My First Race

Ian Johnston
Thursday, April 3, 2008

To see all the pictures I took, check in the gallery.

For more information on the bike I'm racing, see the CL175 page.

It's always darkest before the dawn

The day dawned dark and cold. That is to say, it started dark and cold -- dawn was still hours away. I awoke at 5:00 in the morning, ahead of the alarm. I hadn't particularly been sleeping in any case. I wish I could say it was because I was giddy like a schoolgirl for my first race day, but in truth I'd gone to bed thinking about wills and death, and that theme didn't leave me until after I was up in the morning. It wasn't a particularly restful sleep.

In any case, I got up, and checked over my preparations. I'd packed everything I thought I might need the night before: racing suit and associated safety gear, tools, spare parts, food, and so on. Jesse and I had loaded the bikes onto the truck the previous evening, amid fabulous sunshine -- we were kicking ourselves for not going down for Saturday practice, but the weather forecast had been horrible. On Friday, it'd snowed for hours.

It snowed copiously on Friday

Jesse with the loaded-up bikes on Saturday

Jesse, my friend who's been racing in 160 Vintage for several years, was scheduled to show up at my door at 6, and we'd be on our way to Convington. I crammed some breakfast down my throat and tried not to think defeatist thoughts. I was excited, but it was an excitement tempered by uncertainty.

He arrived a few minutes after 6, and we were quickly off after a stop at the gas station to fill the truck and Jesse's racing gas can. The drive down was uneventful, until we started getting near to the track.

The weather up at my house in North Seattle was acceptable: 80% cloud cover and cold, but otherwise unremarkable. As we traversed highway 18 eastbound, we started climing in altitude, until, perhaps 2 miles from the track, we passed some critical height and suddenly the side of the road was covered in ice and snow.

We arrive at the strangely empty track

We made it to the track without incident, although there was a bit more care taken with traction than might have otherwise been the case. Past the gate, we encountered our second surprise: there didn't seem to be any vintage racers. We drove around, past rows of modern bikes under minimalist tents, like glossy camels arrayed before a desert crossing. We didn't see a single vintage bike.

"Well, if there aren't any vintage folks here," said Jesse, "I don't want to race." I concurred as we drove on. Having completed a circuit of the main pit area, Jesse noticed a small grouping of tents and bikes in a far corner of the parking lot, several hundred yards from where we'd been used to finding the vintage crowd in previous years. It was in fact them, and we happily pulled up next to a convenient insta-shelter.

Look, snow everywhere!

More snow!

It was cold out there. There was snow clinging tenaciously to the trees, and slush in piles on the ground, where it'd slid off shelters. The lawn towards the track was covered with a crunchy crust of delicate icy spires, stretching between blades of grass.

Jesse was hesitant -- it looked absolutely awful for racing. Bikes (and much more importantly, tires) are happier in the heat than the cold. We crunched over the lawn, to stand on the nearest grandstand and look at the track surface. The grandstand was covered in an inch of crunchy, icy, granular snow. The track, however, was basically bare. Wet, but clear of anything that looked like snow or ice.

Jesse didn't need too much convincing to go sign up, so we headed over to the registration tent. Misjudging the solidity of the ground, I managed to dunk my shoe up to the ankle in fine mud trying to get across to the pavement. I managed to get the majority of it off before it hardened into an impenetrable shell of dirt around the leather.

Tenative first steps in bureaucracy

Registration presented an interesting challenge: I didn't have a race license. This is the business-card sized laminated card which lists your bike number, but more importantly, your member number. All the other novices had their licenses in the mail after faxing in their on-track completion certificates. For vintage novices, though, things were different. We weren't expected to take the on-track class, due to the dramatic and potentially frightening speed differential between modern racebikes and vintage bikes. Now take that speed differential (in excess of 80 MPH on the straightaway), and compound it with novice riders who are applying for their race licenses. Disaster would naturally ensue.

So, I didn't take the on-track class, but this left me without a license. They were finally able to sort it out, and handed me my paperwork. The girl pointed me to the next table, and said, "You need to get your packet still." So, I got my packet, but hung around to ask about the AWOL race license. The answer? "Check your packet." Indeed, there it was. So, in order to get my registration, I had to have my packet. In order to get my packet, I needed to go through registration. Hmm. I have a feeling that the next class of vintage novices will have an easier time.

Next up, it was time to get the bikes through tech inspection. I was a bit nervous about this -- I'm a fastidious mechanic, and I believed I'd complied with all the rules, but I was afraid I must have missed something. Jesse and I piled our gear atop our bikes and walked them down to the tech inspection station. Apparently this is a place of long lines under normal circumstances, but with the weather producing snow and ice, turnout was understandably somewhat low.

My bike passed tech with flying colors, which was very pleasing. Turns out I didn't miss anything.

Back to the pits, and up on the stands. Jesse and I weren't able to complete my race stand before the race, so I was using jackstands, the poor man's race stand. They work, and I already owned them.

Our first riding event was the Group 2 slow practice, at 9:30. Before that, we had to attend the rider's meeting, which was a less formal thing than I'd been expecting. It covered the various flags that might be waved, and starts. Everyone was bundled up against the cold, many clutching paper cups of coffee as if their very lives depended upon the hot liquid contained inside. Perhaps they did.

At some point between the rider's meeting and the first practice session, I ran into Cogs and his girlfriend, who's racing with the vintage novices this year. There was some confusion about whether she'd be allowed to race, since she hadn't been there the previous day for a required on-track session. Wait a minute, thought I, I wasn't here either!

We sought out Joel, one of the novice mentors, and he confirmed that there had in fact been a mandatory session the previous day. Neither Tamra(?) nor I had understood that from any of the communication we'd received, although Joel clearly thought he'd said it in the emails he sent. We set off for registration to clear up the situation.

On the way there, Joel questioned me and Tamra about our previous experience on the track. I mentioned that I'd taken a track day last year, and he seemed to think that that would solve the problem for me. Indeed, after walking to registration and back and eventually talking to the referee near the vintage area, it all seemed to be sorted out. I wasn't sure what had been done, but it had, and it seemed that I was clear to race. Tamra declined, as her bike was being balky in any case. Another snag to sort out in the new novice process. Vintage folks seem to get the short end of that particular stick, since there are so few of us.

Onto the track with you!

Then it was back to the pits to await our time. It arrived with surprising speed, and I ended up hurrying to get into my suit and helmet in time. Fortunately, I'd already started the bike and gotten it warmed up (riding back and forth in an empty section of parking lot for the first time since stripping off the street gear), so at least I didn't have to spend a bunch of effort running around alongside the bike, jumping on the seat, and cursing as I tried to coordinate it all with dropping the clutch.

Jesse, Ian Halcott (who runs Twinline Motorcycles, where I did my dyno testing) and I headed out in a little group to find practice already underway, so we shot onto the track and were off.

Jesse quickly passed Ian, but shortly after he did, Ian and I were passed by several other bikes, which dissuaded me from trying a pass quite yet. These were still my first moments on the track, and I wasn't too keen on causing anyone else to crash. So, I ended up following Ian around for several laps.

Unfortunately, Ian's bike wasn't running as well as mine (something about spending too much time working on customer's bikes, he said later, with a nod at my bike and a certain dyno gleam in his eye), which combined with my unwillingness to pass to give me several much slower laps than I'd wanted. Jesse was long gone.

Finally, Ian seemed to be having more issues at the start of the front straight, and I passed him despite a bizarro-world shift from 2nd to 1st instead of 3rd. I recovered, and was past him. He said later he'd missed a shift as well.

Around this time, I noticed the "debris on track" flag standing at all corners, so I started paying more attention to the track surface. The flags were waving in turn 5 and 7, and the corner workers urged me toward the right side of the track. I complied, and spied several oil spots forming rainbows on the wet pavement.

You! Black flag! Yes, you!

As I rounded turn 9, there seemed to be some kind of shuffling going on at the corner station. As I passed the start/finish line, I saw a black flag, and my bike number on a reader board. This is the indication that you're dropping crap on the track, so I launched my left hand in the air (lacking brake lights, this is the universal sign for "something's wrong, I'm slowing down" on the track), and pulled over just after turn 1.

The corner worker there trotted over and said they thought I might be dropping oil on the track, causing those rainbow spots I'd seen half a track ago. We looked over the bike, but it seemed to be clean. "Ok," he said, "good job stopping on that black flag, you can get back on the track."

There was only time for one more lap before the checkered flag, and I headed back to my pit area. I was pleased with how the riding session had gone, although the rush to get into my suit bothered me -- I prefer not to be rushed, particularly when I have control over whether or not I'm rushed.

The riding itself was productive and frustrating at the same time. Aside from my track day last year, I've never spent any time on the track, and the idea of being able to practice corners and lines over and over again is still unfamiliar. As a result, I found myself experimenting with different ways of riding, but in the same way a toddler experiments with walking, and with about the same general rate of success. I need to develop a more methodical approach, but before I do, I need to develop the mental language to define the methods and variations.

Commence waitin'

Our next session was the first race heat, at 1:45 -- about 4 hours away. I shuffled out of the leather suit (having managed to get it on over a full set of thermal underwear and my wool sweater, which kept me from turning into an ice cube as I hurtled through the frigid air), and back into the street clothes.

Jesse prepares some tea

Vintage bikes, all in a row

Since there was such a long time to pass, there was a great deal of visiting going on, and I discovered that Ian had an oil leak on his bike. "Oh yeah," I said, "I got black-flagged for that!" We had a good chuckle at that, as the oil slowly seeped across the ground, creating pretty rainbow patterns. Ian told me that he was pulling out of the race, since the bike wasn't safe on the track. I felt bad for him -- it's no fun to show up to your first race only to not race due to technical problems.

I recognized many of the racers from the last time I'd been at the track, a couple years ago. I also saw a bunch of new faces, some recognizable from the novice class, and some completely new. Most of the new people ended up being from Portland, and I was able to meet Bradford and Jeff (of the people whose names I still remember).

Our little shelter ended up being a de facto lunch spot as Tim came over to chat, and we gathered a crowd of people who joined in. It was quite congenial. Next time we'll have to bring more chairs -- we'd brought an extra this time, and it was almost always filled. Certainly I recall from before, really wanting to be able to sit and never really finding anywhere to do it.

The snow finally starts melting

Other Ian's unhappy leaking bike

As we sat and chatted, the air warmed imperceptably, but the snow and ice started disappearing. By the time I looked up again around 11, the trees were clear. My cold sandwich tasted good; I realized I'd been awake for 6 hours already, and had eaten breakfast five and a half hours earlier. The hot cider I'd poured into a thermos disappeared before 10, and I was very glad to have it.

I did a few minor adjustments on the bike during our long downtime. The biggest was to adjust the shift lever up a little bit, since it'd seemed a bit low during the practice session. Everything else seemed to run fine. I filled the gas tank a bit, since I couldn't tell how far down it was, and running out of gas on the track would be a silly reason to call over the crash truck for a lift. It was very gratifying to know that all the work I'd put in on the bike in the preceding 6 months was paying off.

Race 1! Go! Wait... Where are you going?

Finally, one o'clock passed, and I started fidgeting to put on my riding gear so as to avoid being late again. I was suited up by 1:30. The day had warmed slightly, and the sun was even starting to peek through the clouds, but I left all my insulation in place. It had kept me merely cool in the morning, and I'd rather be a bit too warm than to cold.

Then, it was time to get moving. I strapped on my helmet, and took the bike off its high-class stands. I rolled out toward the grid area, dropped the transmission into 1st, and tried dropping the clutch. The tire just slid, and I remembered that I had to put my weight on the seat at the same time, and tried that. No luck. A third try also failed. There was some kind of commotion behind me, and I turned to look: Ian and someone else were offering to push me, but between the rush and the earplugs, I didn't really understand what they were doing. I felt the bike tug at my leg. I looked down, and my left footpeg was bent back at a sickening angle, clearly unrideable.

Ian shouted, "Hold on!" and kicked it back forward when I showed signs of not knowing what to do. The first kick wasn't enough, so he kicked it again, and once more for good measure. I wasn't fast enough to warn him off, and the shift lever bent inward, putting a kink in the linkage rod. I stopped and stared at the now non-functional shift mechanism. It'd be a quick fix to bend it back to normal, but I didn't really have the tools.

Cursing profusely under my breath, I turned the bike around and headed back to our pit area, where I searched in vain for a pair of channel-lock pliers. I briefly considered just sitting out the race, but when I wiggled the shifter, I realized it was still functional. The peg received another precision kick to stop it from drooping so much, and I launched towards the grid area. The whole bent-peg fiasco probably only lasted a minute or two, but it felt like aeons.

I got to the track entrance to find that I wasn't too late -- people were still stacked up waiting for the GO signal for the warm-up lap. I noticed Jesse sitting off to the side. Nothing was obviously wrong, but it looked like he wasn't planning on racing.

Then the board turned over to GO, and we roared out onto the track. For the first time, I was following actual fast riders around the track. It didn't last long, and I trailed into the grid last. Fortunately, I'd planned on putting myself at the back of the starting grid, since I know I'm a tenative rider, and didn't want to get in anyone else's way.

It looked like we were set up for a wave start, and that combined with the discussion of wave starts in my head to cause me to pause several seconds after the start signal. I finally realized everyone else was rolling, and started off after them, any question of starting technique lost to bigger questions of "do I go yet?"

Between the scramble to figure out my bend-o-matic peg, and the deeply flawed start, I felt like I was playing catch-up for the whole race. Of course, there was no way to actually catch up. I rode the whole race in my own little bubble of solitary uncertainty, occasionally passed by another faster rider, who quickly disappeared around the next bend.

Problems arise

It seemed that the bent footpeg was having an unexpected effect: I couldn't easily upshift. I figured it was still bent backwards a little, and I couldn't lever my foot against it to shift. As a result, shifting up to the next gear was a whole-leg exertion, and each upshift had to be completed laboriously and with the whole bike wobbling slightly from the disturbance.

On one of the laps, I managed to drag my toe slider around turn 9. This was disturbing mostly because it was my super un-subtle reminder that I wasn't hanging off enough. Or, you know, at all. The angle of the bike to the ground can be altered drastically by shifting weight to the inside of the corner, and if you don't perform this weight shift, the bike runs out of cornering clearance pretty quickly.

I made a mental note to shift my weight more in corners, but this desire was hampered by my footpegs: I was using the old passenger pegs, as supplied by the Honda factory some 36 years ago. In the intervening decades, the bike has probably seen its fair share of the outdoors, with the result that what was once nice, grippy rubber now has roughly the surface texture of teflon. As a result, my left foot (with the footpeg still presumably at some kind of odd angle) was slipping around on the peg, giving the distinct impression that if I tried to put weight on it, I stood as good a chance of sliding off as of actually lifting my weight off the seat.

With this uncomfortable mental image firmly in mind, I rode the rest of the race trying to lean my shoulders inward at least, but unable to do the full shift as I wanted to. At least my cornering clearance improved a little.

By the end of the race, I was tired. My face had been burning-hot the entire time, probably due to the initial fluster of the bent peg combining with the anxiety-dream quality of being late to the first race. My body was the right temperature, so at least the insulation under my well-ventilated leather suit was doing its thing. I stopped at the hot tech (where they quickly glance over your bike to make sure you haven't dropped any parts or started leaking anything), and was waved on to the pits.


Post-race cooldown... No, wait, go again! Now!

"How'd you do?" inquired Jesse. He already had his helmet off, and it took me about 10 minutes to remember that he'd been pulled off to the side and probably didn't race. I told him about the peg-bending and the shifting with the entire leg. It was a story I'd end up parroting at least five more times, in that excited, breathless way of little boys who've just seen their first monkey in a zoo.

I ran around asking for channel-lock pliers until I was loaned a pair by Isaac, Ian's employee at Twinline, who was also racing with us. With care not to go too far, I bent the now-tortured footpeg plate back to something approaching straight. "I gotta fix this," I thought to myself. The peg was visibly drooping further down than when I'd started, suggesting that just the act of riding was bending it.

At some point between the first and second race, I thought to myself, "I should go check the grid sheet." I completely failed to follow up on this thought, and ended up heading for the second race with no clue where I was gridding. This is, at best, inconsiderate to others, and I felt like a complete newbie. When we stacked up waiting to funnel into the track entrance area, the grid board was set at such an angle that I simply couldn't make out any of the numbers on it. At least I was there on time, and didn't feel so rushed.

The second start, I was on board with how things should be working, and I actually found myself advancing a little in the pack. I was holding back, since anyone I passed would just have to pass me again, but even so I squeaked past at least one rider who was going even slower than I was.

I watched the fast riders disappear around turn 2, and by the end of turn 4, most of the other racers were out of sight. Interestingly, while I was following them, I was much more comfortable around 2, and took it faster than at any other time that day. I think it was my brain registering, "Wait, if they can go that fast, then so can I!"

For one of the laps, I was mysteriously right behind Jesse, and actually managed to keep close to him for half the lap, and kept him in sight for the next three-quarters lap. This was an accomplishment, as Jesse is without a doubt a faster rider than me, although he was off his game a bit for that first day.

I found that the act of upshifting was again onerous, particularly as the muscle group that was responsible for lifting my leg from the hip (the only way I could actually get my foot on the shifter, which I'd clearly adjusted too high, as the correctly-aligned peg didn't help) was now weary. Each upshift seemed to drain something from me, and the lap times reflected it, getting progressively slower from the second lap onward.

By the end of the second race, I was fatigued enough that I was glad to be getting off the track. My wrists burned from maladjusted bars, my left leg was sore, and my neck felt bunched up from craning up to see forward as I leaned over the tank. Hot tech. Pit. Bike on stand. Breathe.

The initial weirdo scores

The other vintage folks seemed to be evaporating, now that the final race was over. Bradford, from Portland, came over and asked us about our finishing positions, concerned that there'd been bizarre and non-sensical scoring going on. Everything looked fine for me, but a large number of people had crashed in the second race, and the scorers had assigned them finishing places instead of DNFs for Did Not Finish. This shifted things around uncomfortably, and I was unsurprised to see that due to the confusion I went from gaining 6 points (assigned by a method approaching voodoo as far as I could tell) to 2 by the time it was sorted out.

Jesse and I, truck packed back up, bade the few remaining racers farewell, and headed back up to Seattle, the discussion revolving around the events of the day.

But what did you learn?

I learned that I need to make some serious ergonomic modifications to that bike. The footpeg plates are 2mm mild steel, which apparently has a yield strength around 500 psi. This resulted in them bending if I looked at them wrong, usually downward. Bent downward, they tended to shuck my feet off like the horror movie hero flicking away the pesky detached hand of the zombie he just dismembered. Combined with the slick "rubber" on the pegs and my body's own special desire not to fold up quite far enough, this made riding particularly uncomfortable.

The handlebars need to be rotated back down, to a more comfortable angle. Unfortunately, before I do that, I need to add some material to the stops to decrease the lock-to-lock swing. Right now, my bars would hit the tank if they were in the right position, which is a no-no.

By the end of the second race, my fancy plywood seat was clearly inadequate to the task. It wasn't so much the seat itself as the mounting method, which was nowhere near sturdy enough for my bulk when combined with the twisting and shifting I will want to do.

I need to get an adjuster bolt welded to my shiny new brake pedal, to allow me to lower it for a better fit with my foot angle while on the bike. That shouldn't be too hard, mostly a matter of welding a nut onto the plate and threading a bolt through it to push the pedal down about an inch.

Interestingly, what I don't need to do to the bike is anything very technical. The engine performed very well, the transmission was flawless (my klunky, failed whole-leg upshift attempts aside), and the suspension felt fine. The tires gripped like nothing else. The brakes worked about as well as I'd expected.

I think I'm going to pursue a smaller rear sprocket, to match what everyone else is running. I have a 42 tooth, most other people seem to be running with a 38. That will decrease my acceleration out of the corners, but increase my top speed. I definitely noticed that I was running out of RPM too early both out of corners and in the straight, so I think it'll be a good modification.

For the next race, I'm going to try taping over the tachometer. I'd left it on thinking it'd be handy to have a reference for when I was into redline, but I found myself glancing at it far too often. My attention was therefore divided between riding the bike and trying to figure out whether I should upshift or not -- not a concern I normally have. By letting my brain get in the way of shift point, I was upshifting too late, on the far side of the power peak. Of course, it didn't help that upshifts were dramatically more effort than they should have been.

Overall, I'd call it a very successful weekend. I didn't crash, the bike didn't die, and I didn't come away feeling like crap because of competition. Those were my primary concerns. And, of course, I didn't need to worry about the last will and testament that'd been plaguing my dreams the night before.

Copyright 2008 by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.