Toprak Razgatlioglu EXCLUSIVE – From stuntman to WorldSBK superstar | Superbikes of the world

After all, few runners dominate a race track stage quite like the Turkish runner, whether it’s strutting ahead as a leader (singer), displaying skill and precision on a high-powered instrument. speed or tap into a melodic running rhythm. Simply put, on two wheels, Toprak Razgatlioglu is WorldSBK’s ‘greatest showman’.

And yet, for all that extravagant flamboyance on the track, it’s arguably Toprak’s approachable and unassuming demeanor that affirms his status as a “master of the art,” the foundational influence of an intriguing upbringing and unconventional rise through the ranks of motorcycle racing giving substance to that. his characteristic style.

Sweet as it may be, Toprak’s passion for perfecting the art form is quickly evident as we sit down to chat at Estoril, the third round of its 2022 WorldSBK Championship season.

However, just like a music artist agonizing over that notorious ‘difficult second album’, Razgatlioglu admits he feels a burden of pressure to prove he can keep up with the ‘opus’ of his formidable WorldSBK title win. 2021 with another table hit.

“In the first few races I use number 1 so I have to be number 1 and win,” he told in an exclusive interview. “But now I don’t think like that, I just feel the pressure for numbers.

“I look in front of me, I look for victories. I try my best to get more points for the championship but after the accident [in Assen] we must now aim for victories.

If Toprak is feeling the weight of his own expectations right now, it’s just the wayward flip side of the immense pride he’s visibly gleaning from being able to call himself WorldSBK Champion in the first place.

A double-edged sword, it means Toprak is fueled by the determination to prove himself worthy of the No. 1 mantle he battled Jonathan Rea in spectacular style last year.

“I feel extra pressure because I’m using the #1. It’s my dream to become World Champion and race with the #1 so I feel pressure because on the track everyone is looking at me, but I adapt.

The experience of youth

At 25 years old though, Toprak is a world champion with plenty of time left to pump that fuel into an ever-rising career.

And yet, while there is clearly more to come from this Turkish talent, his fascinating journey to the top has already come a long way. In fact, in terms of motorcycling, Toprak is a true veteran, a seasoned performer who has already dedicated 20 years to perfecting his craft on two wheels. Well, not always on two wheels…

“My life on a motorcycle started as a stuntman,” he continues. “I started with the wheelie because my dad was doing wheelies and stoppies at shows. He had an accident and then after I saw my dad in a bandage – I always saw my dad like that. So I started to learn to do a wheelie after starting to ride a bike.

Indeed, Toprak was not the first Razgatlioglu to become a household name in his native Turkey. Raised in the Mediterranean resort of Alanya, Toprak’s father Arif Razgatlioglu – better known as ‘Tek Teker Arif’ (‘Wheelie Arif’) – was already a well-known motorcycle stuntman across Turkey.

With some of his father’s most skilled hands on two wheels to guide him, it’s perhaps no wonder Toprak was already throwing his leg over a Yamaha PW50 mini bike at an age when many of us had to barely mastered the power of the pedals.

By the age of 5, ‘Tiny Tek Teker Toprak’ was already doing wheel spins like a pro, which led him to perfect the so-called ‘stoppie’, a crowd-pleasing signature stunt that , two decades later, helped make him a fan favorite.

A skilled off-track gymnast too, Toprak’s acrobatic skills on the bike aren’t just for show, either. Indeed, that confidence in the brakes helps sharpen the most effective and devastating weapon in his racing arsenal…not that it came without pain.

“My dad has a store with Atari games and in the back there’s a straight line, but not many cars use that. So I always ride that bike, I try to wheelie, wheelie, wheelie. wheeling…sometimes crashes…I still remember that moment.

“With stunts my wheelies are slow, never fast, but I crashed a lot in motocross. Nothing broke but I was in incredible pain. When I started in Superbike I had some big crashes. The biggest for me was Assen 2019, in qualifying, 262 km/h… it was the first time I was scared after a crash.

“When it comes to braking, my mentality is to brake hard and accelerate early, always like that. I tried to learn how to brake early, but after learning how to brake hard now, any bike I ride, I try to brake really hard.

“Now for me my wheelie and my stoppie are very good, easy.”

Yarışçı Toprak (Toprak the Runner)

If his talent for two-wheeled tricks was somewhat hereditary, then Toprak admits that stunt riding would probably never become his calling once he discovered the alternative “format” of going fast while keeping the front wheel on (and rear) on the ground.

“Normally my dad called me Tek Teker Toprak…I’m always angry because I said ‘I’m a racer, not a stuntman’. I don’t like waterfalls.

“OK, I’m starting with that and I’m very lucky, but racing is better for me. Once I started racing, I completely changed my mind because it was amazing…”

With perfected wheelies and stoppies on his 6th birthday, Toprak’s journey began to establish himself as “Yarışçı Toprak” or “Toprak the Racer”.

Starting out in motocross, by the time Toprak had reached the age of 14, Arif recognized the immense potential of his son’s burgeoning talent on two wheels and soon turned to short course racing.

However, this did not happen without obstacles. Indeed, the Turkish Motorcycling Federation has modest resources compared to the Spanish, Italian or British organization, so instead of Toprak mirroring his teenage peers by cutting his teeth on light, small-engined machines, he instead bit his first taste of Tarmac aboard a much heavier and more powerful Honda CBR600RR.

“After I started doing the stoppie, my dad said ‘now we start racing’. I said ‘what race?’, so I did motocross…50cc, 65cc, 85cc…and then when I I finished, he said ‘OK, now you start the road racing bike’

“Normally I like a road racing bike, but I had never ridden one before, but I said OK. Then he immediately said it would be a 600cc bike.

“I was surprised and a bit scared. He had to speak with the Turkish federation because at that age it’s not normal to ride a 600 bike.”

With Arif pulling a few strings to get around the (literally) minor issue of a 14-year-old riding a 115hp sportbike on a racetrack for the first time, Toprak has done his part to vindicate his father’s faith. and demonstrate his prodigious abilities.

“My father spoke with the federation so I rode my bike again. The first time my leg touched the asphalt… It was incredible”, he says with a stunned laugh as if there was nothing still not quite believe.

Success soon followed, with Toprak winning the Turkish National 600cc Road Race Championship on his second attempt when he was just 15, earning him a top spot on the Red Bull Rookies Cup grid. for 2013 and 2014. Competing alongside a veritable who’s who of future fresh-faced stars – including 2020 MotoGP world champion Joan Mir and Jorge Martin – Razgatlioglu belied his unorthodox repertoire to rivals by showing off competitive, picking up one victory and four podiums in two seasons.

Try WorldSBK for size

A career in the Grand Prix ranks would have begged, but Toprak found that nature conspired against nurture in that his obvious skills were negated by his leaner profile on a Moto3 bike, forcing him to work harder against a plethora of pint-sized rivals with basic physics. on their side.

This led to an unconventional decision to turn its back on GP in favor of setting foot on the first rung of the production racing ladder, the European Superstock 600 Championship. to sit, notice and attempt to learn its name.

Indeed, in terms of lasting first impressions, Toprak sarcastically spoke of the future as he rocked an unfamiliar Kawasaki machine to the 2014 season finale at Magny-Cours and raced to victory in the of his debut from 13th on the grid.

It was the prelude to winning the European title in 2015, a success that is now particularly poignant for Toprak after Arif and his girlfriend Ulku Ozcan were killed in a road accident in 2017.

“I’m very happy,” he smiles. “Because my father saw me become European champion before he died in the motorcycle accident.”

From almost giving up to WorldSBK Champion

In a cruel twist of fate, tragedy came in the weeks leading up to Toprak’s move to the WorldSBK Championship, a debut that would have fulfilled the dream Arif harbored for Toprak from those nervous first meters on that Honda 600.

It’s understandable that Toprak found things tough initially in WorldSBK on the privateer Puccetti Kawasaki and – at least by his own high standards – was so unhappy with his results that he considered quitting altogether mid-season.

“The first year was not good… I was always tenth, ninth, eighth. I wasn’t happy so I said ‘OK I’m not fast, it’s not possible for me to be fast in Superbikes’. So I thought I’d go home, work with my brother in the motorcycle shop.

However, after being taken under the wing of five-time WorldSSP Champion Kenan Sofuoglu as a manager and mentor, the belief started to return. Culminating in a stunning race to the podium at Donington Park, it was a pivotal moment that propelled Toprak into a groundbreaking 2019 campaign marked by two victories – its first – at Magny-Cours, both obtained from 16th place in the gate.

“At Donington I saw the podium, after that I changed my mind. I now knew it was possible for me to ride Superbikes.

“So in 2019 it was an amazing year. I was on the podium a lot [13 occasions] then the very special race of my career at Magny-Cours, where I won twice starting 16th on the grid. They were two incredible races for me.

An in-demand Toprak would then go on to try his luck on factory machines with Yamaha for the 2020 WorldSBK season, which laid the foundations on which he took 13 wins and 29 podiums en route to dethroning Jonathan Rea for the 2021 title.

While his story says a lot about how Toprak got to where he is today, there remains a future with many stories to tell as momentum builds behind a planned move to MotoGP, either in 2023 or in 2024.

In a decade that has seen WorldSBK both benefit and be somewhat tarnished by the idea that this is a (reluctant) rendezvous for out-of-contract and out-of-favour MotoGP riders , Toprak’s emergence as a full-fledged box office superstar pulling the other way is refreshing.

Or in other words, Toprak ran to the beat of his own drum all the way to #1…Rock on!

About Frances R. Smith

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