Part 5: Culmination Of A Dream

Sunday. Race day. The culmination of a dream. We were at the course as the sun rose. Parking near the bottom of the hill, we drove the last mile on the race bikes to  a pit spot in the forest they call pit lane.  I could feel the bite of the morning cold as we rode in, even at street speeds.

The pit lane felt like a family reunion. Though I only knew these people from a few conversations in a few days, it was reminiscent of a briefing for a convoy through enemy territory. We all knew that the person to our left and right were rolling the dice the same as we were, and that not all of us would make it to the top. Despite this knowledge, spirits were quite high as everyone knew the whole reason we were here was only hours from happening. I had met the Kennedy brothers only a few times as they fought their home built bike, yet I felt I knew them my whole life. I was so excited to see them do well, as for all the competitors.

After the riders meeting we set about fixing a sudden fuel leak from Dave’s machine. The gasket for the bottom plate decided now was the time to let fuel dump onto the engine and down the frame. We did what we could, but without a gasket and a half hour the hope was that the wind speed would push leaking fuel back from the exhaust header while at race speed.

The vintage cars were first, and the red flag was busy with one wreck. The details are unknown to me, but the driver apparently swerved to miss a fan who decided to cross the track, and flipped into a ditch. With these delays, our start was left a little later, and a lot more serious. We were to go on after the vintage cars, but “Monster” Tajima- the overall record holder- wanted to go before us  to miss potential bad weather. This is something any record holder can ask, and their entire class of cars must run with them.

The cars go 10min apart at the minimum, so we took our leathers back off and waited. The Europeans took off with much fanfare in their Ford Fiestas (fully rally prepped) with one driver crashing in the first minute or two of racing. We had been called up by then since we are the first of the motorcycles to go, so it was time to wait in the hot sun…. in full leathers.

You have to balance your own need to be treated properly as a dues paying racer with the promoter’s need to run an organized and entertaining show. This meant trying to snooze against the door of a display car while in leathers, with the sun beating down on you. The local hospital had a tent set up nearby and gave us water and encouragement. It was total hero status as fans saw us, the bikes, and made the connection. While I realize its a strange sport, I don’t ever stop to think of it as super-human or crazy at all. Fans thought different, and let us know. Sidecars- especially passengers- are among the craziest of all racers according to some fans. I was flattered, but was also in race mode. I was thinking of fuel levels and how stretched my muscles were. Trying to play cool, I leaned back and closed my eyes… ignoring the butterflies percolating in my stomach.

Then the call: “Sidecars!!! You’re up!!!” Ok… here we go. The mind races with possibilities of death and failure and disappointment. Then you remember you have a job to do and you know how to do it. You calm to a strange acceptance. It’s a race, and you know how to race. You concentrate on doing it right, because thinking about what could go wrong simply invites it into your day. We ride up to the start line and it’s quite a display.

The colors are dazzling because you haven’t seen the course lined with fans. They cheer encouragement, they tell you you’re crazy, and you look down the course, trying to remember the first few turns. We sat for several minutes waiting for the call to take the line. Finally, we lined up and prepared for the start. Now, with the engine vibrating it’s song and the flagman taking his stance, I’m comfortable. This is the whole reason I’m here, and I’m at peace. It goes silent and dead still. I hold my position, but our grabby clutch ruins our launch. We settle into 2nd place (of the 2 bikes leaving in our wave) and begin the run up the pavement. The speed is more than in practice, and fans simply pack the bottom section of the track.

The speed is higher because of the fans being closer to the roadside than the trees. I am making smooth transitions but they are difficult. I have to remember to breathe. This is a long course, and I’ve only run it in sections. We aren’t losing ground in 2nd and I’m confident. My driver Steve begins to ease off in the corners almost immediately. I’m sure he is feeling anxious since he crashed in a huge way the last time he raced here. Once we pass Engineer’s Corner I know he’ll loosen up, but that’s almost to the end of the first pavement section (where our tires give us an advantage.)

The gap increases until we are almost by ourselves. We pass Engineers Corner and I immediately feel the bike surge forward with new zeal. We are hammering through the corners with big slides. Cameramen poke out close enough to make contact with me while I hang out for right turns. I can hear fans screaming every time the throttle closes for braking. Then I realize it; I’m having fun. The breathing stops being conscious effort, my movements smooth out. I am at one with the machine and the only thing that exists in the entire universe is the connection I have with Steve, through the steel frame of the bike. As he manipulates the controls, I anticipate his needs and the needs of the three tires. We dive SO DEEP into turns on the brakes, scrambling for traction on the way out. I could do this forever.

Oddly, we begin to gain ground on the Wenzel brothers in the dirt. Their knobby tires aren’t finding better traction than our dirt track tires. We are in the groove until one slow switchback turn. Steve goes in too deep, and as we slide out we move out of the race line. Instead of the wheel spinning up in the loose dirt, we bog the motor. “Why doesn’t he downshift to 2nd gear?”, I think to myself. When I hear him upshift I realize he was in 2nd gear. The motor isn’t that weak… it should pull hard in this gear. I look back to see no engine smoke. I put it out of my head for a few turns until I feel the bike pulling weakly from another slow corner. Looking back, I see a thin trail of white smoke. Could it be??  Then my worst fear comes true. Pulling through a fast section in the dirt I hear the motor misfiring. “Oh shit!!!” I look down and begin to assess the engine. I grab the spark plug wires  to make sure they are tight. A right turn comes up, and I hang off, looking back to the engine. Smoke is rolling off of it and nothing appears wrong externally.

Maybe it’s an air filter that fell off?? No. Fuel line? No. The smoke is thicker and the engine weaker. Something is wrong but it doesn’t seem like we will lose power completely. If we limp it we can make the top. A left turn leads out to the beginning of the next pavement section. We are passed halfway, but will she make it???

I’m answered when Steve tries for 4th gear and the bike protests loudly. He kicks back to 3rd gear and I see him looking around. “Shit! He’s looking for a place to pull over! NO!!!” But the smoke trail is huge and damage is surely permanent. We stumble up the straight and through the right turn after it. Finding a place to pull off I feel the power roll back and we begin to coast.

He shuts the bike off and the discussion begins. We see the altitude compensator has broken loose and fallen inside the airbox. This part allows extra air into the carburetor to make up for the thinner air as we climb the mountain. But if this part broke loose it would allow a HUGE amount of air into the carb, leaning out one of the two pistons. A lean condition is very serious and is why cars all have complicated computers governing them; lean means good emissions, but too lean means engine damage.

Using carbs means no computer can solve the problem and this lean condition could overheat the pistons inside the engine, melting the steel until a hole breaks through a piston. This is a likely scenario, but we still let the engine cool a moment and try to restart. After only one or two kicks, fuel gushes onto the blazing hot engine!!! WHOAH!!! Investigating the leak showed the engine became so hot it melted the rubber gas lines coming from the fuel tank. We were going nowhere today, and my first race up Pikes Peak ended unceremoniously at the 13 mile marker.

We crossed the track after cheering Dave Hennessy on his run (leaving 30 seconds behind us in the second wave). The vintage bikes came by and I cheered leader Eddie Mulder, who was kind enough to donate $100 to my effort. He was relaxed enough to wave back as he screamed by on his highly modified Triumph race bike. The quads came through next and I am convinced they are having the most fun of any vehicle on the Peak. HUGE 4 wheel drifts or tricycle-ing was the order of the day as these guys used major body english to keep their machines on the edge of the performance envelope.

Knowing our day was done we crossed the track to sit in the shade of some trees and catch our breath. Some fans gave us water and I began to relax from my feeling of disappointment. I’m glad I taped a sweater to the bike’s frame though as changeable weather brought in rain, cold, wind, and then sun. The cycle continued the rest of our day as we watched the other classes race through.

This gave me a good perspective of the different classes. I enjoyed the rear wheel drive cars coming through on the wet pavement. These heavily modified road cars remind you why NASCAR is such a joke; you need turns and changeable conditions to make a good race, not meticulous math. I watched huge slides, laughably slow people tip-toe through, and the trophy trucks drift through with about 500 feet more suspension travel then they needed, but still at full throttle. The race ended and we began a long coast down the hill, hoping we wouldn’t have to push too much on the few uphill spots.

The coast down was bittersweet. I had not seen the summit. I failed. I didn’t make it. On the other hand, these fans had sat through boring pauses in the action and miserable weather to see these racers make their charge to the summit. They were greeting us like returning war heroes. that’s not hype people. I came home from Iraq and saw the flags and got the thank you’s. These fans were at least as excited to see us as the townspeople when I rode the bus from the airport to the base after coming home. I shook hands, gave high-fives, and got help pushing up every hill we encountered.

I absolutely will never forget the little boy who stood trackside with his hand out for a high five. We were on almost level  ground, so we were rolling at a snail’s pace. He stood there wide-eyed, prob-ly only 6 or 7 years old.  In this slow motion move I actually got to see his wide-eyed look of awe, as if we had just returned from the moon. This gave his little brothers time to run up and I reached WAY OUT to touch their hands. These two kids prob-ly weren’t more than 6 years old and they absolutely beamed with unhindered joy at seeing us coast down that hill after powering up it in anger. I remembered my neighbor and his vintage Harley flat-tracker. I remembered watching Mick Doohan slide the NSR. I remembered the first time I watched a GSX-R wheelie down the street by my school as a kid. I knew these kids were watching with the same awe I had as a boy… but they were there and touched the hand of the riders as they came down, mine included. I hope one of them takes the grid one day in the future

The last bit was a struggle. I pushed that bike as far as I could and was at complete physical collapse when we got to the pits. I struggled to catch my breath as more fans came up to talk. I tried to be nice, passed out stickers, and dreamed about going to sleep. It was a helluva day.

Beers were cracked and stories were told. Some men had reset records, some people had simply finished for the first time ever. Still others had been flown away in helicopters after leaving the course and striking trees. This is real human drama, and hugs and handshakes flowed freely. Would I do it again? Yes. Right now.

Passenger-ing on a sidecar is a fantastic way to meet Pikes Peak. I would do it again any time. When the course becomes fully paved, I will be ready to take my Windle F2 sidecar up there as driver and battle the mountain again. Until then, I will be searching for an open chair. This race is storied in history and deserves great respect. I dont see it as an assault on a mountain, but as an accepted challenge between a road and a group of determined individuals. No one makes it to the summit without permission from the mountain. Dave and Jim won the sidecar race, but conceded their victory to the Wenzel brothers due to the engine displacement difference. This stops an arms race in the sidecar division since the break between classes is 2 cylinder bikes 750cc’s and under, and an unlimited class. The organizers had grouped sidecars into one class, but Dave made sure the distinction was made between his bike and the others. The Kennedy brothers had made it to the top on their home-built machine, feeling as though they had won by simply finishing. After the mechanical issues they had, they had reason to celebrate.

And there you have it. I was given an opportunity out of the blue. Someone punched “Pikes Peak Sidecar Passenger” into a search engine, and on the other end was a post of mine made at http://www.advrider.com where I mentioned how bad I wanted to race Pikes Peak. Without the money to continue my road racing season (and honor my commitments to my sponsors) if I chased a dream, I found out the generosity of people by asking for help. Allowing other people to contribute to my life is a new thing. I’ve always been huge on making my own things happen, but also still have some of my youthful need to do everything the hard way. It was great to get up the verve to ask for help, and even more so to receive that help. Thanks to everyone that donated in any way, even if it was just encouragement. Lastly, a HUGE thanks to Dave Hennessy and Hennessy Sport Cycles for giving me this opportunity. They were real salt of the earth types, every one of them. I don’t think I bought more than two of my own meals the entire time I was there. What a great group, and I hope to see them returning to the Peak in 2010. Both of our teams had a hard time with the breakdown and the  handling issues. However, I feel it’s the adversity that makes it such a big feather in the cap of any racer, no matter how many wheels they choose to race on.

Cheers,

Johnny

For more pics go here

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