2001 – Part Three
Putnam Park Road Course
Saturday’s weather was an improvement. The track, although dry, was cold and would remain cold in a profound sense. Our new set-up proved to be a vast improvement over its earlier incarnation but the race-day-morning practice sessions suggested we were going to have another atypical race day.
Our beloved Michelins were cold tearing. Fortunately, it did not appear that any other tire brand was not. Michelin Man Walt Schaeffer dug through his truck of tricks and gave us the best slicks he had for the circumstances.
Brian Stokes started the race. I had warned him about 10 times before the start that the tires were going to run cold his whole stint and he should be prepared for varied traction conditions. He listened and carefully explored the capabilities of the bike through the first 10 laps of the race. As he began to pick up the pace Steve Karson from Team Chicago went with him. Steve was doing a really good job of sticking close to Brian but they came up on a very slow rider which balked Brian. Steve didn’t see it coming and tagged the back of the AOD bike, pushing Stokes off the track and throwing Karson heavily to the ground. His unconscious body was on the track and a red flag came out.
Our bike had survived the impact with little more than a loosened tail cowling. The Team Chicago bike was too badly damaged for the team to continue on that machine. Karson regained consciousness and stayed at the track with a vicious headache. The results of his hard work evaporated with an early red flag that restarted the race with all teams in their original grid positions. Some of the other teams rededicated themselves to the second start and the next hour of racing was a tooth-and-nail affair.
We had witnessed horrific cold-tire wear in practice and changed the rear tire at the first pit stop. It was impossible to determine if we were still suffering from poor suspension or frigid-track-induced tire wear but the rear tire was missing a substantial amount of rubber off the right side and, instead of feeling hot and sticky, felt tepid and dry.
Other teams were not fairing much better and Jim was able to use the new rear tire to go axle-to-axle with a GSX-R1000 rider for most of his stint.
Tim had noticed that the front tire had looked cupped in the first pit stop. We prepared to change both tires in our second, and last, pit stop of the race. A quick count of people in our pits revealed that we were going to be one person shy to perform the fuel-and-both-tires dance. Kicking it old school, I was elected to run the air gun on the rear tire for my own tire change.
We were comfortably topping the leaderboard in the Middleweight category and were currently in third place overall with a slight lead over a liter-bike in fourth. Even with a quick pit stop I could not hold off the charge from the 1000 team and we were pushed off the overall podium.
We all agreed that the set-up on the bike was much improved but I was not convinced that the extreme tire wear was entirely due to the cold track temperatures and still harbored doubts that we were still missing something obvious on these bikes.
Three starts, three class wins, three top-Middleweight finishes. But, since none of us had been able to truly come to grips with the new bikes, we left Indiana with the strange feeling of dissatisfaction intact.
Virginia International Raceway
June 15, 2001
As is usually the case, pride cometh before the fall. The first cloud that appeared on our VIR horizon was word from Brian Stokes that he had crashed heavily at Putnam Park on Sunday, severely damaging his GSX-R600 and also suffering some chest and back-muscle injuries. The WERA schedule had placed four races only two weeks apart and there was simply going to be no time for Brian to heal before VIR. Brian would be attending the event in an attempt to keep his sprint Championship aspirations alive but would be on the injured reserve list for endurance duty.
And, as was becoming routine with this season, the weather forecast was for ominous, swirling, unpredictable high-and-low-pressure zones that may or may not contain precipitation. And I find VIR to be a very difficult track for improvement. It is a beautiful layout and seems to be reasonably safe for everyone who is not Jamie Hacking but I personally find it difficult to ride that track well. Although my mind, knee pucks and tires all say I am pushing hard, the stopwatch does not concur.
Despite my personal struggle with mediocrity, Jim seemed to be having no such problems and we remained cautiously optimistic about out chances for the race.
But the weekend kept getting stranger. During the race-day-morning warm-up our A bike began to run very poorly. It would cut in and out at weird times as if it were ingesting water with its fuel. Tim and Nolan switched gas tanks and numerous other pieces before deciding that we needed to switch to our B bike. In these cases it is a very nice luxury to have a B bike to which one can switch. Tim and Nolan swapped the front suspension, the fuel tanks and various other pieces which make one bike the A bike and the other one the B bike.
And then the weird weather hit. Some combination of temperature and barometric pressure conspired to play tricks on the GSX-R fuel injection set-up. The day before it felt as if we were geared a little short, but we lost power with the weather change and now it felt like we were geared tall down the long VIR front "straight". Vesrah was experiencing a similar problem that had their GSX-R1000 suffering from very poor fuel mileage.
To cap it off, an hour before the green flag it started to rain, soaking the track and the fearless AOD pit crew members who were still swapping major components between the two bikes.
Jim and I retreated to the van to search the Internet for weather maps. We found long fingers of precipitation which suggested that the rain would stop, or not. As it was still raining we mounted rain tires on the bike and dropped off a set of wheels to have soft slicks mounted in case the track dried. Due to some miscommunication, the slicks were not mounted.
Figuring that I would lose less time on the wet track than Jim, I elected to take the start on the rain tires. On the warm-up lap I saw that many parts of the track were dry or drying and that slicks would be a better tire choice but our slicks were not yet mounted on the rims. I could not pull in after the sighting lap to swap tires.
Now Tim, a man of quiet passions, has a re-occurring racing fantasy. This fantasy involves a race with alternate hours of wet and dry track where our superior front-wheel changes give us a huge advantage over lesser-prepared teams and subsequently, victory. To date he has only been able to indulge this fantasy once. As I took the grid I decided that I would be happy with simply another 45 minutes of rain.
Tactically it is a tough position. One can try to push hard while the rains have an significant advantage over the slicks and DOTs and then pull in for a tire swap at the first "I’m overheating " message from the rain tires, or one can gamble that the weather will cooperate and deliver more water to cool the rains and renew the traction advantage. To some extent, my circumstances were simpler since I had no other tires waiting for me, yet.
I took advantage of the rain tires while the track stayed wet and tried to go with the lead pack. Unfortunately the rain didn’t restart and I began to drift backwards as my tires began to shimmy worse through the turns. At first my lead from the wet was enough to sustain me but after a few DOT-shod bikes drifted slowly by I began signaling my pit that it was time for tires. It took a few more laps before the slicks were ready and I came in, swapped off with Jim and the slicks, and sent him out to figure out the conditions.
The track continued to dry and we began to make up some of the time we had lost by the early pit stop. After a good, solid 30 minutes of dry track, it began to mist down precipitation again. Jim had a tough choice to make. Keep pushing (as many other riders seemed to be doing) or ease off to make sure he didn’t crash in the tricky conditions (as many other riders seemed to be doing). He wisely backed it down but some of our other competitors did not seem to notice the adverse conditions and continued at a more brisk pace.
In my second stint I came upon a waving flag after the bridge and before the blind uphill right. Karson had crashed again and was lying unconscious at the end of the exit curbs. His bike was lying just beyond him.
I backed off a bit expecting a red flag at the next station but, when there was none there, or at the next one, or at the next one, I got back in it. Karson remained at the edge of the track for about another three laps, lying at the end of a red-and-white streak on the pavement left by his leathers. I was to find out later that he had again escaped serious injury.
One of the bikes that had not slowed with the mist was Paul Youngman on the Velocity Crew Racing bike. He had built a comfortable, but not insurmountable lead over us. However, a red flag late in the race rounded their lead up to a full lap. With nothing to lose and nothing to gain in the closing stages of the race and with only a limited amount of time left we put Brian out on the bike to give him a little more track time for his sprint races on Sunday.
Velocity Crew consists of two of our teammates from the 24-hour race in 2000 and they were riding a bike that Tim had repaired the day before so, although it spoiled our streak of wins, the loss had the warm, intimate feeling of fratricide.