Ben Spies: Mind Over MotoGP Matter

GP Race Face

American MotoGP rookie Ben Spies is a fascinating study of the human mind. I’m no professional psychologist but Spies’ ability to stay focused–in a sport where focus is everything–seems too remarkable not to talk about.

There have been many instances in the past few years, but for me, the first standout example demonstrating Ben Spies’ mental strength was at Phillip Island this time last year. It was the first race of the new 2009 season. Spies had already clinched the AMA national Superbike title the previous year, but as we all know, in any sport, stepping up from a national series to the world stage is a big jump in talent–and in our sport, that means speed.

The riders are quicker out of the gate at each meeting, quicker to find a good chassis setup, and the races–especially in World Superbike since the advent of Pirelli spec tires–are way more competitive. For Spies himself, there were additional challenges too. Raised in Longview, Texas, the all-American young man had been reported that he disliked flying, and of course he’d never really traveled in Europe before with its multi-cultures, foreign languages, colorful selection of food, and interminable time-zone changes. And he’d never seen most of the tracks before either.

So young Mr. Spies lines up at Phillip Island–an intimidatingly fast and highly technical track–and yet he isn’t just competitive, he sets pole-position in qualifying! At the time I could almost hear the detractors shouting ‘fluke!’, later of course, only to be silenced by the stats from Ben’s record-setting season.

The resulting race at Phillip Island was not just difficult, it could almost have been termed a disaster. Pushed off into the gravel trap–twice–within moments of the start, and later describing the race as ‘rubbish’, Spies finished a lowly 16th; not quite in the points.

Talking to Mary Spies a few meetings later at the Miller Motorsports Park WSBK round in Utah, I was curious what her son’s state of mind was at that low point, before the start of Race 2? Surely he must have been intimidated as heck? The pushing and barging that went on had ruined Race 1, and based on the sheer aggression he’d experienced he could have been forgiven if he’d psyched himself out and ridden conservatively–tentatively even–in Race 2. Surely just finishing the race and coming away with some points would have been fine, very understandable?

Mary Spies thought for a moment. Although her response was carefully considered she smiled slightly as she replied: ‘I remember that well. He simply said to me: I just want to do my best Mom’. Mary then shrugged her shoulders and smiled wider: ‘Ben doesn’t sweat the small stuff.’

Well, it seems he doesn’t sweat the big stuff either. He obviously didn’t over-think the situation that day in Phillip Island. He cleared his head of what had happened previously–both good and bad–and didn’t dwell on it. He didn’t project any thoughts for what might be about to happen next either. It was a perfect example of ‘living in the now’. Not cluttering the mind, focusing on the job in hand, and not projecting an outcome. Mental strength.

Yesterday’s race in Qatar at the Losail circuit was another example of the remarkable Mr. Spies’ ability to stay ‘in the now’. Testing had gone exceedingly well–almost too well in fact, from a pressure perspective. Clearly Ben is the next ‘big thing’ in many people’s minds, and yet a missed qualifying opportunity saw him starting the Qatar MotoGP race from 11th on the grid. Not good, and one that presented Spies with another perfect opportunity to intimidate himself into a losing position.

By now, we all know the outcome. The remarkable ‘Doctor’ Valentino Rossi rode his M1 Yamaha–not the fastest machine on the grid by the way–to a solid victory over his teammate Jorge Lorenzo who finished an admirable second. American Nicky Hayden (at some level) helped redeem the brilliant new carbon-fiber framed Ducati after his teammate Casey Stoner lost the front and fell while leading. Nicky’s fourth-place finish was arguably a bit disappointing after he was pipped at the post by Andrea Dovizioso on his faster-than-heck Honda RC 212-V. The ever-positive Nicky must be happy to be dicing at the front of the pack for a change, so he’ll take away his valuable points and, as he always does, continue to work hard at the next round. In a comfortable fifth place was Ben Spies–the top satellite team (non-factory) finisher–a spectacular achievement for someone who started more than halfway down the starting grid. Encouragingly, in mid-race, Spies’ lap times were the fastest at that point and he was actually catching the leaders; implying that had he qualified a little better he could have been up there dicing for the podium.

I’m pretty sure I know what Ben said to his friend, mentor and mom, Mary just before the start of the race: ‘I’m just going to do my best, Mom.’ And his best was pretty good by anyone’s standards.