Ben Spies: Moto Racer, Singer, Bike Builder
MOTO RACER | SINGER | BIKE BUILDER
“The reason for some of my success is seeing and knowing so many people that have quit.”
—Motorcycle Road Racer Ben Spies
April is a month of rebirth, of renewal, of fresh starts. And after the way last year went for professional motorcycle racer Ben Spies, a fresh start can’t come soon enough. His fourth season competing in the MotoGP World Championship, the most prestigious tour in the sport, was basically a sequence of setbacks. Eighteen mechanical failures contributed to a dismal 10th-place overall finish. He acrimoniously split with Yamaha, and in October, during a tour stop in Malaysia, a crash on the eighth lap caused a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery. “I’ve been racing street bikes for more than 20 years now … and honestly, no matter what competition I’ve been in, I’ve never had a year that bad results-wise or in terms of crashes and mechanical failures,” says the 28-year-old Texan.
This was the same Ben Spies underneath the #11 jersey, the guy who rides fiercely and with flared elbows. But it wasn’t the same rider who became World Superbike Champion in 2009—who, two years after that, became the first American to win a MotoGP race since 2006. When the 2013 MotoGP kicks off in Qatar on April 7, Spies will have his back up against a wall.
Still, that doesn’t compare to the time the wall pushed back.
In 2003, Spies blew a tire while going 186 miles per hour at Daytona International Speedway. The bike spit him against the barrier, and by the time he landed on his feet, friction burns had ground his skin down to nothing in some places: He lost an inch off his left butt cheek, the white of his scapula was exposed, and he spent five months dressing his wounds. “I’ve broken plenty of bones, but had never experienced friction burns or skin loss, and there’s nothing that comes close [to that pain],” he says.
And it doesn’t compare to losing Ryan Smith, a friend who was killed during a race when Spies was 14. He briefly considered giving up the sport back then, but in the years since, watching peers fall by the wayside has only strengthened his resolve. “The reason for some of my success is seeing and knowing so many people that have quit,” Spies says. “I see them 10 years later saying, ‘I coulda done this, I coulda done that, if only I would’ve been more serious and I approached it differently.’ I don’t want that. I want to race. And when I hang it up, whatever I did was the most I could, and I won’t have any regrets.”
In memory of his fallen friend, Spies had Adrian Evans from Dallas’s Death or Glory Tattoo inscribe a shield and Roman numerals for 19, Smith’s race number, as part of a half sleeve. Tattoos pepper the rest of Spies’s body, and he estimates Evans has done 90 percent of them. He has a crest with his family members’ initials on his wrist. The Hindi characters on his left forearm—an appendage that required two skin grafts after the 2003 crash—translate to grateful.
Now signed to Ducati’s Pramac Racing Team and with a shoulder that’s nearing full mobility, Spies is eager to get on his new bike, the Ducati Desmosedici GP13, and get back to his winning ways. He’s not so eager for another season of transcontinental flights, lingering injuries, and missed family milestones. But just as the MotoGP is the same six-month grind, it also has the same moments that are worth the sacrifice. “It all pays off on Sundays for that 45 minutes, whether it be fifth place, third place, or first place, and you have a knock-down, drag-out battle with somebody, and you edge ’em out, pass ’em in the last lap to beat ’em,” Spies says. “Your adrenaline goes through the roof, and everything that was bad is good again.”