Alessandro Simonetti Captures Italy’s UNDERGROUND SPEED FANATICS

The speedway runs anti-clockwise. Its riders lap it in a tightly-wound circle. The closer they are to the inner edge, the faster they go. This type of racing is characterized by motorcycles that have no brakes and only one gear. It encourages a kind of fluid depravity, one that resembles riding an animal more than a machine. It is therefore ironic that speedway began in Italy with British soldiers modifying their street bikes for abandoned horse tracks in Udine and Trieste. Since then, the Santa Marina Stadium in Lonigo has become the center of the Italian speedway, producing champions for a deadly sport that rarely makes it past a local audience. Their crowds are often small and the riders’ jerseys are emblazoned with small-business logos. This is the world documented by photographer Alessandro Simonetti during his time photographing the speedway racers of Northern Italy.

Following our obsession with speed and the freedom-body that led to our Motocross Collection, 032c spoke with Alessandro Simonetti:

What type of racing are you showing in these images?

The work portrays a really singular practice of motorbikes. It’s at the bottom of the motorbike pyramid – the least accessible and definitely the kind that has lost the most hype from sponsorships and crowds. The races take place on anti-clockwise dirt oval tracks and the riders slide their bikes sideways, reaching up to 110 km/h. The origin of this practice is lost in the dust, but the first appearance of speedbikes happened even before the First World War in the US and eventually gained traction in Australia in the 1910s and 20s.

So there are rules to the unruliness?

The FIM [Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme] regulations state that the motorcycles must have no brakes, be powered by pure methanol, use only one gear, and weigh a minimum of 77 kg.

What is the connection between Italy and speedway?

Speedway arrived in Italy after the Second World War and found a perfect playground on the abandoned horse-racing tracks of Udine and Trieste in the northeast of Italy. UK soldiers were using street bikes adjusted to fit the track and they were actually responsible for building the hype for a practice that was never before seen in Italy. The Lonigo horse tracks were eventually blessed by the Italian “King of Speed” Dario Basso, who tested the track with his Gilera and declared it practicable for official competitions – this was before several riders got injured and died. Lonigo decided on a proper stadium to be able to host the increasing number of riders, eventually giving birth to local champs like Paolo Noro, Valentino Furlanetto, and Giorgio Zaramella.

 

Do you ride these bikes yourself?

I never owned a proper motorbike. I had various scooters during my youth: a Booster, Rapido Peugeot, Garelli, and a Vespa. I never owned a car either, but because of the skateboard and snowboard scene, which I was documenting from a young age, I had the chance to follow the early career of one of the most influential FMX riders in Italy, Alvaro dal Farra. I met him at the Academy of Fine Arts in the late 90s while we were both students and witnessed his shift from dirt jumps and basic tricks to metal ramps and backflips. That was the peak of my relationship with motorbikes – it’s just an aesthetic-platonic crash! I grew up with two women and there was no MotoGP or Formula One running on our TV, so it was a random encounter which revealed my infatuation toward this subject.

I always think of Italy being famous for fancy red sports cars. How is Motocross considered culturally by Italians?

Italy has a long tradition and passion for cars and motorbikes. Motocross, especially in the northeast where I come from, is pretty popular. You easily see five-year-old kids rocking the tracks.

Could you expand on some of the behind-the-scenes stories from when you took these pictures?

I spent some time with a few riders while they were preparing the bikes, and according to one of them, speedway is the most dangerous of all the bike sports. It’s a big statement. If you ask me, I would say FMX is the most dangerous, but what the rider said revealed a strong passion and sense of pride for this sport that suffers from a total lack of attention.

How so?

All the riders compete independently. The sponsors that were embroidered on their leather suits were all local companies, such as the bank, the butcher, or small-business owners. I think what captured me at first was the style of the speedway posters that I saw when I was little: duotone, black and yellow guerrilla wheat paste on suburban walls.

What keeps you coming back to these bikes and their riders?

The shape of the bikes, the absolute absence of high-end technology, the moves and attitude on the track – they perfectly fit my aesthetic in photography. I shot the whole competition on film with an old Nikon set, pushing the ISO beyond and not caring about having a rough result in terms of contrasts and grain.

Do you think there is a political aspect tied to motorbike sports?

Speed is political to me. For instance, think about the Futurism movement of the early twentieth century that emphasized speed, technology, youth, and provocation, as well as objects like cars and motorbikes. Conceiving of speed as a tool to move faster, in order to leave behind the weight of the Italian past. I also see a thin religious vein in the sport. I’m not referring to the faith you might need to push yourself to that level of racing – it’s more a simmering anti-religious attitude of putting your life at risk against the will of god.

Deeper

  • Life Exists: Theaster Gates’ Black Image Corporation

    Theaster Gates' “The Black Image Corporation” presents photographs from the holdings of Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company, a sprawling archive that shaped “the aesthetic and cultural languages of contemporary African American identity.” Gates approached the project as a celebration and activation of the black image in Milan through photographs of women photographed by Moneta Sleet Jr. and Isaac Sutton – of black entrepreneurship and legacy-making. “Life exists” in the Johnson archive, he says, just as it exists and should be honored in other places of black creativity.More
  • FRIDA ESCOBEDO: The Era of the Starchitect is Over

    Rising Mexican architect Frida Escobedo is relentlessly inquisitive, eschewing stylistic constants in favour of an overriding preoccupation with shifting dynamics. Personal curiosity is the driving force behind her practice, which makes he an outlier in a profession dominated by extroverted personalities keen on making bold assertions. "I think it really is a generational shift," Escobedo says. "The idea of the starchitect making grand gestures with huge commissions is over."More
  • “I live a hope despite my knowing better”: James Baldwin in Conversation With Fritz J. Raddatz (1978)

    Born in Berlin in 1931, editor and writer Fritz J. Raddatz relied on food delivered by African American GIs after the death of his parents. To Baldwin he was an “anti-Nazi German who has the scars to prove it.” Debating his return to the USA after 25 years, Baldwin explores the political climate in America at the end of the 1970s in a conversation at home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.More
  • House as Archive: James Baldwin’s Provençal Home

    For her new book, Magdalena J. Zaborowska visited the house Baldwin occupied from 1971 to 1987 “to expand his biography and explore the politics and poetics of blackness, queerness, and domesticity”. Here, she narrates her early journeys to Baldwin’s home and proposes a salve for its recent loss: a virtual presentation of Baldwin’s home and effects.More
  • Where are the real investments? Theaster Gates on James Baldwin

    The Chicago-based artist talks to Victoria Camblin about materializing the past, the house as museum, and preserving black legacies. Social and artistic engagement, Gates suggests, may allow the contents and spirit of Baldwin’s home, and others like it, to settle in lived experience.More