Come for a ride like no other America’s longest-serving devotee of the real road racing, Mark Miller, as he explains what it’s like to compete in the world’s most incredible road race
It often happens when racing at the Isle of Man TT that someone inevitably asks me, “But you also race the Macau Grand Prix, don’t you? Now that’s f’ing nuts.”
It’s natural, I suppose, for people to assume that racing around a circuit lined with steel Armco could be considered a more hazardous activity than rocketing through an English village at upwards of 200 mph before carving up their local mountain road surrounded by honest-to-God, bona fide cliffs.
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By Mark Miller
Photography by Stephen Davison, James, Gasperotti, Toni Borner and Oana Bogdan.
I’ve always thought to myself if I did crash hard again on the roads at least within the smooth steel walls they’d be able to find all of me in one place.
“Well, there’s his body, and there’s his bike.” At the TT, with its jagged stone walls, telephone poles, trees and pubs, I have witnessed first-hand how these varying objects, when struck at speed, can leave our bikes and bodies struggling to remain in one piece.
I’ve raced the Isle of Man TT 13 fortnights now and the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix 17. I’ve stood on both podiums, even if for being more lucky than any good riding. My advice to any rider who asks me how they might get involved in this sport I always answer the following: “Don’t even think about it. Find something else to get you going. It’s too bloody dangerous, please, please walk away.”
Then if they persist, I’ll try and help them approach their racing in a most safe and level-headed way. The speed will come naturally, or not.
So why take the risks by racing these perilous events?
For me, the answer is innate. I need it, because we live in a world that acts so unnecessarily insane sometimes that I can only find sanity within a world that is incapable of bullshit. I made one serious error in judgment in 10 years of racing the roads and my motorcycle came back to the pits in four pieces. It sucks that this type of racing is so amazing, but also so hazardous, otherwise I’d do it forever.
And then, there’s Macau. Now that’s a different matter entirely.
Macau is located roughly 40 miles west of Hong Kong and can be best reached by a fast-ferry TurboJet from HKG Airport. Not too many Americans I know have heard much about Macau. It’s the Las Vegas of Asia, bringing in more daily bets than all of Nevada combined. Although it started out as a very poor fishing town, it has now grown to be among the wealthiest regions in the world per capita, sporting new hotel casinos everywhere like the WYNN, Venetian, and MGM Grand.
Macau residents have the fourth highest life expectancy on the planet even though its 650,000 inhabitants live in a total area of 12 square miles, making it the most densely populated region in the world. The city also boasts large art museums, parks with public workout equipment, jogging trails and a single modern movie theater surrounded by literally thousands of shops.
But what does all this mean to us? Well, the most important point to make here is there’s the world’s gnarliest racetrack that threads its way through the whole friggin’ city! It’s like a big amusement park, built just for us to go out play on with our superbikes. It’s utterly, totally mental.
My first invite to race at Macau was in 1998 while riding for Graves Yamaha. Only two other riders—Michael Rutter and John McGuiness—have competed around the 3.85-mile Guia Circuit more than I have, which means they’re old.
So how did this incredible race get started? It’s a funny story actually, if it is to be believed. It goes like this:
Portuguese settlers arrived to Macau in 1550. The Ming Dynasty rented Macau to the Portuguese Empire in 1557. In 1887, the Portuguese were given full colony status and the deed lasted until December, 1999, when all the young pretty Portuguese girls then packed up and left Macau in the span of one year, breaking my heart.
But well before the exodus of the Portuguese colonists, in 1953, a couple of kids decided they wanted to organize a “Treasure Hunt Event”—popular in their day where organizers would lay out a specific route and friends would jump in cars to follow the map in search of buried mall junk. To do the job right the kids recruited some outside “treasure hunt experts” from Hong Kong, but when the experts surveyed the kid’s proposed course route along the highways, they stopped and proclaimed loudly, “You have a perfect circuit here for racing cars, you will drop the treasure hunt idea and come help us organize a car race! Settled!”
They agreed and the first inaugural Macau Grand Prix began shortly thereafter. True story.
Sixty-three-years later and some of the finest racing drivers the world has ever seen have graced the Macau podium. Men such as Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine, Mika Salo, David Coulthard, Christian Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve, Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Roberto Guerrero, Damon Hill, Lucas Di Grassi, Sebastian Vettel, and the immortal Ayrton Senna. Quite a list.
The Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix’s Clerk of the Course, Carlos Barreto, who is actually Portuguese, adds, “Hong Kong was the tourist stop of the day. British drivers would come from Hong Kong to drive the circuit. Some drivers came from Australia. But slowly it became famous and after some time it started to attract many, many people. And!” He stops to grin, “attracted a different sort of race which started in 1967… the motorbike race.”
He continued. “Bikes became very popular and local people wanted to join the event but couldn’t afford a car, so they’d buy a bike. Of course, the bike races were dominated by Japanese riders for the first several years.”
In the 50 years which have followed, the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix podium has seen such greats as Kevin Schwantz, Carl Fogarty, Didier de Radigues, Steve Hislop, Robert Dunlop, Steve Plater, Jeremy Toye (USA), and of course TT Legends David Jefferies, John McGuinness, and Michael Rutter all place a foot on its hallowed steps.
I asked Carlos, with Macau now being a strict invitational only race, how are the riders chosen?
“We consider the performances and participation in other road events like the Northwest 200 in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man TT, Ulster Grand Prix and of course the Macau Grand Prix—for the past two years and the current year,” he said. “However, if a strong team say from the Endurance World Championship brings a name to us, we will consider it.”
Asked why the bikes continue to race in a predominately car-racing event, Carlos answered after a long pause, “They are very popular. It’s a different kind of race. Personally, I thought at one point in 2010 the motorbike race should stop. We had a big crash in 2005 where the rider passed away, Frenchman Bruno Bonhuil. It’s a small town, so anything bad that happens is a bad image for Macau. Then in 2011, something happened. The man who organized this event for 32 years, Mike Trimby (founder and CEO of MotoGP’s IRTA—International Road Racing Teams Association), stopped his job in Macau. And I told the president of our federation, ‘We cannot stop like this. We’ve got to carry on and stop sometime in the future.’ So we start to organize the event differently.
“Many riders who used to come before, maybe 15-20 were very good and the rest were just filling the gap. So we decided to cut our entry list to 32 maximum riders and we try to select the very best riders from around the world. I see the motorcycle GP continuing on for some years, I really do.”
I asked for his lowest recollection of the event, to which he replied, “Of course the three fatalities. In 1995 there was a Japanese rider who was near the sea when we suddenly lost him but his bike carried on down the racetrack and through the pit lane. We stopped the race; he had fallen over the wall where there was no fence at the time. There are many rocks there down by the water, and his head hit one. Then Luis Carreira in 2012. Three, in a 50-year-old race, plus two in the cars.”
I was directly behind Luis’s fatal crash I had to swerve to miss his spinning motorcycle engulfed in flames. I didn’t have the nerve to look directly at him as I passed. A very sad memory.
When asked about insurance concerns, Carlos said it is difficult to secure insurance in these days but one catastrophic incident involving several riders at once could bring the bike racing to a halt.
So in conclusion, with three fatalities in 50 years there are more dangerous road races in the world.
I’ve kept coming back because the track is fun as hell to ride; it’s a blast hanging out with my riding mates, as well as the various racing families surrounding the teams. There are good restaurants to be found, thumping late night discos, naughty saunas, and pubs. But in the end, I think most of us race the Macau GP for the challenge and escapism which this circuit offers.
Editor’s note: Mark finished 15th this year at the Macau Grand Prix for the Splitlath EBR squad. The race was taken out for the second year in a row by British Isle of Man TT star, Peter Hickman.
Sit back and watch this brilliant five-minute video of the world’s best street races from the 2016 Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix.
Who is Mark Miller?
Mark Miller is America’s most respected and successful road racer. An Isle of Man TT, Macau Grand Prix, Ulster Grand Prix and North West 200 veteran, Miller has seen and done it all when it comes to racing between the hedges, walls and Armcos.
He’s also enjoyed great success in the U.S., racing for Attack Yamaha, Corona Honda, Celtic Suzuki, BMW Penz13, MotoCzysz, Splitlath Aprilia, Splitlath Group Motorsports, and Erik Buell Racing (EBR), earning 20 AMA Pro Road Racing podiums, one win, nine pole positions, six lap records and 11 fastest laps.
He’s also a licensed pilot, a film maker and has a Bachelor of Science degree—Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. So he’s got brains as well as brass balls. CN
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