By Victor Wanchena

Part three of my racing saga finds me with a one-month gap between races. Last time out at St. Croix Speedway had gone fairly well. One low side crash, one thoroughly sweated up pair of leathers, and two bikes pretty much intact. The week after those races I got a call from Colin Hastings, the man behind the Shadow Valley Drifters. He says he’s organizing a practice day at Cedar Lake Arena. The morning will be instruction and the afternoon would be open practice. Sweet. I talk a friend, Damon, into joining me the for day figuring if I get him a taste, he’ll be hooked.

The school was easily one of the best instruction days I’ve had. We show up bright and early, as were unloading our bikes I realize most people have brought a little bike for the school. Neither Damon nor I had a little bike with us (yes I know they’re all little to me), so the instructors help out with a couple spare bikes. Damon gets a TTR 125 I get a CRF100.

Andrew Hook (#97L), a local pro level GNC2 rider, led the instruction for the day. The drills all seem pretty basic and lord almighty were we cramped on those bikes, but by mid-morning we could slide them with some authority. I did suffer the shame of strap. The instructors used a ratchet strap to hold your butt forward for riders who try cheating on body position by sliding back on the seat. It was an excellent teaching aid.

After a couple hours my legs are burning and I’ve literally done 100 laps of a 40’ circle. We move to a slightly larger track, maybe 200’ long and start faster drills, reverse direction, late apex, et al. By lunch we are all pretty exhausted. But for that fatigue I gain a feeling of control. I start to lose the nervous feeling when sliding, my body positioning is much improved, and my general confidence level on the track is higher.

Gettin’ a handle on the launch.
Gettin’ a handle on the launch.

After lunch we are set loose to run practice laps for a couple hours. Damon and I hustle around the track off and on until we are completely shot. My evil plan works. He’s hooked and planning what he needs to convert his KX450. He enjoyed hustling my TT500 on the track and I now know my TT shoots impressive balls of flame out the exhaust when decelerating into corners.

I was anxious for the next race. I had all these new skills that I was so ready to try in actual competition. A couple weeks later I got my wish with the next races back at the St. Croix Speedway hosted by the Shadow Valley Drifters. I did some further tweaking on my race bikes with the addition of some better rubber pegs (Bates, the perennial flat track favorite) for the TT500 and a set of flat track bend handle bars for the KTM.

The races were a Saturday night/Sunday morning scheduled event. Saturday afternoon I got there and found the track looking pretty good. It was much smoother than the previous time. All the input given the track prep crew paid off. I went through the usual routine getting settled in the pits, the bikes prepped, and geared up. Maybe it was sleep deprivation or just familiarity, but I feel much calmer now on arrival and as I settle into my trackside routine.

Practice went well. The track was a little slippery with a fine layer of dust over much of the track. Both bikes felt good and my newly learned skills seemed to help, but there was so much to remember. I tried to focus on a couple of key points, with the hope of making them second nature.

The Open B heat race was first with only two of us, myself and the guy ahead of me in the points, #93. He has a fine late model KTM 450, which is well set up. They do combine us with the only 250/450A class rider entered. #93 gets a nice holeshot and just motors away from me. I was amazed at how quickly he opens up ground on me. I stay within a 1/4 lap of him, but it isn’t much of a contest. I follow the 250/450A guy for a lap and actually get around him, out driving him into a corner. The other positive note is that I am driving way harder out of the corners. My corner entry isn’t great, but my exits are getting way better. I can drift the exit if needed and feel very in control. It’s weird sliding and not getting that oh crap feeling.

The Vintage Single heat follows. It’s my two Flying Dutchmen MC friends, Adam, Ryan, and me. Adam is on a nice Honda XR500 and Ryan has a TT500 like mine. I lose the holeshot again but hang near enough to feel good for most of the race. The TT is harder and easier to ride. It’s got a lower center of gravity than the KTM, but the suspension is tortured by me and what I want the bike to do. I chase them for the few laps, but a couple bobbles near the end mean I’m a distant third.

The Open B main was a carbon copy of the heat. #93 leaps out in front I follow both guys for a bit and then pass the 250/450A guy. I do have a couple decent saves as I try running higher on the track to keep my speed up and run wide out of corner 2. A couple times coming what felt pretty close to the track wall. Despite that, I feel very composed and in control. Not sure about my lap times, but the pucker factor is greatly reduced. The Vintage Single main, like Open B, was essentially a carbon copy of the heat. The Dutchmen get the jump on me; I follow, but actually stay closer than I did in the heat.

The next morning I asked Andrew, lead instructor from the class, about finding more traction on the launch. I’d used the tip given me by another rider to check tire pressure before and after a race. If it increases less than 3 psi you’re good. With my current tire pressure I only increased about 2 psi so that wasn’t likely the case. Instead, he suggested a better launch technique. In essence it’s using the rear brake as traction control on the launch. I was doing the opposite, with my foot on the left peg ready to hit the next gear. I rolled out to a quiet area of the pits and practiced launching that way few times. It seemed easy enough,

Crazy, stupid fun.
Crazy, stupid fun.

what could go wrong?

Open B heat was up first again. Today there was five of us. #93 from yesterday, a guy on a 450 Yamaha, a guy on a HD XG750 Street, and the lone guy from 250/450A. The HD was a nice looking ride, but isn’t the new XG750R it’s actually a 750 Street that had been converted for racing. So with my new launch technique ready I rolled to the line. I took a slightly outside starting position and figured I’d just shoot straight toward the apex. I bring the rpms up and the light goes green and… I launch off the line and suddenly find myself in the lead! I actually stay there until turn 3 when the both #93 and 450 Yamaha guy accelerate deeper into the corner. The rest of the race is pretty much a blur. I’m so thrilled to actually get a holeshot that the rest of the race is irrelevant. I stay ahead of the HD and 250/450A guy and take a third.

The Vintage Single heat were the same riders as the previous day, Adam, Ryan, and I. All goes well, but not quite as nice as the Open B. I don’t get the holeshot, but I stay right in the mix into the first corner. I follow the other two for the remainder of the race. I close in on second place a couple times when he drifts wide, but I do the same and lose ground near the end. I also catch my foot on a decent ripple in the track and tweak my ankle. It’s sore but not terribly injured.

By the time the Open B race comes around the track is beautiful. There is nice level of moisture, and a lovely blue groove developing. The blue groove is the area on the track that becomes covered with the rubber scrubbed off the tires during racing. It has the best traction and is typically the fastest line on the track.

We pick up a sixth rider for the race. He’s a fast guy from Oregon who was at Oshkosh for the EAA airshow. His company had sent him out in a U-Haul, so he threw his bike in to come out racing. He’s run the heat with another class, but dropped to Open B to have more people to race with. The start goes well, but while I don’t get the holeshot, I stay right in the mix. Yamaha guy is first off the line and I follow. It takes Oregon and #93 a lap to get around me. I fall in line behind them and try to stay close. Oregon is really quick and the other two hold their own. I do everything to keep them in sight, but a couple mistakes and I’m way back of them at the checkered, but still eke out a 4th place ahead of the HD and 250/450A guy.

The Vintage Single main is pretty much like the heat. The start is a chaotic wheelie-fest with us all launching about the same time and aiming for the same spot. Ryan drifts into his brother Adam, but I stay clear. We fall into single file and get down to racing around the track. Adam is on fire today and pulls away from Ryan and I. I try to give Ryan some pressure, but he stays out in front of me and I never really give him a serious run.

I end the weekend with a great feeling of control. The big pucker is gone and now I’m starting to really learn how to ride. I can’t describe the joy of feeling that level of control. I’m no expert, in fact the more I learn the more I realize I’m a giant rookie.

The next race is back at the Norsemen MC TT track west of Cambridge. It had been another one-month gap between races. My previous time at the track had not been stellar. I had the oil “incident” losing my drain plug on the track and almost destroyed my shocks absorbers on the jump. I figured I couldn’t do worse this time.

The morning of the event brought lovely weather bright blue skies and steady wind out of the south. The track was in pretty good shape. Last time here the track crew had struggled to get the course smoothed out. Their efforts had paid off this time with a nicely groomed surface. Practice went well with no big surprises except I felt rusty after a month off the bike.

The Open B heat was up first. Our race was combined with the 250/450A race. This added to the fun since there was a total of 9 of us on the track together. The start went okay, but I didn’t get the jump on anyone and the tracks surface had started to loosen up. A fine layer of dust made finding traction tricky. The TT course is pretty straight forward, but I just don’t have a good feel for it. The second corner is especially tough. Too much speed going into it pushes you way out into the grass on the exit; don’t ask how I know. I got past a couple riders in 250/450A, but remain in last place for my class.

The Vintage Single heat was the same three riders from St. Croix Speedway, Adam, Ryan, and I plus three riders from the 50+ class. The start goes poorly. My bike coughs at the start and lose valuable ground right off the start. I motor around the track, but fail to make up any ground. On the bright side the bike holds together and I don’t break anything despite nailing the jump with authority.

The bright sun and wind continues to dry the track so by the time of the Open B race it’s getting pretty slick in places. I get a decent start off the line and hang in the main pack for a lap. As the front pack starts to pull away from me I try grabbing another gear heading down the front straight. It works I start to make up ground as we head for the first corner. Then I realize that all newfound speed needs to be shed to get through corner one. I figure I start wide and cut in across towards the apex. Nope. The fine dust gives me my first two-wheel drift as I run wide. Discretion being the better part of valor I figure it’s better to stand up and run straight off the track than slide broadside into the rhubarb, but my little side trip off the track costs me a lot of time. I motor around the track finishing a distant 5th.

The Vintage Single race goes much better. I get a good start and stay with the main pack for the first couple turns. I stay ahead of a couple guys in 50+, but my classmates in Vintage Single have a decent lead on me. Another rider in the 50+ pulls the same wide off corner one I did. In the end I don’t pull any amazing sort of shenanigans for last lap pass, but manage to stay upright and survive the race earning more points toward the season end awards.

As I approach the end of the season I’m amazed at what I’ve learned in such a short period of time. I have done many things I wouldn’t have imagined the year prior. I’m actually in the points hunt, but most importantly I had an absolute blast. Crazy, stupid fun.

The next and final installment of this series has me in the final three races of season. How will it end?

MMM

1 Comment

  1. Lookin’ good out there, Victor. It takes a lot of balls to take on something like speedway at any age after 27. Once you’ve gone slidin’, you’ll never go back to traction, though. It took me about 3 years of teaching the MSF classes to be able to convincingly pretend that I believe in traction and tire grip. I’m still not sure I like it much.

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