38 Special Road Racing Part 5

December 7, 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.

Calm before the storm. But  really...
Calm before the storm. But, really…

Remember Hurricane Irene? It’s a distant memory now, and an impotent one at that, especially after Sandy. But it was Irene that was approaching the eastern seaboard on the weekend of August 26th, as myself and my friend, Heidi, drove the race trailer down to Summit Point, West Virginia. Everyone was preparing for the worst and we were going racing. People thought we were crazy. I even had to step out of myself and wonder what we were doing here under the circumstances. Then we pulled into Summit Point and found a filled-to-capacity paddock. Crazy loves company.

I’ve never suffered from addiction and I don’t mean to trivialize the subject but I will say that I sacrificed a lot of important things during the summer of 2011 to go racing. At times it felt obsessive and compulsive but regardless of what else in my life needed tending to, it always felt paramount. I felt like I had no choice but to continue and I liked that feeling.

Another from NESBA...
This is from a NESBA track day later in the month. The race weekend described on these pages was such a colossal mess I didnt get a chance to take any action photos at Summit Point. Good indicator of a difficult race weekend.
These are from a NESBA track day later in the month. The race weekend described on these pages was such a colossal mess I didn’t get a chance to take any action photos at Summit Point. Good indicator of a difficult race weekend.

Summit Point really embodies the racing spirit and the enclave that it is. Unlike, NJMP, there’s no hotel on the premises. No concessions. No real facilities. It’s bare bones. We slept in the trailer, made all our meals on the BBQ and peed in the bushes. I’m not quite sure how that connects to the racing itself, but somehow it does for me. Maybe it’s the raw quality that they all share. Racing is not cushy or comfortable or complicated. It’s not really even a sport in my eyes. It’s primal.

The replacement parts I needed for the Aprilia never made it down from New Haven Powersports. I’m not gonna even get into it. But suffice it to say I was very unhappy as it cost me all of Friday practice. I had never raced the Aprilia here and badly needed the set-up time. I got back on the Suzuki instead which was the same bike I nearly totaled here back in May. Going through Turn 10 for the first time brought it all back – the tumble, the noise, the searing pain. I put it all behind me and got down to a 1:19.4 – my best race pace from the last time I was here.

Another interesting oddity about racing is that no matter how good you go during practice, no matter how hard you feel you’re pushing, you will drop at least a second and a half off of your best time in the race. It’s not a choice either, at least not a conscious one. It’s just this switch that gets flipped once the flag drops. It’s not a red mist in racing. It’s a green one. Still, it didn’t matter as Jeremy was firing off low 1:17’s on his Beemer. I didn’t stand a chance. Without my Aprilia this weekend was just going to be damage control.

I was also alone in the pits this weekend as none of the boys made it down. Heidi had never been to a race but being a huge nerd, loved all the gear and took to it all quickly. She was helpful and interested and by the end of Friday practice she had mastered re-fueling, tire warmers, generator operation, and even wheel changes. She’s easy on the eyes, too.

I want my baby back  baby back  baby back...
I want my baby back, baby back, baby back…

Saturday morning I took the Suzuki through tech inspection and they immediately pointed out my brake pads were too thin to race with. That I didn’t notice it on my own is a real problem. That’s the thing about normally going to the track with friends that are mechanically proficient. Between Ilya, Demian and Carl someone always caught the problems before they became tragedies. Heidi’s good, but she’s not gonna tell me when my brake pads need changing. I am currently a student pilot and one thing they pound into you is the importance of correctly pre-flighting your aircraft. You miss something and it could be your life. Racing isn’t really all that different. I should have known better as just a year earlier I had a caliper come off at 140mph at Monticello. You want to talk about scary? Imagine going for your brakes at the end of that straightaway and…nothing. I locked up the rear brake and rode the skid as long as I could, then dumped it when I ran out of track. Ended up 15 feet from a concrete wall.

I didn’t have an extra set of pads with me so it was a mad scramble around the paddock with one of the used pads in hand to use as a reference. I didn’t mind that no one had a set of them. What quickly grew tiring, however, was the repeated awe at how thin they were. “Hey, Jimmy! Get over here. You gotta see this! This guy (read: moron) rode his pads down to the bracket!” The one piece of good news at this point was that it was raining. Sure, I was getting soaked walking around the paddock like a homeless gypsy looking for sintered race pads but I didn’t care. At this point I was so comfortable racing in the rain, I was praying for it. With Jeremy’s speed in the dry it was my only shot at a win.

Thats not a sticker. Christian at C M actually painted that on. Some people still do it right.
This is not a sticker. Christian at C&M actually painted that on. Some people still do it right.

I stumbled into my friend Val’s pit area and there, Ian Helmke (an Expert Heavyweight champion), gave me two sets of used pads he had in his kit. Scary to see what a real mechanic/rider had deemed too-little pad. They were still three times the thickness of mine! Off I went back to the pits having already missed all of practice.

I had never replaced a set of pads before. Many of you will laugh at this. And you should. There were a few gaping holes in my mechanical know-how at the time and this was one of them. As most of you know, it’s not a very difficult task, but then neither is bypass surgery once you know how. With no adult supervision I managed to push one of the pistons so far back I broke the seal letting air into the system. Yay.

Pitted across the way were a group of guys I had met at NJMP weeks earlier. Jeff, Tito, Jimmy, Johnny and Ura were all just hanging out at their pit area. I knew they might be able to help but was nervous to ask. I may not have known how to change my brake pads but I was acutely aware of the fact that I was expected to. I considered sending Heidi knowing my chances of getting assistance would go up exponentially, but in the end I manned up and did it myself. Okay, fine, I had Heidi come with me but she didn’t do any of the talking. Having my dog, 7, there was also helpful as she is very well liked. They asked me if they could give her a hot dog (7, not Heidi) and then stood speechless as she ate it like it was a raisin.

Another non-related photo I am trying to use as filler. Im telling you  that weekend was insane.
Another non-related photo I am trying to use as filler. I’m telling you, that weekend was insane.

I was the first race after lunch. The rain had stopped and it was drying. I went with full rain tires hoping it would stay wet enough for the duration of the race. We worked on the bike right up until the last minute. Jimmy and Ura were scrambling to get it done. It was worse than we had thought. Another aviation adage is, a good pilot is a lazy pilot. What that means is that if you prepare well and ahead of time you can just cruise through all phases of your flight. If you don’t and you end up playing catch-up, the aircraft can get ahead of you. That’s when bad things happen. In the rush I had also forgotten to check my grid position for the race. By the time they handed me back the bike there was no time and third and final call had already been announced. I decided I’d start from dead last to keep from getting disqualified but then I saw Ura by the fence as I was pulling onto the track for the sighting lap. He takes off running for the scoring office before I even finish the request. He only has a minute and a half until we all come back around for the race start.

On a sighting lap I’d usually I’d be looking for track anomalies; but I just used the lap to try and clear my head. I was a mess.

Coming through the last turn I see everyone already lined up in front of me. Turns out race direction won’t let Ura past the gate because he has flip-slops on. I see Jeff sprinting down hot-pit wildly waving his arms as I come down the straight parallel to him. I pull over and he screams “6C” from behind the wall no less than five times until I understand. What a shit-show. In this series of articles I feel like I’ve illustrated as much, if not more of what not to do during a race weekend, but even amongst the many mishaps this was a real low point.

Lot of love in this room.
Lot of love in this room.

I found my spot on the grid and didn’t have to wait long. Two-wave start. Our flag dropped next and Jeremy took off like a bullet. He ripped right through three-quarters of the expert field and I managed to stay with him without standing anyone up. Unfortunately, the wet race I was hoping for never materialized. In fact, there weren’t even any puddles for me to cool the tires in. If you’ve never been on a good rain tire then I’ll tell you as exceptional as they are in the wet, they are equally useless in the dry. They are a scalpel-specific tool meant to do one thing. I’d won every single rain race of the season because of those Dunlops. Right now, they were coming apart at the seams as I put heat into them. There was a dry line by Lap 2 and I destroyed the front tire by Lap 4 of this 25-minute GTO race. I could feel the tread blocks squirming under the load. The bike felt out of shape everywhere. That being said, Jeremy was on rains too, and he was flying. Going into the very fast and not very safe Turn 4 was terrifying. I could feel the front about to give each time I turned in.

Jeremy shoved his way into the overall lead and stayed there with one expert right behind him. I tried to catch them but seemed stuck about 20 bike lengths back. The expert finally got Jeremy back and they tussled a bit, which helped me make up some ground. Then, coming into nine, Jeremy hit a false neutral and almost ran off. I ended up right behind him. He heard me first. Then he turned, saw me and visibly started. He thought it was going to be one of the experts he had passed. He didn’t know I had stayed with him all this time. It was all he needed to see. Jeremy put his head down and charged. We were just starting to lap traffic at this point and I watched him move through them at insane speeds on shagged tires. He took some big chances and it was really something to watch. I can tell myself all day to be more aggressive (and I do) but I’ll never do what he did in those last two laps. Even now, a year later, I just don’t have that in me. Jeremy took the win.

Drove straight back to my folks house which was under water.
Drove straight back to my folk’s house which was under water.

Pulled back into the pits, exhausted. I had some time until the next race – Heavyweight Superbike – which finally offered me a moment to breathe. I got everything organized, cleaned and situated. Order is so important in the pits because it’s the only place you find it. On track it’s pure mayhem. Heidi and I ate something and waited on the weather. Everyone was on their phones looking at NEXRAD weather to see if this Hurricane was going to ruin the rest of the day.

I now had slicks on the Marchesinis and new rains on the stock wheels. Steve and Fran at the Dunlop truck were just plain awesome in getting me ready. When it looked like there was no way the race would be dry they changed the slicks to DOT’s. I made more trips to the Dunlop truck that day than to the pisser.

A red flag came out in the race before mine and it took forever to clear. We found out later it was Jeremy. He high-sided badly. His bike burned to the ground. He was actually on fire as well but walked away. Race direction gave us two sighting laps because of all the chaos that had occurred – wet track with huge burn marks. It was like Mad Max. It was also pouring rain which I was very happy about. However, this track was nothing like NJMP in the wet. It was beyond slippery with sealer patches doing their best ice imitation. It was bad. I was spinning out of every corner which I didn’t mind so much. I’m comfortable with the rear spinning at this point. It was the entries that were killing me. Turn 4 was scary in mixed conditions. It was simply Russian Roulette now. You’d brake, throw it in and pray. I added holding my breath to corner preparation. They don’t include that on the YCRS itinerary. My closest competitor in this class is Michael Spain Smith. He almost took me on the final lap of our last race at NJMP. I looked back at one point, saw him and got that horrible pit in my stomach. No, no, no. I want this win! I’ve worked too hard. Put my head down and pushed, riding on the absolute edge of my talent and luck. I held on for the win.

The only pic we took at the track the whole weekend.
The only pic we took at the track the whole weekend.

Back in the pits we decided to pack it in as it looked like Irene was going to ruin Sunday’s races. GTO was, first and foremost, the most important of the classes I was racing and that was done so we headed home. The drive back was interesting with the trailer swaying badly in the wind over the mountain passes. All part of the racing adventure.

On that drive home I thought about how I would have to dig deep for the final race in two weeks. It was going to be a winner-take-all showdown between Jeremy and I. I started this whole experiment to see if I still had the fire in my belly at 38. I already got my answer there and it was a resounding yes. The new question was whether I had the talent. I’ll know soon enough.

This video is from a trip we took to Calabogie right before the Summit Point weekend. It’s my favorite track ever. All time. This is one lap around. We played around with a bunch of camera angles courtesy of the Contour HD camera which you can mount anywhere you can dream of. Ilya was the chase vehicle for the wide shots. Anthony Sansotta did the editing.

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