COLUMN

The courage of the bike rider

Most of us have sensible fears about what people will think of us or how we will support ourselves. ‘Crazy Frank ’ Mrazek doesn’t

BARBARA AMIEL July 31 1989
COLUMN

The courage of the bike rider

Most of us have sensible fears about what people will think of us or how we will support ourselves. ‘Crazy Frank ’ Mrazek doesn’t

BARBARA AMIEL July 31 1989

The courage of the bike rider

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

Most of us have sensible fears about what people will think of us or how we will support ourselves. ‘Crazy Frank ’ Mrazek doesn’t

Obsessions generally involve people we love who don’t love us. But I have met a man who was is obsessed with freedom. His name is Frank Mrazek and, while he was born in Czechoslovakia, he knows little and cares nothing about Charter 77 or the Prague Spring. He is a 53-year-old motorcycle racer who this year placed in the Top 10 in two events at Daytona Beach, Fla.— motorcycling’s Wimbledon. I went to see him in his bungalow in Mississauga, Ont., where he lives. He beamed and showed me the scars on his legs, which have been smashed repeatedly, and took me downstairs to his trophy room. He has a lot of trophies, dozens of them, horridlooking things in shiny pretend silver and gilt. His wife, Jana, polishes them like mad.

Mrazek’s obsession had intrigued a number of disparate people, including film producer Norman Jewison and developer Eddie Cogan, who last year put up the money that helped Mrazek win a Canadian championship again. Toronto author George Jonas has written a book about Mrazek, called A Passion Observed. It puts his story in the context of one of the most important questions we all face in life, namely, the connection between courage and freedom. By that I don’t mean courage in the physical sense—although Mrazek has had that in spades—but rather the courage it takes to be oneself. Most of us live lives circumscribed by sensible fears about what people will think of us or how we will support ourselves when we are bald and incontinent. Part of growing up, actually, is learning to be afraid.

If you asked Frank Mrazek what his life has been about, he would answer that it is to ride as fast as hell. But his life, in fact, has illustrated another single obsession. Whether as a youth in Brno, Moravia, or a middle-aged man at Daytona jeered at by spectators telling the “old man” to pack it in, Mrazek has been battling to be free—unencumbered by politics, by worries about money or security or family responsibilities.

It is not, after all, the outer restraints of

government or economics that prevent a human being from being free in the truly metaphysical sense, but rather the inner restraint that comes when we attach great significance to the consequences of our acts. Neither governments nor wives, neither age nor infirmity, and certainly not profit or loss, could ever prevent Frank Mrazek from getting on his motorbike in search of the perfect line that a racer seeks in his duel with speed and death. Frank Mrazek illustrates perfectly the Stendhalian dictum cited in A Passion Observed: “People enjoy only the degree of freedom that their audacity conquers from fear.”

In certain speed sports like motorcycle racing, of course, you see not simply an athletic contest but a gladiatorial contest with death. The champions in those sports seem to be without fear and, no matter what injuries they sustain or what danger a new encounter poses, they return again to dice with the gods. This need, suggests Jonas in his book, is a physical dependency very much like drug addiction, with the brain producing certain chemicals in the presence of peril. In that sense, the famous answer that British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest—“Because it is there”—

Champions have not only this addiction but also a seemingly limitless amount of courage. The explanation for this, theorizes Jonas, is that the human brain comes equipped with a safety margin between real physical impossibility and the appearance of physical impossibility in the mind. No human being can do what is just not possible—gravity and the rules of science ultimately limit the speed at which the most accomplished motorcyclist can take a comer and keep the bike stable. But some human beings have a narrower margin in their minds between the appearance of physical impossibility and real impossibility. Every racer or mountaineer knows that “it’s all in your head.” But what they see in their heads is different from what you and I see.

I suppose, too, this book is about the special selfishness of artists, champions and other exalted souls. For decades, we have read the anguished books of the wives and children of great philosophers, statesmen and movie stars—from Bertrand Russell to Joan Crawford—full of pitiful tales of the price extorted by ambition and excellence. It should not be a surprise that the family of a champion motorcyclist would pay the piper as well. All the same, I know of few wives who, as former Czechoslovak Olympic figure skater Jana Mrazek did, would give up their homeland and an assured career in their field, and then give it all up again in North America after becoming a star in the Ice Capades. And for what? To see her husband sit unemployed in Ontario, his leg raw to the shinbone from his last crash, his concentration perfect as he slices open a motorcycle boot with a sharp knife and eases it over his bandages in order to race again. People like Frank Mrazek take it as a matter of course that others will pay the price tag of their obsessions. It is not calculated selfishness but rather a sort of aristocratic tribute they unconsciously expect and demand from all those near to them.

All the same, my heart goes out to Mrazek, the butt of a thousand jokes—“Crazy Frank,” “old Boogieman,” “the Bouncing Czech.” I suppose that is because, in part, his story celebrates masculine virtues at a time when the feminization of our culture is virtually complete. What answer is there anyway to Mrazek’s questions in the book’s last chapter, when he lies in his tent, camping out cheap on a hillside the night before a race? “People say you’re crazy. They say it so often that you begin to wonder: yet what is sane about being scared? Is that what sanity means, being scared? Because all these guys who call you crazy are scared. Yeah, scared—not just of crashing or pain, but scared of the boss, the bank, or their neighbors ending up with a bigger house. They’re even scared of their girlfriends, some of them .... Then they tell you, ‘You’re crazy, I always do what I want,’ but how can any guy be free when he’s scared?”

On July 5, at the Eastern Canada championships at Shannonville, Ont., Frank Mrazek crashed into a wall. Bleeding and dazed, he dragged his bike back onto the course. He had to be pulled off the race track by the stewards. Crazy, you think? Then I wish I were too.