Friday morning, 3:30 a.m.:
I get the last parts on the bike, check the bolts one last time and decide the remaining items on the ďto-doĒ list can wait. One hour later, the bike, along with myself and Holly are packed into the truck and heading in the direction of Virginia International Raceway. In an exhausted haze of late-night driving I miss my turn-off and find myself driving through windy, unfamiliar Virginia mountain roads. By the time we make it to the track, the first session of bikes is already warming up. It was downhill all the way, the gate attendant jokes, when I tell him Iím from northern Virginia. Yeah, I replied and my weekend will probably continue going downhill from here, I ominously predict.
Friday morning 10:30 a.m.:
The day before the CCS weekend at V.I.R. is an open track day sponsored by Cornerspeed. My plan is to finish prepping the bike, shake-down any problems and re-familiarize myself with the track. I've missed my first two practice sessions trying to make the final adjustments to the Ducati. I get through the tech inspection just in time for the third session. Waiting for first call, I lay down in my leathers and boots on the carpeted floor of my tent and try to nap. The call comes over the speakers. Up. Remove the tire warmers. Helmet on. Start the bike. Onto the track. In five minutes I've gone from hazy daze of semi-sleep to triple-digit speeds on V.I.R.'s front straight.
Friday afternoon 12 p.m.:
I warm up in the first session getting the feel of the changes I've made to the Ducati and trying to slough off the rust from the five weeks that separate me from my track school. As I grid up for my second session the engine pops and sputters on the line. I keep it alive by blipping the throttle, hoping the problem will go away once I'm wide open. In Turn 1 the bike almost stalls on me as I back off the throttle. I limp through the next few turns. By Turn 5 I'm sputtering to a stop by the track. A quick inspection reveals the problem. I'm out of gas. The gallon I put in last night at 2 a.m. to make sure the bike would run before I loaded it on the truck is gone. My sleep-deprived mind never remembered to top it off. We all have those moments when we realize that itís best to quit before we get hurt. I ignored this one.
Friday afternoon 5 p.m.:
My practice day has been a disaster. The truck hauled me back to my pit and I topped up the gas. I'm out the next session, the bike's feeling good and I'm getting into a groove and picking up the pace. In Turn 12 I turn in too soon, clip the curb, pick the bike up to save the resulting wobble and shoot off the other side of the track, smacking the curb hard as I exit. Straight up. Off the brakes. I somehow manage to keep the bike on the rubber and make my way back to the track. Back at my tent, as I put the tire warmers on, I notice a nasty dent in the rear rim. The front has one to match. Strike two. Ignore the writing on the wall. Get back to work. The spare wheels will come in handy. The next two sessions are marred by one cylinder dropping in and out. By the time I run down the problem to a bad attachment point for the Power Commander grounding wire, the day is over. I've gone the entire day without getting in a full, clean session. In the morning it will be one practice session and then I'm in my first race.
Saturday afternoon 1 p.m.:
"The feeling you get before the green light," Valentino Rossi understates in the great racing documentary Faster, "Is very, very strong." The starter holds the green flag pointed towards the sky. I'm leaned over the 748's tank. Throttle pinned at 5,000 rpm. Dry clutch whining on its release point. A twitch of his shoulder betrays his intentions. I dump the clutch before the flag has dropped an inch. This is the first time I've done a full-power take-off with the modified and geared-down 748. The front wheel claws towards the sky and I bang a gear with the Quick Shifter before it returns to the ground, sliding past a few other riders who share the back of the grid with me. Somewhere in the tunnel of focus that my brain has made to the first turn, I can only form one thought. "I'm racing."
Sunday 5 p.m.:
I've completed the two races I entered. "Completed" is about the only way to describe my performance. In both events, by the time I enter the second turn I'm the last rider in the pack watching the other racers rapidly disappear into the distance. Competitiveness on a rising boil erases everything I learned at Cornerspeed. From then on it's back to riding-beyond-my-limits survival mode; push as hard as I can without crashing to keep the tail-end riders in sight. I can't hit my line on more than one turn per lap. In race one, riding way over my head, it dawns on me that we haven't yet taken a photo of the completed Ducati that I'm close to crashing. Delays earlier in the day mean what is supposed to be a 25-minute GTU race is shortened to less than 10 minutes.
In race two I'm so far back from the main pack that crashing is the only act that could make my performance more pitiful. The bike is running flawlessly and shames me into overcoming the urge to fake a mechanical. After the race the results sheet lists a few riders behind me, though I don't remember passing them or seeing them crash
"Supersport racing is very competitive and very dangerous," Donnie Unger had told me. "It's where everyone starts. It's young kids trying to be the next Rossi." Crashes cause my Amateur Middleweight Supersport race to be shortened to six laps. In three days of track time, I've completed less than 30 laps. None matched my fastest times from my track school, which I ran on a nearly stock bike.
"Starting out you need to learn to race, not try to win. If you don't, you'll end up hurting yourself or burning yourself out," Unger had told me. "Have fun. Don't take the enjoyment out of it. Ninety-nine percent of people on the track will never be the next AMA champion. You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of becoming a professional racer."
I started out on this project without any illusions of becoming an AMA champ, but that didn't keep me from being frustrated with my first race weekend. Four months of hard work and preparation that culminates in a weekend of playing rear guard to a pack of more experienced riders. But that's racing. If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it. My mid-September outing was to be my first and last race of my inaugural season. Now it's back home for a winter filled with head scratching, second guessing, wrenching and more hard work. Instead of the end of this story, this is just the beginning.
Road Racing Series - Part 1
Road Racing Series - Part 2
Road Racing Series - Part 3
Road Racing Series - Part 4
Road Racing Series - Part 5
Road Racing Series - Part 6
Road Racing Series - Part 7
Road Racing Series - Part 8
Road Racing Series - Part 9
Road Racing Series - Part 11