Carl Fogarty: Zen master... ish

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Carl Forgarty: WSB champion, TT winner, jungle expert and notoriously tough customer. Until now. Things have changed for Our Carl and life is good. Calm, relaxed, at peace with himself… they're hardly words usually associated with our greatest superbike racer. Anyone remotely familiar with the borderline feral version of the 1990s would struggle to recognize this remodelled paragon of Zen.

espite the toll TV is taking on his time after his stroll to victory in a prestigious maggot-eating contest, the reigning King Of The Jungle (and let’s not forget, four times World Superbike Champion and TT winner) is taking it as easy as he can. We arrive at his Blackburn palace to be greeted by barking dogs and then a sleepy King beckoning us to approach the royal residence from an upstairs window. After an appropriate time bowing and scraping, doffing caps and pleading allegiance on bended knee before his majesty, we’re granted an audience in the kitchen.

Incredible as it might seem, Carl’s almost pleased to see representatives of the motorcycle media. It must make a change these days. ‘I’m flat out,’ he says. ‘Doing Pointless Celebrity, Through the Keyhole, Who’s Doing The Washing Up? Jonathan Ross, Kimberley Walsh… of course they guessed my house straight away on Through The Keyhole – I knew they fucking would.’

Which suggests his legendary competitive spirit remains undimmed under the other-worldly glare of TV studio lights. ‘I hate being crap at anything,’ he says. Although it’s hard to see how he can blame himself for his gaff being instantly recognizable. Being Carl, however, he can still find a way.

‘I’ve got a lot more time and patience for the media stuff now, but it’s hard work and I still get really nervous about it. I always come off thinking, “I was shit out there”. So he retains the capacity to beat himself up unnecessarily, but at least not quite so hard as he did. As a retired 50-year-old man (or at least one embarked on a successful career change) he now has the luxury of looking back on his compulsive past with a degree of levity although he recognizes it was a routine best confined to the track.  

‘Winning became such an obsession that I was impossible to live with…’ he freely admits. ‘When I won races at Brands I was happy for about an hour and then it was on to the next race. And the worst thing was I took my work home with me. But I’m still a bit like that on a dirt bike.’

So you worry for his mates he’s on the phone to, trying to arrange a motocross practice day somewhere near Preston for next Saturday. And equally concerned for the mental equilibrium of the people he’ll be sea-fishing with in Anglesey later this summer. Fortunately, despite the Wimbledon-style tennis court in the palace grounds he doesn’t much bother with batting balls to-and-fro across a net. The verbals would surely make John McEnroe seem like an angel.

'I absolutely hate golf'

‘My tennis is crap,’ he freely confesses. ‘I play more football on the tennis court than anything else. But somehow I’ve got golfer’s elbow – in both elbows – and I’ve never played golf in my life. I absolutely hate golf.’

He still utterly adores motorbikes. His garage is absolutely crammed with leisure machinery; supermotos, dirt bikes, mountain bicycles. And maybe the most telling sign of his undimmed passion for two wheels is his inability to stay away from the Isle Of Man.

‘Being on The Island this year was great; bikes, beer and banter with the blokes… we had a house in a really good spot on the circuit at Milntown with a little grandstand in the garden. I had a rotation system with three or four mates all coming out for a few days and I just couldn’t keep up with the drinking. A new lot would arrive and I’d be going, “Oh no…”’.

‘I want to do the TT again. A lot of people wouldn’t allow it but I want to do it. Watching it just made me say, “I’d fucking love to do that again”. People are looking down the road and saying to me, “I bet you’re glad you’re not going down there again,” and I’m thinking fucking totally the opposite. I wish I was going down there now. It’s the best feeling in the world. Like a roller-coaster but ten times more scary. It’s what life’s about: the closer to death you are the more alive you feel. It might just kill you though. 

‘I don’t miss WSB, don’t miss short circuits, or MotoGP, don’t miss them one little bit, but the TT… the Isle Of Man’s a very emotional place for me. All my childhood memories are from the Isle Of Man, that was our family holiday, I got a week off school and everything.’ And you can sense him drift off into a Manx reverie before dishing out some terse observations from this year.  

‘A lot of riders weren’t using enough road. Very few of them use all they can and so many had much more room than they thought. Lots of them don’t do short circuits – but they should. It sharpens you up. Look at Hutchy, he’s doing the short circuits, OK he’s coming last, but then he goes and wins three races at the TT. And I think Peter Hickman could be fast when next year comes round.’

'I look back and cringe'

As he launches into a lager shandy and pea and ham soup for lunch, he’s happy to engage in any form of idle chit-chat with all and sundry (including us). Which was not always the case – as he freely admits: ‘I love meeting fans now where before I never really had time for it.’ And as the stream of selfies flows unabated, he remains a model of accommodation and engagement. Since he’s never been exactly expert at masking any emotion, you have to accept that this transformation from remote to approachable is genuine. So how and why did this sea change happen?

‘I’m enjoying things,’ he answers without hesitation. ‘I didn’t enjoy things first time round. I didn’t enjoy racing, which is sad to say, but if I had enjoyed it I probably wouldn’t have been as successful as I was. It was just my make-up to hate everybody to win races. I look back at it and cringe a bit – but I’m not embarrassed.

‘The real difference is the public have seen me and actually voted for me. And that’s changed how I think about myself. I don’t see myself as a celebrity, I know I’ve got a label now but those things never sit well with me.’

As we exit the pub car park (Carl on just the one wheel – naturally) there’s time to reflect on his mutation from super-reluctant standard-bearer of British two-wheeled World Champions to the new darling of British TV audiences. Jeez, even Barry Sheene couldn’t manage as successful a migration to the TV screen as Our Carl.

So what about Sheene then? ‘Kenny Roberts was my idol, then Ron Haslam and Joey Dunlop. I actually felt sorry for Sheene when he was racing. He was more popular when he retired. He was absolutely hated at Scarborough. The cheers and jeering when he broke down when leading was nothing compared with his van getting pelted with stones. There were people smashing it with tree branches and everything – it was horrendous.’

Steer him back to the subject of motorcycle racing and more of the former self, more of the uncompromising, forthright Foggy reveals itself to be fully intact under the new, more user-friendly exterior. ‘I’m not as big a fan of racing as I should be. In MotoGP the rules are all over the place. If you’re not involved it looks like a load of bollocks. Everyone was on the same bike ten years ago, now they’re on different bikes with a certain fuel load – it’s messy. 

‘I like watching Marquez, I like watching Rossi, but if you ask me about the rules I can’t really help you. I asked Whitham to explain it and he said, “I don’t really know myself to be honest”. It shouldn’t be like that. Even if you ask people who are involved in the sport they are still not really sure.’

And he’s got a point. ‘But Cal’s good. I wish he’d stayed with Ducati, but at times he’s blindingly fast on that Honda. He’s just got to finish a few races in the top five and he can go from there. I think him and Jonathan Rea are Britain’s number one riders at the moment. The Lowes boys are up there, and Scott Redding.’ 

'Bradley's not doing enough'

Then he adds without malice, ‘Bradley Smith’s the least impressive. He’s in a very good team on a very good bike and he’s still not doing enough – a bit like Colin Edwards. I wish Bradley all the best but he’s very, very fortunate to still have that ride. And Danny Kent’s the only reason I watch Moto3 because I’m not really interested in little bikes. He should be able to bring that title home from where he’s at now.’

Foggy on the Scrambler

‘I don’t like electronics, I had a Ducati to ride a couple of years ago, I couldn’t get it started. I had to ring them to ask how to do it. At least this Scrambler’s got a key I can turn. I want be able to ride things with the throttle and sort it out that way. If the back end slides back off a little bit. But I see why  people like bikes with anti-this and anti-that. Not sure about the mesh on the green one. I’d have that number plate off too. I don’t like rear mudguards either. I’d have the black one, I don’t like the high mudguard, but everyone’s going to like different things, so they can change it all about. I suppose that’s the whole point really.’ 

Carl has reliably preached the gospel of ‘If you want something bad enough you’ll find a way to get it.’ When asked if there’s anything today’s riders are lacking, if there’s anything they’re doing wrong, his response is typically straightforward.

‘If you do something at 18 years old that people don’t normally do then you get noticed. It’s simple: if you jump on a Superbike and win a BSB round then the rest takes care of itself. You don’t have to go to Spain, you don’t have to buy a ride. I won at Donington in 1992 on a privateer bike and that was it.’ And he was a comparatively ancient 26 before his career went skywards after that WSB win. ‘Kyle Ryde (18) seems special. He’s got to be on people’s shopping list for next year.’ 

And he’s got a bit to say about BSB too. ‘I can’t understand why the riders don’t do something about BSB. The racing’s good, but you can’t be riding for no money and then no prize money either. The top riders get something from it, sure, but the rest have only themselves to blame. They really need a riders’ rep to sort it out. OK I was lucky there was factory money around in the nineties but riding in a British Championship on TV for nothing…’

And bear in mind Carl cut all his own deals when he was riding. He got the best rides because he was among the very best out there and what he lacked back then in media-polish he more than made up for in speed and grit.

What makes him still such a fascinating character is the revelation that he plainly had a side to him that could have managed the bullshit better, but he subdued it in favour of an uncompromising means to the exclusive end of winning World Championships. He clearly had the capacity to have played things differently, but what was the point when it worked so well for him as a racer? And winning is forever the name of the game. 

‘They were all wankers,’ he says of his rivals. ‘They all had a lot to say for themselves and none of them were ever afraid of mincing their words when it came to me.’ So despite his rebirth as television’s most loveable former motorcycle racer and permanent fixture on the game show circuit, it’s a relief to know he’s never likely to lose his innate capacity to tell it like he sees it.     

‘King Of The Jungle is the coolest thing I’ve ever won,’ he says without a hint of irony. ‘I mean who else can call themselves that?’ Who indeed.

>> Carl Fogarty MBE is appearing at Preston Guildhall 23 September 2015 in ‘The King and I’ with James Whitham. £25 a head.

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