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.

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