Race report, May 3rd and 4th 2008

Posted May 6, 2008

This is a two-parter. For day one, I was a corner worker, working off my volunteer requirements to graduate as a novice. For day two, I was actually on a bike, sort of. Read on.

For all the pictures I took (not very many, and all of Sunday), see the gallery.

Day 1: Workin' corners

Every novice racer has to do two volunteer stints -- one working corners, and one either setting up or tearing down airfence. I did my airfence duty a few weeks ago, and the first day of this weekend was my day for corner working.

Corner working involves standing around, and watching the passage of bajillions of motorcycles. Then one of them messes up in some way, at which point you spring up and start doing things. One person is on the radio, and nominally in charge of flags, and any other people are the "actives" -- the people who run around doing things. I was an active, paired up with someone who'd had more experience and was on the radio.

We had our little intro meeting, which was sort of scattered, since Liz, the corner captain, was sort of scattered. All the important information was more or less passed on (and I remembered some from reading about corner working before), and we were off to our corners.

For the race, each corner (there are about 10 stations) is staffed. The reason is, if a racer goes down in that corner, you need people there to wave a flag ("Watch out, danger ahead!") for oncoming riders, call the crash into race control, and to help the racer. My job was to run out and help anyone who fell down, or help clean up any messes once the track stopped being full of high-speed bike.

We got set up, and Novice practice was up first. Lots of bikes whizzing by. It was kind of thrilling to be there, part of the race that I don't normally participate in (I really like doing behind-the-scenes work, which explains all the theater stuff, too). Curt (my corner partner) and I were situated up on a little hillock on the inside of the corner, in a shelter constructed of 2x4s and corrugated plastic-sheet roof.

Then, suddenly, my eyes were sweeping over the corner (we were in corner 5, if you know the track), when they were arrested by the sight of a bike that wasn't moving right, and generating far too many sparks. I had a brief impression of someone with his arms in the air like he was on a roller-coaster. It was almost like watching a video, except that now, I had to run down and help!

I crossed the track in a lull, and ran over to the guy, who had gotten up. He was asking odd questions about the crash (only odd until you realize that he didn't really see what happened, being a bit too close), but seemed otherwise fine. We were in an impact zone, which is a bad place to be, but I wasn't sure how to proceed. The joys of being the new guy.

The rider and I spent a minute or two examining his bike, which was smoking and in considerably worse shape than before he'd hit this corner. The rear tire, conspicuously, was covered in oil, and it looked like his bike had dumped it.

This crash hadn't affected anyone else, and the practice was still going on, so there was a constant stream of bikes. Finally there was a lull, and we dashed across to the non-impact side of the track.

When the practice concluded, Curt and I ran out and scattered some oil-absorbent on the patch of slickness laid down by the ailing bike, but it was a half-hearted effort. It wasn't until the rest of the track crew materialized that the real clean-up began: 6 guys frantically scrubbing this powder (which may have been ash) into the oil stain with pushbrooms, while another person followed along behind them with a leaf-blower, blowing a cloud of powder off the track. Our corner was full of parked cars and trucks with flashing lights, all under a pall of kicked-up dust.

With surprising speed, the oil was cleaned up, and people loaded back into trucks and drove off. I had helped push the disabled bike onto the crash truck, receiving an admonishment that I should have had it ready at the side of the track, instead of sitting on its side in the runoff area. Check. Next time. I was also admonished not to turn my back to traffic, which I had done repeatedly and with wild abandon while talking to the guy who fell down. Righto. Next time.

We were back to normal, and the next practice ran -- Group 2, Slow Practice. This is the one containing all the Vintage 160 riders, plus some others who are slow but not novices. The only excitement during that practice was fellow slow-rider Tamra pulling over, her bike having given up the ghost. It was later declared to be a broken camshaft, the self-same problem that had happened to her boyfriend's bike just the week before.

The weather during this time was pleasant, almost warm. It was overcast, but fairly light. A very nice day. There was the occasional hint of wind, but not much.

More practices. This time medium-slow practice. Then medium fast. Then fast. Every once in a while, someone would mess up in turn 6, and we'd pull out the yellow caution flag and wave it at the oncoming riders. No one else had a crashing problem in turn 5, although occasionally someone would pull over with a mechanical problem. At one point I ran across to instruct someone on a modern bike to pull behind the corner station, and got to check out his little tiny rear-view camera, which played on a little screen on his tank, so he could see who was coming up behind him.

One exciting thing for me was watching the sidecars practice. Racing sidecars are freaky-looking things, more like Formula One cars than motorcycles -- wide, flat tires, swooping aerodynamic bodywork, and the sidecar is little more than a platform with handles around it, and a "monkey" (as they're called) climbing around like... well, a monkey. The monkey throws their weight to the inside of the turn, keeping the whole rig from getting unbalanced. This involves hanging by one hand, your bum or helmet an inch above the pavement, then scampering to the other side for the next curve. It actually looked like a lot of fun, in an athletic sort of way.

Then, the races started.

The only problem? It had started raining. Hard. The last few practices were nearly empty. The sidecars weren't willing to run with the rain coming down (too easy to hydroplane, which is a really bad idea on a track that's all curves and 30-150 mph).

But the racers came out -- racing is where you get points. No points for getting a soaking in practice, but then no points if you wimp out just because the track's a little wet when your race is up. And surprisingly, they mostly didn't crash. A wet track is a great skid pad, but doesn't offer as much traction as you really want when leaning a motorcycle at crazy angles and trying to go faster than everyone else.

Jesse had decided to come out to the corner with me after lunch, since his riding was over for the day, and he was my ride home. He came to regret that decision, as the day got colder and wetter. Then the roof of our little shelter started to leak. By the end of the day, only 1/4 of the floor was actually dry.

The rest of the day really only exists as a vague memory of shivering, avoiding the dripping roof, and once leaping out to help someone who went down in our corner. Then, finally, it was over, and we could go back. Jesse and I piled into the truck, and headed up to the barbecue planned by one of the 160 guys.

Day 2: The Racin'

Sunday dawned, as usual, far too early. I was awake at 5. I'd told Jesse I wanted to leave at 6:45 or 7. What I neglected to explain was why: I had a little work to do on the bike getting things safety wired, and registration now closes at 8:30, before the rider's meeting. So, I wanted to get there before 8, so I'd have time to do my wiring and go through registration and tech without having to freak out.

This was, unfortunately, almost exactly what didn't happen. I was ready and waiting by 6:30. I was still munching on breakfast, but I didn't figure Jesse would show up early -- he usually goes much later, sometimes rolling in at 8:29, and bolting to the manatory rider's meeting just in the nick of time on Sundays. I figured he'd show up around 7 or a bit after. It would still be enough time.

So, I wasn't concerned when 7 came and went. Then 7:10. I was starting to get a bit worried. Then 7:20 passed, and I was definitely anxious -- but surely he was on his way, right? Finally, at 7:25, I decided it was better to make sure he was aware of the situation, and I called.

"Hey, I was just getting ready to head out the door," he said. I explained, trying to keep the tension out of my voice, that registration closed at 8:30, and that I still had to do that and go through tech. "Oh," he said. "That's not how it's used to be." I agreed, and he said, "I'll be there in a few minutes."

We were rolling by 7:45, an hour later than I'd wanted to leave.

We rolled into the track at 8:20, so I still had plenty of time to get through registration. I had him drop me off near the registration area to save time, and I got myself signed in. I just barely had time to get back to my bike and start applying wire before the airhorn sounded for the rider's meeting. I left the can of safety wire and the pliers sitting on the seat of my bike, and we walked back to the rider's meeting.

It was the standard spiel, most of which either didn't apply to me, or I already knew. Unfortunately, it also ran fairly long, and we didn't start walking back until nearly 9 o'clock.

Rushed much?

I was running through the schedule in my head as I walked briskly (and eventually jogged) back to my bike: we had a practice session at 9:20. It was just about 9. It takes me about 5 minutes to change into my racing gear. That left me 15 minutes to apply safety wire (a 3 minute job, maybe 4), walk the bike and my gear to the tech inspection and back (8 minutes round trip) and actually have the inspection.

I blazed through the wiring I had to do, and snatched up my gear bag and helmet. Jesse offered to help me carry stuff back to the tech inspection area, and we walked very briskly in that direction. But. It was closed. The little line of cones was gone. I was trying hard to keep my temper in check, making snarky comments to Jesse about how they can't close, it's tech inspection! They have to be available through the day, to re-tech crashed bikes! They can't close!

Fortunately, Jesse was able to locate an inspector, and he did the quickest tech inspection I've ever had. He said, "Safety wire that master link," pointing at my chain, but put the sticker on my bike, and I was off back to the pits. I could feel the time ticking away.

I figured, as long as I was walking the bike briskly back to my pit, I might as well get it started -- they get bump-started anyway, so all that rushing-back energy could be put to good use. I switched on the petcock and the kill switch, and pulled the choke up. The bike started with gratifying ease, and I was able to ride it the rest of the way back to our pit. I switched off the kill switch and the petcock, but saw to my dismay that the side of the engine was wet: there was fuel all over it. The petcock, which had occasionally dripped the odd drip of fuel, had poured a veritable cascade of fuel over the engine.

That's fine! I thought to myself. It always fixes itself! Get dressed! Wire masterlink! I had perhaps 4 minutes until the practice started. I wrapped some safety wire around the masterlink, and got into my leather suit in record time, the petcock entirely forgotten in the rush.

All suited up, and dripping sweat with the effort (it was still cold, but I was most of the way to overheated from rushing), I pushed the bike off its fancy new stand, turned the petcock on, and... time slowed. I watched with terrified fascination as a film of gasoline oozed over the bottom of the petcock, and formed a slow-motion drop, which fell slowly to the engine case. There, it splashed, and I could see the little tendrils of gasoline reaching out to coat the case in flamable liquid.

Hah! No riding for you!

Time sped up again. I watched drop after drop form and fall onto the engine, each one sealing my doom further. There would be no morning practice for me. Taking that bike out on the track in that condition would be begging for a fire. No riding was worth finding myself atop a couple of gallons of flaming gasoline. A drop of sweat fell off my head, as if in sympathy with the falling gas. With unuttered curses flying across my consciousness, I switched the gas off, and put the bike back on its stand.

Tamra joined me. Her bike was down with a busted camshaft, so she was done for the weekend. I took off my helmet, shrugged out of the upper half of my suit, and gently steamed. We discussed what was going on. Given that I would be riding later in the day, and she definitely wouldn't, she was very philosophical about the whole thing. Eventually, I changed back into my normal clothes, and got up to look at the problem.

Joel and Ian (of Twinline), with Ian's bike foreground
I drained out the gas (since if you take the petcock apart, it all comes out anyway, except it heads straight for your face), which took the better part of 15 minutes, sitting crouched next to the bike, balancing the gas can and the funnel in the cramped space under the petcock. I took it apart. Looked fine to me.

Fortunately, by this time, everyone was back from their practice, and Ian (of Twinline) had set up next to us. I asked him what he knew about leaking petcocks, and he explained the problem: the petcock surface is supposed to be flat to seal against the internal washer, and mine was well-grooved with the wear of 35 years. So, I pulled out my trusty multitool, which includes a fine file, and set about carefully flattening the thing.

That plus some green scrubby pad someone had were enough to produce a sealing surface on the valve/handle, and when I reassembled it, there was nary a weep of gasoline to be seen. Huzzah! Gotta love track-side fixes. I believe vintage racing is full of them.

The first heat

So then, it was just a matter of waiting. And waiting. Our first race wasn't until 12:50, the first race after lunch. But everything seemed to be in order, and I was ready in plenty of time. Too much time, in fact -- I was sitting there with my helmet on, Ready to Go, for 10 minutes, before I pulled it off again, feeling foolish. Finally, the horn blew, and I got myself back together, and onto the bike.

Little camera on forward-looking mount
I'd set up this fancy new camera I got on the forward mount, so it would record everyone disappearing ahead of me. Jesse had suction-cupped the camera to his bike on Saturday, but the videos were zero-length for some reason. I was going to give it another try, figuring maybe the different mounting method would eliminate the vibration we figured had caused the problem before.

Lunch time at the vintage pits
Tire warm-up lap. I basically kept up with people, but I was riding fairly hard, and I knew they weren't really trying. We gridded up, me actually in my assigned grid position for the first time. This time, it was a wave start, which was made obvious by the guy standing in front of us, holding his hand up in the air with two fingers raised -- second wave. The first wave went, and Mr. 2 bolted for the side of the track, vaulting it as if we were on the verge of running him down. Perhaps we were.

The starting board went sideways, then the light went out -- we were off! Only.. I kind of wasn't! I nearly stalled the bike, but got it moving a second later, only a little bit behind everyone else. Everything was going as well as I could have hoped, until I became gradually aware that my right foot wasn't finding the brake pedal. Finally, on the second lap (everyone was well out of sight at this point, so there was little urging me to keep up), between turns 3 and 4, I glanced down and saw the brake pedal dangling jauntily off the bottom of the bike.

I went through turn 4, thoroughly distracted, unable to decide if I should pull off, or keep going. I decided finally to keep going: it hadn't hit anything so far, and I'd been around a couple curves where it should have. A rear brake isn't all that necessary, is it? I made it through 6, which was another curve that should have touched the brake down if it was going to be a problem, but there was nothing.

Coming around turn 9, I reluctantly decided that it probably wasn't the cleverest thing to be riding around the track with bits hanging off, and pulled off toward the pits to see what was going on. I leaned off, and there was the pedal, dangling from its actuator rod. It probably wasn't in any danger of falling any further off, but it seemed to epitomize "bad idea" to keep racing, so I headed back to the pits (causing the hot-tech guys to scramble up; they thought they had 5 more minutes to hang out before bikes started rolling past). One of them pointed at the brake pedal, and I said, "Yeah, that's why I'm here!" He slapped my back, and I was back to the pits.

Well, this is a fine mess

Indeed, the pivot bolt for the pedal was long gone. I had looked at it when I installed it, weeks earlier, and thought to myself, "I need to safety wire that bolt, or it's going to be gone in a heartbeat." Then I never did. Le sigh. I grabbed a bolt out of Jesse's spare-bolt jar, applied a liberal dose of red Loctite (which is sufficiently like safety wire that I figured it'd see me through the second race, at least), and put it all back together.

Dangling brake pedal
My view between turn 3 and 4
Dangling brake pedal

By this time, my frustration with the bike was rising. It was, of course, aided by the fact that I had failed to do the right thing, so I couldn't even rail against the vintage gods for their trials. First the petcock (honestly not my fault, and not even something I would have known how to fix without Ian telling me it wasn't supposed to be all grooved like that) kept me out of practice, then the stupid bolt made me leave the first race early. Great, a DNF (Did Not Finish) for my first heat of the day.

On top of that, when I got back to the pits, I checked the camera. I was curious to see how the recording had turned out, but it had the little camera equivalent of a rigor-mortis smile plastered on its little digital face: it was frozen, just as had happened to Jesse the day before. I reluctantly prodded buttons and finally pulled the batteries, which we'd determined the day before definitely results in a zero-length file. Feh.

Arash performs minor surgery on his bike between heats
This was roughly the point at which I became aware that I wasn't really having any fun, at all. The day had been rushed, then dull, then aggravating in turns. I'd barely gotten out on the track, which was the whole point. Everything seemed to be going wrong.

Jesse checking bolts
Ok, I thought, I've still got the second heat. So I made sure everything was right. I set up the camera on the back mount, and got it all leveled out and pointed straight, as best I could. I filled the tank with fuel. I checked the timing, and shimmed the sparkplugs, which were hitting the pistons. Not ideal, but the immediate problem was solved.

Somewhere in here, my friend Jeniffer showed up with her friend Allison. I called her over, and we chatted for a few minutes. She was excited to be there, and had brought her camera with her, to take pictures of all the racing. They didn't stay long, since they were there to spectate, not hang about chatting. Still, it was a breath of fresh air for me to focus on being social rather than how frustrating the day was so far.

The second heat

All too soon, it was time, and I was pulling on my gear for the final heat of the day. Finally, everything seemed to be going right. The bike was running fine, I wasn't rushed, maybe I'd get a decent race in. Of course, the little camera had carefully gotten itself frozen before I even started the bike. I tried to revive it as I was rolling out, and realized that exactly the last thing I should be doing was messing around with a device practically guaranteed to make my mood worse. I left it grinning its frozen grin.

The second heat went well, in the sense that I finished it, and the bike seemed to basically work. Unfortunately, I also discovered what I had only been partially aware of before: the bike seems underpowered. At least coming out of turn 4, which is slightly uphill, everyone else just left me in the dust. I'm willing to believe it's my skill level causing that, but it really seemed like my bike was down on power compared to everyone else. This only led to further frustration.

Probably the most exciting moment of the race was in turn 6. I had already been passed by several of the faster 500cc bikes in the straight, and was passed again in turn 6. Only this time, instead of passing me with lots of room to spare while we were all going amiably in a straight line, I was leaned over about as far as I could comfortably go, and whoever passed me did it so close that I was astounded we didn't touch. Jeniffer said she got a picture of the pass, and when she gets it to me, I'll post it here. I really wished my camera was working at that point. It was definitely another slow-motion moment.

A very unfortunate side-effect of being passed by the 500 folks is that I only ended up getting 3 laps. It's nominally a 5-lap race, but the race leader is the one who gets 5 laps. Everyone behind him gets however many laps they get. In my case, I must have been lapped twice (maybe I got 4 laps, it seems unlikely I was actually lapped twice). So my race was pretty short, and I found myself reluctant to exit to the pits when the time came. Still, rules is rules, so I exited the track like a good little boy. If I'd had a better day, it probably wouldn't have bothered me, but with everything piling up, it was just the sort of final insult that made a perfect crappy cap to a crappy day.

The new tradition of post-race score-checking

On top of all that, after the race, I went to the scoring sheets to look up my times. I figured, at least I'd get some times to see if I was doing better, whether or not I could keep up with the pack. There, of course, I failed to find my number at all. It seems my transponder hadn't registered even once as I went around the track, despite it working fine on the tester at the Registration table earlier in the day. So I filled out a scoring protest form, just to make sure I actually made it onto the rolls.

There was some discussion of scores and places, and somehow, it appeared that I didn't come in dead last. Apparently #108, Jeff Nelson, had come in behind me. It seemed possible -- his bike had been having problems all day. I guess it was good news, but it didn't have much impact in the face of everything else.

Jesse and I packed up, and after bidding Jeniffer and Allison farewell (they had a great time, and it sounds like at least Jeniffer will be back for the next race), got ready to head out ourselves. Of course, that was all delayed by the inevitable post-race discussion of finishing places, so someone could go wallop the scoring people about their keen and consistent inability to correctly record the scores. To be fair, they're new, but the scores have been shockingly inaccurate so far. Apparently even the corrected scores were recorded incorrectly.

Lessons learned

This race was a doozy. The first and most important lesson for me was definitely:

Do not be rushed. I've always known this. I hate being rushed. But that was definitely the failing of Sunday. I was rushed, so I couldn't fix problems as they came up. To be fair, I probably wouldn't have been able to fix the petcock before the first practice, no matter what, but at least I could have been working on it instead of psyching myself up to go out and ride, only to be sidelined unexpectedly.

Communication good. I completely failed to explain to Jesse why I wanted to leave so early on Sunday. If I'd told him about what I had to do, and how Registration now closes at 8:30 instead of 9, he wouldn't have been anywhere near so lax about getting out of the house. The result would have been less rushing, which is also good. It wouldn't have made for a perfect day, but it probably would have been markedly better.

Ride first. Gadgets later. The stupid freezing camera was a real distraction and mood-killer for me. If I hadn't had it, and had instead focused on riding and fixing problems on the bike, I would have been in a better mood. Probably not so far as to be in a good mood, but at least not as dark. It's also entirely possible that the rear mount for the camera screwed up my transponder's signal.

Decide to compete or not. I knew going into this thing that I would probably have to confront my ability to deal with competition. I've never liked it, since formative experiences in grade school, where I was the scrawny nerd who was picked last for everything. There was no way to win then, and when I did win, I felt bad because I knew how crappy it felt to lose. So this one is very hard for me. I hate losing, but I also hate besting other people.

I thought I could get on the track and have fun riding around, but all the focus I've had on scoring since I discovered how the rules work after the last race has put me firmly in the competitive mindset. So far, this has done nothing but make me miserable. So, I need to do some mental spade work, and figure out whether I'm going to compete and care about points, or just relax about the whole thing. Jesse asked me whether there's not some middle ground, and the answer to that is pretty much "no," at least right now. Maybe after I get good enough that I'm hanging with a pack of other riders it can all be fun and good times, but when I'm coming in minutes behind everyone else, I can either be competitive and pissed, or noncompetitive. And so far, being noncompetitive hasn't settled on my brain in this environment which is, you know, all about competition. This lesson is going to take a while.

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