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Article: RECEP ŞÜKRÜ YOLCU
A world champion
Once a biker who raced purely for pleasure, Kenan Sofuoğlu is Turkey's first motor sport world champion, chalking up yet another success every time he goes on the track.
We know him for the success to which he dedicated almost half his young life. What I mean is a photo that was taken on the day he first ascended the champions' platform. But in the same breath with his name, we also have to mention the twenty-four years Kenan Sofuoğlu devoted to reaching that moment. When we look back at the story of this young sportsman, we are struck by many things: ambition, talent, boundless family support, sibling solidarity, marketing tactics, and, in the end, brand name sponsors.
His story begins in his auto mechanic father's repair shop in Adapazarı. A speed buff in love with the roar of the engine like the other members of the family, Kenan Sofuoğlu learned all there was to know about motors as a boy. Like his older brothers who raced in motorcycle championships, he developed an early interest in the sport and since the age of six when he first started racing with special permission has risen steadily step by step in a brilliant career. The Turkey Supersport runner-up in 2001, he set his sights higher and moved to Germany in 2002. At that time, when he first set foot on the European tracks, he quickly succeeded in attracting attention in the Yamaha Cup Championship. Champion in several races both in Turkey and elsewhere up to now, Sofuoğlu has won 50 cups abroad and over 650 in Turkey. And today he is planning new championship targets as a biker who has won race after race in the World Supersport Championship, so highly coveted by all the leading European teams.
Could you tell us about some of the turning points in your life? The first day you rode a bike, for example. Or the day your father signed the papers allowing you to race.
The turning point for me was actually when I came in last in the first Yamaha Cup that I entered in Germany and then when I got fired up and really put my mind to it in the next race after that and won. That experience was the most significant turning point for me as a step towards my world champion title today. The first race that I entered by special permission of the Motorcycle Federation of Turkey was another turning point.
When Formula One came to Istanbul your success fueled spectator interest in motor sports in Turkey, which has been a major factor in the Turkish team racing regularly in Dakar. How would you assess Turkey's situation with regard to motor sports today?
Attitudes towards motor sports have really changed in Turkey in the last three years. Of course the construction of Istanbul Park has had a big share in that. The world-scale events that you could only watch on television before are being held now in our own country. Consequently they've started attracting the interest of a broader group of people. But we still have a long way to go. A total of 35 thousand people watched the MotoGP races, for example, but 120 thousand come to the same race in Spain. What this actually shows is that we aren't doing enough promotion. My becoming world champion caused quite a stir in Europe. They often say how great it is that I have scored a success of such proportions.
Have you ever been on the point of giving up?
After my first race in Germany when I came in last I told my Dad, “Let's give this up and go back home.” But my Dad said I shouldn't give up and that I had to keep going to the end. He convinced me to continue racing. That played a big role in the success I've achieved today.
Sponsors are very important in motor sports. How would you compare the concept of sponsorship in Turkey with that in other countries?
I'd like to give you an example. My teammate Charpentier, for example, the 2006 world Supersport champion, has a lot of personal sponsors in his country, France. Maybe it's because here in Turkey we don't have any trademarks that compete globally. I showed signs of making a name in the world in the last three years. When I became world champion, there was of course an increase in the number of people who wanted to back me. As you know I even appeared in some commercials. The personal sponsorship agreements I've made with global brands are only slowly coming up to world standards and to the levels I'd like to see.
You've also raced in cross-country. Did your cross-country technique affect the development of your track technique, and if so how?
There's a different technique for each category. Cross-country is a kind of racing more under conditions of terrain and with obstacles. But the answer to your question is, yes, of course it did. Driving a motorcycle of any kind is an experience, even for the man in the street.
Apart from actually riding, do you do any training to stay in shape?
Yes, I work with equipment all the time to stay in shape. I have to watch my weight and keep fit. You race not just with your head but with your whole physique. Therefore you have to have a healthy mind and also a strong body. If there are no sports facilities where I am, I walk or run. In other words, I have to do sports, no matter what.
We've heard that you are also a skilled mechanic. At what stage in the race is that know-how useful?
Whenever I sense problems on warm-up and practice runs, I immediately talk with the mechanics and make sure everything is in tiptop shape. My knowledge of motors is more useful before the race. It helps me to race with an engine that's ready to go.
Besides continuing to be champion, do you have any dreams of future projects that would promote the development of motor sports in Turkey?
Yes, I do. I'm thinking of opening a school like the MotoGP Academy. Why shouldn't we have guys who race like those in Spain and Italy? For that I would like to open a racing academy in the future. I already have some plans and projects. But I think that in order to have a population that rides bikes and loves motor sports, you also have to give reliable driver education.