Why is your gut that thing that tells you to do stuff you’re not sure about, but when you finally do it, your gut is the one thing that won’t quiet down? This is the kind of stuff that goes through my head as I sit on pre-grid for the 2012 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. In closed circuit racing, the pre-grid experience is short and not much to think about. At Pikes Peak this year it seemed to last forever. This was also going to be the biggest challenge of my racing career to date, and I knew it. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, as there were several days of action leading up to this moment that should not be overlooked.
GETTING THERE IS NOT HALF THE FUN
Or at least not when towing a race machine in an open trailer with a 1991 Dodge van. The ol’ gal has seen me through a lot, but it had major overheating issues that forced me to drive at night, and to cringe as we climbed hills at 45mph with the heater on, still running at the boiling point. We got the van to Montrose, Colorado where the kind people at Davis Service Center (www.davisservicecenter.com) let me rest the van in their fenced in work area. This is where I met Chris Rizzo, my co-driver for the Hill Climb. I had not seen Chris since the last time we were in Colorado more than a year ago. This year his newer van would be pulling us to the mountain and back, so I was doubly glad to see him. We spent the night at nearby Black Canyon of the Gunninson National Park. Great views and not very well travelled by tourists, so worth a look if you are passing through. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we made it to the Wagner’s place in Cascade, Colorado in short order.
We met Dennis and Diannia Wagner last year when experiencing handling issues with the race bike. We were staying in Cascade, and found out about this empty road at the top of the mountain. We take the bike up there and here comes someone in a utility truck. Expecting the riot act, instead we get, “lemmie block the road for you guys so you can get a clean run!” Needless to say, Dennis Wagner is one of those special types of people you only come across a few times in your life. I believe they call it “the real deal,” and that’s what I call him as well. Not only did they let us use their shop and tools, but they invited us to use their 5th wheel trailer this year. Little did we know we weren’t just getting a great deal, but the kind of experience you remember for a lifetime. Seriously, the next time my life flashes before my eyes, I’m likely to see scenes from the Wagner place.
Drama aside, there was little ado at tech inspection the following day. Afternoon rains left us hiding out for an hour or so, though we met up with Tom, who would help crew for us during practice. The riders meeting brought a small kerfuffle when it was announced the starting procedure would change. Although we all race the clock, in the motorcycle division bikes took off in waves of six, quads in waves of four, and sidecars in waves of two. This makes is exciting for the fans, but safety concerns with the higher speeds meant a change to 1×1 launches, at 30 second intervals. Many riders seemed unhappy with this, as well as the last second announcement. I kept quiet myself, since sidecars are very wide, and covered on all sides by expensive paint work. Getting a clean run was to our advantage.
PRACTICE DAY 1: GLEN COVE TO DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND
Racing and practicing are very different for me. A lot of time is spent thinking about the bike and what it’s doing, and only some of your time is spent on your own racecraft. Day one at Pikes is no exception. The machine handled well with the 20lbs of ballast removed, and we played with the rear shock adjustment to find front end traction leaving the hairpins. Little is to be said other than it was great having Tom there to write down the adjustments we were making (taking notes is mandatory, and I always forget) and that it was fun to be back. The middle section has the famous “W’s”, eight switchbacks running up the face of a steep incline. It’s the section of the course where the timberline falls away and it goes from green to brown rather rapidly. It gives a great taste of what the course is about, but it’s fairly unique, as the bottom and the top sections have very different layouts.
PRACTICE DAY 2: DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND TO SUMMIT
This is where we knew the 20lbs of ballast was important to the bike. The many slow turns were putting the chair up. The top section does not have the same hairpins as the middle (there are a few, but the bulk of the top is medium or fast in speed). We left the weight back at the ranch, so we just made due. The tire pressures were of more interest, and without getting all techy let’s just say that the tires aren’t being used in the manner they were designed, and so much experimentation is required. We were feeling good with the bike, but Wade Boyd and Christine Blunk seemed alarmingly close. Wade is a 13-year veteran of the Isle of Man TT so he knows how to read a road, but he has not been on a sidecar for two years and has never been to Pikes Peak.
When we were settling in for dinner at the Wagner’s place, their son Dannan pulled up the times for both days. We were faster than Wade by 5 seconds on day 1, but were separated by less than 1 second today. Were they getting more comfortable with the bike, or were they just more suited to the higher speeds of the top? If the latter, the bottom section was even faster; time to dig deep and take things serious. Practice day 3 was also qualifying and the only money available for the sidecar class: the $250 fast-qualifier award from Citizens of Humanity and the Stuntmen’s Association. However, the most serious matter at hand was the indian fry bread and BBQ Diannia was making. Work still had to be done on the bike though, and it was a late night. The 3am wake up’s for practice are always a bit of a pain.
PRACTICE DAY 3: START TO GLEN COVE
The Wagner’s son Nate came out from Phoenix and was there to help as we settled in to race the bottom section. Each run would count towards qualifying, and the fastest time of the day would determine starting order. We got off to a slow start as I was finding my way around the course. I have this section memorized, but last year the final 2.6 miles of dirt was down here. With more traction, higher speeds, but a narrower racing surface, the road was familiar in some sections, confusing in others.
Live timing was coming up and it showed us less than one second ahead of Wade. With one session left, they were going back out, so we were going out as well. The run was good but there was a series of small mistakes. Chris was late in a transition. I out-braked myself into Rookie’s Corner. I missed the 1st/2nd upshift in several corners. Timid on the brakes after 12 mile marker. Then a huge mistake into the same corner I pitched Gina and I into two years ago. With it paved, I simply mis-identified it and went in on the same line that puts you in lock-step with the car’s skidmarks… skidmarks that go off the edge. I braked so hard to save it the rear wheel picked up and the machine protested as the almost-locked-up wheel came back down. The back-torque from the motor and the slack in the chain made it buck violently, which only looks like a small wiggle in the onboard video of course. When we reached the finish line, it was too hard to tell. Wade and Christine were already making their U-turn to go back down, but how fast were they going after the checkers?
When we got back “session 6” showed them 2.7 seconds ahead of us. Did we just run session six or seven? No one knew. Did they out-qualify us by that much of a margin, or was there one more time to be posted? The drive back to the Wagner’s place had me thinking hard. Were they outperforming us, session by session? Would that 6 second gap be there in the middle section on race day? Why the hell did I forget to put the 20lbs of ballast in the bike again?
A phone call to the powers that be confirmed Wade was the top qualifier; nothing to do now but prepare for Fan Fest in downtown Colorado Springs. Even though we were not fast qualifier (each top time from all classes are required to display their vehicle), fellow competitor Hans Schultz had bought a stall so all three machines in the sidecar class could be displayed together.
FANFEST: BETTER WITH BEER
I have to be careful here not to go into a long, boring explanation of Fanfest and what it means to me. For the uninitiated, it’s a freakin’ awesome party. Close down a couple blocks of downtown, fill it with racecars, food, booze, and freestyle motocross exhibitions. Yeah, it’s like that, but cooler. The downside is that it’s a working party, as you are manning a booth with the race machine and interacting with fans. Pros can go on and on about how much press they have to do, but they are also pros. They are also not racing a sidecar. “That’s one of those converted snowmobiles isn’t it?” Yeah buddy, it still has the track on the rear wheel, take a look. You get the usual questions too, like the type of engine. Answering “it’s a K2 gixxer 1000” only gets “huh?” as a reply though. “Suzuki,” is a better response. Answering “how do you steer it,” gets old though. Trying to convince people I steer it with my feet while the passenger works the throttle is more entertaining for me personally. The biggest problem is you never know who you are talking to and you are possibly the only sidecar road-racer they will ever meet, so you have to be enthusiastic and available, professional and attentive. I found a great trick for this: beer.
This was the first year I imbibed during Fanfest and I had way more fun than in years past. A main reason is actually that Wade and Christine were there. They may be competitors, but they are genuinely nice people and I haven’t seen them in two years. It was good to see what they had been up to and to just hang out. It also helped that they have purple hair and their bike has a face painted on the front of it… gets way more attention that the simple grey/white scheme on our bike.
The ability to have a few drinks really opened things up though. You weren’t thinking about how many times you asked the same question, you were just talking to people. Instead of being paranoid that climbing kids are going to bend my shifter rod or scratch the paint, I’m climbing onto the bike to pose with them for pictures. This year was also different in that I got to meet some really nice folks. One was a couple all the way from Japan. They had very limited English, but we could surmise that the husband had race the Isle of Man TT in 2007 on a Formula 2 LCR machine, and was some kind of organizer for the Japanese sidecar championship. In typical understated Japanese style, you could see his passion for the sport and for the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. The other conversation was with the finish line flag man, who I’m embarrassed to admit, I can’t remember his name. During practice though, he is always super enthusiastic when we come by, and waves in an exaggerated manner as we drive past on the return runs. He stopped by our booth and gave some very sincere appreciation for our outfit, and for what we do as sidecar racers. He even admitted as to having a pic of our machine at his home. The feeling was actually deeply personal for me, as I often forget about the way things look from the outside. I consider our efforts to be big, but they are efforts we do daily, so they seem normal. Seeing someone recognize our effort like that reminds me how much of an effort it is… and how little credit I give myself. I’m so busy looking for the next step forward; I never look at how far we’ve come. The primer grey bike with the old 750cc engine is barely recognizable now.
That brings us to Keith Dochterman. Now here is a rabid fan if there ever was one. We’ve chatted several times on Facebook and such, but this guy was so high-energy and so genuinely enthused to meet me finally that I was almost in shock. He and I had a long talk about all the trials and tribulations of going fast, finding help to continue on, and just the basis of life in general. He had raced karts in the past and new all-to-well how much sacrifice goes into getting that big win you’ve been chasing. Then, as you head home with the trophy lying sideways on an empty passenger seat, you have a very long drive to think about what you are really doing in life. We all kindly call our racing a hobby, but for anyone who has taken the green flag… you know the truth. A heroin habit takes enough of your life away that friends will intervene, but a racing habit gives you enough satisfaction that your friends encourage you to keep doing it. See, if everyone was these deep a philosopher when they drank, we’d let then Senate cast their votes at the bar (not that they’d do any worse that way). The long and the short is, this year Fanfest was more fun for me, but there are a lot less pictures for you. Next year, plan a trip out there, and take your own pictures. With Fanfest over, it was time to take Saturday off (“off” is racer-slang for “work on the bike”) and get our heads in the game for Sunday… race day.