Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Let's Go Motorcycle Racing!

Suzuki 118cc. B100P

I’ve never been much of a spectator. If I go to some sort of event or another, I usually end up returning a few weeks later as a competitor, or else walking away and never returning. That’s what got me into handgun competition, and that’s what also got me into motorcycle racing.

Not far from where I live, but many years ago, they used to put on regularly scheduled motorcycle races, called “scrambles”. This was many years before motocross racing appeared in North America.

Scrambles racing was on a closed circuit dirt track, corners of varying radius and banking, turning both left and right. A jump or so was also a common feature. The start was usually done with all five or ten riders in the heat lined up side by side, motors running. The flagman would drop the green flag, and off everyone would go, trying to be into the first turn first, which was a big advantage. There were usually five or ten laps to a heat, and if you finished high enough in the preliminary heats, you would advance to either semi-finals or to the final heat.

I made the mistake of going to the track one Spring day to see what it was all about. The next day at work I was talking to another engineer at the “Massively Big Airplane Company”, and he casually remarked that he had a nearly new Suzuki 120 that the clutch had broken, and he was willing to sell it cheap.

If I’d been smart, I would have ignored him and walked away, but that’s just not my nature, not then, and not now, either! On Wednesday he loaded it into his car and delivered it to me. (He must have chuckled all the way home!) That night I pulled the clutch case off and removed the clutch. The clutch basket had broken loose from the primary gear, and would have to be replaced. Everything else looked OK.

The next night after work I stopped off at the local “Suzuki Bandits” and bought a new clutch basket. While I was there I picked up a pair of knobby tires, 3.25x17’s they were! The next night after work I put the clutch together, filled the case with oil, took off the lights and mirror, and put on the tires.

On Saturday I took the new “race bike” to the local gravel pit where people were allowed to ride around on their dirt bikes. There was a short scrambles-like course set up, and I rode round and around until I could slide it through a corner fairly smoothly. “All set to go!”, I figured.

The next morning, bright and early, I loaded up the bike, a few tools, some lace-up boots, and my trusty Bell 500TX helmet and headed up to the track. The track was open for practice, so I laced on the boots and strapped on my helmet, jumped on the bike, and launched my self down the front straight towards the 180 degree turn at the end of the straight.

I set up into the first corner from the right side of the straight, geared down, and laid the bike down to set up the drift into the apex of the corner. Weight a bit forward, left foot on the ground, slide smoothly into the corner, steering with the throttle. Or so I thought!

As a motorcycle-racing novice, I hadn’t paid much attention to the track surface. Where I had practiced the day before was a gravel pit, and there was a lot of traction and loose dirt for the knobbies to dig into. The scrambles track was more like a surface of smoothly polished concrete, with a thin layer of fine dirt on top, almost like a lubricant! Oh yes, I forgot to mention, it was also heavily rutted through the corners.

So I was going WAY too fast to make the corner, but I had established a beautiful slide entering the corner. Unfortunately the laws of physics and coefficient of friction, or lack thereof, all came into play, and I was sliding more or less sideways as I slid into the corner ruts. One basic rule of ruts: Try REALLY hard to go with them, rather than across them!

There are basically two ways to fall off of a motorcycle in a corner, one is MUCH preferred over the other. If you are turning left for example, and the bike falls to the left, usually, you also fall off on the left. You and the bike usually just slide to a stop, you pick your self up, pick up the bike, re-start it, and head off. As long as you don’t hit anything solid, or get run over, it’s no big deal.

The BAD way to fall off is called a “High-Side” and it can be really spectacular. That’s when, if you are turning left, the bikes tires “hook” and the bike comes up and falls to the outside of the corner, launching the rider to sometimes amazing heights.

Getting “A lot of Air” (altitude) is not a good thing. The higher you go, the harder you land! Really hard. And to add insult to injury, your bike often does it’s level best to land on top of you, perhaps trying to punish you for falling off in the first place!

First time on the track, first corner, high-sided into the weeds. Ouch! In those days it took a lot to due much damage to my body, so I picked myself up, and got back on. Down a short straight, then a hard right turn. High-sided out of that one too! At least I was now evenly bruised on both sides of my body! Obviously the reactions I had built into “muscle-memory” weren’t working.

This time I headed out onto the track and found someone to follow who seemed to have some idea of what was going on. After running a number of laps following better riders, I started to get the feel of it, and was getting all the way around the track without falling off! Even at that durable and foolish young age, the high-sides were starting to take a toll on my body.

When we got to the prelim’s, I finished somewhere in the middle of my group, but not high enough to make the finals. All things considered, I think I did OK, considering.

Sure did hurt Monday morning, however! I could barely walk……


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