The AHRMA Moto Classica at Willow Springs Raceway is among my favorite every year. Essentially, any AHRMA event is among my favorite. This one happens at “the home track,” which isn’t a course I’m particularly fond of, but it’s one I’m familiar with. That makes it a great place for getting passengers up to speed; which is what we were there to do.
Some fans may remember Giorgina Gottlieb as my passenger in the 2010 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. I met Gina at a concert actually. She was on a road trip and decided to stop into Los Angeles for the show. The headlining band, Cold, was also a favorite of mine so I made the 90-mile trek to LA. We kept in touch by e-mail, but the San Fransisco Bay was Gina’s home base, so I didn’t expect to see her again. That is, until my regular passenger Vanessa McClure, couldn’t race the Pikes Peak Hill Climb with me. I sent a text message to everyone in my phone book, and received 2 maybes and 1 “hell yes!”. Despite not knowing what the race really was, or really what a sidecar passenger had to do, Gina was all-in. Her distance from southern California and her light weight made it a one-off race in my mind, but talks in February changed that. Gina was ready to go all-in on the 2011 road-racing series. With our 1st race being rained out and our 2nd race coming too quickly for her to get all the gear she needed, this would be our first official road-race together.
Saturday offered us 2 practice sessions before our race. Things started out quite shaky with Gina’s leathers still being tight and restrictive, and we were only able to complete a few laps. I was going pretty fast as well, since I subscribe to the philosophy that the only way to learn how to go fast it to go fast. I know better, but “King Kenny” Roberts’ words still ring in my head. The second session I backed off and we were able to get in 5 laps, but we were markedly off the pace, running a best of 1:43, four seconds off my race-pace with Vanessa as passenger. Still, the race was here and we would be starting from the front row of a 14-bike starting grid.
On high speed tracks like Willow Springs I tend to get a good start. The high speeds mean taller gearing, so the engine has less ability to accelerate. This makes finesse with the clutch paramount, and we nailed this one. I drove as hard as i could the first lap, and managed to remain in the lead. Gina seemed to be doing pretty good, so I was surprised to see the “slow down” signal coming from her. The fast guys drove by us on the front straight, so into turn 1 we sat in a close 4th place. Everyone kind of bunched up since they had to go to the inside of us entering the turn, and I drove hard on the exit to get some momentum. Into turn 2 we went and I actually had to feather the throttle a bit, as we sat on the tail of Rick Murray of Team RGM. I decided to take the long way around and fought for traction outside of the long sweeping turn 2. We were able to get a nose on RGM, and as we drove into turn 3 I tried for an inside move, but couldn’t make it work. By turn 5 we were watching the fast guys pull away.
I kept my pace a little slower after that figuring 4th was in the bag, but Mike Troutman and Heidi Neidhoefer of Cat On A Leash Racing were closing in. I could pull away in the fast turns, but had to give up a lot of ground in the slow stuff. Then by lap 4 of the 6 lap race, Gina simply couldn’t keep up in any of the corners. After the race it became a bit more obvious. Gina had rolled he ankle on the 1st lap, and now every bump we hit was absolutely killing her; adrenaline can only mask that kind of pain for so long.
Out on the track I didn’t have a clue. I only knew she kept signaling to slow down and Cat On A Leash just kept getting closer. We lost the spot to them, and I pulled it back in and retook it. Then they caught us again and passed us. I made a last lap charge but we had lost too much ground. Not knowing what happened to Gina, I was furious. During the cool down lap I thought it out. I said it didn’t matter where we finished as long as we were able to run 1:43 lap times, which we did, though only twice of the 5 flying laps we did (no reason to time lap 1, since it’s from a standing start).
The Saturday night party with the Cretins motorcycle club was a great way to unwind. Just before sunset, someone noticed a huge pond of race fuel in the catch pan of our race bike, and damned if the fuel tank itself hadn’t cracked. Fortunately it let go AFTER the race, but $40 of race fuel was now a black spot on the asphalt, and a messy field repair had to be undertaken. I was more than happy to keep the memories at bay with good friends, good food, and (a lot of) good drinks. Always there when you need them, the Cretins always bring a good party with them wherever they go.
Sunday morning we worked as much on strategy as we did on technique. Gina seemed unphased by the rolled ankle and in our 2nd practice session, I ignored her “slow down” hand signals and ran 5 laps at a 1:42-1:43 range. This was as much for me as her, since I needed to know if she could go that many laps without tiring. We were still several seconds behind the usual lap times at this track, but we had a solid bas to work from, and a solid goal to work to.
SUNDAY: RACE 2
Another excellent start had us in the lead until turn 1. Somehow, Gina got a little stuck and couldn’t get to the left of the bike in time though, so we went wide as I tried to hold the bike down and keep us on the asphalt. Around went Becker Moto Works and Team Excalibur. RGM would have gone by too I assume, but engine problems kept them from making the start. We settled back in before turn 2 and I actually ran right up on the leaders. I attempted to drive around the outside again, but couldn’t get enough traction with the cold tires to come alongside. We lost some time in the slower turns but I reeled the leaders back as we went into high speed turn 8. My exit onto the front straight wasn’t perfect, and we lost a little time on the front straight. I watched the lead change into turn 1, but was also getting the “slow down” signal again from Gina. I didn’t think we could keep up with them for six laps anyway, so I took it down a notch and started to look over my shoulder to manage the gap behind us. Each lap i got the “slow down” signal, so we dropped from a 1:41 to 1:42, then 1:43 and finally 1:44.0. By this time Bad Cat Racing (Mike Jones/ Brandon Mathews) was closing in. I decided to take it easy in the tight turns where Gina had to work harder, and go all-out in the fast stuff.
Unfortunately this wasn’t working as Bad Cat seemed to smell blood in the water. They kept closing, but they were still several bike lengths back on the last lap. I took it a bit easy, feeling confident. Gina was feeling a bit “loose” on the bike anyway. As a Formula 2 driver, the passenger lays on the driver’s back during right hand turns, so you get a good feeling of where they are. Also, since the put most of their body weight on their legs, you can feel their positioning through the chair wheel. When a passenger is exhausted, they get a floppy feeling which you feel on your back and through the chair wheel, which holds the bike in place during right hand turns.
I gave a mirror check and couldn’t see Bad Cat, so I took a conservative line through the final turn and gave the bike all it had down the front straight. I still figured we were safe, and it wasn’t until right after I closed the throttle at the checkered flag that I saw their nose come into view. We had only held onto 3rd by a few feet!
The weekend was a total blast off-track, and a ton of work on-track; par for the course. I saw our lap times drop from 1:50 to 1:41, with consistant 1:43’s possible. Of course, this is miles from the 1:39 I used to run, and even further back from the 1:36 that Becker Moto Works (defending champions) run at this track. Still, progress will come easy in the first few races. I have to get used to the fact once again that we won’t be able to hold the chair down in turns. After adding 20lbs ballast to the chair, Vanessa and I were sitting pretty with a bike that could finally be driven “properly”, that is, with the tires basically flat on the ground. Unfortunately Gina is about 20lbs lighter than Vanessa, so it’s back to the wild looking “chair in the air” driving style I seem to be famous for. As confidence grows, I will be able to keep the throttle on more and that holds the chair down. It takes tremendous trust though to be able to hold the throttle wide open when at any moment the passenger could move and send the bike out of control. But the alternative is to go around a corner at part throttle with the chair floating, which is actually pretty safe, but much slower (throttle open= go fast, throttle part open= go kinda fast). My frustration in having to “start over” will have to take a back seat as we concentrate on what Gina needs to be successful. It’s a healthy dose of pride swallowing for me, but it’s good development in staying humble. On May 14-15 we will get another chance at Willow Springs Raceway to shave some seconds off our lap times and build the teamwork needed to succeed in this sport.
Until then, Au Dieu.