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THE DARK SIDE
AFM round 2, 2014

 


I was born a fortunate kid. I excelled at almost everything. I could jump higher, run faster, and endlessly imagine. There was this one thing though that stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t learn. My mind didn’t work like the other kids around me. If it were today people would understand my dyslexia, but this was half a century ago in a public school with segregated lunch rooms. They shuffled me to special classes, to forgotten groups. My best friends became the other shuffled kids – the legally blind kid and the short angry chick who fought everybody but me, every day. I taught the blind kid to ride a bicycle, which put him in the hospital, and I never told a soul the fighter had no parents. Once back in my neighborhood I’d blend back in with my regular friends but there was always, and will always be I guess, another side of me. A darker side. A place where I struggled, where I failed at everything laid before me. Where I just, couldn’t, get it.When my friends all went away to college they left my neighborhood, and me, empty. This was crap timing, the last breath of my parents marriage came that same fall. In the span of a few months my whole life had changed, and none of it was my doing. I’d been working since I was twelve so I had money, but dreams hadn’t occurred to me yet. Well, any dreams that is other than Suzuki’s new GS550E.There was a rule in my house, no doubt designed for me, that anyone caught on a motorcycle, ever, would be met by the wrath of my father’s most fearful promise, “I will fry your ass.” But with his clothes my father also packed his rules the day he left. I bought that motorcycle, literally, the next morning. It had to be delivered because, well, I still had yet to sit on a motorcycle. That took me a whole nother day to accomplish. My dad was a powerful guy.Wikipedia says “A vehicle is a mechanical means of conveyance, a carriage or transport.” To me that bike was definitely a transport, but there was nothing mechanical about it. That bike was all emotion. It took me places I never imagined, and I imagined a lot. School was out for me by now, but I never shook my dark side. Instead it just changed shape. I met a guy named “Horse”. He was big into bikes. One of his hands was larger than two of mine. Horse introduced me to the town’s local legend, Markie. Markie raced both dirt and pavement, but that’s not where his legend status came from. Billy Joel gave him that when he wrote a song about being beat up by some stranger in a bar. There were others (most of whom will remain nameless to protect the guilty). These guys were rough around the edges, a perfect fit for the dark side of me.Chapter – 2 “Historic Influence”We ran with AHRMA Thursday and Friday because I still need time on a bike. Those were two fascinating days – I love old bikes. Oddly though, old bikes aren’t what made the days unique. From the center of their riders meeting Thursday afternoon I thought I noticed someone familiar. It wasn’t this guys face, for sure I was too far away. Wasn’t his eyes, he wore sunglasses. Something in how he hung his head, how he motioned with his hands when he spoke. Same bushy mustache, about the same height – that can’t be him twenty six years later can it? Slowly I walked over, through a crowd of old strangers, then I called out a name I haven’t spoken in decades. “Crawler.” The instant that name dropped everything stopped. He turned his head with just his eyes, looking up motionless like a field mouse standing frozen underneath a circling hawk. I smiled with joy as he smiled back in relief. “You bastid” he quietly responded. Then wearing a coy smile he whispered, “nobody calls me that name around here…” I laughed out loud and hugged a man who helped get me started in racing so many years ago. We all have our dark sides.When I asked what he was doing here he said “I see you’re still as dumb as ever. I’m racing of course..” I answered “Pardon me, idiot, I mean HERE” while motioning toward his KTM patches and leathers. “I work for KTM”. Just then I squinted my eyes while scratching my head like I’d suddenly been swarmed by Locusts. ….”you mean all these years I’ve been emailing KTM’s bottomless inbox begging for help when all this time I could have just called you?” He answered, “Yup, you’re just as dumb as ever.”When I left NY I left far more than I realized at the time. It’s one thing changing places, that can be big, but changing people is biblical. Crawler introduced Keith and I to Mitch Hansen, to Chris Fillmore, and to HMC’s head mechanic “Uli”. In just five minutes time history had come out of mothballs to get my back, again. Keith and I learned some new things, and confirmed a few we’d already been considering. Such valuable days.Chapter – 3 “Night to Day”I can find my way, it just takes different paths for me than it does you. Mostly I use feel. In our first laps Thursday I felt good and bad. Good that we were at the track, but bad on it. The changes we made while wrestling Buttonwillow to the ground felt all wrong for Sears. Mostly our front springs were too soft – it would bottom on the brakes sending the rear tire wagging skyward, and mid-turn at full lean the rear tire would suddenly snap out of line. We figured it’s too much weight on the front. Barry Wressle wasn’t due track-side until Friday evening, so we band-aid-fixed it by winding our soft front springs tighter. This helped a bit on the brakes but now the front chattered in fast turns, and the rear still came around a little mid-turn. That’s where Crawler came through big time. Keith and I had been mulling over an idea to change our wheelbase pretty drastic – like three quarters of an inch forward – to get more weight on the rear. But we felt as much doubt about our new idea as we did confidence, so Crawler brought us into the garage to take some notes on Fillmore’s RC8R. Turns out his rear axle was exactly where we’d been wanting to put ours. That felt so great, to be reassured finally about our bike’s setup. Until now we’ve had no one to talk to or with. Don’t get me wrong, I have asked. I just never got an answer before. From this point forward our bike completely changed. Gone is it’s long lazy feel, it’s tendency to fight my input, it’s lack of confidence entering turns and it’s tendency to kick out the rear mid-turn. Now our bike feels nimble, quick, like it wants more not less. Really it’s night and day different. So exciting to ride fast.

 

Chapter – 4 “Formula Pacific”

I never go out with the pack in practices. Rather be alone, but not for reasons you’d expect. For me it’s confidence, or lack thereof. I see guys like Siglin, Corey, even Earnest who I know isn’t up to speed yet, as being on another level. It’s that dark side of me coming out again, I know it. That part where I’ll fail again, where I’ll never get it. Some say you are forever who you were at twelve. Sometimes that’s true for me, so my twelve year old waits way in the back by myself. It’s really hard to shake. But suddenly our bike’s new setup pushed me right up in the line of riders waiting at the gate to practice. From the moment we all took off I worked my way through, rider after rider, pass after pass. This was good, I really needed to finally not struggle, on our bike, at Sears. But this was also bad because once again I’d fallen ignorant to the AFM’s new timed practice/qualifying for FP deal. Our best time in traffic put us 18th on the FP grid. In a way that was exciting to me, I like starts. But I was disappointed in myself.

From the 5th row I watched the one board slowly turn. It’s easier to see from the fifth row, you don’t have to look up AND straight ahead at the same time. But shit there were so many bikes in front of us. We made a drastic change to our gearing as well this weekend, first gear is now shorter so I really pushed my chest up over the bars for the launch. It worked, our bike didn’t wheelie, we cleared quite a few off the line. I snuck up the inside of someone in two, then fought Jeff Tigert all the way to turn 3a. I like Jeff, a lot, but I wasn’t backing down and he knew it – he backed off as we ripped through one of the most awesome sections of track around. That dip down to turn 3a followed instantly by the turning rise of the wheelie crest is an amazing sequence to never take for granted. Somehow in all this time, with all the practice, the adjustments and the passes, we ended right up where we left off at Buttonwillow – on Jason Lorentzen’s back tire. But this time I felt more comfortable. There were differences in how we got around the track; Jason was better on his initial drives, we were better in and entering turns. For the first few laps I simply felt my way around his bike. Whatever we lost on him I could quickly get back, but once again I couldn’t make the pass. Or, I didn’t make the pass. I could say I didn’t try because each time we’d come from too far behind after losing the drive to him, but really that’s not why. I didn’t try for the pass because I lacked the confidence. It’s a process for me, and a slow one at that. I had a few looks up his inside on the brakes but I never had the balls to let go of the lever long enough to own the entrance. To bully my way next to him and take the turn for ours. Instead I rehearsed a few times. I learned I could come from as many as five lengths back just on the brakes. This was good but it wasn’t enough. Then I got myself in trouble. I came in for turn eleven like an angry bulldog, which put us on a perfect course to take out his rear caliper. Instead I stood up and went straight past our turn-in point. That hurt us a lot. I had tons to make back up. This changed my goal from passing Jason to at least making it back up to him by race end. I focused on entrance, I focused on drive, I focused on standing the bike up out of turns but this is where I failed. I drove and drove as hard as I could, leaned over everywhere which completely melted my next failure – my decision to run a soft rear. Looking back now it is so clear to see, 3pm on a hot day at Sears is not a good time to run a soft. Greed got the best of me I guess. The Michelin softs are such a fun tires to go fast on – just not for ten laps in the heat. As we lost grip we also lost two positions. I went wide a few times, almost off the track once, but we hung in there regardless. We finished only one length from the very positions we’d chased all race long, and left the track with the confidence it will take to get the job done next round.

Chapter – 5 “Open Twins”

Some moments from life you remember forever, without ever realizing you will. Others you just know. When I checked the grid for Open Twins Sunday morning, and saw Chris Fillmore’s name entered in our AFM race, I knew. It’s not like I felt we could beat him. I’m not an idiot. But the energy would be there. The opportunity. And I had every intention to run with it. Racing alone makes you stale, getting beat makes you faster – but you have to get close enough. If nothing else I wanted the hole-shot. Just lead to turn two, then maybe I’d follow until he disappeared into the sunset. That was my hope. We did take the hole-shot, then instantly my dream advanced. I didn’t want him to pass. As we headed for the bridge I felt the rev-limiter kick in. Shit I need more gear, so I upshifted where I never do off the start. This put us into turn 2, one gear too high. With no chance to downshift, being leaned over so far, I just ran with it – powered our way like a farm tractor to turn 3a in 4th gear at just 6,000rpm. Shit. Up the hill and over turn 3 we still held the lead, and finally I had my shot to get back in the proper gear. Two awkward downshifts for turn 4 and we were almost back up to speed. Just then Fillmore came up our inside on the brakes. I’m sorry but I still really wanted to lead. We went around that apex side by side, I powered hard around him and we re-took the lead heading for turn 5.

Photo by Oxymoron Photography

I’m a little off still, going into the Carousel-turn 6, which he took advantage of by coming up our inside. Again we were side by side, and still I was comfortable. I eased up through the Carousel, with an idea to drive up his inside on the exit. I wanted the most from us, nothing left on the table. But his bike is monstrously fast, he left us on that back straight. Our bike is exceptional on the brakes now, we entered turn 7 faster than him. He was still pretty close through 7. We charged through turn 8 and into 9 we made a little back again. He was leaving us no doubt, but I was happy with our pace. Things were happening faster, the rhythm was quicker than it was in FP. I felt very good, super controlled and hitting my marks. Then suddenly like a huge water balloon it all burst into nothing. I nailed our marks through 3a, nailed them into 3. Then suddenly while still at full lean, just as I hung my elbow over the paint at the crest of turn 3 – it’s like someone triggered a bomb under the back of our bike. What just an instant ago was a beautifully in-sync KTM RC8R leaned over beneath me, had suddenly become a wild bull – kicking me off it like I’d entered it in a rodeo or something. I held the grips in my hands as my feet, reportedly, flew straight up over my head. I was totally inverted at the crest of the hill, handstand on the bars with no bike beneath me. I fell back down, still holding the bars, but landed on the pavement. Suddenly I was dragging next to our bike, at full race speed. What would you do right now? Probably the same thing I did – remember Randy Momola’s cowboy side-saddle hell ride, from way back in the day.

I can’t say I thought I’d save it, but you can bet I tried. It all happened in an instant, the bucking, the struggling to lift myself back on, my lower legs dragging behind – I didn’t want it to end like this. I am not positive what happened but I think in the bucking my right hand lost grip on the bar, which stole us the fight to get back on. I got flicked again, this time over the top and onto my back. I knew Metz would be coming around shortly so I had a conversation with him, as me and our KTM slid most of the way to turn 4. “Come on now Steve, you see me here. Do the right thing…” and he did. Thanks buddy. But I’d woken from the dream, our race was over..At this point I choose to focus on the positives:
1 – I hate our green helmet. I threw it to the ground 50 feet from the corner workers station where we ended up just so I’ll never have to wear it again.
2 – Something pretty substantial is still off with our setup. Last year we lost the rear just the same way, only in turn one. I know this is solvable.
3 – Confidence is at an all time high right now. I’ll never know on paper what our pace was Sunday because we never finished our second full lap, but I guarantee you it was faster than we went Saturday. By far.
4 – In 05 I had a tire deal. I can’t confirm the ones I got were special but they definitely had my name on them in the truck, and only sometimes had writing on the sidewall. I used to be able to run our 749R into turn 9 so hard it felt irresponsible. I’d brake so late for turn eleven you could hear the tire chirp as it skid, but the bike never fell. This defied all logic. It was amazing to feel. And I have never felt that again, until this weekend. What our bike did on the brakes, with these Michelin tires, was completely irresponsible.
5 – I talked with HMC’s head mechanic “Uli”. Told him what happened, what the bike does out there. We compared notes, our bike to theirs. I also talked with Fillmore about it. It’s only Tuesday and I have already been down to Chandler’s shop in Salinas. So far everyone agrees we are blowing through the stroke of our rear shock when we G-out.
6 – I’m giving up donuts and ice cream, which is not necessarily a positive. Shit

Can hardly wait for T-hill, we will be strong.

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