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Visiting the Crack House

October 18, 2011

“Hey, you know that NESBA has a “Free Introductory Special” don’t you? We could put your bike on the trailer and you could get some free track time.”

So spake a riding buddy who was taking her race bike to a track day in preparation for the October AHRMA vintage races at Barber.

Free track time, I thought. All I have to do is borrow some leathers, tape up my lights and attend a beginner’s track etiquette briefing…then I get two sessions on the racetrack gratis. I’m in!

NESBA stands for New England Sport bike Association, an organization who’s charter is to get everyday street riders on racetracks where they can explore the limits of their riding abilities safely. It’s not about speed; there are neither trophies nor races. NESBA Track Days are an open-air classroom for learning more about piloting a two-wheeled machine.

My friends are experienced road racers who call them selves Cheap and Shameless Vintage Racing and they campaign CB350s in the Novice Production Class. Leathers were borrowed; space on the trailer was made for my overweight ’06 Bonneville and we all headed south to Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, SC.

Post bivouac in a curry-flavored (cheap) motel, we’re on the Kershaw Campus. I’m listening to a safety briefing and am more than intimidated by the young guys on sport bikes who are stretching their tattooed bodies in preparation.

Is this an Iraq mission briefing or a track day at Kershaw?

Peace Pilot: Please don't strafe me...

Myself and my two fellow Free Introductees were to ride in a subset of the Beginner group, led by Eric, a Rider Coach in a yellow jersey. He was astride an R1 Yamaha, my classmates on shiny GSXR du Aniee. Within seconds of rolling onto the track, the instructor and the two juvenile speed freaks were out beyond my visual range. I was clueless. This was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The track had none of the usual cues to help me: no oncoming cars, no double yellow centerlines, no debris-strewn shoulders, no turkeys sauntering across the road, no glass. I was out of my depth. I felt like a Spitfire pilot over the Channel being jumped by German fighters as sport bikes jumped me from both sides. I felt as if I no longer knew how to ride a bike. I endured the 20-minute session. I didn’t come close to the experience I had anticipated.

Doing it wrong: sitting up tall on the way to a picnic.

“Wasn’t it greeeeeeaaaaaatttttt?!” beamed my buddy, Linda, as her helmet popped off like a champagne cork to unleash her bubbling excitement.
“Ah, well…ah…I’m not sure…” I stutter.
“You can blog all about this! It will be greeeeeaaaaat!” she quipped as she passed her bike to team manager, Scott.

I didn’t want to pee in anyone’s Cheerios right then, but I was at a very low point. I felt as if I had just been handed my private pilots license and the keys to the Space Shuttle. I wanted to run and hide: I felt out of my depth.

Dammit! I thought. I know how to ride a fricking bike, I’ve read all the books on apexing, racing lines brake points, hell I even took CornerSpin! But I suck at this. I don’t think I can stand to be out there for my final 20-minute session. How humiliating…

Deep in thought (fear)...

The minutes were ticking down to the next Beginners session, so I had to make up my mind.

To be or not to be: participating…whether tis’ nobler to bow out or ride…

Crossing the paddock, I ran into Eric, the Beginner Rider Coach.

“I saw you out there, and I know you were struggling. Next session, find me at the starting line and we’ll stick together. I’ll speed up only if you do, and I will not leave you until you feel comfortable. You’ll get it.” He smiled warmly, patted me on the back and sprinted off.

I donned my way_too_big_for_me leathers and rolled up next to Eric. He smiled; I smiled. He put it in gear; I put it in gear. He snapped down his visor, I snapped mine down. He then grabbed my shoulder and screamed over the engine noise,

“Relax! Have fun! Just follow me. This is going to be great!”

I stuck to his wheel as he showed me the racing line, his helmet turned backward toward me more often that it was facing forward. I sped up a tad, so he did. We had finished one lap and already I was getting comfortable. Lap two, more speed, he on his R1, me on my Fat Girl Triumph. The line was becoming more familiar.

We kick up the speed another notch. I’m relaxing more, a smile is starting to blossom beneath my helmet.

Yes, yes, I see! I’m thinking.  Ok.. this is good!

Halfway through lap 3 I am ready to jump out of the nest. As if reading my mind, Eric turns around gives me a thumbs up and a huge wave to pass him. He tails me for another lap. I am psyched. I’m no longer losing my place on the course, the line is pretty apparent (how did I not see this before?!) and I get down to the serious business of grinning.

I began to memorize visual cues for each corner. I played with brake and turn in points to grant me a smooth line thru the curves. Man, this was riding. Suddenly, I see the white flag signifying the final lap. Game over. Not for this impatient man…I want more.

NESBA knows what they are doing by offering a “free” intro. The sweat hadn’t dried on my brow yet my Visa could be found pumping digits into the trackside computer. I signed up to become a NESBA member, and paid the remaining $150 for the rest of the track day.

“We have never had anyone who took the freebie not sign up for the rest of the day!” said the NESBA cashier. His back was to the track, and I was facing him. The Expert class was howling around the course making conversation difficult.

“Yeah! It’s the most expensive “free” ride in motorcycling,” he quipped. In the distance, just above his head I saw a very pretty Triumph Sport bike cartwheel through an arc, the pilot flying a few feet in front of it. I had never witnessed a crash in progress before.

(Gulp) “Hey that guy just high sided!” I say a tad too loudly.

“He’s up, he’s OK”, says the money-man turning back to me, “but his bike is no bueno. Oh well, that’s racing!”

Undeterred, I stash my new NESBA card and take to the track. At the close of each 20-minute session, the Rider Coaches meet us in the hot pit for some debriefing. This was an unexpected benefit. The coaches filter through the pack of riders during the sessions watching for potential safety problems as well as making notes about the riders’ individual technique challenges. To be fresh from 20 minutes on the racecourse and to get instant pointers from experienced riders was wonderful. My problems stemmed from not leaning off the bike enough and not looking through the turns enough…hmmm where have I heard this before?

Cheap and Shamelss team troubleshooting an oil leak on Linda's bike

During my 3rd session, I vowed to keep up with my riding buddy, Linda; she aboard her demure 1970 Honda 350 and me riding my ‘06 Triumph Bonneville 800. Battle of the Twins?! She’s riding a grocery getter from 40 years ago, a college student commuter and I’m piloting a modern street machine.

Nooo contest, I thought.

I watched entranced in turn two as her rear tire disappeared into the pack. I never saw her again till the session debrief. I had double the horsepower at my disposal and I still couldn’t catch her!

Holy hot pit, I thought, this shit ain’t easy.

Gettin' it done: Linda makes it look easy.

Up till this point, I had never understood the drive to go racing. Watching my racing friends scrimp and save, crash and tweak, it seemed like a good deal of time, money and traveling were traded for precious little saddle time. I didn’t get it till I did it.

On the track, I became really invested in all aspects of the course’s 14 corners. The opportunity to ride through them continuously, watching my performance improve was addicting. The corners had become bar snacks and good beer.  I couldn’t stop; I wanted more of this drug…crack in the corners. I wanted to keep twisting the throttle to watch it all go by again.

At some point, I was not being passed as much, and I actually was dueling it out with another pilot! HooWee! Afterwards I find out, it’s a young girl…on a Ninja 250…that’s right: me on a big fat 794cc twin dueling with a girl on a 250cc bike. See how this works? It’s not the bike, it’s the rider.

Yes, that is a Ninja 250 about to eat my lunch...

By days end, I had ridden five 20-minute sessions and was exhausted through to my eye sockets. I could barely walk, but the sense of accomplishment had my endocrine system feeling hot-wired to an espresso machine. On the ride home I could not get certain corners out of my mind. I was analyzing, toying with braking deeper, apex-ing later, re-running that time when I locked up the rear brake and almost went off the course (something racers call Going Farming).

My Cheap and Shameless mates had schooled me that after a full day on a race track, I would be able to lie in bed and mentally go thru the whole course. They were right. I never did take a stopwatch to see if my mind was running at my true lap speed, but it didn’t matter. I was hooked. I wanted more.

In between sweet dreams of the perfect corner, I had panic nightmares where I found myself at the podium of a 12 step meeting.

“My name is Arthur, and I’m a Motorcycle Racer”

“Hi Arthur!”

I can forsee a cash stampede coming on and the barn door has already been left open.  First the long term, big items.  A track bike, a way to haul said track bike, leathers to wear while sitting upon track bike when off the trailer.  Oh wait…how to haul it?  A camper…visions of bench racing with riding buddies whilst camped next to the track come to mind…strong ale is involved…oh man…

Let’s not forget the recurring costs: race compound tires, track fees, gas for the bike/trailer hauling vehicle…grrr…I must find a way to get back on a track on the cheap…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. lcluxton9 permalink
    October 18, 2011 6:45 PM

    I don’t think I can smile any bigger! It was like being there all over again…

  2. Jeremy permalink
    October 18, 2011 8:02 PM

    Sounds like a lot of fun. Your conclusion is the only reason I’ve been holding out. Hate to tease myself with something that is financially out of my reach. I look forward to hearing more about it. Good pics too!

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