Christian from C&M Autobody in Middletown finally got his hands on the bike long enough to paint it.
August. Back at NJMP for the next round. I’ve just completed my sighting lap and I’m coasting to my spot on the grid. I notice the other riders performing their last minute routines - gloves are adjusted, chin straps tightened, throttles blipped. I find my grid position with the help of the scrap of paper I’ve taped to the gas tank. I’m prepared, calm. I slip the Aprilia
gearbox into neutral and just sit there. No fidgeting, no moving around in my seat. That’s when I realize something has changed. Something’s different. I’m not nervous.
I’ve written about how anxious I get waiting on the grid for the flag to drop. I used to delay going out for the sighting lap so I wouldn’t have to wait very long for the race to begin. Today I hadn’t even thought about it. When I heard “third and final call for GTO” I just got on my bike and rode out onto the track. I didn’t care what anyone else was doing. Maybe it was that last win in July. Maybe it was all the work Markbilt had done on the front end of the bike over the last month. Maybe I listened to the right Biggy track before the race. I don’t know. The only important thing was that the butterflies in my stomach were of a different variety than the ones that normally reside there. These butterflies wanted to get it on.
Everyone was in place. Massive grid. 41 riders in two waves - experts in front with us amateurs bringing up the rear. They let the experts go first then the amateurs are released about ten seconds later to prevent utter chaos into the first turn. The “1” card was shown, then turned on its side. When the green flag waved I dropped the clutch and gunned it.
Yup. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I was staring at the flag so intently I forgot that it was a two-wave start. I grabbed the brakes, pulled the clutch back in and barely avoided slamming into the stationary rider in front of me. I made deep, shameful eye contact with the race official standing five feet away from me on the grass as I clumsily backed up the bike to my starting position, now ten feet behind me. He just shook his head the whole time.
I went with the smoke shield because my racing face is really not pretty. I've been told it resembles a serious bout of constipation.
As the experts all braked hard and fought through Turn 1 the next green flag was waved - this one for us. I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind at this point and sure enough I executed yet another mediocre start. But I went into Turn 1 very deep to make up the spots.
Nothing in racing is like the first corner. As soon as your past it a semblance of a natural order appears. Sure, the whole first lap is fairly insane, but nothing comes close to that first corner. The proper racing line means nothing. The braking markers you normally use are out the window because you made a standing start from halfway down the front straight, putting you in a different gear at a different speed. I was surrounded as I braked for the corner. I was in a sea of Superbikes trying to not hit anyone or worse, get hit from behind.
I was in sixth place coming out of Turn 1. Could have been a lot worse. I immediately made a clean pass going into the chicane then passed another racer into fast, Turn 4. Made up one more position into Turn 7 which put me into third-place, behind two familiar competitors - my rival Jeremy and a fellow named Starke. Mark Rozema, owner of the Markbilt race shop near NJMP, had improved the front end in a big way. I made all those passes under braking and felt like I could trail brake almost to the apex. Mark had installed a 30mm Ohlins kit and then tuned it for my weight. It was working.
You’re meant to push hard from the start of a race and not let up but I just wanted to settle in behind these guys at the front and see what was what. I hadn’t seen either of them in practice and didn’t know if Jeremy had recovered from his previous injuries. He made a fairly hard pass on Starke going into Turn 5 on the next lap, a second gear left; but Starke held his line and the two went through the corner touching elbows. As soon as you see a pass like that you just instinctively let up a little. At least I do. All I could think was that these two were going to take each other out and I didn’t want court-side seats. Mezzanine seemed better. Get some popcorn, maybe a knish and watch from a comfortable distance. I dropped maybe four bike-lengths off the pair. But they were racing clean and hard. So, I pressed forward, got back on the train and waited for my chance. Didn’t have to wait long. Jeremy ran off all on his own coming out of five and I scooted up on the inside. My stint in the YCRS school has definitely made a long term impact. I could hear Nick Ienatsch’s instructional voice firmly saying, “Exits, exits, exits.” Every corner must be set up for a great exit (even at the expense of entry) and so when a mistake like Jeremy's happens you’re in a position to pounce. Only had Starke now between myself and the lead. I was holding a 26 point advantage over Jeremy going into this race but I wanted a win. Bad. Once you get a taste...
Michael Lee helped me procure one of only two full titanium Akro systems in the country at the time. Performs, sounds and looks the business.
I passed Starke going into Turn 7 then came up on my friend Demian on his Desmosedici. He was admittedly just messing about out there (the bike, for all its allure is a handful on track). I came around him on the outside going into the button-hook - something I am not normally comfortable doing. I made the pass but I couldn’t hold the line and Starke came back on my outside going into the carousel. He came right across my front wheel but it was clean and actually made me strangely happy. I had this flashing thought - “Holy shit, we’re racing!!” I caught back up on the straight but Starke was braking much, much later than he was even just four weeks ago. I wasn’t the only one getting better at this. Everyone was progressing. In racing, if you plateau, you die.
My chance came when we hit our first lapper. Turn 5 again. Starke was setting the guy up to get him on the exit but I saw a chance on the way in. Turn 4 is a 110+ mph right with a short chute on the exit that leads into the second gear Turn 5. I carried a ton of corner speed through four and shot up the inside of the chute passing both Starke and the lapper into five. Clean as a whistle. I actually let out a little laugh as I accelerated away. Now it was time to put some laps in. And I did. Got down to a 1:29.2 - my best lap on Thunderbolt up until that point.
On the next lap I saw the crossed flag sticks at start/finish signaling the halfway mark and against all my better judgement, had a look behind me. When I turned I saw the worst possible thing. An empty track. You’d think that would be good but it’s not. My lap times dropped by a second a lap even though I told myself to keep pounding. You just can’t turn around. Ever. If someone’s there it can force you into a mistake. If no one’s there you let off. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
This is one reason a V-Four is superior to an Inline Four. She's as skinny as Kate Moss at a Bikram Yoga retreat.
Still, I had the race in hand. Maybe I was no longer pulling away but I was matching Jeremy lap for lap. Then came the lapped traffic. In the beginning of the race I watched Jeremy pass some of the slower experts. He has no qualms about stuffing anyone, anywhere. That isn’t a critique. In fact, it’s a lesson as to how I should be doing things. I have trouble standing people up, coming across their front wheel, etc. I’ll wait one extra corner and make it clean. But this is racing. And I paid for it.
Jeremy was charging through lapped traffic like a bull while I was holding doors for old ladies at Costco. ‘Here, let me help you with that bag. Your car? Sure, I’ll carry it for you. No, I don’t know your grandson. Oh, here comes Jeremy for the lead. Excuse me, m’am.’ I couldn’t believe he was there, that he’d caught up. He showed me a wheel coming into very fast Turn 4 but I closed the door on him which is scaaaary, then put my head down and rode hard. No shaking him. He was with me now. We got onto the main straight and he just pulled away. Not a little. I’m talking six bike lengths. For all the power my Aprilia makes, that BMW is a monster. 190 horsepower at the wheel on Jeremy's bike. I do all the work on the brakes and pushing my mid-corner speed, then he just pulls away on the gas. It was killing me. It was why I spent all this money on the new bike.
I watched him get into Turn 1 too hot, run wide and I did the ole over/under, scooting past him into Turn 2. It made me think of all the years of watching pro-racing on TV and seeing that move done thousands of times. Someone gets in too hot and the rider behind squares up the corner and gets him right back on the exit. I’m no pro but pulling that off is a real rush. Jeremy couldn’t get to me through the rest of the circuit but he pulled me on the straight once again. He made it stick into Turn 1 this time so I was behind him for a lap. I could not believe what I saw next. He was all over the racing line. Not protecting the inside line but truly erratic. He would later tell me he was severely fatigued and barely holding on. He charged into the chicane then slowed so much mid-corner that my front wheel was no more than three inches away from his rear tire. He was dragging hard parts and not leaning off the bike. Sparks flew everywhere. I thought he was going to crash on four different corners but God bless him, the kid held on. We did two laps like that. On the next lap, coming out of the chicane and up wheelie hill he decided to see where I was but he let off the throttle as he turned around and I almost piled into him. That was it. I had to get by. I shadowed him the rest of the lap looking for my opportunity. It came with a mistake in the carrousel. It ruined his drive for Turn 12, the last and fastest turn on the track that takes you onto the main straight. I dove up the inside and made the pass. My friends were going insane up on the tower. Full Hoosiers moment.
The brain trust. Looks aren't everything.
White flag came out. Last lap. But Jeremy pulled me on the straight again. I was determined to get by him. I carried a little more corner speed into Turn 1 and didn’t get off the bike enough - another big no-no in the YCRS way of life. As Nick always said, ‘if you don’t get off the bike and you keep adding lean angle, you’re going to run out of tire.’ And I did. The front let go without a warning, not even a shudder. Very un-Dunlop like, really. But it wasn’t the tire. It was the operator.
I was down and sliding. As far as 100 mph crashes go it was the most benign of my life. Not a scratch. Not a bruise. Nothing. I have to chalk this up to the Alpinestars suit. The crash a few weeks before happened in the same corner at almost the same speed. But that suit didn’t fit snugly and the elbow protection rotated away and let me hit my bone. Nothing moved this time and I walked away. Amazingly, the bike didn’t fare much worse. It never flipped which is a minor miracle. The frame sliders are of a very unusual shape and profile and I believe this was part of it. I walked off toward the tires. Angry and frustrated but also satisfied on some level. I fought hard. It was a genuine experience. I didn’t hold anything back.
Rain started to fall as I walked around the barrier and I prayed they would red-flag the race. Going back one lap would have given me a second place finish. No such luck. I watched the last lap track-side then crossed over to the pit out. Mark (Bilt) saw me go down from the tower and jumped on a scooter. Seeing a friendly face after a crash is a real comfort. That walk back to the pits can be a long one.
The maestro at work. Forget hop-up parts and carbon fiber this or that. Put all of your money into suspension. In Ohlins We Trust.
The rain turned torrential as we got back to the garage. My 26-point lead turned into a one point lead. Back in the pits there was lots of talk about the race, how I need to be more aggressive through traffic. The bike came back on the trailer. Not bad. She crashes really well. Bent rear-set, exhaust can and clip-on. Amazingly, the tank never touched the ground.
Time to put it all behind me. Day wasn’t even close to over. Pull out the trusty Gixxer and throw some rain tires on. Back to being down 60 horsepower, but in the rain it doesn’t matter. My friend Munchy got the old, crashed bodywork out of the trailer, then zip tied, drilled and divined it together. Splash of gas and I’m pulling out into steady rain. I like the rain. Won my first race in the rain. I wrote in these pages that I fancied myself a rain specialist. Time to see if that first win was luck or something else. Pulling out of the garage I rode by the Markbilt trailer to say hi on the way to pit out. Seeing Mark’s face tripped something in my brain and I realized I had forgotten to change the suspension settings for the wet. “Third and final call.” Shit. Mark barked for a 3mm allen to work the TTX. He instructed Mike to take two turns of pre-load out of the fork. Mark then pulled a flat-head out (I’m actually not sure where from but it wasn’t in his hands when he walked over) and changed the dampening settings on the fork. Felt like a Daytona pit-stop aside from their constant insults and muttering about me leaving it to the last second. Fair exchange.
I felt confident as I finished my sighting lap. Dunlops felt great. No warmers for rains. 33 psi front and rear and they do the rest.
The flag dropped and I made another lousy start. People were flying by me on both sides. But then everyone slowed way down into one and I just went around on the outside. Passed three guys between turns one and two. There’s so much grip in these tires. You just have to trust them. I put my head down, passed Jeremy and found myself in the lead before the first lap was over. There was no way on earth I was going to give up another win so I set out for the experts in front of me. I needed to keep up my pace. It was another two-wave start so they were ahead by quite a bit. I just put my head down and chased them passing one expert after another. Somehow, I caught them all and took my first and only overall.
Racing Rule #78: When bodywork comes out looking this good, that's pretty much a guarantee you're gonna crash it. Look at Seven's face. Solemn, wise, knowing what is to come.
Back in the pits they christened me “JetSki.” Not bad as far as nick-names go. I posited that maybe instead of losing and crashing to get in the right head space I could just have someone in the garage slap me across the face before each race. I was somewhat astonished by the number of volunteers that instantly offered their services. Mark actually tripped over a torque wrench as he ran toward me from across the garage. I have such good friends. I’m really lucky.
The next day dawned wet but drying. By the time I got to my first race, Unlimited Superbike, there was a dry line I could see from the tower. I wasn’t prepared for this. I assumed it would stay wet. The full rains on the Gixxer would not make it race distance. Grabbed my Marchesinis from the trailer. They had slicks mounted that had two sprints on them from the previous round. Most everyone else had a DOT rear and a full-rain front on but I didn’t have the time to change anything. I was going out on shagged slicks without warmers. Yay.
Pull out of the garage and pass Markbilt when I realize I didn’t go back to “dry settings.” At this point the level of shame and the amount of ridicule I will be subjected to actually gives me pause. I seriously consider just going out on way-too-soft settings to avoid the fallout.... Took a deep breath, pulled up and just looked at him. Great thing about a mechanic who knows you is that at a certain point you don’t even have to talk. Mark knew right away and by the grace of god, decided to let me have a pass. He just grabbed his tools and clicked and turned until he stood up and slapped me on the back. Not a word.
Maybe if the sign wasn't on copy paper? No, probably not.
Out lap. Cold tires. Trying to put heat into them. Accelerate hard. Brake hard. Turn easy. Going into the chicane there was a small stream crossing the track. Pulled up to the grid. Way back. Row 9. It’s cool. I’m excited to race. Flag drops. Start is better. Jeremy's last name might as well be Gadson the way this dude gets off the line. It’s good, though. He’s the biggest carrot you can dangle in front of me. I set out. Going into the chicane I made sure to be completely off throttle. Didn’t matter. The rear stepped out so far I could see the stickers on my swing-arm. I was not expecting that. Thought that only happened on the gas?
I gathered it back up and got going again. Passed four or five riders then got sites set on Jeremy. Nothing better than passing a 190 hp BMW on a four-year-old Suzuki 750 in mostly-dry conditions. Still two riders in front of me. Voice in my head peeps up: ‘Third sounds good in these conditions, Ben.’ By now you know what happens when you get satisfied with your position - you lose it. Only it wasn't Jeremy. In front of me was Justin Levy. This is the kid who came over to me after his first-ever victory a few weeks earlier and thanked me for not entering Unlimited GP so he could finally get a win. We like him. Flattery aside he’s a good dude. Rides a Gixxer 1000. And on this day he was movin. I follow him onto the front straight and we both see the white flag. I want this. I chase him but I don’t feel safe making a pass anywhere. I didn’t want to take him on the inside then low-side us both into a mud bath. Few more corners left. He runs wide coming out of the long carousel into the esses. I knew he’d have to slow down to get in position for the final, fast right. I drive hard up the inside. 100 mph pass to get back my lost podium. But the kid wants this more than me. Justin sacks up and drives hard, mid-corner coming back across my bow on the exit and beats me to the line by a half a bike length. Awesome!! Best part is the two guys in front of him were experts so I actually got second.
Rain returned during lunch along with my previous form. I won Heavyweight Superbike after lunch though my main competitor in the class made a real play on the last lap. No way was I letting this happen. I was sliding the rear and even pushed the front on one corner. JetSki!! The rain got worse and worse through the afternoon culminating with Race 16 of 20 - Heavyweight Supersport. This would end up being the last race of the day. In hindsight it should have never been started. If earlier there were guppies in the chicane there was now a grouper at the end of pit out. I am not embellishing when I tell you there were six inches of standing water there. Check out the video below.
The heat of battle.
I almost crashed ten different times in the five-lap race. Standing water everywhere, streams cutting across the track. The esses had three distinct tributaries running across them. I felt the front wash across each stream with a moment of grip between each slide. Terrifying. If the Mississippi was running across the esses then the inside of Turn 1 was Lake Michigan. The first piece of asphalt that wasn’t submerged was a good 20 feet off the apex. The necessary lines to make it around the track were circus-like. Standing water on the inside and sealer patching just outside. At some places, particularly Turn 5 and the carousel, there was a foot of rideable asphalt. An inch on either side and you were done. I began the fourth lap when the red flag came out. Strange. No crashes as I made my way around the course. Turns out the radios quit so there was no communication with the tower.
Here’s the rub:
When they went back to the prior lap to obtain the results (standard for a red flag) the vast majority of the field had completed half distance. However, three riders had not. Since every rider must complete half distance for results to stand the race was disqualified. This led to a meeting with Kevin Elliott, the big cheese at CCS. George, who runs race control for the weekend had a near mob scene on his hands and called for back-up. Before Kevin showed up he turned to the group. “Guys, please go easy on Kevin. You’re gonna give him a heart attack.” Kevin is heavy-set and George was only half kidding. No one listened to him because as soon as Kevin showed the shouting and posturing began. The cancelled races were the real issue because of the different regions represented at the race and the difficulty of deciding where to hold those make-up races. My issue was only with Race 16, the last one. I felt that since it was started and we all risked our lives out there, I wanted the points to count. So did most everyone there. In fact only three riders agreed with the ruling. Wonder who they were? I’ll give you a hint: They didn’t make it past half distance.
But that’s racing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes you win but you still lose. God, I love this sport...
While camera work is quite shaky, I felt it worth including as it illustrates just how bad the last race was. I am on the blue Gulf-colored Suzuki and wearing a dark blue suit (didn't want to ruin the A-Stars).