In the summer of 2005 I left the army to start a new life as a motoring journalist. I’d always wanted to write about bikes but coming from a military family meant taking the long way round. When I told my dad I wanted to write for a living I was 13, he laughed in my face and told me I’d be joining up when I was 16. He wasn’t wrong. In the autumn of 1996 just three months after finishing my GCSEs, I was learning important life skills like how to shoot cardboard cutouts of Germans at 300 metres, or how to iron my bed and sleep on the floor the night before room inspections.
At the same time, John Hopkins was learning a new trade too. He’d made the transition from schoolboy MX to short circuit racing and as a 13 year old had no idea what lay ahead of him.
At just 18 years, ten months and eleven days old, Hopper became the youngest rider to ever make a start in a MotoGP race. At that age I was already married and had finished a winter tour of the Falkland Islands, where I perfected the art of snorting urine from the bottom of an upturned wine bottle.
Fast forward to 2003, when that John was making the transition from two to four stroke with Suzuki in MotoGP, this John was getting a really dangerous tan in Iraq. Both of us probably fell asleep at night dreaming about riding the same bikes.
This might not feel like a book review yet, but it is so stick with me.
In 2005 the start I’d been promised with a car magazine had fallen through and I was months away from leaving the army with no job to go to and no money. We had a young daughter and I was starting to wonder if leaving the army was a mistake. I stuck to my, erm, guns and was turned down for a job laying Tarmac for Croydon Council (no people skills, apparently) and was busy lining up a job on the Isle of Man working in a quarry when I spotted an ad in the jobs pages in the back of MCN. It said ‘HGV 1 driver required for MotoGP work’. I’d had my HGV licence since I was 17 and sent off an email. One thing lead to another and I ended up driving Nicky Hayden’s motorhome round Europe for a bit. I was employed by a couple called Bill and Candy who provided motorhomes that season to Nicky Hayden, Troy Bayliss and John Hopkins. We were under strict instructions not to pester the racers and to avoid talking about racing with them if they spoke to us.
On Sunday 26th August 2005 I was enjoying a cold beer and a book in the paddock in Brno after the race when John Hopkins came over for a chat. I’m pretty sure he said he’d just signed with Suzuki again and clearly he was looking for someone to celebrate with. We had a few beers, spoke about Dog the Bounty Hunter and remote control cars. Then we were drunk.
Before it got dark, John realised that I’d never ridden on track before and was determined to sort that. I held his beer and he disappeared, returning a minute later with his Burgmann 125 paddock scooter. He flagged me off from pit lane (with his T-shirt I think) and timed me for a lap around the full circuit. I broke my track riding cherry that night and finished the lap in a dice up Horsepower Hill with one of the circuit firemen, also on a scooter. I know he was a fireman because he was dressed as a fireman. I was wearing board shorts and a Diesel hoody.
We swapped over and I timed John for a lap, I expect our times were almost identical but handily can’t remember them for the purposes of this review. Later that night he invited me down town, I politely declined as knew I had to be up early and wanted to run the travel iron over my bed sheets. John shrugged me off, climbed into his hire car and drove out of the paddock on the rev limiter and with the handbrake still on. He returned at about four o’clock in the morning. I know this because he returned with the same driving style he left. I genuinely had no idea at the time that John was a big drinker and just thought he was in the mood to celebrate.
A few hours later he was spinning laps on the GSV-R at the Brno test like it was nothing, turning in a lap time quicker than Capirossi, Nakano, Melandri and a bunch of others could manage. The ability to get the job done with a bellyful of beer in him was obvious, but I thought nothing more of it and got on with my day.
I’ve just finished reading John’s autobiography, it’s called Leathered and the clue is definitely in the title. John’s highsides with addiction off track have been spectacular and the level of detail in which he’s opened up on them is as brave as any move he’s ever made on track. Drink, drugs, women, race bikes and hand shandies. After a crash John always gets back on and goes again, showing the kind of dedication that very few people posess. This is a book that I couldn’t put down, the racing insights are excellent and there’s a lot to enjoy in that respect, but it’s the other side to John’s life that grabbed me. My tiny insight into John Hopkins’ life at Brno was, it transpires, just a regular day in a very irregular life. I don’t wan’t to give away anything but knowing with first hand experience how difficult it is to write a racer book, I called Matt Roberts, who put John’s story together with him.
“I first met John when I was working with DORNA back in 2002. I instantly took a shine to him, he reminded me of my little brother. As time went by I told John that when he was ready to write a book that I wanted to be the one to help him do it. The other racer books I’ve written along the way felt like warm up and qualifying for the main event with Hopper. I got the chance to ask the kind of questions that you can only ever ask when you’re doing a book, rather than a post race interview. Getting those answers wasn’t a disappointment. John wanted to tell everything and he did exactly that, I hope fans enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed putting it together.”
I can’t imagine there being a current racer that’s living the kind of life that John Hopkins has, so it’s likely that Leathered will remain as unique in years to come as it feels today. Buy a copy here and read it for yourself.
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