I know this is a bit of a specialist subject, but lately I’ve become fascinated more than somewhat by the work of three pairs of British motorcycle racing commentators, namely Julian Ryder and Toby Moody who cover Moto GP, Moto 2, and the 125 class, for British Eurosport. Jack Burnicle and former rider James Whitham who commentate on World and British Superbikes, also for British Eurosport; and Nigel Pearson with former England rider and ex-World Longtrack champion Kelvin Tatum, who cover the Speedway for Sky Sports.
(Moody, Ryder, Burnicle, Whitham, Pearson and Tatum)
So, what is it that makes them all so compelling? What common links exist between these six disparate characters, other than their habit of hanging around in twos at race venues? Obviously, as befitting of people in their position they are almost all completely immersed in the world of motorcycle competition – and in particular their own areas of specialism in the sport, either as a former rider (Whitham, Tatum) or as serious enthusiast (possessor of frighteningly comprehensive encyclopaedic knowledge, Ryder; highly articulate, often comically tongue-tied Moody, informed ‘giddy spectator’ Burnicle and Pearson, genial apologist for Speedway, everyone’s ‘Love it or loathe it’ sport)
I used to think commentators were superfluous – I think some still are. Dave Lanning, the voice of Speedway in the ’70s changed that. A good commentator, I feel should not be there simply to give you information, or explain; for example in the way you might have to explain to those who have never attended or watched such an event before what is going on: especially when it means everyone who has is forced to hear it again and again. (Hope you’re reading this Tony Millard) A good commentator should be in that place where audience and sportsperson meet; they should engage with the experience that their audience is having, develop and deepen it. This is what Lanning did. He knew the riders, the teams, the tracks, a ‘sufficient’ amount about the machinery to explain the reasons why riders did the things they did and why events on the track took the turns they did. (No pun – honestly!- intended) with authority and humour. Watching speedway today, I sometimes find myself slipping into ‘Lanning-Speak’ as, distracted, I mentally commentate. (“Oh I say! What a fine piece of speedway!” “It doesn’t get much tighter than that, you could throw a handkerchief over all four of them” “He’s going out to the fence, he’s taking the high, wide and handsome route”)
Do any of my crop of six come close to the Big Man? Well let’s say they are at their best, when, like sharps of flint they crackle and spark off each other with a vitality that the common herd can only watch and envy. Okay, maybe that’s going a bit far in some cases, but tune in to British Eurosport, or Sky Sports, catch this lot on form and you’ll see what I mean.
So, to business. My key areas of interest comprise:
- Background knowledge/Response to ‘On-Track’ events/Observational Skills
- Favourite sayings and creativity in use of euphemisms for the word ‘Crash’
My findings are attached below:
(On board chasing Moto GP traffic. Let’s face it, you’d have to be bloody nuts wouldn’t you?)
(Ben Spies: making some noise in his first season of Moto GP – I knew he would)
PLOC: (or to give its full title Point of Loss of Control) – usually with reference to voice, but may apply to bodily functions as well, this denotes a point in a race: a frantic start, a particular passing move, fierce tussle, spill, collision and so on which is momentous enough to cause our commentator to lose all self-control in relation to both his immediate environment (the commentary box, his partner and any guests) as well as his listeners/viewers: affects the volume, tone, timbre of voice and its level of hysteria as evidenced in ‘breaking’, shouting, screaming and in one or two cases singing.
- A particular feature of Moody’s work, where PLOC is often found to have been reached, before the end of the first sentence. For example at the start of practically every Moto GP. Toby’s voice shifts semi-tones, up and down mirroring the riders’ changes of gear. This is made even more entertaining if his commentary position leaves him unsighted and relying only on the local TV director’s footage. Toby gets more and more tongue-tied and frustrated as he is unable to see who is who, but continues regardless: …. and look! Casey Stoner’s made a BRIIIILLIANT start on the …(up semi-tone) oh! but he’s being OVERTAKEN by who……? Now THHHHAAAAATTTS (up semi-tone) Capirosi. But No! It’s… ( down semi-tone ) NICKY HAYDEN … Loris Capirosi … (down semi-tone) as they go into the right hander (up semi-tone) But where’s Stoner? WE’VE LOST CASEY STONER! (up a whole tone) etc…
- Ryder avoids the hysterics. He is the ‘Steady Hand’ to Moody’s emotional outbursts. His main problems when excited are forgetting to breathe and using unfeasibly long sentences.
- Nigel Pearson and KelvinTatum feature quite strongly here I am afraid. For example, Pearson continuing to shout in a most disagreeable manner, despite the finish of the particular race he is supposed to be commentating on: “WELL, HAVE WE GOT A MEETING NOW, OR WHAT, KELVIN TATUM?” I just wish he wouldn’t expend so much of his (apparently limitless) energy trying to convince us we’re watching great racing. I think we’ll be the judge of that, Ta.
- Tatum, too, is capable of allowing himself to rapidly spiral out of control, although he seems to take many of his cues from Pearson; indeed, at times they will chorus in unison; for example, over a skilful piece ‘fence-scraping’ “Ohhhhhh! HOW did he do that?!” Nevertheless, he falls short of that daemonic, possessed quality that transforms Pearson from affable host to deranged nutcase: “IF YOU’RE SITTING AT HOME WITH PIZZA TAKEAWAY AND THE FOOD HAS GONE ALL OVER THE FLOOR DUE TO THE EXCITEMENT OF THAT RACE, PLEASE FORGIVE US!” Nonetheless, I do think it terribly endearing, however that Pearson and Tatum continue to model themselves on 70’s TV regulars, Fozzie Bear and Kermit. Next time you see the dynamic Sky Sports duo doing a discussion to camera, wearing their silly big headphones (What are they listening to: Deep Purple?) and nodding sagely in agreement at appropriate intervals, think Muppets.
- Of the six, Burnicle and Whitham are probably the most restrained. In Whitham’s case, a riding career which saw him reach the heights of success, tempered by a catalogue of injuries that would make an orthopedic surgeon wince mean he has the ability to commentate with authority and experience. Add a touch of dry, gallows/paddock humour and he’s your man. Having been there, seen it, done it, he doesn’t tend to shout about it much. He finds more satisfaction teasing Burnicle, the enthusiast who comes across more like Whitham’s Dad.
(The irrepressible Rossi. Doesn’t like hospitals! )
Background knowledge/Response to ‘On-Track’ events/Observational Skills
- Background knowledge I am happy to report is very good in all cases and in some excellent.
- Jack Burnicle, for instance, can always be relied upon to give you that extra insight: (Re: Colin Edwards, World Superbikes and his choice of tyres) “Colin had a hard on in practice earlier, and I bet he wished he had a hard on now” and “Simon only weighs 63kg and most of that’s his ears!”
Whitham: (My job) “is to get across the subtlties of what is happening, what strategies they might be evolving, what’s going on with the tyres and so on” In response to track action, the assured Whitham sometimes employs an elegant spoiling tactic. When something he has said is about to be contradicted by actual events as they happen (to be fair, not very often): He diverts attention away to another area of the race course ” Look, Jack Now ah knew that were gunna ‘appen. I knew sooner or later someone were gunna open a Heineken umbrella on that bit o’ banking …. I mean … “
- And then there is Ryder. He is eagle-eyed and has (seemingly at his fingertips) a mass of information about riders, and their pedigree, bikes, engines, teams, gossip, rumour, lap times, records and is able to – and this is where he scores trillions of points – put all this in context for the casual viewer. For example, as a result of watching coverage of free practice at the new Spanish Aragonese track, I now have a much more complete understanding of ‘wet’ tyre technology. It might not get me very far with the man on the Clapham omnibus, but if I ever find myself in the paddock on a wet raceday, I’ll be able to say: “Yeah! get the wets on, they’ll grip without compromising speed too much, Why? because … er … the heat … um … err … and the little bits … they squash … sort of … and … Hang on a sec. I’ll just ask Jules”
(Going down the road)
- In responding to on-track action, bear in mind that our six will know many of the riders personally. A close shave (or God forbid worse) for one or a number of competitors elicit a uniform response, though these vary in their intensity and level of empathy depending on the circumstances. So we get:
“OOHHHHHHHHHHH!” (Ryder and Moody)
“OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH!” (Pearson and Tatum)
“OH NO! OOOOOOOHHH AHHHHHHH OOOOOOOOOOOH….!” Poor Burnicle seems to feel every bump and scrape himself as riders come off and hit the hard asphalt or gravel traps: He then, to add insult to injury, admonishes the fallen rider: “Oh Leon, what have you done? You silly boy!’ for his recklessness/speed/ill-timed braking/poor choice of tyres/big ears.
Whitham is more matter of fact “I see what’s ‘appened, he’s front-ended on braking, going int’ corner, so he’s hit the deck fast. Aye, he’s moving across that tarmac, mind you he’s missed t’ kerb. Nah, he’ll be all reyt”
Tatum seems to take an unhealthy over-interest in the trauma suffered by fallen riders as he puts each spill under his ‘Pain Microscope’
“If we take a look at that again Nige you’ll see … Ohhhhh! Look at him getting thrown around like a rag-doll … and thump on his head! … And now the bike runs over him! That’s got to hurt. Let’s have another look …..”
Favourite Sayings and creativity in use of euphemisms for the word ‘Crash’
- Pearson insists on wishing stricken riders “All the very best” – Is it just me ? Isn’t that the sort of thing you write on a Christmas Card?
- Pearson: “Chris Louis in the pits there, and apologies if you heard one or two words which you may have found offensive”
- Tatum: (Every week) “Y’know Nige, very often in the re-run it is not the rider who was leading the race when it was stopped who wins”
- Tatum: “Well, Nige they’ve just not come to the races”
- Ryder: “Valentino’s shoulder”
- Whitham: “I knew that were gunna ‘appen.”
Crash Pronunciation:/kraʃ/: collide violently with an obstacle or another vehicle. Not to be confused with a ‘Moment’ (When a rider almost comes to grief) Crashes are otherwise known as an ‘An Off’ ‘, ‘A Front/Back End’, Dropping It’, ‘High Side’ (When the machine bucks the rider off after going into a rear wheel slide),’Going Down The Road’ ‘Throwing the baby out with the bathwater’
but by far my favourite is from Toby Moody ‘The carbon fibre ‘s in the kitty litter!’ (Incidentally, there is one ‘bogus’ in the above list. Can you spot it?)
So in conclusion, between them, in spite (or perhaps because of) their foibles, idiosyncracies, things they say that drive me nuts, I enjoy their company. After all, if it gets too much, I just turn the sound down.
Closing note: The Spanish Aragon GP 2010: King Juan Carlos presents winner Stoner with the trophy. Event sponsor’s logo given pride of place!
This post is affectionately dedicated to those brave men who risk life and limb week after week at racetracks around the world for our enjoyment, namely Julian Ryder, Toby Moody, Jack Burnicle, James Whitham, Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum.
First published Sept. 2010
© Andy Daly 2010