The Classic Course outside the oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is an extremely tight, flat affair with only 9-10 corners. It features one high-speed right turn and the rest of the course is more or less a wide go-kart track. This means the passenger is busy and as driver, I am at a disadvantage (my better performances are in high-speed turns). Once again host club WERA (www.wera.com) hosted us, and the event went quite smoothly. Holding down chair duties on the sidecar was Team Rookie Giorgina Gottlieb, who hasn’t raced since May. This meant focus was on getting the cobwebs blown out for Gina and getting her accustomed to the course; which she had never seen before. Fortunately she came prepared with the course layout and turn numbers memorized, from a turn-by-turn guide and track map I had sent her, but we only had two 20min sessions before Race 1.
SATURDAY: RACE 1
Gina was middle-of -the road as far as familiarity goes, but her timing had gotten much better since May. My biggest concern was her stamina, as after only 3 laps she was indicating she was tired; Saturday’s race was an 8-lap affair. Gridded on the front row, my plan was to get the hole-shot and race at a conservative pace until our main rivals, Becker Moto Works, caught up. As defending champ and President of the SRA-West series, driver Bill Becker has been starting in a mid-pack position, to increase the challenge for him. He has a lot more experience and machine than we do, but still it amazes me how quickly he can get away at some tracks. His son Eric Becker has been handling passenger duties for (I think) 9 years and they combine to make the go-fast business look like a rather casual affair.
My frantic style never seems to leave me, and from the green flag on I looked at keeping things smooth to conserve everything. The front and chair tires are still the same ones we grooved for Pikes Peak in July, and I kept getting slides in the high-speed right-hander known as Turn 6. There is no real run off here, so I was having a hard time feeling confident. Without predictable traction from the chair tire, right turns are difficult to negotiate, and all but two turns went to the right.
Still, we were set out front with about a 10-bike length lead, with blurs of white and then yellow in my mirror. I knew this would be Roadkill Racers (Sean Bakken/Gary McEwen) and Cat On A Leash Racing (Michael Troutman/Heidi Neidehoefer), and I kept tabs for the red/yellow blur of the Beckers. On lap two Gina gave me the “slow down” signal, which I did, but my mirrors began to fill again, so I squirted away. Each lap I was given the “slow down” by Gina and I knew before the halfway-mark we were in trouble. I developed a strategy of trying to make up all my time in high-speed turn 6, and driving conservatively in the tight switchbacks at the beginning and end of each lap. This would allow Gina time to transition in the tight stuff, and maximize my strong point in the one high speed turn on the course. It seemed to be working, but Becker had caught us and it was now a matter of holding him off somehow.
With the halfway mark passed he shot around us in tight turn 8, and I glanced to the mirror, catching two bikes coming up on us. It was obvious we needed to push for second place, so I actually slowed down. I knew Gina would need to have some lung left for a last minute push, and we had a long way to go. Becker was gone in a flash, but we were managing the gap to 3rd place well. Gina continued with the “slow down” signal, which I did as best I could.
Yellow flags in the distance caught my eye. As we entered turn 5, I could see Roadkill Racers coming onto the track from a quick dirt sampling mission. This meant I could really hang back, as Cat On A Leash had to check up in order to avoid being collected. We cruised the final few laps and took a lonely second place. Sunday’s race looked to be a carbon copy, but Gina and I were able to figure some things out in Sunday morning practice.
Prepping the bike for Sunday morning’s race.
SUNDAY: RACE 2
Morning practice showed the track had more grip than on Saturday. Perhaps more rubber had been laid down, as it had rained sporadically on Friday night. Either way I expected a copy of Saturday’s race, though Gina and I had worked out several turns much better. We also had only six laps to do, and if Gina could do eight, she could definitely do six.
The start turned out to be a normal affair, with us hole-shotting from the front row and pulling away a bit. I got no “slow down” signal from Gina on lap two, so I put the hammer down and just enjoyed riding at the limit for a lap. She was really getting her timing down. Something I’ve repeatedly said was that the faster you go, the easier it is. The higher the side load pulling you one way, the less muscle you need to use to go that way. Racing at 70% and 100% take about the same lung power, but it takes more muscle endurance to ride slower. The key to making full-out racing work on a sidecar is timing. If you are early as a passenger the bike can spin or flip. If you are late then the bike is going to turn while you are mid-transition and G-force can suck you right off the outside of the bike. A driver looking in the mirror to verify passenger movement is also more likely to miss a marker, throwing everything out of whack.
With Gina hitting the marks I was only using my mirror four times a lap, down from the constant and repeated checks needed back in April. As I started to feel a rhythm though, I got the “slow down” again. I eased off again in the tight parts but also saw Becker had broken through the field and was after us, though still somewhat distant. On lap three I got no indication from Gina, so I simply let it rip. Becker was right behind us and I wasn’t going to just hand over the lead. I stopped looking for him in the mirror and charged, but in the tight stuff I just cannot keep the bike on 3 wheels. In right turns the rear picks up and in lefts, of course the chair is floating. Gina is only 120lbs and our bike has a ridiculously narrow width and wheelbase. It was originally designed for the narrow streets of Irish “real roads racing,” but it worked to our disadvantage on the open spaces of circuit racing.
Becker came on the inside in turn 8, but it flicked right again for turn 9. I brake late and can’t get turned. The chair is heading to the outside edge of the track but the track actually jogs left, before dumping us onto the start/finish straight. I flick the bike to pick the chair up and let it float over the dirt, but I flick it too hard and the bike goes into a nasty weave. It’s oscillating but it’s still pointing where I want it. I can feel Gina flopping around behind me, trying to hold on. I’m fighting the steering but it’s getting worse. The exhaust scrapes, then scrapes harder. Any racer knows the solution, no matter how many wheels you have… GAS IT. I pin the throttle and give it one tug on the bars to try and set it down gently, which I don’t quite manage. A mirror check shows Becker had backed off to give us room. I caught an upshift and Gina jumped into position.
Now Becker closes back in on us and I figure we’ll begin the game again. I then proceed to totally blow turn 4 and leave the door wide open. He squirts through like we’re sitting still and I’m a little ticked-off at myself (not really, I’m absolutely furious). This is the third race in a row where I simply blew a corner for no reason whatsoever and gave up the lead. I set out after him, but he already has 5 lengths. If I can stay near him maybe he’ll make a mistake?
Down the back straight and we’re more than 10 lengths back. I breathe out gently, and click back to 5th gear. Becker is on the good line in this high-speed right-hander, but I ignore the bumps and lack of run off, and just dig in. Right at turn in the bike protests over the bumps, then settles in and steers too quickly to the inside curbs. I dial in full throttle but the whole bike gives way briefly. The bike then slams through the bumps at the apex and my vision blurs. To myself I say, “I think we’re still on line… hey, there’s Becker.” Into the braking zone and we are deep and too hot. I dig into the front brake until the lever bottoms against the hand grip, but then have to ease off, to row the shifter down to 2nd (still no slipper clutch, so throttle blips are a must to save the transmission and chain). This is the best I can do today, and we get to about 2 lengths, just out of striking distance. Into the next slow corner and the front brake is mush; overheated. The tiny rotors and motorcycle master cylinder were not meant to handle this kind of abuse. I pump them a few times and the come back in, but Becker is off and away. There is a massive gap to 3rd place, but we push as hard as we can until we begin the final lap, where we kind of cruise in for a somewhat distant 2nd place.
I was still really happy with this result because Gina only gave me the “slow down” one time, where she usually does it every single lap but the first. Her timing was immensely better and both our confidence and out “flow” were reaching a new level. I told her “You turned a corner this weekend,” and I think it really made her day. It was also strange to see I ran may fastest ever time at this track, by almost a full second. In April, rookie passenger Nathan Urbanovsky gave things a go while also racing his SV650 solo bike, and did superb right from the opening session. He was the high-water mark at that track, not to mention his 185lbs weight really kept the bike in balance. It felt slower this time, yet was noticeably faster on the time sheet.
Next up is the penultimate round of the 2011 SRA-West Formula Sidecar Championship. It will be at the Streets Of Willow course in Rosamond, California October 15-16. We will run the course for the first time ever and I’m hoping the field will be a bit more level, since no one will have track knowledge as an advantage. As always I want to thank Becker Moto Works for all their effort and the great on-track action, along with www.vmcracing.com and Sinful Flesh Clothing for their support.
Since there is a lack of photos for this report, I’d like to leave you all with some video from this race. 1st up is a Saturday practice session from a forward view on the nose. People with a close eye can see the sliding as we struggle for grip:
Second up is our rear-facing camera on Sunday’s race. It’s chock full of notes and such, so if that bothers you be sure to turn them off with the button near the bottom-right of the player. Be sure to watch the action at 5:10. I personally love watching the bike go into the oscillation at 5:16 and seeing my right hand just slam the throttle open. The first time I noticed that I had to laugh out loud at myself: