October 18, 2009

Cheap Thrills



There are people who ride bikes because they like to ride bikes and there are people who ride bikes because they like to go fast.  I  fall into both categories, but as I grow older, I am leaning more to the former.  

Go fast bike riders will sooner or later find themselves on the race track.  Back when I was more of  a go fast kind of guy I did a bit of road racing, racing on a paved track with left and right turns.   Not much needs to be said about my not so illustrious racing career other than I  never earned a kiss from the trophy girl.   The one thing that always stay with me though, is that it was the most intense fun I ever had on a bike, and perhaps off one as well.  Oh, one other thing, I never wrecked more bikes and bike parts racing than before or since.

Mercifully for my bank account and bikes, my career was cut short by having all the nearby tracks made sacrificial offerings to the great god Urban Sprawl.    But where there are racers there is always a way,  new tracks located just out of reach of the developers.   But by then I had transitioned into a semi responsible citizen with young to rear and grass to cut, no longer able to pass the racer test (the ability to flush large bills down the toilet with no regrets).

As the kids grew up and the grass grew down, a new race track opened a few miles away.   I dusted off my RZ350, a newer and much improved version of the RD400 I once raced and participated in a few track days,  not racing, but you are on the track and you can pretty much go as fast as you like so long as you only pass people on the straights.  Problem with this was that the RZ was slow on the straight but unbeatable in the corners.   So back to racing where you can pass anywhere you please.  In order to race, I needed to attend race school, as it had been 20 years since I had raced last.   So early one cold April morning I headed out to attend race school.

It was a total disaster.  I had neglected to replace the antifreeze in the RZ with water (a race track requirement, coolant spills are super slippery).  While I was running around borrowing tools, finding water, etc. etc. getting all stressed out  I was missing out on valuable instruction.  I got my bike on the track with my group long gone, and while I was trying to catch up, the bike stalled because I forgot to turn the gas back on and the choke off.  By the time I got it going again, I was totally messed up and ended up dumping the bike in the hairpin.  Damage to the bike was light but it was out of commission, and my little finger was about 90 degrees west of where it usually sits.  They have a great emergency room in the Fort Saskatchewan Hospital, friendly staff, while you wait service.  It didn't take them long at all to pop my dislocated finger back where it belonged, but by then the race school was done, and my chance to race that season as well.    I took it as sign from somewhere and put off getting back into racing.

Not long after, I met this guy, Ross Elliot, through work, and we discovered a mutual interest in old bikes.   Ross was involved in organizing vintage flat track racing.   Flat track racing is held on oval dirt tracks that look like a horse track, which they probably are.  Every self respecting Alberta town has a rodeo grounds with some kind of oval dirt track used for various rodeo events like chuch wagon races.   The town of Thorhild Alberta is no exception.  They made Ross an honorary citizen so that he could represent  flat track racing as a genuine fake Thorhildian on town council. 

My riding and racing had been restricted to pavement, the highest form of motorcycling.  Pavement riders look down a bit on their dirty cousins, riding in fields and old gravel pits being reserved for those who are unable to get their class six (motorcycle) drivers license because they are not old enough, or are unable to pass the test.   But because it was my new buddy Ross, I figgered what the heck and rode out to Thorhild to watch a flat track race anonymously in order to avoid the declassé thing.



Talk about bringing back memories!  Just like when I amateur road raced, the few scattered fans are the ones that the racers drag along with them, so it is all about racing and not about the show.  Everyone is free to walk the pits and watch what is going on there.  Pit drama is at least as entertaining than the racing.  At least half of the racers are almost my age.  A good few of the bikes I see look they were found in a back yard covered in bird poop, reincarnated as red neck racers.  There are  also bikes and set ups that are considerably more upscale as well, but nothing that compares to the gold plated excess one encounters at road race meets.  Racing that is cheap, ain't that an oxymoron? Hmmm.

The racing was fun to watch too.  Of all forms of motorcycle racing, flat track and its European cousin, short track may be the best suited for actual spectating.  The entire track is visible from the stands, rarely the case for other forms of racing.   I wasn't thinking about racing myself, but the Thorhild flat trackers are pretty ardent proselytizers.  Nevertheless  I manfully resisted the temptation for at least two more races.  Problem was that I had never raced in the dirt or even rode much in the dirt.  I had recently acquired a dual sport bike which has off road roots, but I got it for riding on unpaved roads.  Sort of like that dirt oval track out there.  So if I raced I could improve my gravel road riding skills!

As it happened, I also had a bike that might be good for this.  A found in backyard on ebay old CZ motocross bike.   The guy who sold it to me had already scraped off the bird poop.  


The flattrackers also have practice days, so what the heck, I loaded up the bike and headed for Thorhild.  My intention was to just get out there and see what it was like.  I was not going to race anymore.  Especially flat track.  If you have ever seen it, a flat track race is quite a show.  No front brakes allowed.  At one time even back brakes were not allowed.  When you turn (always left) the rear tire slides out, and you put your foot down and slide the bike around the corner.  I had done this many times on the street and usually it ended with a dose of road rash.   Tires sliding = pain, to self, bike and wallet.  As it turned out it wasn't so bad, no crashing, but neither was I pulling the lurid slides that the skilled flat trackers were laying down.  A seized clutch ended my day, but I did have fun.


The next season with a new old ebay clutch I was out for another practice day.   Practice is Saturday, racing on Sunday.  I had to say what class I was racing in, so I chose Sportsman, the beginner class, but planned to skip the actual race.   I was getting more comfortable with flat tracking, but the bike was running poorly, this time it was carburetion.   When I found out that there were only three entries in Sportsman, I figgered, I should probably race, as it meant I was guaranteed a podium finish.  I took the bike home and tried to figure out what was wrong in carburetor land.

I have to say that it was with much butterflies I showed up the next day.  I was still of half a mind to bail.  The bike seemed to running better.   Off I went.  This would be my third day on a flat track and I was racing.  Fortunately, in sportsman class the competition is not too stiff, and with three riders, there was a lot of room on the track.  I started badly and the other two guys pulled away.  I managed to keep the bike going without stalling it, and was actually catching up to them.  Right then it all came back to me, I was no longer just trying to stay on the track and on the bike, I was going to pass this guy!  Yeah! this is what it's all about, the thrill of victory, the agony of having your engine splutter to a halt just as you make your move.  I was back!

Epilogue;
My carburetor woes had not gone away.  I did finish the first heat, but the bike would start for heat two.  I loaded up and went home.  But when I showed up for the next race, I learned that I had gotten third place anyway.  My first podium result.  I shall return.







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