Race report: June 14 and 15, 2008

By Ian Johnston
Written June 17, 2008

To see the photos I took this weekend, see my gallery.
To see Cyrus' photos, see his gallery.
To see Vicki's photos, see her gallery.

I embarked on this race weekend feeling better than I had any right to. The previous race weekend was abysmal, and I had seriously considered just selling the bike, selling the riding suit, and sticking to pursuits better suited to me, like writing and making sad faces at passing clouds.

However, I went in pretty upbeat. Jesse had installed a Pertronix ignition system on his bike a few weeks before, and had inspired me to do the same -- it seemed to make a very noticeable difference. I wasn't sure I had the timing right, but the bike started more easily, and seemed to run better.

Loading shouldn't be this complicated

We loaded up the bikes on Friday night, leaving room on the trailer for a third bike -- we'd volunteered to take Tamra's bike down as well, since her car wouldn't carry a bike, and her boyfriend, Cogs, wouldn't be down until Sunday. Jesse was displeased with the loading arrangements, since, two blocks before my house, his bike had dipped out of sight like a frat boy ducking out of a formal party for a smoke. It had worked itself loose enough to twist the front wheel, which allowed it to roll forward and reduce tension in the tiedowns.

So our loading was done carefully, and with a good deal of "Maybe this one could go a bit tighter..." He'd bolted on some angle iron as outriggers, to spread the tiedown attachment points. Unfortunately, even under static load, they were visibly bending.

Saturday morning arrived early, as it always does. Jesse and I had agreed that he'd pick me up between 6:15 and 6:30, so we'd be down by 7:15 at the latest. This would allow us to get into the track without waiting in a long line for the gate, but still in plenty of time to set up and get registered.

6:15 came and went, as did 6:30. I was tempted for a moment to call Jesse and see if he was still coming, but refrained -- he was surely as interested as I was in getting there without being rushed. No need to pester him if things weren't going his way. Finally, just past 6:45, he showed up. I was ready, and bounded down the stairs, calling, "Did the cats eat your alarm?" in what I considered to be a lighthearted manner.

He whipped around, and his reply was rather terse, not to say snappish. I apologized, and got the story: Tamra's bike had been a disaster to load (and indeed was loaded in the truck's bed rather than on the trailer), their house was impossible to get to, and then impossible to get out of. Both outriggers were bent up at a sickening angle. He didn't get home until 10:30 (considerably later than he'd wanted to). He calmed down after a minute, and all was cordial as we pulled away.

On the road

All little bikes, all in a row
Even leaving nearly at 7, we got to the track and were parking before 7:40. There were a line of drag racers set up where Vintageville had been the last two weekends, so we were displaced towards the main pit area, putting us about equidistant between the two bathroom buildings.

We got ourselves set up, and before I realized the time had passed, the airhorn sounded for the rider's meeting. We met, after a surprisingly long wait for the gruff meeting barker to arrive, passing the time making snide comments to each other. Then it was off to the pits, to ready ourselves for the first practice.

Tim O once again graciously volunteered to perform our tech inspections in situ, a considerable time savings. No more having to wheel bikes and gear bags down to the tech/registration area made everyone happy.

I set up my camera, newly back from the GoPro Secret Worldwide HQ, to see if it would do anything. I didn't expect much, but it was worth a try. On with the leathers, and it was out to practice.

First practice: things go well

Tamra leading myself then Jeff through turn 4
The practice went pretty well. I was feeling better on the bike, and didn't seem to have as much trouble going quickly. I was easily keeping pace with Tamra, who is a fellow novice rider. We had figured that we'd trace the following pattern: she'd pass me in the straights, and I'd pass her in the corners. She was very concerned that she was slow through the curves, but weighing in at under 8 stone, naturally would outpace me on the straights. We followed roughly this path, although I was too lily-livered to actually pass her, between my lack of experience, lack of power, and the fact that she was actually going pretty well through the corners.

Every lap, I'd catch her in turn 2, keep fairly close through the back of the track, and lose her into the straight, as she pulled away. Added into the mix at some point was #960, Jeff. He's about my size, although I suspect I outweigh him by several dozen pounds (how did I get to be the heaviest competitor in a class where the bikes make nearly single-digit horsepower?). He and Tamra are basically evenly matched.

Jesse tells Tamra to lean more
There followed the usual period of sloth between practices, which has already passed from my memory as being uneventful. I believe Jesse and I spent a lot of time chatting with Tamra at our little kaffe klatch, on topics of racing lines and riding styles. I know we developed the joke that all problems would be solved by leaning off more. (Tamra hadn't yet been indoctrinated into the Church of the Righteous Hanging-Off 'Round Corners. It was to my detriment that she learned of this vital technique.)

The camera actually worked, mostly
I discovered, to my surprise, that the onboard camera had worked, at least somewhat. Upon review, it had captured several laps, cutting off somewhat randomly around turn 9. I queued it up for the second practice, and ended up posting the results to YouTube late that night.

As seems to be usual, scoring (the system, not the people) had screwed up, and we had no lap times for the first practice. Lap times are the only way you can tell how well you're actually doing, and no one was pleased that our times had dissappeared into the aether. We all hoped that the second session would at least produce timing results.

The second practice went much as the first had, and was uneventful for the most part. I went fast enough, and felt pretty good about the session. It doesn't stick out in my mind as being remarkable, although it solidified the ranking which would stay for the rest of the weekend: Tamra leading, Jeff close behind her, and me a variably distant and close last place.

I had business to attend to back in Seattle, so we beat a hasty retreat once the second practice was over, tidying up our pit area and making it as secure as we could against the vagarities of weather and passersby.

Second practice results, page 1

Second practice results, page 2

Day two: race day

Sunday dawned early, but not quite as early as Saturday had. We were aiming for about an 8:15 arrival time, and Jesse arrived exactly on time. We got to the track to find that our insta-shelter had been raised, and Tamra's bike removed (she'd pitted with us, in the absence of any better option on Saturday). She and Cogs had moved down to Vintageville, now that the drag racers had pushed off. I was surprised, passing the drag race pits, to note that the majority of the male drag racing population outweighed me considerably. Perhaps I should be in drag racing.

Cogs shows off his stunning ensemble, note the footwear
Tamra and Cogs walked past, and she hissed to me, "Did you see our times from yesterday!?" There was excitement evident on her face. I averred that I had not, and she said, "I got a 2:18! And I think you got a 2:19!" This was shocking news -- the last time I had had lap times recorded, I'd gotten a 2:28 best time, and was pretty pleased with that. Jesse and I wandered with a curious excitement up to registration to review our times. Indeed, I had somehow knocked 10 seconds off my lap time. So had everyone. It was mystical and strange to behold.

We attended our mandatory rider's meeting, after hearing that essentially the moment we'd left on Saturday, people started crashing like there were beautiful sirens off the apex of every corner, singing them to their doom. Apparently the track had had to shut down at 3 pm (two hours earlier than usual) due to the raw carnage more or less literally playing itself out on the track. Have I mentioned how very pleased I am that I don't have to race with the Novice riders? Oh my yes.

As predicted, the rider's meeting focused on the mistakes of the previous day, which had apparently involved ignoring flags, diving across the track inappropriately, crashing when there was no call to crash, and so on. We witnessed two different racers called up to explain certain flags in front of the smirking crowd of racers, which they had plainly missed or misunderstood the previous day.

Bike swappin'

Then it was off to practice. Just for yuks, Jesse and I decided to swap bikes. I wanted to see if my bike was underpowered, and he was curious to check out my bike. I tried setting up the camera for Jesse, but it managed to shut itself off as he was pulling the bike off the stand, before it'd even been started. Ah well.

Riding his bike was interesting. Its idle seemed much smoother, but he's also got his idle speed set way up, which may explain the difference. It also ran smoother out of the gate, making me think the timing of my ignition might be off a bit. The Pertronix introduces, or rather, removes, the complication of adjusting for point float -- the stock points system must take into account the fact that at high RPM, the points may float a bit, or fail to close quickly enough to open for the next revolution. With the Pertronix, which is essentially an electronic version of points that uses a magnet and a sensor instead of two hunks of metal pressing together and pulling apart, the ideal timing is between 30 and 40 degrees before top dead center, where with points it's very firmly at 40 degrees BTDC. Perfect timing is apparently achieved on a dyno, making minute adjustments to the timing between runs to see what is perfect. I didn't do this, so who knows if my timing was set up for full power or not.

In any case, his bike ran well, although as I rode, it started making odd stumbling, stuttering feelings down the front straight. It wasn't much of a problem otherwise, but the stutter was definitely not happy, and seemed to hold me back a trifle. In spite of the stutter, it was extremely gratifying to discover that yes, my bike is clearly making the same power as Jesse's -- I was just as slow accelerating out of turn 4, and hit the same limit on the tachometer down the straight. That was an excellent feeling, since it means that what's holding me back is skill, which is exactly the problem I want to address.

We returned from the practice, and passed into the long doldrums before our first race, 4 hours in the future. Lunches were consumed. Times were checked. Lies, extravagant and subtle, were told.

Bateman's temple of shiny bike bits

The Bateman caravan

Michael Bateman's emporium of shiny cheetah widgets
I wandered down to Michael Bateman's display, where he had expensive and shiny widgets turned out on a folding table. We got to chatting about this and that, and I asked him how much he'd charge for a set of Keihin VM22 carburetors. These are reputed by Ian Halcott to bolt right on to the CL175's intake runners, and to noticeably increase performance over 8k RPM.

He was surprised to hear about the VM22s, but said that he'd had a lot of luck with the PE24 carburetors. They required extensive intake modification, but were just the ticket for sprucing up a gasping engine. Both Jesse and I came away from that conversation stroking our chins and nodding appreciatively. It may well be that before the next race, our bikes will be sporting shiny new carburetors.

As our race time approached, my old friend Cyrus showed up, enormous camera in tow. Jeniffer had bowed out due to a BBQ with the father, it being Father's Day that day. I tried set up my on-board camera, but it wouldn't even stay on (possibly due to weak batteries), so I gave up on it. Cyrus went out to take pictures in front of the Bus Stop, aka turn 10.

The first race heat

Timeline of a race heat

Allow me to take a moment to explain to my non-racing audience the actual sequence of events involved in a race heat. Starting about 15 minutes before the race is scheduled to start, I'm either changed into my racing suit, or in the process of doing so. About 5 minutes beforehand, the airhorn sounds (signalling 5 minutes, in theory), and I put in my earplugs, and pull on my helmet and gloves.

Then, after a minute of standing around feeling silly for being fully dressed too early, I push the bike off the stand (optionally hitting the Go button on the camera), pull up on the shift lever to get it into second gear, and give it a mighty shove. Drop the clutch, and the engine starts -- we have to remove the kickstarter for crash-safety reasons, and the electric starters are removed as a matter of weight savings.

Then we ride to the track entrance area, where a race official holds us back from entering the track entrance road. Here we sit for seconds or sometimes minutes until a referee's whistle is blown, and we rumble down the narrow access road to another hurry-up-and-wait area, just shy of the track entrance at turn 1. Here we wait for another short or long period of time, until official #2 holds up his big STOP board, turns it sideways, then flips it over so the green GO side is showing.

Then we roar off down the acceleration lane, going more or less flat-out into turn 2, a wide left-hand sweeper. On these old 160s, it's basically impossible to reach race pace before turn 2, although that's fine, as this is the tire warmup lap. We snake through the turns basically going full pace, but back a little bit, due to the cold tires (as tires warm up due to acceleration and deceleration friction, they get more sticky, which is a good thing).

Having warmed up our tires, we line up in an approximate grid, usually according to the grid board which is posted near registration. Here we wait yet more, presumably for everyone to settle down. Then the starter holds up their board: ready. The board goes sideways: set. The starting light goes out: GO!

There's a thunder you wouldn't expect from such tiny bikes, and the pack accelerates past turn 1 and into turn 2. Then it's five laps of your best effort, with a white flag to mark the beginning of the last lap, and a checkered flag to mark the end. Once you've passed the checkered flag, finish out 90% of a lap to get to the pit entrance (this is also known as the cool-down lap, although I have been taking it rather hotter, since I want the practice, and I'm hardly inconveniencing anyone). Exit to the pits, pausing at the hot-tech area, where a person with eyes like a hawk looks over your bike to make sure you haven't been secretly oiling the track or leaving nuts and bolts behind. He slaps you on the back, and it's a consciously-slow ride back to the pits. Kill the motor, and lever the bike up onto the race stand (since we have no kickstands for both safety and weight reasons).

I found myself getting nervous for no reason I could really explain. The race and practice were essentially synonymous for me -- as long as I finished without crashing, that was well as I needed to do. A race meant I had to perform a standing start, but that was the only practical difference.

Yours truly, out of the Bus Stop

So, I went through the motions, and ran the race. It was somehow more exciting than the practice -- must be the psychology of the thing, I guess. My thighs, which had been making their feelings plainly known in the morning practice, seemed to fade into the background; I actually think they stopped hurting, although that seems unlikely. Racing uses odd muscles you don't normally realize you have.

I started ahead of both Tamra and Jeff, but they both passed me, Tamra right into turn 2, and Jeff after a lap or two, exiting the Bus Stop. After that, I kept them in sight for the whole race, but sometimes only barely. Tamra seemed to have taken the "hanging-off" lesson to heart, with distressing results: now, I couldn't even really catch up to her in the corners. Jeff, despite being a brand new rider, was taking corners with admirable speed, and had a noticeable velocity advantage in the straights.

Jesse trailing Tamra into turn 3
I finished last, but still with Tamra and Jeff in sight. I wasn't feeling bad about it, quite the contrary: I felt like I'd done a fine job, and had only been passed by one or two people. I rolled into my pit, and yanked off the suddenly too-small gloves and steamy helmet. Something about riding around at high speed in ventilated gear, followed by slowing way down and stopping: that ventilated gear doesn't work so well any more, and I was steaming my glasses I was so warm. Racing is hard work, particularly when, as it is for me, relaxation is a faraway dream instead of a practical reality on a race bike (if I were able to unclench and ride in a more relaxed way, I'd probably take another 10 seconds off my time).

The brake that won't brake

Happier front brake
It was another long wait until the second race, and Jesse and I got talking about this and that. The conversation swung around to my front brake. If you've been following the saga from the beginning, you'll recall that one of my first acts upon getting the bike was to take the front wheel and braking bits to Metal Frictions, where they applied new lining to the brake shoes, and turned the drum so it was shiny and round and new. It was a $125 service, and produced a definite increase in braking power.

Cyrus and Jesse reclining in the shade
However, it didn't seem like a very big increase. I had figured that, with this change, I'd go from having what felt like no front brakes to having quite an authoritative setup, but that really wasn't the case. It occurred to me that there could be setup work that I could do to help things, but I figured the brake was probably correctly adjusted, and in any case, had no clue how to make the adjustment. What with one thing and another, I hadn't thought about it again.

Jesse asked me if I'd balanced the pads. I said no, since I didn't know how. He outlined the procedure for me, and I decided to give it a go -- who knew what improvement it might make? It probably couldn't get any worse.

Adjusting the brake shoe balance

The super short version for those interested in doing this themselves: adjust the trailing brake shoe adjuster way out, so the trailing shoe has no chance of engaging -- I had to move mine about 15mm(!) to achieve this effect. Then slowly adjust the brake cable so the leading shoe just rubs as the wheel goes around. "Shook... shook... shook..." Keep the wheel spinning, and slowly adjust the rear shoe out until it's just rubbing too. "Shook-shook-shook-shook," twice as fast. Tighten the locknut, and adjust the cable like normal.

Listening carefully to the sounds of a brake shoe gently scraping the drum with superbikes screaming by 200 feet away is not as easy as it could be. Despite the distractions, I was finally able to get the adjustment done. I pulled the bike off the stand, and gave the brake lever a firm squeeze. Very nice! No more mushy feeling. Gave it a shove up to about 5 mph, and grabbed a handful of brake. The bike stopped instantly, popping the rear tire in the air! Amazing! I got it going faster, and tried again. Pop! Push, run, pop!

I pushed the bike down to the other set of pits and demonstrated. Jesse told me to try sitting on it -- same thing! I actually lifted the rear wheel off the ground with my weight on the seat. This is unheard of, although it's also almost certainly due to the self-locking effect of drum brakes rather than any indication I could do a controlled stoppie. Still. An amazing difference.

Thus was I set to enter the second race, with my brakes suddenly having changed from frighteningly ineffective to frighteningly effective. A daunting prospect!

The second race heat

Tamra and Jeff exiting turn 2
Still, enter I did. I also changed the batteries in the camera, and it seemed to stay on, so I left it running as I started the bike and headed for the pits. Another fine race, again trailing into last place. The video from this race made it up to YouTube, and you can see it here. It didn't last all the way, but it very nearly got to the white flag, so I have a 4/5ths record of that race. I have some improvements in mind for the little camera to make it a bit more impervious to vibration, so hopefully at the next event, I can capture the whole race, from start to finish.

When the times were finally posted for the last race, I was impressed: my best time was listed as 2:18.353. That's over 10 seconds better than my best lap on my first race weekend, and I had been impressed with the 2:28! Since Jesse had to exit the second race after a couple of laps due to a broken shift linkage, I even managed to place next-to-last in the overall standings for the weekend, earning myself 10 points. Fortunately for me (and everyone else, I guess) the Portland folks had their own event that weekend, so they couldn't come up and steal our points away -- if the Portland contingent had been there, I would have surely come away with one or two points instead of ten.

After it was all done, Jesse and I packed up our stuff, bade Cyrus farewell and safe riding, and headed for Seattle. I was living with a happy glow, having had a great weekend in which I made a major improvement to the bike, shaved 10 seconds off my best lap time (and 12 or 13 seconds off my average lap time), and had nary a negative thought.

Lessons learned

A group of racers entering turn 5

Bring more water: It was only moderately warm this weekend, yet my water bottle was empty by the end of the first practice session both days. It wasn't so bad on Saturday, when we left at 1:30, but on Sunday, I was feeling a bit dehydrated by the end of the day. I need to aim for more like 3-4 liters of water instead of the one I brought.

Bring the sunscreen: The sun was definitely out on Sunday, and I'm definitely showing some distinct tan lines. I can't do that too many times before it's burn city for me. It just didn't occur to me this weekend.

You can go faster: Even ignoring the fact that I dropped 10 seconds off my lap time, there are places where I can clearly go faster, but for my brain intervening and playing the "I'm not so sure about this!" game. Notably, in the second heat, every single lap, I exited turn 2 at the same RPM in the same gear, despite thinking I'd gone in faster than last time. I have yet to touch anything down in turn 2.

You better learn to pass, buddy: Particularly in the practice sessions, I was probably in a position to pass Tamra and Jeff several times on the back half of the track. I'm still lining up behind everyone like a good little sheep, and I'm probably going to stay last as long as I limit my passing to places where I can have 20 feet of clearance.

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