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Back to School…

November 27, 2011

…to seek an answer: Who am I to Race?

"I'm going to be really hard on you today" (Linda Doll Cluxton Photo)

“You’re not going to have much time to study this,” says Andrew Cowell in his Australian twang. He’s shaking the course handouts in the air and sneering at us over his reading glasses, “so get it right, get it memorized while we’re going over it. I’m going to be really really hard on you today!”

I am sitting in the (relative) quiet of the Press Room during Barber Vintage weekend wearing the fluorescent Beginner Vest. I had read about racing lines and technique over the years, so I felt somewhat prepared. Large displacement bikes are ripping thru the straight toward turn one and rattling the glass walls. I feel a knot in the pit of my stomach.

A stew comprised of fear, excitement and anticipation is coming to a boil just below the surface of my leathers. I compartmentalize and bite down on the mouthpiece of my Camelbak. My instructor is demanding constant hydration, at this moment I’m happy to comply.

Rattling the classroom windows: pro racers duriing practice. (Linda Doll Cluxton photo)

Today we will spend half our day learning race basics in the classroom the other half will be spent on the track. Our day will close with a 1 on 1 oral exam and a mock race, I will need to do well on both to pass.

“Is there anyone here who cannot be on his bike, engine running, ready to ride in less than 10 minutes?” asks Andrew, “it’s going to be a busy day on the track!”

While teaching the class, Andrew is also coordinating with traffic control for the practice sessions to stream our class into the mix. He wants us to get maximum time on the track but not at the expense of safety; the race school students need to be sharing the track with bikes and riders who will keep a similar pace.

Andrew started us off slowly, with introductions and getting to know our respective levels of experience, moving to the course bookwork. In the middle of an explanation, his cell rings, he nods, snaps it closed and in his best Aussi quips,

“Right!! Get your gear on; we’re up in ten minutes. Go!”

Oblivious to the landscaping, lost in fear and concentration. (Linda Doll Cluxton photo)

I cannot believe that I’m riding on the beautiful track at Barber, but I have no time to gaze at the lush landscaping. I am learning the course simultaneously looking for brake/throttle/turn points and visual cues. My first track session passes quickly.

Back in class we do a rapid de-brief where Andrew talks about what he saw individuals doing wrong. He is also interested in our self-evaluations: what is working, what is not. How does our bike feel, how is it turning/braking/accelerating. Do we have questions about lines or getting our knees down in the corners?

The extent of my racing experience was a single track-day a month earlier. All of my classmates on the other hand, were experienced racers and track-day addicts who were attending the school to be legal to race AHRMA. My experience of 15 years as an airplane pilot would not take me far on a racetrack.

Andrew drilled flag memorization, bike prep, bike position, racing lines and track etiquette. What I did not expect was his focus on our mental attitude, whether in the pits or on the track or on a country road.

“When you pull your helmet on,” he said, while actually pulling on his helmet, “make the act a signal to your brain to Relax and to Focus.”

I knew I could memorize flags and the starting boards. What I had little experience in was taking the proper line, leaving room for riders to pass me and riding within inches of strangers. I knew that these skills could only be learned by time on the track, something I had precious little of. If I passed the course on Friday, how was I going to grid-up with scores of other riders for Saturday’s race? My attitude would have to see me through.

The clock shows 5 pm, the hour for us grid up for the mock race. No more classroom, this was our final exam and all eyes will be on our class, especially Andrew who kept vigil in the glass control booth on the top floor.

Andrew supervises the Mock Race (Linda Doll Cluxton Photo)

I was gridded in the first row joined by an SV650 and another big-bore race bike. I was straddling the mighty 40-year-old Honda 350. As soon as the flag dropped, I forgot about attitude and doggedly pursued the two bikes speeding away from me. I stayed with them fine till turn 5, where I entered the corner way too fast, my gaze fell to the wrong place and I ran off the track…in front of Andrew, my friends and thousands of racers.

Mock Race Grid: That would be me trying to look brave. (Linda Doll Cluxton Photo)

I was angry with myself; I hadn’t done what I was taught! I was racing the other racers, not the course. I fixated on the outside of the turn, so that’s where my bike went. I had stayed upright but the face under my helmet was red with embarrassment. Andrew’s voice came back to me:

“Relax. Focus. Look through all turns. Look far down the course.”

Last place in the Mock Race is a win! (Linda Doll Cluxton Photo)

I finished out the mock race in last place, but didn’t care. I was on the track at Barber and I was practicing mental discipline.

Saturday and Sunday found me racing! Each day, as the one-minute board went sideways, I took a breath, relaxed and renewed my mental focus. With every lap, my confidence grew, I relaxed more and in doing so, I was able to keep fine-tuning my technique. It was amazing.

Into turn 5 on Sunday. etech photo

When I replay my memories from Barber, I am delighted by the mental state I achieved while roaring around the track in close quarters with many other riders. I felt an inner stillness in the face of intense concentration that I have not felt in any other sport. Thank you Andrew for leading me to such a rewarding conclusion. I now understand why so many dedicate the time and money to go racing for precious little seat time. I cannot wait to go again.

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