Finally I can sit down and write about our latest race in Utah. This was the first time back on a race course since April, and our first time on the bike since Pikes Peak in June. Measuring the frame showed the steering geometry was off from the last time we set it, and we could not find a reason why. This time we put the steering near zero, which should make it lighter steering and stable at the same time. We also used this weekend to test the DOT legal race tire from Hoosier, as opposed to the racing slick we normally run. The hope is that it will have quicker warm up time and be more capable of running in wet conditions than a full slick. Pikes Peak requires versatility and an instant warm up time from tires. We put the DOT tire on the rear since that tire gets the most abuse. We noticed that the sidewall was much stiffer, and I hoped that would make the tire more resistant to rolling onto the sidewall when floating on two wheels. With our regular passenger Gina unable to attend, I was forced to play “Passenger Roulette” during Friday practice. I was fortunate to find Mike Root, who was racing his vintage 350 Honda, and he seemed eager to try. Our first sessions were pretty good and we were up to speed by the end of the day. I was still a little unsure just what we could do during the race, but there was only one way to find out.
The grid was pretty big and I have had terrible luck at this track in years past. Electrical and brake problem and my own inability to string the faster corners together has made this track my nemesis, yet still my favorite road course. We started from the front row with championship rival Team Becker Moto Works back on the 4th row. Still using the same gearing from Pikes Peak (very short, for acceleration) allowed us to fire off the line and into the lead easily. We were alone by the second lap and I began racing as hard as possible. Becker is much faster than we are, but with him having to fight through traffic, I hoped to make a big enough gap that he couldn’t catch up. We ran fast and almost mistake-free until the 3rd lap of 6, when I finally caught the flash of red and yellow in my mirror.
William and Eric Becker are a father/son team that’s been racing together for something like nine years. “Mr. Bill” has been racing almost non-stop since 1984, builds his own sidecars, is responsible for 90% of the modifications to mine, and is the defending series champion. When he gets behind you, it’s hard not to notice. He also is running a Formula 1 sidecar, where mine is a Formula 2. The F1 has the engine in the back and is much longer and usually a little wider. The wheelbase and weight distribution make them faster in general because it’s easier to control a slide. My F2 machine has a very high center of gravity because it was originally built for bumpy “real roads” circuits in England, and it also sits higher on its 13in wheels, whereas it came stock with 10in wheels. You combine that with how narrow it is and you get a race machine that won’t stay on 3 wheels very long. Fortunately, the steering geometry change made the bike VERY low effort to steer, and I was actually having to be careful not to steer off the inside of the track because the response was so much better than before. Totally gone was the head shake whenever I closed the throttle. I raced with confidence, but they guy who made the geometry change was now on my ass and definitely not concerned with ho comfortable I felt!
The East Course at Miller Motosports Park (MMP) is actually fast and twisty at the same time, making passing difficult. I started taking defensive lines hoping I could force Becker to make an outside move (very tricky on a sidecar). I actually was getting a slight gap as we exited each corner, but he’d hold there just a few lengths back until the next corner, where he’d be all over me, obviously being held up. I was on basically the same line he was using, and to go around me on a different line, and still be faster, is almost impossible. As we started lap four my plan was working, but I could feel Mike getting tired. You can tell as a driver because a passenger will get slower and less deliberate as they begin to tire. Their focus goes away and their movements feel more rubbery. Regardless, I pushed on.
The problem with taking a defensive line on a sidecar is you turn in early just like any other type of racing, and this leaves you having to stay turned all the way to the exit. For a passenger this means having to hang out until the last moment and rush across the bike to the other side as quickly as possible. The extra physical effort adds up. As a driver, you have to manage your race. You can’t over-ride your tires, you can’t overheat your engine, you can’t overheat your brakes. As a sidecar driver, you also must make sure you don’t overheat your passenger. Coming into turn 1, it all fell apart. I went in deep on the brakes to the tight left-hander and turned in early. This meant I couldn’t get on the gas early enough, which forces the chair up. The extra second it took to get on the gas left enough room for Becker to duck right through the inside and squirt away. I knew there was lap traffic coming because there were two laps left and we had vintage sidecars with us, which can barely do 90mph. I took off after Becker and was surprised to find I could almost keep up with him. He was gapping us for sure, but only by a few lengths each turn.
He waited behind a lapper in Tooele Turn, a flat left turn preceding a fairly long straight. I came in like a maniac on the brakes but Becker and the lapper were 2-wide in the apex. With no other pavement open, I threw the bike onto the inside curb and slammed the throttle open. We were drag-racing to the next left and I couldn’t quite get the nose up beside him. I thought about a banzai move up the inside. I could go in with the brakes locked and force Becker to check up and wait, but this isn’t motocross, and there are several thousand dollars tied up in both of our paint jobs (the bodywork is all one piece, you can’t replace a panel like on a NASCAR). I tucked in and made another attempt on the inside at the next turn, but couldn’t get inside. If I could just get back through I could hold him off for the final lap!!!
Into the last turn to pick up the white flag, and Mike totally misses the transition. The chair comes up and I straighten the bike out. Becker is driving away up the straight and I can see more lap traffic down the track. This can work! I hammer the bike and draw in on the champ, but he has about 10 lengths on us. Still, the lapper would be in our way in the double-right turns and I have a shot at a pass. We draw in on the brakes and he has about 5 lengths on us. Into the high-speed right called “Faster” and I set up for the tight left named “Gotcha” immediately following it. Back a gear and onto the brakes, I am already planning where to make my move. Suddenly I realize Mike is not making the transition. He is late, and I hold up on the throttle and add a little more brake. No way, he’s not going to make it. I turn in and try to open the throttle, because turning left with the throttle closed will flip the bike at this speed. He’s still not transitioning, and there’s no way to stop now, we are going off the track.
Your head is only about two feet off the ground in one of these bikes, and I’m looking for washouts, gutters, bushes, etc. We jump off the track and it feels greasier than the dirt at Pikes Peak on day 1. Keep the throttle cracked open, and don’t steer too sharp. I hear Becker making an upshift and I know he’s gone. I only hope when we re-enter the track the people behind us see it. Back onto the asphalt, row the transmission down to 2nd gear, and pull away. There’s no way at all to look back; you’re trapped in position and the mirror is too blurry to really see details. We get up to speed and head in for the checkers, still in second place.
Afterward Mike said he got caught on the foothold and couldn’t move. We decide to tape up his boots for Sunday’s race, and I decide to stop thinking about what’s happening behind me on the track. If I hadn’t been thinking of Becker on my tail, I wouldn’t have gone wide, and we wouldn’t have been chasing him on the last lap. Saturday night is a great time to relax. MMP is a full world-spec facility, and we watch movies on the TV’s in the GP-spec paddock, surrounded by race bikes bathed in the soft incandescent glow. Sunday will be a chance for redemption.
For Sunday we changed our strategy a bit. Knowing that Becker was faster than us, our plan was to race at about 85% pace until he caught us, and then battle it out to stay in front of him. Our hope was that this would give Mike enough energy in the final half of the 6-lap event to push 100%. He was even smoother in morning practice than the day before, so hopes were high. The plan went out the window before we were halfway through the first lap though. We got the holeshot again and were in the lead, but damned if Bad Cat Racing (Mike Jones/ Brandon Mathews) wasn’t right on our tail. Their Formula 1 machine is an older spec version of what Becker is using, and they seemed to find more speed out of it the usual. I put my head down and charged, but only managed to pull out about 7 lengths. A comfortable lead, but not enough to slow down, and I remained at about 95%.
I was surprised not to see Becker until lap four, and it took him about half a lap to get around Bad Cat. We still had a shot though and I stopped looking behind me and started concentrating on my own race. Eyes up, look through the turn. Apex late to get the exit right. Don’t over-brake the machine. It seemed to be working as Becker was still about 2 lengths back. Going into “The Attitudes”, a 3-turn chicane with a rise in the middle, he out-braked himself and fell back to about 6 lengths. We were catching lap traffic in the straights so it wasn’t working to either of our advantage. We picked up the white flag still in the lead. Into turn 1 we go and damned if I don’t go wide again! I know he’s right there and I get on the gas as hard as I dare. The chair is still way up in the air and I just can’t risk more throttle. The tires are automotive, so as soon as you roll up onto the edge your contact patch goes from 7.5 inches wide to maybe 3 inches. Becker darts inside but having to stay that tight spoils his drive. We are facing down the track now so I pin the throttle and drive right up on his tail. Maybe lap traffic?? I have to stay right on him. If he makes a single mistake we need to be right there to get back into the lead. It’s our only chance.
Into the high-speed right “Faster” and I have to check up not to get too close. I can see Becker’s bike smooth and fast. Into “Gotcha”, the left turn we missed on Saturday. Mike is right there and as we turn in I see Becker go into a big slide ahead of us. He’s giving it everything. Into the double-rights and our rear wheel is spinning, Becker’s is not. We lose 3 lengths. Into the double lefts and our chair is in the air, Becker’s is not. Another 3 lengths. Into “The Attitudes” and we actually pick up a little ground. Our short wheelbase is an advantage here. LAP TRAFFIC! I pin the throttle and vow not to close it no matter what happens. Becker makes it cleanly around the inside of them and I try to follow, but the chair is in the air again, and the front is sliding away. I steer to the outside but the lapper doesn’t know we’re there. I sneak around on the outside curb, but there’s still about 5 lengths to Becker’s tail. We push hard but he is mistake free. We are 8-10 lengths distant at the stripe.
Slightly disappointed, I have to concede this was my best result here, it was the closest I’ve ever been to Becker in terms of speed, and Mike is a total rookie in his first outing on a sidecar. It’s stellar to be there at the end against such odds, against such a skilled opponent. The rest of the day is full of reflection. Well, that and a chance to win a gorgeous BMW race bike built by BMW/Triumph of Salt Lake City. I wasn’t even close, but for $5, it was worth a shot.
I shouldn’t forget to mention Sunday morning and the taxi rides. When time allows, we take fans and other racers out on a slightly-less-than-race-pace lap around the course. This is always a favorite and it gives people a really profound respect for what passengers have to do. It’s so much faster than it looks, and I can say from experience it’s the most physically demanding thing I’ve done in my life. Nothing on pavement is more physical; you have to look to motocross or desert racing to find a need for that much muscle, endurance, and balance. We took out over a dozen people and the two I took were both totally pumped afterward. I actually managed to take a total of five people out at different times while trying out passengers and doing taxi rides, so a lot of people who never had the experience were able to get inches off the pavement while someone else handled the throttle and the brakes; a unique experience to say the least.
The week started out terrible with me having to borrow a large chunk of my gas money from a friend, and not having my regular passenger. In the end though, we really put together two excellent races, the fans were really enthusiastic, and host club AHRMA put on a great event with a slew of awesome vintage races. I covered the event in a write-up that I hope will make print in Road Racing World magazine, so I won’t bother covering it here. There was just too much to do, and in a good way. The bike was almost totally trouble-free, the new tire worked, the new passenger worked, our whole organization came together to get one of our teams on the grid after tremendous problems from some bad fuel (Sunoco always gives me problems too). I even buried my grudge with Triumph (the new company) and took a test ride on the Thunderbird Storm, a full on cruiser that I actually really liked. The price was a total joke, but maybe in 5-7 years I will look for a used one, who knows? I’m still not ready to buy anything new from the factory, after the Daytona 600 I had and it’s host of breakdowns and the zero-help policy at the US headquarters.
Our next event is at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with host club WERA (www.wera.com) and is a double-header. Gina will finally be back on the bike for the first time since April, and we can finally get back to work with her. She’s had time to work on her stamina, and with our Go Pro camera we can finally get some rear-facing footage to review her technique. I’m looking forward to it as WERA always treats us well and Vegas is a rather unique track on our schedule because of its tight confines and multitude of right turns. Follow the sidecar series at www.sra-west.us or www.johnnykillmore.com
Live Life With Velocity,