Race Report: Miller Motorsports Park

What a horrendous weekend. It wasn’t all bad of course; just the parts where I was on the track or in the pits!

After putting well over 100 hours of labor into the bike, my sidecar looked essentially the same. A modification to the body by sponsor Bill Becker added an awesome look and more wind protection, but it still sat a dull flat grey, as I was not even close to having it painted. Friend Cameron Neff put in huge amounts of time removing holes from the previous owner and installing aviation-style NACA ducts, which came out well. I spent a huge amount of time cleaning and wrenching and sanding and adjusting. I arrived at the track Friday morning with high hopes.

I borrowed Gary Preston who is a semi-regular vintage hack passenger, and did some sessions in the afternoon. The bike quickly lost an air filter and then a muffler. We were finally able to get the machine sorted and get one good session in, and I ended the day knowing a lot would have to be learned in a short amount of time come Saturday morning.

My passenger from Portland- Chris Rizzo- flew out to try his hand at Miller Motorsports Park’s East Loop. This track has the shortest straight of our series, and I felt I finally had a chance at a decent finish, despite my lack of horsepower. We were given to morning practice sessions which Chris would need, having never been on the track before. Our first session went well until the rear brake failed. We bled out the fluid and found air in the lines, likely from the fluid boiling. This is bad news since I rely on heavy braking to close the gap created between corners, where my 750cc engine falls behind. After only 4 laps we lost brakes, and the race would be 6 laps, likely with more braking.

We tested the brakes in the pits and they felts firmer, but the engine had developed a stumble. It was only at low RPM, so I hoped to keep the revs up during the race. In the 2nd practice we were very smooth, but the stumble came back. We messed around with what we could, but it turned out not to be fuel related.

Our race started well with us leaving from the 2nd row and making it into turn 1 in 4th place. The fast cars quickly shot passed us and I found myself back in 6th position; not bad considering the amount of fast machines that showed up for our event. It all came unglued on lap 2 when the stutter became horrible. The engine bucked and stumbled and popped randomly. I first thought it was a fuel problem because it only did it in turns, but then it started to do it all the time. I sat behind Team BadCat, my closest rival, and dealt with the stuttering motor holding me back each time we entered a corner.

Finally the backfiring blew the muffler off the machine again and I was holding it up with my foot so the corner workers wouldn’t see it and wave us off the track. As I prepared to exit the track I took a shot in the dark and grabbed the wiring to the kill switch, which really just turns on the fuel pump and ignition system. The bike burst back to life. The switch itself had gone bad, and by holding the connectors with my left hand I could get decent power. However, I know had my right foot off the brake and on the muffler, while having my left hand off the clutch and on the ignition wires. It was a retarded game of Twister at 100mph, and I had 4 laps to go. Shifting without the clutch and using the front brake, my right arm started to cramp within another lap. It was turning the throttle, steering, and working the front brake by itself. I don’t remember the rest of the race except for cursing loudly in my helmet. We managed an 8th place finish.

Sunday’s practice gave us another stuttering engine despite the new ignition switch. The leaded race fuel I had added Friday night had damaged the seals in the carburetors, allowing them to overfill and leak onto the hot engine. What ensued was over two hours of driving to every parts place in a 10 mile radius to buy up all the tiny O-rings that could be found. They varied in size and material, but they managed to hold fuel, so we drained the tank and filled up with unleaded race fuel. The other problem we dealt with was the most serious of the weekend. The rear brake went completely away  while slowing from 90mph in practice, sending us along the rumble strips and almost into the dirt. We found afterward that the brake line had rubbed against the rear tire and sprung a leak. Hours of fruitless searching and brainstorming left us taking the line from the chair wheel and connecting it to the rear brake. We would have to run on a course which had boiled our brakes in practice, and we’d have to do it with 2/3 of our braking power.

Figuring the next thing to go wrong would be a huge explosion or a meteor landing on my head, I attempted gallows humor in a vain shot at seeming unaffected… I was furious. This is the same brake line and rear tire that has been on the bike ALL YEAR, and it suddenly wants to destroy itself? I had checked it after each race and it NEVER showed signs of rubbing. I had put in ridiculous effort to prep the bike, and it broke in as many ways as it could.  If there was a cliff at the track, I would have pushed the bike off it without a second thought. Regardless of my rage, I stuffed myself  into my helmet and cleared my head for the race.

My start would be from 9th position, on the 2nd to last row. My start was decent and it was kind of nice to have all the fast cars already ahead of me. I settled in behind BadCat’s machine and started to look for a way past. Without the chair brake I tried to favor the front brake a little more. After 2 laps I made a move on the inside with a ton of brakes. I pulled out a gap quickly and settled in to try and conserve the brakes. It was too late. In staying close to BadCat in the early laps, I had cooked the front brakes. They went completely away in a terrifying way that almost sent us off the track. I tried to use the rear, but the moment it felt mushy I gave up that idea, and started coasting into the turns and downshifting.

Within a lap Bad Cat was back around me and the brakes still hadn’t come back. Matter-of-fact, the rear was now almost totally gone. I went into turn 1 with no brakes at all, staring at a tire wall. Without a path through I started pumping both brakes furiously, getting a little bite from the front just at the last moment. I stayed on the track but the brakes never cooled. I quickly over-pumped my arm into a horrible cramp from trying to get the brakes to work. Each time I got them to work a little, more heat would go into them and make them useless for a half a lap. Coasting along I finally gave up hope of catching anyone. A look over my shoulder showed me I was basically alone. I coasted the remaining laps and loaded the bike into the trailer with another dismal finish.

After all this I am stuck with another laundry list of work to do on the bike before returning to Willow Springs Raceway in mid-October. This will be the season finale and I expect to defend my 3rd place in points with Vanessa, my regular passenger. Chris Rizzo deserves mention here. This is a man who had never been on a sidecar before, and after having one flip on top of him, managed to fly out to Utah to do more sidecar racing. He now has six races under his belt, has done a significant amount of work on the bike mechanically, and is still eager to do it again next year. This guy is already a tried-and-true hack racer in my book. Huge thanks to him, and I know I’ll see him on the grid again, maybe behind the handlebars even; he has a good understanding of what makes a sidecar go.

Don’t miss the chance to see the bikes for the last time in 2009 at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond California Oct 17-18. This sport really needs to be seen in person, and some of the Northwest teams will be coming down to try their hands at the fastest road in the west. With some more time in the garage, I will be looking to redeem myself and take home 3rd place in my first ever season as driver of a Formula 2 road-racing sidecar.

-Johnny K-

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