Categories: Features

Whatever! – Don’t Worry, We’re Professionals

I was talking to a new acquaintance the other day when the usual topic came up, i.e., what do you do for a living? I write about motorcycles. Oh, she said, my good friend Whatshisname is a huge motorcycle guy; he’s practically a professional motocross racer. He’s broken every bone in his body!

All you can do is smile, though what I wanted to say was, well, I’m afraid he might be doing it wrong. Maybe Evel Knievel still defines “professional” for those of us of a certain age, but it’s been awhile since I equated motorcycles with multiple broken bones – though I guess if we’re talking MX, then all bets are off. I hate to put the mouth on myself by saying I’ve only ever broken a collarbone – and that was a crazy 65-mph tankslapper that ripped the bars out of my hands and put me on the pavement – but it’s true. Touch wood.

“Professional” takes on different meanings according to the profession, I think. For me, it means I’ve been lucky enough to eke out a decent living for quite some time writing about motorcycles, which makes me more a professional writer than a professional rider – though most of us need a little of the latter to make the former semi-credible. If you get paid for it regularly, to me you’re a professional. (And I’d go further and say “in cash” just so everybody I’ve ever dated or married doesn’t lose their amateur standing.)

For some people, the concept of professionalism extends well beyond the borders of the actual work being performed, which can result in conflict. My professionalism is heavily infused by the work ethic of characters like Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in MASH, which was one of the things that made me think enlisting would be a fun thing to do later if all else failed. It did. Those four Army years reinforced my instinct that there’s a big gulf between the professional rule followers and those who do the actual heavy lifting. And surgery. And digging. And truck driving. While the professionals are busy re-drafting the field manual, the rest of us are figuring out the field-expedient way to get the thing done. Professionalism to me means accomplishing the task as opposed to endlessly dickering until other people accomplish it, which may leave an hour or two at the end of the day for the accomplisher to celebrate. Are professionals allowed to?

Looking back, this outtake from a Motorcyclist shoot may have crossed the line into unprofessional. Photo by Jim Brown.

Not that there haven’t been some episodes along the way I think we can all agree may have hovered on the border of unprofessional. Riding a pair of sportbikes to a photo shoot once with a colleague dressed in a full California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer uniform may have been one of them, particularly when the officer stepped off of his CBR900RR at speed on Coldwater Canyon and slid the bike into a parked car. Whoops. That at least kept him from doing any more wheelies for the duration of the ride.

The unfortunate incident at the Kawasaki launch in Spain a few years ago when some person or persons in our group performed late-night donuts in a golf cart on the 18th green was also regrettable, but, a) I was not in the cart and, b) this was the era before serving personnel received training in how not to overserve alcohol to the consumer. I can’t believe how irresponsible some establishments used to be. The one young bartender at the golf resort that night actually left six or eight of us motojournalists in the bar on “the honor system” because she had an early class the next morning. The damage to all those rare old bottles must’ve outdone the damage to the golf course.

Wait, was that the Yamaha trip when Rich Oliver was charged with unprofessionalism for doing some very impressive rolling burnouts on the new R1? Can the guy who holds the record for the most AMA roadrace wins be unprofessional when the subject is motorcycles?

So what’s the deal? Do professionals need to continue being professional even when they’re off the clock? I know a lot of people who support Donald Trump because he’s not a professional politician. In politics, is it better to have just fallen off the truck? Meanwhile, his opponent Hillary gets beat up for being a professional politician. Which is preferable?

Dunno. I remember working at the Big Magazine, though, and spending what sometimes felt like more time loading and unloading bikes from vans and trucks than riding them: Bikes needed to get picked up and dropped off at manufacturers, bikes needed to go on photo shoots and to the race track, bikes had places to be – and they had to be clean, too.

There’s a lot of schlepping in motojournalism…

Most of the guys on the staff would step in and help out, especially after the “shop steward” position was downsized, but there was always one guy who was always busy, just too harried to leave his office. He was also the guy who contributed the fewest pages to the magazine, wanted to discuss commas in meetings, and could never go on a group ride because he was always recovering from a bad ankle (or was it a bad wrist?) that never quite healed enough to ride a motorcycle unless it was some cool junket in France or someplace.

One Friday afternoon, though, the Editor in Chief and the big shot Editorial Director from New York were on their way to Las Vegas for a track day and some corporate bonding; their plan was to load a couple of sportbikes in the company van and hit the road. Cool. When I stepped out the back door of the shop that afternoon, I was shocked to see That Guy in back of the van, strapping down (awkwardly) the bosses’ bikes, all sweaty in his pleated Dockers. I’d never seen him load a bike, ever, before. That, friends, is a special kind of professionalism, the women-and-children-last kind that makes me a little queasy but might get you elected.

Anyway, it’s a good word when they’re trying to obfuscate and evade in the Human Resources department I guess. “Bob’s a great guy but he’s unprofessional.” Meanwhile, Bob’s probably re-attaching the turbo manifold that keeps blowing off the box van’s engine at the side of the road due to lax maintenance, putting a tourniquet on a poor guy’s leg who crashed a Ducati on a “sponsored” ride event, or finishing up a last-minute assignment in record time as a result of the three P’s from the boardroom (piss poor planning).

Happy Labor Day, my people, and let’s keep it Professional out there! Or not.

John Burns

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