It's the middle of winter and there hasn't been much racing action lately. Here's a story about wintertime track days in Florida from a few years back that I ran in our club magazine. I hope you enjoy it.
I’m angry – angry with myself. I’m shouting inside my helmet, spitting mad, using words I probably shouldn’t be. It’s ironic because I’m doing one of the things I enjoy most. It should be the other way around. I should be happy, calm and smiling. But I’ve missed my mark. I’m running two feet wide of where I should be going into turn 9, which screws up my entry point into turn 10, which in turn limits my drive out of 11. I just need to relax. My eyes are boring holes through my visor and I’m gripping way too tight. I back off a bit and signal to pit in. Time to take a break. It’s not good to be angry at the track.
It’s my second day at Jennings GP in Northern Florida. The track is wonderful, grippy and smooth. The asphalt aggregate is a fine angular limestone that is relatively free of the cold weather cracking that typifies our Ontario tracks. This surface has never been used by cars and there are no ruts or excess rubber laid down. It is a fast left-hand course, 3.2 km long with 14 corners. Half of it is fast and flowing, and half of it is fast and technical. Braking is only required in three places - turn 1, turn 8 and turn 13, and then only minimally. There are lots of flat sandy run-off areas and the surrounding forest is a long way out. The interior is dotted with trees and ‘gator ponds...with real live ‘gators in them. However, they seem friendly and only crawl out occasionally. We saw some, but fortunately not on the track. Turtles also make an appearance and deer gambol around the edge of the tree line.
I had been invited on the trip by National Pro rider, #25, Bill McKay (aka The Hobbit). We went down with a group of five other Canadian racers. It was the perfect getaway with warm temperatures and mid-winter track time at a first-class facility. Our group consisted of Chris Fehr, Paul Hollister, Brian Camp, Tanja Bleyart (aka The Cannibal – for various reasons), and Dave Buckland. The group dynamics are, in a word, interesting. Dave is the “Godfather”; all the others in the group go to him for help and sage advice. He offers both in generous portions and they all respect him for it. The whole crew was very gracious and pretended not to be embarrassed by the presence of my 23-year-old bike, however, I could tell they were all a bit dubious. I wasn’t too sure myself – there was a cut-off lap time of 1:39 to be eligible to enter the mock race at the end of the week and I had no idea what my abilities were compared to the modern bikes. Fortunately, my first lapping session came in at 1:38 – just under the cut-off and I hoped I would be able to improve.
The other Canadian racers were helpful with riding advice.
“It sounds like you’re running out of revs on the back straight – why don’t you try a slightly taller gear ratio.”
“Your bike is too angry coming through turn 13. Try short-shifting just before the corner
so that everything is more settled when you get on the throttle.”
My lap times started to improve but I quickly found out that speed comes at a price. I started to chew up tires at an unexpected rate. A new set lasted me one day but then I would have to flip them around in the evening and run them on the other side the following day. Changing tires became our new favourite evening activity. The others started to rag on me about it.
“Hey, what’s all this tire changing about? I thought VRRA guys only used one set a year.”
By three o’clock the second afternoon, the tires would be totally shagged. However, I eventually saw my lap times improve to 1:27.
The Hobbit was burning up a minimum of two sets per day but that paled in comparison to the rate that tires were being used by the AMA teams that were testing at Jennings. Ben Young, AMA Pro Daytona Sportbike rider from Thornbury, ON, was also there and hung out with us when he wasn’t riding. He’s very likeable and very fast! The Hob and he rode together for two days, both of them ripping off 1:18 laps. Ben promises to show up to at least one VRRA event this year.
Danny Eslick and Geoff May (Erik Buell Race Team) were there for three days of testing aboard the amazing Buell 1190RS. It was just incredible to watch them come out of turn 11 all crossed up, the front wheel in the air and the traction control kicking in. The sound of the big V-twin is simply awesome. Although their lap times were within 100ths of a second, their two riding styles differed radically. Danny’s involved a lot of point and shoot “cowboy style” action while Geoff’s was somewhat smoother with a lot less drama. They were scrapping a set of tires in five laps!
Saturday morning, I tried to get everyone to line up the bikes and pose for a picture. Organizing anything in a large group of road-racing Alpha males is kind of like herding cats; everyone is nursing their own private agenda and no one has the least bit of interest in doing something that someone else tells them to. Besides that, all of us had been separated from our partners for at least nine days and were getting a bit edgy. Heaven help us if the slightest whiff of pheromones from a female in estrus had wafted through the paddock. We would have morphed immediately into a howling pack of fist-fighting baboons. However, despite the cat-herding issues and edginess, everyone assembled for the track photographer.
Saturday was also our last day at the track and, if everything was going well, it was also mock race day. All the willing entrants’ names got thrown into a hat and the grid positions were randomly drawn. It was a five-lap contest. In the expert class, The Hob pulled out a front-row spot. This was a bit of a gimme for him as he was almost certainly the fastest one there. He handily won his race and was rewarded with the supplied trophy – a padded bra – which he was required to wear around the pits.
I deliberated briefly about whether I should enter and then promised myself that I would just take it easy...until my name got pulled second from pole. Now I had to try!
The “Godfather” (Dave B.) came over and gave me the concerned and cautionary speech about my medical insurance and how it probably wouldn’t cover me if it became known that I was racing. It should have been a premonition for me but my head was already on the starting line.
My start is horrible with the bike inching forward before the flag drops and then stops when it does. I carry the front wheel too high, can’t get to the rear brake and all of a sudden I am going into turn 1 in fourth position. A 675 Triumph is running away with the lead and immediately in front of me is a TL1000 and an R1. I have been on the track with these guys for the last few days and I know I can beat them. They pull me in the straights but I can get them in the twisty bits. I stay on their tail for the first two laps. It’s a struggle for a 1st generation Hurricane but the red mist has fallen and I’m out to show these boys. On lap three, I tuck up tight behind the R1 and when turn 9 comes, I rail around him on the outside. I almost get the TL in the same move. I can stand him up from the inside of the left-hander but the intermediate class rules are that you can only pass on the outside. I back off and wait. I stay ahead of the R1 (barely) on the next straight and slightly trail brake into turn 13 trying desperately to carry my speed.
Then, with absolutely no warning, the front end tucks. I hear the sickening grind of plastic on asphalt and see the bike disappear into a cloud of dust. I slide, then start to tumble. The first couple of flips are kind of fun but I get bored easily, so after seven or eight repetitions of dirt/sky, dirt/sky, dirt/sky, I just want it to stop. I quickly jump up and scurry behind the berm. I don’t fancy a two-wheeled enema today.
The corner worker jogs over to see if I can give the “thumbs-up.” As he rounds the corner, he spies the bike lying on its side.
“Oh no, not 570! You were doing so well. I’ve been checking your lap times all week.”
He sounds kind of far away. I look over to see him standing 20 feet away. It’s hilarious. He isn’t speaking to me. He doesn’t have a clue who I am, nor does he care. He is bending over and talking with my bike.
I walk over to the nearest pine tree and give it a good kick, just because the trunk looks stupid. I sit down and contemplate what just happened and why. Was it for the prize? I don’t think so. Winning meant wearing a polka dot bra around the pits. Still, it was kind of a badge of glory, a trophy of sorts. Was it just to stroke my ego? Did I want to prove to the Americans that Canadians could hand them their butts? Did I just want to beat the guys on their new litre bikes? I’m not sure – maybe all of the above. I just know that I had been warned – by my wife, by the Godfather, by myself – and it hadn’t done a bit of good. Start engine, disengage reason. All I can see is that guy in front of me and I know if I drive a little deeper, get on the brakes later and pick up the throttle sooner, I can beat him. There is no explaining it, but I know that every racer understands.
I pack up my stuff to leave the track. The Cannibal gives me a little sympathy kiss, the Godfather shakes my hand and says nothing. The look in his eyes speaks volumes and I am reminded of Stoner’s comment to Rossi. “Obviously your ambition outweighs your talent.”
I can’t wait to go back next year.