Ben Spies - Q&A: Part 2

"No bullshit, it really happened and I just parked the bike and was ready to quit...I was like, 'this thing is trying to kill me'" - Ben Spies.
Spies, Dutch MotoGP 2011
Spies, Dutch MotoGP 2011
© Gold and Goose

The final part of's full interview with WSBK champion and MotoGP race winner Ben Spies, looking back at the major moments of his racing career.

The second instalment focusses on Spies' MotoGP debut with Suzuki, his stunning rookie WSBK season for Yamaha, then moving to MotoGP full time from 2010-2012...
Looking back to 2008, it was your last year in AMA Superbike but you also made your MotoGP debut at Suzuki, as a replacement for the injured Loris Capirossi. Did you expect that to lead to something permanent for 2009?

Ben Spies:
Honestly with Suzuki, yeah, and I think that everybody did. Loris was coming to the end of his career, and he was one of my favourite riders growing up because when I was watching GPs it would be him and Romboni and all those cats in 250s so it was a big honour to race. I got thrown into the deep end at Donington because it was raining.
Tough track to make your debut on at the best of times!

Ben Spies:
A horrible track for it! I'd never even ridden a GP bike before, so this was the first time ever and I'm trying to learn the track and it rained the whole weekend. So I qualified in eighth and then on Sunday morning it was dry! I'd no clue about gearing or tyres or anything in the dry but I finished up 14th. By the end of the race by lap times were as quick as [team-mate] Vermeulen so I turned onto it pretty quick.

The next weekend was Assen and I flew there and Capirossi was wanting to race again and everyone pretty much knew that he wanted to race because I had done fairly well.

It was pretty much the talk of Assen that I had come in and done decent, it wasn't spectacular but it was news. Loris was still hurt and he wanted to race and I was fine with that. It's his decision. But I told [team manager] Paul Denning and a friend of mine at Suzuki Japan, Sahara, not to come to me on Thursday afternoon [after the first day of Assen practice] and tell me that he's not OK to race. I've got to look out for me and it looks bad for me to show up on Friday, not knowing the track, and trying to do something. I want to come over and race and have a good showing.

Lo and behold he crashed on Thursday afternoon and got hurt again and was out. They came to me on Thursday night and Paul Denning was asking would I ride? Sahara didn't come and ask me because he already knew what I had said. So I said that you're putting me in a position where you're trying to get me to ride the bike, but it's not a good situation for me unless you're saying that you want me on the team next year.

So I said no because I didn't want to get hurt, not knowing the track and doing something stupid. It just wasn't a good situation but then Paul went around and told everybody that I had refused and turned down the ride and that I had been saying this and that. Basically he was pointing all the fingers at me. So I was getting pretty pissed off because I was like, 'I told you two days ago that you should have put me on his backup bike and let me learn the track'.

I would have raced but they put me in a situation where I wasn't going to take it and that happened and we went from there and I raced at Indy and qualified in the dry as the first Suzuki and finished sixth in the rain. I had good pace in the wet and in the dry, and we started talking a little bit about the next year.

I remember that they were doing Capirossi's contract and I said that I wanted to ride for them and this is how much that I want. They said that it was too much money when honestly it was the exact same as what I got paid in the US. I said that I won't take a pay cut, some riders would, but I said that I'll take what I'm getting paid now by Suzuki and won't ask for any more or less but it's triple the race calendar. So then I went to [WSBK with] Yamaha.
When you approached Yamaha was it for a MotoGP ride or was it WSBK?

Ben Spies:
Yamaha came to me for WSBK and I said that it was going to be a one year deal, it wouldn't be for two, and it wasn't going to be a way to get into MotoGP it was strictly for WSBK. They said that they wanted me to come over to Italy and sign the contract but I said that it's Monday and I have to race this weekend at Laguna Seca.

But they said that we want to see you in person to sign the contract so if you come now we can do a signing bonus and other stuff. So they flew three of us first class to Milan and I think I was there for 12 hours before flying back to Laguna Seca to race! We got it all sorted and after the first test I told Maio Meregalli, after the first day, on a stock motorcycle, that we could win the title. We need a bit of luck but we can do it, and he was like, 'do you think?'

I said that I promise [we can win] I won't say anything but we can do it. Even though I was a rookie I knew that having done AMA and done some GPs that I was being touted to win it and I tried to keep the pressure off as much as possible. Later I signed with three races to go in WSBK a two-year deal with Yamaha for MotoGP, the second year was open, but the first year was with Tech 3.

It was a really hard contract to sign because they wanted me to win a WSBK title because I didn't know at that time that they had never won one. I remember when we took the points lead at Magny-Cours that they were jumping up and down as if we won the title. I was like, what are you doing? Have you guys never won a championship? They told me that they had never led the championship! Then I knew the magnitude of the situation of being a rookie.
How much fun was that year? You won 14 of 28 races.

Ben Spies:
It was fun but it was stressful as well! I crashed once that was my fault and then we had a clutch problem one race, a shift lever break, Fabrizio took me out and then we ran out of fuel one race. We had five DNFs from mechanical stuff and at one point I was down something like 84 points [to Noriyuki Haga] so to be able to win it and win all the races, have pole positions was really cool.

When I was talking with Lin [Jarvis] about the GP contract he was saying that we want you in GPs and you need to be in Grand Prix, but you have to win the WSBK title. I was saying that I wish that I had a bit more of a points gap - I was only leading by about four points - to make that happen. I signed the contract and luckily I won the title and it all worked out.
Was it a stipulation that you had to win the title or the contract would be void?

Ben Spies:
No, it was just going to be a let-down not to win it. It was pressure on me, not just from Yamaha but from myself, because I didn't want to be in WSBK one year and not win it and then move to GP. I wanted to tick that box and go into GPs. It wasn't a stipulation but it was one of those things where it was 'just win it.' I think that I tried to put that clause into the contract but they wouldn't let me! At that point they kind of needed me in GPs now because people were leaving. Toseland was out of Tech 3 so they basically had to have me.
In 2009 you had the wild-card for Yamaha at Valencia and finished sixth. How big a difference did it make for you to be able to get used to the M1 before the start of the 2010 season?

Ben Spies:
It was big and we worked with the test team, it was a good weekend, and we had one of the coolest paint schemes that I ever got to use! It was good and there was some pressure that weekend that people built on. I was replacing Toseland at Tech 3 and he was in that team and he had a big carrot to beat me. Everyone was using it in the build-up but I wasn't worried about it.

He had said a few things about getting replaced, and I had respect for him but I didn't really know him, and it turned into this side thing that was going on. Everyone was watching but I didn't have too much pressure on me personally because I knew that I had a ride for the next year. I did want to prove though that I deserved to be there and the race was pretty good.

I actually ended up being able to beat Dovi and those guys so Colin [Edwards] could finish fourth in the championship and Dovi fifth so I played a good team-mate!
The next year it was you and Colin together at Tech 3 Yamaha, how did that work out?

Ben Spies:
That was probably one of the coolest years of racing for me.
It's amazing how often Colin's team-mate's say that!

Ben Spies:
He's definitely crazy! But I was a fan of Colin when I started racing back in '92 at Texas World Speedway. I was always a fan of his and him doing the WSBK thing, I kind of followed in steps a little bit. Being his team-mate was an honour even though that year I was a little bit faster than him. It was an honour being with him. It was kind of cool because, as everyone knows, it's kind of a democracy in MotoGP. It's always different nationalities of team-mates - English and Spanish, Spanish and Italian - and Dorna don't really like having team-mates from the same country. But me and him Americans, never mind Texans, as team-mates. I don't think that will ever happen again so that was pretty cool and we were able to make some pretty cool videos and have some fun off track. It was a fun year.
Looking to 2011 when you moved into the Factory Yamaha team alongside Jorge Lorenzo. Where did you see your biggest strengths relative to him and also the biggest weaknesses?

Ben Spies:
He definitely had more strengths than I did. I think raw talent and putting it all together for one lap we were pretty similar but he did things a lot more consistent than me. The way that a GP bike has to ridden, especially the Yamaha, I think that I'd suit the Honda more than the Yamaha. The way that you can brake late and the bike can move around a little bit would suit me more. With the Yamaha you have to keep in line and I'd brake so hard that at times the rear wheel would come off the ground and then when it sits back down it snaps.

That bike just didn't suit me but he [Lorenzo] definitely has the most corner speed out of anyone in GP. His consistency was second to none and he could knock out runs better than anyone. When it came to bike set-up and knowledge I don't think that was his strong suit at all. You could put him on a bike with a different part on it or where you change 10mm front and rear and he just goes out and goes fast. That's a strength of his too though because he doesn't get lost in it, but if he improved his bike set-up a little bit he could be really dangerous.

Braking I don't think that many people were stronger than me, that was something that came from Superbikes, but in GP I had to work around it. I think that I set the records for Brembo for pressure on the brakes! I think, even now, that Lorenzo is probably the most complete rider out there, Marquez has more talent but when you look at being strong for the championship, speed, can keep his head in races, be smooth I think that he's the best racer.

Marquez isn't far off and when he gets more race knowledge and tactics, he's definitely not afraid to put it in there, but when you look at how he really sees a race Marc goes more on impulse whereas Jorge is more of a thinker. In saying that though in a year or two Marquez will have it all figured out and will be crushing for everyone.

Still right now even though the Honda is better I still think that Jorge is the most complete racer out there.
How much does the Assen victory mean to you?

Ben Spies:
It was huge for me because it was a race that I fell in love with when I was a kid. I was eight or nine years old watching review tapes from '90-'94 with Kevin [Schwantz] and it was him being crazy on the brakes at the final chicane to pass Wayne [Rainey] and Wayne running off onto the grass and Kevin passing him back!

I remember great races in the 250s as well with Cadalora and Romboni. I remember Doohan when he ate shit there really hard at the fast left hander and hit the fence. I remember all that stuff so Assen was a huge race for me and it was really important in Superbikes to win there and if it was the only GP race that I could have won, I'm glad that it was that one because it's the most historic race on the calendar.

That's what makes it even better because if I could only win one race that it was that one. That's the coolest race of the year and being able to come into that stadium after you win the race and everyone is going crazy is a good feeling. At that race all the fans have their favourite riders but all the fans love all the racers. They love racing and even in WSBK I noticed it.

I know that I had a lot of fans there but I noticed that it was the same for every racer. At some tracks in different countries the fans only cheer for one dude, but in Assen they love everybody.
In 2012 it seemed that any bad luck you could have, you did have. At Laguna the swing-arm broke you had engine failures, everything what wrong. How tough was that for you to deal with? It was mostly stuff that you couldn't control but for it to consistently happen must have been very difficult.

Ben Spies:
It was huge and it all started in round one at Qatar. That was the first season of the 1000cc rules and everyone was saying that it would suit me and that I could battle for that championship and stuff like that. We were doing the best that we could, but we crashed one of the nights before the race, I think it was Saturday, and the subframe and the seat are a single unit on that bike and when I crashed I broke the inside of the carbon but you couldn't see it.

On Sunday I had this crazy vibration and the bike wouldn't handle. I was telling the guys in warm-up that something was broken. We didn't change bikes but we changed a lot of parts and on the warm-up lap for the race it was bad and I told them and I don't remember where we finished but it was really far back. We didn't figure out what it was until Jerez and that race was in the wet and I was having a decent race and was in second place but I had worn my tyre completely and crashed. It was my fault and one of those things where you try to make up for the previous weekend and get too ambitious and crash.
Then you went to Le Mans and had the problem with the visor...

Ben Spies:
Yeah, there was water everywhere and it was dangerous and just shit luck. Then we went to Assen and I chunked a tyre and had a huge hole in it. I had chunked a tyre back in 2003 at Daytona and lost a lot of skin so that freaked me out pretty bad. The same thing happened to Valentino and he pulled in, I stayed out and finished fourth but that was a race that we should have been on the podium.

After that, at Brno the clutch fried and I had to go back to last place to let it cool and then I pushed like hell to catch up to everybody and crashed. In Indy I had a huge crash in qualifying, I ended up second in the race, but then the engine blew. It was the race after Laguna when the swing-arm broke.

Everything happened that year and I'll hold my hand up and admit that I made some mistakes, but they were compounded because of other problems and I was trying to fix everything by trying to get better results. I remember at Brno after the clutch fried we had a test the next day and I went out on Monday morning and something happened with the electronics and the throttle hung wide open. No bullshit, it really happened and I just parked the bike and was ready to quit.

I came into the pits and I was like, 'this thing is trying to kill me.'
You went to Pramac Ducati for 2013 but never got back to fitness from the shoulder injury. What made you come back at Indy? Was it just because it was your home race or did you feel that you were ready to race again?

Ben Spies:
I was never ready. I came back too soon after Sepang and crashed at Austin and messed up my shoulder. I was always trying to delay it and get healthy but everyone was always asking me, 'Are you fit yet? Are you ready to go?' and I'd say that it was getting better but it never really was. I was just hoping that it would get better but I was at the point where I had to come back because I didn't have a choice.
Did it feel to you that you were the old gunslinger who'd taken a lot of hits and that you came back because this is what a racer does?

Ben Spies:
Yeah, for sure. I came back because it's what you're supposed to do. I was gone for so long that people were saying, 'he doesn't want to come back'. I just wasn't ready and came back at Indy and the crash happened. What happened was an electronic glitch but it was my fault.

When you leave pit lane on the Yamaha you use launch control and have no traction control until you hit second gear, whereas the Ducati is like that until you go to second gear when you're on the pit limiter. It was one of those things that if I was on the bike all year I would have known, but I came out of pit lane riding normally and then found out there was no traction control.

It wasn't anybody's fault but I should have known. I wasn't mad with anyone.
Did you know instantly that this was the end for your career?

Ben Spies:
I didn't know instantly. I knew that I had separated my shoulder! I started rehab and going to the doctor and he said that as a doctor he thought it was dangerous for me and that I could hurt myself or someone else. He said that the shoulder would never be right again and that if I hit it again I'd need a replacement. That was enough for me to know. There hasn't been a day since Malaysia that I haven't woken up without an issue with my shoulder. Hopefully I'll be able to get back and ride a dirt bike for fun but I'm not close to doing that yet.

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