AFM Round 3, Thunderhill Raceway Park, May 26 & 27, 2018

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When you wake up at 2am Saturday morning with rain tapping your trailer roof repeatedly, you tend to feel a little bit disoriented. Wait:- this is California in May and I’m hearing rain? So much for the greatest job in the world – being a weather forecaster with 100 percent certainty of ambiguity…….

As the morning light unfolded a dismal grey dawn, the rain was not interested in stopping. Sullen faces and dripping canopies enhanced with the random torrential splash as a brush ejected a sodden belly of water from a drooping tent roof. Was it time for coffee and bench racing? AFM has seen an entire race weekend cancelled with rain on several occasions!

From an entirely selfish perspective, I couldn’t care less. I didn’t need to be on track until the afternoon anyway to get 20 minutes on Greg’s bike and get my eye calibrated. The question on everyone’s mind was “When is this #$%^&&” going to stop?!?!

For the first time since 2000, I had a volunteer pit crew:- Jorge and his son Adam. I have done a lot of 1-1 coaching with Jorge and once Adam heals from his high side at Turn 6 at Thunderhill, he will get some 1-1 instruction as well. They were both extremely eager to be part of a race event and I wasn’t going to turn down the help at all……..

As predicted, the noon to 1pm hour saw a dry track and then the sun decided to suddenly blast the track dry. A slew of riders flew into registration to get their half day tech sheets and right after lunch you could feel an energy change in the paddock with riders and helpers scurrying around making everything ready for track time.

I fueled Greg’s bike and the crew got the tire warmers on and set the alarm at 30 minutes so hot pressures could be set based on current track temps. The track was warming up fast with not much wind and clear skies with a relentless sun (my head felt like a piece of bacon frying away in a pan at 300F).

My first session was as normal a no brakes drill to get my eye calibrated to corner entry speed and turn in points (that didn’t take too long). Getting used to the new patches in key areas (T3, 6, 8, 10, 11 & 14) needed some serious conscious control to stop my eyes going right to them verses looking at and then beyond apexes. The 20 minutes was gone in a heart beat and lap times for that session did not matter to me at all. What did matter was getting a good pace and maintaining everything I had been working on to improve my riding in Round 1 & 2.

By the time qualifying came around on Saturday afternoon for all the Formula classes, the track was completely dry and had jumped from 55F to 110F. Choices on hot pressures were therefore critical so I sat back and did some contemplation. With 10 minutes to go before qualifying, I asked Adam to set the front and rear at 33.5psi and leave it there. He fired up the bike and I got dressed.

I knew that I’d have the upper hand on qualifying so the plan was to replicate the same methodology as I planned at Button Willow. Mark Elrod asked for a tow and I was happy to help him get back to pace after a hiatus off the track due to a growing family. The 8 year old soccer game was bunched at the pit out area, so I sat back with Mark and waited. I watched all the bikes leave and waited until the bulk of the bikes were past turn 5 and then set out with Mark in tow. Lap one was calibration, lap two was pace and lap three was maximize corner speed.

Lap 1? Perfect. Lap 2? Perfect until I caught Valentine in Turn 10 and with her running a 600 verses a 450 I was balked at T10, 14 and 15 so the lap time went away. Not to worry, I had one more lap to go and clear track ahead so I brought my breathing rate down, concentrated on being prepared for the next corner once the apex was passed and tried to be 100% relaxed. The third lap was a 1.58:9 that was on the day, good enough for pole. Back to back Formula 4 pole position was a very good feeling indeed. I was really starting to master Greg’s 450 triple.

Saturday: Race 2 – Formula 40 Lightweight

From the hole shot the goal was to rip out fast times for the first 3 laps in order to create a gap that gave me some breathing room. World famous Mike Canfield was again on the wall giving me signals about gaps and by lap three he was sat on the far hot pit wall with a dismissive wave of the hand. As I had some room to work with, I tried to then settle into some really consistent laps even though we were racing with a wave of 300’s and ladies Formula AFemme. That focus brought me a new track record for the 450 class of a 1:58.1 with the personal goal being set of a 1:57.9. So close……….

After the checkered flag and the win by over 10 seconds, Jorge and Adam had to give me some teasing about being so close to a 1.57 and that didn’t stop for a while lol.

Sunday morning practice:

A brisk dawn brought the forceful wind from the North. It usually blows a fairly steady 20-30mph directly South and creates havoc in the pits with canopies and also creates an extremely difficult environment on track. The flip side is the silver lining of leveraging that wind to your advantage during a race and fortunately, there are flags everywhere at this facility!

I fired up my Superstock steed that I had been racing for the last 4 years that had won me so many championships. As lap three started I could smell oil, so I checked my feet, looked at the bike and brought it into the pit. The belly pan had a small amount of oil in it with none on the rear tire at all, so I had been fortunate with my olfactory awareness in not putting oil on the track and worse, crashing or causing my fellow competitors to crash.

Having a backup bike supplied by Will at M Works was the godsend, so myself, Jorge and Adam set about changing everything (yes, everything) over the donor bike. The list was VERY long and wasn’t a 5 minute job. We started after the riders meeting prior to race 1 getting underway, and I had until race 5 when I needed to get ready for race 6:- 450 Superbike. We had made a huge amount of progress with Jorge and Adam coping well with the deadlines and tasks that needed to be done. As race 5 went out for their warm up lap I had to switch to race mode, get dressed and then center and focus.

Race 6: 450 Superbike:

The plan was no different than in Formula 40 from Saturday. Get away and crank out a lead. Mike Canfield was not available or he figured it would be a snooze fest again so he found better things to do!

I did manage another hole shot and put my head down right away to get through the first lap unchallenged. I managed to do that and again set about staying at a pace that was easy to sustain while remaining ever diligent. The wind was brutal in T1, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 14/15 so working out what the flags were doing every lap kept me very focused.

The win was a great relief as no information from the pit wall leaves you wondering where you are……. It turned out it was 14 seconds, so I did not need to be quite so focused!

Race 9: Formula 4

This was going to be by my reckoning based on Button Willow and the riders who were gridding up again, the toughest race of the day for me. A poor start gave Ian Smith the lead, so I waited until Turn 9 to pass him and yet again, put my head down and got with the program.

With 2 practices and two races on the rear tire I thought it would be fine. I had forgotten due to the rushed bike build that the front tire had the entire previous weekend on it plus the track time on Saturday……

By lap 3 the front was washing out everywhere and then trying to save it removed traction from the rear tire. In taking a few moments to zen out with 3 laps left I figured I would do the best I could with the grip I had left, so I set about sensible corner entry speeds and decreased lean angles for earlier throttle on opportunities. I knew Ian Smith would smell blood in the water and he would be coming like a freight train but given what I had, there was only one thing left to do. Finish and let’s see who was the first to get the checkered flag.

I took the win by .08 of a second.

Race 11: 450 Superstock

The bike was finished by lunch, running and showed no issues at all. I had no chance to take it out on track so I put a new rear tire in and did not change the front as it had one race on it from Button Willow.

Jorge and Adam were really curious as to what I would do. “I don’t know this bike, I have never ridden it, I have no idea how the brakes are and I don’t have the right geometry or settings so I will wait for 3 laps to learn the bike and make a push for the lead.”

There was no doubt that this going to be the most exciting 450 race of the day especially with Ian almost beating me in the Formula 4 race.

One of our greatest gifts as a human is adaption. Ian Smith got the hole shot so for 3 laps I sat behind him while assessing my “new” bike and what it would do well and would not. For the most part, it rode solidly BUT the Dion Device required the brake lever to be too close to the bar so I could not get the braking force I needed as it would come to the bar.

Would that stop me competing for the win?

There was a wave of 300cc and another wave of 250cc bikes, so traffic was going to be the clincher in the chess game between Ian and I. I took the lead with 3 laps to go in Turn 14 and he drafted past me into Turn 1 so that wasn’t going to work as his 2016 ZX6R/450 was much faster than my R6/450.

On the penultimate lap there were a few random bikes to pass but then a challenge faced us both. As we came to the top of turn 9, there was a pair of bikes to pass so I went for the inside and Ian for the outside. As we left Turn 9 we could see four 300cc bikes in a group and Ian had the lead, so it was going to be a case of who made it through the group first. Ian was balked in Turn 11 and I went for the outside and then shot between them.

For the last lap I was determined to lead to Turn 6 as I was for the most part stronger in the second half of the track even though my bike was certainly slower. I managed that goal so it was down to the run from Turn 11 to the exit drive from Turn 14/15 complex.

I took the checkered flag with a gap of .2 of a second to get the fourth win of the day.

I want to thank Jorge and Adam for jumping in at the deep end and putting the gloves on and getting to work – even if mistakes were made along the way (that’s all part of being a team that learns to work together). I would also like to thank all the 450 riders for bringing a strong field and producing excellent racing for spectators to watch.

It was an epic weekend and I choose that word very carefully.

Rain, cold, sun, wind, heat, massive temperature swings, a new crew and getting on track to compete while overcoming a leaking engine for a full bike swap so I could make the Superstock race. This is why we compete, why we support each other and why we race. This is what makes us family to one another.

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2018-06-21T17:26:43+00:00

About the Author:

Journalist, published author, 1-1 coach and mentor, video presenter

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