The View From the Cheap Seat

Motorcycle racing for the masses, with AHRMA.

Motorcycle racing

Anders T. Carlson at Wisconsin's Road America raceway.

Photo By Craig Chawla; Jen Hill and Nicole Everhart

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I always thought of racing as one of the most entertaining ways you could threaten your existence. Or so I imagined, never having set tread on a track as a competitor.

As amazing as it is absurd, the idea of throwing life and limb around a track in order to be “first” is probably something you either get or don’t. Childhood thoughts of racing Formula 1 and Group B rally cars are comfortably just that, childish thoughts. The cost and time commitment to even the most basic levels of professional racing make it an impossibility for all but the most dedicated and delusional. I’d never given much thought to any sort of racing, much less motorcycle racing.

But then the subject came up at a party over a few too many beers. I said “no” a lot at first, but every time I said it, I meant “yes.” And then I finally said what I meant. Yes, let’s do this. I’ll spend a few hundred dollars to sort of do what I’d dreamt about as a kid. How could I not? The person guiding me in this mission was Jason Koschnitzke, proprietor of Motto Motorcycles in Chicago. Having built quite a few race bikes and helped a number of novices onto the track, he‘s a good ambassador for the sport.

“You’ll have an amazing time. It’s easy, and you can use one of the old Hondas,” Jason says. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to mess up your bike,” I reply. “Nonsense,” he retorts, “the bike’s already been crashed many times.”

Pulling in favors from the greater Chicago Vintage Motorcycling community (known as ChiVinMoto), I buy race leathers that smell like the bunker they’ve been stored in for the last two years. I score cheap boots, use my old winter gloves and finally buy a new helmet. I register for track day at Michigan’s Grattan Raceway, and sign up for Team Chicago’s race school. Though moderately pricey, I soon find out why this track day is cheaper than most — Michigan is cold in April.

Three days before we pile into a van and head to Michigan, I head to Motto Motorcycle’s garage to actually ride the bike. It’s a 1972 Honda CL175 with scrambler pipes. It was built about 10 years ago, specifically to compete in the CB160 and GP200 class. The stator’s been removed and the bike has half a Dyna ignition instead of points. Per AHRMA rules, there’s no kickstarter. It must be push-started. It’s a pure race machine in an educational sense. I’m the third guy who’s ridden it. This bike’s gotten around.

I’m terrible at push-starting, and when I manage to get it running it fouls plugs and has fuel starvation issues. It has a GP shift pattern, which means the opposite of normal — one up, four down. It has standard race bike ergonomics, meaning it’s designed for Italian orangutans. I can barely ride this bike and I’m running out of daylight on a bike with no lights. “Don’t worry, no one’s going to pull you over on the South Side,” Jason reassures me. “Yeah, but I don’t want to crash this thing,” I say. “Pff! Safety third!” Jason shouts. He’s mostly kidding. 

Race school at Grattan

They say if you can master Grattan, you can race anywhere. Today I might master shifting and not crashing. Arriving on a sunless, 45-degree morning, the first people my wife and I meet at Grattan Raceway are Joe Haupt, Andrew McCarthy and Chris Dietz. It turns out I’ll see them at every track I visit. Three men more possessed to throw old bikes around a track, you’ll never meet. I’m in everyone’s way, but not to worry. Joe’s easygoing smile puts me at ease, and Andrew helps me push start the bike more times than I can count. Chris’ quiet interjections usually contain a pearl of mechanical advice gleaned from working on the kind of bikes and cars found on people’s bucket lists.

It’s a Team Chicago-sponsored school, so half the day is devoted to learning about suspension setups and track riding, as well as what all the flags mean. Each instructor is responsible for about six students. At the end of the instructional period, we head out on the track in groups. We’ve already walked the track with AHRMA No. 1 plate holder Becky Baker, a stern but great teacher. Time to get our feet wet.

There’s initially no passing at all, while instructors check our riding for signs of unusual ineptitude. Though I have no problem being an ass, putting my ass where it’s supposed to go on the bike proves a bit harder. Everybody shouts at me to swing my ass out more in turns. I’d love to, but my race boots mean I can’t feel where my feet are on the pegs. Back at pit row, I see exactly where my feet were. The skid plates on my boots are almost gone after two sessions.

Then there’s the track suit. With the back protector, there’s little real estate inside the suit. It makes moving around on the bike tough and uncomfortable. My genetics make me two inches taller than the suit, and my “genetics” are exactly where the leathers pinch. Nobody looks cool. Unless it’s 1969 and you’re Giacomo Agostini, everyone in a track suit looks like a Technicolor troglodyte when doing anything except riding.  

Still, I keep the bike upright, which means I pass track school. A few high fives but mostly butt slaps await me when I return to the pit. You can’t say the ChiVinMoto contingent is anything but encouraging. They probably just want someone new to beat at the track, but the enthusiasm is real and comes with a celebratory beer. I feel the love. “You gotta come to the Blackhawk track day, plus you should sign up for Road America in June,” Joe says. “Well, we’ll see, maybe,” I say. “Imagine how fun it’ll be when you actually know what you’re doing.” I know a challenge when I hear one.

Track day at Blackhawk

Having survived one track day, I’ve decided to get another under my belt before my race debut at Road America. Bob “Big Bob” Burns, ChiVinMoto’s patron saint of all things Honda, has organized a group discount track day at Blackhawk. For $155, we get camping, four-lap trials plus all the trash-talking and beer-soaked camaraderie we can handle, provided you’re done riding.

The educational requirements are modest, and this is the most inexpensive way to get a race license. With the fundamentals in place, it’s up to me to get the track time and experience I need for an AHRMA race. I get a simple certificate of completion, which gets me an AHRMA race license.

Jason and I drive up Thursday night with the CL175 and “Goldie,” his 1965 Honda CB160. It’s never been apart. More remarkably, it keeps up with bikes that are “totally stock, I swear.” He sleeps in the van while I sleep in my two-man tent. “Two-man” refers to the number of stunted children that will fit in the tent. Despite the late night and beer consumed, the paddock comes to life at 6 a.m. Track days wait for no hangover. We register, listen to track officials and people sponsoring this and that, and finally we’re free to start risking life and limb. I didn’t walk the track, but no biggie. I looked it up on my phone, and I’m pretty sure I know how it goes. 

In contrast to the technical demands of Grattan, Blackhawk’s more forgiving, more suited to an array of riding styles. Blackhawk has relatively easygoing turns with predictable apexes, and exits with no off-camber turns or hills. Though lacking in technicality, it’s a great track to mix it up with fellow riders.

The warm weather makes everything better. As soon as my new Avon heats up and sheds its waxy coating, I’m in familiar tucks and leans and getting a better hang of the bike. Everyone beats me on the straights, but the turns are up for grabs. In Turn 3, 3D and 4, the 160s and 175s don’t need much brake and glide alongside the bigger bikes. The rule is no passing from Turn 1 to 3, known as the Bus Stop. But each lap, the Bus Stop gets smaller and smaller. Joe compliments me by showing no mercy. His XS650 blew up, so he’s riding his CB160. I pass Jason on the last lap and throw up my arms in “victory” as I cross the finish line. I’ve just won the Jerk 500.

There’s a zen-like simplicity to racing. I’m basically doing yoga above pavement at 80mph. My 175 can’t power out of anything so it’s my job to preserve as much speed as possible. Approaching turns, I brake by sitting bolt upright with my knees splayed out like a drag chute. In corners I hold painful poses while making the bike as upright as possible and myself completely sideways. On straights I make myself small, a mere hump on the bike with an arm and wrist to hold the throttle. The less I am, the faster I go. Really. With 14 horsepower, the 5 pounds I’ve put on since winter eats a half horsepower.

Road America

All this leads up to the races at Road America near Elkhart Lake, Wis., in early June. Having learned some fundamentals and gotten track time under my leathers, I’ll see how I stack up against other amateur racers. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, but not for the obvious reasons — I’m scared to hit another rider. It’s one thing to put myself in a hospital, quite another to be responsible for someone else’s visit. I decide on a conservative strategy based on remaining upright and causing as few problems as possible.

The wife and I arrive late Thursday. Everybody I’ve grown unnaturally fond of is here: Andrew, Chris and, of course, Joe. We buy beer with five seconds to spare before Wisconsin’s 9 p.m. cutoff and arrive thirsty, nervous and in the dark. Literally. We’ve forgotten to bring a flashlight. Duh.

Road America is the real deal. There are neon beer signs, decent food and clean, well kept accommodations. Mostly, Road America is big — twice as big as the other two tracks. I always thought pit bikes were silly, trivial things. But after walking around all day, I get it. Walking sucks, we’re here to race. 

Joining AHRMA, I get to choose a race number for my bike. I spend a shameful amount of time wondering how my racing destiny should be expressed numerically. But the clever numbers like “750” or “666” are taken so I decide to make the number famous, not vice versa. I’m number 074. I reserve a transponder, which accurately measures my track times and results.

Friday is the practice day, and I’m early. I want all the track time I can get. Particularly, I’m warned about Turn 5, which comes after a long straight and features a downhill braking portion before a grueling uphill climb. The same way older kids told you about the dungeon in the school basement, other racers describe all the spills and nasty crashes they’ve had in Turn 5. Otherwise, Road America is awesome, but on my little Honda I might as well tape a magazine to my tank to read on the long straights.

You spend most of your time getting small and thinking big about catching the rider in front of you. Turn 1 is a gentlemanly introduction to the course, with Turn 3 separating the wheat from the chaff. Turn 5 is the turn of terror that demands a bit of respect. The short uphill portion to Turn 6 tempts you into skimping on the brakes in 5, but skid marks testify to how unwise this is. Turn 6 appears after a blind hill and takes out more riders than 5. You stay flat out through Turn 7 until you find Turn 8, or the “The Carousel,” which defines Road America. A sweeping turn requiring almost 10 seconds to complete, it depletes your strength before you enter the neutered Turn 11. Turn 11 has a kink that prevents you from taking the chicane in fourth or fifth gear. Sprinting though Kettle Bottoms, you hit Canada Corner and a 90-degree turn with a wider radius made possible by the subsequent Thunder Valley kink and Bill Mitchell bend in Turn 13. Finally, there’s Turn 14, and as a final discourtesy to the cc-challenged, it’s uphill to the flag. And now you do it again. Four laps seem like eight.

Twice the fun

I’ve entered two race classes, the über-competitive CB160 class as well as the GP200 class. The best part of the CB160 class is the Le Mans start. Someone holds your bike while you wait across the track. At the flag bearer’s signal you run across the track and bump-start your bike. Your bike should start easily, but doing it with 20 other riders requires strategy. Everyone goes to the outside of the track, but taking an inside line gains a few spots, which is good, because passing is hard.

A vicious ember of competitiveness flares up over the course of the weekend. I start pushing the bike in left hand turns, using the rumble strips and even get off-course once or twice. More than anything, there’s this indescribable longing when you see your competitor ahead. You’ll do anything to pull your bike closer to them. Anything seems possible, with the right combination of skill and cojones. But only to a point.

More importantly, I learn the worth of help from all the people I’m trying to beat. Wrenches and battery chargers are freely passed around the ChiVinMoto compound to whoever needs them. I wouldn’t have ridden a single lap without the help of my fellow racers. I learn that wet asphalt isn’t so scary with warm tires, unlike the paint on the inside of the track. I learn how to offroad on a race bike — stay loose, turn wide and don’t stop. I learn to be predictable in my race lines, yet unapologetic about passing. I learn that what is in front of me is my only concern — what’s passed is past. And I learn from my dilated eyes and curled lips each race that I’m a damned liar when I say I don’t care about winning.

On a somber note, we’re reminded how dangerous racing can be. Mike Proffitt, of Chesterton, Ind., suffers what is believed to be a stroke and passes away while negotiating the back straight on his BSA. Stickers with “RIP 134” are on many bikes in the races following Road America.

In total, I run four races over two days, scoring sixth and fifth in the CB 160 runs (out of about 20), with finishes of eighth and 10th in the GP200 class (out of about 25). I’ve done OK. “Nice job out there,” Jason says after my last run. “Check it out,” he says, holding the results from the first race. I think he’s showing me where I finished, but he points next to my name. It says Chicago, Wis. “Always the Sconnie,” he says.

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a beer like the one I have after each run. Or earned it in the same way. The leathers and riding leave me drenched after each round. I’m sore, shaky, and reeking of oil and gas. My constant joke about deserving a beer after cheating death falls flat in light of recent events, but the logic stands up. Though the general opinion is that racing’s quite dangerous — and I don’t disagree — it’s still safer than riding the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, in my opinion.

If horse racing is the Sport of Kings, then AHRMA is the Passion of Joe Six-Pack. Though there are racers and teams with real money riding real steeds, with sponsors, the spiritual heart beats inside the schlub who spends all winter in a Milwaukee garage fixing up a Craigslist special. There’s no cheaper way to pit fossil fuel and red blood against an asphalt track. My race number was made of electrical tape my wife and I hurriedly applied to the front fairing just before the first race.

No other form of racing claims the same fun-per-dollar ratio, really the only metric that counts. The feeling on race day is the exact opposite of waiting for a bus to work on a rainy November morning. With Jason, Andrew, Joe and Chris’ help, I’ll be trying to beat them next year, wherever and whenever possible. MC