Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Winter of Our Discontent

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York." Shakespeare, Richard III

After the weekend at Summit Point it was clear I needed to continue racing (as if there had ever been any doubt). Also blatantly obvious was that I would need to step up my game. These WERA guys did not screw around and if I wanted to be competitive, my bike, body and brain would need to be on point. I had the winter to do so.

Body was the least difficult of the three, I upped my workout regimen from four times a week to six and concentrated on eating properly. The program was effective enough that I had to have my new leathers taken in. Whenever things seemed to get easier, I would add on more repetitions, new exercises or longer duration for cardio. I needed the endurance to run several races a day at full pace as well as bump-starting the motorcycle each time without fatiguing, not to mention loading, unloading, wrenching and doing all the driving to and from the track. Oh yeah, and work a full-time job to afford to do all that!

Brain might be the most difficult of all. There is a fine line to tread mentally speaking in regards to racing. You have to be focused, serious and ready, but at the same time relaxed, flowing and enjoying yourself. Get lazy and guys you can beat will smoke your ass, get too keyed up, make stupid mistakes and maybe end up sliding across the pavement on your head. Intimate knowledge of the racetrack is critical, but waste too much brain space on one corner and you will botch the rest of them. I studied, watched videos and read everything I could about the tracks we would visit next season. I made lists, budgets and cached spare parts for any contingency. However prepared you might think you are, racing always has a few curveballs to throw when you aren't looking.

I agonized over what to do with the bike. It needed improvement in all areas: power, weight, handling, brakes. The biggest issue I currently faced was tires. The wheels I ran could not accommodate proper sized racing slicks. I could continue to run the "Racing Street" Bridgestones, they were cheap enough, but they put me at a huge disadvantage as the other racers were running slicks and tire warmers. My answer came from the same source that got me into this mess: Craigslist.

I saw the ad for an "EX500 Parts Bike $150" during my lunch hour. I could tell from the blurry cell phone photos that there were some nice parts on the machine, not to mention the nice price. I contacted the seller to tell him I would take the bike and that I would be there within the hour to pick it up. He said he already had over 25 emails, I told him I had the $150 cash, no haggling, he agreed. I then contacted my boss to let her know of the "emergency" I had to take care of toot suite and I was on my way, heart beating like going out on a first date.

As I loaded the machine into the back of my truck I did a cursory exam and knew I picked up a good deal on what was obviously a former race bike. Someone had installed a CBR600 F3 complete front end including the wheel and a ZX6 aluminum swingarm with a CBR600 F3 rear wheel. Those items would solve my tire issues, and all the machine work had already been done. Not to mention the Woodcraft rearset footpegs, Muzzy stainless exhaust, Fox Twin-Clicker rear shock absorber and whatever good parts the engine itself might yield. This dog's ass thought he felt a little ray of sun....

Monday, December 29, 2014

V For Victory

Remember, remember, Summit Point 'tis cold in November!
Running low on reason, my bankroll about shot
My return to racing, at least by me, shall never be forgot.

I didn't blow up Parliament and I certainly didn't set any scorching lap records that frigid weekend November, 2013, but I was there. Turnout was light, probably due to the temperatures, which struggled to hit the mid-50s during the day and dipped down near freezing overnight. The weather did not bother me, my only concern was that the straight water we run in the cooling system as per the rules might freeze. When I checked the digital gauge first thing on Saturday morning it read 34 F. Close.

Morning practice is cold. Two guys crash on the first lap of the first session. I know better and skip it. I already know which way the track goes. Second session is warmer. I find myself all alone out there, which can make things tough, as you don't have a frame of reference. I am tentative and making rookie mistakes trying to find my rhythm. At the end of practice I am eight seconds off the pace of the leaders in my class. Eight seconds. A fucking eternity.

I know I will get two to three seconds faster during the race, probably pick up another second or so as the pavement warms up. The other guys will get faster as well, which means I have a lot of work to do. I try not to feel too discouraged and remind myself that this is my first race back, finishing and not getting lapped will be an accomplishment. Somehow that's just not good enough. And somehow, it seems, I have brought a knife to a gunfight. Again.

Stock motor and street tires on an outclassed machine is a recipe for underdog, eternal longshot status. I've just hit the upward slope of the mountain again and it already feels familiar. I grit my teeth and decide to give it everything I've got.

I get a great start in my first race and lead going into Turn 1. For a brief moment I wonder if I have a chance, then the fast guys come wailing by me and the question is answered like a slap in the mouth. I watch three of them disappear into the distance like rocketships piloted by madmen. I chase, catching nothing but exhaust fumes and humility.

I finish the race fifth or sixth overall, but because of my Novice status I am actually second place, but it's a really distant second. Oh well, nobody needs to know that, second it is!!

The next race is a repeat of the first, without the good start, and the results are the same. I can live with it, at least for now, knowing what work needs to be done for next season.

Wandering around the paddock that evening, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that I had long been absent from, I re-discovered something I did not know was lost.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bless the Mavericks

Long before the current cafe racer/bobber/flat tracker vintage bike trend that has every monkey with a hacksaw thinking he is a bike builder, there was Phil. Before the hipsters were old enough to grow a beard or even think about wearing glittery metal flake helmets, there was Phil.

He raced a BSA Goldstar at scrambles and flat track events during the early 1960s, was the first to compete on a Japanese motocross bike when everyone was still enamoured of the British Empire's offerings ("Damn thing handled so bad and had so much power, it was always trying to kill me."). He came from the hardscrabble farm life in Upstate NY, did a brief stint in the Navy and worked at the local Kraft cheese plant before hanging out his shingle in the small engine repair business. He soon earned a reputation for being able to fix things other mechanics could not. His out of the box solutions had some detractors calling him crazy. Phil's genius was the ability to look at a problem sideways and come up with an elegantly simple answer that would leave the engineers and mathematicians wondering why they didn't think of that.

He said lawn and garden work was the bread and butter, allowing him to pursue his first love: motorcycles and other motorized toys. I believe his love of riding/competing was rivalled only by the love of building them. And build them he did. He stripped down motorcycles to their bare essentials and tuned them until they functioned better than the designers could have hoped for. He put car engines into snowmobiles, and turned snowmobiles into wheeled vehicles. His machines had a brutal beauty, almost puritan in their honesty and rigid in their purpose. They had to work, and work well. And they couldn't cost much.

Phil's work was a constant attempt to buck the system. He refused to accept that big money had to be spent to have big fun or be competitive and quite often he was right. He took particular delight in showing up at the local snowmobile drag races with, to use his words, some "weird harold piece of shit" and kick some ass. They might have laughed as he unloaded the machine from his two-wheel drive Toyota truck with no power steering, but no one laughed after they saw him run. I remember the gasps of amazement from the crowd as the "yellow thing" took off down the track. I recall my own sense of pride as I thought, 'That is my friend.'.

There are a million stories like that, I am grateful that I got to be a part of even a few of them. I am also thankful that I became caretaker to one of Phil's machines. "Modified" by Phil in the mid 1990s, it began life as a 1970s Kawasaki KZ400 twin-cylinder streetbike, a beginner's ride with the typical Universal Japanese Motorcycle styling of the day. A pedestrian and quite forgettable bike:

Not so after Phil turned it into a dirt machine for himself:

Barely muffled, sporting knobby enduro tires and no front brake, this is not a machine for the faint of heart. The weight is under 300 pounds and it carries it low, which makes the handling quite nimble, and the balance is superb. Power is instant from the well-tuned carburetors and is more than adequate for playing off road and while boasting a top speed near 90 mph. The gas tank is from a Jawa moped, shocks from a 1000 Kawasaki and exhaust turnouts from NAPA. Obviously you won't be hucking this over any triple jumps, but as an affordable fire roads bomber, it fits the bill. Phil confessed he had less than $300 in building the machine, including the purchase price.

You see, Phil understood that at its core, a motorcycle is just that, a motor and two wheels. Strip away all the faff and plastic, bold new billboard graphics, shitty chrome, GPS, LEDs, 0% financing and you are left with the heart: a simple conveyance of internal combustion with the power to move men's souls.

Bless the mavericks, for without them, who would show us the way?

Monday, December 22, 2014


I was excited about my return to the racetrack and impending return to competition. Family and friends were not so enthused. Frankly it was tiring trying to explain it to them.

The one person I wanted to tell was friend and mentor, Phil. He kept me going during the frustrating inaugural racing years. It cannot be overstated how his calm demeanor, patience and sense of humor (not to mention cheap labor rates!) kept me grounded in sanity as I cut my teeth. As a long retired motorcycle racer, he understood the passion and the madness.

I knew from a friend that Phil had not been doing so well. We never spoke on the phone much, although I did make it a point to go see him on my yearly visits back to upstate NY. The mutual friend told me that Phil had been diagnosed with Rapid Onset Dementia, and that there were good days and not so good days. The picture he painted had my stomach in knots. I needed to make a pilgrimage north.

I won't discuss what I witnessed, but I can say, at least for me, death would be the more preferable option. I could have handled death, a chance to grieve, to mourn and then finally, remember fondly. But a decaying half-life that would allow none of them? The callous, savage irony of it made me seethe with anger, want to punch god in the mouth and scream until my lungs bled.

There is no salve for the horror of watching a brilliant mind malfunctioning. It is a filthy and perverse joke of nature for such a thing to happen. I was sick over it.

It was a long drive down a helpless road home.

The bike Phil helped build

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tick Tock

It appeared the remainder of my 39th year would be spent riding around aimlessly at trackdays, but plans were hatching for next season.

WERA (Western Eastern Roadracing Association) held races at several tracks within a few hours drive, namely Summit Point and Virginia International Raceway. They agreed to accept my prior race experience in lieu of taking their race school, provided I returned as a Novice for the first season, which was amenable to me.

I planned, budgeted and trained. The first race at Summit was in May 2014. One weekend before that there were two trackdays, both running on the Main circuit. The trackdays would be perfect for blowing out the winter cobwebs and learning the track before racing. I had all winter to get the bike and myself ready. This was it.

Then, as so often happens with racing, things changed. WERA had a scheduling conflict that forced them to move a race weekend to late November 2013 at Summit Point. Could I make it happen? Before the clock struck the big FOUR OH? How sweet that would be, and what a motivator, to get that homecoming race under my belt before I was officially over the hill.

There was still the matter of licensing fees, an oil containment belly-pan, safety wiring, tires, time off, but to hell with it, I was going racing!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Wasted Air

I survived the first track day, and several subsequent ones. While enjoyable, they were not entirely fulfilling. Many of the participants were not particularly friendly, aside from a snide comment or two along the lines of, 'An EX500? My girlfriend used to ride one of those until we got her a real 600.' Very funny. I watched as the dick waving horsepower junkies wobbled around in the corners, got the bike perfectly upright and then opened the throttle to blast down the straightaways. Granted there were good riders, but there was a lot more talking about it than actually doing it. They seemed happy to play the part of racer, without having to actually back it up in the crucible of competition.

Braggadodico does not survive well in the racing ecosystem. Motorcycle competition is far too humbling an endeavor to allow for much bullshit. Just as the racing motorcycle is stripped down and all that is deemed unnecessary pared away to lighten and simplify, so streamlined must be the attitude and approach to racing. Spartan, uncompromising and above all prepared for anything. Results speak for themselves, anything else is just wasted air.

I decided to look at these trackdays in a different light, not as stand alone events, but as preparation to return to racing. After six long years away, I knew where I wanted to be: lined up on that starting grid ready to find out if I still had it in me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Forever Young

"I shall work harder." -Boxer, Animal Farm

"Work smarter, not harder." Dave Bishop (my former boss)

A return to the racetrack meant a return to decent physical condition. I knew from past experience that getting tired during a race led to mistakes. Mistakes hurt. That was unacceptable.

Since making the exodus south, I was working toward those ends. My diet improved greatly. I finally understood I was no longer 18 and the foods I existed on then would surely kill me now. Already exercising regularly, it grew into a six day a week affair, 1 to 1.5 hours a day. Workouts include weights, elliptical, stationary bicycle, stretching and a whole lot of swimming.

Kris Larrivee

Neither easy, nor particularly enjoyable, I remind myself the true purpose of this torture whenever my enthusiasm wanes. Every rep, every mile contributes to the ultimate goal: Speed. The body and the mind must be tuned just as is the motorcycle.

Weakness in any of the three will be exploited by an adversary or by fate itself. At the end of the day, the competitor with the best combination of the three, wins.

Kris Larrivee Squat Ball

While the piss and vinegar of youth may have mellowed slightly, the potency is now all the stronger owing to focus, efficiency and strategy.

Work smarter indeed.

Project. With a Purpose

"Your fingers would remember their old strength better... if they grasped your sword." -J.R.R. Tolkien

It was surprising how well the bike actually ran. All the gears were present in the gearbox and general mechanical condition was good. That discovery would dictate the next course of action: scrape the rust off, throw on a coat of paint and race the son of a bitch.

Obviously there was more to it than that. Front and rear suspension required rebuilding, brakes were rebuilt and the system flushed, carburetor overhauled, valves adjusted, chain, brake pads replaced. I figured out how to change tires using a bottle jack and the bumper on my truck so that I wouldn't have to pay $40 a pop for someone else to scratch my wheels.

I threw myself into the project with the goal of having it track-ready within two months. Everything that could would be done in-house (i.e. by me). It could not be a long drawn out process. I've met wanna-be racers that are always "building" their bike, they are full of excuses and totally lacking in action. I aimed to complete the task to the best of my ability, with function certainly well ahead of form.

There was another reason for choosing the two month time-frame, I found out about a "track day" at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia late September. I had never been there, but it was only a three hour trip. I wanted to ride. The question still loomed whether my wrist and hand would hold up to the rigors of hard braking and operating the clutch lever repeatedly, it seemed silly to jump right back into racing without knowing for sure. A track day, a paid open practice broken up into groups according to skill level, seemed like a non-committal way to see if I still had the chops, or if I even wanted them.

Dollars were spent, hours invested combing the information superhighway for the best deals. Thankfully I still had my old leathers and a good helmet, other gear was sourced mostly from Craigslist and that crappy auction website that shall remain nameless.

I was pulled in a little deeper...

Starting Point


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Resurrection and The Life

I lied to everyone, (including myself), that I might part the bike out and make some money. There were lots of great parts there that would allow me to at least quadruple my money without much effort. I was so full of shit.

The bike was quickly wheeled into the garage upon returning to my house. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein dragging in a fresh corpse for re-animation. The neighbors surely heard the mad cackling as I made my way around the machine. A battery was borrowed from my street bike to provide the electrical current needed to force life back into the engine. The carburetors were removed and cleaned to ensure proper delivery of petrol, that vital liquid necessary for internal combustion. A rats nest was removed from the exhaust (I wouldn't be needing him anymore). Within the hour mission control was ready for an initial test launch.

With baited breath my hand hovered over the starter button like a concupiscent teenager about to touch a real breast for the first time. Anticipation rose until I thought I should explode, a thought flashed in my febrile mind just before the climactic moment, 'If it runs, we are going to the racetrack.'. Unable to restrain my desire any longer I thumbed that red button lustfully, aching for sweet release and....... Nothing.

The dead remained dead and my nerve softened, but my passion remained unabated. Surely the recalcitrance could be cured with further foreplay? A light touch here, caress there, a poke, a prod? My sweet ministrations yielded only soft clicking from the solenoid, but it spurred me on. A more aggressive approach perhaps? I attached jumper cables to my truck and then to the comatose machine, I talked dirty to it determined to get a response. This time I did.

The beast awakened from it's slumber in a smoking, deafening bellow of barely muffled anger. Dust shook from it's old bones as life coursed through its veins once again. Like a demon summoned in a dark ritual this thing demanded to know who had brought it forth and why. I answered by mounting and riding the smouldering, bucking creature out of the garage. It attempted to throw me off as the rear tire spun in the grass but I was not to be denied the carnal knowledge I sought.

After a decade of death the mechanical Lazarus was alive again, and maybe just a little bit, so was I.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A New Chapter

Sometimes we are given signs. Being a glass half full kind of guy, I always assume that these signs are telling me to go do something, as opposed to warning against. I mean, who wants to be told NOT to do something, right?

That's why when the reply from the seller of the EX 500 came back with these words: "If you want this thing, we can definitely make a deal.", I naturally assumed that was the sign to hop in my truck and drive 2.5 hours to take a look at it. This is what I saw:

It was disheveled, mismatched, corroding, well beyond its prime, begging to die. And it was beautiful. Under the veil of ugliness, I could sense a heart of gold. The machine bristled with safety wire, and oozed patina (and oil, coolant, brake fluid, battery acid). The D&D exhaust, Keihin CR carburetors, Works shock, Air Tech bodywork, rear-sets and other goodies spoke of a true race track refugee, scars and all, begging for another chance to fulfill its purpose. Sure the brakes were seized and had to be freed with a hammer, sure the motor didn't run, the tires were dry-rotted, the shock and forks leaking, but there was potential there man, potential. For exactly what I can't say.

The owner told me he purchased the bike from a racer while living in Northern California, used it for 2 track days and then parked it. He dragged the thing with him all the way to the East Coast when he moved for work, where it sat in his garage for nearly ten years, rotting. And waiting.

"So are you interested?"

"What are you looking to get for it?"

"Make me an offer."


"Make it $250."

"Ok, but you have to throw in the rear stand."


The rat squealed with delight and a new chapter began.

Begin The Wildfire

I get myself into more trouble with Craigslist. No, not in the "Casual Encounters" section, but in the "Motorcycles For Sale". I find gems, these diamonds in the rough so to speak and they end up costing me my retirement. Like a woman who has to go out and adopt a stray animal every time she sees a weepy ASPCA commercial, I bring home these abused and neglected two-wheeled dregs soon to be euthanized by the crusher. Saving these marvels of Japanese engineering from an ironic fate being melted down and shipped to China is some twisted calling of mine I guess.

At the time I believed it was just aimless internet wandering, window shopping on the world wide web, but I suspect there may have been ulterior motives buried deep in my subconscious, a need to sate the hunger that could not be done through acceptable channels. I cast my net wider across the state, searching from town to town electronically for velocipedic offerings.

Trumpets may have brayed and a light could have shown down from the heavens when I clicked on the ad: Kawasaki EX500 Track Bike $500, but probably not. It was, however, like an attractive woman smiling at you from across the street. Your heart leaps, breathing quickens and soon you are travelling back to that corner every day hoping for another glimpse, unable to forget her hair, eyes, grin. I must have gone back to that ad three or four times a day for the next week, until I finally put it out of my mind. Or so I thought.

I have never slept well, being a restless sort, but the next fortnight was nearly unbearable as a contentious power struggle trampled on in the parts of my brain I am still locked out of. I was not certain what was going on, only that something certainly was going on. The fifteenth day I woke as if from a fever, feeling refreshed and relaxed. Whatever it was had passed. I went to work.

During my lunch break I perused the two-wheeled wares on Craigslist, passing time. A small voice spoke from the bowels of my subconscious. Thinking back, it was an almost rodent-like voice, and as I listened, my guts hurt a little. "Go check on that EX500 in Roanoke.". I obeyed, not realizing it was a command at the time. It felt like simple whim, a "what the hell" kind of half-ass decision, like the tossing of a lit cigarette out the car window that begins the wildfire.

A haphazard, nonchalant Faust, I thought just before clicking, 'If the ad is still up, I will email him'. How was I to comprehend the re-selling of my soul? I had no way to know the contract was truly binding. The ad remained, and I kept my vow, sent the email and flipped destiny the bird once again.

Somewhere in the distance, the rat was laughing.

These are the rose colored glasses of motorcycle induced poverty

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Life continued this way for a few years. I rode street bikes during the summer and snowmobiles during the winter. I briefly thought about marriage and children but then came to my senses. I purchased a 1982 Yamaha RD350 LC that turned into a huge money pit. If I couldn't race, I would at least create the sound of a racing two-stroke for all to hear. I was lulled into a false sense of security and complacency. Racing still gnawed at my gut like a rat, but a quick kick would make it scurry back into the corner for a bit, staring at me with skulking, violent eyes.

The writing was on the wall, but this myopic vision failed to heed. My internet motorcycle parts business started to fail. After ten years of relative success being my own boss the days were now numbered. I worked twice as hard for half as much money, what once had been a joy degraded into a tooth and nail skirmish just to rub two nickels together. A sentence for execution had been handed down, there would be no last minute stay, no reprieve.

While northern New York State possesses incredible natural beauty, it is a shit-hole of poverty, drug use and ignorance, a cesspool of wasting forgotten humanity. There are very few opportunities, crushing taxes and an oppressive good old boy network that god help you if you are not a part of. I did it my way for as long as I could, but the piper was playing the tune, and dues needed paying. I left New York for the second, and last time.

I had a basic idea of what to expect when I accepted an employment offer in the urban South, the second capital of the Confederacy: heat, humidity, traffic, population density, but coupled with that was a fighting chance and maybe hope.

While the south did not fail to deliver on my preconceived notions, I soon became painstakingly aware of how much slower things moved here. There was less urgency, now was not as important as some time, things got done when they got done. For someone whose main focus was doing a thing as quickly as possible, the slow pace was almost interminable. I found myself longing to explode out of the 9 to 5 drudgery and push right to the edge just to feel something other than boredom.

That goddamn rat kept gnawing.

The money pit RD that failed to fill the void.

Friday, December 12, 2014


I threw myself into my new non-racing life while the race bike sat in the corner of a barn gathering dust and sneering at me. One day when I got sick of its taunts, I stripped it down and sold all the bits on that crappy auction website which shall remain nameless. I got back about 1/5 of what I invested in it, but twice what I would have gotten selling it as a whole functioning motorcycle. Sad really, after 8 years of development into a race winning machine, to end up as a collection of parts sent to the highest bidders.

I renewed my focus on my first love: skating. It might seem odd that a 35 year old man would even consider riding a skateboard, but I had actually stuck with it for more than twenty years. I could live with the ways skating would hurt me. I have always gotten a similar thrill and the same sense of oneness from skating that I get from motorcycling. Some things do not change with age, girth, pain, responsibility. There are constants.

Photos courtesy of Isaac Wasuck

Down The Rabbit Hole To Hell

I raced one more time that year after getting the frame on the Suzuki straightened. It was bittersweet. I scored a third place, but the decision had been made. I would not return to the race track for the foreseeable future. There were many reasons, mostly financial, some personal.

Things changed. The blue collar guys left the sport as the economy tanked, people got divorced and remarried, died, real life stepped in. It was not the same bunch of friends it once had been, the new crop had more money, was more cut-throat, less likely to help a fellow racer out, more likely to talk shit behind his back. (True story: the new guy I shared a ride with to Mosport the weekend I cart-wheeled it down Turn 2 spent the weekend telling people he was lucky he "Got the gas money from Larrivee before he crashed", after I was carted off in the ambulance. The new executive members of the race organization did not appreciate my 'colorful' style. It felt like hanging around the same small town after graduating high school and everyone else had moved away. You simply were no longer welcome.

Eventually, even I can take a hint, although it might take the entire universe screaming at me to hear it. A laundry list of injuries had piled up since turning thirty. It was like hitting some sort of reverse lottery, with yearly installments of pain:

2003: Dislocated shoulder, torn rotator cuff, 2 broken ribs, cervical sprain

2004: Concussion, cervical sprain, 4 broken ribs, internal injuries, broken hand and ankle

2005: Broken elbow, severe road rash to elbows and back

2006: Separated shoulder requiring surgery/pins

2007: Broken collarbone, 2 broken ribs, ankle fracture

2008: No injuries (a good year!)

2009: Dislocated carpal lunate bone in left hand with damage to the median nerve requiring surgery and pins. Ended up with antibiotic resistant bone infection that lasted over a year, then severe reaction to antibiotics. Seven doctors, five surgeries and most of my sanity later the majority of my wrist bones were removed. Doctors wanted to do two more surgeries to plate the wrist, I told them to piss off as I was tired of quacks cutting into me.

2010: Boxer's fracture to 5th metacarpal. I refused surgery.

2011: Broken left collarbone, twice. Refused surgery.

Every time I thought I had finally hit bottom a trap door would open and send me down the rabbit hole back to Hell. I was physically out of shape and mentally exhausted. Obviously there was very little pity from me or others, as this crap was all self-induced, it was like a giant "I told you so". To continue on in this manner was surely suicide. I needed to back away from the breach and catch my breath, lest I catch something much worse. There was unfinished business with racing, but it would have to wait. The end came. For now.

Some of the various hardware installed in me over the years. No, I'm not proud of any of it. I wish it had never happened.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Next Time

"I am not without scars on my brain and body, but I can live with them." -Hunter S. Thompson

Every crash takes a toll. Physical, spiritual and emotional debts pile up like unpaid bills while the collections people are ringing the phone incessantly and the IRS at your door in a smart little business suit with a smarmy grin. You begin to wonder how much luck equity you have left to keep borrowing against. Next time it might be worse, next time I might...

You can drive yourself mad thinking about next time, cocooning yourself in fear. The more pragmatic worry only about this time, knowing the next is not a given, hell, you gotta die of something right? Would you trade a short, exhilarating fireball journey for a slow stroll to ruinous old age? If what you do today can kill you today, not in twenty, fifty years, next week, but right friggin' now would you be ok with that? Or would self preservation instinct rail against it and have you looking for actuary approved activities? When it comes to life, I don't know if quality is measured in length.

It isn't death that has me waking up in colds sweats wondering what the hell I am doing, it's the fates worse than death that do. It's the things that racers don't like to talk about, the thoughts I shove out of my mind that are always trying to creep back in. Thoughts that can make atheists whisper a prayer.

A racer needs a healthy dose of denial, else they cannot do what they need to do. A wall must be built around the debilitating notions. I believe that anyone wishing to function at a higher level needs this ability. It has to be about 'what I am going to do.', not 'what should I do?' or 'what might happen if I do this?", and that mental attitude makes all the difference.

The crash puts this attitude to the test while shattering the glass house of denial. It knocks you down, literally and figuratively. It is your decision whether to get back up as staying down becomes a much more attractive option. The willingness to get back up, after you know the consequences, finally understand fully the risks, fascinates me. I don't know if it is noble or stupid, perhaps a bit of both, but it is certainly a way to learn the content of your character. The wise seek fulfillment on other paths, while fools continue to tread, maybe to prove something to themselves.

I couldn't stay down. I couldn't walk away, until it was on my terms, until I was ready. I knew this wasn't the wise or mature answer, but it was my answer. I chose to rebuild my Temple of Denial, but the mantra changed slightly from "It Won't Happen To Me" to "It Won't Happen To Me, Again", this was the only way to carry on with it.

Five weeks later I removed the ankle cast, strapped the collarbone, taped the ribs and had my accomplices assist me into the saddle of a borrowed Yamaha RD 400 (the T500 was in a bad way with a bent frame), so that I could salvage some points in my championship bid. There was no longer any hope of winning the championship, but runner-up was still possible. I forget where I placed in that race, maybe 5th, enough to secure second overall for the season, which would have to do. Until the next time...

The final version of the T500 before wadding it up at Mosport

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hope Fades Ephemeral

In August 2007 I threw away a roadracing championship at the top of Turn 2 at Mosport International Raceway near Toronto. In practice.

I came to Mosport confident that I would finally win a championship. After several second place championship trophies, I was hungry for the top spot. It was going to be the culmination of years of effort on a motorcycle they said couldn't do it by a rider who did everything the hard way. It was close enough for me to taste it. It didn't happen. I left Mosport with a bent motorcycle, broken bones and broken dreams, but at least alive.

The bike was absolutely flying in morning practice, I had the quickest lap times for my class. Any finish in the top 3 would clinch the title, despite there still being another race on the schedule, no one would be able to surpass my points lead. The bike was better than it ever had been and I was feeling good, even though I had put on some weight over the last few years and the leathers were getting a bit... ahem....snug. Far behind were the days of cracked cylinder heads and piston failures, I had done my homework, and the results reflected it.

I didn't think much of it when I saw the slower rider in front of me as I exited Turn 1. My original plan was to pass him on the inside as we exited Turn 2 by simply tightening my line a little bit. It was a good plan until I realized just how slow he was actually going. I was closing at least 20 mph faster than him, and he was right on my line. I knew there were riders behind me, so clamping on the binders was not an option without getting ass-packed.

Turn 2 is a blind uphill crest to downhill that is tricky to do at speed. My turn in point was always just before the crest, about mid-track. You can feel the suspension unload as you crest the hill, then compress again as you head down the other side. I always left some room on the outside in case the bike ran a little wide on the exit. I was moving along very quickly and knew that jamming myself up the inside of this slower rider might result in a bad experience for both of us, so I widened my line by no more than 24 inches and moved my turn in point up about a half bike length to leave us both enough room.

This was all the space bad luck needed. By moving my turn in point up those few feet, I attempted to lean the bike over as the suspension was unloading. The front tire made a small howl like a dachshund being run over, and all traction was lost. I remember feeling my collarbone snap as my left shoulder hit the pavement, my elbow bashing into my ribs, breaking them, my helmet grinding along the pavement, sliding, then tumbling, then sliding again and finally my foot catching on something, ankle popping, ground, sky, ground, sky. Then darkness.

When I came to there was only dust, blocking my vision, choking my breathing. I was certain I had just crashed my dirtbike at home. I heard voices and realized I was not alone, but for the life of me I didn't know where the hell I was. It wasn't until the voices began talking to me that I discovered it was an ambulance crew, and they were actually talking to me. The crew later reported to my then girlfriend that I said two things: "How is the bike?" and "There goes my fuckin' championship." I do remember fighting the EMTs as they tried to cut my leathers off. I couldn't afford another set if they shredded these to ribbons. It was agony pulling my arms out of that suit with a broken collarbone and broken ribs, but the early effects of shock helped to dull it slightly.

No championship, no glory, just grit in my teeth, pain and the realization that if you ask "How much should I give?" racing's only answer is more, more, more.

It ain't me. It ain't me.

Up the hill into Turn 2

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Falling Action, Epilogue

It was a long way to go and a lot of crap to deal with for a six by nine inch simulated wood-grain plaque with a single color stencil announcing me as the third loser in race soon lost to the annals of time, but it was my goddamn 6 x 9" simulated wood-grain plaque and nobody was going to take that from me. I had earned that stupid thing and it was going to go in a place of honor on my mantle so that I could trot out this interminably long narrative you are currently reading for anyone willing to listen and a few who weren't. That is if I ever got home, there was still the matter of the narcoleptic Snap-On truck.

I pulled out of that sweaty racetrack without too many goodbyes. I did not have the energy, and I knew I would need to save it for the sweltering trip home. My right foot had previously been partially roasted from sitting next to the engine cover in order to operate the gas pedal. Inevitably the truck died about an hour from the track. It was dark, I managed to limp it into a sketchy looking motel parking lot. I grabbed my flashlight, determined to figure out what the hell was going on with this jalopy.

I tore the doghouse (engine cover) off in a frenzy and started looking for the problem. My eyes were drawn to a rusted piece of steel tubing, maybe 3/8" diameter, laying against the exhaust manifold, as I followed the steel tubing I noticed it connected to black rubber line on both ends, held with hose clamps. That black rubber line looked suspiciously like fuel line. I hopped outside the truck and popped the hood to look at it from the other end. Sure enough that rubber line went into the carburetor and I knew that the other end had to run to the fuel tank/pump. So instead of purchasing enough gas line to do the job right, some cheap stupid dipshit decided it was a good idea to use a piece of steel line and run it right across the freaking exhaust manifold! In the heat the gasoline was boiling in the damn line! No wonder the thing kept dying, it's a miracle I didn't go up in a ball of flame on the side of the highway.

The next hour was spent making an improvised heat shield out of an aluminum baking pan I bought from a dollar store and safety wire. I took the header wrap off the race bike's exhaust, wrapped the fuel line from one end to the other and zip tied it out of the way as best I could. I got it started, put the pedal to the floor and didn't let up until I absolutely had to.

I pulled into my driveway sometime in the desperate hours before dawn, a bleary eyed rheumatic golem. There would be no welcoming committee, no trumpets to herald the hero's arrival, not even a write up in the local rag. Monday would bring a return to the vapid drudgery of work amongst the other automatons in an attempt to accumulate wealth. But there was the next race, the next lap, the next green flag. And that was something.

My very own 6" x 9" simulated wood-grain plaque (dust and fingerprints sold separately)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Calm Like a Bomb

The trip to Mid-Ohio was turning into a real shit fest with no apparent let up. At some point it becomes very hard to maintain a positive outlook. A copper head gasket failed during practice (apparently there is a limit to how many times they can be re-used), taking out a piston, which meant a top end re-build before I could race. The self-appointed Suzuki "guru" that built my motor was off with his entourage of internet groupies, so no help there. I had to wear my race gloves to remove the cylinder as it was still hot and there was not time to let it cool.

New piston, rings, base and head gasket, torque to spec, bump start the bike and ride around the pits. That would have to be enough for the break-in procedure. The motor seems to be running a little "muddy", which I attribute to the heat and humidity, I figure rich is safe, and I don't have time to mess with the jetting at this point.

At first call for the Formula 500 race I am dressed in my leathers, rivulets of sweat rolling down my back and face. At second call I take a last swig of water, mop my brow one last time, don my helmet and gloves and prepare to bump start the bike (if you are unfamiliar with this procedure please see blog post from Dec. 1). Third and final call, time to roll. And roll I do, right down from the top of the paddock to the bottom with a completely dead motorcycle. I frantically push and run alongside the bike in a vain attempt to get it to fire. Nothing. My heart is racing, head pounding, I can't breathe, leathers so tight, goddamn helmet suffocating me. My competitors are swarming around me, passing by, heading out to the track, I am still running and fighting to bumpstart the fucking bike. I am furious, but my strength is being sapped by the blast furnace that is engulfing me. I get one or two hopeful putts from the motor, but nothing else. I trip and nearly crash in another futile attempt. People are watching me, apparently this was very entertaining for them, but do you think one of those assholes would lend a hand? I think about my "motor builder" off getting his ass kissed by a bunch of hipster dorks and nowhere to be found. I rolled to a stop at the entrance to pit lane, slumped over the tank of the bike, blinded by stinging sweat, halfway through a heart attack.

"Do you need to use the rollers?", a voice asks out of the darkness. I look up and a gentleman is pointing to a set of Doc Z roller starters designed specifically to start motorcycles. It consists of two car batteries and two car starters geared to rollers. I nod affirmatively and he pushes me and the motorcycle onto the rollers. "Put it in third gear. Make sure the gas and ignition are on. You only get three shots, ok?"

First shot, nothing. Second shot the bike fires over a few times, but dies immediately. Third shot the bike runs for about four seconds and dies again. He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders. My eyes narrow, my voice sounds remote and cold, as if someone else is speaking, "HIT IT ONE MORE TIME." He shakes his head, I grab his arm, "HIT IT ONE MORE TIME."

He acquiesces and runs it again. The bike fires over, I am working the throttle to keep the piece of shit running, I manage to ride off of the starters and onto the track. One of the officials tried to stop me from heading out on the warm-up lap as I was so late, but I never saw him and I couldn't stop at that point.

As soon as I hit the track I know something is wrong. The motor is only running on one cylinder, probably a fouled spark plug. I drone around at half power all by myself, knowing that I am probably holding up the start. I have a decision to make, do I quit the race before it even begins or do I start it and see what happens?

When I come around the final corner I realize they did not wait for me to start the race, the entire grid is gone, out of my sight. I see the flagman waving the green flag, my head instinctively drops and the decision is made to race, I did not come this far to quit. I figure I will make one lap to see if the damn plug will clear. I pass the flag stand on my now single cylinder machine, screaming every obscenity known to man and a few unearthly ones as well inside my helmet. I hold the throttle wide open everywhere, because there really is no power. I come around the off camber downhill turn called the Keyhole and I can see a few straggling bikes off in the distance. I have no hope of catching anyone if the second plug doesn't start firing, and there is a very real possibility of getting in the way of the leaders as they lap me. The first lap ends on only running on one cylinder and I get ready to make my way off the track.

Suddenly as I round the last corner the second cylinder roars to life, nearly spitting me off when full power comes on at full lean angle. The fight to finish anywhere but dead last is on.

In those next few minutes, something happened to me. It started with furious anger, frustration, despair at the series of events leading up to the current situation and that translated into my riding. I attacked every corner with a vengeance, pushing harder than I had ever done in my life. Not for a moment did I think about crashing or getting hurt, my only thought was to catch and pass as many of the riders in front of me as possible. They had become my mortal enemies and I hated them, my only imperative on this earth was to dispatch them as quickly as I could. Not unsafe or out of control, but brutal and precise.

The anger transformed into a clarity I have rarely experienced. I am not conscious of actually having ridden the motorcycle in that race, but I can see myself doing so, as if from above. I know I made decisions, and I know there must have been noise from the engine, but I can only remember a quiet peacefulness, a stillness at 100 miles per hour. I began to pass the stragglers, by halfway through the race I made my way to mid-pack, no small feat considering how far I was behind. Slicing through traffic I again found myself alone, but the fire was not ready to die just yet.

With open track ahead I continued my rampage towards the front. All the negative energy that had me coiled so tightly unwound into a single, taut steel strand that I rode upon unflinchingly. I could not die, and I could not be stopped. Two more riders came into view on the back straight, I went up the inside of them at the end of the straight, passed both and left them wondering where in the hell I came from. I had no idea what position I was in and it didn't matter, there were other racers up there somewhere, and I was coming.

The flagman waved the white flag and I knew it was almost over, but the intensity did not diminish. I caught one more rider on the back straight, tucked neatly into his draft. I crawled as low as I could get over that gas tank, knees and elbows pulled in tightly trying to reduce every inch of drag, I lifted my ass slightly off the seat because I heard somewhere it helped with streamlining. I gained on him, inch by inch, determined to pass one more rider before my time was over. Without warning the racer clamped on the brakes, hard, I narrowly missed hitting him as I went by. As I looked ahead I could see what he was slowing down for, red flag. Race over. The last pass would not count because the race was stopped for safety reasons.

I would find out afterwards that several riders behind us went down together in the Keyhole. There was nothing to do but red flag. I also received the somewhat bittersweet news that I blitzed my way to fourth overall, from dead last in 22nd place, had the last pass counted I would have been in third. It was still my best finish ever at an AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) event. My charge had not been in vain and while not quite enough for the win it certainly felt like one.

Somehow a door had unlocked to a secret world foreign to me until then. I spent years racing trying to get back to that world, only to come tantalizingly close a few times.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine defines "Being in the zone": "also referred to as a state of flow, that comes from activities that are intrinsically motivating. There are several common elements of flow in sports: a balance of challenge and skills, complete absorption in the activity, clear goals, merge of action and awareness, total concentration, loss of self-consciousness, a sense of control, no extra rewards, transformation of time, and effortless movement."

Yeah that was it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Set the Spark

Once moving it is almost possible to forget about the godawful heat. There are many other things to occupy the mind, namely keeping it on two wheels while sussing out the quickest way around the racetrack. This is not as easy at it sounds, as most of the roadcourses we run have anywhere from 10 to 17 turns, both left and right hand, with elevation and camber changes, blind corners and a million other idiosyncrasies. It's like having multiple lovers in different towns and knowing by heart the way each one wants to be touched for fear of having your eyes scratched out. Mid-Ohio is no different, 15 corners and over two miles. All of these details must be committed to memory, available for reference at short notice, a good lap time and even your safety, depend on it. It is impossible to ride fast without knowledge gleaned from the constant river of data assaulting you as you circulate the course. This river is fed by four main streams that the rider must be intimately in tune with at all times.

The first: What is the racetrack doing? Not only does the track turn certain ways you must remember, but it will act differently as conditions change. This is crucial to understand, as many a hero became a zero by trying to go hard on cold pavement in morning practice. Rain, fog, sunlight, Oil-Dri spread to clean up leaking fluids all change the way a track must be ridden. Be caught unawares and you may be riding back with a wadded bike in the crash truck, or in the ambulance.

The second: What is the motorcycle doing? How is the motor running? How does the bike feel in the corners? Brakes? Tires? Shifting? Front suspension? Rear suspension? Anything and everything relating to the machine's performance must be cataloged in the brain for analysis upon returning to the pits. This is, however, not the time to be wondering if you tightened the axle nut properly or if your JB Weld repair to the cases will hold.

The third: What are the other riders doing? Where are they on the track? Are they faster or slower than me? How are they reacting to track conditions/weather? Can I pass them safely?

The fourth, and most important: What am I doing? Am I reacting properly to the data acquired from the other three streams or am I overwhelmed by it? Am I in a relaxed mental state or agitated? Are my inputs to the motorcycle having an adverse affect on handling? All of these questions and many more must be answered before the big one: How can I go faster?

That simple question consists of so many small parts it becomes infinitely complex. Lap by lap, corner by corner you have to take it apart, examine each component, then put it back together in the way that works best for you. Master it, then disassemble it and find an even better way. It becomes a difficult psychological endeavour that can have you chasing your tail. It is also very personal, because as you progress you discover walls of perception, individual impediments to speed that must be overcome before improvement occurs. A rider gets stuck in a rut and begins to think he cannot go any faster. Therein lies the rub, because you can always go faster. It is a given for most of us that we will NEVER put in a perfect lap, riding that edge the whole time, unable to push any harder not because of mental barriers, but because of the laws of physics.

Imagine having to face your fear that adding speed in a certain corner will cause you to crash and then making yourself go faster, because you know it can be done. The mental effort required is enormous because it has to overcome the self-preservation instinct. The trick is being able to push that little bit harder without disastrous consequences. And then be willing to push it even harder the next time. Unlike car racing where getting it wrong usually means a spin-out and some crunched quarter panels, the penalty for error is much higher with motorcycles. It can take quite a bit to move a man past the "protect my own ass" state into the "fuck it" mindset. Once past the inhibitions of fear a man can truly excel, but what does it take to get there?

Sometimes something has to set a man on fire. I was soon to ignite.

Kris Larrivee not quite at the limit.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Things That Go Bump In the Heat

After the restroom escapades I turn my thoughts to morning practice. The bike should fire up easily (relatively speaking) from cold, cold obviously being a relative term here in the bowels of Hell. The start procedure is just slightly less difficult than that of a hand crank Model T Ford you see, because, brilliant race engineer that I am, I removed all starting apparatus in an effort to save weight. While this practice is not without precedent in the racing world, I would have been much farther ahead to turn down some of the free pizzas my friend Tony was slipping out the back door to me and left the convenient little kickstart to prod the machine to life.

"Bump Start" procedure is as follows:
1. Turn gas on. Choke plungers up on carburetors.

2. Turn ignition on.

3. Locate 2nd gear with the shift lever using foot. If unable to do so with foot, balance the motorcycle with left hand on handlebar, kneel down and use right hand to find gear.

4. Regain breath after picking the motorcycle up because you really didn't have it balanced so well, note: your friends will be unable to assist because they are rolling around on the ground laughing at you. Repeat step #3 after cleaning up the gas that leaked everywhere and straightening the handlebar.

5. Rock the motorcycle back and forth holding the clutch lever in until the plates free. If unable to do so, adjust clutch at lever with motorcycle balanced against your leg.

6. See Step #4

7. Hopefully your dumb ass is parked on top of the largest hill in the area, in which case you merely sit on the motorcycle and coast down the hill holding the clutch in until sufficient speed is attained.

8. When sufficient speed is attained, wait a little longer so speed will be more sufficienter. [sic for you grammar nazis]

9. Lift fat ass off motorcycle seat and stand on footpegs.

10. Drop fat ass back down onto seat while simultaneously releasing clutch lever and engaging transmission.

11. Pray that you got Steps 1-3 correct, while being on the lookout for douchebags doing wheelies on pit bikes and for errant pets and youngsters running about in the pits. Parents tend to get upset when you run down their precious little snowflakes.

12. At this point the engine should begin to run. Reach down immediately and close the choke plungers to prevent the engine from flooding. Be sure to remain balanced as the motorcycle slows and you are still struggling to turn off the chokes while weaving through Chihuahuas and children. If unable to do so, see Step #4.

PLEASE NOTE: (If a suitable incline/hill is not available for this procedure, rider will have to provide adequate forward velocity by running his silly ass alongside the motorcycle and at the precise moment jump aboard side saddle, slamming down as hard as possible on the seat while releasing the clutch lever. Repeat until motorcycle is running, or is crashed (see Step #4 again) or the rider strokes out, whichever comes first. The publishers of this guide are not responsible for injuries, death/dismemberment or general butthurtness resulting from improper reading comprehension of said guide, that would be the fault of the public education system and yours for not leaving the starter on your bike like you should have.)