My motley crew. Limore shaved at a gas station on the way home as he was tired of signing autographs as “the guy from the Hangover.”
West Virginia is not a place I frequent very often. In fact I’ve only been twice. Both times were to visit Summit Point Raceway; though the two visits had vastly different outcomes. The first was in 2006 at a NESBA day. I was on my beloved 2001 Aprilia Mille. Four years into track- day riding and I was a solid intermediate. Regardless of sport, there’s nothing like being an intermediate. There’s still the immense joy of making forward leaps in progress, but you’re past committing the gross errors that lack of experience brings. Beginner status can be frustrating if you’re playing golf. When you’re racing motorcycles it’s just plain dangerous. In 2006 I was thoroughly enjoying myself and experiencing major epiphanies every time I got on track – body position, throttle control, counter steering – each one good for a solid second. Nice, big, round numbers I kept grinding off my lap times like a cheap knee puck.
Becoming an advanced rider is like being a junkie who doesn’t feel the hit the same way he used to. What does he do? Up the dosage (otherwise known as the law of diminishing returns). I still have time to shed from a hot lap but I’m sticking my ass out in the wind to get it now. And it’s not coming off in pretty, whole numbers any longer. It peels off in tenths now like an annoying swingarm sticker from the factory.
That’s my long-winded way of explaining that lately I’m taking a lot of risks to go a little faster. It’s the position I found myself in as I returned to Summit Point this past Memorial Day. And it’s these thoughts that were going through my head once my body stopped 120 feet of cartwheeling through the run-off at turn 10; and the pain in my right heel set in with a furnace-like intensity. I should have stayed home.
I meant to leave Narrowsburg, NY on Fri morning, arrive at Summit by the afternoon, make camp, and then practice on Saturday. That didn’t work out as planned. On Thursday night my buddy Vinnie and I were in the old bus-garage in town where he was building out a work-bench for my trailer. Wind picked up outside. Then came the rain. Then the hail. Then me looking dumbly out the window and exclaiming, “Hey, Vin, I think this is, like, Weather Channel serious.”
Yeah? You think? We were getting whacked by the associated cells of a tornado that hit the next town over. Knocked the power out for three days. I had to walk half-a-mile home because the roads were all blocked with fallen trees. I could write a stand-alone piece on how, the next morning, we manually lifted the ancient, 800-pound garage door by standing in the bed of my pickup just to get the trailer out. Didn’t hit the road until late Friday afternoon. Drove to the City with my dog, 7, and picked up Ilya (the doctor) and our buddy, Limore, who was coming along for the ride. We made it down there very late Friday night and just passed out in the trailer.
Saturday dawned beautiful and I got reacquainted with the track during the morning practice sessions. While still a bumpy mess it was a dream compared to what I remembered from last time – bumpier than Unadilla, concrete strips in the middle of the corners, sealer everywhere else. I was getting into the low 1:21’s and felt pretty good on my trusty ‘08 Suzuki 750. Ilya didn’t have quite as good a morning. He ran off in Turn One and re-injured his knee from the previous round. Poor guy ended up spending the weekend changing my tires, listening to Limore’s theories on graphic design in Franco Spain, and draining his knee with a large syringe. See video.
During the rider’s meeting Michael Spain Smith introduced himself to me. He was the guy that caught and beat me on the last lap of the Heavyweight Superbike race at the New Jersey round a couple of weeks back. Nice to start putting faces to names. As is usually the case, the racers who will stop at nothing to beat you on-track turn out to be the nicest people you can imagine off-track. There’s exceptions to that rule and we’ll get to them – I’m not gonna waste your time writing a series of articles detailing what a pleasant joy everyone in the paddock is. Zzzzzzzz….
Anyway, I knew Michael was going to be the guy to beat in the Heavyweight classes. Standing there at the rider’s meeting he was helpful regarding track knowledge and tips. In Unlimited it was Jeremy on the BMW who was emerging as my toughest competitor. Though I beat him in the rain-soaked GTO race at Thunderbolt weeks earlier, he ran away in the sprint races that same weekend. I saw him here at Summit when he came to our campsite in the very back of the paddock around dinner time. He’s an ex-Marine and works for Boeing now. He’s equally friendly but you can tell he’s much more…invested. Standing by the grill as I flipped steaks Jeremy told us that he would like to turn pro at some point. That’s a very different type of attitude from the usual club racer and one that manifests itself on-track as I would come to learn.
During Sunday morning practice I came up on Jeremy and followed him for a lap. I was ready to move past and came up the inside of him into the final, Turn 10. As I accelerated past him, in one motion he throws his hand up and swerves over toward pit out. He came across my front wheel and missed me by an un-embellished six inches. I had a minor heart attack as I grabbed the brakes. Around lunch time he returned to our pit area. I told him what had happened but he glazed over it. I imagine it’s like telling someone how scary your nightmare is. “…and then Josh’s mom was there, only she had a potato gun and she looked like Qaddafi and she made me eat a whole bag of shop towels. It was terrifying!” Jeremy either didn’t understand how close we’d come to complete disaster or didn’t want to acknowledge it.
The GTO race took place later that afternoon. Pulling onto hot pit I took part in the silly game some riders play of wanting to be the last ones out for the sighting lap. You sit there waiting for everyone to go or pretend like you want to do a practice start. I don’t think it really makes a difference in tire temps – ostensibly the reason it’s done. Me? I do it because those seconds sitting in my grid position go on forever. Every one feels like a full minute. I get so heady sitting there I can drive myself insane. My ideal start is one where the green flag drops one second after I pull into my grid position.
Sighting lap completed I found my position on the grid. Unlike at NJMP, I was not on the front row. Grid positions are assigned based on when the registrations come into the CCS offices. Competitive qualifying is impossible because of the sheer number of racers and classes. The result is that the most organized (and liquid) folks get to start up front. I was one of those people for the first round but not today. I actually didn’t sign up until I got to the track. A big mistake that put me in the back for all my race starts over the weekend.
Three card came up, then two, then one. For some reason I waited until the last second to rev the motor and then, worse, let the revs drop just as the flag waved, thereby successfully continuing my quest to achieve the worst start in CCS history. I’m getting close… Watch the attached video below shot on my Contour+ camera. In this case it illustrates my horrible starting skills in beautiful High Definition. (One note on the camera: If you have an iPhone this thing is pretty trick in that it allows you to set the frame using your phone via a Bluetooth connection with the Contour. This allows the camera to be much smaller than a GoPro because it doesn’t have to have a screen on it.)
I went to work starting with the first corner where I made up a few positions on the brakes. Then, someone nearly high-sided on the exit of Turn One which let me past another couple of riders. Got someone else into three and set off from there tracking down Jeremy, Dustin and Michael. You can expect to face the same top guys week in and week out. Others step up as the season progresses but these guys are always there.
Pushing on I discover I’m still a touch timid when passing lapped riders and it’s definitely hurting me. There’s this one guy who was actually wheelieing for 200 feet out of every corner. I sat behind him unwillingly taping a segment of Superbikes! It took me a whole lap to get past Jason Britton. It’s all on the video. You feel like a real tool not getting past someone doing that. Jeremy is very aggressive with lapped traffic. I watched him stand riders up in every race we entered. That’s all part of racing but I just don’t have that last bit of bravery. At least not yet…
The other issue I ran into here was horsepower. My bike makes 134 to the BMW’s 190. It’s a problem on a straight as long as this one. Watch what happens each time I go through Turn 10. I can be on someone’s tail section but then they just walk away. Liter-bikes. It has certainly taught me to be a late-braker but another 50 hp wouldn’t hurt either.
I got down to the low 1:19’s and after almost 20 minutes of racing I finally caught and passed Smith. A rider had just crashed into ten but the flag had not come out yet. When I say “just” I mean he was still tumbling. Michael eased up and I channeled a little Jeremy and made the pass going into ten. Michael got a better drive and passed me three-quarters of the way down the straight but I out-braked him into one and held the position for a podium. Good race.
Dum-dum that I am, I didn’t check the schedule and just assumed it would mirror the weekend at NJMP. It didn’t and I missed the Unlimited Supersport race on Saturday afternoon. Whoops. Instead, we trekked out to WalMart and bought a 42-inch LCD for the trailer. iPod player, too. I love/hate that store. Here we are camping out in the wilds of West Virginia but then trying to make the trailer feel like a home theater in Los Angeles. WalMart just makes it so easy…
Monday, Memorial Day, was another beaut. Morning practice went well and I felt ready. I got a second in Heavyweight Superbike and a third in Unlimited Superbike. Notable finishes as both races were replete with astoundingly terrible starts. The heavyweight race I should have been able to win. If only I would learn how a clutch works. One day…
In the Unlimited race, just like the day before, I simply could not overcome the HP deficit. I got into a good battle with a guy in green and white leathers but then I ran off track in Turn Three and spent the rest of the race tracking him down. The video below is from this race and you can see the one benefit of being on an under-powered bike – you learn to brake really, really late. It’s the only shot you have. Watch what happens every time we get on the front straight. I’m reading post-cards. There is one flattering moment right in the beginning as I pull onto hot-pit. Listen to what the guy next to me says when I tell him I’m on a 750 (See full race video below).
The last race of the day was Heavyweight Supersport. Steve and Fran at the Dunlop truck spooned on some N-Tec DOT’s for me. I was hell bent on getting a decent start and I finally did. I braked very late into one and made up a bunch of positions. Came out of Turn 2 in 4th. Smith was already checking out with Darren Leonard just behind him. I made the pass for 3rd going into the high speed Turn 4. My Suzuki felt planted, strong. All I had to do now was pass Darren then set out for Michael who was also on a 750. Darren, on a 600, and an older one at that, goes very good around Summit.
I lined him up as we drove out of Turn Nine and made our way under the bridge. But Darren did something different this time. He drifted all the way to the inside. Same place where Jeremy pitted out in practice. For a moment I thought he actually was going to pit in so I moved quickly to the outside to set up for Turn 10 – a very fast right that goes onto the front straight. Only he wasn’t pitting in. As I turned in he came back across the track to get a better angle for the corner entry. We hit hard. I came off the bike immediately and hit my heel on God-knows-what. I went completely limp (learned from surfing wipe-outs) and just let the roll happen. My elbows got pretty banged up from the ground-sky-ground-sky-ground-sky act but it was my heel that was in trouble.
My Alpinestars suit and boots saved me. I wouldn’t like to think what would have happened to my heel had I not been wearing them. Shattered I imagine. And the only reasons my elbows got banged up is because the suit was a touch big on me and the protective armor rotated out of the way. Time for a custom suit. My Ichabod Crane body type does not take well to off-the-rack sizes. The Shoei did its job as well. It took a huge hit but left me unscathed – not even a headache. Still, I was very unhappy about having to toss it afterwards. I guess that’s why we spend all this money on gear, though. It’s for the one day it saves us.
I managed to get up fairly quickly but then realized I couldn’t walk. I crawled, then hopped over to the wall where Darren (whom I’d never met before) was already sitting. He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. We sat there silently, 20 feet apart, both thinking the other was to blame, for the duration of the race. With about a lap to go he came over and said, “So, what happened?” I told him my view of the events and he replied, “Yeah, I take a defensive line through there. Have to, to keep up with you guys on 750s.” I told him that if it were the last lap that would make sense but a defensive line through ten on the first lap was probably a losing bet. He was gracious about it but at the end of the day I was the one making the pass. It’s my responsibility to make that pass safely. He can take whatever line he wants. I have to react to that. That means I have to take the hit on this one.
Again, so much for being 38 and Yoda-like. More like 16, and in and out of foster homes. On race day all that theoretical patience and resolve I’m supposed to have evaporates more quickly than 108 octane race-gas. Who was I out there?
This is how she’d want to be remembered. In her prime. Sexy yet menacing. Before someone threw her on the ground.
We packed up and drove home after I got a quick ambulance ride to the campsite. People say it’s nice having a motor-home at the track. Maybe. For me, it’s nice having an ER doctor with you at the track. The paramedics are fantastic but there’s no replacing an MD. Ilya checked me out and we both hobbled around getting the trailer loaded with Limore who was last man standing after the weekend. Long drive back with only one repetitive thought on my mind – We’re gonna need a bigger boat…
Stay tuned for the next article where I add an Italian to the stable, convince a mechanic named Mark to join me on this voyage, and learn a bunch of stuff about racing that most of you racers out there probably already know.