Like I said, we’ve all been there. This is me working through the night to put an exhaust on my first race bike in my unfinished kitchen. I had to have that extra 6 H.P. Had to.
I couldn’t have written it much better. A nearly perfect three-act structure. Our hero (humor me, here) shows up and wins first time out, then has his confidence and ankle simultaneously shattered in a massive crash in West Virginia. He buys a new, sexy, powerful steed to level the playing field but finds it isn’t an instant salve. There is drama in setting up the new bike and he falters when it counts most, crashing again, and losing his points lead. Then the second rebuilding of bike and self. All of it to end at NJMP on Sep 11th where a four-point spread between our hero and the evil Jeremy (dramatic license, Cook) means that the season will come down to this one, last race. Winner takes all.
I drove down to Markbilt on a Thursday evening. I arrived late and decided not to unload the bike as usual since it didn’t need any love. I got the replacement parts on during the week, so she was ready to go. Mark and I agreed that I should enter the endurance race the following day and use it as an extended set-up session. We ate something, didn’t say all that much and then I slept alone on the futon in the showroom. No girls, no BBQ, no distractions. I was on a mission.
‘This is meant to be fun’ you say. Not anymore. After a season of this sickness I realize that it’s the idea of racing that’s fun. Racing itself isn’t something I would describe as traditionally “fun.” Riding a wave runner is fun. Ordering dessert nachos at Buffalo Wild Wings is fun. Having sex at a Sandals resort is fun. Racing is a big, fat, terrifying rush. We all have that same experience during the race. But our actual feelings about it only present themselves after the act. It’s only when we cross the finish line that we decide whether we had fun or want to crawl home and die. That’s if you can even do that once the race is over. You have to be conscious to crawl…
Woke up early and made my way to the track where i registered with Charity and Carolyn. Got my pit area set up and organized. No way was I going to have a repeat of the garage sale that was my pit area at Summit Point. I was the first rider out for practice and immediately went to work. Having crashed the last time I was on the bike (didn’t ride the Prilla in West Virginia at the last round), and more importantly, having done so without anyone’s help was nagging at me very much. What had happened? Why did I go down? My YCRS training kept telling me I should have trail-braked deeper into the corner. I had let off too early. Mark agreed but still added some rebound with the thinking that it was possible that the front tire came up too fast over the severe bumps in Turn 1, and that was what caused the low-side. Four extra clicks and I was on my way. I wanted to push hard so I could come in and give Mark some real feedback. If you’re not pushing, not carrying your body position correctly, not showing up 100% then making changes will not be helping you any.
It’s funny seeing guys who can barely get around a race track trying to give feedback about what their bike is doing wrong, and even funnier, putting very expensive parts on their bike to remedy a problem I could probably coach them through in half a track-day just by focusing on fundamentals. I was no better when I started riding. It’s fun putting new parts on your bike. But, if you want to know what you really need, then you have to take the variables (body position, tires, your lines) out of the equation and then push your bike close to its limits. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
Pulled in after the first session and Mark was standing, tools in hand, ready to work. I told him I wasn’t “all there” that session and so I wanted to wait to make any additional changes until I was really showing up and riding. What works/doesn’t work at 8/10ths of your pace can easily switch at 9/10ths – a great setting can turn to garbage while a too stiff, scary setting can become nirvana. The other thing about literbikes is that all that power doesn’t translate directly into faster lap times because you spend a lot of time getting them under control. My girl’s a handful. In a good way, yes; but she’s definitely not for the timid.
Next session I got it together. Nailing my markers, getting off the bike on exits, putting the power down early. Now I had real feedback to report back with. The brakes were demonstrably fading after three laps, the rear was squatting and most importantly, I realized I was cracking the throttle under very heavy braking by virtue of my arm length and body position. This was a key discovery as it was contributing to the free-wheeling into corners I had been describing as a slipper-clutch issue since I bought the bike. Mark bled the brakes and replaced the fluid. He added pre-load to the front, did something to the rear (I didn’t ask – head was already too full with 411) and I went back out. Brakes were good for two laps then done again. Came back in and we discussed whether to swap the Brembo master off my 750 for the stock one on the Prilla. Mark wanted to change the fluid one more time. We used new Brembo fluid this time as per Mark’s request.
You hear so many different things when you talk to people in a racing paddock. Motor oil – “I only use Motul 5W30 full synthetic. You’re wasting your time with anything else.”
“And you’re wasting your money. I’ve used Mobil 1 for 20 years and have never had an engine failure. I put that shit on my salad.”
“You guys are both wrong. You have to use Repsol. Especially if you have a Honda. It’s specifically formulated for that motor. Were you joking about the salad? I hope you were. That doesn’t sound very sustainable.”
You get the point. Lot of noise, not a lot of useful information. Personally, I don’t think there’s a huge difference in motor oil once you’re into the top-shelf black gold. Amazingly, though, brake fluid makes a difference. I don’t know enough to say that one brand is better than another, but what I am saying is that once a bottle of brake fluid is open, moisture will find a way in. Once in your system, that moisture will boil and cause fade. The new Brembo fluid cured the brake issue. Mark said he changes the brake fluid on his bikes every race weekend. I would have said that was silly a week ago. Keep your ears open and constantly evaluate everything you hear. Be discerning but stay open. Eventually, you’ll learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Mark and I began working through the rest of the gremlins in the endurance race. I skipped the start to make sure I didn’t get in anyone’s way as well as keeping myself healthy for Sunday. I waited a few laps for things to sort themselves out then casually joined the race. It was nice running around at race pace but not having the pressure of a result. Track days are too slow to really get up to pace so this was an ideal testing environment. I found the rear end was still squatting under throttle, and while the front felt good we were using all the travel on the forks. Pre-load was maxed out. Mark changed the fork springs from a 100 to a 105. I heard Dino, the announcer, calling out the early retirement of Younger Racing as I sat with Mark. We laughed. He was to repeat that about 10 times over the next four hours as we came in and experimented with new settings every 15 minutes.
Mark worked his magic and I went back out. I practiced a race start at the end of hot pit. I was finally using the launch control which I should say I am now a big fan of. It flat works. Out on track, the rear was much better, but the front was worse. It couldn’t handle all the brakes I was throwing at it. Came back in and Mark popped the front springs out and changed one spring from a 105 to a 110. I went back out and sure enough Mark nailed the setting. I stayed out till the tank ran dry. Finally. The bike I always imagined it would be. I was as aggressive as I wanted. The front held up under the hardest braking and the rear started moving around – something I like to a degree (more on that later). The traction control on the Aprilia was kicking in everywhere. I love the way it comes in. Not an abrupt cut-off but a gradual, dropped-a-cylinder kind of feel. I still don’t have the cojones to slam the throttle open knowing the TC will save me but I don’t want to get to that place. That’s not a habit I want as I ride many other bikes that don’t have TC. I just like knowing it’s there in the background keeping me safe. I did my first ever 1:38. It was a 1:38.9 but hey, ocho is ocho. I did 56 laps total and finally felt like the Aprilia was ready to go. The best part was that these were tires that had two full track days on them. N-Tecs last. There is also a great mental edge there because you tell yourself, ‘hey, if I’m pushing this hard on shagged tires imagine how much harder I can go on freshies…’
Back at the garage Jeff, Tito, Jimmy, Ura and Johnny had showed up and were setting up shop. You can see the difference in a crew that has been doing this for many years. They look more like bivouacking soldiers than racers. They know exactly where everything goes and build their entire camp faster than it takes me to decide where to hang my suit. Tito came over and immediately set upon my bike (he can’t help himself) finding some oil on the Prilla’s swing-arm which he traced back to a loose case bolt. He then decided that a small casting on the left side of the frame that used to hold the O.E. exhaust simply had to come off and forced me to go get my dremel. He and Ilya should open a bike shop together. Everyone else should just pay attention.
This is a good representation of how stupid I was at the time- choosing to ride at Pocono. I had a terrible accident there in 2003 that cured me on the place for good.
I had dinner with Mark and company at the Old Oar House. Say that fast and you’ll understand why when Mark told me over the phone where we were going I raised my eyebrows and asked if his girlfriend was coming. Turns out it’s a restaurant, not a brothel. Decent burger, too. I wasn’t much for conversation. I was already thinking about the following day.
6:00AM. Sat bolt upright three minutes before the alarm went off. Love when that happens. Mind/body synergy. I was ready. I decided to skip the morning practice sessions as I was very sore from the endurance race the previous day. I changed the oil on both bikes, swapped the tires out for fresh N-Tecs and put new pads on the Suzuki. I needed to reclaim the lost confidence from the Summit weekend where I totally botched the job. Doing it yourself instills a sense of proficiency in yourself and the state of your machine. Good feelings to have before racing. The other week we all went up to Calabogie in Ontario for a track day with Pro6. Ilya had just mounted new Dunlops and I checked the pressures for him and set them accordingly. About 10 minutes later I caught him re-checking the pressures. I was amused and asked him if he didn’t trust the last examination my optometrist had performed. He told me that the only way to be 100% confident out there was for him to know, in absolute terms, that the bike was set up to his liking. I’m now on board – unless of course it’s Tito or Ilya that are working on my bike in which case it’s nap time.
First race after lunch was the make-up to the heavyweight super-sport race from two rounds back – the one that was so wet I was nick-named Jet-Ski for winning it. That win was taken away when the red flag put a couple of racers behind half-distance, thereby negating the results. I wasn’t in contention for this series because of a few missed races and some lackluster finishes so I decided not to take any chances and just use it as an opportunity to get up to speed having not practiced. I was on pole for having been leading the cancelled race which was cool. I got a decent start and slotted in behind my buddy Michael Spain Smith. Halfway through the first lap he had a massive moment coming out of Turn 7. He was thrown clear out of his seat but managed to gather it back in. I think I was more scared than he was because I backed way off instead of simply taking the lead. My first thought was, “I don’t want to have that happen to me” – not a particularly productive racing thought. Ben Sommers then came by me. He’d gotten quite fast over the season and looked really good on his 675. I stuck with him until the next lap when he high-sided coming out of Turn 2. His bike and he were just sliding down the track. I let off and moved over, but while his bike went straight, Ben tumbled to the right and I nearly ran over his head. It was almost a Simoncelli moment. That was it for me. Third sounds just fine, thank you. I coasted to the finish. Three more make-up races, then lunch, then three more races until it was my turn again. This was it. The big one. I was chomping at the bit.
Boots buckled, gloves tight, helmet secured. I was ready. Tires were up to temp, every bolt had been gone over, fresh oil pumped through the motor, I had a bike that was properly set up. The only nut I had to worry about was me. Third call came and I rolled out of the pits. Scrubbed the tires in on the warm-up lap then off to my third position on the front row. Jeremy was to my left. For the first time all season I didn’t say hello on the grid. I didn’t even look over. Yes, it was conscious. I was in the right head space and didn’t want anything to change it. They let the experts go first and held us until they were well and clear of Turn 1. I had the bike spinning at 10,000 RPM the whole time. No stomach flipping. No nerves. ‘I’m going to win this race.’
Flag dropped and I finally had the start I’ve been waiting my whole life for. Clean, controlled and connected. In my peripheral I saw Jeremy’s front wheel come way up and I knew I had him. The launch control on the Prilla is fantastic – keep the throttle pinned and just worry about the clutch. Accelerated to red-line in 1st, 2nd and 3rd. I braked hard and turned it in. Yes!! No one ducked under me. Then I pushed hard. Harder than I ever have. I trusted the tires and the bike and myself. I swore I wouldn’t look back. Didn’t have to. Jeremy came by after two laps. He then passed the first of the slower experts and gapped me by 20 bike lengths. I had a moment of surrender. ‘He found the speed. He’s got me. There’s nothing more I can do.’ There’s an instant calm in surrendering. I felt it once surfing in Costa Rica when my leash broke in double-overhead surf over a 1/4mile from shore. I tried to swim to shore but I couldn’t make it and I clearly remember there was this moment when I just stopped fighting. I gave up and it just felt like relief. But just like that day in the unforgiving water, another thought came into my head to correct the first as I watched Jeremy check out. In Costa Rica it was that I really, really enjoyed living and wanted to continue doing so. Here it was, ‘you’re gonna have the whole winter to think about this loss. How about trying your very best for the next 23 minutes?’ Fair enough of a request. Let’s do this.
I put my head down and thought about only one thing – my riding. Body position, markers, apexes, exits. I didn’t think about the championship or the race or Jeremy. I just rode a motorcycle the best that I knew how.
And then the laps came. One faster than the next. Beautiful, consistent, cookie cutter laps. Next thing I know I’m passing Jeremy on the brakes into Turn 1. Didn’t even think about it. It just happened. Then I did something I’m used to Jeremy doing – I checked out. My concentration was pin-hole focused. I got down to the low 1:28’s. And not just one lap like yesterday – a string of them. I even got a single 1:27.9. That Aprilia and I were finally imprinted on one another. After five laps like that I allowed myself a look back. There was no one there. I mean not for a country mile. I had it in the bag. A championship in my first year of racing. I let myself have that brief moment of celebration then it was back to work. I wasn’t about to let up. I’d learned my lesson. I was going to push to the end.
I caught and passed more than half the expert field. Guys who are straight-up faster than me any other day of the week. And I wasn’t doing it in track-day fashion like I had all season. I was stuffing it in there. Nothing dangerous but a lot closer than usual. I was on a tear. I finally got to my buddy Jeff Lee. I was reading the number off his transponder but I didn’t want to duff him up and as a result it took me one very long, infuriating lap to get by. I finally made my move into seven. I completed the pass but checked up just a little coming out and he ran into me. The bike jumped so far to the right I thought I got hit by a truck. At an earlier round a racer named Dustin made an assertion that I had checked up and he had hit me, causing him to crash. That assertion now made me laugh in my helmet. When someone touches your rear tire (Jeff later said he barely grazed me) you KNOW IT. Anyway, I turned around to see Jeff going into the dirt. He was fine and re-joined the race. He laughed about it later saying I should have honked because had he known it was me he’d have moved over. Hear that Mark? Off season modification number one.
Onward. I was praying for that white flag but it did not come. I came up on lappers and a few more experts. One expert, in Heroic leathers, was incredibly difficult to pass. I showed him a wheel into one but he got me on the brakes. Same into the chicane. Took me two laps of horribly slow 1:30’s to get him. That’s when Chris Starke came by me. My first thought was relief that it wasn’t Jeremy. Chris had run some stout laps to catch me, but he wasn’t turning low 28’s.
The Heroic racer made it possible.
So, I tucked in behind Chris and followed him. Problem was I was running into his tail section. Everywhere. I started worrying about Jeremy catching up. I passed Chris into seven but I was no longer smooth. I was scared of Jeremy coming by and my concentration was broken. I was sloppy at the controls and pushed wide on the exit. Chris executed a perfect over under and came right back past me on the way to Turn 8. We got the white flag coming down the straight the next time.
Last lap. Same thing. I was all over him. Coming into six, the fast right I had to actually brake mid-corner so as not to hit him. I pinned it coming out and saw a window. He was way over to the left but there was just enough room and I stuck it in as we approached Turn 7. I was on the inside. I had it. I didn’t just show him a wheel, I was right beside him. But on the downshift my rear stepped out in a big way. I’m usually fine with that but it was waving back and forth like a flag in the wind. I couldn’t get the rear to settle and finally stood it up. Unlike the last time through that corner, where Chris simply squared it off and got a better drive out, he stayed with me on the outside. It could have been another classic over-under where he would have watched me sail into the grass and gone off and taken the win, but it wasn’t to be. I bumped him, he went off into the dirt and crashed immediately, breaking his hand in the process. I kept it up, got her slowed down on the rear brake enough to think about getting back on track – maybe 25mph. But as soon as I initiated the turn and touched the gas the rear came around on me in the wet grass and the bike spit me over the top. I landed on my back and my head hit the ground so hard I was knocked unconscious. I was out cold for four minutes.
I remember waking up and being asked who the President was. I didn’t know. My bell was rung. What I did know is that the paramedic was displeased with my inability to answer the question. I finally just said Lincoln but the joke didn’t go over. Stretcher, neck brace, ambulance. Ilya was there when we got out and examined me. He said I was concussed but otherwise fine. Mark drove us back to the pits and I just sat in my chair. My dog, 7, came running up to me and jumped into my lap. Chris graciously came over and asked how I was. I apologized. He said it was just racing. I agree, but still, that’s class. At least they gave him the win as the race was red flagged. Chris left and I found myself apologizing to Mark. It felt like I let him down. “Just happy you’re alive” is all he said. When the announcer said the words, “Younger, still not moving out there…” Mark jumped in his car. He was told I might be Medivac’d and was halfway to the hospital when he got the call to come back.
2012 – 10 years into it and I finally look like I belong on a motorcycle. Still much to learn. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
So, there we were. Myself, Mark and Ilya just sitting quietly in the garage until the strangest thing happened. I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes filled up. I was genuinely devastated that I’d lost the championship I’d worked so hard for. I choked back the tears and swallowed the lump but I remember being surprised that I was having such a strong reaction. I can’t remember the last time I cried. And over this? A wooden trophy? I’ve seen Nicky Hayden do that on camera and thought, ‘what a pansy.’ Now I understood, but only to a point. What was this? Why did it matter so much?
We eventually packed everything up when Ilya refused to clear me to race the following day. I had dinner with Mark and some friends in town before I set off for the four-hour drive home. We went over the day’s events and I mentioned that I had almost come to tears. Mark said he had seen it happening and admitted that if the water-works started he’d probably have followed suit. We laughed about it but on the long ride home I had a different thought about things. I started this journey six months ago with the intention of seeing if, at 38, I still had what it takes. I came to learn a great deal about myself. I explored my absolute limits – something we don’t normally choose to do as adults. But beyond that I had found something that I care so much about that it nearly brought me to tears. Outside of family, friends and a certain Lab-Shepard, what other loss in my life could cause that reaction? Nothing. Not one thing.
And for that, I am grateful.
I want to speak to one other thought before I leave you. Back in June, when I was putting both the Suzuki and myself back together, my friends and family demanded to know why I was doing this. I have a successful career that requires me to be healthy. Why risk so much? Why was I not deterred? Was this my generation’s response to a mid-life crisis? Couldn’t I have just bought a Porsche like the mid-50’s orthopedist who was treating me? Racing has touched on something important, something bigger for me. Yes, I have a desire to do exciting things but that is not unique. If it were just the rush I was after, I’d go sky-diving. What feels different about this is that it’s authentic, honest and requires very hard work. All you need to buy a Porsche is money. That’s not going to cut it here. Road-racing requires a rare skill-set and a corresponding mind-set of equal rarity.
We live in a consumer culture that allows us to toss things away when they don’t work. We simply don’t put our hands on things anymore. Kids don’t build go-karts. They play Mario-Kart on their Nintendo. It’s all very unreal. Working on my bike, racing my bike – is only real. I have to be present in everything I do during a race weekend – from maintenance and repairs to mental preparation to the riding itself. That’s just so I can live to see Monday. I love the absolute attention required to brake so deep into a 100+mph corner that I can feel the front tire begin to slide, then pick the bike up on my outstretched knee and motor down the next straight. It’s called race-craft because it can not be downloaded as an app, purchased, or achieved with any ease. It must be learned and that is something highly attractive in this age of instant receivership – goods, experiences and otherwise. That speaks to me as I know it does to all of you.
See you next year.
Starke had an onboard camera running during the final race at NJMP, which is broken into two parts below and which he generously offered to share.
38 Special Road Racing Part 1
38 Special Road Racing Part 2
38 Special Road Racing Part 3
38 Special Road Racing Part 4
38 Special Road Racing Part 5
38 Special Road Racing Part 6