Motorcycling: Good life in the fast lane for Whitham

Norman Fox meets a biker whose toughest race was away from the track
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IN August 1995, Jamie Whitham was on the verge of becoming British champion in the spectacular and dangerous sport of racing superbikes, motorcycles which are tweaked so that riders rub shoulders at 190mph. He had been in the risk business since he was 16 but was unaware that the biggest danger he faced at the age of 28 was not so much a crash as cancer.

He thought he was used to shocks - friends had paid the ultimate price for their love of the sport. Somehow he felt able to cope with the risks, but being diagnosed as having cancer at his age was totally different, unfair almost. Death or serious injury on the track was something he almost invited, but cancer crept up without ever coming into consideration as an alternative way of dying young.

The first sign came at the British Grand Prix in 1995. After losing a stone in weight, he felt weak and sick. Examinations at a hospital near his home in Huddersfield eventually revealed Hodgkin's Disease which can spread throughout the lymphatic system. Chemotherapy was the only treatment and it lasted more than six months.

"Afterwards, I blanked it out of my mind. I thought about the good times before it happened but there were times when I thought I'd never race again. When I was down I'd ask the doctors if I was going to die. Fifteen per cent of people with the disease fail to recover but I got a lot of support. It was no good feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I'd done wrong." Over 2,000 people wrote to encourage him. Many had recovered from the disease themselves. The gifts included hats and wigs because he had lost his hair ("Some people thought it was an improvement").

Today, 70,000 people at Brands Hatch will be torn between wanting to see another British rider, Carl Fogarty, extend his lead in the World Superbike Championship and hoping that Whitham's brave battle is crowned with victory. A little matter of some broken bones in his foot after a crash in practice in the United States last month will not stop him appearing.

He was a popular rider long before the illness. Niall Mackenzie, who last year pipped him for the British Superbike Championship in his comeback season, said: "He's a real racer, doing nothing much in practice then up with you all through the race itself. It's the determination that pulled him through."

Once Whitham was declared fit, he picked up his racing career. But he admits the illness has changed his attitude. "I almost wanted to have my first crash so I could cope with some injury I knew all about, not like cancer that just creeps up on you."

As for the idea of a near-death experience adding to life's value, he says it makes racing less frightening. The occasional near-death experience on the track, though, is different. "I've sometimes thought I was going to die. You see your life flashing before you but every time I've just got up and walked away." That included his comeback race last year at Donington where he later narrowly failed to take the British championship. On the day Mackenzie had one win and a second place whereas Whitham had a win and a third.

Although he has raced for 14 years and was British Superbike champion in 1993, this is the first season in which Whitham has ridden works-supported machines. But so far his best efforts have been two third places on a Suzuki which, initially, was a nightmare to handle.

Fogarty leads the championship with 217 points (today's two races are each worth 25 points) ahead of an American, John Kocinski (213 points), who sometimes has the edge on wet tracks. But things change quickly in superbike racing, especially on twisting circuits such as Brands Hatch. Whitham is now hoping for a podium place whereas a few weeks ago he wondered whether anyone would offer him a contract for next season. "Our early results were so bad the team were afraid to wear their Suzuki T-shirts. We were becoming a joke. Riders on privately owned Suzukis were quicker." Then the team was summoned to Japan. "I was expecting a right bollocking." Instead encouragement and technical ideas were forthcoming. Obviously, they worked.