By MATTI HINTIKKA
What contemporary Finnish athlete has won 12 world
championships in his sport? Few Finns, even, could answer
the question. Although Juha Salminen, world champion in
motorcycling’s enduro racing, is one of his sport’s most dominant
athletes, he gets to walk in peace down the street.
he Sportswriters’ Association in longer and more comprehensive in English
Finland has been naming Finland’s than in Finnish. Not even in sport can you
athlete of the year for decades. A be a prophet in your own land.
motorcyclist has yet to receive the
honour. Salminen’s world titles have sufficed
a couple of times to put him among the top A minor sport
ten Finnish athletes in the correspondents’
balloting, and he was admittedly chosen the As a sport, enduro is very poorly known.
Helsinki region’s best athlete in 2002. It’s a motorcycle competition in which the
Within his sport, however, the recognition cyclists try to cope with the stated route
has definitely come. In Finland he has been within the framework of the timetable
chosen motor sports athlete of the year given, and to complete separate off-road
twice on the basis of public voting. Today, tests as quickly as possible. The principle
articles in Wikipedia constitute a yardstick is the same as in rally-racing, but an enduro
for judging an athlete’s fame, and as of this route – stretching as much as 80 kilometres
writing the Wikipedia entry for Salminen is – is off-road. In an enduro competition, the
Photo: JOUKO SALMINEN
In the sports media, enduro
world champion Salminen’s
name and picture rarely make
the front pages. Nor is there any
point in comparing his salary
to those of other motor sports’
The American Motorcyclist
Association acknowledged his
success by naming him 2005’s
”sports athlete of the year”.
Photo: EDMUNDS J. KTM IMAGES
driver also takes responsibility for servicing bike. For lack of time, he thus had to give up ish motocross championship in the open
his or her bike; in many better-known motor the love of his youth. class.
sports, dozens of mechanics and engineers ”I’m sure there’s no motorcycle sport Dusting off his old skills, Salminen rode in
swarm over the instrument of competition. where you need as much driving practice the last Finnish championship qualifier this
In the sports media, enduro champion as you do in trial.” autumn and won in his class.
Salminen’s name and picture rarely make He knows whereof he speaks.The enduro ”Trial’s useful for motocross and enduro,
the front pages. Nor is there any point in champ can also boast of competitive suc- but neither motocross nor enduro is of any
comparing his salary to those of other cess in motocross. use in trial,” he says.
motor sports’ champions – or even their ”In a way, motocross is the nicest motor- He compares the sports in a businesslike,
challengers. cycle sport. If I’d won as many world cham- analytical way. His talents would have al-
Nonetheless, Salminen’s choice of sport is pionships in motocross as enduro, the re- lowed him to contend for the world cham-
in fact based on pay. He began going in for spect would be on a totally different order. pionships in the other disciplines, too. His
motorcycling – trial motorcycling - when And if I drove for the money, enduro defi- final choice dates from ten years ago. When
he was four, and did well in that discipline, nitely would not be my choice of sports.” an offer was arranged for him to drive pro-
winning the Finnish junior championship fessionally for Austria’s KTM team, six-time
and representing Finland in the world world champion Kari Tiainen, then the
championship qualifying events. Having got Trial, motocross – and finally enduro king of Finnish enduro cyclists, exercised
his certification as a pipe-fitter and taken a significant background influence. In the au-
full-time job at a shipyard, he was forced to Salminen would hardly have brought up the tumn of 1998, Tiainen and Salminen shared
admit that it would be virtually impossible rear on the motocross tracks, either. In 2001 in the most traditional prize for enduro driv-
to continue competing in trial. On top of he helped the Finnish team win a silver ers, the World Trophy, which goes to the
an eight-hour work day, he would have to medal in the European team championship winning team in the International Six Days
spend another such stint practising on a competition.The next year he won the Finn- Enduro team event. In all Salminen has won
M o t i o n – S p o r t s i n F i n l a n d 2 / 2 0 0 7
the trophy five times as a member of the By MATTI HINTIKKA
It says something about his domination
that he won his third world title in enduro’s
smallest class in 2000, while meanwhile In Motor Sports, the Success
winning the overall competition against ri-
vals driving much more powerful bikes.
Just Keeps on Coming
Like so many other athletes who have
made it to the top, Salminen did well in sev-
eral sports in his junior years, even outside
of motor sports. He played ice hockey and
bandy – and played them well – on junior
teams in Helsinki. In bandy he reached the
men’s league level and the national junior
Motocross, which carries the risk of in-
juries, was the young boy’s first competi-
tive motor sport. Minor accidents occurred
often enough, however, that his father con-
cluded that it would be better to learn to
drive first and then give motocross a try.
Accidents have happened on enduro
routes, too.This past autumn, a bike’s motor
quit, jerking the bike to a stop, flinging the
driver over the handlebars and breaking his
collarbone in the crash.
”Stuff happens every so often – that’s the These days, the Finns’ traditional fortes in sport – athletics, skiing
nature of the sport,” he says. ”I’ve got to and wrestling – only give cause for celebration at the world
drive a long time without any crackups.”
championship level now and then. In motor sports, by contrast,
the Finns seem to win all the time.
Motorcycle athlete of the year
– in the United States
In 2005, the 11-time world champ took on
new challenges. He entered the U.S. Grand
National Cross-Country Series. Two seasons ith the 2008 season ahead, edge: Jari-Matti Latvala reached the po-
in North America produced championships the forecast looks promis- dium after a world championship qualifier
in both years. ing once again. Kimi Räik- for the first time in his career in November,
”You drive the GNCC races on a route könen will be driving For- at the Ireland rally.
that’s got wild jumps, mud, rocks, tight turns mula 1’s most legendary automobile, a Fer- In motorcycling, Mika Kallio is contend-
and merciless competition, cause they cram rari, adorned with the world champion’s ing seriously for the world title in track cy-
lots of racers onto a narrow track,” he de- competition number, 1. cling’s 250-cc class. Thus far only one Finn
scribes this slightly different tour. ”A typical Heikki Kovalainen managed splendidly has climbed that high – Jarno Saarinen,
lap of the circuit lasts about 30 minutes and in his first F1 season, demonstrating that who lost his life in an accident in Monza
you do five or six laps. A GNCC race is a the firm Finnish traditions in the king of in 1973.
speed race and a survival race.” motor sports will continue in years ahead, In motocross, too, the Finns are return-
In the States, motorcyclists keep to them- too. In 2008 he’ll be driving a McLaren car ing to the tempo of success they’ve known
selves, but Salminen convinced everyone as Lewis Hamilton’s teammate. Kovalainen in years past. In the 2007 season, in the
with his speed. The American Motorcyclist is the fourth Finn to join McLaren’s ranks. MX3 division, Jussi Vehviläinen managed a
Association acknowledged his success by The first three – Keke Rosberg, Mika Häk- world championship bronze, the first world
naming him 2005’s ”sports athlete of the kinen and Kimi Räikkönen – have all been championship medal to be won by a Finn in
year” – an honour ”presented annually to an world champions. motocross in 17 years.
individual who has, in the opinion of AMA Among future names in track racing, the The success of enduro drivers in 2008
Sports, dominated his or her amateur racing most interesting is indisputably Emma Kim- will bring smiles to the faces of Finnish fans
discipline”. iläinen, who, having finished secondary who like medals and championships. Gen-
”I knew I was a candidate, but as a for- school, will have a chance to concentrate erally, Finns have claimed more than one
eigner I didn’t believe I’d be the choice. on her competitive career. Will she become, enduro world championship each year.
When you become the first foreigner to be in a few years, the first Finnish woman to
chosen motorcycle athlete of the year in the have competed in an F1 car? The 2008 sea-
United States, maybe you’ve got to be satis- son will show us which way the winds are
fied with your season.” blowing.
Salminen has not escaped notice entirely In rally-racing, Marcus Grönholm ended
in his native country, either. This autumn a fine career with a silver-medal showing in
he was introduced on a popular TV sports the world championship series – better than
programme as ”the Paavo Nurmi of motor any former world champion to have retired
sports”. Comparison to the most success- before him. His teammate Mikko Hirvonen
ful athletics performer in Olympic history ended the 2007 campaign with a win in the
would be an honour for any Finnish ath- Wales rally, and looms as world champion
lete. Sebastien Loeb’s top challenger.
The next prospective champion from Fin-
land is already a matter of public knowl-