38 Special Road Racing Part 1

November 2, 2012
Ben Younger
Ben Younger
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Ben Younger is a writer/director (Boiler Room, Prime) in film and has written for the New Yorker magazine. He has had a lifelong love of motorcycles and is currently working on a feature film about the TT races on the Isle of Man. Ben splits his time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.

Indoor garage space is so cush its hard to imagine going back to EZ-Ups and turf carpeting.
Indoor garage space is so cush it’s hard to imagine going back to EZ-Ups and turf carpeting.

Most guys I know who are approaching 40 are getting married, having kids and moving to the suburbs. Me? I decided to start racing motorcycles. As a filmmaker between gigs (Boiler Room, Prime) I’ve decided this summer, at the ripe old age of 38, to enter the Championship Cup Series of motorcycle road-racing. This isn’t track days with my buddies seeing who can do the fastest lap. This isn’t afternoons cruising along PCH with the lady riding pillion. This is road-racing.

I have a successful career and a great support system but I can not deny this feeling of emptiness as I approach 40. I’ve heard this from women my age as an expression of their desperation to have a child and their fear that it may soon be, literally, too late. That best describes how this feels to me – like it’s almost too late on more than a few fronts. What I know above all else is that I don’t want to be the guy on the 12th hole telling tales about what could have been. I grew up hearing enough of that. Road-racing is an endeavor of commitment. I’m hooked now. I’m in. I have the rest of my life to golf. This is the time to go really, really fast. This is the story of my first season of racing.

On May 29th I contested my second event in the CCS series at Summit Point raceway. There, I collided with another rider as I attempted a pass in the +100 mph Turn 10, totaling both my bike and my heel. The corner worker told me I tumbled almost 60 yards. Where was the resolve? Where was the patience? They were bound and gagged in a mini-storage somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike.

But let’s start at the beginning. May 13th. Yes, it was a Friday.

We drove down to NJ Motorsports Park from Brooklyn on a Thursday evening. Myself and my friend, Ilya. He’s an ER doctor at a trauma-rated hospital in Brooklyn. I’m kind of like the Kato to his Inspector Clouseau. Even when he’s off duty, he’s not off duty. I keep him sharp by continually injuring myself in new and interesting ways. It’s a selfless job. There was the surfing wipeout in hurricane swell last fall – nine stitches. The accident in Costa Rica – punctured my ear lobe. The caliper incident at Monticello – crushed foot. It goes on from there. Point is, not a bad guy to have around when you’re racing motorcycles.

All the explanations on earth wont help me understand this color scheme.
All the explanations on earth won’t help me understand this color scheme.

I’ve been doing track days for the better part of a decade now. Three different clubs. Twice as many bikes. Pulling the trailer into the pits I quickly realized this was different. The first thing that struck me was the turn-out. The paddock was full. Families were cooking, friends were helping with EZ-Ups, kids were playing. Not that you don’t see that at a track day but this was markedly different. There’s this energy. There’s an edge that you don’t get at a track day. Everyone is friendly and incredibly helpful but at the same time there’s this sense of, “Sure, I’ll lend you the sprocket but I’m gonna stuff the s#*t out of you going into one.” And it’s okay, this energy. It’s honest.

We planned to do the Friday endurance race on our friend Jason’s Ducati 848. In the first practice session on it I heard a thunk, thunk, thunk as I got on the gas. Jason had run the rear sprocket down to the point where the chain was slipping off the now-worn tips. We went to race control and a call went out on the PA for a replacement. Again, I’ve seen people be generous at track days but here there is a real sense of urgency. The result is that racers are willing to go that extra mile to get the parts/help they need and are equally willing to give them in return. It’s a very familial, generous atmosphere.

A call went out for a fairly specific part that first morning and I recall the announcer relating the racer’s desperation to find it. “If anyone has a regulator rectifier for an ‘08 GSXR600 this man will pay, barter, work off the debt or…you’ll what? Okay, he’s now saying he’d be willing to offer his wife up for the afternoon.” Maybe familial was the wrong word; but generous seems like a gross understatement.

We got the sprocket we needed from a fellow racer but there were hub issues that prevented us from using it. We switched to Jason’s Triumph 675 for the endurance race and he did the first stint. Jason did 25 laps then handed the bike off to me. Finally. I’m going racing! I fly down the pit lane and merge with traffic, ready to do battle. Here we go. Bike turns in nice. This is gonna be fun!! Second corner and…the engine quits on me. It’s sputtering and feels like it’s firing on two cylinders. I pull back into the pits. Race over. Friday the 13th…

This was never meant to be released. Lawsuit pending.
This was never meant to be released. Lawsuit pending.

Saturday morning I woke up to an iPhone calling for an 80% chance of rain. Not what you want to see for your first day of racing. No sense in worrying about it either way. It was race day and it was time to get moving. If you haven’t raced, the schedule can be overwhelming. Tech opens at 7:30, practice at 8:30. Lunch happens early at 11:00 followed by a rider’s meeting. Racing starts at noon. One every 15 minutes. Depending on which races you registered for, you may only have a few minutes between races. Things move fast.

Getting through tech is not a formality. The scrutineers at CCS are serious and professional. The bike has to be brought into the garage with the belly pan not only removed but also present. They carefully check the pan to make sure no cracks or holes are forming – this, all to prevent any spillage on track. Your racing numbers must be of the determined size, front and rear. Your riding gear is gone over as well. Again, nothing drastically different from a track day; just heightened.

Morning practice stayed dry and I threw a leg over my trusty 08 Gixxer 750 to head out for my first session. I have come to love this bike like no other. What you’ve heard is true – handles like a 600 and has the power of a…well, let’s not get crazy. It’s no liter bike. Still it’s a good compromise. Mine makes 134 horsepower. I quickly got down to my usual 1:34’s. Ilya tells me I will drop four seconds just by virtue of racing. I tell him that though he may be a doctor he sometimes says really stupid things. It had taken me years to get down to the 34’s and I had now leveled off. I honestly didn’t see where I could make up more time. I viewed people who were below 1:30 the same way I view magicians – I’m awed, but equally annoyed as I can’t figure out how the hell it’s possible.

It started raining during lunch. I switched my tires over to rains. I’ve written about this before but it’s worth repeating. There is nothing like good tires to both drop your times and raise your confidence. I have chosen Dunlop. Their N-Tecs are simply amazing. As I get faster and more aggressive on my exits I have, for the first time, found myself spinning the rear. No, it’s not controlled or purposeful. It’s still a full pucker moment. But the Dunlops allow it to happen at a rate that I can recognize and adjust for. They don’t just “let go.” They give you warning. This, in turn, allows you to go even faster. Rain tires, however, are new to me. New as in I’ve never turned a wheel on them. Rainy track days always turn into an opportunity to drink beer and work on the bike. It’s not worth it. Interestingly, the few people I knew at the track this day felt similarly about racing in the rain. Admittedly, they were contemporaries who had jobs, wives, kids and mortgages. Can’t risk it. The 20-somethings were suiting up like it was nothing. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. How would the article read if I didn’t get out there?

Body position goes out the window once the rain comes down. Just when you need it most. The result is I look like a 2x4 on a Suzuki.
Body position goes out the window once the rain comes down. Just when you need it most. The result is I look like a 2×4 on a Suzuki.

“It started to rain so we cracked open a six pack and played grab-ass in the garage all afternoon. Stay tuned for my next article where I will detail the following, unbearably hot, race weekend which I left to visit a water park. So fun!!”

I sucked it up. A friend gave me his rain-cover which goes over one’s existing suit. It was so tight and stylistically questionable I had to opt out. I wore a ten-year-old suit that shall not be named as it was not my beautiful A-Stars which I could not bear to expose to the elements. Also, figured I had a fair to good shot of crashing so why chance it?

I had about a half hour until my only race of the day – GTO. This was a timed race (25 mins) as compared to all the rest of the 8-lap races I’d be competing in the following day. I made some adjustments to the suspension to compliment the rain tires and conditions – softened everything up a bit. Then I put all my gear on and just sat in a chair. I couldn’t believe what my body was doing. My stomach was flipping over and over. I kept getting these little adrenalized bursts every time I thought about the start. The closest thing I can compare it to is the moment you know you’re about to get into a scrap. Everything tightens up and your fight or flight reflexes go crazy. This was like a slow burn version where I had to sit and wait to see what I was going to do.

I hear a woman singing the Star Spangled Banner over the PA system followed by prayers. I’m fine with the anthem but the praying seems out of place. For starters, it just creates an even stronger sense of dread with all that talk of God protecting the riders from untimely deaths. And frankly, if you‘re a god-fearing person you’d have best made your peace with Him before lunch. I have difficulty imagining God listening to a bunch of dummies who freely elected to get on 180-HP Superbikes, coming to him five minutes before a race asking for divine intervention. If I were God, I’d be thinking, “maybe you boys should have thought about reaching out last week.” That’s just me. Lastly, if you’re going to have prayers spoken at least make them non-denominational. I’m a lightly practicing Jew and I know there are Muslims and Hindus present as well. Even the odd Mets fan. So, if we’re going to pray does it have to be to JC? Can’t we pick someone with a motor-sports background?

The main reason I eventually want to move to expert is so that I can lose the yellow number plates. They ruin every paint job except Biaggis old Camel livery from 2001.
The main reason I eventually want to move to expert is so that I can lose the yellow number plates. They ruin every paint job except Biaggi’s old Camel livery from 2001.

First call comes on the PA. Stomach flips. Second call. Flip. Third and final call. I see Ilya go over to my bike and do something near the gas tank. I’m too nervous to even care. I just want this to end. People are talking to me and I can barely respond for fear of throwing up on them like Stan on Wendy. I’m seriously scared and I’m hating myself for it. I feel some hands slap my back as I pull out of the pits into the constant drizzle. I ride onto the hot pit (something I’ve done thousands of times) feeling so alert I can hear my own heart beating. As I make my way around I try and get a feel for the tires. No way to really tell anything on a sighting lap. No matter. I’ve got bigger issues right now starting with am I going to have a heart attack before or after the start.

Ilya told me earlier to put my grid position on a piece of tape on my gas tank because I’d forget it by the time the warm-up lap was done. As I do with most things he suggests that are non-medical, I ignored it. Now, I found myself frantically trying to remember where the hell I’m supposed to line up. Total loss. I happened to look down at the tank. There’s a small piece of blue tape that reads “A4.” It’s good to have friends.

I pulled up to my grid spot on the front row and finally looked around at the other racers. I didn’t know any of them. Not one. What I did know was that they were all on 1000cc machines. BMW’s, Suzukis, Kawis. All making a lot more power than my little girl. They say rain is the equalizer. Let’s see…

Marshal runs off the track and all eyes are on the tower and the white card with the big, black number 3 on it. I hear all the bikes around me start revving like crazy. Okay, when in Rome. I start revving mine. The 3 card is replaced with a 2 and then a 1. The 1 card is then turned on its side and after one more beat the green flag is thrown. I slowly let the clutch out and allow 12 out of 17 riders past me before turn one. Seriously? It’s not even Sunday.

I gather myself up and get on the gas. The good news is I am no longer afraid. A singular and totally surprising thought fills my head – “How the fuck did you just let that happen?” Apparently, when it comes down to it, ego and competition usurp self preservation. It was at this moment I realized that everything I had written in that introductory piece was a complete farce. Age, income, social status all meant nothing. I wanted only one thing – to win.

I put my head down and started out. Rain covered my face shield until I got to the fast sections where the speed peeled it away. I came to terms with the Dunlop rains as I steadily increased my pace. While straight up and down I could turn the throttle to the stop. No problem. Entry and exit were a different story. I made my first pass under braking. I could feel the front squirming and then bite. On the exits, caution ruled the day. Riding in the rain is the equivalent of adding 100 HP to your bike.

The Bazzaz TC was dialed up to the highest setting and I made it earn its keep. I could feel it coming in when I got too hungry on the exits. In the dry it’s harder to tell it’s working (that’s a good thing, by the way) but in the rain you definitely know it. What I was learning was that the 750’s lack of power was actually helping me here. Combined with the safety net of the Bazzaz I was passing liter bikes down the straights. Didn’t expect that. But I liked it.

Everyone else was tip-toeing around and I was charging. I started picking guys off. One on every lap. Nice, clean passes. I was even keeping to the six foot rule they have at track days. By the time I saw the mid-race flag I was in fifth. My times dropped down to the 1:45’s with a single 1:44. I was catching the leaders and I had time. A dry line had formed and I began to weave to find the puddles on the front straight to keep the tires from disintegrating. Looks flashy and makes people think you know what you’re doing. I just picked it up watching TV.

Made it up to third with four laps to go. I got behind one competitor on his R1 and watched him for a bit. He was wrestling that bike the whole way around the track. Looked like Chris Brown in Rihanna’s hotel room. Coming onto the front straight he got into a vicious tank slapper and I just drove right past him. I even looked over just to make sure it was the bike and not him having a massive seizure. He was shaking his head. Not happy.

Yes  I styled the photo for over 10 minutes. Ive never won a trophy before. Be happy for me.
Yes, I styled the photo for over 10 minutes. I’ve never won a trophy before. Be happy for me.

One bike to go. A BMW S1000RR. I had no idea who he was or that he would become my nemesis (strong word, I know, but we’re creating drama here) in the series. He was going good but he couldn’t get the power down in the rain. I pulled alongside him on the straight as the marshal threw the white flag signaling last lap, and out-braked him into one. I put my head down and started to pull away. I also started doing something else. Something that surprised me. I started laughing hysterically inside my helmet. It came from a place of pure joy. Child-like. Nothing else in my adult life has offered me quite that feeling.

No, not even that.

As I crossed the finish line I looked up for the first time all race. My friends were on the tower going absolutely insane. I pulled into the garage to a lot of backslapping and congratulations. I never win anything. This felt really good. I could get used to this. Everyone talked about the race and I thoroughly enjoyed the debriefing. The retelling is a big part of the racing experience. A few of the other riders from the race came over to congratulate me as much as to put a face to the guy who beat them. It was interesting to see them size me up. ‘Who’s the old man?’ I went to the race office and picked up my trophy. Not bad only it doesn’t have my name on it. Can’t expect them to have a laser engraver on site but personally, I’d be happier picking up trophies at the following event and having them be personalized.

Suffice to say I slept well that night. Sunday dawned wet again. Great! Bring it on! I fancied myself a rain specialist after one race. Practice was uneventful but by the time the racing started, the track had completely dried. I was suddenly very busy switching between wheel and tire combos that the respective classes require. My races were close to one another so I had to move quick. I was contesting four classes. Supersport Heavyweight and Unlimited and Superbike Heavyweight and Unlimited. Heavyweight accepts in-line 4’s up to 750cc and Unlimited is as it sounds.

I’ll cut to the chase. Racing in the dry in an 8 lap sprint is a lot different than a relative 25 minute marathon GTO race. There’s no “getting up to speed.” If you’re not in it by the first corner, you’re not in it. My start was marginally better but what amazed me was how hungry everyone was. I imagined us all neatly getting into a single file line and then politely moving forward or back based on ability and lap time. Six foot passes, gentlemen, remember? Guess not. I got stuffed, pushed, stood up and ridiculed into a mid-pack position. It was eye-opening. I started pushing hard. Trail braking to the apex. Gas so early I could feel the rear moving every corner. Head-shaking everywhere. I managed a fourth when all was said and done. Much more noteworthy were my lap times as I chased down the lead pack.

Never dragged the belly pan at a track day. Racing  above all else  illustrates that your limits are not always where you believe them to be.
Never dragged the belly pan at a track day. Racing, above all else, illustrates that your limits are not always where you believe them to be.

I did a 1:29.

I dropped almost 5 seconds from my previous best. What? How? Why? Racing. I would have bet the ranch there was no way. And I would be homeless.

Still, as I rode back into the garage there were no back-slaps, cheering or visits from the other riders. I felt like Steve Martin in The Jerk when everyone leaves his house party. “Hey, where’d everybody go?” I really like that whole “winning” thing. Can we get back to that?

Next race I got my game face on. I convinced myself I was going to get a blistering start from the third row. This was a two-wave race, however, with the experts all lined up in front of us. They get green flagged and after they’ve made it to the first corner (more on that in a minute) we get the second green flag. This was all clearly explained in the rider’s meeting. I’m revving my engine to 8,000RPM even as the marshal is waving a massive card exclaiming 2nd WAVE. The flag drops for the expert and what does this dum-dum do? I drop the clutch and almost run into the guy in front of me. Another marshal is standing two feet away from me as I back the bike back up to my grid spot. He’s just shaking his head. I am ashamed.

Then, to make matters worse they drop the second flag long before the experts clear turn one. I’m still backing up the bike. Amazing they didn’t disqualify me. I think it was an obscure early-stage Alzheimers rule for the Formula 40 guys that saved me. Good news is it got me mad. This was the big realization I made during the weekend. My aggression, which I had learned to temper as an adult, had found a legitimate place to stretch its legs. I fought my way up to second. Felt as good as the win. Back slaps returned. All was good in the world.

Last race was Heavyweight Supersport. I finally managed to not screw anything up and got a banging start. Pulled away by six bike-lengths only to be passed by one racer into one. I made quick work of him and then pulled out a good sized lead. I had fresh N-Tecs on and felt invincible. Last summer a Canadian Dunlop distributor told me that N-Tecs are actually not cured to completion at the factory. They pull them from the oven just before they’re done. the idea being that the curing process is completed on the warm-up lap so that by lap one they are at their absolute prime. Now, I don’t know if this is true or not and it would only take one call to Sabastian Mincone to find out but I’m not picking up the phone. I like believing it’s true. It makes me feel good about the tires and feeling confident about your equipment is key in this sport.

Back in the race I turned around a few times but no one was there. I had it in the bag. Problem with leading is you don’t have a carrot to chase anymore. My times (which I learned of afterwards) were all over the map. 29’s to 34’s. Not good. Sure enough I got stuffed into turn one on the last lap. Michael Smith is the guy’s name. Annoyingly nice, stand-up dude as I came to learn. Not even someone you can hate. Boring…

Sponsorship is key in this game. You give credit whenever possible. CCS does their part.
Sponsorship is key in this game. You give credit whenever possible. CCS does their part.

Anyway, it was just what I needed. He came in hot into turn one and blew the drive off the corner. I drove past him into turn two – not a normal passing spot. We were side by side through there and I pushed him to the edge of the track. I stupidly waved to him on the exit to say ‘sorry it was close.’ I don’t think he was much concerned because he came by me into the chicane like nothing happened. Stop waving, Ben. Start racing. I chased him as best I could but it wasn’t to be. That one hurt. Thought I had it. Lesson learned. You don’t have it till you cross that line and sometimes not even then…More on that later.

So, after one round I am leading a CCS championship. I like the way that sounds and I’m going to do what I have to do to protect it. So much for patience and resolve. It’s funny. I was telling someone just the other day how racing as compared to track days is just a whole other animal. And then I realized that while doing it, so was I. It brings out a part of you that in my case, I thought had died a long time ago. It’s nice to have it back.

In the next installment of 38 Special, we’ll get to the big crash at Summit and the addition to my arsenal it incited.