By Victor Wanchena
In part one I took my first steps into flat track racing. I tried a couple races, got hooked, and bought a vintage bike. I was settling in for a summer of flat tracking.
Following the last race I needed to do some normal bike maintenance on my new to me flat tracker Yamaha TT500 (mild foreshadowing). When I removed the bottom oil screen for cleaning I found a large chunk of metal. Crap. It was obviously a guide or stop for something. The break was clean and there wasn’t anything else in there other than 40-year old sludge. I scurried off to the parts book and identified the part as a guide for the kickstart lever. The kicker worked fine so I chalked it up to luck that I found it and it hadn’t wrecked anything (more mild foreshadowing).
The next race was the Norsemen MC TT held at their club grounds west of Cambridge. I vaguely knew what a TT was. Essentially a TT or Tourist Trophy is a flat track race that adds a right hand corner or two and a usually a small jump. It sounded like fun and I was antsy for another race.
I arrived early not knowing what to expect. I immediately went to survey the track. It looked interesting. There was way more elevation change than I expected. From the lowest point to the highest spot on the track was a difference of 10+ feet. Not exactly a roller coaster, but certainly not flat. The start finish line was also a jump. It wasn’t much of a jump really just a sharp crest of a hill that would let you catch air at speed. The track also looked really lumpy, but the set up crew was out working it over.
A friend arrives and after getting his bike out, he comes over to inspect the TT 500. He asks if I’d investigated the motor internals any further and I explain I’d only welded up the exhaust and done a oil change with a cleaning of the oil screens. He laughs and asks if I found a half moon piece of metal. Dumbfounded I say yes thinking I have to check the garage for hidden cameras. He just smiles and explains it is some sort guide/stop for the kickstarter. They all break and it was probably down there for years.
At 10 AM the track officials make a call out for anyone with a truck to head out on the track to help pack it. Huh? That isn’t a good sign as practice was only 30 minutes away. At 1030 they call a riders meeting. The briefing was fairly short and the news was track prep wasn’t going well, but they hoped to get practice going shortly and planned to start racing by noon.
Noon came and went as the track work continued. Finally around 1 they let us out for practice. Yikes! The track was a lot of work to get around. The surface was pretty rough and rutted making it really tough in the corners. The back corner coming out of the right-hander had a wicked loose sandy spot that was especially treacherous. I compare notes with a couple veteran riders. Both unanimously agree it is the roughest track they’d ever seen. Really I ask? Yes, they both think the track is so beat up that the best parts are like the worst parts of a normal track. This makes me nervous. What did I get myself into?
My heats are race numbers 15 and 23. So I settle in for the long wait. The Vintage Single is my first heat. Only four of us racing and I’m the only one without the last name Schmidt. We get off the line and I have a fairly poor start. All three other bikes get by me. I watch the 3rd place rider stretch his lead out for the first two laps, but I start reeling him in by the end of the second lap. On lap three I go wide over the jump and brake a little later and slide past him. Now I start riding like my life depends on it. I know he’s close, but hold him off for the remaining laps. I finish third happy to not have crashed,
I return to the pits and guys parked near me start waving at me. I kill the bike, coast to a stop and start to dismount. Looking down I see an Exxon Valdez amount of oil on the bike’s left side. Crap, crap, and crap! I throw it on the stand quickly and try to determine the cause. It initially looks like it’s coming from the top of the motor. Two of the guys from the vintage class come over and help with the tear down. We start checking bolts, covers lines. Everything seems good. I start degreasing the rear brake (the only brake on the bike) while the others continue probing.
My next race comes up quick and we shut down repair operations while I run my Open B Heat. I hop on my KTM 520 and get to the line just in time. Two guys had dropped from the class so we were down to three riders. I actually get a decent start and am in second going into the first turn. I follow the lead guy for a bit, but the young man is quick and doesn’t make mistakes. I do make mistakes and he steadily pulls away.
Back to the pits I immediately tear back into the TT. The gathered vintage bike council decides we should replenish the oil supply and start it up to watch for the leak. We put a quart of oil in and I start the bike up and everything is fine for a few moments. I keep the revs up and watch in the oil tank. I soon see oil spraying back in. All is good.
Suddenly I get the shut it down sign as oil begins pouring out the bottom of the motor. No drain plug! The drain plug, which I had been careful to not over-tighten, had jettisoned during the race. The motor being a dry sump had not instantly dumped all its oil. The scavenge pump had been returning enough oil to keep some oil in it. A spare drain plug is located in another rider’s parts stash. Wow, crisis mostly averted. I fill up the bike now with whatever oil I could find including some off brand diesel oil putting 2.3 quarts into a 2.5-quart bike.
So now I set about hosing the brake disc down with brake cleaner in hopes of salvaging some stopping power. While doing this and generally wiping down the bike I discover oh crap number two. The rough course and the heavy landings off the jump have bent the shock collars. I remove the shocks and find the issue isn’t really the shock collars, but the springs.
The shocks were the trackside repair from the last race. I didn’t inspect them very carefully as beggars can’t be choosers. The springs are not the OEM ones for the shocks. They are a bit bigger than they should be. This allowed the springs to move around on the collar, which let the spring bend them. Crap. The suggestion is to reinstall the collar correctly and tape them to the spring to prevent them from moving much. We proceed to duct tape both shocks. Maybe it will work?
I get the TT pretty much buttoned up in time to get to the Open B race. This one doesn’t go as well as the first. Same two riders, but this time they both get me off the line. I follow, but never get close enough for a pass. A couple good bobbles put me in a distant third. It was still a decent ride and I’m getting faster on the KTM. I also find that the right hand corner is so rough it needs to be ridden MX style. I instantly find more speed through it. The sketchy sand spot is now much worse and it gets dubbed the Viper Pit.
The last race of the day finally comes around. Will the TT hold together? Will an oily rear brake burst into flames? The three Schmidt’s and I line up. My start isn’t very good with two guys way out-accelerating me into the first corner. The third guy does a nice dive in front of me and cuts me off into the first corner. Almost the identical move to what I did in the heat race. I follow for a couple laps staying fairly close. I make a couple mistakes and he opens up his lead. I do notice he’s struggling in the right-hander. On the fourth lap I catch him going in the right-hander running wide in full MX mode. I get lucky and out drive him to the next corner (the Viper Pit) and hang on to third. The bike and I hold together for the rest of the race and snag a podium finish.
I fully de-greased and inspected the TT that evening. It’s none the worse for wear, even with the minimal oil and the taped up shocks. I am starting to understand why the TT500 got such a legendary reputation.
The next races were held at the St. Croix Speedway near Centuria, WI. It’s a 1/4 mile oval with big banking. It’s normally a car track, but the promoter, Shadow Valley Drifters, had worked out a deal to try a few races here.
The Saturday race was scheduled for early evening. It was also that nice hot afternoon with temperatures in the low 90’s at the track. As my speed had increased I decided to try wearing race leathers instead of MX gear. I found a decent set on Craigslist and learned the joys of race leathers and 90-degree days. Learning to walk around with your leathers half on is an art form I have not yet mastered.
The track was decent, but a little rough. The track staff were learning what the bikes like for a surface vs. cars so there was some back and forth and adjustment on water, grading, and such. I am fascinated by the work of track prep. It seems more an art than a science.
The Vintage heat was the first up. I had one of my average starts. I really need to spend some time practicing starts. Most everyone beat me off the line and then I run wide on a couple corners. I was back of the main pack a hundred yards or so for the first couple laps. Then I started to get my head screwed on better and found my grove on the track. I caught the main pack and was in the hunt right up to the checkered. I took last but was happy I made up some ground.
The Open B race was up next, but I had a single race break to get back to the pits and changes bikes. The B race went okay. I got an okay start and hung with the main pack for a while. I was able to keep a guy on an 883 Sporty at bay. I think the Sporty was a real handful and he was struggling to keep it hooked up. My KTM was feeling pretty good, but I was losing focus a bit in the corners by focusing too much on the guy ahead instead of looking through the corner. I ran wide in the loose a couple times and lost some ground on the lead pack. I took 5th at the checkered and like the Vintage Heat I was gaining on the pack enough that a couple more laps would have been good for me.
The Vintage Single Main was a bit of a crap show. I rolled up to the line ready to give it hell. The bike was in good shape and I was feeling good. I raise my RPMs a bit and sat with the clutch feathered ready to launch. The light goes green, everybody takes off. Everybody except me. Somehow I had bumped the bike in neutral at the line. I find a gear, any gear, and set off with a ¼ lap handicap.
I was running like hell trying to make up a little ground, but it felt pretty hopeless. As I blast down the back straight I see a rider go down. I swing wide and avoid him and the bike. I do the cool down lap and as I approach turn three I see the rider still down. The ambulance staged at the track is now rolling out to the rider. I stop on the top of the track and head down to the rider.
The EMT’s and a couple other riders are now there. The rider is Mike Schmidt, the gentlemen who helped me with repairs at the last race. He’s out cold and only slowly regains consciousness. The EMT’s struggle removing his gear, so I help them with his chest protector and neck brace. They assess and want to transport him, but he doesn’t want it. We get him back to the pits to get his wits about him before he decides to get checked out in the ER.
I rush back to switch bikes for Open B race. The B race goes well enough, but I’m a little off my game. I stay ahead of Sportster guy, but that’s about it.
I head home and try to get some sleep. The following morning is a TT at the same track. The practice is scheduled for 9 and racing for 11. Morning comes fast enough and was dramatically cooler. When I arrive it is still spitting rain from the night before and the track looks really muddy. We settle in waiting for the track to drain enough for assessment.
After a couple hours, they call a riders meeting. Do we want to ride? Everyone says yes. Track has dried out for the most part, but isn’t perfect. We are getting a late enough start that we need to shorten practice and cut the lap counts to finish before the car race that evening.
I draw the lucky card again and only get a one-race gap between the Vintage and B races. This time the B race is up first. The combination of the heat the day before, the rain that morning, and the late start have the entry numbers way down. So much so, that my races are combined with other classes. The B race has me racing with the 250/450 A class guys. They’re quick, but this TT course is pretty technical.
The course is really a big U shape. You take off normal, go through turns 1 and 2, down the back straight, then turn 180˚ and head back through the infield section of the back straight. A couple small jumps are throw in, a bit of a chicane, and then another 180˚ back onto the front straight. The B heat is interesting. Most everyone is faster off the start but I hang at the back of the pack for the first few turns. The first jump really throws the bike in the air and the hard right hand corner is slippery and tight. I finish last, but don’t get spanked.
I hustle back and grab the TT for the Vintage Single Heat. This one is really funny. Just two Open A riders and one lonely Vintage Single, me. Since I’m a really a race of one I don’t try to kill myself and use it more as practice session. The A class guys walk away from me off the line and I just follow as best I can. But, at the first corner all that horsepower gets them into trouble. Both guys run hot into the loose 180˚ turn and I make up a lot of ground. The TT actually handled well in that corner. It stuck to the ground and cornered beautifully. They blast away from me on the straights and I about gave myself a spinal fracture on the jump, but am happy with the TT. I hang within a 1/4 lap of A Class guys for the 3-lap heat.
By the time the B Main comes around the track has gotten pretty good. Turns 1 and 2 are smooth. The infield section is loose, but very rideable. I get a better start and am actually in position for a pass when I run hot into the first 180˚ and have a slow low side. Crap. I pick the bike up and get going again, but I’m 1/4 lap down. I chase as best I can for the next 3 laps and actually catch the back of the pack, but still finish 3rd (out of 3, AKA last) in the B class.
I rush back and grab the TT for the Vintage Single Main. Fresh off my low side I’m determined to make a better showing this time, but am realistic that my chances are not good against Open A riders. The start is the same, but I stay with them in the tight sections. They pull away every time on the straights and turns 1 and 2 but I regain ground in the infield.
On the 3rd lap one of the Open A guys runs real wide on the first 180˚ and is in the rhubarb. I get past him and never see him again for the remainder. I take 2nd over all, but technically a 1st in my solo class.
The riding is coming more natural and I’m feeling more confident, but I have so much to learn. I’m still not comfortable drifting. I can start the drifts now pretty consistently, but as soon as I get sliding my sundress billows up in my face and I shutoff the throttle. A month further into the season and the hook is set even deeper.
Next up, I go to school…