Toprak Razgatlioglu EXCLUSIVE - Stuntman to superstar

If I were to describe WorldSBK Champion Toprak Razgatlioglu as motorcycle racing’s new Rock ‘n’ Roll superstar, would I be hitting the right note?
Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 20 May
Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 20 May

After all, few riders command a race track stage quite like the Turkish rider, be it strutting his stuff out front as the lead (singer), showcasing skill and precision on a high-speed instrument or tapping into a melodic racing rhythm. Put simply, on two wheels Toprak Razgatlioglu is WorldSBK’s “Greatest Showman”.

And yet for all of this outlandish flamboyance on track, it is arguably Toprak’s approachable and modest demeanour off it that affirms his ‘master of the art’ status, the grounding influence of an intriguing upbringing and unconventional rise through motorcycle racing’s ranks giving substance to that signature style of his.

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Soft-spoken though he may be, Toprak’s passion for perfecting this artform is quickly apparent as we sit down for a chat in Estoril, the third round of his title-defending 2022 WorldSBK Championship season.

However, much like a music artist agonising over that notorious ‘difficult second album’, Razgatlioglu admits he feels a burden of pressure to prove he can follow up the ‘opus’ of his tremendous 2021 WorldSBK title win with another table-topping hit.

“In the early races I use #1 so I need to be #1 and win,” he tells in an exclusive interview. “But now I am not thinking like this, I am just feeling pressure for the number.

“I am looking ahead, looking for wins. I try my best to get more points for the championship but after the crash [in Assen] we now have to go for the wins.

Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 22 May
Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 22 May

If Toprak is feeling the weight of his own expectations right now, then it’s only as the fickle flip side to the immense pride he visibly gleans from being able to call himself WorldSBK Champion in the first place.

A double-edged sword though it may be, it means Toprak is fuelled by a determination to prove he is worthy of the #1 mantle he wrestled from Jonathan Rea in spectacular style last year.

“I feel extra pressure because I am using the #1. This is my dream to become World Champion and race with the #1 so I am feeling pressure because on the track everyone is watching me, but I am adapting.”

The experience of youth

At 25-years old though, Toprak is a World Champion with time still very much on his side to pump that fuel into a career still very much on the ascent.

And yet, while there is still clearly more to come from this Turkish talent, his fascinating journey to the top has come a mighty long way already.  In fact, in motorcycling terms Toprak is a veritable veteran, a seasoned performer that has already devoted 20 years to honing his craft on two wheels. Well, not always on two wheels…

“My motorcycle life started as a stunt rider,” he continues. “I started with the wheelie because my father did wheelies and stoppies at shows. He’d have a crash and then afterwards I see my father bandaged up - I would always see my father like this. So I started to learn how to do a wheelie after I started riding a bike.”

Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK race2, 21 May
Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK race2, 21 May

Indeed, Toprak wasn’t the first Razgatlioglu to become a household name in his native Turkey. Raised in the Mediterranean resort town of Alanya, Toprak’s father Arif Razgatlioglu - better known as ‘Tek Teker Arif’ (‘Wheelie Arif’) - was already a well-known motorcycle stunt performer across Turkey. 

With some of the slickest hands on two wheels in his father to tutor him, it’s perhaps little wonder Toprak was already throwing his leg over a Yamaha PW50 mini-bike at an age where many of us had barely gotten to grips with pedal power.

By 5-years old, ‘Tiny Tek Teker Toprak’ was already flicking wheelies like a pro, leading to him perfecting the so-called ‘stoppie’, a crowd-pleasing signature stunt that two decades on has helped make him a firm favourite among fans. 

A skilled gymnast off track too, Toprak’s acrobatic skills on the bike aren’t just for show either. Indeed, this confidence on the brakes helps sharpen the most devastatingly effective weapon in his racing armoury… not that it came painlessly.

“My father has a shop with Atari games and at the back is a straight, but not many cars use it. So I am always riding this bike, trying wheelie, wheelie, wheelie… sometimes crash… I always remember this moment.

“With the stunts, my wheelies are slow, never fast ones, but I crashed a lot in Motocross. Nothing broken but had incredible pain.When I started in Superbike I had big crashes. The big one for me was Assen 2019, in qualifying, 262kmh… that was the first time I was scared after a crash.

“When it comes to braking, my mentality is brake hard and early gas, always like this.. I tried learning how to brake early but after I learned how to hard brake now any bike I ride I try very hard braking.

“Now for me, my wheelie and stoppie is very good, easy.”

Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 21 May
Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 21 May

Yarışçı Toprak (Toprak the Racer)

If his talent for two-wheel tricks was somewhat hereditary, then Toprak admits stunt riding was never likely to become his calling once he’d discovered the alternative ‘format’ of going fast while keeping the front (and rear) wheel on the ground.

“Normally my father called me Tek Teker Toprak… I am always angry by this because I would say ‘I am a racer, not a stunt rider’. I don’t like stunt. 

“OK, I start with it and I am very lucky, but racing is better for me. Once I started racing, my mind completely changed because it was incredible…”

With wheelies and stoppies perfected by his 6th birthday, so began Toprak’s journey towards establishing himself as ‘Yarışçı Toprak’ or “Toprak the Racer”. 

Starting out in Motocross, by the time Toprak had reached 14-years old, Arif recognised the immense potential in his son’s burgeoning talent on two-wheels and promptly turned his attention towards short circuit racing.

Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 21 May
Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK, 21 May

It didn’t come without its hurdles, however. Indeed, the Turkish Motorcycling Federation is modestly resourced compared to Spanish, Italian or British organisation, so instead of Toprak mirroring his teenage peers by cutting his teeth on lightweight, small-engined machinery, instead he was biting down on his first taste of Tarmac aboard a much heavier and more powerful Honda CBR600RR.

“After I started doing the stoppie, my father said ‘now we start racing’. I said ‘what racing?’, so I did Motocross… 50cc, 65cc, 85cc… and then when I finish he said ‘OK you start now road racing bike’

“Normally I like a road racing bike, but I had never ridden one before, but I said OK. Then he immediately said it would be a 600cc bike.

“I was surprised and a little bit scared. He had to speak with the Turkish federation because at this age it is not normal to ride a 600 bike.” 

With Arif pulling some strings to get around the minor (literally) issue of an 14-year old riding a 115bhp sportsbike on a race track for the first time, Toprak did his bit to justify his father’s faith and demonstrate his prodigious abilities.

“My father spoke with the federation so I rode again. First time, my leg touched the asphalt… It was incredible,” he says with a laugh of bewilderment as though he still doesn’t quite believe it now.

Success swiftly followed, Toprak clinching the domestic Turkish Road Race 600cc Championship at his second attempt still aged only 15-years old, thus earning him a high-profile spot on the Red Bull Rookies Cup grid for 2013 and 2014. Competing alongside a veritable who’s who of fresh-faced future stars - including 2020 MotoGP World Champion Joan Mir and Jorge Martin - Razgatlioglu belied his unorthodox repertoire relative to rivals by proving competitive, landing a win and four podiums over two seasons. 

Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK race2, 21 May
Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu, Estoril WorldSBK race2, 21 May

Trying WorldSBK on for size

A career in the Grand Prix ranks would have begged, but Toprak found nature conspiring against nurture in that his evident skills were negated by his lankier profile on a Moto3 bike, forcing him to work harder against a plethora of pint-sized rivals with basic physics on their side.

It led to an unconventional decision to turn his back on GP in favour of stepping foot on the first rung of the production racing ladder, the European Superstock 600 Championship. It didn’t take long for the paddock to sit up, take notice and attempt to learn his name.

Indeed, as far as lasting first impressions go, Toprak’s ironically spoke of the future as he rocked up to the 2014 season finale at Magny-Cours an unfamiliar Kawasaki machinery and promptly romped to victory on his debut from 13th on the grid.

It was the prelude to him going on to clinch the European title in 2015, a success that now holds particular poignancy for Toprak after Arif, together with his girlfriend Ulku Ozcan, were killed in a road traffic accident in 2017.

“I am very happy,” he smiles. “Because my father saw me become European Champion before he died in the motorcycle crash.”

Toprak Razgatlioglu and Jonathan Rea, Estoril WorldSBK, 22 May
Toprak Razgatlioglu and Jonathan Rea, Estoril WorldSBK, 22 May

From almost quitting to WorldSBK Champion

In a cruel twist of fate, the tragedy came in the weeks leading up to Toprak’s graduation to the WorldSBK Championship, a debut that would have realised the dream Arif harboured for Toprak ever since those nervous first few metres on that Honda 600.

Understandably, Toprak found the going tough initially in WorldSBK on the privateer Puccetti Kawasaki and - at least by his own lofty standards - was so unhappy with his results he considered quitting altogether mid-season. 

“The first year was not good… I was always tenth, ninth, eighth. I was not happy, so I said ‘OK I’m not fast, it is not possible for me to be fast in Superbike’. So I thought I’d go back home, work with my brother in the motorcycle shop.”

However, after being taken under the wing of five-time WorldSSP Champion Kenan Sofuoglu as his manager and mentor, the belief began to return. Culminating in a show-stealing run to the podium at Donington Park, it was a pivotal moment that springboarded Toprak into a breakthrough 2019 campaign headlined by two wins - his first - at Magny-Cours, both achieved from 16th on the grid.

“At Donington I saw the podium, after that my mind changed. I now knew it was possible for me to ride the Superbike.

“So in 2019, it was an incredible year. I was on the podium a lot [13 occasions] and then the very special race of my career at Magny-Cours, where I won twice from starting 16th on the grid. They were two incredible races for me.”

An in-demand Toprak would go on to get his shot on factory machinery with Yamaha for the 2020 WorldSBK season, which laid the foundation upon which he achieved 13 wins and 29 podiums en route to dethroning Jonathan Rea for the 2021 title.

If his history says a lot about how Toprak got to where he is today, his is still a future with many stories still to be told as momentum builds behind an anticipated move into MotoGP, either in 2023 or 2024.

In a decade that has seen WorldSBK both benefit and become somewhat tarnished by the notion of it being a (reluctant) go-to for out-of-contract, out-of-favour MotoGP riders, Toprak’s emergence as the series’ very own box office superstar shooting in the other direction is refreshing.

Or put another way, Toprak has raced to the beat of his own drum all the way to #1… Rock on!

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