After missing the last three rounds (my engine leaking oil from the cases at Round 7 last year, an electrical issue for round 1 and an injury sidelining me for round 2), I was desperate to finally get back out on track. I literally hadn’t been on a motorcycle since October of last year and I felt like a heroin addict in withdrawal. There was of course the small issue of a severed tendon in my left middle finger which had me sidelined last round. I remember having the following conversation with my physical therapist just a few days days before round 3:
Me: So when do you think I can start moving my finger and start racing? I have a race in little over a week.
PT: Racing? Like a marathon? Oh, no you can’t do that, far too dangerous! You might trip and fall and hurt your finger!
Me: Actually I was talking about bike racing.
PT: Oh, no, that’s far worse… people crash in bicycle racing all the time and you might re-injure your finger!
Me: Uhm… not bicycle racing, motorcycle racing…
At this point I got that look motorcycle racers have been getting from “normal” people since the beginning of time. You know the one- it’s where you suddenly you feel the need to touch your shoulder just to make sure that you don’t have a second head growing out of it. Clearly I wasn’t going to the answer I was looking from the physical therapist! She did however say that the final decision on these matters would be up to my doctor: Dr. Ting.
As luck would have it, I had a follow up with Dr. Ting on Tuesday the 27th and he cleared me to start moving the finger for the first time in 7 weeks and said it was OK to ride if I wrapped my finger to help support it. Two days later I had the truck loaded up and I was driving up to Thunderhill Raceway!
Friday I rode with Zoom Zoom to get a feel of the bike, my new Spears motor and try to just get back into the grove of riding on track. My first session out was pretty sketchy- the suspension was setup much for a much faster pace then I was comfortable riding right now and Turn 3 was like riding on ice due to some new pavement the track had put down about 24 hours earlier. I brought the bike to Jim at Catalyst Reaction and told him about my problems out on track and he softened things up to give me more confidence. After that it was just a matter of getting seat time and trying to figure out just how badly my left hand was going to bother me.
After the suspension, my next problem was the clutch. After having my finger in a splint for 7 weeks, my hand was really weak and after three laps my hand would start loose all strength and I’d start having a lot of problems getting my downshifts in. It was especially difficult getting my 2nd downshift for Turn 14, the first half of a critical double apex 180 degree turn which leads onto the long front straight. I worked with Gregg Spears to adjust my clutch to make it easier to use, but I knew I was going to be in for a long weekend. In the afternoon, my hand was begging for me to stop abusing it and so I started to reduce the number of laps I did each session to focus on quality rather then quantity. By the end of the Friday I had reached my laptime goal for the day. That evening, I did a quick oil change to drain the break-in oil I was running and put in some nice full-synthetic Motorex. I was exhausted after a long day of riding so after dinner, I went straight to bed.
Saturday I had four AFM practice sessions and focused on my lines. I knew that after the long hiatus, I had regressed back to some bad habits like turning in too early. I was finding Turn 9 & 10 particularly difficult since all my brake markers missing and the track was especially dirty in that section which didn’t do much for my confidence. But, by the end of the day, I had dropped a few more seconds and the suspension was starting to hold me back again, so I took it back to Catalyst Reaction to do their magic.
Sunday morning I woke eager to race. We get a short warm up session before the racing begins and I used that to loosen up and take stock of how my hand was doing. I got my answer when three times in a row I missed the 2nd downshift for Turn 14 and ended up going wide each time. At the end of the short session (shorter then race distance), I could barely move my left hand which was clearly causing my clutch issues. At this point, I had come too far to not race, but I was seriously concerned about my ability to do a race start and then ride safely for a full 6 laps. In the end, I decided to run 650 Twins and pull out of Formula IV. That way I could focus all my energy in one race and not worry about saving any energy reserves for another.
Since I had no points this season, I was gridded 11th out of 13 riders in the expert wave of 650 Twins. I told myself that it was a good thing that nobody was behind me- that way if I had problems launching the bike at least I wasn’t going to get hit by another rider! I gridded up and prayed that we wouldn’t be held for very long since I didn’t think I could hold the clutch in for more then a few seconds. Since I couldn’t properly modulate the clutch and find the friction point like I usually do, I just pulled in the clutch all the way and hoped for the best. The time between the 2 board and the green flag seemed to take forever, but finally I saw green and started to let out the clutch and tried to get a decent launch.
Calling it a “decent” launch would be generous though. As everyone around me left me behind, I knew I was going to have a long race if I didn’t push hard from the get go. I knew I lost at least one position on the start, maybe two by the time I entered Turn 1, so I focused on my exit and got hard on the gas and used the power of the motor Gregg Spears built me to close the gap. Going into Turn 2 I saw a gap open up on the inside and so trail braked deep, making a pass on two other riders and looked for an opportunity to make another pass. The rider in front of me started going wide through the long sweeper and I felt confident and carried more corner speed through the corner and got him on the exit. By the end of the first few corners I had worked my way to 9th place.
The next challenge was finding a way past Pierson Washer (AFM #113). Pierson and I were running very similar laptimes, but we have very different riding styles and so he’d pull away in one place and then I’d catch back up. As we came through the very fast Turn 7 on Lap 2 I thought about making a pass on the brakes into Turn 9, but on the drive up the hill I saw the yellow flag out indicating a no pass zone so I had to back off. As we crested the hill, I saw the incident off track just before Turn 10, but I wasn’t able to make a pass there either. On the next lap, I was expecting the yellow flag and this time I timed things so I could get a strong drive out of Turn 9 and down the hill. Pierson took a tighter line going into Turn 10 and I setup wide for the faster line through the turn and was able to cleanly pass him on the outside just after passing the incident off track.
By this point, everyone else was long gone and I had clear track in front of me so I just focused on hitting my marks and riding as fast and consistently as I could. I knew Pierson was right behind me, but I knew I had to run my own race and not worry about him. My hand was starting to really bother me at this point so I worked on using the clutch as efficiently as possible. On the final lap as I exited Turn 15 and got on the gas I knew I had 8th place sealed up! What I didn’t realize at the time that I had beat Pierson to the line by a mere 0.149 seconds!
While 8th place really isn’t much to brag about and I was more then a few seconds off my pace from last year, I still couldn’t be happier considering my lack of track time and injury. It was great to just get back out there, race and enjoy the camaraderie the AFM is known for. It seems like it’s been a long 8 months and as you might imagine, I didn’t get here all by myself- I had a lot of help:
Gregg Spears who built, tuned my motor and gave me lots of advice on how to make the bike more reliable. After last year’s series of DNS/DNF’s due to mechanicals I’m almost surprised that I didn’t have to spend the entire weekend wrenching on my bike trying to fix one problem after another. But when you see how detailed oriented and precise Gregg is about everything he does you realize that there isn’t anything surprising about it at all.
Jim and Nickie at Catalyst Reaction for taking care of all my suspension needs. Even when I give worthless feedback, Jim somehow knows what to do.
Scott & Paolo with Bridgestone for handling all my tire needs at the track. Hard to believe I did 4 days at Thunderhill spread out over 8 months on the same rear tire and it still wore perfectly.
John Stark & Ed Lloyd (both fellow AFM’ers) for redesigning and fabricating a new motor mount for the bike. It’s really hard to put into words just how beautiful and clean the new motor mount is, not to mention stronger too!
Galfer for the custom front & rear brake lines & pads. Nothing like a 24 hour turn around on getting custom brake lines made!
Motorex for all the oil and other fluids to keep my bike running in tip-top shape.
Woodcraft & Armour Bodies for so many high quality parts which look great too!
MotionPro for custom throttle cables and their great tools I use almost every day.
Helmut & Linda at Helimot for keeping me safe in their high quality leathers and gloves.
Gerry at GP Frame & Wheel for all his help keeping my bike straight!
Chris Van Andel at Raceimage Graphics for the custom numbers which not only fit my number plates but look great too!