Head Shake – Did Not Start
Did not start (DNS) is a term you may see from time to time on race result sheets. It denotes a competitor who for whatever reason was not able to make the start grid of a race. Racing is filled with unique terms and phrases.
“That’s racing,” was coined long ago to express the high-highs, and the low-lows that come with competitive motorsports. You never hear, “Well? That’s fly fishing,” or, “Well? That’s stamp collecting,” or maybe more pertinently, “That’s track days,” none of which share racing’s ability to raise you so high, or lay you so low. But we’ve had a long developing problem that has become acute as of late, if you care about American road racing that is: We don’t have racers. We seem to be having a lot of Never Started. That’s not racing, that’s a problem.
From 1978 to 1993, a span of 16 years, there were precisely 13 American grand prix premier class road racing champions in the world. And that doesn’t even begin to count the others that filled those grids but never made that top spot. Freddie Spencer also managed to pick up a 250cc championship simultaneously with his 500cc world championship in ’85, along with John Kocinski who grabbed the 250cc title in ’90.
The front rows of these grids used to look like a who’s who of American road racing during those golden years.
Care to guess how many Americans have won the world title since then? A span of 20 years? Two: Nicky Hayden and Kenny Roberts, Jr.
Ever ask yourself why?
Sure the talent pool had been diluted by the advent of World Superbike, and a strong AMA series at home at the time that is now a shadow of its former self, but we’re still not filling grids, not here, not there, not anywhere.
In 1985 I was dating a girl, I was rather fond of her, but I had a small problem. Everywhere we went we would run into one of her old boyfriends. This created, well, let’s just say it wasn’t conducive to a productive date. So I had an idea, I’d take her to some place where we were almost certainly assured she would not run into anybody she knew, Summit Point Raceway for a motorcycle road race.
So it was in the April of 1985 we were sitting in the bleachers atop the hill overlooking the chute that is turn four at Summit Point, and the approach to turn five. A lot of overtaking takes place here, both on the gas through four and on the brakes into five. I was watching a guy on a GS750E dive into turn five. Shit happens here.
And then of course shit happened…
I opened my mouth and something stupid fell out.
“I can do that.”
What she said next would change the trajectories of both our lives.
“Well why don’t you?”
Why don’t I? There were all kinds of rational reasons to not go racing, not the least of which was I was broke, but I just had a cute 4’11” girl call me out and tell me to put up or shut up, “Go racing.”
By that Fall we were.
You see, in those days you really only had one of two choices; You could haul ass on the street at go-to-jail speeds? Or you could go racing. That was it. There were no track days.
If track days had existed in 1985, I most likely — and probably most appropriately given my situation — would have taken the easy way out, but there was no easy way. You either raced, or you played squid on the streets. And that gets to my central point.
I know track days are fun, I know going fast on a track is a blast, and infinitely safer than the street, good on you for going that route, but here’s what I’d like to suggest: Go racing. Fill the grids. I saw a four wave start at Pocono one event, three wave starts were normal.
Those world champions from the earlier years weren’t just dropped here from space, they came up from the ranks. Freddie Spencer cut his teeth WERA endurance racing. Nicky Hayden made his bones WERA sprint racing early on with an RS125. I know, I watched him grow up and gridded up with him and his brother Tommy. Two-time World Superbike champ Colin Edwards II took the WERA Grand National Finals (GNF) by storm one year. Scott Russell, 1993 World Superbike champion, honed his craft with Solmax Racing on the WERA endurance circuit, he could deal with traffic as though it weren’t there, I know that too, I was the traffic. Top shelf talent bred on American tracks. The list is endless.
I’ve heard the excuses for not gridding up.
I’ve seen the discouraging comments to aspiring racers on message boards. I’ll only say this once: Ignore them. That crap about you better be ready to throw your bike in a dumpster if you go racing is complete nonsense. You better be ready to throw your bike in a dumpster if you wad it into a mini-van on the street being a squid, or going WFO at a track day too, so what?
But here’s the trick. In the pits? In the paddock? The most supportive environment you will ever find for your affliction will be your fellow racers. Racing is a community, and bikes can be fixed.
I’ve heard the concerns, racing is expensive. Well? So are track days.
When we started I was broke, going to college, eking out an existence on the GI Bill and a job in college maintenance running wire. I couldn’t afford the best or fastest of anything, hell, I couldn’t afford safety wire pliers. I safety wired the bike with my hands, literally twisting the wire with my fingers after getting frustrated trying to do it with lineman’s pliers. We had to borrow a truck to get to Pocono for riders school. I quit smoking for nine months to rationalize the purchase price of a set of leathers.
I ran my first weekend on a set of ContiTwins – street tires – of all things that the bike came with. They turned purple and blistered on the banks. Yes, I’m a bonehead, I had no money, little to no latent talent, but I wanted to go fast, or try anyway. That was 1985.
Fast forward to 2013, and somehow, with no particular aptitude but dogged determination, we’ve managed to pick up trophies and a regional championship here and there from all four decades of our efforts. And when I say, “We,” I mean that girl in the stands that day at Summit back in ’85, as she went to the vast majority of all those races over those four decades with me. Racing creates bonds, in this case one worth marrying for.
I’ve heard the comments, “How many track days should I attend before I go racing?” Forget that. See those names above? Freddie Spencer? Scott Russell? Tommy and Nicky Hayden? You know how many track days they went to before racing? Zero.
John Ulrich, Team Hammer co-founder and a smart guy who knows a thing or three about racing, has a saying that I think cuts to the very core of it: “Racers race.” This is true. Just go racing. Trust yourself and go out and learn. If the hook gets set and you have no choice but to come back, and grid up again, and try to get to the checker first? All the better, it may change your life.
Half my wedding party was composed of racers, and I formed friendships that have lasted a lifetime. You will meet some of the best people you will ever know under competitive circumstances at a road race track. If you find it is not for you? Hey, there are always track days, right? No harm, no foul.
I want to make it clear, I am not disparaging track days, they’re fun, but they’re like empty calories, they don’t promote growth like competition does. They have their place, but to the extent they are drawing off talent from race grids and people are denying themselves a chance to see a whole different side of the motorcycling world, an incredibly rewarding side, I have a problem.
To paraphrase racer Keith Code, founder of the California Superbike School, “You have 10 dollars worth of attention, how do you want to spend it?” I’m suggesting you not spend it all in one place on track days, because we all only have 10 bucks to spend in life, figuratively, in money and time, two precious commodities. Take some of that 10 bucks of your life, go find a sanctioning organization in your region – WERA, AMA, CCS, CMRA, AFM, CVMA, whoever – and give yourself a chance.
Go racing. Good luck, hold your line, look where you want to go, get off the brakes, and turn her in. I guarantee you’ll win big, whether you ever make the podium or not. And maybe, just maybe, it’s YOU that is this country’s next Roberts, Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz, Roberts Jr., Edwards II, or Hayden.
About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.