From Lagom #4

On the Right Track

Drogo Michie juggles the hectic life of an art director with the adrenalin-fuelled pastime of flat track bike racing. Although the two worlds often collide — sometimes quite literally — the sport enables him to find a true escape from the everyday.

Words Samantha Stocks & Elliot Jay Stocks

Photographs Richard Johnson

How do racing and your career play together?

Quite badly sometimes. At its worst, I had a collision that caused a chain reaction, resulting in about ten bikes getting involved. Ian Roxburgh took a photo that captured the carnage in the split second that I landed 20 feet away from my bike, breaking my shoulder.

The next day I was shooting a Land Rover commercial with Kevin Macdonald. It was a real hands-on job, and I turned up looking like a mess with my arm in a sling. I had to make numerous frantic phone calls on the Sunday night trying to find an assistant that I hadn’t otherwise thought I’d need, just to be my right hand. So sometimes the two worlds can collide in a not particularly successful way.

What’s your day-to-day work?

As an art director, my day-to-day varies massively. Right now I’m in England in pre-production, meeting with directors and getting briefs. I then put the art department together, which can involve overseeing model-making, special effects, getting set designs approved, overseeing the builds and sets, then filming in the studios. That type of project usually lasts three weeks to a month from the very beginning to last day of filming. I got back from Buenos Aires two days ago, where I was away for a couple of weeks filming a commercial. I travel quite a lot for work, shooting abroad.

Does this travelling ever force you to miss races?

Work can be really annoying when it comes to racing! This season I’ve had the best I’ve ever had because I got to the finals: out of about 30 riders, I got to the last 12. That’s a victory for me, as I’m riding in classes that have some of the best riders in the country. That’s something I can go to sleep feeling good about.

I had to miss three races this season because of commitments at work. I was doing the new M&S commercials for their fashion line, shooting over the weekend, and I missed one race because of that, and missed another because I was stuck in Lithuania shooting a commercial. I still came twelfth in one of my classes, having missed three of the seven races, but I’ve wondered that if I’d perhaps raced all them, then I might’ve finished in the top ten. For other people that’s useless! But for me, having never done anything like this until four or five years ago, it would have been glorious.

This is a sort of silly, noisy, combustion engine version of people going off to yoga retreats.

So, you could say that work can spoil the party. I’ve furiously negotiated to be able to make races in the past. I’ve been shoot- ing abroad and pretended I had to go to a family wedding, and I’ve leapt on a plane on Friday night to come back and race, and then leapt back on a plane on Sunday, covered in dirt and literally making it only by the skin of my teeth, reappearing at work on Monday morning exhausted and broken. But although racing and work clash, I don’t have a Monday-to-Friday job — my work takes me abroad to interesting locations, so it’s par for the course. That said, as all the racing takes place on the weekend, if I was in a nine-to-five, I’d never miss a race, so it cuts both ways!

How long have you been racing?

I used to be a BMX boy. Then at that inevitable speed bump of about 16 or 17 I went wayward, and quickly forgot about that. Then I ploughed through life, working, marrying, and having children, all that time super-duper happy, but having a mild sense of an itch I couldn’t scratch. I rode motorcycles throughout this time, and eventually decided to have one built in the style of a flat track bike, which is for dirt track racing.

Flat track and dirt track racing is kind of the same. Some people think dirt track racing is like MX, which has jumps and turns right as well as left. Flat track is speedway on big bikes. We race on all the speedway tracks littered around England. It’s go fast, turn left. There are two straights and two semicircles, and that’s it. You’re only ever pelting down a straight, or going into a left-hand turn. It sounds really simple, but it’s actually strangely artful and complicated.

The guy who built my bike raced in this scene, and he suggested that if I was having a bike built in this style, why not give it a go? I thought it was an absurd proposition, of course! But two weeks later I pitched up at the most local track to London on a practice day. I went round and round, tottering like an utter idiot, totally terrified — and fell in love with it there and then.

Do you find that racing is a release from your work? Do you get something out of your system when you’re riding?

Yeah, it’s a release. It’s also a very different crowd. There’s no typical rider. There are pilots, plumbers, structural engineers, lawyers, cabinet makers, haulage company drivers. I’ve found that flat track has an enormous social diversity, and when I started doing it, I was the only person coming out of London and the only person who sounded vaguely like they’d gone to a private school. Most people are from the Midlands and up north, and I’ve never found a community to be more friendly, more accommodating, and more good-spirited. It’s really quite extraordinary how much kindness was shown to me. Gary Inman and Ben Part of Sideburn magazine took me under their wings straight away, as did a race team called Co-Built, who went on to build my bike.

Do you find that refreshing when compared to the very competitive industry you work in?

Absolutely. There’s an interesting irony, isn’t there, in that filmmaking is a creative community all coming together to do one thing, but it’s actually an incredibly competitive environment; whereas racing is a bunch of individuals who are going out onto a track to compete with each other, racing within a hair’s breadth of each other, coming off of a bike and breaking something, but there’s much more of a community spirit about it. When everyone ploughs into that first turn, there hasn’t been enough time for the superiority of a rider to show itself.

For however long the race is, that’s it. There’s nothing else in the world. Nothing else exists apart from the very thing you’re doing.

It’s incredibly competitive in that moment, and there are different levels of riders competing for the same line at exactly the same time. It can get really messy, because if you’re not in control you can take yourself off — and everyone else around you. But I’ve never seen anyone shout at each other. I’ve never seen anyone take someone else to one side, or show any aggression. I’ve seen tons of bad crashes, many of which I’ve been in myself, but there’s no finger-waving.

What do you think brings these people together?

They want to hurtle around a track! I would say that many sports are prohibitively expensive for most people, but flat track is very accessible. I race two classes in a day, and both classes have preheats and a final, so you’re out on a track racing eight times in a day. That costs me, in terms of entry, £65, which is extremely cheap compared to any other sort of motor racing.

The bikes don’t have to be expensive, either — there are ways of getting a second-hand bike and cutting it up, tinkering, and sorting it out. I think it’s very easy for people to come into it, both financially and because of the spirit of the people who race.

Anthony Brown runs the Dirt Track Riders Association, who makes it all happen. He’s an unbelievably nice guy, and has been the reason why I race. He’s ridiculously kind, accommodating, and funny, and willing to give whatever it takes to get another rider on the track. He does that with everyone. He’s worked to ensure that the sport is never going to explode into a huge thing where it’s awash with cash and TV sponsorships, pit girls, and nonsense.

Is the appeal also that it’s a straightforward and very upfront sport?

It is, but also within me there’s an innate need to do something idiotic and hurl around a racetrack, whether I ignored it for 20 years or not. It’s clearly a part of my idiot male psyche! There’s a moment when you’re in the pits, and you know that your race is coming up. You’re lining up to go out on the track, and your bowels turn to ice, and you’re gripped with that sort of clammy, horrible seizing fear in anticipation. The marshal waves you out, and you go out onto the track, and you line up on the grid in rows of four — 12 bikes. You’re given a ten-second warning by the marshal, and everyone cranks their throttle to three-quarters and lets out the clutch as much as they can in second gear.

There’s a cacophony — a head-cleaving explosion of noise. At that point, all that tension disappears. It’s a point of singularity. It’s a noisy moment of meditation. But your concentration is so absolute, focused on one thing only, that nothing else exists. Then the tape goes up and there’s a furious explosion of bikes hairing out, looking for the same line. And then for however long the race is, that’s it. There’s nothing else in the world. Nothing else exists apart from the very thing you’re doing.

That sounds deeply simple, but in some ways it’s deliciously complicated and very lovely. Lots of people try and get to that place in a different way. This is a sort of silly, noisy, combustion engine version of people going off to yoga retreats.

We’ve spoken to a lot of people whose pastime brings on a meditative state, but you’re probably the first we’ve spoken to where it’s a high-pressure moment of chaos that brings it about.

I personally think it’s important to not get into a lazy, habitualised life, and to always try to do things slightly differently than you did the year before. The whole race day, the anticipation, waking up at five in the morning, loading the van, the completely ungovernable neurosis about the weather, the different crowd — for me, the race day is a day outside of where I normally exist, and I’m so much better for it.