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Nashville Scene Call Him a Hero

Tray Batey, the "Invisible Champion."

By Marc A. Stengel

MARCH 16, 1998:  Walter "Tray" Batey is a sportsman in our midst--a champion, really. But, unless you are familiar with the sport of motorcycle roadracing, the name of this Sumner County native is as meaningful as a tossed-off business card. But a champion Tray Batey is, with claim to 14 national titles garnered over the last dozen years. Although he enjoys none of the attention he deserves, he is polite enough not to notice. He is too preoccupied with winning motorcycle roadraces.

At 37, Batey is an old man in a young man's contest. He races the lightweight, weirdly aerodynamic, big-horsepower machines known to roadracing aficionados as production-based "superbikes." He specializes in the three competition classes designated by their engine displacements of 750cc, 1100cc, and "Open." (The "Open" class is reserved for engines of unlimited size and unrestricted design.) Only the international Grand Prix bikes are faster--and more expensive than the $60,000 it can cost to acquire and equip some of Tray's most recent mounts. Although a direct comparison is ultimately spurious, it's fun to consider that a 3,200-pound Corvette sports car would have to produce over 1,000 horsepower (three times its already substantial factory output) to deliver the same power-to-weight ratio--the same oomph factor--of a typical 500-pound racing superbike churning out 160 horsepower.

Yet Tray Batey takes this level of performance for granted. He is at home in a rarefied environment where split-second bursts of acceleration, up to nearly 200 miles per hour, inevitably lead to violent decelerations, down to 30 or 40 mph. Every maneuver must be precisely timed to allow him to pitch his motorcycle almost parallel to the ground in search of the fastest way to round a tight corner. For balance and occasional support, his knee--and sometimes his elbow--skims the surface.

Tray compares the experience to fighting a gyroscope. With the engine's crankshaft spinning as fast as 10,000 revolutions per minute, and with two wheels rotating at well over 100 miles an hour, a racing motorcycle is far more loyal to the universal laws of physics than to its rider. The motorcycle is determined to stand upright. Exiting the corner, Tray lets it do just that--gingerly so as not to pitch himself overboard (a jaw-dropping aeronautical disaster known as "highsiding") but with all the haste he can muster.

There's no time to lose. It's critical to "wick it up" or accelerate with a sharp crack of the right wrist back to full speed in a breakneck dash to the next corner.

With a trademark blend of consistency, wiliness, and an uncowed craving for absolute and sustained top speed, Tray has campaigned his way repeatedly into the winners' circle. In 1996 he clinched the coveted Formula USA (F-USA) championship in the season finale, riding the Valvoline EMGO Suzuki GSX-R1100 to the checker ahead of open-class bikes of every description. For '94, '96, and '97, he competed in grueling series of races, some of them six hours long, to earn National Endurance Superbike titles as a member of Team Suzuki. This year Tray seeks to recapture his F-USA crown while competing regularly for the first time in prestigious AMA Superbike events.

When asked what he thought about his nephew's prowess on the racetrack, Tray's uncle Charles once confided, "You can see that he might have become a great athlete. But, I dunno--he just never seemed to have any interest in sports." Characteristically, and without the least splinter of irony, Tray admits to being flattered by his uncle's assessment. "That's a compliment, really," Tray says. "I never knew he felt that way."

But the matador, if he knows his profession, can increase the amount of the danger of death that he runs exactly as much as he wishes.... It is a sport, a very savage and primitive sport, and for the most part a truly amateur one. I am afraid however due to the danger of death it involves it would never have much success among the amateur sportsmen of America and England who play games. We, in games, are not fascinated by death, its nearness and avoidance. We are fascinated by victory and we replace the avoidance of death by the avoidance of defeat. It is a very nice symbolism but it takes more cojones to be a sportsman when death is a closer party to the game.

--Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Collection of Tray Batey

An actual buzz hovers overhead for the entire four-day weekends devoted to major motorcycle roadraces. Bristling yelps of nervous, full-throttle acceleration--some in staccato pulses, others in long, wailing yowls--erupt at random throughout the paddock where the teams test and fret over their bikes. Pennons fly, peddlers hawk their wares, throngs of people surge and retreat, cheer and despair.

Beginning every February and extending until at least the end of October, this is what it means to go motorcycle roadracing. Exotic engines lie in glistening states of disassembly; laptop computers let technicians play god with "variables" such as tire temperature, barometric pressure, and fuel flow; motley helmets with shaded visors bob like space-age finials over the riders' bulging body armor. The modernness is deceiving, however, for surely the medieval tourney ebbed and flowed precisely like this. Certainly the displays of bravado and the risk of ultimate disaster were the same then as now. Unlike any other traditional sport--even the high-profile, professional auto events--motorcycle roadracing is a combination traveling circus/moveable feast/ wandering bazaar where even the spectator is part of the tableau. It is also the pastime at which Tray Batey has spent the last 12 years becoming Middle Tennessee's most accomplished invisible champion.

"The first time I saw a motorcycle when I was young," he recalls, "I knew that was what I had to do. Nothing for me has been as exciting as a motorcycle. I've never even thought about trying to do anything else. Evidently, it's not as life-engulfing for some people as it is for others. And, when I was younger, I actually held a sort of a grudge against other people my age that were involved in stick-and-ball sports. I didn't hold anything against them personally; it was just that I resented the amount of attention that their chosen sports attracted. I felt that my sport--my chosen hobby--was at least as physically demanding, and certainly it took more daring to become good at it.

"But I was young then, and I've since learned that to be good at any sport you have to be gifted. I don't know that much about a lot of the sports that are regarded most popular in our country, but I have come to realize that the guys who reach the top in those sports are not just idiots who got lucky. I've developed a respect for those people, even though their sports don't interest me very much unless there's a little excitement or danger involved. I'll admit that may be a childish outlook on my part, but, personally, I can't understand how anyone wouldn't be obsessed by motorcycle racing after watching just one time. By the same token, though, I can now appreciate that a lot of baseball fans just can't understand why I wouldn't get hooked on their game after just 10 minutes of having a ball thrown at me."

There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the simplest things and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.... Courage comes such a short distance; from the heart to the head; but when it goes no one knows how far away it goes.

--Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Collection of Tray Batey

Tray is gregarious without being especially assertive. It's a trait that has given him a competitive advantage in those crucial moments of psychological preparation before a race. It is not a calculated behavior. It surfaces too naturally for that. He is so unassuming--even bashful--that, speaking quietly with him in the off-season, it's possible to forget for a moment that his skill approaches the supernatural, or that he has a deep-seated resolve to best all challenges, never backing away.

For all his demonstrated abilities, however, Tray is a late arrival to roadracing. He is old enough to be the father of many of the riders he meets at the starting line. By the time they're 25, the age when Tray himself started roadracing, many of today's upstarts are a decade into their careers. Accordingly, he admits that he thinks more frequently about life after racing. He is more reflective; his memories of how it all started have taken on a slightly sentimental glow.

"I can remember," he says, "getting up early in the morning so that the dew was still on the grass, and that made the grass quite slippery. I'd have dressed myself up into some type of attire that might resemble as closely as possible the way I imagined some of the big-name riders in Europe looked at the time. I'd ride out on that grass on my father's farm, and I simply could not go fast enough. My interest was then, and still is, how many G-forces will shove me back into my seat. The faster I could force that little motorcycle to go and still be in control, the more exciting it was. The wet grass made it that much more of a challenge.

"When you start racing, you're not going very fast. You have to learn how to ride and handle the machine, and it doesn't take much energy to ride slow. However, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and stamina to ride very, very fast. And the different kinds of racing make incredibly different demands. For example, a motocross race [over an irregular dirt track] is like riding a bull, but you have more control over the bull. Asphalt racing is more like chess. It's more of a mind game. You have to be so much more precise with what you're doing because the consequences are so dire. There's so much going on. You're not just balancing the bike. If you change your line--your arc through the corner--by just one inch, that has a drastic effect on the speed you carry out of the corner, on tire traction, on so many things.

"And it's different from corner to corner; it's different when the asphalt temperature changes; it's different when the wind's blowing; and it's different when people are around you and some other fella has the line that you think you need to be in. I hardly consider myself the most cerebral of riders, but still my racing plan can change, in the length of one straightaway, three or four different times. So here you are trying to think of a way to go faster, but you're on an inferior line. There's just so much going on in your mind, you cannot think as quickly and clearly if you're not 100-percent fresh.

Photo by Nick Devinck

"I don't really feel like I'm a naturally gifted rider. I've always felt like I've been kind of a nibbler. I've worked hard to learn what I've learned; and I've worked at it slowly. I've never been one for throwing caution to the wind by trying too much too fast. Believe me, it's been much easier climbing to the point where I am now than it is staying here. I know I'm already getting close to a point where my senses and my reflexes are actually going to start deteriorating; and I'll have to work very hard just to maintain where I'm at. And finally, I'm going to lose that battle. That's just the way life is."

We live in the age of inventions; but the professional discoverers have been unable to think of any wholly new way of pleasurably stimulating our senses or evoking agreeable emotional reactions.... So far as I can see, the only possible new pleasure would be one derived from the invention of a new drug.... The nearest approach to such a new drug...is the drug of speed. Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure. True, men have always enjoyed speed; but their enjoyment has been limited, until very recent times, by the capacities of the horse.... I myself have never traveled at much more than 80 miles an hour in a car; but those who have drunk a stronger brewage of this strange intoxicant tell me that new marvels await any one who has the opportunity of passing the hundred mark.

--Aldous Huxley, "Wanted, A New Pleasure"

It is easy to admire what a talented motorcycle racer does, but it is much harder to understand why he does it--for what material, psychological, or even spiritual reward. Certainly it is not the money. Motorcycle racing remains an economic paradox. It requires so much of its participants in terms of both money and risk, yet it reimburses them so little for their passion and trouble. Of course, at the non-professional or semi-pro level, some people play intensely competitive football, baseball, and basketball without any thought of substantial financial return. But the very real risk of ending up a grease spot on the road is never a part of the "stick-and-ball" equation.

"I've been racing for many years, even though I've only been roadracing since I was about 25," Tray says. "It has cost me everything I could make. I've had to do jobs on the side--carpentry work, building decks, and things like that--just to make enough money to pay for my bike parts. I've tried to make those parts last as long as possible and not to crash and tear those parts up. I've done all my mechanical work myself, and, you know, I wouldn't trade any of that for anything.

"Even this far down the road, though, I'm looking for the same feelings or thrill that a less experienced racer might achieve at, say, 120 miles an hour on the back straight at Road Atlanta. Except, like a dope addict, it takes more dope for me to get there. So in a lot of ways, I'm jealous of the experiences of that less-experienced rider who can achieve his thrills on less sophisticated, less expensive machinery. And if he falls off, he's probably just going to slide around a little bit. To reach the same effect, I now have to have a $60,000 racing motorcycle, and if it throws me off, it's probably going to hurt me very badly because I'm traveling so fast.

"On the back straight at Road Atlanta, an 1100cc Suzuki GSX-R will probably go over 180 but not quite 190. It's probably doing 180 to 185 when it's cresting a slight vertical and right-hand kink before flinging down into this 100-foot dip that we call the Gravity Cavity."

Tray likens the pressure of wind resistance at nearly 200 miles an hour to an invisible giant holding the motorcycle back with an outstretched arm. The bike is making so much horsepower and meeting so much forward resistance that the rear tire begins to spin free in a manic, mechanical release of frustrated energy.

Collection of Tray Batey

"At that kind of speed," he says, "the bike needs so much horsepower to push itself through the wind that tire traction actually becomes an issue. So it's not just a matter of knowing where you have to be so that you'll stay on the track when you go over that blind hill. With the motorcycle making that much horsepower, leaning over onto the sidewall of its rear tire at top speed, it's actually spinning that tire as it crests the hill."

It's as if the front wheel were blocked by a solid brick wall; the only outlet for all that horsepower is for the rear wheel to churn wildly in a free-spinning, tire-squalling, smoke-boiling commotion known as a "burnout." "At 180 miles an hour," Tray says, "you have to know what this sensation feels like and not let the wheel spin too much. Otherwise, after you glide over the crest of the road, the wheel might catch, snap the bike in the opposite direction, and spit you over the top. That'll get your attention.

"So what I do is weight the outside footpeg as I'm leaning, and as soon as the wheel starts spinning, I yank on the handlebars and force the machine to do a three- or four-inch wheelie in order to transfer as much weight as possible to the rear tire. It might look like a wobble to a spectator, but I'm purposely snatching the bike to control the wheelspin as best I can. I've got to do it the same way at this same precise spot on every lap, and, meantime, there's every other turn and straightaway ahead of me, and they all have their own special techniques to master. You never get it exactly right--ever. But you always expect that on the next lap you will, and it's that prospect that keeps you coming back for more and more."

The joust consisted, indeed, in hurling oneself upon the adversary. Just as in real battles--the shock of the two mounted troops, the uproar and the thick dust...grand clangor and great noise. All were eager to strike home.... On all sides were horses to be seen running and sweating with dread, each man eager to do all he could to win, for in such enterprise prowess is quickly seen and shown.

--Georges Duby, William Marshal, The Flower of Chivalry

"I don't actually believe that most motorcycle racers are playing for the audience," Tray says. "At any track, you're aware of where people are watching and where they're not. That's only natural because you're a human, you've got a captive audience, and you want to perform your best. But despite all that, racing a motorcycle is still a very private thing in a lot of ways--a very private challenge.

"Sure, I've got some metal in me, and I've got scars, but I don't consider those permanent injuries. We've all got a little bit of that stuff--crooked fingers and so forth. To me a permanent injury is loss of normal function for some part of your body.

"I agree, though, that there is a lot of risk; but I don't think it affects me, or a lot of the other racers either. If it did, we'd all have to quit immediately. I've been standing no more than 15 feet from the racetrack and witnessed the worst. I was standing on a guardrail two years ago and saw a guy die right in front of me. I saw the wreck, I saw him fall, I saw the motorcycle run over his throat. The instant it happened, you just knew that he was dead. That didn't make me want to quit. Then again, I didn't think about it a lot. When you're doing something that's dangerous, you always have to think, 'That could never happen to me,' or you'd have to quit that day.

"People who race probably aren't the best about going to see other people in the hospital. We don't want to be reminded that you can be hurt, of how frail the body really is. Just the same, one of the reasons you can continue to do something dangerous like this is that, luckily, if you see it coming, you're not gonna wreck. If I can feel that motorcycle doing something bad, I've got time to do something about it. The wrecks always just come out of nowhere. One minute you're going like a locomotive; and then, before you know it, you're flying through the air or you're sliding across the ground with your hands still holding the bars because things happened so fast you forgot to let go. Eventually, you just adopt this mind-set that the wrecks aren't anything you can ever control, so you might as well not even worry about 'em."

Having won the national title in Formula USA for '96, Tray was the favorite for a follow-up performance last year. It was not to be. He won a number of important races, but a series of mechanical mishaps throughout the season transformed a number of race-leading performances into DNF (did not finish) results. But fate has infinitely more subtle ploys than breaking engine parts or spraying oil over a rear tire. Such is the elaborate interplay of physical and mental skills required of both rider and team during a race, that the highest drama often results from a mere dropped stitch in concentration.

"In the Sunday-morning warm-up for the main race at Pocono [International Raceway in Long Pond, Penn.] last year," Tray remembers, "I was faster than everybody else by a full second. That was totally demoralizing for the competition, and I knew it. It was a big, important race--Formula USA. I got a good start, I got out into the lead, and I pushed hard to get one second, two seconds ahead so the competition wouldn't be underneath my armpit at every corner. According to the pit board, the split times--the difference between me and the next guy--showed plus-0.5, plus-1, plus-1.5. I was gaining a half-second every lap.

"Then I came around again, and the pit board showed a lap time only--no split. Well, there's no time to think things over when you're flashing down the front straight. I'm coming back onto Turn 1, and all I can assume is that someone has gained two seconds in one lap!" Tray had no doubt what was going on. Dave Sadowski, his longtime arch-rival and co-aspirant for the '97 Formula USA title, must have found a sweet spot. He must have found a way to pull out all the stops and turn in the ride of his life.

"I don't like turning around, but in that circumstance, I should have looked. I hate to do that--I never do that--and this time I didn't do it when I should've. Instead, I just wicked it up, thinking I could go a little faster. In reality, I was coming off the front straightaway just as everyone behind me was coming on. I had a huge lead, but I simply didn't know.

"So I went into Turn 4 faster than I had been, looking to make better time; and I got onto the ripple bumps at the outside margin of the track, which caused the front wheel to tuck in under me, and my elbow came in hard against my gut. I'm skidding by now, so I forced my knee onto the ground and by pushing with it, I finally got the front end to bite. But by that time, I'd run out of racetrack. The only thing I could do then was snatch it upright, and stomp on the front brake to try to scrub off at least 10 miles an hour before I hit the grass. I saved it from a big, nasty fall, but I was off the track. Worse yet, I was out of the race and out of first place. All because one tiny piece of information never made it onto the pit board for my one short glimpse."

"What sort of bridle or halter do you have to guide him by?"

"I have already told you...by the peg, for by turning it in one or the other direction the rider can make him go where he will, through the air, or brushing and almost sweeping the earth."

--Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

It's rare to find a motorcycle racer who worries about the fact that his favorite pastime is blatantly neglected in the mainstream sport pages. Perhaps the racers themselves, if they're anything like Tray Batey, have too many immediate and serious preoccupations to be bothered by a lack of tabloid celebrity. Or maybe they're having too much fun to want to let just anybody in on the game.

The fans of motorcycle roadracing, on the other hand, can occasionally be a grumpy lot. Can't the world see what uncanny skills these riders possess and what fate awaits their every lapse in concentration? To which the mainstream invariably replies, "What skills?" Hanging on for dear life while internal combustion does all the work? And as for fate, well, it's a free country--go kill yourself if you want to.

There's more to it than this kind of beer-talk, though. Motorcycle roadracing can be at once poignant and pointless. Its feats of bravado, its sights and sounds never fail to incite and to inspire the spectators, veterans and novices alike. But to what end? Like Cervantes' hapless Knight of the Doleful Visage, the roadracer--even an acknowledged paladin like Tray Batey--is an anachronism of sorts, a tilter at windmills. The overtones of single combat and blood sport that hover unmistakably over every race seem excessively martial, irrelevant for a civilian age. Then again, not every motorcycle roadracer cuts the same figure as the single-minded, self-taught, and self-effacing champion from Sumner County. But if there is at least one like Tray Batey on the track at any given time, there is enough.

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