‘Some sponsors didn’t like my conservative lifestyle’
Kenan Sofuoğlu (PHOTOsunDAY’S ZAMAN, Turgut Engin)
Turkey’s most skilled motorcyclist, who won the title of World Supersport champion in 2007 and 2010, has now set to work to raise new Turkish motorcycle champions.
Kenan Sofuoğlu recently opened the doors of a training track that took two years to build in Akyazı, Sakarya province, to skilled young riders as part of the Red Bull Under My Wing Project event, held between Feb. 10-12, where he will also train budding motorcyclists.
Sofuoğlu mentioned 10 young motorcycle racers he finds to be skilled, and he is particularly impressed with two of them. “One of them is Harun Çabuk. I will give him complete support so that he can achieve something. I want to organize a 125cc Cup for 10 young riders I will select here in Turkey. I want to train them and prepare them for races in Europe. I have told the Turkish Motorcycle Federation [TMF] and my sponsor about my intentions. I can do this, but this time, the youngsters will have to pay some costs. You know motorcycling is an expensive sport. I don’t think the kids who come here will be able to cover the costs,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
For Sofuoğlu, a champion must be successful in all respects, and simply being able to ride a motorcycle is not enough. “His character must be robust as well. He must manage with whatever is provided to him. Making excuses such as ‘My tires were bad’ or ‘My engine was not good’ is not acceptable,” he said, noting that the young riders attending the training course in Sakarya are not very rich. “Yet I need kids who love this sport and who are passionate about it and who have no other alternatives.”
Sofuoğlu’s own racing track
Sofuoğlu invested roughly TL 2 million in the construction of a racing track that was named after him. An equal sum was provided by the Sakarya Metropolitan Municipality, he told Sunday’s Zaman. He is deeply grateful to Mayor Zeki Toçoğlu, who sponsored the construction of the track, and also the Sakarya Governor’s Office and the Akyazı Municipality. This track has already been included in future motorcycle championships in Turkey and will also host the Turkey leg of 2012 European Supersport Championship in September.
‘I slept in a semi-trailer truck while working at a Yamaha factory’
Sofuoğlu has been through a number of trials and tribulations in his life. His family survived the Marmara earthquake on Aug. 17, 1999, but lost almost all of its neighbors. “Life has its ups and downs,” he stated.
In 2002, I entered a special cup in Europe. My family invested all of our money in this race. At that time, my Dad sold all the motorcycles in our shop to pay the participation fee of 20,000 euros. My late big brother sold his car. Eventually, we managed to collect the money needed, and I went there and became the season champion. I had only one chance, but I took good advantage of it, thanks to God. In Germany, they named me the most skilled rider of the last 25 years at the Yamaha Cup,” he said.
However, despite winning this championship, there were still hard days ahead for Sofuoğlu and his family. “With my dad and my late elder brother, I tried very hard to find a sponsor. All of our sponsors first promised us but then let us down. I remember very clearly one time when we had a deal with a company for sponsorship. Representatives from the company came. They were to pay TL 40,000-50,000 as part of the sponsorship deal, but they canceled. When I asked why they had canceled it, a company representative told me: ‘It is not up to me. My manager does not want to do it. It was canceled because of your worldview’,” he commented. His family and his conservative identity had emerged as another obstacle to his dreams; however, this did not upset him, “I never felt sorry about it. In contrast, I felt a sort of pride. I am not one to change my character for money. I won’t plead with anyone or ask for money,” he said.
Sofuoğlu continued to chase his dreams with increased determination, and eventually found sponsors in Germany. “With the help of several German citizens, I managed to earn the world champion title. I didn’t earn a single dollar from 2001 to 2007. I worked as a mechanic at the Yamaha factory in Dusseldorf, to earn a living,” he explained.
He has one sponsor: an Austrian company
At the beginning, not only did the TMF prove to be an obstacle, it did not provide any support to Sofuoğlu. “The former head of the federation, Süleyman Memnun, caused much trouble for me. The federation didn’t even have money to get me a license. I don’t know what they were doing with the trillions of lira the state was giving them,” he said, and acknowledged that after Bekir Yunus Uçar was elected as the TMF head, motor sports in Turkey entered a golden era. “He managed to train dozens of racers. He facilitated entry to championships. He made facilities available to many racers and sent a number of them to race in Europe. His contribution is not just restricted to this, of course. Everyone loves him. The one who supported me most in life was my dad. I lost him in 2010. But Uçar didn’t let me down during my hardest time,” he said.
Sofuoğlu also proved his pride by refusing to take the sum of TL 600,000 and TL 800,000, which the betting company İddaa offered to pay him to sponsor him. News stories emerged saying he had done so because of his religious beliefs. “I didn’t refuse the money because I was already rich. I did so because I didn’t think it was proper to take such money. Everyone knows why,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. When he was reminded that one of the contributors to Ekşi Sözlük (Sour Times), a website where contributors comments on various issues and incidents in Turkey, suggested that he should have given the money to the Turkish national basketball team, especially to Hidayet Türkoğlu, he confirmed his proud stance, saying: “I won the world motorcycle racing champion title a few weeks after our basketball team’s victory. The prime minister gave them prizes. The prize I won was not even one-twentieth of the basketball team’s. But I never made this a problem and I won’t. Indeed, my state and my prime minister support me at all times. If the prime minister calls me on the phone and asks me how I’m doing, this is more precious to me than millions of dollars. When I had a slight accident, the prime minister phoned to tell me to get well soon. He congratulated me when I became the world champion.”
Although he has earned Turkey two world championships, Sofuoğlu has only one sponsor in Turkey. And it is the Austrian company Red Bull. “If the ministry and the current federation were not supporting me, I wouldn’t be able to take part in races abroad in 2012,” he said, adding that he will continue to race as long as the state supports him.