I have been attempting to ignore sidecar racing for the last two months, but there are a lot of people that deserve a write up about Team Johnny Killmore’s 2013 Pikes Peak Adventure at the 2013 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The entire two weeks was filled with problems though, so this is no dream-come-true story; if this starts to read like an itemized list of complaints, don’t blame me. So let me throw on my optimist hat and give it my best.
Things actually started bad before leaving. I was supposed to be fresh from sleep and on the road by 5pm. Instead I was on the road with no sleep at 8pm. The ol’ race van worked fine through the night but I was still west of the Colorado border when the temperatures moved in the 90’s. After stopping to let the engine cool about 8 times (the climb near Vail, CO is a monster!) I made it to the Wagner’s house (the official sidecar headquarters) just around sunset. 22 hours on the road and about 36hrs with no sleep.
On the upside I had a great place to stay. The Wagner’s (Dennis, Diannia, and their adult son Danna) rolled out the red carpet for all three of the American sidecar teams. Gina and I were renting their large 5th-wheel camping trailer, and Dannan gave us unlimited use of his pick up. That saved us several times from having to unhitch the trailer and kept the van away from all the climbs within the area. I actually ended the night exhausted but happy. Diannia had pulled out all the stops from food and drinks to a gift bag… even a “Welcome Racers” sign at the entry to their property. Posh.
Monday, June 24th was registration, tech inspection, and the riders meeting. Unfortunately, Gina missed her flight so I had to run through all that alone. Actually, I got some help at tech from fellow sidecar racer Hans Schultz. He helped me run through the new format, with pictures and press and the like. Gina, in the meantime, was navigating a horror story of flight delays and standby waits, not getting in until about 11pm. I think this was the first night of less than 2 hours sleep, because of course you have to wake up at about 3am during the practice days.
PRACTICE DAY 1: TOP HALF
The format had changed this year to allow more practice time. This first day was the entire top-half of the course from the brake-check area below Glen Cove to the summit. With Gina living at sea level I expected her to have a tough time, and that was the case. However it was not nearly as bad as when we used the motocross sidecar in our first race together in 2010. Things weren’t easy for me either. The bike was suffering from the dreaded head shake we were trying so hard to cure. Gina had poured a ton of money into the bike, installing an updated 2006 Suzuki GSX-R1000 engine and having Becker Moto Works fabricate a new front suspension linkage that was adjustable (headshake is usually affected by steering geometry). Without going into detail, the front axle can be moved forward and back to make the steering more or less stable. It was decided that the instability was bad enough that we’d skip a run to adjust it.
Sadly, Even after making bold adjustments in both directions the vicious oscillations remained. It was even happening on the return rides from the top, when we were traveling at a sedate pace. The scary thing is the bike would also do it when just coasting off-throttle. How can you push something to the limit when at any moment it will forcibly rip the controls from your hands? Finally, on the last run of the day, it seemed we had made some progress. The bike was stable in the first right-hander, then there was a darting feeling- but not headshake- on the brakes into the left-hand hairpin. Feeling vindicated, I finally pushed at a hard pace into the long right, in 5th gear. The bike was tracking, but then gave a mighty shake and the whole machine weaved. I lifted, then pinned the throttle again in an attempt to ignore it. The new motor was powerful and I wanted to make use of it. Then the motor simply quit.
Smoke came pouring out from the front of the engine; a strange smell more like burning electrics than burning engine. There wasn’t a single sputter or anything. We coasted to a halt on the paved shoulder. The starter wasn’t even turning, but the gauges worked, so there was power. Eventually the starter made a few sorry attempts to turn, then quit also. Had the motor seized completely? A look in the fuse box showed a blown fuse for “IGNITION” and so I could only assume it was electrical, and catastrophic. Day 1 did not go well.
After coming off the mountain I immediately dug in and started troubleshooting. Replacing the fuse did no immediately blow it out so the problem seemed intermittent; the hardest type to troubleshoot. Without going into the agonizing details, I found a burnt out resistor that had arced a wire, somehow bypassing the fuse and going into the ECU (the main computer). The fireworks were amazing; I’ve never seen smoke like that come from an electrical device. It was dead. If you shook it you could hear the circuit boards rattling around inside. However, being the pessimist I am I had already been looking for a replacement. This is not something sitting on a dealer shelf, and only 2005-2006 versions would work. The local salvage yards had nothing. Ebay had them but next day shipping is expensive and you never know if the seller will truly get off their ass the same day you pay them. In desperation I posted to Facebook asking if anyone knew where to find one. Amazingly, it paid off.
A buddy who I really only know from the track saw the post. Come to think of it, I only know him as “Patch” and can’t remember ever hearing his real name. It just shows you how tight the racing community is. Seeing my post, he posts up on a Colorado racing club’s page with my dilemma, and an absolute stranger says he has one. Better still he is barely an hour away. A few phone calls later and we are on our way to meet Jim Wilson at a bike night.
The bike night was actually a pretty large gathering, with Carlin Dunne (current motorcycle record holder) and many of the Lighting Electric Motorcycle Company people there as well. This year Carlin was after the all-out motorcycle record on an electric machine, which is really cool to see. Electric vehicles are going nuts up there at Pikes Peak. Anyway, Jim Wilson turned out to be a racer himself and he happened to have a spare ECU that would work. We couldn’t stay long given the setting sun and our need to wake up at 3am, so we scooted our happy tails back to the Wagner’s place and plugged in the ECU… it wouldn’t start.
Now I know I repaired the wiring correctly, and I can hear the ECU cycling a bunch of components that it controls, but I can’t hear the fuel pump priming. A close inspection in the dark shows a wire going into the fuel tank is broken. DRAT! The only thing to do is solder the damn wire back onto the connector. Fumbling through Dennis Wagner’s work shop I locate the solder and a butane torch. So here it is, 11pm in the dark, and I’ve got Gina holding a flashlight while I fire up a propane torch to solder…on a fuel tank. Race gas. 100 octane. It finally dawned on me that I just didn’t care this much about practice tomorrow. We were going to miss it. After almost no sleep the last couple days, and a whole day of searching for burned wires and driving to Denver to borrow parts, I hit my limit. I was going to bed.
PRACTICE DAY 2: MIDDLE SECTION
As I said, we weren’t going up there so I think I slept in until the late hour of 730am. I went to the store and bought an electric soldering gun and affected repairs to the fuel pump wiring. The bike fired up no problem, although it of course had a flashing warning light due to the burned wire I left disconnected. I was a bit unhappy about missing practice, but I couldn’t fault myself for lack of effort. At least we had a chance to rest up, plus we had already gotten a few runs in on the middle half on day 1. I wanted to deal with the iffy handling on the bike, but it would have to wait until the top section.
PRACTICE DAY 3: TOP SECTION
The top section from Devil’s Playground to the Summit is difficult. It begins fast, then gets tight, then tries to get fast but is bumpy, then gets tight again (got that?). It is windy and did I mention bumpy? From the beginning we were in trouble. The bike’s headshake was worse than ever. It was no longer happening just under braking, but mid-corner at high speed. You are in 4th gear accelerating out of a corner and the bars are already dancing in your hands like a caffeinated squirrel break dancing. Suddenly, this extra wobble would just pull the bars right out of your hand. Quite frankly it was terrifying. It was like the think was going to just fly off the road at any moment. Every run, we would have to skip the next run in order to make an adjustment. Every adjustment it got worse. If we moved it back, it would still be worse. I went from frustrated to furious to hopeless and back to furious.
Gina was being pretty brave by trying to help but also seemed smart enough to just get out of the way by the end. She had changed her style for right turns and it was working. However, she now had a tendency to hit my left foot as she came back to the middle of the chair. This would basically pound the soft top of my foot into the toe box of the shift mechanism. After a couple of warnings and then finally yelling at her, I’m pretty sure I turned and squarely punched her in the kidney. Things were definitely not going our way. Through all of it I don’t think she even raised her voice. I remember the drive back down the mountain being very long and quiet though, as I fumed over the miserable handling. I could not even ride the bike let alone race it. On the return runs I could not close the throttle or the bars would shake uncontrollably. Dragging the brakes with the throttle open helped, but you could smell the brakes. This is on a return run. It had officially gone from bad to worse to hopeless.
Back at the ranch some of the sidecar gang got together on my bike. Wade Boyd and Steve Stull are competition on the track, but off the track you can count on their support. We measured wheel angles and camber, chain alignment, and ride heights. The only thing left was the front geometry. We had a new, adjustable front end put on before the race but it had been set to the same geometry as the last front end. Without going into bitter details, Steve and I spent almost the entire day making radical adjustments on the bike’s geometry until we found a spot where the headshake seemed to abate. We threw Gina on the chair and whooped up the empty country lane and it felt decent (weight distribution is important on bikes this small so we had to check things with Gina onboard because, yes, they are that important). On the return (downhill) the headshake reared it’s head.
With the bodywork off though Gina could CLEARLY see the entire headstock of the bike shaking. This was not just handlebars rocking back-and-forth, this was the frame bending like wet noddles and allowing the entire bike to twist and wobble. While this was incurable at the moment, we made some more adjustments and got things close to okay (twitchy but only slight headshake) and prepared for the final day of practice.
PRACTICE DAY 3: BOTTOM SECTION AND QUALIFYING
The bottom section feels the most like a racetrack. It has a bit of a flow and it’s also the section I shine in. On our first hot run we took things easy and were trying to sneak up on the limits as if we’d never driven the bike before. It gave some headshake on the brakes but not too bad. The nervousness was there for sure; the bike would not hold a line because it was hypersensitive to every bump, breeze, or crack in the pavement. In a game of inches it is hard to trust something that darts several inches in either direction without warning. When the times came in I was shocked; we had actually out-qualified Wade and Christine by about two seconds. This seemed like good news but of course they immediately went back out for another go. They dropped another second off of our time but that seemed okay. If we could run this pace while still re-learning the bike, we were at least in the fight.
We got stuck behind several other bikes on our next run unfortunately. There is still the left over stigma from the dirt era where sidecars were much slower than the ATV’s, so we are usually put in the line up last, with bikes set off at about 5-10 sec gaps. Of course, with the 170HP of a road-racing sidecar there is no longer a huge difference and we sit about mid-pack with the ATV guy’s times. With our stock muffler we are also really hard to hear coming. Even the electric bikes have a hard time hearing us coming. There was nothing to do about that though other than to take another run and try to wait for a large gap at the starting line.
With one run left in the day I set out on a tear. Gina and I were in rare form. The bike was still a handful but we were working within its limits and were not making mistakes. We caught an electric bike in one of my key sections; it’s an area with a confusing series of corners that I have memorized. Drat. It may have only cost us a bit though, so we pressed on. Into an off-camber left and Gina moves super early. Did she fall off the bike? I’m totally offline and looking over my shoulder, but we stay on the asphalt and she is still on the bike. Forget it. I outbrake myself and have to gather things in again. Forget it. Nearing the end things seemed to be going well until we came upon another electric bike. I have a particularly aggressive riding style so I came up on him with a lot of speed. Suddenly I realize I’m going to have to chop the throttle mid-corner to keep a safe distance, which throws the chair up. There was no way through though so I cut to half throttle and got all over the brakes. We missed him by a really good margin, and fortunately it was the final corner, so I doubt it cost us more than a tenth or two.
Sure enough, at the bottom we saw the times and had come up one-tenth of a second short of the fastest time. As mad as I was at our continued misfortune, I couldn’t help but think: we got held up twice on that run and still came that close. Even with all the problems, we are still in the hunt. It’s possible. I was further emboldened when Gina was able to find the times from the top section (the previous day). Even though we were muddling around with the brakes and gas on at the same time, we managed to come within 3-5 seconds of the fastest sidecar times for that section. “All hope is not lost,” I thought to myself. We may be getting the short end of the stick with luck, but we might be able to pull a rabbit out of this pile.
This concludes Part 1 of the Team Johnny Killmore Pikes Peak 2013 recap. Stay tuned for Part 2: Race Day.