Day of Champions, 2009


James Toseland's band Crash plays for the crowd.
James Toseland's band Crash plays for the crowd.

One of the benefits of my participation in the Day of Stars at Laguna Seca was thinking to ask if I could somehow be involved in the upcoming Day of Champions event at the British Grand Prix, since I was already planning to cover that race weekend for MotoGPMatters. My friend Mark and I had attended in 2008, and I was now curious to return to the Day of Champions with a new perspective on one of Riders for Health’s main fund raising activities of the year.

I was pleased at the warm reception my offer to help out received, and on Wednesday Mark and I stopped by Riders’ Daventry headquarters to pick up tickets and a press pass. It was very interesting to peek behind the curtain of where such wonderful people work so hard on the Riders for Health mission. We also got to meet Jennie, Riders’ charming and dedicated business development manager. Most of the office staff were already at Donington Park preparing for the next day’s event, but Jennie and Barry Coleman were still tying up a few loose ends and took precious time from their work to welcome us. We learned that Riders has a staff of around 20 who work in the modest office to help people thousands of miles away. The more I learn about Riders and the more members of the staff I meet, the more amazed I am that in this sometimes cynical and selfish world we live in, you occasionally find a group of people who make it their life’s work to help others in need.

The view of the Dat of Champions area from Redgate Grandstand.
The view of the Day of Champions area from Redgate Grandstand.

So Thursday morning, after checking in at the media center and stowing my gear, I went to the area behind Redgate Grandstand to see what this year’s Day of Champions would bring. I arrived just after the gates had opened to find a steadily growing crowd already gathered under the large canopy to watch the first entertainment on the stage.

If you need a second opinion, choose your doctor wisely.
If you need a second opinion, choose your doctor wisely.

The crowd that filed in from the parking area was diverse in appearance, but united by a love of motorcycling and a common desire to support Riders for Health. And usually Valentino Rossi.

Need festive sounds? Call these guys!
Need festive sounds? Call these guys!

There was a lot to look at away from the stage as people wandered among the various food and souvenir vendors in the area.

The local favorite, determined to give his country a MotoGP championship.
The local favorite, determined to give his country a MotoGP championship.

After some preliminary remarks on stage, the local hero appeared to the crowd’s delight. No rider gave more time to the Day of Champions than James Toseland, who made several appearances during the day, speaking to the crowd, signing autographs and playing with his band, Crash.

Partly cloudy with a chance of rain. A very good chance.
Partly cloudy with a chance of rain. A very good chance.

We expected the weather to play a role, but luckily the sun was out for most of the morning and the crowd got to see JT up close as Crash played its first set of the day.

Rooooooooox-anne! JT does a good Sting impersonation.
Rooooooooox-anne! JT does a good Sting impression.

Sometimes signing, other times playing his keyboards, JT spoke often to the crowd and with his band put on a great show.

There was no shortage of fans wanting JT's autograph.
There was no shortage of fans wanting JT's autograph.

Afterwards, he signed autographs and mingled with fans, which is one of the amazing aspects of the Day of Champions. At Laguna Seca, we’re used to the opportunity to see the riders as they cross from their team offices and motor homes to the back of the garage area. But this is very different from the average MotoGP paddock, which usually requires a VIP Paddock Pass to access. The Day of Champions offers fans a rare chance to see the riders up close, both on stage and via the Paddock Access ticket, which sold out in record time this year.

What a thrill to ride your motorbike on the track Rossi would soon attack.
What a thrill to ride your motorbike on the track Rossi would soon attack.

Events on stage weren’t the only attraction. There was also a ride-in, which offered the opportunity take street bikes around the Donington Park course. I was impressed with how many people had signed up for this. And unlike a recent fan lap at Infineon Raceway, no one crashed!

Phil Read considers Hailwood, Agostini, Rossi...
Phil Read considers Hailwood, Agostini, Rossi...

Back on stage, Phil Read appeared, and I was particularly interested to hear him speak about his experience and give his thoughts on today’s MotoGP riders. I could only imagine what contemporary MotoGP technology must seem like to Mr. Read. Things have come a long way since he was fighting for championships. It used to be, for example, that when the rider twisted the throttle, that motion pulled on a cable that opened the valve on a carburetor to deliver more gas to the engine. Now a twist of the throttle tells the computer that the rider wants to go faster, so the computer instructs the fuel injection to give the engine more fuel. The days of throttle control being in the rider’s wrist are nearly gone: now the computer senses any difference between the speeds of the front and rear wheels, and if the rear is slipping, it cuts back on the engine’s power. I found it very interesting to listen to Mr. Read and to think of a day when it is Valentino Rossi in that position, past his days of dominating the premier class, and talking about the current state of MotoGP, or whatever it’s called 20 or 30 years from now. Again I was struck at how the entire racing community comes together to support Riders for Health.

Don't crash, don't crash, don't crash...
Don't crash, don't crash, don't crash...

It would take a pretty special occasion to warrant riding in a helmet signed by The Doctor, no?

Matt wins the Good Sport Award!
Matt wins the Good Sport Award!

It wasn’t only celebrity racers who took the stage to entertain the crowd. Here, the BBC’s Matt Roberts generously allowed himself to be blindfolded before having to identify a mystery ‘object’ that turned out to be his wife. Good job he got it right!

Fortunately, JT’s keyboards were water resistant!
Fortunately, JT’s keyboards were water resistant!

The rain arrived, as we knew it would, and as Julian Ryder welcomed various riders from the 125 and 250 classes on stage for some preliminary auction items, the crowd showed that a little precipitation wouldn’t ruin the event. Even when it started really pouring, umbrellas and ponchos came out and the show went on.

Items new and old waited to meet their future owners.
Items new and old waited to meet their new owners.

As the day’s activities progressed, preparation for the auction intensified backstage. I was pleased to meet several of the staff with whom I’d previously exchanged emails, Catherine and Matt in particular, both just as pleasant in person as I’d expected. I was also happy to be handed a list of photos they’d like from me—it felt great to be depended on at least a little bit, and I was glad for an assignment. I also enjoyed the chance to see some of the items that would soon be offered to the crowd.

For some reason JT has loads of female fans.
For some reason JT has loads of female fans.

The sun came and went, but spirits stayed high as the auction approached and the stars continued to appear on stage.

How often do you see two legends of Grand Prix racing and two legends of broadcasting together?
How often do you see two legends of Grand Prix racing and two legends of broadcasting together?

A particularly happy surprise was the reunion of Toby Moody and Julian Ryder, who once again joined forces, on this occasion not to bring their unique and enjoyable collaboration to commentating, but to make the auction a success. With Riders co-founder and retired Grand Prix star Randy Mamola, and 1993 World Champion Kevin Schwanz, the on-stage banter was memorable, to say the least.

Hang on!
Hang on!

Speaking or Randy Mamola, one of the items auctioned off was a ride on the Ducati two-seater. Oh, for a spare few thousand pounds!

Julian presents this highly desirable item as Riders' CEO Andrea Coleman looks on.
Julian presents this highly desirable item as Riders' CEO Andrea Coleman looks on.

As the auction progressed, the items got more and more interesting. This photograph by MotoGP veteran Gigi Soldano had all of the initial 2009 riders’ autographs. What a collector’s item!

Peace and love for Africa...
Peace and love for Africa...

The story went that the riders were asked to draw something for the auction, and several members of the MotoGP paddock contributed some original artwork. One of the most touching moments of the day was when Jorge Lorenzo described his idea for this painting to Julian Ryder. Lorenzo revealed an understanding of Africa’s troubles and a sensitivity to the problems with which its people struggle that left many a moist eye on stage and in the audience. He really is a remarkable young man, above and beyond his incredible skill on a MotoGP bike.

The Doctor.
The Doctor.

It was sometimes hard to tell who had a larger following at the British Grand Prix, local star James Toseland, or the man who has come to embody Grand Prix racing over the last decade, Valentino Rossi. As wonderful as it was to see the MotoGP riders arrive in turn to please the crowd and offer some item or other for auction, no one made a larger single contribution to the afternoon than Rossi. He arrived early and patiently signed by far the largest collection of items that had been donated—when spread out side by side they covered three long tables backstage, not counting the items that all riders were asked to sign as a group. When he went on stage, he also stayed the longest as item after item received the crowd’s full attention.

One of a kind, to say the least.
One of a kind, to say the least.

Rossi wore something that seemed a spontaneous addition to the event, the hat he’d worn on the podium for the last three races. He removed it and offered it up on the spot, signing it to the winning bidder and with this single item raised £2,200!

I’d also like to say that while I’m including photographs of only a few riders and other celebrities here, the participation of ALL OF THEM is greatly appreciated by the Riders staff and Day of Champions audience. It is truly their participation and generous donations of time and interesting items that makes this event so special.

At the end of a good day's work...
At the end of a good day's work...

The Day of Champions refers to the riders themselves, of course, but there are two other groups of champions at this event; first are those working so hard behind the stage to make it all happen. It’s difficult in a few words to explain how hectic it often was back there, trying to coordinate the various elements of the process, getting the stars in to sign items, up on stage, and then out again while showing them how much we appreciated their time and efforts. None of the riders or other celebrities was required to participate, after all. But they do so because the cause is such a good one, and because those who make Riders for Health their calling are simply wonderful people. The other champions are those in the crowd who together, through auction items, admission tickets and so on, contributed £177,000 to Riders for Health.

Throughout the weekend, as I met more of the Riders staff, I found their enthusiasm and passion for their work to be infectious; I’m now more determined than ever to find a way to contribute however I can to this fantastic organization, and I look forward to my next opportunity in Indianapolis.

Remember that every bit helps, and that you can contribute to this excellent cause by visiting www.riders.org