America’s Motorcycle Racing StarSuperbike racer Ben Spies possesses a quiet, courteous southern demeanor that belies his spectacular ability to tame the irascible nature of a 1000cc racing motorcycle. Winning the AMA Superbike Championship an impressive three times made him a star Stateside, but for 2009 the soft-spoken, 24-year-old has been recruited to ride for Yamaha Motor Italia’s factory motorcycle racing team in the highly competitive World Superbike Championship.
As the lone American-and entering the fray as a series rookie-he will be going up against a host of international superstars, most of them famous for their "win-it-or-bin-it" attitude. As intimidating presage, Spies sports a Texas Longhorn across the seat of his leather race suit framing his nickname, "Elbowz," a descriptor of his aggressive elbows up riding style. It is a whole new world for Spies (pronounced "spees"). He is with a new team, riding a new bike, facing new competitors, and set to tackle 14 new tracks from Spain to South Africa. The only constants for Spies are his mother, Mary, and long-time Crew Chief Tom Houseworth; such is their faith in Spies that both have come to Europe to help with the title chase. The process of dialing in the factory Yamaha R1 for a specific circuit unfolds with quiet, calm precision. Spies must learn the track layout quickly, finding the fast way around. After turning a series of laps, he pulls into the pit to download a flood of electronic and visceral information. There are crucial fractions of seconds to be found, out there; it is hiding in the suspension, in the motor, and in the tires. The science is in deciphering what works and what doesn’t. Spies and Houseworth communicate in abbreviated, intuitive shorthand, working to massage the Yamaha to the edge of the envelope-calculating the best combination of tires, engine mapping, and suspension set-up, so that Spies can work his magic. The nuances are refined as the day progresses, and the team goes from chasing seconds to tenths of seconds. Each subsequent session has Spies lowering his lap times, moving him up the leader board, from fifth, to fourth, to third. The Texan is kept abreast of his progress by his pit board. As the hunt for tenths of seconds turns to hundredths, an interesting change comes over the garage. When Spies pits, Houseworth and the team leave him alone, letting him digest what he has just discovered on the track. At this crucial stage Spies’ mind is intensely focused, deciding what will shave those elusive fractions of time. Only after a few moments does Houseworth quietly sidle up to his rider and patiently wait for the verdict. A few brief, succinct words are uttered. Houseworth then translates the feedback to the mechanics and the final touches are implemented. The whole process then starts over; Spies takes to the track and throws down a series of laps that usher him to the top of the time charts. Spies has revealed enough in pre-season tests to unnerve his new rivals. There are murmurs in Italian, German and Spanish permeating the paddock. The young Texan is showing true brilliance in starkly unfamiliar surroundings. The usual suspects of WSBK, superstars such as Italian Max Biaggi and Spaniard Ruben Xaus, have been keeping an eye on the young Texan’s progress. Xaus looked a little intense. "I am very aware of Ben. We all are. We get the American races on TV," Xaus adds with a smile, "we have been watching him for a while." Seeing her son step into the limelight at the top level is not as big a surprise to Mary Spies as you might think. She says that after his first race, at age eight, when her son said he wanted to be a champion, she knew it would happen, reiterating, "If you knew Ben the way I do, you’d understand. When he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it." She has always supported his desire to compete, traveling with him to races, fiercely protective, she is aware of the little things that can derail a racer’s focus. Conscious of the dangerous occupation her son has chosen, Mary is reticent to talk about any concerns she may have, choosing instead to emphasize the philosophy she acquired early on: "If you love your children, then you have to let them have their own life." When the day’s sessions are over and Spies slips back into his street clothes, the big, easy grin returns, replacing the serious race face. The stopwatch does not lie. The young gun is pleased with the day’s test, and it bodes well for the upcoming season. But Spies is a competitor. He is eager to get the championship rolling. The WSBK regulars better give him a little elbow room. April / MAY 2009 ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLINGPhotography by Jeff Buchanan and Andrew Northcott