Lincolnshire’s Tim and Tom Neave know a bit about dirt track. So does Marc Marquez. In January 2014, the lads got the chance to race the Champion
wo young Englishmen, wide-eyed, fresh-faced, enthusiastic, sit in deck chairs in the concrete underbelly of a Spanish Olympic arena. Tim and Tom Neave, identical twins from the Lincolnshire Wolds, look on while their uncle Tim, and friend, mentor and fellow racer Peter Boast chop down the steering stops of Tom’s alloy-framed Honda CRF450 flat track racer with a loose hacksaw blade between their fingers. Hillbilly engineering at its best.
The brothers have driven to Spain with their uncle, three across the front of a Transit van, to take part in Marc Marquez’s Superprestigio indoor dirt track party. They’re on the same entry list as the 21 year-old MotoGP champion who organised the event. Alongside him are Alvaro Bautista, Bradley Smith, Moto2 contender Tito Rabat, Moto3 champ Maverick Vinales, CRT victor Aleix Espargaro, AMA flat track #1 Brad Baker and a bunch of lesser-known but highly skilled racers from different disciplines and countries. The Neaves and Baker are in the Open class. The road racers are in the Superprestigio class. At the end of the night, the best from each will meet in a 12-rider Grand Final. The brothers are desperate to make it out of the throng of 60-plus riders in the two classes.
Walking between the bikes in the subterranean pits, here to spectate, are former MotoGP race winners Toni Elias and Sete Gibernau. A few metres away, Wayne Gardner is with his racing sons Reme and Luca. The Neaves’ chosen sport of flat track has never been bigger in Europe.
The Superprestigio is a resurrection of an old idea, similar in concept to France’s Guidon d’Or. These off-season events, throwbacks to the days of big tobacco sponsorship, mix the cream of road racing with off-road specialists. The one-night-only result is served up to a crowd desperate for hot two-wheel action. Marquez, the perma-grinning pop star and history inverter, wanted something that flicked all his switches: dangerous, fast, Honda-related, near his Catalan home. And the sport of dirt track, it turns out, is something he is exceptionally good at.
In his regular HRC leathers, but with Alpinestar motocross boots and an MX lid complete with GoPro camera, Marquez has a very unorthodox style. He keeps his left elbow down, rather than high like a pure flat tracker, but it’s working for him on this course, with its very tight corners.
The 18 year-old Neaves are no mugs either. Tim rides a Suzuki GB-sponsored RM450; Tom is on a 2014 Honda CRF450. They boss them with an insouciant ease that has experienced motorcycle riders and racers shaking their heads in appreciation. They slide into corners with a tap of rear brake, back wheel skating across loose dirt, right elbow high, right wrist metering the throttle with almost supernatural feel. Then they feed in the gas, shift the majority of their body weight – with a pivot of their torsos – from inside to outside, altering the whole centre of gravity of the bike-and-rider package, to sharply turn the crossed-up bike with a Zorro-like flick. Then all they have to do is point the bike at the exit and fire down the straight.
I find it mesmeric. Deconstructing it in a paragraph makes me almost believe I can do it myself. I can’t.
A Thursday afternoon test at Marquez’s private oval has allowed the brothers to try 17in Michelin Supermoto wets rather than the 19in Maxxis dirt track tyres they usually race on. “They handle great,” says Tim, who borrowed his 17in wheels from a UK racer, Andrew Goodsell. Andrew didn’t know Tim from Adam, but posted the wheels to help the young rider out.
Tim has chosen to stick with the right-way-up Yamaha R6 forks he uses in the UK Dirt Track series. Tom’s seen that Marquez and Baker are using lowered, upside-down MX forks and chooses to use the similar ones he’s brought. The problem (that Uncle Tim and Peter Boast are trying to solve) is that the larger diameter stanchions are hitting the lockstops earlier than the skinnier R6 ones on his brother’s bike. When Tom wants to oversteer further on the slick track he’s already hard on the lock-stops. That could fling him into a potentially bone-fracturing highside.
The brothers can easily powerslide around a corner with the front wheel turned 80 degrees or so, if the bike allows. They’ve been doing it all morning. Tom’s qualifying time around the 250-metre oval is 13.763s – less than 0.2 off fastest qualifier Brad Baker. It puts him third in his class, fourth overall, with Marquez the only rider from the Superprestigio class to better his time. Tim on the Suzuki is fifth out of 20-plus riders in the Open class.
The Palau San Jordi arena lies in the Olympic Park built for Barcelona 1992, within the old Montjuic road race circuit. It’s a long way, geographically and culturally, from where the Neave twins normally twist their throttles. The pair started racing when Boast rented a cottage on their parents’ farmland. It was Tim who first showed an interest in the bikes being washed and prepped in the garage. He started racing a Honda CRF150 at the age of 14. Jealous of his immediate success, Tom followed. Soon, Tim, Tom, little brother Ben and father Robert were all racing in the UK Short Track series, practising on a home made oval behind a barn.
“It’s good to be with the best riders in the world, but I’m not star struck,” reckons Tim. Both brothers have raced the top amateurs in the US and done well, while being given guidance by dirt track legend Chris Carr. “There’s no more pressure than at a British round. The only pressure is to beat Tom.”
Think of the traditional rivalry that racers feel to beat their team-mate; the desire each twin brother has to triumph over the other runs far deeper.
At the end of qualifying and the start of the race, a layer of dust to rival that spewed by Vesuvius on Pompeii coats everything in the 14,000-seater stadium. Apart from the promoter, no one knows how close the race comes to being cancelled, but a solution to the dust problem is found. The organisers spend the break watering the track, then cover it in rock salt. It works. Meanwhile, a team of cleaners dust down every single seat before the genertal public are let in.
As the Superprestigio stars are introduced to the crowd, with all the usual lasers and banging dance music of an indoor Supercross event, the Open class riders make final preparations. Tim and Tom aren’t the only British short trackers in the makeshift pits. They’re joined in the Open Class by 26 year-old bike mechanic Alan Birtwistle and, in the Junior class, Ollie Brindley, 15. Both, like the Neaves, are veterans of US dirt track races and all the British have qualified well, with Ollie top in the Juniors.
They soon discover qualifying means nothing, though. Dirt track races normally start on the straight, with one to four rows of riders depending how many are entered. Starts are usually flag, lights or, in the UK, speedway tapes. Here the start uses a motocross-style gate positioned off the main track. It quickly becomes the downfall of top Brit qualifier Tom Neave.
In his first of three heat races for a place in the final he’s too eager. He creeps too close to the metal gate that falls towards the bikes’ front wheels and gets caught up on it, having to paddle backwards before he can go forwards. In these short-dash races, with 13s lap times, that ruins his heat.
Brother Tim doesn’t make the same mistake. He’s running a solid second in his class, coping with a slick track that is catching out riders in every heat. One Spaniard even crashes on the parade lap. Tim is clearly being held up by the leader and makes an uncharacteristically half-hearted move up the inside. He catches his front wheel on the leader’s rear and falls. If it had been a more full-blooded mugging Tim’s bike might have simply knocked the other rider off line and let the Brit take the place.
Birtwistle, racing a ten year-old Honda CRF450, is second in his heat to Brad Baker, and ahead of another US racer – the fantastically monickered Merle Scherb.
The racing is fast and loose, heat after heat, the spectators barely getting the chance to bark at each other about the last race before another lines up.
Marquez is winning his Superprestigio heats. Baker is winning his Open heats. Tim comes second in his next race. Ollie Brindley crashes, his first of the day, but it finishes his night. It seems the pressure is telling on the UK talent. I’ve watched them race all year in the UK, and none of them are crashers.
The action is relentless. Birtwistle is flying, and he isn’t even the UK champion – that’s Adi Collins, one of the Collins speedway dynasty, but he wasn’t invited to compete because he didn’t attend the Spanish qualifying event. He would have given all these – perhaps with the exception of Baker – a run for their money.
Earlier in the day Brad Baker has told me, “I’ll make it as dirt track as they want.” Even in the relaxed canteen, it sounds like a threat. Indoor short track has aptly been described as a fist fight in phone booth and Birtwistle gets slotted in the Open final by a rider doing what, perhaps, Tim Neave should have done earlier in the evening, coming hard up the inside and slamming into the Lancastrian. It’s give an inch, take a mile style. Birtwistle stays on and battles well, but misses out, narrowly, on a dream slot to race Marquez in the Grand Final. None of the Brits make it through. They’re disappointed, remind themselves That’s racing, and line up to watch the main event.
The final is the dream ticket of Marquez vs Baker – both champions, both 20. They form an elbow-to-elbow grid with former dirt tracker and Moto2 rider Kenny Noyes, Scherb, Espargaro, Rabat, former Le Mans 24-hour winner, Dani Ribalta…
Marquez and Baker clear the pack, pulling out ten bike lengths on Espargaro and Rabat, the rest slavering at their heels.
Baker looks like he’s riding a demo lap. Marquez, on the other hand, appears to have fitted tyres made of soap. He’s slithering and wrestling, going from choke hold to tango dip to cage fight attack mode in the space of one corner. Twice he forces Baker into the blue air fence that surrounds the temporary track. Baker loses four bike lengths, but is back on the Spaniard by the middle of the next corner. Then, with two laps to go, the American squirts up the inside to occupy the line. It’s the perfect Marquez MotoGP move – but then Marc turns in on Baker. The couple catch elbows, perhaps bar ends too, and Marquez goes down like a cowboy who’s had his horse shot from beneath him.
Marquez wanted a dirt track race. Baker showed him how they do it down Springfield way. There are no hard feelings. If anyone doubted Marquez was less happy taking it than dishing it out, they don’t now.
But in the pits, three of the four Brits are disappointed. All but Birtwistle feel they have under-performed. If they had raced anything like they’ve done all the previous season in the UK Dirt Track series, they’d have done very well. As it is, the ever-changing track – and perhaps nerves – have caught them out.
It’s that unpredictability, and the resulting unthinking reactions that only become natural after thousands of repetitions, that are turning the world’s top road racers back on to dirt track. Marquez has used his years of short track experience to change the way MotoGP bikes are ridden. But he was never going to beat the AMA Grand National Champion.
Words Gary Inman Pictures Ian Jubb