Saturday before race day is a chance to put the final touches on the machine. We had very little to do besides install the 20lbs. of ballast and clean the bike up. The My Life At Speed gang had a small get together and we were able to attend. It was great to be able to put faces to names, as most of these people I met through the internet, after the race last year. Through the advent of social media, it was still like meeting people you had known for years. Greg Tracy was there as well and it was nice to get a chance to talk with him when he wasn’t doing press. I’ve been trying to line him up with a run on a Formula Sidecar racer since last year, but scheduling has not permitted it. His limp from a practice crash was fairly evident, but being able to walk at all is a good thing considering the speeds the Ducati is reaching this year.
After that, it was time to head to another get-together back at the Wagners’ place. It was really nice having all three sidecar teams around, and the Wagners are all great folk. We finished buttoning up the race bike and enjoyed a good cookout, and storytelling. The rains came in and we moved the party inside, where TV had dirt-track car racing on and I got sucked in. I snapped out of it and got to enjoy time with friends, and for the first time all week it felt like a vacation. Not seeing Wade and Christine in years meant there was no shortage of topics to talk about, (Technically we saw each other during the Catalina GP in December of 2010, but Wade was racing so we didn’t get a lot of time to talk).
The morning came (by morning I mean the middle of the night, of course) and we got settled into the pits. Jim Vidmar did some great work finding us flat ground to unload on, as the motorcycle “pits” are actually just the woods. Really, the car pits are the woods too, just with dirt instead of grass. We damaged the body last year trying to get onto the road from the pits, so I was really glad to have a straight shot, out onto the road. I tried to sleep until the sun came up, but I was already acclimated to this schedule, so I wasn’t tired.
The riders meeting went quickly and so did the start of the race. Sidecars have been the second class to leave in the motorcycle division the last three years I’ve raced Pikes Peak. Now being the second to last, combined with the 30 second intervals between each machine, meant we had an extremely long wait on pre-grid. We did manage to have some good chats with folks. Some of the electric car folks, and Eva Hakansson popped in as well. Eva is a big part of the Killacycle, the seriously fast electric drag bike seen in magazines. They were just weeks away from getting in a 200+mph run at the Bonneville Salt Flats with Killajoule, a stream-liner sidecar. It was cool to chat with them, as it’s not very often a small operation can work with an emerging technology and create long lasting results like they have. They are a cheery group of people with big ideas, and I like that. However, most of the wait was just that… waiting.
When I have a good race I usually get calm and tired before the run. I kept alternating between this calm state and one of anxiety. No matter how much I told myself it was “just another race,” I knew that this is the race every year. There are no excuses, no room for error, and this year, there is genuine competition. My goal when I brought this bike last year was to hold the sidecar record on the last year there was dirt, and the first year there was all asphalt. You can only do this once in a lifetime. There is no do over. Each time this paraded through my thoughts, I dropped it, as it had nothing to do with the race itself.
The thing I truly love about racing is that all other things fall away, and only the present moment counts. When you have a bad corner, you forget it, as only the approaching corner matters. All time is now when the handlebars are in your hands. Truly, the waiting really is the hardest part.
The sky was clear and warm and there was little wind, so the bikes were getting away smoothly. There was a delay in the 1205 class, but it did not appear to affect the Ducatis. The quads had their turn and then it was time to put the helmet on. Rizzo and I were calm. I gave him a short briefing. To the effect it was, “You know what to do, just keep your eyes up and remember where we are. We can run this hard. If we make a mistake, forget about it, only the next 2 corners matter. See you at the top.” Truly, you are in your own world on the sidecar. The passenger is of course there, and you work in unison, but it’s not like having another person on the bike. They are the passenger, and no words are exchanged. They are in their mission and you are in yours. It never passes through my mind that it’s a human being on the bike with me, only another thing to monitor. Are they on time? Do they feel the front tire sliding? Am I bringing them too close to that hay bale? Are they getting tired? It’s similar to monitoring your tire temps, but infinitely dynamic since of course, it is a human being on the machine.
With the quads away we had a five minute wait. I climbed out of the bike so my legs wouldn’t go numb. (They are only good for about eight minutes, and this would be 12 minutes in the bike at the minimum) All the sidecar folk gathered around for a hug. This is something unique about sidecar racing. Perhaps it is because we are so small a group. Perhaps it is because we know the risks of pushing these vehicles. I don’t know, but sidecar racers do not “fist bump” or shake hands; they hug each other before a race. Hans and Steve had their work cut out for them on the street-based machine. It had the wrong geometry and too much grip to slide through corners. Wade and Christine were on point and the first sidecar up the hill. It would be the first time they attacked the course in its entirety. The signal came from the starter. Into the bike.
Engine on. Oil pressure light is out. Hold the throttle to a high idle. Everything is smooth. Temperature begins to show a reading. We inch forward. I go to flip the GoPro camera on and the damn thing doesn’t work. Wade and Christine are off. They use a lot of revs on the engine but very little wheelspin. The camera won’t recognize the memory card even though it did this morning. Forget it. I can’t think about it, so I roll forward to the line. There is no need to get a well-timed start with the flag, as your time does not start until you cross the stripe. A good launch is still crucial, and these bikes are hard to launch. On my machine, the rear wheel does not spin, the chain hops teeth on the rear sprocket. Also, the weight transfers to the back and the front wheel has no grip, pulling the bike to the left. I know this and have us aimed slightly to the right as we launch.
True to form the bike drifts left, but the chain doesn’t jump. I start thinking about how the launch could have been better, before the clutch is even out all the way, then realize 2nd gear and the first turns are coming up. Logical brain: off. Time to get metaphysical. Rizzo makes his transitions and I’m hoping he is ready for the increased speeds; with the temperature up from practice there is less reason to second guess the tires. Chair is flying, bike is weaving, but I have the first two miles committed to excellent detail. It doesn’t appear there are as many fans this year. Usually the green surroundings turn into a tunnel of color. Rizzo is on point and I’m at full throttle way more than in practice. I’m nailing my turning points. I know where the long straights are and I know how to get a good drive out. This is the fastest I’ve ever run toward Engineer’s Corner, the famous hairpin that catches the most people off guard. I’m into it deeper than I’ve ever been, and still think I should have braked later. Out onto the long straight and into the section that was dirt last year.
Here we have some flubs. There are some turns where Rizzo can’t get over fast enough because of the angle we approach at. He lands on my back right as I hit the brakes, slamming him into me and taking too much weight, off the rear wheel. I push back with my arms but the bike bucks in protest, the front tire dancing in my hands. I look up to see a line of hapless spectators; none of them have the faintest idea, I’m not fully in control. I put my eyes to the exit where I want to go and the bike follows my eyes, rear wheel spinning furiously.
The run becomes a blur as I simply execute the corner, then forget about it… onto the next one. Cove Creek has people lined up on both sides, blocking my view through the corners. It doesn’t matter much; I know what the corner looks like. The run out of here is classic Pikes Peak. You are climbing and turning right, but the radius of the corner is following the mountain, so it’s actually a series of right-hand turns with a cliff face blocking your view around it. To the outside is nothing but sky. No guard rail, just sky. To the top of 5th gear here. The only reason to roll off is fear. A steel fence of some sort (I’ve never actually looked to see what it is) pops into view first, but you ignore it and prepare for the guardrail and hay bales that make the hairpin. I have to lift slightly once. Instead of taking the racing line and allowing the bike to stay on an arc, clipping the inside and outside of the road as it twists, I’m following the turns, trying to stay away from the outside edge. No time to chastise myself, here comes the hairpin.
Rizzo and I have learned to slide the bike in right-hand hairpins, but it’s not easy, nor is it smooth. You have to dive into the corner going too fast, turn hard while on the brakes, and catch the bike before it over-rotates. There is not a lot of steering lock and the bike has a short wheelbase. It’s like trying to rally race a Smart car; it will go backwards easy. We are sloppy, but it works and we head into “the W’s.” I don’t really remember them. There is usually a host of spectators and you can hear them yelling because the W’s are a series of 10mph hairpins. We get pretty good at sliding the bike. The fans aren’t crowding the course edge so I don’t need to worry about Rizzo’s head hitting someone’s knee. This is the section we were faster than Wade and Christine during practice so I am focused and determined to make this work.
This is also when the inside of my visor started fogging, or at least the first time I noticed it. It had been fogging on the right side and working its way left during practice. I expected with the warmer temperature of race day, I wouldn’t have a problem, but the temperature drops quickly as you climb. Combined with the slow speeds in the hairpins, and the need to look through the corner of your vision, I was now starting to stare through the blurry edge of the visor, and the blur was moving to the center.
Everything in the W’s could be described as our best effort ever, until the final right-hand hairpin below Devil’s Playground. I approach it at too slow a speed, so I turn in extra hard to make sure the chair tire breaks loose. For some reason it’s too much, and the bike begins to over-rotate. I hit the steering stop and am sure the bike will go backwards, but the banking of the turn has us spun 90 degrees sideways and still sliding. It’s not a speed to be afraid of, so I’m just thinking, “No, no, no, there goes everything!” To have Chris climb out and push us back would take a solid ten seconds, plus re-launching the bike. With the clutch already in and the revs up to prevent the engine from stalling, it’s “Darn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”
I try to be gentle as we leave the pavement but the bodywork makes a sickening crunch as we dip into the dirt. Chris is still set up for a right-hand turn so the bike goes up on two wheels. Now we are heading back uphill with unknown traction, so I’m on the throttle spinning the rear wheel. I see people moving out of the way, but my eyes are on a rill that looks the size of the Grand Canyon. The little bit of erosion could be just deep enough to catch our front tire or even the rear, so I jam the throttle on to try and hop it. “Slam!” goes the body, but we are still moving. “Okay, you’ve still got a shot at this” I think to myself as we wind through first gear, getting back to the asphalt turn-around area. Down a concrete ditch we go and onto the race surface.
Things blackout mostly after this, as I concentrate on the turns in front of me. I remember the visor fogging getting worse. I have to crack it before entering a turn, catch the down shifts, execute the turn, then close it between upshifts. Eventually I try leaving it cracked, but my eyes dry out at the higher speeds. I try simply opening it, but any dust-filled breeze could momentarily blind me. The extra effort required to constantly open and close the visor has me doing downshifts without the clutch. It’s becoming more distracting with each passing turn, but there is nothing to do about it.
As always, I remember wishing I went faster through “Bottomless Pit,” but I also remember the front tire sliding the whole way through the exit. Then I remember thinking, “My God, there’s less than a mile to go.” Over the horrendous bumps leading to “Cog Cut” I nail the least-cratered line and head up to the final hairpin. I think back to Dale Wentworth, a friend who crashed huge and nearly lost his life last year. The wind has picked up and is grabbing the bike from me. Back to work. Out of the final corner and I nail the line to miss the huge bump, that threatens to send you off the hillside in the final few hundred feet. I see the flagman and remember his request to “see me at the top” when we chatted at Fanfest. I recall yelling “Here I am!” as I run full throttle to the stripe; then put all my effort into slowing the bike without spinning out like last year. The transition onto the gravel shakes the bike, and it dances on the gravel, but I have control. We have done it, but what was our time?
Wade and Christine were ahead of us, just pulling their helmets off; a good sign, but no way to know for sure. Timing and scoring seemed to have moved from years prior, and I wasn’t sure where to go. It was that eerie kind of quiet that the summit has when there is no wind… no air. Both of the other sidecars boiled over their cooling systems, after shutting down at the summit. Ours has a huge radiator, but it still pushed some coolant into the overflow. We tried to help contain the mess. A gentleman came over with a microphone looking for John Wood. Very good sign! He informed us that we had won with an 11:41.407 unofficially. Score! We did it! After the interview, I checked the unofficial times and we won by just over three seconds. Even with a spin, that was an unbelievably close margin. Wade did not know the course well enough to attack it at 100%. He just drove the road he could see and drove it hard… impressive. Hans and Steve made the summit with a 15:26.140.
The time at the summit passes slowly. The weather came in and we got hail and rain and snow. The cars had to struggle and there were some huge crashes, fortunately with only minor injuries. Eventually the delays were so bad, and the weather so severe that the course was shortened. The final 30 cars would run to Glen Cove, just beating the approaching sunset by the time they were finished. The return down the course was the usual affair, of giving high-fives to the fans. Chris is especially good at getting little kids since we are so low to the ground. The awe in their faces will always stick in my mind. It’s as if we had returned from the moon for the first time ever. We also ran into a lot of familiar faces. Keith Dochterman and his wife were there and he was more ecstatic than I was! The Japanese couple we met at Fanfest were also there and had huge smiles on their faces. Eva was there as well and it really dawned on me how many friends I had due to this event. I thought back to Dale Wentworth, The Hennessy, Kennedy, and Wenzel brothers (previous sidecar teams on the Peak), to the Wagners and their limitless generosity, and it really brought home how big this event is. Not in dollars or records or dangers, but in humanity.
The trip home was a long one. After picking up the van in Montrose, I drove through the night to take advantage of the lower temperatures. It gave me little to look at but the headlights cutting through the dark; and little to think about besides what a huge effort it is to be a racer. It was a long and lonely drive, and I really began to seriously question what I was doing. Living a life in a garage, working on bikes all week. Sitting at hot racetracks all weekend, waiting to go out. Dumping every penny into tires and fuel, yet still having to ask friends for money. This is a strange sport to be in; it is as much an addiction as anything. The word “hobby” falls way short in trying to describe motorsports.
My reflections were stopped twice in the California desert when the van overheated and sputtered to a halt. Once it was predictable and I had room to pull over. The second time it was right in the turn lane for an off-ramp, just 40 miles from home. These were perfect times to dream of being back at the Wagners’ place, eating Indian Fry bread and talking with friends. In all this was our best year at the Peak. We had serious competition, mistakes and triumphs, and a whole mess of friends. I suppose as much as I can complain about the efforts, these are still the stories I will be telling to any sympathetic ear when I am in my waning days, thinking of the life I’ve lived. I will always choose to regret the things I’ve done, over regretting the things I should have done. Pikes Peak 2012, accomplished.