Track Day

Sixty-five. That’s about the max speed we hit on Saturday. The rain just kept falling, and the course was just water with a vague promise of racetrack underneath. We ran Dunlop GPA-Pros, which are a great choice for spirited track riding in dry, warmish conditions. These were not those conditions.

Even with the electronics all nerfed, Penny was barely connected to the floor. Entering a corner, we’d brake and just start sliding. Forward and forward, hoping eventually the friction would catch up enough to keep us from going past the track into the deep, dark mud beyond. Sticking a wheel in the mud would mean a definite trip over the handlebars and an awful chore digging the bike back out.

So each corner we slid toward the mud and tried not to look at it, then we tipped in, good and nervous, and each time we were somewhat surprised that the bike didn’t just fall on its side. But we made it around the track.

Leaving a corner was even more interesting. Just a touch of gas and the rear spun and spun, and again all you can do is ride it out and hope that friction catches up and eventually you start moving forward instead of sideways.

And then of course, the vision. Or lack thereof. It’s just rain. You see rain, and nothing else, and you try to connect the dots through the puddles between the candy stripes while going as fast as you can and no faster.

The whole effect was like one of those nightmares where you can’t run the way you expect to, and you can’t punch, and you’re very vulnerable because your body isn’t responding.

We managed to make it through the most of the day with the bow and stern of our Ducati motorboat pointed in the right directions, but it was tense. You try to stay relaxed on the bike in all conditions. Fighting only makes things worse, especially when things aren’t going well. But it’s hard not to be tense when you’re not sure how much input is finally going to put you on the ground. Tensing up is a defensive reaction, like closing your eyes before you get hit in the head with a ball. And this kind of riding gives you the sense that you’re going to get hit in the head with the ball any time now. Any time now. Any time now.

Then, boom. The shift peg broke off and the weekend was over. It’d be a lie to say there wasn’t a touch of relief to get out of the rain with a good excuse. But of course, the next day things dried up and we had to watch from behind the barriers as other riders enjoyed the track we’d been swimming through.

And so we loaded back up, swung back through SF one more time to see family, and drove all the way back to GRR HQ in SD.

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Ego relies on a certain push and pull to exist. It’s not a static entity. It needs to be edged by uncertainty on one side, confidence on the other. Triumph and tribulation, peaks and valleys, all that. Maybe it’s like a blip on a radar — ego only exists as something passes over it to prove its existence. Or maybe it’s like a bump under your skin. You only notice it when you come into contact with it.

Riding is certainly a nonstop trial of ego. Too little and the bike is just pulling you around. You’re going to have a bad time. Too much and you’re going to underestimate the fact that the bike is mostly pulling you around and you’re the flappy meatbag making things harder for it. And you’re going to have a bad time. So you have to work on stroking the ego’s fur in both directions so it stands up just right.

And there’s no surer way to send ego retreating back to its den, tail between its legs, sodden and diminished, than to go riding in the rain. Especially on the wrong tires.

We arrived at Thunder Hill in time to unpack and hang around a bit before nightfall. Someone said, “It’s definitely going to rain tomorrow.”

Smash cut to Charlie and Bravo in the back of the van at 4AM, watching torrents of rainwater rush down the windows. Outside, rivers of overflow flooded the paddock. Everything concave was a pool. Big, cold drops panged hard against the tin roof of the van. Our outdoor carpet started to float downstream.

Don’t picture thunder though. There was no thunder at Thunder Hill.

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There were two big moments at Laguna. These things happen so fast that it’s hard to comprehend them in the moment. And then there’s a brief window when you can try to use your memory to recreate what happened. After that, you start to imagine what might have happened. Pretty soon you’re just dreaming up versions of the scenario and feeding yourself bad data. Best to just hash it out once, and quickly, then move on.

The first big moment happened in the first session, on the first turn of the track. We just forgot about it in anticipation of Turn Two.

You fly down the front straight, full throttle and full tuck, bang bang up through the gears toward Turn One. The turn itself is just over the crest of a hill, so while you’re flying toward it, as noisy and fast as you could hope to be, you’re headed toward a horizon line and your basic memory of what’s on the other side.

Memory failed us this time.

We fell off the left wall of the straightaway toward the right in anticipation of the big braking section and the tight double hairpin at the bottom of the hill on the other side of the crest. Unfortunately, going right there was effectively taking us to the outside of Turn One. Way outside. And so we found ourselves too far out and too fast to either brake or turn in. We were going off-roading.

We accepted this new route and loosened up on the pegs. Loosened our elbows on the bars and prepared to hit the soft like a motocross rider. It worked surprisingly well, for a time.

The runoff at Laguna is hard at first, and then it turns to pea-sized gravel which gets deeper toward the outside walls. We tried to keep a shallow line through the gravel and just pop back onto the hard. But we knew that turning the wheel would almost certainly mean an immediate sink. So we brapped our way forward, fish tailing like mad, and sank lower and lower in the kitty litter. Eventually the wheel bogged and we went lightly over the handlebars, flopped, rolled, and popped back up.

Penny was alright though. The fairings were scratched. There was gravel in the most unlikely places. But she was straight and true and we followed a coach back into the pits for a second tech inspection. All was well enough. Especially considering this mishap started at about 140MPH.

The second big moment happened just down the track from the first, this time at the end of the day. Our confidence had been growing all day, and we’d found a line into the hairpin Turn Two (now quite aware of the existence of Turn One and a reasonable line through it) which we loved. A nice late apex right into the second half of the turn that gave us great drive toward three and tended to give us some space on the guys at our tail.

There is an immense satisfaction to be gotten by gaining speed through patience on the entrance to a corner, knowing that the guy behind you still can’t get on the throttle when you’re already powering toward the next brake marker. You hope that he’s cursing his impatience inside his helmet as you pull away.

This time, we took our patient line and kept the nose in front of a group that was trying to ride us down. Just off the apex, we got back on the throttle and pulled. The rear slid. No biggie. But then it kept sliding, and it started to feel like it might be a problem.

The rear slid away for a while and started to come around. Then it stopped, stood the bike up abruptly, and sent us perpendicular over the seat. A sort of mild rotation high side.

It got weirder.

The moment we hit the ground, the zipper running down the back of our left boot split and the boot went its own way. We slid and tumbled wearing only one boot, and it was embarrassing in the same way as having your fly down is embarrassing. Impractical thoughts go through your head when you crash, and one of ours was that everyone could see our sock. We hoped it was clean.

At the end of the tumble, we left Penny on her side in the gravel. We had to run back into the track, taller on one leg than the other, to get our boot so the other guys wouldn’t crash over it. Embarrassment was the primary emotion then. But we also realized that the unbooted foot hurt. A lot. An old injury has been revived, and we would be limping for the next week or so.

After getting some help picking up Penny, we realized that this time our day was done. Nothing major broken, but she was filled with gravel and a hazard to other riders. We left her on the wall and rode pillion on a coach’s bike back to the pits. More embarrassment. You should always try to return to the pit on the same motorcycle you left on.

An inauspicious end to a great day. Turned out later that the rear tire was way past its serviceable life by that point in the day. We’d asked too much, and we’d paid for it.

But we learned.

We packed up in thick fog, like opening your eyes underwater in a silty river. We wheeled back out the gate, down the hill, and south. Too wired from the day to rest, we humped all the way home.

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The layer of dark clouds in the sky as we approached Laguna Seca meant nothing. No omen. The next day was going to be beautiful. As perfect as you could want it to be near the central coast in November.

We chugged slowly up the hill into the park. Martin doesn’t appreciate a steep incline when he’s fully laden. Pedal to the floor. Just about 25mph. But we got there, and that’s the nature of our business here. We’re climbers. Martin knows what he signed up for.

As you descend into the raceway proper, you start to see the grey track snaking through the green hills. The word “Corkscrew” in white letters sits on one hillside like the famous Hollywood sign. And that seems appropriate. That turn is just about as famous and scandalous in the racing world as any front-page celeb could hope to be.

We passed over the track on a bridge and dropped into the paddock. A few rumbling tractor-trailers huddled together at one side, lights low. The grandstands and towers and garages stand solemn like they know something you don’t know. And they do.

We chatted with the folks from LetsRideTrackDays for a bit and then pulled into our spot. Bravo ran around the empty paddock for a while, loosening up after a long stretch in the back of the van. He found a big Doberman about the same age and got in some wrestling. Bravo is very good at making friends.

We set up the canopy, the chairs, the bike stands in the dark no problem. We’re getting better at this. Takes about 10 minutes now.

The moon was huge and bright. One day before the Super Moon. We hung out in the back of the van and waited for the few people around to retreat into their trailers so we could sneak onto the tarmac.

At the end of paddock, up through the grass and across the gravel runoff, we found a route to the track that wouldn’t raise attention. This was the bottom of Rainey Curve, turns nine and ten that lead you home from the Corkscrew. So we turned left and walked the track in its proper counterclockwise direction.

The moon was so bright that we could see perfectly. Bravo dashed back and forth across the track, sniffing every barrier and brake marker. Checking out each of the corner towers. He ran, sniffed, ran, checked in with me, then repeated. The smells here must be mesmerizing if you’re as sensitive to them as Bravo. For me, just being there was thrilling. I could have left after the walk and considered it a good road trip, but I still had more to do.

We memorized the corners and the cambers as we took in the famous sites. At the Corkscrew in particular, we stood at the top and imagined some of the famous overtakes that had happened there: Rossi over Stoner, Marquez over Rossi. We walked that memorial line on the wrong side of the verge and tried to gather some of its energy.

And the end of the circuit, we sneaked back through to the paddock and into the van. We’d forgotten the sleeping bag, so we just nested in some blankets. Two dog night. The morning couldn’t come soon enough.

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We drove hard up the hill through 12 and flopped left into turn 11. At the crest, we pinned the gas for the exit of the turn and kept it at the redline 3-4-5 all the way down the flying stretch of the straightaway, down down hill. Our brake marker was flew toward us in the corner of our vision. We had to get slow fast and then back on the gas for the ten-nine-eight series. Steady throttle keeps things balanced and predictable.

As we approached the end of the straight, we clamped on the brakes 5-4-3 and rode out the snaking rear wheel. Then it lifted violently skyward. We thought there’s this feeling like there’s an aura of us, a dense collection of energy in the same general shape as our corporeal selves, but loosely attached, perhaps moving in a slight delay to movements we make, but always at our back and whispering in our ears faster faster so that we might push our physical selves so fast that this little wisp of us, this other energy, can finally disengage, be left behind, released from our body to twirl like newspaper in our draft and away to wherever things like that choose to go.

Life after all isn’t a linear procession through which anything is ever truly accomplished or even totally finished. We just make incremental progress, wrangling our ideas of ourselves toward an idea of Who We’d Like to Be, using sheer willpower to keep our spirits intact, taking whatever excruciating steps we can to get to the next place without looking too hard at how our ideals can’t be held in our hands, or how we’re constantly making compromises as to the amount of slippage we’re willing to accept. But we try, and goddamnit no one will tell us we didn’t. And at the end of the game we plan to say “I did what I could, and I held the fuck on.”

And then the rear tire found the ground and hooked up, so we tilted hard left into ten, revved smooth through the nine-eight chicane, and blasted down the straight toward seven.

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The first practice session at Chuckwalla was on a race weekend. Which meant we were running with the fast guys who had come to practice before competing. The early warning light should have gone off when we saw the fairings around the paddock. At some track days, a lot of riders have their mirrors removed and their lights taped up. This prevents broken glass on the track and generally signals that someone is taking their street bike to the track to go a bit faster than Johnny Law approves.

When everyone’s machine is on pit stands and wearing race plastics and tire warmers, you know Johnny Law would never be able to catch them. They’ve put the effort into creating a bike that is meant only for the track. And so they probably know a thing or two about riding there.

Such was the case at Chuck last weekend. Very few tape jobs. Almost entirely race plastics.

The “no sessions” format of last weekend means you go out whenever you want to go out, no matter who else is out there. You end up riding with people who are about the same speed as you a lot of the time. And the rest of the time, you don’t even hear people behind you until they’re already in front. Especially if you’re slow. And we were very very slow. Any time we tried to keep up with those shrieking blurs of color, we gulped up big doses of The Fear and backed off the throttle until we felt stable again.

Still, “no sessions” was the perfect way to get back on the track. We had two days to get in some work, and work we did. On day one, the crash was still heavy in our mind. We were afraid at the entry to every corner that the front would leave us and send us tumbling into the dirt. But little by little, we gained speed, picked better lines, charged harder out of the corners. And most importantly, we gained confidence.

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We rolled into Chuckwalla at night and parked toward the front of the paddock. Other riders were spread out all over, with every imaginable configuration of vehicle transformed into campsites for the weekend. Some had tents on the pavement next to their pickups. Some had expanding RVs with separate enclosed trailers for their bikes.

Right behind us, a semi loomed large in the dark with its generators droning loudly like some slumbering beast. Fanned out in front of it were a half dozen matching bikes in tiger-striped race plastics waiting on pit stands.

Our new friend Pete was already set up and napping in the back of his SUV. We introduced ourselves, then started pulling stuff out of the van. With a little help pulling Penny down the ramp, she came down smoothly, even in the dark.

The sky was the kind of clear you only get in the desert, with as many stars as you’ve ever seen and halos of light around the brightest ones. Walking with Bravo through the unfamiliar terrain in the pitch black was fun and disorienting. Everyone’s bikes were up on stands, tire warmers in place. Each of them looking like predators ready to hunt.

Spots of light from the campsites stretched the riders’ shadows into alien exaggerations of the human form. Fluorescent light streaked out through the cracks in the doors of the massive hangar in the back. Something serious was going on inside, but it clearly wasn’t a place we had any right to poke our heads into.

We headed back to the van and put on the headlamp, then stretched out the canopy and laid out our coolers and containers. The paddock seemed sleepy and tense at the same time. Like electric potential. Only a few voices murmured through the dark. Most everyone was laying low in anticipation of the morning.

We were ready to hear the bikes roaring to life. The front straight was just in front of the van, and already I could picture the riders screaming past, just streaks of color and motion and sound. For now the track wound out into the desert blind and cold, indifferent to the people who were waiting to race down it.

For us, it was time to try and rest. So we crawled into the van and curled up, trying to get back some energy before morning. Trying not to think about how long it’s been since we rode. Trying not to think about the crash. Trying not to worry.

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