The Superlucidity of Luis Salom

One figure disappeared into another and Luis Salom was gone. It’s hard to accept, not least of all because of the implications.
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“…not because of the wind but because of what they were doing and what we were doing, which was nothing, which was watching, and all of that together was the wrinkle, the moment of superlucidity. Then, nothing.” —Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives

It doesn’t take more than about five seconds. Pleasantly warm, clear Montmeló sunshine illuminates the picture, a grainy trackside image fixed on Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s swooping Turn 12. One figure brakes hard for the final corner and passes out of the bottom of the shot. Two seconds later, another rockets across the screen toward the top, over the curbs lining the official track boundary, kicking up a plume of orange paint from an advertisement, and colliding violently with an air fence at the edge of the track. Trailing it by mere feet is another, much fainter figure, almost imperceptible as it disappears into the first. Two more figures pass through. A flag waves.

Unlike Formula 1 cars, which have used a chicane engineered for overtaking opportunities there since 2007, the three classes of motorcycling’s MotoGP world championship have always taken this downhill right nearly flat-out in the track’s original layout. That’s the way Luis Salom grew up riding it; that’s the only way he’ll know it. The Mallorcan Moto2 rider was the dark wisp following his bike into the air fence at what turned out to be fatal speed. Despite medics at the scene and helicopter transport to a local hospital, Salom was pronounced dead shortly after at 4:55 p.m. local time. He was 24.

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In the same way that people can describe at length the rush they feel when watching football or basketball or hockey, it doesn’t take me much to expound upon why I think motorcycle racing is so engrossing. It’s like a trance—you work yourself into loops, ticking away laps, playing out the constraints of art and science, watching these humans do physics-defying things on bikes whose contact with the tarmac would barely cover the palms of your hands. The thousands of movements riders make to stay on their bikes every lap are lost on the untrained eye, but that’s not so important—the effort is laid bare before you to find if you want.

What I’m always at pains to avoid bringing up, but which lingers all the same, is its element of danger. With NFL summer camps on strict schedules and drug testing generally effective these days, the visceral extremes of sport are confined to increasingly marginalized outlets. There’s Hemingway’s old bit about bullfighting and car racing, of course, but bikes are an even more perverse extension—totally exposed humans at ever-increasing speeds somehow allowed to continue racing one another from a very young age amid perpetual political bickering over safety, economic and environmental concerns.

I hate the danger and I’m not in it to see anyone hurt, in other words, but I romanticize its presence. What’s more, I romanticize the weird tiers of danger that exist within the sport’s various forms—MotoGP and its ilk feel neutered next to the dedicated maniacs that keep the Isle of Man TT, Macau Grand Prix and Irish road racing alive, for example. And it’s this romancing and stratifying of risk—taking comfort in the idea that closed-circuit racing is dangerous, sure, but so much safer than being out on an open public road—that enables us to justify watching life-threatening exploits every other weekend year after year; it’s those tiers that allow us to comfortably keep going, to suspend disbelief from the grandstands, to cheer and moan and growl and laugh and not care at the end of any given Sunday because, to us the spectators, it’s nothing. We’re nothing, just our emotions. It’s a spectacle. It’s entertainment. Every rider is a character. Everyone plays a role. Everyone comes back.

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By every account I can remember reading, Luis Salom seemed like a nice guy. Journalists were quick to offer kind words, former employers and rivals expressed heartfelt condolences, he smiled in all of his Instagram photos, and his official website describes him as an “extrovert, a talkative and young prankster who always has some mischief designed for those around.

How good he was is a separate question. He knew success—double Balearic Supermotard champ; wins in the Red Bull Rookies Cup and Moto3; podiums in Moto2. But his ultimate career ambitions were marked by failure—losing the ’08 Red Bull Rookies and CEV Buckler championships to J.D. Beach and Efrén Vázquez, respectively; Moto3 heights ascended but never conquered; mysterious underperformance despite a coveted Pons Racing spot in Moto2. At the less formidable SAG Team, Salom scored a surprising podium in Qatar to open 2016 but otherwise looked adrift, a guy destined for the 70th percentile.

Contrast this with the fortunes of the two men who beat him in the 2013 Moto3 season. Before the Barcelona weekend, Maverick Viñales—Salom’s teammate at Pons for 2014—signed with Yamaha’s factory team in MotoGP to partner Valentino Rossi for the next two years, effectively setting himself up as Marc Marquez’s foil for the sport’s future. And with steadily improving performances in Moto2, Alex Rins—Salom’s teammate at Pons in 2015—was wavering between Viñales’ place at Suzuki or the Yamaha MotoGP b-team.

Next to those guys, Salom had receded to near-anonymity. Who knows how he would’ve turned out—maybe a MotoGP backmarker like untold others, maybe a competitive teammate to the superstars like Andrea Dovizioso, maybe a World Superbike refugee. Maybe he would have retired young. Somehow, I doubt it.

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Marco Simoncelli. Shoya Tomizawa. Yasutomo Nagai. Jarno Saarinen, if you reach back far enough. These are all names as constant reminders that motorcycle racing is exceedingly dangerous even when it looks easy. It puts you closer than most other motorsports—most other sports, really—to death, the logical outcome of all of our ridiculous lives.

We can’t escape it, so we cope with it instead. Through our careers, our lawns, our pets, our perfect cookie recipes, our Drake tattoos, whatever—all the outlets that evince our struggles and dreams tangled up in the same failure. The failure is called joy and it looks a lot like Luis Salom, come to think of it—a man who died as we might wish to live, at home in the sunshine, rocketing across existence, working out the dream of a lifetime of effort rewarded.

Every time they don’t come back, it feels just that little bit more lucid. The joy feels a little bit more like failure. The wrinkle feels a little bit more like nothing.


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