Once again the SRA-west hosted their season finale at Willow Springs Raceway, this time at the high-speed main track. The real story is the driver’s championship. I was a bit excited that my sponsor and mentor Bill Becker was leading by a single point over an Isle of Man TT veteran and all-around funny guy Wade Boyd. Whoever finished ahead of the other would likely win the championship.
My own battle had secured me in 3rd place regardless of how I finished. This was good news as neither Vanessa McClure or Chris Rizzo would be able to passenger for me. My friend Michelle Baird at Cycle News had a perfect candidate; her boyfriend Jason. Either she was confident in my abilities, or Jason had a smokin’ good life insurance policy.
Practice started out shaky with a combination of new passenger, slower speeds, and too-high tire pressure. We had a pow-wow in the pits about technique and were much improved in the 2nd session, but Jason was getting big arm pump and could only do 3-4 laps a session. When you first get on a sidecar as passenger, you aren’t sure if the shaking and sliding is natural, or you’re about to crash. This makes you hold on much tighter than you need to since there’s no frame of reference in your mind. It’s not like being on a bike, it’s not like riding in a car. I remember when I first passenger-ed. I was on a much slower machine, but was also racing my SV650 solo bike. The soreness was stunning. It literally made it difficult to get out of bed the next day. I’m sure Jason knows what I mean! Never the less we ended Saturday practice with good speeds, about 5 seconds of the pace I normally run with Vanessa as passenger.
Saturday night was a big end-of-year party that brought everyone out of their campers for a huge feast and some camaraderie. While racers in general tend to be a close-knit bunch (until money is on the line), sidecar racers are as tight as any family unit. The “subset-within-a-subset” feeling makes it that way. It was good though to meet with people I hadn’t seen in quite a while; not every team makes every race, so you may only see some people once or twice a year.
Waking up with a hang over I gladly missed the first session to try and let Jason’s arms stretch out, and to let me get a lot of water into my system. The 2nd Sunday practice was good, with speeds up around 85% of normal pace. Nothing left to do but give the bike a once over for safety and drink more water.
Our race kicked off as a 6 lap event, with typical high winds. Our 11 bike grid was set up by points, puting me on the inside of row 2, behind championship contenders Becker Moto Works and Subculture Racing. I concentrated on my own race. Knowing the head gasket to my engine had let go (evidenced by the engine seeping its compression into the radiator and pumping water into my overflow bottle), I saw little reason to show it mercy. I suddenly realized I never told Jason he needed to be over the rear wheel for the start! I motioned him over and he climbed half on. I kept motioning him and he got in the proper position. I hoped he had a good grip, because the start has much more G-force than one first expects.
I launched the underpowered motor with total abandon, the engine screaming at around 10,000 RPM as I feathered the clutch. By the time I had the clutch out I was ready for 2nd gear, and slowly moved over to the outside of the track to dive into turn 1. Bill and Wade began to pull away, but somehow no one else was passing me. Team Brahma came by in turn 1 and shot off into the distance. I stayed somewhat near Bill and Wade the first lap, but they were already pushing hard, and they went off into the distance at the end of lap one, with Team Excalibur following them.
Fourth place was fine with me, but there were some machines back there that could be gaining, I couldn’t tell. Once machine was definitely gaining, and on lap 3 I was stunned to see it was Hans Schultz in the #69 bike. I was Hans’ passenger in 2007 and was surprised to see him; he usually suffers from mechanical ailments. His 2007 Suzuki GSX-R750 motor seemed to be working quite well now and he was gaining on me in several spots. I decided to tuck my head down and have a race, but this was about the time Jason was getting arm pump. The strength required to hang on is very high when you first start racing. Until you have enough laps to work on technique, brute strength is your only real hope. Saturday practice and the 4 laps at 90% race pace were finally catching up, and I eased off.
It was very interesting because Hans was showing excellent speed. I hope this lasts and I have someone to battle with next year. For today though, I would have to let him go. I kept my pace up in the hopes of maintaining position for as long as possible. The bike was just handling to sketchy to carry speed through the right-handers, and I know it still takes tremendous strength to stay on the bike even when you’re just hanging on for the ride. We made it another two laps and Team Tefft Cellars passed us with Bad Cat Racing shortly behind them. There was nothing to do but watch.
As we neared turn 8 for the final lap I motioned for Jason to climb over the right side of the bike for a last charge. I ran 100% pace into turn 8 and saw Tefft Cellars go wide, allowing Mike and Cindi of Bad Cat Racing to sneak up the inside. I pulled in to about 10 lengths of them, and dipped into turn 9. From here it was just the front straight and I eased off to take the checkered in 8th place.
It was a frustrating way to end the season, especially after all the mechanical issues we had in Utah last month, but nonetheless I handily took 3rd overall in drivers points, in this, my first full year as driver. Using an older bike with outdated brakes and an outdated engine. Using 3 different passengers, and doing almost every bit of work on the bike myself. To say the least, I am proud. Third place was my goal, and I achieved it at great effort. I could not have done it without the selfless efforts of Bill Becker of Becker Moto Works and Cameron Neff, a personal friend who took a huge amount of time out of his life to help me prepare the bodywork for my Utah race. I’d like to also thank each of my passengers this year. I’d also like to give a special mention to Chris Rizzo who- in his first weekend as a sidecar passenger- managed to get a machine flipped over on his head, and still made it to the next event. Not only that, but he helped repair the damage!!! That’s dedication. I would expect to see him on the grid next year in once capacity or another. More thanks goes to Robert Jesmer of Sinful Flesh clothing for his partial sponsorship as well as his photography skills. Making me look good takes a helluva lotta work!!! Thanks buddy.
For those of you screaming, “WELL, WHO WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP?”, it was… Becker Moto Works. Bill and Wade battled each other the entire race. Bill showed speed in the many sweeping corners, but Wade would combine a small horsepower advantage with superior braking technique to make his passes. The lead changed at least twice every lap, with Bill making a pass on the final lap in turn 2, and managing to finally stretch a small gap to the stripe. Bill has raced sidecars since 1984, and this is his first championship. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see this accomplishment. He was dazed, with a huge grin plastered on his face. The championship remains split however, with Wade’s passenger- Christine Blunk- taking the championship in passenger points. This means both teams walked away from 2009 with a number 1 plate.
My passenger Vanessa ends her first season in 9th place, mainly due to having to miss most of the season with medical problems and other obligations. Chris Rizzo ends in 12th as passenger, only because two of his finishes are not counted in the points. Counting those finishes would have pushed him to 11th or possibly 10th. Regardless of the details, it is a great showing for people who literally answered an open invite for anyone to give it a try. They are now both totally hooked, and I have been encouraging Chris to think about moving to the driver’s seat; he has an excellent sense for the dynamics involved, and has great metal fabricating skills.
That may wrap up the season as far as racing goes, but don’t wander off. There is a lot to report on in the off-season. Vanessa and I will be training, a new engine will be sourced for the race bike (no more excuses, GSX-R1000 here we come) and a host of other mods are coming as well (paint, front brake upgrade, rear suspension). 2010 will be something spectacular for Team Johnny Killmore. Thanks for riding with us through the ups and downs of 2009. We will keep you up to date as our off-season progresses, with photos and videos.