Haga’s Saga Meets Ben Spies

A Tale of Haga vs. Spies

The 2009 World Superbike Championship has come to an end. The series more than lived up to the hype that blossomed in pre-season testing all those months ago when rookie Ben Spies stepped onto the world stage. As the season began to unfold it became apparent that the title chase was going to come down to a duel between the personable Texan Ben Spies riding for the factory Yamaha team and the immensely popular Japanese rider, Noriyuki Haga newly riding for the formidable Xerox Ducati squad. During the course of the season Haga and Spies racked up race wins and multiple podiums as well as their share of crashes, bad luck and technical gremlins, but always managed to stay within range of one other, each in contention for the title, driving the SBK championship chase all the way to the final race.

For me there was a remote personal connection to these two riders in what eventually became a battle of the Titans. I had met Ben Spies during a pre-season test in Portugal while doing a profile for Ultimate MotorCycling. Ben, his mother Mary, crew chief Tom Houseworth and the entire team made me feel right at home and gave me full access to the inner workings of what was to become a record-breaking Superpole season. I came away from the test predicting that Ben Spies was going to win the title in his rookie year.

However, I was torn, like many fans I had been a longtime supporter of Haga. I had met "Nitro Nori" in Misano during Ducati week a few years back and spent some time chatting about everything from Italian food to the challenge of raising his young son on the road. It was easy to be a fan, the soft-spoken Japanese rider, one of the friendliest riders in the paddock. Haga has battled through numerous bone-crushing injuries and monumental bad luck for more than a decade of chasing the WSBK title, always dazzling the crowds with awe-inspiring displays of raw talent with a never-say-die attitude.

Haga has endeared himself to a legion of fans through his tenacity and good sportsmanship as much as his ability. However, despite Haga’s sensational career in WSBK the number one plate has eluded him. But now 2009 was shaping up to be his year. He was finally on the right motorcycle with the right team and the right mindset.

Enter the newcomer, Ben Spies. The Lone Star man came in, to some respect, as the underdog (a situation he quickly ratified with a series of pole positions and race wins on tracks he’d never seen). Equal parts to Haga in regard to friendly off-track demeanor and fierce on-track competitor, Spies electrified the world with his sublime displays of talent.

Week in and week out the two riders traded wins and bad luck, racking up points and distancing themselves from the field as the series took them around the globe, setting the stage for a colossal finale. It all came down to the final round in Portugal. In the end it was a lot less about Yamaha versus Ducati, it came down to the personable rookie versus the likeable series’ veteran. The points were so close that during the closing stages of the last race spectators, sportscasters and team personnel alike were frantically tallying the points and watching with crossed fingers and furrowed brows right up to the checkered flag.

When it was all over Ben Spies brought the title home to the USA. However, I have to believe there was a palpable bitter sweetness in the air. Through the elation there was certainly a bit of the "what-ifs?" wafting about. You couldn’t help but be ecstatic for Spies, yet a little sad for Haga. But that’s racing. If it had been the other way around there would have been the same degree of elation and empathy, just in the other direction.

Ultimately it came down to a contest not between a protagonist and an antagonist, but rather two exceptional human beings that share a passion for racing motorcycles. It was extremely hard for many to choose a favorite. In the end, the best man won, and that’s only served to reaffirm what a fantastic sporting event motorcycle racing is-the WSBK series in particular.

Now, Spies is off to contest MotoGP. Haga will tackle the WSBK series again, chasing the title. Maybe next year will be Haga’s. 2009 is certain to be remembered as one of the most dramatic and hard fought WSBK titles on the books, it pitted two great competitors against one another in a classic battle royal for the championship title and gave all of us at home and in the grandstands something to get truly excited about and emotionally invested in.

The season represented the quintessential ingredients of why we love racing, why we love competition; it’s really the human element, the emotion, the struggle between great talents. Although there are numerous people behind the racers, keeping it all moving and working, ultimately it comes down to the individual. Spies and Haga were the finest examples of total commitment and dedication to a goal, which unfortunately in the end, can only reward one. What’s really ironic is that these two men, these two competitors, became friends in the midst of their titanic year-long duel. And that is perhaps the most revealing aspect of character in these two legends.