Out of the Canyons & Onto the Track

Page 3
The People Who Make Things Work

Kelly Baker: The proprietor of Kelly Baker's Performance Unlimited, is a larger than life kind of guy. He's big, laughs easily, quick with a quip, honest, and generally the kind of guy you'd want with you in a foxhole. He is also the type of person you need to become acquainted with, if you are going to be spending much time around a track and lack a portable, well-equipped shop of your own, staffed by knowledgeable mechanics. Kelly is a person who lives, breathes and dreams motorcycle speed and performance. Because he is an aficionado who puts bikes and customers ahead of business concerns, he spends his days dwelling in a cramped shop full of project bikes, rather than a glossy spotless garage of the type found at upscale boutique dealerships.

The dirt under Kelly's fingernails is real, as are his frank opinions about bikes and his extensive knowledge about what keeps them going down the road.

Step into Kelly's busy shop and you will find not only race bikes but custom cruisers

, UJM's of all description, choppers and assorted wheeled contraptions in various stages of assembly that defy description. Performance Unlimited is a family operation, so his son Steven and his brother in law, Jay, tug wrenches as well. It's a busy place full of WSMC racers and officials, non-racing customers, the occasional journalist looking for a handout, friends and family. Unlike most "go fast" shops, Performance Unlimited doesn't concentrate solely on racing machines or racers. Each time I've been in Kelly's shop, I've met a variety of customers: retired military folks seeking upgrades for their cruisers, LA cool guys looking for more juice from their custom choppers, and lots of street riders getting an engine or suspension massaged for a sportbike. It's a pretty interesting place to hang out for a while. Anyone whose mantra is "Our goal ought to be to go really fast and get really shitty gas mileage" qualifies as a genuine folk hero in the MO universe.Like most WSMC trackside vendors; Kelly is busiest during race weekends, so it's best to seek him out anytime other than the third weekend of each month. Race weekends are a wildly orchestrated procession of race bikes in and out of the Performance Unlimited service bays. Considering the amount of traffic Performance Unlimited deals with on the average race weekend (or MO, Motorcyclist, or Sport Rider comparo) it's truly amazing that they are able to keep everyone out on the track and happy, while maintaining a grade A sense of humor in the process. This alone, qualifies as impressive our book. But anyone whose mantra is "Our goal ought to be to go really fast and get really shitty gas mileage" qualifies as a genuine folk hero in the MO universe.

Larry Cochran: WSMC's current race director, is the definition of calm and diplomacy in the middle of a storm. Larry, who has been with WSMC for over two decades in various capacities is an example of an individual who's personal makeup ideally suits them to the performance of a difficult task. One simply cannot easily imagine a person better suited to dealing with the large number and variety of strong (and often thorny) personalities involved in club racing. If you have a problem on the race track at WSMC, Larry will be the person who calls for the flag, the ambulance, the SWAT Team, scorer, or whatever else is needed to set things straight.

Larry's duties involve oversight of most WSMC operations. You'll see Larry at tech inspection in the morning, walking through the pits during the day, monitoring the radio for problems on the track and status of track rotations, running the Sunday morning riders meeting, and officiating races. He's the only individual I know, who has apparently committed everything in the Magna Carta thick WSMC rulebook to memory, including punctuation! He is the most accessible individual at WSMC in spite of being arguably, the busiest. Larry and his predecessors Danny Farnsworth and Kenny Kopecky have made first race weekends at Willow pleasantly memorable for scores of novice racers (myself included -Martin) through the years. I cannot imagine a better person to run into, on ones first weekend of club racing, or a better mentor through the years.

I frantically tried to remember everything we were told about this last portion of the track because it comes up very fast - turns eight and nine are essentially wide open...

In addition to his duties as WSMC race director, Larry is also an accomplished racer, a multi award winning class champion who, these days, may be found caning a Honda Ascot for all that it's worth out on the race track. He's an IFR pilot and runs his own construction company when he's not at the track. About the only thing we haven't seen LC do is sing the national anthem, but the world is still young.

After the starter turns us loose, it's out of the pre-grid area and onto the track. Turns one and two are without drama the first time around, but in turn three my innards began to bind up tighter than an anaconda around a free meal, because turn four appears to be a launch pad to jump the Snake River Canyon. After turn four, it's downhill into turn five, uphill out, accelerate and grab another gear as you crest turn six launching the front of the bike in the air. As the bike settles after topping six you grab a handful of throttle and hang on. You're about to scream down the back straight where turn seven is nothing more than a little wiggle in a straight line. You have to hold the throttle on as the entry point of turn eight comes up. I frantically tried to remember everything we were told about this last portion of the track because it comes up very fast - turns eight and nine are essentially wide open (Unless you want a sizzling 400cc enema that is -Martin). Turn nine seems like a personal experiment in basic physics as you appear to be hurdling off the edge of the planet and yet somehow going forward. Then tuck in and jet down the front straight at (in my case) what I calculated to be approximately 135 mph.

Yee haw! One complete lap and I'm still upright and grinning from ear to ear.

Something I quickly learned from my initial laps, was to let the corner run out. I've always had a habit of slowing or braking early for a corner only to find out that I could have entered later than originally anticipated. On the street this is sane and rational but on a track this results in a less than smooth transition through the turn. What usually happens is a tap dance to drop another gear to get the revs up to help accelerate out of the turn. On the track, you're in an environment that's conducive to learning to trust the ability of your bike and explore more efficient lines through the corners. With each lap, I allowed myself to go a littler farther in turns, while carrying more speed than the previous lap. As a result, I was exiting those turns a little smoother and faster each time.

The remainder of the day would hold one more class session and one more track session with practice starts mixed in at the very end of the day. All the day's previous anxiety had dissipated and I was the now the proud owner of one of the greatest riding experiences I've ever had.

(Note: Steven and Pete both passed the WSMC new riders school on Saturday by posting sub 2:00 lap times and not falling off their bikes. -Martin)

Sunday - Race Day!

Pete: Race day held little other than two early practice sessions, several hours of pacing back and forth and then relaxing again, then the race.  Truth be told; I didn't have nearly as much stress as the day before. A full day of practice told me exactly what I could expect from the track, the bike and myself. Since my race was late in the day, I had some time to wait.

The first call for the Novice 651cc to Open race came and went. On second call, I inched my way over to tPete in second place into turn one.he pre-grid area and waited for the third and final call before we were released for a warm up lap. Upon completing the warm up lap and entering the starting grid, I was seized with the thought that I might have lined up on the wrong race. Apparently I was mixed in with a World Superbike event, as I was now surrounded by all manner of tricked out 999s, 998s, TLRs, R1s, GSXR1000s and CBR1000RRs. This is novice? Oy!!

The green flag fell and we were off.

I actually had a good start and had I been more aggressive, I could've held off a few bikes coming into turn one. Nevertheless, I have nothing to prove to anyone except myself. So I relented in the name of all that is good for peace of mind. By turn five, I was securely in last place and talking myself through each turn lap after lap. I'll spare you the full recount of the race as not much differed from my description of the track above with the exception that one fellow novice tipped over in turn nine. Eventually I had the track to myself. That was until the two racers battling for first passed me so fast on their last lap that I felt the paint on my bike's bodywork ripple. Checkered flag!

...but last into turn four :-( One of the coolest and yet simplest moments was on my cool down lap while exiting turn two. The corner worker in turn two gave me a hearty and enthusiastic thumbs up. Were I anything less than the spitting image of a manly man, I could've shed a tear of joy.

Steven: Race day was finally here. This was the big day. You always get unexpected hurdles on a big day. I was behind right off the bat, because I was slow to get out of bed. Too much contemplating the night before, I guess. Then I was slow to pick up the FZR400 from Kelly Baker. He was great. He got me out of there quickly, but I was still behind. By the time I had passed tech inspection, I had missed the first of the morning practice sessions. That meant I only had one left.

I rode to our pit and tried to concentrate. Martin was there and his quiet preparations were the eye of the storm. Every day Martin was the first one to the track. He had the EZ-up ready, the fire extinguisher, tools and stands out, and he kept a well-stocked cooler. Basically all I had to do was ride up, grab a nice cold bottle of water, and try to collect my racing thoughts.

Yes, Steven's thoughts were now on racing.Yes, my thoughts were now on racing. Last night, I determined that during practice, I should try to hang off. I should get a little more aggressive in the turns because I'd probably need it during the race. At last, my practice session came up. Here was my last chance to practice with Willow, before facing the ultimate test of an actual race. Disaster... I just couldn't get anything right. I tried to carry more speed through turn one, but I was running a little wide. Fortunately I made it through trying to shake off the fear and concentrate on turn two. Turn two is a long right-hander. I'd been doing consistently well through two but this morning I was rattled. I held the throttle, increased my speed and stayed in tight on the inside line. I was forcing my breath through pursed lips, like a pregnant lady going into labor. Two turned out better than one. At one desperate moment I took my eyes of the road and looked into the gravel pit. It wasn't as near as I thought it would be.Now, I need to carry more speed through turn three. I entered three a little faster and tried to compensate by hanging off. I thought I was going to die. My hanging-off upset the bike's chassis and the front end was chattering. I'd heard the term "front end chatter" before, and I had been curious as to what it really meant. Now I was wishing I could return to blissful ignorance. "Chatter" is when the front end seems to bounce about 1000 times per second. It's like dribbling a basketball in tiny little bounces at blinding speed. There was nothing I could do; I didn't dare give more throttle, because the front end was already light. I couldn't turn the handlebar, because I was barely able to hang on, much less move it. The front end kept bouncing, and I kept running out of track. I thought I was going to dribble off the pavement and into oblivion. At one desperate moment I took my eyes of the road and looked into the gravel pit. It wasn't as near as I thought it would be. I immediately turned my eyes back through the turn and hung on. By some miracle, I made it.

Having almost killed myself in turn three, I took it real easy in turn four. It helps that you enter turn four going uphill. I took some more of those pregnant-lady deep breaths and tried to concentrate. I had to get back on it in turn five. You enter going downhill, and then you have to really get on the gas for turn six, unless you want to get run over. No good, the front end was dribbling me into oblivion again.

After a couple of laps, I finally started to calm down, but now there was another issue. The corner workers in turn five were waiving the black flag. I was pretty sure they were waiving it at the guy in front of me, but what if it was me they were after? I decided to wait and see what the flag at the start-finish line would tell me. At the start finish line, they were waiving the black flag again, but this time I was sure it was the guy in front of me they wanted. However, this left me with another concern. A black flag means there's something wrong with your bike and you must leave the track. So what was wrong with the guy's bike? Was he leaking something? Would I ride through whatever he was leaking and lose control? I backed off and hoped I wouldn't crash. In the race, his starts were a little slow, but he made up for it in the turns.

One of the track instructors came flying by me on the inside of turn six. He caught up to the guy in front of me and signaled for him to get off the track. I tried to relax, but it was all over for me. My concentration was shot. I was afraid to try and go fast. I limped around the track for the remainder of the practice session and back to the pits. Damn, things were going so well, too. What's a man to do, except of course... dwell on it.

I had a good long time to brood over my pending race, because they do all the novice races at the end of the day. I drank a lot of water and tried to think. I talked with the other guys, and we enjoyed an uneasy calm before our turns came up. Then it hit me... the track hadn't changed. All weekend long, we had been getting along great, and then I had to go and be overly aggressive. I was relieved to have reasoned through what went wrong, and angry with myself for being such a dummy. Oh well, there was still the race. I could still make things right. I would concentrate on being smooth again. I wouldn't worry about big moves or being aggressive.

At last, my race was announced and we took our warm up lap. Now we were on the grid. The starter waved the green flag and... A crummy start! I wrench the throttle open and the engine wails like a doomsday machine about to explode. Reach for second gear and hammer the throttle again... the engine screams instantly, but I'm losing speed. I missed the shift. I try for second gear again, and again. No good. I let the revs drop and try yet again. Finally I'm in second gear, but I am in last place. One lap into the race somebody crashes and the red flag comes out. We all stop (WSMC has you stop on the track during a red flag... I think that's crazy. -Sean) and return to the starting grid. The starter informs us that we will run four laps after the restart. I'm so nervous that I just don't care. In fact, I'm just grateful that I get a chance to make a better start and I'm determined to do better this time.

My second chance: The starter waives the green flag and we all tear off. This time I don't worry about winding-out first gear. I short shift, and it works. I get second gear on the first try. Shit, I'm still in last place! But this time I have more speed, and I pass two opponents by the time we exit the second turn. I've got the next rider in my sights, but I don't get him until turn eight. Ah-ha, the light bulb goes off... They had said it all day long in track school: turns three, four, five, and six all work together. If you mess up any one of them, you're screwed until you reach the back straight. I had understood the words, but I hadn't grasped their full meaning until now: If you can string together turns three, four, five and six, you can really fly down the back straight. And if you fly down the straight, you can pass people in turn eight! I think I passed someone in turn eight on every lap. Smoothness was paying off: Willow liked me again. I concentrated on being smooth in three through six and I passed people in eight. WSMC has you stop on the track during a red flag... I think that's crazy. -Sean

Of course, I had a lot of people to pass. There were originally ten bikes entered into the race. After the crash, we restarted with nine. I was dead last out of the blocks, now I needed to make up ground. As I concentrated on being smoother, I was able to open the throttle earlier and earlier exiting the turns. At some point, I don't remember whether it was lap two or lap three, I had flown through turn eight, and I planned to do the same in turn nine. As I concentrated on being smoother, I was able to open the throttle earlier and earlier exiting the turns

I don't know exactly what I did wrong. I was exiting the turn and I was running out of track. The bike felt fine. I stayed on the throttle. The next thing I knew, I was right on the edge of the pavement. For a split second, I took my eyes of the track and looked into the dirt. Yikes, this time I really was right on the edge. I turned my eyes back to the front straight and continued to hold the throttle. I felt the rear wheel leaving the track! "I'm going down. Get ready to be thrown from the bike." But it never happened. For some reason, I was expecting to highside. Maybe it was my worst fear. Instead as the rear wheel hit the dirt, it merely lost traction. It was like the rear end of the bike had become autonomous and had decided to ride next to me instead of behind me. The funny thing is the bike felt smooth on the dirt. I kept my eyes on the starter's tower. I could see dust being kicked up in my peripheral vision, but I kept my eyes straight ahead and stayed on the throttle. I don't know exactly how I did it, I just stayed focused on the road ahead and on the gas. The rear wheel came back in line! When it got back on the pavement, I got a little headshake, but the bike straightened itself out.

I was laughing inside my helmet. I took deep breaths and relaxed. I raced past the start-finish line and came around to do it again.

I lost track of how many people I'd passed, but the starter was waiving the white flag, and I could see one rider ahead of me, so I put my head down and stayed on the gas.

I recognized the rider up ahead. I remembered his bike from the practice sessions. I remembered that I was a little smoother through the turns. I recognized the rider up ahead. I remembered his bike from the practice sessions. I remembered that I was a little smoother through the turns, but he seemed to be able to pull away from me on the straights. I hatched up a plan. I knew that I could be faster through the first half of the track, but not fast enough to pass. I concentrated on being smooth. My plan was to really nail the early turns, so that I could hit the back straight with a lot of speed. I had to do two things. First I had to be close entering turn five. Then I had to get on the gas earlier in turn six. This would give me more speed down the back straight. I should be able to pass in turn eight.

Anatomy of a Story

One of the first things I learned from everyone else at MO about being associated with a motorcycle magazine was how to work a telephone. Never, before my time at MO, did I imagine in my wildest dreams that a cord running into a wall could open the door to so many, er, journalistic opportunities I mean.

It is an amazing undertaking to create the infrastructure needed to produce a story like the one you are reading, requiring lots of phone and email time along with a healthy dollop of good luck. I have learned to really appreciate anyone and everyone who helps in any capacity. You make some great friends in a "brothers in arms" sense in this business.

So, I am on the phone with Lisa Wilkerson of the Essex House Hotel in Lancaster CA, trying to secure some rooms for MO, at the standard MO discount (as low as we can possibly get). Fortunately, Lisa has both a swell sense of humor and lots of experience dealing with groveling lowlifes like us. What follows is a condensed version of our initial conversation.

Martin - Hello, Essex House? I'd like to speak to your marketing director please.

Lisa - Hi, this is Lisa, how may I help you?

Martin - Hi Lisa, this is Martin Hackworth with Motorcycle.Com. We're doing a feature on the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club and need accommodations for our staff. We're hoping that you can comp us some rooms

Lisa - (long pause) ..... Well, we don't comp rooms here, but since you are with WSMC I can give you their rate and make sure that you get adjoining rooms.

Martin - Well normally MO gets everything comped. We are the leading motorcycle publication on the web you know, www.motorcycle.com, surely you've heard of us? Right? That's m-o-t-o.......

Lisa - (sensing that getting rid of this shameless and persistent pest may take some time). Well, let me see what I can do. There's the WSMC discount.....

Unless you are fortunate enough to live within commuting distance from the nearest racetrack, you are going to have to find a place to rest your weary head at night after your heroic exertions at the track. Having tried everything from camping at the track, reposing ourselves at the local no tell motel, and luxuriating in splendor at the Essex House, we are prepared to enthusiastically recommend the latter as our option of choice. (Speak for yourself Martin! There is nothing better than having a motorhome in the pits. Of course, motorhomes are quite expensive, and if you can't finagle your way into a free loaner, then a hotel room is a good alternative. -Sean) The Essex House Hotel is a major sponsor of WSMC events and offers significant discounts to racers and journalists if they are nice, or at the very least, amusing.

The Essex House is a full service hotel with large, comfortable rooms, a nice restaurant, a modern business center (where more than one MO story has been crafted) and most importantly, a well-stocked bar. It has achieved landmark status in the Antelope Valley and the walls of the lobby and bar are adorned with monuments to both the aerospace industry (Edwards AFB is nearby) and various WSMC luminaries. It's an interesting and colorful place to stay and we recommend it very highly if you are in the area. Parking is plentiful and it's only about 20 easy minutes from WSIR.

It worked! I was still behind him coming out of turn six, but I was hard on the gas. I gained on him all down the back straight. I kept my chin right down on the tank going into turn eight. I had him. I flew past him on the outside. Now all I had to do was nail turn nine. I waited on the outside of the turn, just like Danny had instructed us to do during New Racer School. I downshifted and hovered outside a little longer. When I saw the candy-striped apex, I dove for it and rolled the throttle.

I was happy with turn nine. Now I just hoped that I had enough drive to hold off my opponent down the final straight. I had my whole torso plastered against the gas tank. I briefly thought of putting one hand along my side, flat-track style. Then I laughed at myself. I stayed low against the tank and waited to see whether I'd get there first.

Well, the guy did pass me, but it wasn't until after the start-finish line! He gave me a big thumbs-up, and I could see him shaking his head. I guess he was kind of laughing and telling me, "Nice move." I felt great. I wanted to tell him, "Naw, I was just lucky."

I had intended to talk to him after the race, but I was so giddy that I forgot. I asked everyone, and I mean everyone, if they had seen me hit the dirt coming out of turn nine. Nobody saw it! My mouth was jabbering at 100 mph. I was trying to tell people what it was like. I couldn't make them understand. They were listening to me but only paying half attention, the way you listen to a drunken friend who won't shut up. At last I gave up. I was sorry that no one had seen my close call.

Then I noticed my boots. One was clean and one was dirty. Yes! Here was some tangible confirmation of my near-death experience... of how brave and lucky I'd been to hold the throttle and keep on going. When the rear wheel hit the dirt, the bike slid out to my left. The right side of my bike was turned toward the dirt as I counter steered down the track. That's why my right boot was dirty, but my left boot was clean.

L-to-R: Pete, Martin & Steven And now that my mind was slowing down, I got around to asking, "Say, what place did I get?" The answer was fourth place. Not bad out of a field of ten. After the restart, I was in ninth place. That means I passed five bikes in four laps to finish where I did.

To be honest, I finished better than I thought I would. Okay, I didn't win the race. I didn't even get on the podium. But I did better than I expected. Most importantly, I had fun, and I got to know Willow Springs. Am I glad that I did this? Damn straight!

It all comes down to.....

Pete: I had absolutely no delusions about my performance in that race. The race was a huge victory to me because it was a dream realized. And I can't think of a better place to realize such a potentially dangerous dream.

I've slammed up and down some of the most famous canyon roads in the country, possibly even the world, while any combination of the above occurred. Yes, it's a deadly game we play with ourselves when we saddle up and think we've got it all figured out. I won't presuppose that I and only I have seen it all. Surely many of you have encountered the asphalt tragedies I listed above, maybe even more. What I would like to pass on to anyone whose spent time honing their high speed antics while on public roads is this: you'll never know what you are truly capable or not capable of, until you take it out of the canyons and onto the track. If actual competition is something you're sure you'll never subject yourself to, at the very least ride a couple of track days. Just inquire at your local racetrack. Much of what's required by the small but fun and personable companies running track days, is far less than what's required by many racing organizations. Remember, it's just you, your bike, and an unobstructed ribbon of pavement.

Steven: I would like to thank Kelly Baker for supplying an awesome bike for me to ride. I bet a lot of people must thank him after a race weekend. His shop, "Performance Unlimited," is buzzing with people who need last-minute fixes and improvements. Somehow Kelly attends them all. If you want to try an excellent race-prepped bike, talk to Kelly... but you'll have to fight me for the FZR400.

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