three times then what is he? [smiles]. You're always as good as who you race and stuff. I at least took the venture to go out to World Superbike and MotoGP when he only raced in Grand Prix before AMA and it didn't worked out so well for him. I just let that stuff speak for itself and it's sad that he made a comment like that but when I've read it I laughed immediately because I know that's Mat, and I'm just thinking at the back of my head: 'Ok, I've raced you four times and I think I've beaten you three times, so you can take that back home with you' [smiles]. It is what it is. You're always going to have people that say that stuff. I've been racing now for 20 years and I understand it but you always got to smile at some of these comments. As a rider, the dude was fast. He was talented and fast enough to go to World Superbikes and probably win the title or be competitive but he didn't want to step outside his comfort zone and he was being paid a lot and stuff. He took the safe route. When you have a comment like that you smirk and laugh because it's pretty abrasive, but it's kind of immature at the end of the day.'