Focus, Relax, Look Ahead: Vintage Motorcycle Racing

Editor Richard Backus takes the AHRMA vintage road race school.
By Richard Backus
January/February 2012
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My focus during race school practice was to pass so I could race in the Battle of the CB160s LeMans Start.
Photo by Stephen Clark
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So you say you want to go motorcycle racing? If you’re looking to test your skills on the track, there’s probably no better place to start than in vintage motorcycle racing, where the speeds tend to be lower and the options for what you can ride a whole lot broader than any modern race bike series.

Working my way through Turn 1 of Miller Motorsports Park’s East Course, a double-apex left-hander with a nasty little off-camber at the exit that’ll send you scary wide if you don’t clip it just right, race instructor Andrew Cowell’s mantra — focus, relax, look ahead and look through the turns — is echoing in my head. Cowell’s instructions make perfect, almost intuitive sense, but it’s hard putting them to work as a rush of unfamiliar inputs stream into my brain, bullying rational response into submission and replacing it with something akin to sheer terror.

Burying my suspicion that I’ve been set up, I follow Cowell’s advice as best I can. After a less than perfect execution of Turn 1 — OK, a pretty poor one — I emerge from the other side in one piece, tuck my head down behind my little Honda CB160’s plexi fairing and nail the throttle. As quickly as the turn unsettled me, it’s behind me and I’m blasting down to the next set of turns. Cool. It works. Welcome to vintage road race school, AHRMA style.

Learning to race with AHRMA

Organized in 1986, the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association is the largest and most active vintage motorcycle racing organization in the U.S., with close to 5,000 members. Yet it wasn’t until 2010 that AHRMA held its first race school, during its season closer at Barber Motorsports Park. Traditionally, vintage racers have sort of trickled down from other sanctioned race series, but with the broad pool of riders drawn to vintage motorcycle racing, AHRMA saw the need to give aspiring vintage racers an AHRMA-certified entry onto the track. That first class was a hit, so AHRMA expanded the school to seven classes during 2011.

An AHRMA member since 1995, instructor Cowell is active in AHRMA’s Vintage Superbike Heavyweight and Battle of Twins series, racing a Moto Guzzi Le Mans and a Ducati 748. With 20 years-plus racing experience under his helmet, he’s learned more than a thing or two about how to get around a track safely and competitively, a fact amply illustrated during the class I took during the 2011 Bonneville Vintage GP in Tooele, Utah, last September.

Getting schooled

The race school lasts only one day, but it’s a long one. My pre-class instructions are to be at the appointed classroom at 7 a.m., sharp. I am, and so is Cowell, eager to get going as we gather in a large room overlooking the start/finish line at Miller.

With only three students, our class is the smallest held yet — the first class at Barber had 12 students and the average has been six. Handing us our Road Race School booklets, Cowell lays out the recipe for the day, a mixture of classroom instruction and track time, including four track sessions with other AHRMA riders practicing for the weekend’s races. The day will end with a mock race and, most importantly, a verbal one-on-one test with Cowell. Pass the test and you pass the class. Pass the class, and you get to go racing.

My classmates are 31-year-old Donnie Stiff, an industrial designer from nearby Salt Lake City, and 50-year-old Craig Schmidt, who makes fiberglass bits for BMWs through his company Boxer Café in Garfield, Ark. None of us have ever gone racing, although Craig, a dirt and road rider, has done some track days. Donnie’s background is also dirt and road, as is mine, so we’re pretty equally matched.

After quizzing us on our own backgrounds, Cowell drills us on basic AHRMA philosophy, emphasizing the critical nature of the experience. “The basic philosophy is learning to race hard and learning to race safely, from beginners to everyone,” Cowell stresses. We also learn the flags. Two we’re anxious to see — the green flag for start and the checkered flag for finish — and others we hope to avoid, like the meatball, a black flag with an orange disc in the center signaling a rules violation and a trip to the pits.

Safety first

Cowell’s fix on safety and the need to be prepared, to think ahead, comes out immediately. “The most common mistake new riders make is giving up, thinking you’re too hot into a turn, and instead of following the ABCs you give up and look straight ahead and go off the track. The first rule is to stay on the track!” Cowell says as he drives home the mantra — focus, relax, look ahead.

After a detailed discussion of bike preparation and proper rider gear (like gloves that tie the ring and little finger together — helps you from breaking that littlest digit in a fall), he launches into what we really want to know, and that’s how to chart a course around the track — and survive. Tracing the track on a chart behind him, Cowell takes us through basic strategies of establishing reference points for braking and turning, instructing us to connect a set of imaginary dots to lead us safely and quickly through each turn. Placement, Cowell stresses, is key, finding the right turn-in point so you can hustle your bike through a corner in the least amount of time. That, and carrying your speed, is how you win races.

This seems to work better for me on some corners than others. Out on the track later, Turn 1 becomes my nemesis, the turn I can never execute cleanly. But Turn 7, another double-apex nicknamed Agony and Ecstasy, transforms from scary to fun as it morphs with practice from two confusing points of entry and exit into one broad sweeper — if I follow the right line. By the end of the day I love it, and I want to do it again and again.

We also learn strategies for braking, shifting and throttle control. “The one big lesson is braking,” Cowell says, “and how to control a bike at speed. It’s you controlling the bike, not the bike controlling you.” That’s easier said than done, as I learn during a track session, trying to apply Cowell’s advice to brake hard and initiate a turn with the front suspension compressed before releasing the brake, unloading the front end and pushing through the turn. Years of road riding have taught me almost the opposite, to avoid heavy braking in a turn so as not to stand the bike up. But that’s not what Cowell’s trying to get us to do. Doing it Cowell’s way, you use the bike’s energy to make it go where you want. If I do it right I won’t stand up, because I’m not braking while turning, but in the critical moment just as I’m turning. When it actually works for the first time, pushing hard into Turn 1, it’s a revelation. I still look pretty ugly through the turn, but I’m starting to get control in a way I’ve never experienced before, and it’s fantastic.

Cowell also teaches us how to react — or not, as the case may be — when things aren’t going right. Miss a shift? Don’t tense up, he advises. Instead, stay relaxed, look where you need to go, flow through the turn in neutral, then shift up coming out and move on. I suffer one major missed shift in a turn, and following Cowell’s advice I sail through smoothly, if a bit slowly. Focus. Relax. Look ahead. It works.

Shiny side up

Conventional wisdom says there are two kinds of racers; those who have crashed, and those who will. Any time you hurl yourself around a track as fast as you can, car or bike, the risk of crashing is immediate and present. Reminding us that “crashing isn’t allowed,” Cowell tells us what to do in a crash — stay loose and separate from the bike immediately. And more importantly, stay down and hug the track until you know there’s no traffic. Get up too quickly and you’ll get clocked by another rider.

The day accelerates past us, and before we know it, it’s almost 5 p.m. With a half dozen AHRMA racers filling out our grid, we line up for our mock race and wait for the green flag to fly. With a handful of throttle I drop the clutch and … stall! On the start line! Somehow I instinctually pull the clutch in, furiously paddle forward a few feet, drop the clutch and I’m off.

Everyone else is ahead of me, of course, and mock race or not, we’re all looking for a shot at the lead. I don’t have a prayer of catching Craig on his BMW, but like me Donnie’s riding a CB160, and maybe, just maybe, I can catch him. A fast learner, Donnie’s also faster than I am, and after our four laps I sail across the finish line, dead last.

The mock race over, it’s time for our verbal test. I go first, figuring I’d rather know sooner than later if I can race in Sunday’s CB160 LeMans Start. The verbal test turns out to be the most grueling part of the day, 20 torturous minutes of proving to Cowell you’ve been listening and you understand your responsibilities on the track. I pass, as do both of my classmates. Cool. We can actually go racing.

And we do. Craig races a 1939 BMW R51 in Pre-1940 on Sunday, and Donnie races his CB160 in Sunday’s 200GP and CB160 LeMans Start, where I join him second-to-last on the grid. Donnie starts dead last, but at the race’s end he’s one step ahead of me, 30th to my 31st out of 37 riders. Yet it’s a total victory: We raced — heck, we even passed a few riders — and we finished, without crashing. And we know we’re better riders for it. “It made me feel extremely confident, taking a class and learning things I didn’t know,” Donnie says later. Craig echoes those sentiments: “I came out knowing what to work for, what to work at, and what to work on. It goes hand in hand with getting out there.”

AHRMA will hold 10 classes in 2012, so if you’ve ever thought you wanted to race, this is the way to do it. Make no mistake, vintage motorcycle racing is serious business, but it’s also so much fun, it’s almost hard to believe it’s legal. See you on the track. MC 

Getting Ready

AHRMA’s ready to help you learn to race safely, but you can’t just show up with your old CB350 and fling it down the track. There are gear and bike requirements you need to know (full one-piece or zip-together two-piece leathers are mandatory and side stands and center stands must be removed, for example), with technical rules specific to each of 23 categories. Fortunately, the AHRMA handbook (included in membership and available separately for $5 through the AHRMA website) includes everything you need to know. Cost for the class is $300; the 2012 race school schedule will be posted on the AHRMA website.


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