Until Turkey’s Kenan Sofuoglu (27) started impacting on the WSS record books a few seasons ago, riders from the vast country that straddles both the European West and the Asian East were hard to spot. The reason was simple. Kenan and his family virtually invented the concept of there being a top class Turkish motorcycle racer in the first place.
Nineteen WSS career wins, 45 podiums from 65 starts, and two World Championships with another manufacturer in both 2007 and 2010 mean that Sofuoglu has now reinvented the word ‘success’ in WSS terms.
He’s still at it, leading the standings on his Kawasaki Lorenzini Ninja ZX-6R as he has for most of the year. Along the way he has had to put up with a recurring left knee injury that would have floored lesser men, faced tough competition all the way and even more recently he’s had some restrictions in his day-to-day life that very few bike racers can even imagine.
As a devout follower of Islam, Sofuoglu observes Ramadan, a month of fasting in the daylight hours. Hardly what a sports scientist would recommend in the run-up to races. As Kenan explains, his religious observance is non-optional but, to a degree, flexible. “Ramadan is very important for Muslim people, for us it is the most important month in the year. It is a little bit difficult because it is already in the summer and days are hot and long, but at the end of the daylight it is good because then we can start eating and we have a celebration every night. Up to Thursday, as the race weekend approaches, I still observe Ramadan. But Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I treat those like a normal day and I am eating and drinking regularly because it is necessary for the energy of the body. But at the end of Ramadan I have six days I have ‘borrowed’, for the two races, so I will do six extra days of Ramadan.”
A Whole New World
Having started his international career in Germany, in a one make series that he won despite a slow start; Sofuoglu’s career has encompassed Superstock 1000 racing, WSS, Moto2, and now a return to WSS. It has also encompassed loss and even simple loneliness that has moulded him into a tough and effective competitor, for whom losing is not an option. It never was.
His racing life story is best told by the man himself.
“There were three of us brothers racing in Turkey. My family decided as I was the youngest one that I should go to Europe. But we did not have so much money. We found out that there was a way to do it by paying about 12,000 Euros for a one make Yamaha Cup series in Germany. In the beginning I was really slow, not even in the top ten. But after two races I got really strong and then I won every race and then the championship.”
It was a hard year for a young man away from home and in a different cultural world. “I did not have a rich family behind me and I did not know anything about Germany, I did not know German or English languages, it was really difficult but I cannot stop because all the family put everything on me. I think at this time all the hard things made me strong for the future. I loved racing but I had no other option but to race. All these kinds of things give me the feeling that I must do it even after many hard things in my life.”
Hardest of Times
Hard is how it has been for the whole Sofuoglu family from the start. Kenan again: “When I raced in Turkey many people said to my family, ‘What are you doing, why have three riders in one family? You are not afraid?’ Also, people in Turkey do not know so much motorsports. Of course racing is dangerous, life is dangerous, but it was difficult for us to be understood that we race on special tracks, that it is a special sport. My elder brother Bahattin, when he tried to walk across the street a car hit him and he died. After this people began to realise that he had raced for many years on motorcycles but he was killed walking down the street. Then people stopped to put pressure on my family and accepted our racing.
The hardest time was when my other older brother Sinan died in the Turkish championship during training. I was in Monza racing in Superbike at this time, in 2008. He was my last brother and when he died people all said that I should definitely stop racing because I had already been a world champion in Supersport in 2007.
“My father supported me and said ‘that is life, you love racing so you must make your decision.’ My mother really wanted me to stop racing. But then I thought what would I do if I stopped? I really love it and I have been doing it since I was three years old. And we never know when life is over. The only problem was that I was really afraid to crash that year and I had a really bad year in Superbike. But my Ten Kate team put me out in Supersport in the final round of 2008 and I won the race. If I wouldn’t have done that race and won it, maybe I would have stopped racing. The victory gave me power and a good feeling so I continued racing. I did not win the title again in 2009, but sometimes when you do not win it makes you more determined to fight for it even more. I won in 2010 and it gave me the idea to go to Moto2 as a wildcard in the very end of 2010.”
A full year in Moto2 in 2011 did not work out well partly because of a lack of feel with his machine but before the beginning of the 2011 season Kenan had also lost his biggest supporter, his father. “He never came to see me racing but he was always behind me, helping me,” said Kenan. “If I had a problem I would speak with him and discuss with him what to do. So when I lost him I was thinking maybe I really should stop. I already had a contract so I had to race in Moto2. But I had no motivation for racing. My feeling was really not good. I thought after half a year I would be fine, but I was really broken.”
New and Old
For 2012, Kenan found something new and something old to focus on. The new was riding as an official competitor on a Kawasaki Lorenzini Ninja ZX-6R. The old was to go back to WSS and shoot for title number three. “I was happy to make the contract with Kawasaki and I had something new in my life and I am really hungry again. I wanted a team that would allow me to win the races. Kawasaki can give me what I need.”
Kenan has had some serious issues with his knee after an Imola testing crash, however. “I had a really big crash, it hurt really badly. I have had three operations in four of five months. But the last operation I was really happy and at the race afterwards I had no problem.”
It is amazing that Sofuoglu has been able to ride so effectively on a knee that stops him pushing the bike around as much as he would like, but for him, it is all about the race, not the sheer pace. “I have a different point of view from most other riders,” said Kenan. “On Friday, Saturday and warm-up on Sunday I am just working towards the race, not preparing the bike for one lap. I make sure that the bike and I can do the full race. I do a lot of training in Turkey and I have my own Supermoto training track. In the past three races you could see I have gotten stronger and stronger. Also this year the Pirelli tyre really helps me, because I can still do fast times at the end."
"I think all together my feeling is good, the bike and electronics are good, and the tyres are working well. Even in the rain when my goal is just to make a podium. But in the dry conditions I think we can always try to fight to win the race. I am confident with the bike this year, the package is great and I know my competition - what they can and cannot do. I think we are the strongest ones, but sometimes you need also luck to be champion. I have lost a lot of points already but if we do not get some more big things happening then I think we can get the title. Looking at our pace and our results; I think we are the best team at the moment.”
Sofuoglu has a routine on race weekends and in his training schedule but we do not want to give too much away. But getting prepared for Kenan on race day is relatively simple. “I make myself as relaxed and happy as possible on racedays. Things like having a very nice breakfast; I just try to make everything perfect. Then I wait until the red lights. The best thing I like about racing is when I see the red lights, just before the start.”