Pikes Peak: RACE DAY 2010

After a good day off Saturday, we were awake Sunday well before the sun. The pit area for the bikes is really just in the woods, and it’s difficult to get into your pit space in the dark. We wedged into our spot and got the bikes out, and the wait began. This year the cars would go first, and they would not begin their program until 9am. The cars separate their runs by as much as 10 minutes to avoid catching each other, and that means it takes several hours to launch them all. There wasn’t too much to do except wait. We cruised the cars pit area to see the hardware, snacked on stuff we brought, and napped until the riders meeting.

Like last year, the riders meeting really gave a sense of camaraderie unlike other events I race in. Riders range from once-a-year hobbyists to semi-pro and pro racers who are just doing another event on the calendar. Yet, with the amount of mystique and danger involved, the competitive sense seems to be between racer and race course, not between each other. The riders meeting raffles off a lot of stuff from from different sponsors, and I won a knife/flashlight set from Fly Racing. I gave the knife to Gina, and kept the little LED light. With the riders meeting  over, there was even more down time.

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Hanging out with Malcolm Smith on race day.

The cars were expected to break class records, since almost 2 miles of the course had been paved since last year. The Unlimited class featured  current record holder “Monster” Tajima and Rhys Millen, who was looking to reclaim family honor in the top class, after besting the record for 2WD cars the previous year. We listened and were stunned to hear neither of them broke their record. Tajima had a tire lose pressure, and Millen had clutch and brake overheating problems in his carbon fiber special. But in other classes the same thing was happening. The extra asphalt didn’t seem to help times. Cold temperatures up top took away some of the asphalts bite, and then patchy rain came in at the higher altitudes.

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"Monster" Tajima failed to break the 10 minute mark, with a tire losing pressure during his race.

The waiting was really starting to wear on me, and I tried to snooze and let my mind wander. I suppose it’s what a German fighter pilot would have felt in 1945. Sitting around waiting, knowing that you were going to have to do something really dangerous soon, but having nothing to do but wait. I knew the bike was handling funny, and I knew the extra weight lashed to the chair of the bike would change things, but I had no real idea what we would be in for, especially if the pavement was wet up top.

Finally we were called up to the starting line. The exhibition class went ahead of us, featuring two of the electric bikes and an ATV. Within a few minutes of them launching we were staring up the race course at dark gray and black clouds. I knew Dave’s bike had much more power, and decided to let him get away first. Our start was clean and we tucked in behind Dave and began to run through the gears. I could tell the bike was handling better, but it’s tendency to pull left was as strong as ever. Gina seemed to be getting a rhythm going, and I started to push the bike hard. We reached a narrow section with a fast right-left-right and hay bales very near the edge of the course. Gina missed her mark a bit and the chair picked up, but not with the suddenness experienced before we put the weight in. The bike was at least more predictable.

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At the start. Courtesy Ken Bingenheimer

By the time we got to the first dirt section I could tell that pushing about 75% would keep Gina in her comfort zone and would keep us both mistake-free.  We hadn’t had any close calls yet, but we weren’t even half way through the course. The dirt section never seemed so long. The cars had pushed more of the loose stuff away, and laid down a bit of a blue-groove of rubber on the hard-packed earth. Still, their lines were different than mine and I had to adapt, using the parts of the road with traction, instead of the ones that gave a faster trajectory. Higher speeds don’t mean much if you run out of traction at the exit.

Only about one minute into the dirt section  I started to lose my bearings. We had only run this section twice due to our crash, and that was on the first day of practice. There was a fast left I was trying to see around but couldn’t. I said into the intercom, “I think it’s a left,” and heard Gina come back with, “RIGHT! RIGHT!” About the same time I realized it was a hairpin and just barely had enough time slow things down. I slammed the bike to the right and pinned the throttle, getting a good slide from the rear end to help me swing the bike around. The violent manuever actually workout well; better than my road-racing style of finesse and timing. I started slamming the bike into corners and- at least in the slow corners- it was much easier to aim the bike.

Gina and I were definitely picking up speed as we got back onto the pavement. Right turns were still taken gingerly, but I was beginning to push in lefts to where the bike was protesting. The front end would push and squirm but I was able to slide up on the tank and wreslte with it. Gina was getting better at moving her weight too. Up next was “the W’s”, the famous set of hairpins. Gina was starting to get tired at this point but with the higher speeds on the pavement I couldn’t really make out what she was saying. We managed to really nail the lefts, and tip-toe through the rights. The straights in between each hairpin are quite long for an underpowered bike, so I had time to notice how the temperature had dropped, and first rain drops began to appear on my visor. I didn’t notice the wind until I saw a folding chair tumbling down the mountain right at us! The wind had whipped it down from the spectators on the terrace above, and it came mighty close. I moved away from it a bit in case a gust came, but we missed it by a second or two, and carried on our way.

The pavement seemed more dry than wet as we got to Devil’s Playground. We must have caught a break in the rain, and when we got to the final dirt section it was almost totally dry.  I was angry  at the 75% pace we had been running and really wanted to push things. This dirt section was much looser and bumpier than the bottom though. Moreover, the cliff sides were much steeper and I began half-stepping through the corners. It’s unbearably hard to not race full out on a race bike. I tried to let the anger wash away and think of Gina over on the other side of the bike, panting almost uncontrollably in the intercom. We carried speed where we could, and I was glad when we made it to the final pavement section.

The final stretch is a combination of tight turns and medium-speed sweepers. There is no flow like a purpose-built racetrack; the road is laid where it will last the longest and with the least effort. Remembering my younger days riding road bikes in the canyons, I started trying to read the road; using the background terrain to guess where a turn would tighten or change it’s banking. Gina was flinging herself from side-to-side now; a sure indication she was exhausted and running out of muscle. I knew the feeling from my years as passenger on road racing bikes, but we were just starting to get into our element.

The bike was very low on power in the thin air up top. The hairpins I normally took in second gear were now too tight, but first gear was too low. In one of these the motor stuttered really bad so I slammed it into first gear. The bike lurched forward, and Gina came dangerously close to being thrown out the back. We were only a few corners left though, so she shrugged it off, dug in deep, and we made it to the final hairpin. We blew it just like every other right hand turn, so at least we were consistent. I ran up that final sweeping left and there it was… CHECKERED FLAGS! We made it to the summit with an unimpressive time of 16:39, but we made it. The view had never looked better. A light snow was falling and it was wet and cold. I could care less, the weather was perfect. Everyone was celebrating with each other. Bikes kept pouring in behind us in waves. We found Malcolm Smith, who made an amazing run for a man of 69. The Ducati’s were running one-two, but a last corner mistake for Alexander Smith  dropped him to third. Walker Pew managed to take advantage of Smith’s error and put his Buell into second place. Greg Trachy handily won with a time of 11:46 on the big Ducati. Brother Greg Tracy managed better still in the 750cc class on his TM, running an 11:33. The lighter weight of his purpose-built race bike made up for the lack of power compared to the 1200cc Ducatis. Still, without a doubt the Ducatis were exciting to watch. This is afterall a touring-style road bike, and Trachy’s machine was dead stock. A set of tires and a race fairing were about the only modification, and it was a one-of-a-kind thing to witness.

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All smiles at the summit.

That wraps up my Pikes Peak experience for 2010. I have not decided yet what 2011 holds for me, but I will be attending the event for sure. I may race my solo-bike, and older machine but one I am familiar with. I may take my own sidecar. Rumor is that the entire top section will be paved, leaving only the hard-packed dirt section below. Although bumpy, I may be able to get my road-racer up the mountain, as it has a lot of ground clearance compared to similar machines. Gina expressed interest in racing again, and my regular passenger Vanessa is excited to make the race when the pavement is complete. Whoever races with me in 2011 has first dibs on the 2012 race, when the pavement is complete. The need to run the course multiple times can’t be stressed enough. There is no way to memorize things with just three days of practice. At road racing speeds, a mistake by a passenger could instantly have the bike upside down into a guard rail.

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The view at the summit is never better than right after seeing checkered flags.

With 2011 so far away, I now go back to my road racing season with the SRA-west, where I still sit in second place, but with several races to go. Anything could happen. I’d like to thank David Hennessy for all his hard work on both bikes; there’d have been no sidecars without him. I have to also than William Becker of Becker Moto Works for all his help before the race, and for coaching me through the nightmare of getting used to a motocross sidecar. Bristol Brewery came through again with support in the form of Laughing Lab Scottish Ale, which livens up the entire race week. Victorville motorcycle Center and Sinful Flesh Clothing also extended their support from my road-racing to this once-a-year effort, and I thank them as well. And a big thanks to Ken Kyler for putting up with us and providing an endless stream of enthusiasm for all things sidecar. He may have his own bike running by 2011, and it would be nice to have more sidecars on the grid next year.

Here’s to all the racers who took on the Race to the Clouds this year. See you in 2011!!!

-Johnny

See the full photo album here: http://s29.photobucket.com/albums/c277/buba_zanetti/Pikes%20Peak%202010/

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