The season started out as the previous one had ended. Handling problems and engine problems and both seemed unsolvable. Add to it that Gina was not able to make it to the season opener and you have what is called “going through the motions.” I was there physically at the Las Vegas Motor speedway’s Classic Course, but my mind was somewhere else as often as possible.
I officially took over as President of the club I race with, the SRA-West. I was expecting a big mess with this being the first race and all the licensing crap that needed to be done, but my VP Chris Wood (no relation) handled a huge amount of the administrative stuff, which at least took off some undue pressure. The next thing was to set about trying to figure out the horrible stability problem on the bike. With only 2 practice sessions and one race each day there would not be a lot of track time.
My passenger for this outing was Russ Granger, a friend I’ve known for several years and a guy who has raced on sidecars before. However, he had not raced with me before and I believe he has only raced on the long-wheelbase Formula 1 machines, not an F2 like mine. The difficulties would be quickly apparent. Russ only had two 15minute sessions to figure out where the handholds were and which way the track went. At the same time I still had not cured the god awful headshake that has plagued us for almost a year. The problem seems to be too much flex in the frame, but I was still attempting to make front wheel geometry changes to cure it. On the second practice session, Russ was unceremoniously spit off the bike while exiting turn 7. Although the corner is quite slow, the term “slow” is relative. 50 mph is only slow on a race track, but it is way too fast once you hit the ground. He went for quite a tumble but managed nothing but an injured toe. Still, this isn’t exactly a flesh wound; passengers are on their toes literally as well as figuratively. I could only hope the swelling didn’t put him out of action before the race.
On top of that, the machine was still violently shaking its head. Normally only a problem when I chopped the throttle abruptly or under braking, it was now showing some instability by merely lifting the throttle to set up for a turn. Case in point is turn 6, a bumpy sweeper taken in 6th gear. That kind of behavior is unacceptable and no manner of adjustment was making it better.
We started qualifying for grid space this year instead of going off of accumulated points, so we started from the last position out of eight machines. The 8-lap sprint was looking to be a serious battle, but Russ was at least able to make it on the bike to try things out. We got a good start and dove for the middle. Everyone else was diving that way as well, so I turned for the outside and was behind Team Big Dog Garage. They missed the shift to 2nd gear and I went even further to the outside, dipping the chair wheel into the dirt.
On the extreme left for a right hand corner worked out and I was able to get around a lot of the field as the bunched up on the inside. I looked over to the right to see what was coming my way as we turned to the inside. I saw Wood Brothers 2 (no relation) but I looked to have enough room. Behind them I suddenly saw another bike with a rookie driver come bouncing up the inside in the dirt, bouncing into Wood Brothers 2 and spinning them. I watched for a second before realizing this was no place to spectate, and I jammed the throttle open.
We came out in 3rd place but the engine was acting up, meaning we were eaten alive in three different spots on the track in addition to our difficulties while braking. The engine would not take full throttle and the gauges kept going haywire. I figured there must be a bad electrical ground, but there was nothing to do now but shift early and only open the throttle as far as I could without the engine misfiring.
We were quickly passed by Big Dog and Team Nurburgring, Steve Stull and Heidi Niedhoefer. They were both experienced, but were still coming to grips with each other and a new bike. They were quite slow exiting rights due to wheelspin, and also had difficulties in the extremely tight lefts. This allowed me to make passes and keep them close, but every time we got onto a straight the failing engine let me down, forcing us to close the gap back in.
While it was definitely desperate, rear-guard kind of driving, it was still pretty fun. We went back and forth about twice a lap while Big Dog Garage and the lead pair took off into the distance. By lap 3 Russ was indicating he was beginning to tire out, so I had to back off a bit. Steve and Heidi went off into the distance, but in 2 laps Russ had caught his breath. Steve and Heidi were also slowing down a bit, so I charged after them with our crippled machine.
I managed to catch them and we had a quick back-forth before I finally got a pass made in a section that was not immediately followed by a straight stretch. That left us good enough for fourth place, and I was basically happy it was over.
I worked on measurements and adjustments in the afternoon and basically just got sick of it, and proceeded to some heavy drinking by nightfall. We did manage to track the electrical gremlin to a faulty main switch, but the engine would still misfire in the morning.
Russ was sore by practice and we gave it a tentative first practice session. The second practice I was surprised that an adjustment I made seemed to help the headshake. Strangely, it would occasionally brake in a straight line with zero instability, but the next lap it would shake it’s head violently. I was profoundly confused and felt no closer to a solution when the race started.
Our back row start was good but we got aced out and were in 5th or 6th place. Donn Sayre had a really poor start and ended up behind us. He won yesterday’s race so I expected him to pass us, which he quickly did. However, he was stuck behind Big Dog and Team Nurburgring for so long that it allowed Wood Brothers 1 (no relation) to get a large lead which they kept the entire race. While the leaders took off I set about reeling in Nurburgring again and we proceeded out back-forth game from the previous day. This time things looked bad for us because Steve was getting a better drive out of right turns. He was still out-braking himself and that was helping us stay in striking distance, but every time I made a pass it was really just to get in his way and try to keep him near me… not to pass him and try to pull away.
We were able to do this but he easily out-drove us on the front straight and that is of course where the finish line is. I figured I may as well put up a fight though, but Steve was taking very defensive lines to try and hold us off exiting the slow lefts. It was the only place I could out drive him, and only for the first 100-150ft, so it was crucial I get beside him in this section.
On the last lap I pulled this maneuver once again but Steve started moving over on me. I gave him the room since he technically still had position on me (the guy trying to make the pass has the responsibility to pull off the pass cleanly), but once I started running out of real estate I figured we would just have to hit each other. He should have been able to see my nose and he already had the inside line for the approaching right hand hairpin. I really had no plane since this corner lead onto the long back-straight; any pass I made here would be for naught. However, if I could spoil his exit by pressuring him it would mean he’d only pull 7 bike lengths on me instead of 10, and I’ll take what I can get in these situations.
Sadly, Steve caught some kind of wobble while out-braking himself and weaved into me. The contact was superficial, but since I was already on the edge of stability with my own machine and the chair wheel was beginning to dip off into the dirt it didn’t take much.
The handlebars barely weaved in my hand but nonetheless I had to release the brakes to get control back and that meant I was not going to make the corner. I tried my best but I was concerned I would spin out with the chair now touching the dirt. We went dirt surfing and I was not happy about it. I managed not to spin which is hard on rocks; the tires are so wide you are basically floating on ball bearings. We finished 4th though since one of the leaders had spun on lap 6 and had not caught back up to us.
I was unable to stay calm after the race but I managed to keep from a complete outburst of foul language. I knew I’d be calmed down in 10 minutes and sure enough, in about 15 minutes I was fine. In the end, I really don’t care about my results this year. I’ve got nothing I want to do in this series, and the Isle of Man TT is really all I care about (along with a couple events in New Zealand and Australia). I only care about getting the bike to handle moderately safe and selling it. I’ve got some ideas but it really seems that until I stiffen the frame up somewhat we’ll never get the bike to behave consistently. To be fair, it has been repeatedly modified and it was originally built in the 1980’s… tires never had this much traction and engines didn’t make this much power.
So things are all happening in the garage this year. My season will exist under fluorescent lights with a welder and a machinist square and a pair of calipers. I’m not actually the grease rat many people think, so I’m not excited about that prospect. I like working on stuff, but I do not like scratching my head while looking at someone else’s design, trying to figure out what is going wrong. I prefer handlebars in my had to a protractor or a torch. In the end it doesn’t matter what I want though; there is no one to take this bike to and have them sort it. There is no help to be had other than advice from some of the veteran and retired racers. April 25-27 has us at Willow Springs, so hopefully I have the engine figured out by then as it’s a high speed track. High speed is actually a good thing though as the headshake is more pronounced at low speed for whatever reason. Days after this race we are at Sonoma Raceway May 1-2 and that has a lot of medium speed turns and crests. It’s one of my favorite tracks but I have no idea how I will get the bike sorted out by then.