Racing The Gods

A brutally real account of Superbike racer Paul Ritter’s motorcycle crash and subsequent recovery from his injuries.

paul ritter autobiography, racing the gods
This book comes highly recommended, and it may shake some feelings loose inside that you didn’t know you had. Yeah, it’s that kind of good book.©Motorcyclist

Paul Ritter is a strong man with an iron will who has written a book called Racing The Gods. I wanted to read Racing The Gods because I thought it was about the early years of superbike racing. Mr. Ritter has really written two books in one. The first book deals with his Ducati roadracing career in the 1970s. That's a good book. It has all sorts of insider-only information that we, as spectators, could never know. I can relate to it because I was at many of his races in California. I like make-a-joke, bolt-A-into-hole-B motorcycle stories that do not tax my shallow, superficial worldview.

The second book is more than a good book. It's a book that burns down your shallow, superficial world. Nothing about it is easy. Nothing about it is fun. It is a brutally real account of Ritter's motorcycle crash and subsequent recovery from his injuries. Those injuries left Ritter paralyzed from the chest down. Any humor is necessarily gallows humor. I wanted rah-rah, knee-down hijinks and was unprepared for the raw honesty of Racing The Gods.

The second book isn’t all gloom and doom. Ritter shows us that life in the chair is not the end but a complicated beginning with all known reference points relocated. It’s truly heroic to see his transformation from hospital bed to fully functional human out and about in society.

Ritter is an engineer and approaches the struggle to adapt to life in the chair like an engineer: Identify the problem, come up with a solution, and implement the change. It’s the same method he used to become one of the best motorcycle racers in the US. Chapter after chapter, Ritter hammers away at the hard facts of living with paralysis. You’ll learn how to eat, how to love, and how to overcome a 2-inch bump in the sidewalk.

I was supposed to interview Ritter for this story, to try and rob that private piece of soul that Ritter did not lay bare in the book. After reading Racing The Gods I won't take any more from him; he bled enough on those pages. Ritter's clean, confident prose hurries you along. I read the book in one sitting, finally putting it down at 3:45 a.m. Afterward I sat and stared at the cover wondering if I could ever be such a man.

I can't conceive it. Racing The Gods has shaken my confidence. That tiny cord running through our spinal column is so very fragile. Every day we ride our motorcycles willfully ignoring the risk or maybe just ignorant of it. I'm not a brave man: I ride assuming it won't happen to me, but the wheelchair or the morgue has claimed many motorcycle riders, and only pure, dumb luck has kept me out of both.

Ritter was injured on a racetrack, but public streets are no safe haven. Racing The Gods made me question if riding a motorcycle is worth the danger and made me reconsider encouraging non-riders to become motorcyclists. They'll need to weigh the risks and take responsibility for that decision themselves.

Right about now you're probably mumbling, "Stop overreacting. You can get killed fluffing a pillow." Yeah, I know life is full of surprises, but certain activities really are more dangerous than others. Even so, Racing The Gods should be required reading for anyone applying for a motorcycle license—not to scare them off like those old auto-accident clips we watched in driver's ed class but to make new motorcyclists realize what a terrible gift we have been given.

The mark of a good book is the emotional reaction of the reader: Did it make you feel? By that measure Racing The Gods is a great book. It brought out emotions that I would rather leave unmolested. I'm still going to ride motorcycles and trust in dumb luck. And one day I'm going to ride over to see Mr. Ritter and shake his hand: I want to absorb that iron will by osmosis. And we'll talk then—not about the book or his injury but about Ducatis and racing and any other damn thing we please.