Now it’s Mr Ice guy
A man in a violent orange suit is jumping up and down, waving his arms about. He’s got ants in his pants. It’s 8am and Neil Hodgson is more than ready to head out for a few laps of the Island on the new 996S Hodgson replica. The tall, skinny and now very recognisable GSE Ducati is exploding with energy and gagging to get going.
Hodgson is on holiday. But not so you’d notice. You might think he deserves a holiday after his strenuous efforts at Brands Hatch. But he doesn’t want one. He just wants to keep racing. The next World Superbike round at Oschersleben in Germany just can’t come soon enough for Burnley’s version of Blackburn’s bullet.
" I really understand what Carl was talking about now when he used to say how gutted he was that he couldn’t win at Brands, " says Hodgson, who netted two second places in front of a 122,000-strong sea of orange. " Until you know you’re really in with a chance, you just don’t realise how much people want you to do well. It’s very humbling, but an amazing feeling all the same. "
Adrenalin is still coursing through his veins. He talks 19 to the dozen in the hyper-animated fashion of a man who wants tomorrow – and wants it now. Ants in his pants – maybe. But the monkey on his back is long gone. The lingering doubt (in race fans’ minds) that maybe Hodgson couldn’t quite cut it at the sharp end of superbike racing has disappeared in the tyre smoke of ceaseless celebratory burnouts.
This is a man who is now quite at ease with being Neil Hodgson. And a man happy to tell stories against himself – a mischievous resident of his modern apartment block on the outskirts of Douglas casually asks him if he’s going to start kicking things today. Being naturally inquisitive we are forced to ask Neil exactly what he means…
" After Oulton Park in the British Supers last year, me and Kathryn (his girlfriend) got back here and I wasn’t in the best of moods. We got in the car and it just wouldn’t start. I didn’t need that, so I started punching the steering wheel and then I realised it hurt.
" So I stopped that and got out and kicked the door in. Then I kicked the back panel in, then we push-started it and I just floored the throttle and revved its nuts off I was so angry. Obviously, all the neighbours got to see this so they don’t exactly give me an easy time about it. But it’s great here. I’ve got two fantastic 80-year-old fans here, Marjorie and June. They’re always asking how I get on, there’s always flowers and chocolates and things for them when I get a result. "
And there have been results. The biggest result of all being a British rider kicking ass on a regular basis in the world series. And a nation’s expectations that might have been pressure for the " old " Neil are simply extra incentive for the " real " Neil – the " no more Mr Nice Guy " Neil. But was he ever nice? Nice guys are commonly supposed to finish last and he hasn’t been doing much of that recently.
" I have been known to spit the dummy in supermarkets and things, " he admits. " My dad’s got a bit of a temper and obviously being his son I’ve got a bit of that, too. I control it better than him, though – most of the time. "
Hodgson’s fully togged up in his Tango-man leathers. He fires up the Hodgson replica (the last time it was ridden was by him at Oulton Park for an MCN competition winner) and we head out to Creg-ny-Baa. Here, we are following the real Neil on a dead-ringer of his GSE superbike the wrong way round the TT course. It’s all a bit weird.
It doesn’t entirely make sense for him either. " It feels all wrong riding on the road, " he says, plainly thrown by the idea of cars sharing the same Tarmac coming the other way. " I’m really not comfortable doing this, " he says, before nailing it up the hill to Kate’s Cottage, swinging a U-turn and then backing it into the Creg on the brakes and pinning it down to Brandish in a very superbike-meets-the-TT wall of sound.
" It makes the right noise, " he says. " I thought it was a bit flat to start with, but I forgot how hard you can rev these. I’m just not used to giving it some on the road. " He gets a lot more used to giving it some over the Mountain to Guthrie’s and it’s not long before the crossed-up wheelies out of turns and stoppies at junctions reveal him to be much more relaxed. He looks like he might just about be enjoying himself. On holiday, even.
The sun is out. There might even be birds singing in the trees, but we can’t quite hear them above the Termignoni racket. We " cruise " out past Ginger Hall and on to the Sulby straight. The binmen in the dustcart are throwing confused double-takes at the orange thing behind them in the 40mph limit.
They wave Hodgson on to overtake, but being a responsible resident of Mona’s Isle he waits patiently until he’s out of the limit before banging the 996 off the rev-limiter and letting them eat his sonic boom. He disappears through Quarry Bends and we catch up with him outside Kirkmichael.
The police are waiting. They would like him to autograph two Hodgson replica helmets before they can eliminate him from their enquiries. He borrows a thick black marker from a garage and signs everything but the cop car. He likes it here. And they like him.
" I don’t get any trouble from locals because I’ve never turned my back on the TT. I’ve never ridden it, but I’ve never slagged it off. The course is just too long for me, but it suits other people’s riding. There’d be a corner or something that you might think was third gear, and it turns out to be second gear and you’re in trouble. I’ve got no problems with Scarborough or Aberdare because they’re short enough for me to learn. The lass that cuts my hair, her boyfriend had a big crash in last year’s race and he still can’t wait for next year. Everyone’s devastated there’s no TT or Manx Grand Prix this year. For those that want to do it, there’s nothing else in the world comes close – and I completely understand that. But it’s just not for me – and other people understand that.
" We always watch it, though. Last year, when I had my old XR2, we were out having a look and then we got into the car and it wouldn’t start in front of all these fans. They were all taking the piss anyway because it was an absolute scrapper with 80,000 on the clock… And no, I didn’t get out and give it a kicking. I gave it away in the end, and then someone else gave it away, then it got abandoned and guess whose name was still on the logbook? I still get calls from the cops and parking tickets for it. "
His " new " car is a metallic green Escort SE – or something. He’s not quite sure himself. As unassuming, un-top-of-the-range and plain unlikely a car as possible for a man whose profession is the glamorous world of speed and champagne-soaked rostrums. While his profile soars, he prefers to keep a low one away from the day job.
He’s really getting lairy on " his " 996 now. Getting massive air over the humps of one of the Island’s off-piste back roads. It was so amazing that we had to video it for you – see it for yourself at www.motorcyclenews.com
The body language is typically motocross and completely relaxed. Those early days spent on a Yamaha YZ80 still show.
" I started crying at my first motocross meeting. I fell off and didn’t get round the first corner, it was a disaster. Then by about 1985 I won my first race. Foggy won the expert class when I was just starting. It took me ages to get into bikes, though. My older brother Carl had a TY80 and I just wasn’t interested at all. I was useless, just fell off all the time.
" My dad raced bikes, low budget stuff at places like Three Sisters and Aintree. He didn’t do much, but he enjoyed it. Brother Carl was really into it, but I used to get really badly travel sick as a kid and I used to hate the trip to Three Sisters. If someone even mentioned Wigan to me I was nearly sick. And the races looked really boring. Then one time I found a quid in the paddock, and then every time I went racing I thought I’d find money. " He’s not short of a few quid now, but he doesn’t go splashing it about. " I’ve made a few investments here and there, so I’ll be all right. Dad was a scrapman, mechanic, painter, the lot, a Jack-of-all-trades, and mum’s working for Darren Barton in his printing business. She calls herself a delivery person, but she’s a van driver. We’re working class people. "
But Hodgson’s in with the jet-set now, flying out to Monaco to hang out with former Ducati team-mate Troy Bayliss at his Monte Carlo bolt-hole. " I’ve seen what you get for your money out there, " he says. " And that’s nowt. He’s got a three-bedroom apartment, but it wasn’t cheap. I don’t think you’ll find me going out there. One reason I’m here in the Isle of Man is to save on tax, but the main thing is that I like it here.
" I went to see him for a bit of a holiday, but we ended up mountain biking in 35° heat and it was proper mountains, not just peddling up and down the road – I nearly died. " Mountain bikes are a big part of Hodgson’s training regime and now he’s got a (road) race bike to rack up the miles with.
" Most of my training last year was out on the CR125 crosser with Steve Hislop and then hopping about on the Montesa trials bike with Dougie Lampkin. But foot and mouth’s put an end to that and I’ve got into bicycles instead. I normally do something like Douglas to Ramsey and back. I was out a couple of days ago and there was that much wind on the Mountain, I literally couldn’t get back. I had to get a lift. "
Hodgson can’t entirely switch off the training schedule, but he can afford to knock it back a couple of notches and then turn it up again as the next race approaches. " I’d much prefer the season to just keep going, " he says. " We get big gaps here and there, which is all very well, but why can’t they just keep regular gaps between the races and then we can all finish a month early?
" I’m trying to relax, like I’m allowing myself two gin and tonics this month instead of the one. But there’s still so much left to happen this season that you can’t put it away and forget about it. It’s always there in your mind. Like if I finish top-three this year I’ll be pleased. I didn’t ride so good at the first couple of rounds and my engine went at Monza, but it’s the next races that matter. You don’t dwell on what’s already happened, but what’s next is always in your head. "
What’s next is a stop at the beach in Peel. We head straight to the excellent Davidson’s Ice Cream Parlour for a cool Manx cone (or two). Turkish Delight is the hot flavour. " It is just like Turkish Delight, " says Hodgson. " You always think something with a really weird taste like that won’t even be close as an ice cream, but this is dead on. You know it’s either going to be brilliant or disgusting. "
For someone who still reckons his mind is occupied with how to stop the rampaging Ben Bostrom and how to claw back the points that will record his explosive second-coming in WSB in the black-and-white of the final points table, Hodgson’s losing a bit of focus.
The iron-willed racer has now swopped all the race-face track-talk for the meaningless intensity of prime beach bullshit. We’re now occupied in the subtle differences between ice creams. " I’m definitely a real ice cream fan, " he says with almost the same intensity reserved for post-race analysis. " The smooth stuff out of the machine always has that slightly synthetic tinge to the taste. That’s usually why you need a flake with it, so the chocolate can take the edge off it. Having said that, though, this is certainly one of the best machine ice creams I’ve had. No doubt about it. "
He sits on the railings above the beach in the August sun, boasting a tan almost as strangely orange as his leathers. " I used to hate orange. The merchandising bloke on the team says ‘look, it’s your colour’ not like it suits you, sir – like, that’s what you’ve got – live with it. And I wasn’t sure about it at all, but you get used to it. Now if I see marshals running around I sometimes think they’re fans on the track, it’s all a bit confusing. That 996, the orange is spot-on. The blue’s a bit wrong, though. I think it’s actually a better blue than the one the team’s got. "
Peel may be many things – the Californian coast is not one of them – but now the rambling conversation’s deviated to lifeguards and Baywatch. The only thing stopping this feeling like a proper day at the seaside is that distinctive orange one-piece suit.
" I should have worn me Union Jack shorts and you could get me down on the beach digging a sand castle. No you couldn’t actually, I’ve been in that water before and it’s always bloody freezing. Or you could dig a big hole and bury me up to my neck, but you’d probably just leave me there. "
We leave Peel instead and head back to Douglas for a cup of tea at Hodgson mansions. A hoover stands at the end of the corridor, all plugged in, ready to rumble. Surely not another worryingly house-proud speed demon with a passion for surgical cleanliness and germ-free personal hygiene? Maybe he’s just getting bored in his summer holidays. " It’s not what you’re thinking, " he tries to explain. " It’s just that I’ve got friends coming to stay and I had to give the other bedroom a going over. It was that full of rubbish I had to do something about it. " You get the feeling he might well allow himself his second G&T of the holiday when he gets to partying with his old friends, but for now it’s dealing with all the extra " friends " that want a piece of Hodgson now he’s the man.
" I’ve only just got a proper sense of my own worth now, " he says. " I don’t want to go back into the details of what happened in 1996, ’97 and ’98, but I know I was telling people what I thought they wanted to hear, when I should have just kept my mouth shut.
" In ’95 all I wanted to do was race 500 GPs and there I was on the ROC Yamaha. I got lapped by Doohan in my first race and by the last race I was only half-a-second a lap slower than him. I was 21, top privateer, only fell off once and that was testing in February. And nobody wanted to know about giving me a ride the next year because I was English. "
You can still detect a slight sense of grievance about those early years in the big time, but it’s soon shoved aside by a buoyant present and the sense that there’s even more to come from a man who admits to racing for a living before he raced to win. " Racing used to be about earning money, " he says. " Not now. I do it to win. There’s no joy for me going round and round in circles any more. I don’t care where or how but I want to win a world championship. I’m not bothered what it is, but if I’m the best four-stroke rider in the world then I’ll be doing OK.
" I’m a perfectionist in certain things I do. My dad was a perfectionist when he worked on bikes. I reckon bikes are there to be ridden. I’m not going to strip the swingarm bearings and grease them every time I’ve been out on a dirt bike. But when I’m doing the job of riding them, I have to be absolutely on it. That’s my version of perfection. Maybe I’m too hard on myself. But you can’t change yourself, that’s just the way I am. "
The sun shines on and there are still days to cross off the kitchen calendar before he shoots for another Superpole on September 1. Hodgson’s got more time on his hands than he’s had for months – but that doesn’t make it a holiday, it doesn’t even make it a day off. Not right now and not in Neil’s big plan for what he measures as success.
" Foggy’s won four titles and he doesn’t have to play any parts any more. He’s done it. When I hang my boots up, I want to hang them up totally. I could buy three Porsches right now – but I don’t because I don’t deserve one yet. I need to have done something before I can allow myself that. "
It’s not difficult to know exactly what Hodgson is driving at. He owes himself before he owes anyone else. For the time being it’ll be Ford Escorts, modest flats and ice cream on the beach in Peel.
But when and if (and he knows a fair amount about the ifs of racing) he finally nails a world title, he’ll be well overdue a proper day off. Who knows? He might even book himself and Kathryn a holiday. A proper holiday.