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Waking Dreams: Fresh Mud, Race Fuel, & Zinfandel
MO's Contest Winner Starts a New Career
Was it all a dream? Did I really spend the last four days inside the cozy womb of the motorcycle industry? Was that actually me hobnobbing with a veritable "who's who" of the AMA road racing scene?
Could fate have conspired to align the planets in such a way - to create a harmonic convergence of internal combustion? Well, I woke up this morning to find a thousand race photos on my computer, a stack of Kawasaki swag on the table, two cases of Sonoma wine in the living room, a combined sense of physical exhaustion and mental overload, five-days of beard growth, and a two-day hangover. My wife was concerned. I guess this means I should brew up some high-octane java and start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Ah, I think I remember - it all started at last year's MotoGP at Laguna Seca...
As incredible as it was to see the Grand Prix teams haul into Monterey and set up their nomadic village in the Laguna Seca paddock, all was not right with the 2005 USGP. As chronicled extensively across the internet, Laguna Seca's access roads, foot bridges, taco stands, and porta-potties were all stressed to - and past - the breaking point. The racing was fabulous, and seeing Nicky start from pole and lead every lap en route to his inaugural top-class race win was simply awesome.
Though I fought my way around the circuit, shot some photos, cheered on The Kentucky Kid, and marveled at the scary speed and deafening shriek of the MotoGP machines, I sensed that I would probably not return the following season. As much as I love racing, there simply had to be a better way. How about Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, CA? Infineon hosts an AMA round each year, and I'd done track days there in the past. I bet that would be lower key and more to my liking. Hmm.
Fast-forward to April 2006. After completing a two-week crunch to meet a work deadline, I opened a nice local Zinfandel (a 2003 Peachy Canyon, I believe), and proceeded to watch the "Faster" film and a few episodes of "Long Way Round" on DVD. How cool is it that these journalists, photographers, and filmmakers get to follow their bliss? How much fun must they have in the process? And more importantly - how can I do that? When the Zin was no more, I fell asleep and dreamt about an online motorcycle magazine announcing a motojournalism contest. Wouldn't that be cool? In my dream, the web page said that contestants had to write something about a "memorable Kawasaki racing moment." It reminded me of the time Team Green nabbed an odd victory in northern California. I could see the news report clearly...
Hayden Brothers Tie For First In Infineon Shocker
Talk about a sibling rivalry. In an unprecedented result, factory Kawasaki ZX-10R Superbike riders Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden tied for first place in Sunday's AMA Superbike race at Infineon Raceway. Jason Pridmore finished third, after recovering from a spectacular crash on the opening lap.
Under perfect race conditions in sunny northern California, the green flag dropped with Tommy Hayden taking the holeshot ahead of brother Roger Lee. Pridmore, factory Honda's Miguel Duhamel and Jake Zemke, and Yoshimura Suzuki's Mat Mladin and Ben Spies hounded the Hayden brothers for the first lap, the top seven machines separated by only two seconds.
Then all hell broke loose.
As the leaders approached the turn 9 chicane, Pridmore lowsided when he skidded on fresh bird droppings and lost the front end of his machine. Pridmore sustained a badly fractured leg and a broken handlebar - but amazingly recovered to rejoin the race. After sliding into the gravel, Pridmore used twigs and grass lying trackside to create a makeshift splint and set his own leg. To the crowd's amazement, he then limped back to his bike and disconnected the throttle cable from the broken right handlebar, allowing it to be yanked by hand. The crowd cheered enthusiastically as Pridmore lifted his machine out of the gravel without any assistance from corner workers, gingerly swung his broken leg over the bike, and set off in pursuit of the leaders.
Incredibly, by lap seven Pridmore had diced through the pack and settled into third place behind the Hayden brothers. By half race distance, the Haydens had built a five second gap over Pridmore, Mladin, Duhamel, Zemke, and Spies. On the final lap, Tommy and Roger Lee swapped the lead in turns 2, 4, 6, and 7, ran two abreast through the turn 11 hairpin, then tucked in for the drag race to the checkered flag. After the Hayden brothers crossed the finish line side-by-side, Pridmore took the checkered flag with a one-legged wheelie, standing on his broken leg! The crowd went wild.
Unfortunately, the Hayden brothers were so close at the stripe that neither spectators nor AMA officials knew who had won. Fifteen minutes later - in the wake of sheer confusion in both the paddock and the grandstand - AMA officials announced that they were unable to determine the winner, the gap having been less than their camera's 0.001-second margin of error. Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden were both awarded first place, with Jason Pridmore rounding out the podium in third. No second-place was awarded. The AMA's announcement immediately prompted the protest of several factory and privateer teams.
In victory circle and on the podium, Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden were as polite and gracious as ever, sharing the top step of the rostrum and holding up a single trophy - much to the delight of their factory Kawasaki team and a legion of cheering fans. Pridmore was clearly thrilled with his third place result, hopping around the podium on his good leg, while chugging champagne and high-fiving everyone in sight.
In post-race interviews, the Hayden brothers jokingly announced, "We'll be holding a special first-place run-off event at our backyard dirt track in Owensboro, as soon as we get home."
Pridmore told reporters, "I'll be seeing Dr. Ting in San Jose tomorrow, but I don't expect anything as trivial as a broken leg to affect my training, my ability to race at Road America in June, or any of my upcoming golf tournaments." Pridmore added with a chuckle, "You've gotta smack me down harder than that to keep me off the podium!"
It was a race to be remembered for a long time to come.
When I awoke, I felt like Dorothy the morning after the tornado. That corner worker did look a bit like the scarecrow - and Mat Mladin kinda resembled the tin man, didn't he? I thought nothing of this bizarre reverie until a week later I had a similar dream. Again inspired by consumption of fermented grapes (in this case, a 2001 Sunstone "Eros" I had been saving), I drifted off to find myself - amazingly - picking up where I left off in the previous dream. I had just heard that I'd won that same motojournalist contest, and that I would be spending four days in Sonoma attending the AMA round at Infineon, flogging motorcycles, rubbing elbows in Kawasaki's executive sky box suite, eating like a gourmet, drinking like a fish (oops, I mean a "motojournalist"), and generally being anointed as an industry insider and VIP. With dreams like this, who needs reality?
As the story line progressed, I drove from my home in Santa Barbara to meet Sean Alexander and his public relations team at Infineon Raceway the Friday before race weekend. I'm issued an event pass, hospitality ticket, and media credential. Yep - I'm a card-carrying motojournalist, alright! After checking into my room at the hotel, I hop into Sean's mini-van to be spirited away to Kawasaki's "Secret Mini-Moto Camp" for the first round of festivities. Sounded like fun - except for the fact that it's now pouring with rain!
After deliberately spinning the mini-van in the hotel parking lot, Sean drives us to an empty field a few miles from Infineon. In one corner there is a large white tent, and what appears to be a motocross track complete with jumps, whoops sections, and banked corners. We meet up with MO's own Fonzie, and I introduce myself to the crew. Kawasaki PR director Jan Plessner is directing the festivities, with an assembled group of Team Green staffers, PR agency reps, journalists - and past/present/future racing champions in attendance. Lined up next to the track is a fleet of Kawasaki KLX-110 dirt bikes and a trailer full of riding gear. Yep, we really are going to have a mini-moto race in a downpour, and I'm going to have to race the likes of Gary Nixon, Jeff Emig, Jessica Zalusky, and Rickey Gadson! After several laps of attempting to operate a two-wheeled vehicle on a surface offering the traction of gorilla snot, I resign myself to lying in the mud and letting Sean ram me with his bike while Fonzie takes photos. Thank you, sir - may I please have another? Magnificently Muddy Mini-Moto (M4) sure is one hell of an icebreaker!
After the race (in which Fonzie is awarded a "golden sneaker" trophy), the group feasts on BBQ, an open bar, and warm pineapple a la mode - in the middle of a downpour in a dairy field. Surreal.
Saturday morning begins with breakfast at the hotel and the ceremonial dressing of wounds inflicted in the mud the previous afternoon. I wonder if the hotel will actually wash those muddy jeans I put in the plastic laundry bag and dropped off at the front desk? We board the Kawasaki shuttle bus, and after Rob Doyle of BusinessWeek's daily cry of, "Is this the bus to Atlantic City?" we head for the track. While shooting photos up in turn 2 during the morning practice sessions, my cell phone rings. It's Sean. "Hey, wanna go on a street ride?" he asks. Ten minutes later, I'm screaming across highway 37 on a brand-new ZX-6R, headed for Lucas Valley Road. After a relaxed 90-minute tour through the Marin County back roads, we arrive back at the track for the start of the first Superbike race. We immediately run up to the Kawasaki suite atop the grandstand. This is a first for me - you know, experiencing how the other 0.001% lives - a world of catered lunches, comfy chairs, wall-to-wall closed circuit TV coverage, and air conditioning. Ben Spies leads the race flag to flag, beating Suzuki teammate Mat Mladin and Honda's Miguel Duhamel.
After the first Superbike event, we visit pit lane for the start of the Formula Xtreme race. As our media passes give us access to pit lane for race starts, we decide to watch from the wall, right next to pole position. What a thrill. Even having attended road races for years, it was a shock to be so close to a forty-bike grid as the revs go up, the flag drops, and the pack careens past like a swarm of nuclear-powered locusts!
Eric Bostrom pulls off a last-lap pass to beat Jason DiSalvo for the F/X win, and we head to the factory Kawasaki pits for a behind-the-scenes tour with Team Green's own John Ewert. After a close look at Tommy and Roger Lee's machines, we discuss "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Swapping ZX-10R Engines, but Were Afraid to Ask" in the Kawasaki garage. Good geeky fun.
Following our visit to the Team Green pit garage, Fonzie and I charter one of Kawasaki's Mule transports out to the Supermoto course located outside turn 7. The Fonz gives me photo tips, and we shoot ourselves silly as a pack of "dirt bikes wearing slicks" dice their way around a two-level course made up of equal parts asphalt and packed dirt. We're able to get very close to the action, take tons of great shots while partially enveloped by the dust cloud, and shortly thereafter return to the main paddock.
Saturday ends with dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant, and of course more wine. During dinner, Jan and Sean fret about what to offer as a "plan B", in case it rains on Sunday. They announce that if the forecasts are correct and thunderstorms descend upon Sonoma, each guest will be able to choose between a visit to the Hangtown MX nationals in nearby Sacramento or a wine tasting junket in the Napa/Sonoma area. As much as many of us love motocross and/or could use another few glasses of wine, we pray for dry weather and return to the hotel.
I wake before my alarm on Sunday morning, and immediately run to look out the window. It's not raining! I check the online forecast - partly cloudy with a chance of showers - looks like we're going to the track! I spend the morning shooting photos up at turn 2, and catch a nice series of shots as the bikes flow through on the first lap of the Superbike and Superstock races. Ben Spies takes his sixth Superbike win in a row, with Mladin second and Duhamel third - the same podium as the first race of the doubleheader. Jamie Hacking takes the Superstock win over Aaron Yates and Eric Bostrom, after the race is stopped on the ninth lap due to a blown engine in turn 1.
After a quick stop at the Kawasaki suite, it's off to turn 9 to shoot the Supersport race. A few raindrops turn into a light misting and then a steady rain. AMA officials stop the race on the third lap, with Ben Spies leading, but declare the race canceled. Considering the weather forecast, it had been a great day - with two of three races completed and several hundred more images on my CompactFlash card.
When I return to the Kawasaki suite, Jan Plessner asks if any of us would like to go wine tasting for the rest of the afternoon. Next thing I know, a small group of motojournalists and Team Green personnel is on one of the shuttles, headed for the nearby Gloria Ferrer winery. After doing our best wine connoisseur impersonations, we return to the track for a private session in the Sony PlayStation truck parked next to the Kawasaki tents. Do you have any idea how surreal it feels to watch Gary Nixon, Jessica Zalusky, and assorted motojournalists go head-to-head on a Sony Playstation game in which players race virtual motorcycles around Infineon? I do! After an hour of virtual moto racing, the group heads off to the Infineon media center for a catered dinner. And yes, more wine. We'll all sleep well tonight.
We awake Monday to a partly cloudy morning, gather up our riding gear, and board the shuttle once more, bound for the track. A line of Kawasaki sport bikes adorns the pit wall and four ZX-14 machines are sequestered to the drag strip. Monte Lutz from Sport Bike Track Time gives us our orientation for the day's events and explains that, "Today is not a race", and that, "There will be no MotoGP or AMA Superbike tryouts today." Oh well, I guess we'll just have a fun, relaxed day at the track, then - using a fleet of brand-new Kawasaki sport bikes. Four hours of road course sessions, followed by a couple of hours at the drag strip under the tutelage of AMA drag champion Rickey Gadson. Nice work if you can get it! I go out for four track sessions on Ninja 650R, ZX-6R, ZX-6RR, and ZX-10R machines. The 650 is fun, the 6R torquey for a middleweight, the 6RR a tad more revvy and racy, and the 10R just plain scary. Mortal humans can pretty much click the 10R into second gear and tool around Infineon with no problem at all. How Tommy and Roger Lee push race-prepped 10R machines to the limit is beyond me. Consummate skill and superior genetics, surely.
After our fourth session, Jan announces that the party is moving to the drag strip. I've never even seen a drag race before, and we're going to be riding the brand-new ZX-14. It sure would be embarrassing to loop the bike on my first try - especially in front of an assembled crowd of motojournalists! As the group arrives at the drag strip, we find that two individuals have taken the day's events a bit too literally. Monte Lutz and Neale Bayly are lookin' hot, but we're not so sure about their choice of drag racing gear!
Unfortunately, Rickey Gadson had crashed on the road course earlier in the day, and missed the start of the drag strip activities - although he showed up later that same day with his arm in a cast and a walking cane - right before my first pass! In Rickey's absence, Steve Atlas explains the basics of drag racing and demystifies the staging lights. The ZX-14 is scary. Way scary. Each journalist gets three passes. My best is a 12.3-second quarter mile, with 130.25 mph top speed. Atlas and the other fast guys were in the low 10-second range. I'm pretty happy though, considering it was my first time at the drag strip.
Back at the hotel we hop on the Kawasaki shuttle - two complimentary happy hour drinks in hand - and depart for a high-end sushi restaurant in San Francisco. After consuming mass quantities of raw fish and a cubic US furlong of hot sake, we go bar hopping in downtown San Fran until the wee hours. Back at the hotel later that night, I collapse on my bed and fall asleep almost immediately.
I awake to find myself bone-weary and hung over. My wife tells me I've been asleep for nearly four days - dozing peacefully in our bedroom. The whole thing must have been a dream. Oh well, at least it was a good dream - no, wait: a most excellent dream. The strange thing is, I can't explain that Kawasaki badge lying over there. Or the empty wine bottles.
Or those mud caked MX boots and freshly laundered jeans... ;-)
|Fonzie Gets Faster|
I'm California Dreaming of riding one of those little beasts and launching one of my own can-cans or heel-clickers. I'm a big boy now, surely I can whip a bike that small into submission and get radical on the track; I know I can. I just needed the chance to shine.
Enter Infineon race weekend and the invitation to not only the races but also to an extra-curricular mini-moto event to break the ice between moto-journalists, Kawasaki dealers and journos-to-be. Kawasaki's Jeff Herzog took a fleet of KLX110's, prepped them with a handful of aftermarket parts to fit the "larger children" amongst the group of editors, and let us run free on a hand-built mini-moto course in the Middle of Nowhere, Sonoma county. My moment to shine was upon me, or so I thought. I hadn't seen rain in my dreams - but it happens - and that wasn't going to stop me. It did slow me down quite a bit, but it didn't kill me.
Kawasaki gave us just a few laps of practice in the snotty arena, while gearing us up with a pair of Motorhead riding boots from Icon to ease the pain of permanently staining absolutely every article of clothing we wore to this field of dreams. With a new pair of now-100-pound boots, a 100-pound stock KLX, throw in another 100 pounds of mud stuck to the bike and wring every possible ounce of horsepower out of these little beasts, in competition, in the rain... incredible fun! Lap five and I'm feeling pumped and ready to rumble, and heavy.
Having barely any dirt-riding experience, I stage up amongst the novice riders, but being a journalist, I start from the back row. The first lesson I learned was that despite the 99% humidity, wear the goggles! They may fog, but they keep the gobbets of mud out of your eye sockets.
By turn five I've passed the true novices and glided my way thru the whoops like James Stewart... then I pass more riders to the second position. Glory quickly fades as I anxiously try too hard to make it to the front, still wiping my eyeballs after every turn's exit. I'm still following but falling and sliding, as if into home plate with a motorcycle between my feet.
Failing to make it to the main in my first heat, I qualify in the last chance qualifier and find myself now racing against Editor X and Gary Nixon - an aging guy, but still a champion. Look out Gary, Russ, I'm on your tail, waiting for someone to fall and the driest part of the track to make my move. Sliding through turns like children in socks sliding along the supermarket floor, looking for anything to help make a pass and I found that saving grace in a sharp dig at turn two, where both my competition fail to hold a clean line and I punch through with exhausted enthusiasm.
Leg out, slow and steady. Ex-MOron-gone-Public-Relations Sean Alexander in the pits calling my split times; now I've got support from Kawasaki, I think to my very muddy self, until I notice the white flag for the second time! What? One more time around what felt like a double length lap, and I slowly pass the checked flag, clicking nothing but the mud from my foot as I attempt to jump through the flag - with now 300 pounds of mud propelled by just 12 horsepower... first place is not quite the finish I hoped for, but more than I expected!
What a rush, I can't wait for next year's race!
- Alfonse Palaima, Executive Editor