By Victor Wanchena
The final installment of my rookie flat track racing adventure finds me heading into the last four races of the season. At this point in the season I’ve gone from a complete rookie to slightly seasoned rookie. I’m learning the skills needed to race, but more importantly I am having a blast.
I also find myself in new territory being in contention for year-end awards in two classes, Open B and Vintage Single. It’s more due to me making all the races than winning them, but heading into the last races I have a shot at a respectable rookie finishes in Open B and Vintage Single.
The first event is back at the Norsemen Clubgrounds for another TT. Last time there, I fought a rough track and several mechanical problems. The day was warm and dry with a strong wind out of the south. The track was in much better shape this time. They had worked it over and it yielded a much smoother surface. The wind was going to be the big variable. The hot dry wind would make keeping the track watered properly a challenge.
The practice sessions went off without a hitch, but I came in a little confused. The speed I had gained on the oval seemed to evaporate on the TT course. The first corner begged for a fast entry, but that set you up poorly for the next corner, which fed you into an even tighter radius left before the short straight. Once off the good line I would ping-pong corner to corner losing precious speed. The back corners seemed easier, but I never felt like I had them figured. I often drifted wide on the final corner losing traction while the competition motored away.
The first heat was the Open B. In a word it was “crap.” I started poorly, spinning hard off the line, and never gave anyone any pressure. The couple riders I was ahead of got around me and I never made up the ground.
The Vintage Single heat wasn’t any better. It was an average sized class with 5 riders total, but they made it more interesting mixing us with the 50+ age grouper class. Don’t let their age fool you, these are wily old veterans. I got a decent start and hung with the main pack a lap, but they started pulling away after that. I ran wide on a couple corners and finished at the back of the pack.
The races were pretty much carbon copies of the heats, but with a little extra drama. In the Open B race I was pushing hard to keep the lead pack in sight. I picked an outside line on the back straight trying to apex the first turn later and that meant turning in late.
My plan worked perfectly. I ran hard down the straight, landed off the jump, and tipped in from the outside edge of the groove… right into a two-wheel drift! The fine powdery dust on the outside of the track was icy slick. I slid way outside, and was heading for the grass. A better rider would have leaned farther and slid deeper. I am not that rider, instead opting to stand the bike up and head straight into the grass. I kept the bike up, got an up close view of some trees, and headed back onto the track last place firmly in my grasp.
The Vintage Single race was more of the same. I did get a better start and did stay within sight of the lead riders, but was a distant third. The good news out of the race was I didn’t give up much ground in the points race in either class.
A short two weeks later I headed south to a two-day race at the Flying Dutchmen Clubgrounds. The weather was cloudy and damp on the drive down and the recent rains made me nervous about track conditions. Like most worries, it was needless fretting. I arrived to find the track in superb shape. A lot of hard work by the Dutchmen had fixed the recent storm damage to the track and the wet weather early in the day kept the track surface beautiful throughout the day.
At a 1/3 mile it’s the longest of the short tracks we raced this year. I actually found the length easier to deal with even with the increased speed. The extra length on the straights gave me time to think about my line, entry speed, and body position.
Practice went really well. I was amazed at how much traction was there. I felt like I was pushing the bike hard, but there was more there than I was using. The first heat was the Open B. The class was split into two heats with me in Heat 1. I got a good start and stayed with the lead pack for much of the race only losing ground toward the end taking a respectable third. The Vintage Single heat was super similar to the Open B. Decent start and motored to a mid pack finish.
The Open B main didn’t go as well. I hit the start hard, but spun too much right off the line. The track is in great shape and I’m pushing hard, but to no avail. I try to catch the main pack, but pull farther and farther away. All that good grip meant they’re even faster. I don’t get lapped and do manage to stay ahead of one other rider, but finish a distant 6th.
The Vintage Single race was another disaster. It’s a full field so I line up way to the inside. My plan is go hard for the first corner trying to get a wheel inside before anyone else could get there. Intently staring at the start light I let the TT surge ahead… about ¼ second before it turns green. I drag a couple other riders with me on my first jumped start, dang it! I get lined back up, now on the penalty line, starting behind everyone else. The start goes better the second time and I actually motor ahead of one rider out of turn two, but never give anyone else any pressure. The only rider I passed eventually dropped out with bike problems so I end up with a last place finish.
The following day dawns with more good weather and the track in fine shape. I am determined to do better this time. Practice was another carbon copy of the day before. I’m feeling even more confident and try pushing a little harder. In retrospect I was unprepared for the good traction the previous day and caught myself rolling off the throttle way too soon. In fact, a few times I actually rolled back on the gas for a moment.
Both heats go off without much drama. The Open B heat is first. I try to focus on smooth and trusting the bike. The traction continues to be extremely good so the mantra I repeat in my head it is, “Trust the bike, trust the bike, trust the bike”. I finish mid pack in Open B, but the reality is the fast guys are really fast. Vintage Single is the same. I find myself giving up a half wheel on the starts though, still gun shy after my jumped start.
During the intermission between the Heats and the Mains the Dutchmen ran a couple of exhibitions races, one being the Century Race. To qualify for the Century
the rider and bike have to equal a combined 100 years in age. So, 20-year old would have to ride an 80 year bike i.e. a 1936 or older bike. Being more “advanced” in years meant I could ride anything 1960 or older. A friend offered me his 1942 Harley-Davidson WL. The WL was the flathead 750cc v-twin that was a mainstay during World War II. It makes an interesting flat tracker. Foot clutch, hand shift, and a hard tail, and it was described to me as not being “rider friendly”. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity I jumped on and fired it up. I rolled onto the track a combined 118 years of experience between me and the bike.
The race was quite the experience. The start is odd given the foot clutch, but I make it off the line without killing the motor. I quickly hustle through the three gears in a weird shuffling process: foot out onto clutch, clutch in, hand on shifter, select gear, dump foot off clutch, and hit the throttle. I learn quickly to get into a high gear and conserve momentum. I settle in behind one of the elder statesman of the Flat Track, #49 Coot Schmidt on a TT 500. I follow him for a few laps until I find myself in a fight with another WL. I relinquish 2nd place after a lap not wanting to completely flog a 74-year old motorcycle that isn’t mine and settle for a respectable 3rd.
The Open B main is my first race after the intermission. It’s a big field with 10 riders. I am lined up close to the inside again. I get a reasonable start, and keep the bike in the pack through the first two corners. I am holding on to 7th and trying to gain ground on the 6th. The laps roll off and I don’t make up much ground on 6th and instead am feeling pressure from 8th place looking for an opening to get past me. I do that up until the 6th lap. I run a little wide coming out of turn four and the rider sneaks past me down the straight. Dang it! I follow for a lap looking for an opening. On the last lap coming down the front straight I see my chance. I run wide and fast into turn one then diving toward the apex. It works! I pass him decisively and finish 7th. May have only been for 7th, but earning back the position felt intoxicatingly good.
Vintage Single race was up quickly there after. I did much better than the day before. No false start this time, but again flinch a little off the line. I end up at the tail of the lead pack, but am getting pressure from another rider. We turn lap after lap, he’d make up ground on the corners and I’d pull away on the straights. We remained this way for the entire race neck and neck, neither able to shake the other. I finish a respectable 5th, but I’m thrilled to have maintained by my spot and not give up any ground.
The final race of the season was a return to the indoor Cedar Lake Arena, where it all started for me. It was a little bitter sweet to know the season was ending, but all good things must come to end.
The arena had the casual air of an event at the twilight of a season. I’m feeling very confident going into the final race and being indoors I know the track stays nice and tacky without needing constant water.
The Open B heat is up first. It’s a decent sized class with 7 riders. The start goes well and I immediately remember how fast everything happens here. The track is only a 1/8th of a mile with short straights, so a lot happens in short amount of time. I’m holding my own mid pack for 3 laps when my over confidence gets me. I’m trying to power hard out of corner four and spin up the rear. I hold on trying to ride it out, but just do a spinning low side. Crap! I’m back up and grab the bike, but I’m 2 laps down before I’m back on the track.
Determined to do better in the Vintage Single heat I focus on my start and hang on. 2nd lap I push hard into turn one. The speed is a bit much for what I’m asking of the bike, and I wash the front end into another low side. Crap, crap, crap! Again it’s two laps before I rejoin the race.
I head into the Open B race wondering what I’m doing wrong. I’m determined to make a better showing of myself this race. I have my typical start and find myself mid-pack. I hold off a couple riders for most of the race but fade the last couple laps and drop back to last place.
The Vintage Single race is to be my last of race of the year. I am determined to finish now without drama. The start actually goes well, I’m holding my own in 3rd going in to the second corner, neck and neck with another rider. As we power out of the corner we both push wide heading for the wall. I have the better line, but the other bike starts to edge past as we hit the straight. I feel like I’m shoving him into the wall and back off letting him slide past. Not the most competitive thing I’ve done, but there was nothing riding on this race. I follow for the next few laps, but never have a chance to pass or even give him much pressure. The race is over in a flash, and with it the season.
As the dust settles from the season I find myself somewhere I never expected, a podium finish for two classes in the season championship points. I finish 2nd overall in Open B and 3rd overall in Vintage Single. The reality of both of those wins is it really came down to making the races more than a commanding presence on the track. To finish first, you must first finish. That said, not bad work for a rookie season.
I also screwed myself with the strong Open B finish. You see the rules clearly state that the top 10% of Open B riders move to A Class for the remainder of their racing career. Yup, I’m now an A Class rider, at least according to the rules I am.
The hook is now deeply set. I have a laundry list of things to attend to in the off-season. The Vintage Single, a 1977 Yamaha TT500, needs some serious attention. The suspension is very weak, the motor leaks oil and smokes a bit, the rear brake is pretty hokey, and the whole thing could use a thorough cleaning. Despite all that, it was a ridiculously fun motorcycle and was actually pretty cheap to run for the year.
The KTM I used for Open B needs a few modifications to make it more competitive namely lowered suspension, a wider rear rim, fresh tires and closer gearing ratios. I did the math. I did the math again, and then I started shopping. The end result was a 2010 Kawasaki KX450F.
The KX is the former back up/ practice bike for a local AMA Pro Racer, and most importantly, is built to compete. All requisite work is done to suspension, wheels, and has all the nice finishing touches to make it work perfectly. And, the cherry on the sundae for me, the motor is heavily massaged to pump up the horsepower. I reviewed the dyno sheets with a flat tracking friend who described the output as “contender level”. So, in reality I screwed myself again, by removing another excuse for a lack luster finish. No more blaming the bike.
For those interested in exploring flat track I suggest the following:
1. Visit District 23 website (http://www.armca.org/) there you will find the rules and event listings, promoter names, and contacts info.
2. Visit any of the promoter webpages and Facebook pages for info. The Shadow Valley Drifters maintain a Facebook page and they organized the class I took this year. There are rumors of them running practice days in conjunction with races at the Cedar Lake Arena this coming spring. (https://www.facebook.com/Shadow-Valley-Drifters-1499790933661641/)
3.If you want to go big time there’s American Supercamp. This is “the” school for flat tracking. https://www.americansupercamp.com
4. If you’re ready to race, join the AMA and District 23 (you need to be a member of both to race though you can buy race day passes if you just want to try it out)
5. Find a bike, or dust off that treasure in your garage. I am happy to share my perspective if you don’t know what to ride.
6. Go racing!
For those would like more details on how and where to get involved, to ask questions, or just to tell me I’m silly for starting flat tracking in my forties email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The final bit of advice I will pass on is the secret to flat track racing given to me by a sneaky fast veteran, “Go fast, turn left.” Seems simple enough.