This past weekend was the penultimate round of the 2011 calendar. We went in about 40 points behind for driver points, and Gina sitting 6th in the passenger standings. This locks up the driver championship for Bill Becker, and it would take a crash or mechanical for the top of the order to move around. The plan was the same as usual though; get as close to Becker as possible, and maybe hold him off to get our first win. Before the weekend started, I found out we would be running the Streets of Willow course backwards. This meant mostly left turns, and no one would have the advantage of circuit familiarity. When I arrived late to the track, the word was that a vote had taken place, and we would run the traditional direction. I thought it was a shame, but I was apparently the only one.
With things now mostly to the right, I was regretting not getting the chair tire swapped, as it is now so worn it’s malformed (the outside edge is the only part that gets used). Up first was Gina getting familiar with the track, as she had never been here before. This is the same course we used for the TV show “Jesse James Is A Dead Man” as well as much of my solo bike racing, so it was familiar to me. The first few sessions were a bit sketchy as Gina got her timing down, but nothing to fear. In the afternoon we started to put hard laps in, and the chair tire was slipping quite a bit. Using the rear brake while on the gas is pretty normal, but now the chair would go into slides, making the rear spin up. Imagine trying to throttle-steer a car by using the brake to modulate one wheel and the throttle to control the other. Yeah, it’s hard. Combine that with some mid-corner bumps and you are definitely busy. Still, the steering adjustment we made in September, was making the bike a lot of fun to drive, though it was still a handful.
Gina seemed fairly confident despite my constant battering for her to move faster and with better timing. She had lost her footing a few times in the final corners and that was a worry, but by the end of the day it seemed composed. Saturday night involved some heavy drinking and such, and I woke up Sunday morning feeling the effects. Mercifully, the bike didn’t need anything but tire pressures and fuel, so we set out for the morning practice sessions. We seemed to still be slow in the tighter esses after turn 4, as well as into the final turn; but the narrowness of our machine, basically demands you slow down or fly off the track upside down. The passenger has to get SO far out in either direction. Many people don’t realize a sidecar will pop up on 2-wheels turning in either direction. To the right, the rear lifts and will break loose or even squirm, causing what I can only describe as a slow speed tank slapper. It goes through the whole bike though, not just the handlebars, and physically beats the hell out of driver and passenger. This means passenger involvement is 100% or something goes wrong. There is a reason I put “co-driver” on the side of the bike and not “passenger”; it’s a very important job.
The race was a standard 6-lap affair with Becker on the back row and us on the front. He is so much faster that he needs the challenge. I decided the plan was to go slow until we saw Becker break loose into 2nd, then haul tail and try to keep him at bay. This would allow Gina to save her strength for the fight at the end. Our start was quick but casual, and yet the plan went to heck by Turn 3. Wood Brothers Racing had broke through from near the back and was barreling down on us! Driver Chris Wood and I actually met years ago when I bought a street bike from him. It came to light he had a sidecar he bought but never raced, and I convinced him to put it on the track. Now he had a fantastic ART chassis with a tuned-engine. He was using first-time passenger Aaron McEwen though, so I was not expecting to see them during the race. I tried to play with things the first lap and manage a gap, but they kept getting closer. Chris had the carrot out in front of him, and was not going to play around. I went head-down charging for lap 2, and the gap opened to about 10 lengths, then closed in again. No use in trying to save things, and I gave it everything I had. I could see Becker’s famous red/yellow blur behind them, but he did not seem to pass them until the halfway. I actually lost him completely and thought maybe he had a mechanical or a spin. Imagine my surprise when I saw him less than a bike length away going into the final turn on lap 4!!!
Wood Brothers Racing chases us early in the race. Regular passenger Phil Wood should return next season.
By this point in the season I was getting comfortable leading. Becker simply waits behind us until we make a mistake, then casually drive through on the inside. His bike lies flat in left turns with very little drama, so as soon as he sees our chair in the air a little too much, he pounces. A similarity between sidecars and solo bikes is that more throttle fixes most problems. When the chair comes up, more throttle will hold it from getting any higher. The idea is to get into the corner and open the throttle before you even turn in, and then accelerate hard before the apex, causing the chair to hover.
On our way into turn 3 (a left), I saw the tip of Becker’s nose on the inside as I tipped in so I got on the gas. The chair came up and darned if he didn’t go for the inside. I gave it almost full throttle and turned to get back inside. There didn’t appear to be enough room but looking at footage there was no problem for him. The lighter weight of my bike and a slightly better gear ratio, meant I could out-drive him in the initial part of the exit, so I drifted to the outside. This turn dumps into a very tight right so normally you would hold a tight exit. I got the nose close, but not into striking position. For a split second I thought about a banzai move on the inside; just hammer it in there on the brakes, park it, and make Becker wait for us to get things turned. In a world where money is on the line that’s exactly what I would have done. In a world where Becker spends hundreds of hours on the bodywork and paint for both our bikes, I conceded the lead.
The game is now to stay as close as possible in hopes he makes a mistake. I don’t know why I always say that, as I never see the guy make mistakes. None the less, we had a carrot in front of us and I put everything into the final two laps. Gina was not giving the “slow down” signal at all and was hitting her marks, so it was all out. However, Becker moved away steadily, and we finished several seconds behind.
I don’t like to mention it, because I think it’s an excuse, but readers need an explanation of sidecar classifications. There is an F1 and an F2 class. Becker runs the F1, which is a longer wheelbase machine with the engine in the back and a totally different suspension and steering system. We run the F2 style, which was last current in the early 1990′s. It has the engine under the rider, a conventional leading link front suspension, and shorter wheelbase. F2 is also limited to 600cc, while F1 is 1000cc. In the US, there are so few sidecars that we combine the classes and let both run 1000cc engines in a “Formula Sidecar” class (though this format is not used on the east coast). Like I said, I don’t like to mention this as it sounds like an excuse to me; the rules are what they are. Becker routinely runs 1-4 seconds a lap faster than us though, and it’s beginning to look quite obvious that our 1980′s era F2 is outmatched. There is really no alternative financially though, and so we will look at next year and see what can be done to help keep our machine sitting on 3 wheels in the turns. With serious budget problems though, it’s not certain we will even be able to run the whole series next year, and may have to do select rounds. Still, it’s great to have someone to chase; when you’re all alone up front, it can actually get boring after a while (Why else would Becker choose to start from the back of the grid, right?)
The SRA-West series will come to a close November 19-20 at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California, on the 2.6mi main course. This track is predominantly right turns, so it does help keep the chair on the ground. Our gearing choices are not ideal though, but we made a change before Pikes Peak and have not been to this track since. We used to be over-geared, and the engine could not pull 5th or 6th gear very well (most of this track is done in those gears). Hopefully our shorter gearing will allow for better straight line speed exiting the high speed turns 1,2,8, and 9. Either way, the driver’s championship is set, and all I need to do is bring the bike home to keep Gina in 6th.