2000 – Part Two
from Hoppy Racing's Erik Jokinen. Photo by AOD Ministry of Information.
"No problem, I've got two spares with me. We had a problem with the tires on the way home from Texas so I thought we ought to bring the extras."
And with that, Erik Jokinen (from Hoppymotorsports.com) single-handedly saved me from numerous court appearances in North Carolina.
Our first practice session of the morning was like a dog walking on its hind legs. It wasn't a wonder that we weren't doing it well-it was a wonder that we were doing it at all.
Somehow we had ended up with a large number of Michelin slicks for which there was only limited information. We didn't know how long any of the various compounds would last. We didn't know if they were hard/soft/ sticky/durable/cold or hot tires. It was enough to make you want to run DOTs.
We spent the morning trying different tires to see if we could figure out which tires performed which way. This onerous task was made more difficult by an extremely dirty track.
Mark Junge was up North freezing his ass off at a bitterly cold and wet PACE event. That meant that Jim and I were on our own as far as racing against Paramount. Since all of their riders are faster than Jim and I it was sort of a forgone conclusion that they would win. The question was by how much.
We were also, for various reasons, short on pit crew. To make up for the shortfall we teamed up with Velocity Crew Racing to share limited resources amongst the three teams (AOD, NOTB, VCR).
Jim and I had raced at AMS two years prior. We remembered many of the turns and one of the turns remembered me. WERA's Sean Clarke had thoughtfully spray-painted the "Sam Fleming memorial pavement ledges" in turn three a bright orange to remind us all of my past indiscretion.
I returned to the pits after one practice session to find an absent Tim. He was found elsewhere in the garage helping a Novice fix crash damage.
Novice: "I crashed in turn three"
Sam: "On the pavement seams?"
Sam: "Didn't you see they were painted orange?"
Novice: "Yup, but I didn't know if that meant 'run over' or 'avoid.'"
At the end of practice Jim and I were going faster than two years before but slower than Paramount…but the margin was smaller than we had imagined.
Jim is usually faster than me at these races but at the last two events we had been pretty evenly matched. Jim's theory was that if I started the race the red mist of the front pack would force my hand and I would turn overall faster laps than if I rode on an empty track.
It was a good theory but I screwed it all up.
Going into turn one on the first lap I accidentally tapped the shift lever and knocked the bike into neutral. With the bike revving helplessly my first thought was that I had scorched the clutch on the start and we were going to have to pit to replace it. I shifted again and the bike moved normally but I spent the next three turns wondering if everything was okay while bikes streamed past.
By the time I had determined that the engine was intact, the clutch was clutching and the transmission was transmitting I had dropped from second place back to about ten-millionth.
That'll show Jim.
I end up in a nice four-bike freight train for the next 70 minutes which, except for the circumstances which had landed me there, was very entertaining.
Melissa had developed reference points and was riding great. Her partner Scott always rides great so it doesn't really bear mention. They were running about third in class.
I swapped off for Jim and he rode our bike very well except for one brief moment where he ran wide in turn one, took to the grass and lost a total of about 3.5 seconds. You would have thought it was an-hour-and-half to hear him moan about it for the next two weeks.
Paramount got about a lap ahead of us and stayed there. They gave us a brief moment of hope when Travis crashed the bike. Travis is apparently very adept at crashing bikes since he crashed the bike, picked it up, rode it back to the pits, re-teched and rejoined the race, all with a total loss of 10 seconds. The GSXR600 is one tough bike.
The pit-crew-sharing arrangement kept things from getting boring in the pits. At one point the need for various teams to pit converged and we ended up swapping rear tires and refueling each bike on sequential laps.
Arclight, the foregone-conclusion winners, broke down and set to swapping their motors.
D & D (an R1 team) had been beating us soundly until they developed a loose battery cable and dropped back a couple laps.
A pair of bizarre accidents ended the race prematurely. Bike number 71 (leading NOTB in the class positions) crashed, causing officials to red-flag the race. In order to beat that team NOTB would only have to complete three or four laps of the restarted race to move from third position to second. This seemed to be a relatively simple task since there were 40 minutes left in the race.
However, on the warm-up lap for the restart a bike clipped another bike on the back straight (140 mph) and crashed. On the warm-up lap! WERA officials determined they would be unable to secure the track with more than 30 minutes remaining in the race and it was called there. NOTB never had a chance to complete their three laps and thus, remained in third place.
The second red flag made it a 600cc sweep of the podium with Paramount winning it overall and AOD taking the third position (second in class). The really strange thing was that, due to Arclight's DNF, AOD's third-place finish was sufficient for AOD to take the overall points lead. Now, going back to 1994, who would have wanted to bet on that ever happening?
Apogee attained, return to earth.
In my mind's eye, racing bikes is epitomized by that moment when the suspension is compressed into a long, smooth turn, the tires biting hard, the asphalt on your knee and howl of the engine as you feed in the power at the exit.
That is not what IRP is like. IRP is more like some sort of lunar surface with broken pavement, horrible ruts, bumps, ripples, expansion joints, potholes, pavement swells and paint. Coupled with a slick dragstrip front straight it is a suspension tuner's nightmare.
The promoter's practice was not run by the promoters but was run by the track management. Their efficiency matched the condition of the pavement. Not only was the track not swept (piles of loose asphalt at the apexes), nor were the cones in the right place but some of the cornerworkers were wearing red shirts.
Despite the shortcomings of the track, once you determine that you are not just going to fall down when the bike starts to leap out of your hands across the seams you can actually get going pretty fast. The fast guys can get going remarkably fast. I think the fast guy theory is that you can reduce rolling resistance by hitting the bumps hard enough that your wheels are never on the pavement.
Mark Junge had developed a bad case of circumstances that prevented him from riding with us. At AMS we had determined that, unless we had someone who could run against Paramount's Temperato, then there was not much chance of us winning one of these races. Now, the unkind might say that there is not much chance of us winning one of these races no matter what.
Since Mark was unavailable, we started casting around for another ringer. One restraining consideration is that, in a season of endurance racing, you cannot have more than five riders on a team with an additional two at the 24-hour. This meant that we needed to pick a rider who would also be riding for us at the 24-hour. No easy feat.
Some fast cellphone work and a walk around the pits determined that young Ben Spies would be available for the IRP race as well as the 24-hour at Willow. We asked him, he said yes. Then we asked his Mom, she said yes.
Now for those who do not spend their spectator time watching for the next big thing: Spies is it. He runs at the front. He is fast. He is consistent. He is not a crasher. He is 15 years old.
And, as the industrialists at the turn of the century often said: "Always send a boy to do a man's job."
National endurance races have a 30-minute practice which concludes approximately one hour before the start of the race. It was during that practice that I noticed our A bike was not pulling redline with its usual enthusiasm and flair. At the end of the practice I requested that Tim delta the main jets to restore the top-end power. What I did not know is that I should have been asking him to restore the top end to get power in an absolute sense.
Since Ben was about a year a lap faster than Jim and I, we elected him to start the race. He showed maturity beyond his years when he got a great start (from pole position) and then pulled the bike into the pits on the first lap.
The loss of power had become a deep rhythmic thump as the bike tried to ingest one of its intake valves. We swapped to our B bike but ultimately lost eight laps and finished fifth in class.
Fortunately Neighbor of the Beast had one of their best races of the season with an 11th-place overall and a second in class. So while AOD was contemplating the ruins of our meticulously hand-built engine and considering less devastating pastimes to fill the summer months, NOTB was celebrating their great race. By alternating good weekends between the teams we can never work up enough momentum to quit altogether since the other team always wants to come back and race.
(To be continued...)