Fast Talk with Kenan Sofuoğlu | Columns | Gassit Garage
He’s the best the World Supersport Championship has ever seen and he’s called it quits. But it turns out Kenan Sofuoğlu wants to keep racing
For well over a decade, winning the World Supersport Championship has usually come down to one simple thing. Can you beat Kenan Sofuoglu over the entire season?
Few have managed this feat, but all those who succeeded have gone on to greater things in the bigger classes.
The formal gauge of Kenan Sofuoglu’s standing in the WorldSSP championship is best summed up in statistics. Being the only five-time champion, and scoring more than twice as many series race wins as anybody else, exemplifies his prowess. But all those remarkable successes are measurable. Almost tangible.
What cannot be summed up concisely is the back story to a rider who has just retired from the category as the greatest ever.
The youngest of three brothers, he was the one chosen to go and race in Europe. His father owned a bike repair shop in Turkey, and he and his brothers, Bahattin and Sinan, all raced.
But Kenan was the one in the family destined to join a Yamaha YZF-R6 one-make series in Germany, and win it. Then to get a Supersport ride with Yamaha in Germany. Then do Superstock 1000 in the early years inside the WorldSBK paddock and come within a whisker of winning it, failing only at the last hurdle. Then join Honda and the all-conquering Ten Kate WorldSSP effort. Two titles.
There were more unsatisfactory times in WorldSBK for not quite a full season, and then an eventual move to Moto2 that nearly ended his career.
A lifeline came from Kawasaki to take him back to WorldSSP, where he remained in one set up or another to complete his five titles and attain the status of GOAT, a handle that is hard to argue with.
But in among all this success on the track, Sofuoglu has suffered some personal anguish that can be related to by many, as well as tragedies that can only be imagined by almost everyone else.
He lost his father, his main guiding light, at a key time in his life. But prior to that he lost both his brothers, one in a road accident as a pedestrian and the other in a racing accident on a small circuit in Turkey.
But the death of his infant son Hamza to a brain bleed, despite the best care that could be found, was perhaps the biggest blow and would have ended many competitive sportsmen’s careers. He had won so much on track, yet lost so much in his personal life.
But, being a racer who even now does not want to retire, somehow absorbed the good and bad and made it all work in his favour in races. As hard as nails and even unpredictable on track at times, the 33-year-old is a gentleman in so many other ways.
He is also, in his own way, a global ambassador for Turkey and, in another, more personal way, a devout Muslim, which is even now a great rarity in professional motorsport worldwide.
There really has never been a rider like Kenan Sofuoglu in any form of major bike racing, and history will define an entire decade in WorldSSP as The Sofuoglu Era.
Did you feel like last year, and even this year, has been stolen from you?
Last year’s Magny Cours crash was very hard for my body. Coming back to ride at Qatar was a very hard situation. In the Australian race this year, on Saturday morning, there was also a very big crash. It made me think that maybe the time had arrived for me to quit racing.
In the meantime, my family, everyone, kept pushing and saying that I should not race anymore. I had won enough, they said. These things my family said, my president (of Turkey) heard about it and contacted me. He said, “Your family is very sad, we are very sad, you had again a very big crash.” They all pushed me for quitting, to retire from racing. Personally, I love racing. But I need to respect the people around me, my family, my friends and my fans.
“So everyone is expecting that the time for me will arrive for my retirement, leave the job to the younger boys. I think I made the correct decision. My team and Kawasaki has respected the situation I have and I think it is the best thing right now. But, again, personally I love racing, but the time has arrived and I have to respect the people around me.
If they said to you, “Okay Kenan, it is your decision”?
I would continue. No question, I would continue.
Even if the PI crash and the aftermath meant that the championship was already gone?
Crashes have not made me scared all my life. Also, to lose a championship is no matter. I love to race. It is not about riding the bike. I can ride a bike any time, I have a private track, I have a bike, I have all the opportunities to ride, but racing is a different thing. I love racing.
How did you continue to race through all of the personal tragedy and so on? Losing both your brothers, and your young son? Many people would have stopped, so what kept you going?
For sure all those things gave me more power to continue to do this job. If a human has no goal, the human can die. The goal is finished – your life was finished. My goal was always to be racing, always winning, and I love
so much what I am doing. Also, I am a mission man, and I am always doing things for my mission. Maybe this is the perfect time to quit racing.
Also, to reach the level I reached, it was very difficult. More difficult than the European riders, because I am the first Turkish rider in the world class. My job is to build roads for the future of the young riders from Turkey. It took me maybe seven years to be in the world championships. But my young riders, if they do well in Turkey, maybe we can find a team for them in the world championship. They do not need to ‘find’ a way to reach world level. Because of this I keep pushing, keep continuing. I know how difficult it came to me to be in that situation.
And I am in the Puccetti Racing Team. I have so much good support from my team, and I was so happy with them. This happy feeling allowed me to continue racing.
How important is your Muslim religion to you personally, and to be the only Muslim rider to be competing at this level?
I am, I think, the first Muslim rider to win the world championship in motorsport. You know, I try to carry that.
It is not easy to carry this because you have to be a good example.
When I go on the podium I also never use in my career champagne, because it is not allowed in my religion. I try to be
a good example also for my riders.
Also, for Muslims in the world they are speaking quite a lot of bad things, so I have to be very careful, whatever I do, to be a nice person to everyone. But sometimes, in racing stress, we are aggressive to other riders; that is normal – because you are under so much stress. But it’s very important that I have to be a nice person to everyone in the paddock because I am the first example of a Muslim rider in and around the paddock.
I can say one thing. Anyone who has met with me, when they spend time with me, I do not think they can say a bad word about me.
I hear some bad words about me in social media, but these people do not know me, and have not spent one second with me. They just know me from outside, and they are speaking bad words.
But I am sure if I spent 10 minutes speaking to anyone in my career, and they said bad things about me, I would be very sad.
If people speak very bad words about me in social media because I am Muslim, I really don’t care. Because these people do not know me. In the paddock I have no big problems with anyone in the paddock and this is a good feeling after 12 years of racing.
By Gordon Ritchie