2012 Season Finale

I have no idea why I keep putting off a write up of the final race of 2012. I assume that I just “closed shop” in my mind and have been ignoring sidecar racing as much as possible for the last month or so. The event was rather forgettable from my perspective, but it was pretty dramatic from a fan perspective. It all started November 3rd.

Morning practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Classic Course immediately showed a huge lack of grip. It was affecting all of the sidecars much more than the solo bikes. We were sliding around everywhere, but the worst part was that grip was inconsistent. Sometimes the tires would bite, and sometimes not; very hard to come up with a plan when you don’t know how the machine will behave. I was extremely frustrated and went with unusually low tire pressures to try and get more feel during race 1, a six-lap sprint.

We started from the front row and were away in the lead. At the end of the first lap something unusual happened… there was a gaggle of bikes behind us. Not only was the red-and-yellow of Team Becker Moto Works right there, but I could see blues and purples, so there were at least three machines in striking distance. The bike was sliding everywhere. The rear tire had certainly lost a lot of grip. We are the only ones using a DOT-legal race tire, and I had been using it because it had so much less sidewall flex and longer life. I think we finally found its limit though. The chair wheel was also sliding a lot though and it was a complete hassle to get the bike to turn right.

Photo Brandon Bones

On lap 2 we out-braked ourselves into tight-Turn 4 and Becker snuck through the inside. We fought back on the brakes into turn 5 and briefly retook the lead. I tried to hold an inside line on the exit but the front tire was sliding uselessly any time I opened the throttle, and Becker squirted past yet again. The long back straight allowed Becker to stretch his legs a bit and pull some yardage on us. We pulled some distance back in high-speed Turn 6 but we actually caught some rear wheelspin in the 6th gear corner. We were not within striking distance for another stab at the lead.

This was problematic as Becker was much quicker in the next tight series of turns, and got a fantastic drive out onto the front straight. Beginning lap 3 I tried to make some ground up with the brakes and found the still was no traction to be had. The bike went into a weave I can only assume started when the chair wheel locked up, but either way I had to ease off the brakes and then dig into them hard. We were going off the track for sure so I tried to aim us so we would not spin once we went into the dirt.

With a loud “BANG” we went dirt-surfing. It’s hard-packed earth around this track so it is more like sliding on marbles than sinking in and paddling. I was angry but focused on getting back on the track and getting back into 2nd place, as I was sure the two bikes following me were still close. As we got facing back toward the track I could see the pair of them streaming away: Donn Sayre of Team 321 and Steve Stull of Stull Racing. Catching them would be easy, but pulling off a pass and making it stick was an unknown… I don’t normally race with these two so their habits are unknown to me.

It took most of a lap to catch the pair, but in Turn 8 we were able to maneuver inside of Team 321 and look at Stull Racing. Steve was actually the first driver I ever passengered for, and I spent most of a season racing with him as well as racing my SV650 Suzuki solo bike. Now he had aboard Phil Wood, the second half of Wood Brothers Racing. Phil knew what he was doing as a passenger, but the bike was new to him and I was sure it would slow him down some (you need perfect memory where the handholds and foot holds are, as well as needing to know a driver’s style).

We picked up the crossed flags marking the halfway point. In ultra-tight Turn 4 Steve was very slow, his chair wheel in the air considerably. I was surprised to see this as my own machine is extremely chair-light. No matter, I set up an excellent drive and pulled to the inside for Turn 5, which leads to the long back straight. The lack of grip stopped up from keeping the position though. With a fury of wheelspin and the sliding front tire, there was no way to get a decent exit from this crucial corner. I was out of the seat, hanging over the front of the bike for traction, but the bike would only respond by breaking the rear wheel loose.

Eyes on target as we struggle back to grab a podium spot. Photo Brandon Bones.

Not only did we drop back to 3rd, but we also lost several lengths down the back straight. Lap traffic was moving extremely slow on the inside of Turn 6. This is the only fast corner on the track, and Stull was backing off to size up the dramatic closing rate of his machine and the lapper. I couldn’t tell which way either of them was planning to go, but I knew I had at least 15mph on Stull. Leaving the bike in 6th gear I set and arc that would split between both machines. The bike was loose in this arc, as the machine always becomes unsettled when not hard on the throttle. We squeezed through though, and I gave it another squirt of throttle to make sure we were clear before diving on the brakes and rowing down the gearbox to 2nd. At this point I was furious at the bike. The remaining 2 ¾ laps were done in a rage of wheelspin and ham-fisted maneuvers, finishing a distant 2nd place to Becker, almost 15-seconds adrift.

RACE 1 ONBOARD:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Oe0ZPc_axU

SUNDAY: RACE 2

Sunday would yield no answers to our traction problem. I finally just started making the bike slide through corners. If it was going to slide anyway, I might as well be initiating it instead of guessing when it was going to do it. It didn’t really work. I had more control of the bike but we scrubbed a lot of speed in the corners. The laps times were slower, though everyone seemed slower as well when looking at the times. After sliding around and almost running into everyone on the track, I set the tire pressures high to reduce sidewall flex and make the slides less jerky.

OBOARD, SUNDAY PRACTICE:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcNRA5tC874

Our start was the usual fare, though I need to tell Gina to quit waiting for the final seconds to get into position. She tends to wait for the “one board” and then leisurely gets into position for the start. That position is on my back, and while I’m watching the flag drop it is unbelievably distracting to not have her in position. Saturday was worse however, and we got a fairly clean start from the front row.

For the first several turns I only saw Stull Racing’s purple machine. Becker starts from the back row usually, and you never know if he will get held up in traffic or not. Looking back on video, he was there from the first few corners but somehow remained hidden from my view. The bike had decided to go into a violent tank-slapper on the brakes into Turn 5, so my attention was in the cockpit. Could we have bent something when we went of course yesterday? Why didn’t the problem show up in morning practice? Stull Racing remained close for the first lap, but they continued to struggle with left turns and would slowly drop back as the 6-lap sprint continued. Becker finally came into view in Turn 4, inches from our tail. The fight was on again.

 

Photo Brandon Bones.

 

Our unusual sliding line in tight Turn-5 caused them to check their throttle, so we would stay ahead by less than a bike length. The braking weave would not go away and I was forced to ease up a bit, losing the only small advantage we had (Becker’s F1-style machine is heavier). They were all over us and looking for a way around. They finally made a move on lap-3 while exiting Turn-4. Left turns are notorious for our machine as the chair-side of the bike is so light. Fortunately Becker was not able to get a good drive out and we came back on the brakes into Turn-5. It is crucial he not be ahead down the long back straight, as their engine has legs on ours.

Our miserable exit from Turn-5 allowed them back into the lead during the exit, and a missed upshift caused us to lose some ground down the back straight. High-speed Turn-6 was our only saving grace, as we could pull a few bike lengths back in on them, and dive inside on the brakes into Turn-7, a right-hand hairpin. The rear wheel spun uselessly as we exited. The tire was shagged and the surface was providing shit traction. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I was driving angry. The bike wants to handle like a piece of shit? I will ride it like one.

Becker took a stab at us exiting Turn-4 again and we were side-by-side. We shuddered on the brakes and were back inside. I took a tight exit and fought like mad for traction. They were all over us in the slow stuff, definitely being held up and looking for a way around. Their red-and-yellow machine set up the high-low pass coming on to the front straight. By accident we turned so tight that our rear wheel came off the ground. This left us stuck in the way though, and meant they had to check up on the throttle.

Photo Brandon Bones.
Photo Brandon Bones.

The Becker’s again stalked us and made the move on the exit of Turn-4. Again we fought back on the brakes into Turn-5. Once more they snuck through on the exit of Turn-5. This was a helluva race. A missed upshift sent them rocketing away. I figured it was game over at that point but lap traffic was coming up in fast Turn-6.  This worked to our advantage yesterday, and it worked again this time. Becker caught them on the brakes into Turn-7. Unsure which way they would go he was stuck to the outside, looking for a line. At any moment he could choose to dart across the track to the inside, into the hole I was aiming for. The door was also closing on the lapper as they began to turn in.

Banzai to the extreme inside we went, sneaking through with just enough room, and back into the lead. We were about to pick up the white flag, so it was possible to pull this battle off and get a solid win. Becker knew it too and set up the high-low pass again on the final corner. This time we caught wheelspin and they certainly didn’t, powering by us on the front straight with ease. This blew my chances, as they would be much faster in Turn-4 and could now get a clean exit from Turn-5 onto the back straight. Worse yet, since the halfway point my right wrist had been slowly going numb. The shaking and fighting on the handlebars was just too much and I was no longer able to feel throttle inputs.

True to form, the Becker duo eked away a comfortable lead in only a lap. I fought to stay with them in case they made a mistake, but such is rare. Coming into the Turn-7 hairpin I couldn’t stop.  We were going off the track and the brakes didn’t seem to be working. In desperation I twisted against the throttle and immediately felt it close; I couldn’t even tell it was cracked open my wrist was so numb.

Photo Brandon Bones

Across the finish line and onto the trailer. Being the Vice-President of the SRA-West I was actually pretty busy with the awards ceremony. I came in second as driver once again, and Gina managed 4th this year despite missing one round (two races).  The California State Championship was running in conjunction with this event, a championship based on this single event. Shandra Crawford put the whole thing together and was able to secure more prizes than the SRA-West has had since I started racing with them. Our second-place finish garnered a grab bag of discounts and such and a pair of medals, so it was a big haul for the year.

And that wraps up 2012. The focus for 2013 will continue to be the business side of our endeavor. We need more support than the odd donation if we are going to realize our goals. Pikes Peak is on the horizon. We were going to skip this year, but a pair of French sidecars and a pair of Japanese sidecars has suddenly turned this into an international date. We were skipping in order to attend the Isle of Man TT as spectators/crew, and the truth is I do not know how we will fund either, let alone both trips. Combine that with a full race schedule with the SRA-West and we are in big trouble financially. Time will tell and we continue to focus on promoting the sport in general in hopes of attracting full-time sponsorship. Here’s to a productive and exiting 2013!!!

-Johnny

Photo Brandon Bones.
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