28 Bikes, 13 Crashes, One Jump Over A Drainage Ditch: Racing In The Aprilia Cup At Pocono

By Sam Fleming

For the past few years we have tossed all the race equipment in the trailer and trucked it up to Pocono Raceway for F-USA weekend. We never race. We usually just go to help out with the Team Hammer Advanced Riding School and let the AOD pit crew mess around on the track with their streetbikes.

The track, like the F-USA series, struck me as being pretty impressive in 1997. Both have degraded in tandem such that the moniker "Formula Pocono" is becoming increasing apt.

For those who have not had the dubious pleasure of this track it is notable for its undulating pavement, walled turns and surly armed guards. Of the three it is the wavy pavement that is the most treacherous. It not rippled like most circuits, it's more like the surface of a lake on a brisk autumn day. Often the waves are at odd angles to the racing line making it very difficult to accelerate without inducing ill-timed slides.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sam threads his way through the
sealant-covered ripples while eyeing
the abundant run-off room. Note to
other 
racers: There is a ditch after
the access road.


For that reason (and that there doesn't seem to be much point in running a series consisting of two events, however economical that would be) I have never had much interest in racing at Pocono.

Until this year when (as all these adventures seem to start) I got an e-mail from Mr. Editor Ulrich saying "You can ride an Aprilia at Pocono courtesy Zero Gravity but if you crash it you have to buy parts to fix it. Glenn Cook just called me with the offer and I told him yes."

The Aprilia Cup bikes are fun. They are slow but they handle well. They are comfortable to ride. The Zero Gravity people are friendly, capable and/or attractive. They put a lot of effort into giving an Aprilia Cup race an air of quasi-European sophistication which is in marked contrast to the Bubba aesthetic which typifies most American motorsports. And, most importantly, the bikes are black.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I confess. I never broke my camera out of my bag the whole
weekend which means that all of the pictures are by Brian J. Nelson.
Brian, being a professional, doesn't waste film on shots of women
flashing their chests, editors flipping each other off or hijinks in
the pits. Instead, he composes careful portraits which highlight
the responsible and the respectable. Here we have Sam flanked
(from left) by his three Aprilia mechanics, Ricky, Melissa and Bill.


However, as dreamy as that might sound, the Pocono weekend was in between two real races: A 6-hour at Putnam and a 6-hour at Memphis. I was sort of looking forward to a weekend where I didn't have to experience butterflies, worry about lap times, eye the competition or pay for crash damage so I never confirmed that I would do it. I figured I could go up there, do the school for two days, see what the weather would be like and then decide to do the race or not.

The weather threatened but never delivered so we all had a great time with the school. I rode the Aprilia a bit during the sessions but, of course, not very fast-to avoid frightening any of the students. Melissa got to try a Himmelsbach RS125 and she and I got to chase each other around the track on the two-strokes for a few laps. It was pretty much how I wanted the day to go, light, airy, laughter in the air, that sort of thing.

Friday came and went and I had not turned a lap in anger yet. Bill Todd from Zero Gravity had changed the Aprilia's gearing and suspension settings per my requests in case I wanted to ride harder on Saturday. This particular bike had been last used by skinheaded TV personality Greg White, who had crashed it good and hard at Laguna Seca. The bike had been spruced up nicely since its last use and the tires had only turned a few laps before this weekend although they were still covered in dirt from its last off-track excursion.

Saturday got off to a bad start when Stewart Goddard crashed in practice and hurt his ankle. His bike wasn't too torn up so while he went back to the hotel to recuperate a couple of us replaced the broken parts on his bike in case he wanted to race on Sunday.

I went out for one of the real practice sessions to find that riding around with slow students is a sure-fire way to mess up one's timing, lines and sense of speed. However, this was coupled with an equally surreal experience on the track due to my ignorance of the licensing peculiarities of some organizations. With WERA (or CCS) one struggles as a Novice or Amateur for a few years (or forever) before swapping a yellow Novice number plate for one's white Expert plate. In some parts of the country they switch you to a white plate much sooner. With LRRS they switch you to a white plate but with red numbers for awhile and then finally to a white plate with black numbers.

I am out on a 65-horsepower Aprilia with a top speed of 120 mph passing guys on white-plated R6s, ZX-Rs, CBRs, GSXRs while getting a pit board telling me I am six seconds off the pace. It was really disorienting. At the WERA Nationals I am used to having Expert 600cc riders chew me up and spit me out in practice and yet, here I was passing them left, right, inside, outside. I could not figure out what was going on until someone explained to me that the LRRS white plates in my practice session were not really white plates. Oh.

The schedule on Saturday was really ambitious. We figured that they had scheduled about seven hours of activity on the track after 1:00 p.m.. I suppose a good way to get lots of people to show up for your event is to schedule something for everybody but the first track delay means cancellations, postponements and bitter participants. Although, I suppose by the time a racer realizes he or she has been had, the promoter has safely absconded with the entries.

On Saturday this meant the last school session was scheduled for dusk and then canceled when a luckless squid oiled the track. That wouldn't have been so bad but there were three races scheduled after dark. They were postponed to the next day. Melissa pointed out that the first two letters in F-USA are FU.

Somewhere in all of this there was a qualifying session for the Aprilia race. I went out in it but scoring for the F-USA events was running slow so it wasn't until 9:00 p.m. that I found out I was qualified in a dismal 13th.

That wasn't where I really wanted to be. In the cool quiet of the pits at 9:30 p.m. my train of thought sort of ran like this: I am not taking this race seriously. If I am not going to take the race seriously I am going to get really waxed. I don't want to buy new tires for a short race which I am not taking seriously. I could go home right now and spend Sunday working on the endurance bikes. It all made sense in my head but when I verbalized it to Melissa she was quick to point out how weak it sounded. We stayed to race.

On Sunday morning Stewart Goddard returned to the track. I asked him if he wanted to race and he replied "What else am I going to do in Pennsylvania?" I suppose he isn't interested in the history of smoldering mine fires. I lent him a copy of my track map, track notes, a set of tire warmers and encouraged him to beat (would-be) rival publication editor Peter Jones. He promised he would.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Another portrait by the sensitive humanitarian Brian Nelson.
(From left) Melissa, an unknown fan (apparently from Vermont),
Sam and Stewart Goddard. Remember Stewart, when making
your road racing subscription decision, you can subscribe to the
magazine whose editor fixed your bike, lent you a track map,
gave you the shift points and put tire warmers on your wheels,
or the magazine whose editor crashed you out of the race.


Melissa noticed that the chain on my bike was starting to look a little loose. Bill Todd confirmed this and, having adjusted it just the night before, wanted to know what I had been doing to the bike to stretch it so quickly. "Well, you know how they say you can't compression brake with a two-stroke? You can if you go down enough gears at once." (I was just kidding Bill. Honest, I was just kidding.)

As I went out for practice I took a "better late than never" approach. I had qualified at a 1:58. (Really fast times were at 1:51, fast times were 1:55) and I consistently bettered that in practice. The oldish tires were starting to worry me a little as I could now spin the rear out of some of the slow turns. The sight of all of the racers on the first three or four rows fitting new tires to their bikes before the race didn't do much to quell my nerves.

I suppose I was more nervous than I thought as I did something I hadn't done in 10 years of racing. I killed the bike on the grid. The 3-minute-board grid. I tried to bump it un-successfully, checked the fuel (it was on) looked at the kill switch (it looked on) but no luck. So as an anti-climax I pushed the bike over to the side of the track, hopped the wall, thanked the Zero Gravity folks and started to head for the van as the green flag dropped.


Sam and Melissa on the grid. Sam is
warming up 
his hand to hit the kill switch
after the warm-up lap. 
To divert attention
from his screw-up, Sam would like 
for us
to point out that Tray Batey lost the Formula
USA 
Championship (back when it meant
something) by fingering 
his kill switch
during a race at Pocono. Doesn't that
sound worse?


Ricky (the other ZG mechanic) looked over the bike, spotted that the kill switch was stuck in sort of a mu state, started the bike and offered it to me. Starting half-a-lap down didn't sound that fun so I declined. Mistake. Sort of.

In the first two laps of the race, five bikes crashed. In the back of the track Peter Jones crashed and Stewart Goddard, true to his word, was right on his ass. With Peter's bike blocking the track, Stewart took to the grass and flipped. Now for most of us that would be traumatic. For Stewart, a paraplegic who is strapped and Velcroed to his bike, it had catastrophic consequences. He was terribly injured. (The latest news on his condition can be found at stewartgoddard.com)

In addition to the tragedy in the back, two bikes collided entering the front straight. I don't know which of these two incidents brought out the red flag but the race was stopped.

I was to get another chance. Although I would be a lap down on the other riders I would at least be able to run with the appropriate racers.

I almost blew it again. I got a terrible start and, despite the absence of some of the other bikes at this point, I was about 15th into turn one. However, I was about ninth into turn 10. A couple more crashes and I was in eighth with seventh a few seconds in front. I worked on the fast turns a little harder each lap and slowly closed the gap, dropping two more seconds off my lap times. I noticed the rider I was chasing didn't have a tail section, indicating that he had been involved in one of the earlier crashes. He was also a bit of a squid-really aggressive in the slow turns but slow in the fast turns.

So I passed him going into turn one, and he made a very close counter pass into the tight turn three. Very close. I chased him for another lap and then passed him coming off the banking in the back. He again countered with an inside pass in the next slow turn which almost took him off the track. I went back by again, and he moved over on me. I backed off to collect my thoughts.

I am on old tires, he was on the row in front of me, he really seems to care about this, I don't. He is riding really stupidly. I have an important race next weekend. I don't want to pay for crash damage on this bike. But he's slow into one! I passed him again.

As I set up for turn three I thought to myself "I bet he rams me right about here." My footpeg and heel folded up as his front tire plowed into me. Sometimes being right has its disadvantages. I was already on my way into the turn so the impact kicked the back end of the bike out. I steered into it, aimed the bike for an open grassy field, and held on.

Half of Pocono is lined with walls. The other half is a big green pasture. Fortunately I was in the latter, not the former. What I didn't realize is that the track is on a raised grade to help with drainage. Before I could get to the big open grassy field I had to clear a three-foot ditch, which I, lamentably, did not. The suspension bottomed, rebounded and threw me out of the seat. My hands were still holding the bars in an attempt to keep from buying my first set of Aprilia bodywork. I landed half-kneeling, half-standing on the seat, but on the other side of the ditch.

I dropped back into the seat, regained a little control and headed back towards the course. Obviously that lap was a little slow and my foray into the rough apparently allowed every other bike on the track to get by.

It turns out that the guy who hit me is named Richard and, according to Michael Aron, had also run into Aron in a similar fashion on the second lap of the race. My first impulse was to make some sort of reference to his first name and refer to him as "Dick" for this article. That would set me up for sentences like "I got Dicked in turn three." Or "riding like Dick", that sort of thing. Instead I called him up to find out what he had been thinking when he tried to make an inside past that had no chance of success.

















Sam and Di, uh, Rich, before they later "came together" in this turn.

After the race Sam got off the bike and explained to the crew what
happened in the race. Imagine his delight in finding out that Brian
Nelson, 
award-winning portrait photographer for Redbook, was
actually shooting 
pictures in that turn during the race. Happy,
Happy, Joy, Joy. First words out 
of Brian's mouth when he
showed up at the paddock garage: "I didn't get it."


I am not very good about holding grudges. Once you talk to some guy on the phone who is clearly enthusiastic about racing motorcycles it is hard to refer to him as "Dick" in print. He didn't exactly say he was sorry, instead describing the two crashes as unavoidable racing incidents and using such passive terms as "making contact" and "came together". Richard, in some sanctioning bodies they would be putting your license on probation just to help you remember that making contact is not really appropriate in motorcycle road racing, no matter how excited you are to be doing it.

At the end of the day, there were 28 bikes and 13 crashes in the Aprilia race, many of them with new tires. I think we can blame the unpredictable pavement at Pocono for many of the accidents. But it should be noted that while the rest of us were falling down and running off the track, a couple of teenagers named John Hopkins and Ben Spies were swapping the lead while lapping the track three to four seconds faster and neither of them seemed to have any trouble.

And, as the young guns pointed out later, they made no contact, didn't come together, and really enjoyed racing against another rider they could trust.

There seems to be a message there somewhere.

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