Motorcycling: Smart's joint challenge of cash and competitiveness

Ignoring the easy option in a divided sport, a young British motorcycli st with a famous family is struggling to develop his undoubted talent
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The Independent Online
SCOTT SMART'S pursuit of a divided sport's most elusive prize appears, on first glance, a perverse ambition bordering on downright obstinacy. Who, after all, would compete in a class so dominated by one mark, Honda, and one man, Michael Doohan? And do so on a machine that struggles to compete in a 500cc grand prix class that, because of a conspicuous recent lack of success by British riders, struggles to find an audience here to rival the hugely popular World Superbikes series?

But maybe that is the very reason why a determined 23-year-old is Britain's lone rider in what, despite the brouhaha generated by Carl Fogarty's successes in World Superbikes, remains motorcycling's blue riband class. The spur of singularity, being the lone man against a seemingly insuperable challenge, is often important to those possessed of a truly competitive nature.

With Smart, however, it runs deeper than that, although the self-effacing rider from Kent would never suggest it himself. Smart, to his eternal credit, shies away from any pompous notions of family heritage, but one can hardly fail to acknowledge that he is (and he winces whenever the subject is broached) the nephew of Barry Sheene, Britain's last 500cc world champion, who won the title in 1976 and 1977.

Smart's relationship with his famous uncle is strictly a family matter. Although Sheene brought Smart his first bike on his fourth birthday, his involvement in motorcycle racing has more to do with his father, Paul.

Smart Snr manages the Millar Honda Britain for whom his son rides after selling his bike dealership last year to concentrate on Scott's progress in a high-risk, high-failure sporting arena.

Paul Smart was quite a racer himself, just ask any Italian rider or pit crew on the grand prix circus. They hold Paul in eternal affection, mainly as a result of the Briton's venerated victory on a silver Ducati at the 1972 Imola 200. Yet Smart Snr remains a cult figure in bike racing because, in a parallel to today's WSB versus GP schism, he chose to ride in the then more lucrative Formula 750 series in the United States while brother-in-law Sheene was hurtling to fame and glory in 500cc grands prix on a Suzuki.

While the Millar Honda has struggled to compete with the mega-budget, cutting-edge, one-off bikes of the works rides of Doohan, Criville, Biaggi et al, Paul's presence and occasional advice have been invaluable to Scott. Paul is no parent from hell, foisting unfulfilled ambitions on a manipulated offspring - far from it.

"He just lets me get on with it," Smart said. "It's much nicer to do it yourself. There's no point in him forcing me do something that does not come naturally."

Smart, by his own admission, has struggled to coax a competitive ride from his bike this season. To take the relatively easier option of turning instead to the British or World Superbikes series, both of which eclipse GPs in terms of popularity and profile in Britain, would be missing the point, however.

"I always wanted to get into grand prix racing," he said. "We've been struggling with the bike all year, always feeling like it's going to kill you - it's not so easy."

Yet his season has not been without its rewards. At the British Grand Prix, a 10th place provided a tangible glimpse of a promising home talent.

"At Donington, the tyres and suspension just gelled and I knew the track - it's a confidence thing. Having a bad year knocks any confidence and doesn't help your riding. I've always been on an upward spiral," said Smart, who took the British 250cc championship by storm in 1996.

This is his first year in two-wheeled grands prix where he competes without pay, relying on the personal sponsorship of British firms such as Digi and Norwood Adam to scrape by.

"Money talks as much as results do," he lamented on a ever widening gulf with the big Japanese manufacturers' teams of pampered egotists.

While among the leading privateer riders - a race with a race involving non-factory prepared twin cylinder and thus slower bikes - it cannot help a young man's confidence that each time Doohan screams past him and other tail-enders, the four-times world champion shakes his head in a gesture of contempt for those momentarily blocking his path towards a fifth world title.

Smart is thick-skinned enough to ignore the bluff and the bull, however, his immediate focus being the next grand prix, in Australia, and equally daunting challenge of raising the funds he needs to secure a competitive ride next season.

"It's really scary establishing the amount of money I need to raise: pounds 100,000 still doesn't leave me with anything to live on."

Such strictures means riders must be pragmatic and Smart is not ruling out a move to 250cc next season, where bikes and budgets are on more level terms. "I'd rather be competitive on a 250 than uncompetitive on a 500. Besides, it's more fun to be on a winning bike.

"Still, it was a decent result in Barcelona [he finished a creditable 15th 10 days ago] and it was a big bonus that there were a few riders behind me. It was pretty close and we were not a long way behind the quick boys."

Given the right ride and a few more years experience and a biking dynasty may yet yield a new British hero.