American vintage motorcycle racers invade Europe’s Spa Classic.
Two American teams took on this year’s 4 Hours of Spa Classic, an endurance race for 1980 and older superbikes at Belgium’s iconic Spa Francorchamps circuit. It was the first time U.S. riders have ever taken part. This is their story.
“It’s like a weird sensory deprivation experience in the dark. You can smell the oil, then you can make out the oil on the track; there are lines of oil you are flying through. And then there’s smoke. Your headlight just goes ‘womp!’ — everything’s just white and wide, you whiteout, and then as you come out the other side your headlight narrows back down again to nothing. Darkness returns.”
That’s Christopher Page describing racing Spa Francorchamps in the dark. It’s a long way from Portland, Ore., to Belgium, and it’s a strange concept to figure placing four American riders among 156 Europeans on this most iconic of race circuits. On 30-year-old motorcycles. But this is the 4 Hours of Spa Classic.
The four were connected, however, and Andrew Gray was the number one reason they were here. “I read about this event six or seven years ago. Then I read about how Moto Bel’, the French Guzzi team, had won and I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ Then I started racing my own Guzzi three years ago. Being born European, it was a natural draw for me to come here, a new challenge,” Andrew says.
That Andrew turned his dream into reality was no surprise to those who know him. His co-pilot in this adventure, Christopher Page, knew it would happen, as Andrew had established his can-do attitude upon their first acquaintance. “Andrew had a Guzzi street bike,” Christopher recalls. “He was on a trip up the coast to a friend in Portland who was taking a road race school. He arrived on Thursday night. On Friday he safety-wired his bike. On Friday night he went to the classroom sessions. On Saturday he did the novice school on track. On Sunday he raced the bike, on street tires. And on Monday he and his partner, Kristina, rode home to Los Angeles. That impressed us all. I was his novice school instructor, and we’ve been friends since.”
And so it is that Andrew and Christopher — Team Guzzi Nerd — are here at Spa on Andrew’s Moto Guzzi Le Mans III, really little more than a home-modified street bike. And Ralph Hudson — a very successful AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) classic racer with Daytona wins to his name — is here because his workshop is just five minutes from Andrew’s in L.A. They got to know each other racing classic Honda 160s.
“Andrew had decided two years ago to come,” Ralph recalls. “Only he couldn’t quite get the bike together. Earlier this year he said he was going to do it, so I said, ‘Do you need a mechanic?’ And he said ‘Yeah!’ A couple of hours later he called back and said, ‘If you go and you don’t ride you’re going to hate it! You should build a bike and ride.’”
Which is exactly what Ralph did, picking a Suzuki GS1000, among the most successful Superbikes of the era. “I kind of found this one by accident. I bought it and then found out that everything on it was bad. At every turn it was more work than I expected. It was just a road bike, but with bad brakes, bad wheels and bad steering stem bearings. The starter clutch was gone, it didn’t charge, the wiring harness was burned, the list went on and on.”
So while Andrew built his bike over a two-year period, Ralph came at it with just weeks to spare. His plans hit a setback when planned Canadian co-rider Paul Germain (another AHRMA cohort with a long list of wins stretching back to a Canadian dirt track title in 1975) broke his hand in a road race crash. Paul would come with the team as chief mechanic, but now they needed a new second rider.
Enter New York-based Gary Di Pietro, a life-long racer who, at 62 years young, is currently racing Supermoto and F3 twins in AHRMA. “Two weeks before the race I flew to California,” Ralph says. “My son lives in Santa Monica. He picked me up at 5:30 in the morning and drove the two and half hours to meet Ralph. Ralph said you’ve got to ride this thing. So I did. I even broke it a couple of times. At 10:30 that night I was on a plane back to N.Y., and the next morning booking a flight to Europe.” Team Ironwood was ready.
“In my mind, it was going to be this amazing experience. When I got here, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I might be out of my depth!’” Andrew says. Just three years a racer, and still on his home-modified street Guzzi, Andrew was hit by the quality of racers sharing the pits at Spa. Not only were there a handful of bona fide former endurance racing world champions, but the bikes were simply world class, too. “Everyone is fast, and they’re riding professional endurance bikes. The level of machinery and talent is amazing,” Andrew says. “The equipment, the motorcycles here are astounding,” Christopher agrees. “I’ve never been to a race anywhere in the U.S. that even comes close to the quality and diversity and beauty of the gear they have here.”
Andrew fantasized about winning the race, and for a while even thought it might be possible. But while the reality of Spa hit hard, both teams rose to the challenge. From 80 entries, only 70 teams get to race. Staying out of the bottom 10 might not seem like a big deal, but the bar is high.
Just how high was demonstrated in the first qualifying session — there was no practice, just straight in with the make-or-break stuff. Andrew came in 68th, Ralph 61st. The fastest teams were tearing round the 4.352-mile course in two minutes 53 seconds; Ralph was more than 24 seconds off that pace and Andrew 28 seconds. Their teammates faired better; Gary finished 48th, and Christopher 52nd.
After the first qualifying session the teams were feeling a little more settled. Starting from scratch, they’d begun to understand the track. It’s a long one by any standards, and very fast. The straights are top-gear on-the-limiter long, and there are kinks that are nothing short of flat out.
The night qualifying sessions are the real test, though. Spa weaves its path up, over, down and around a pine forest. Forests like holding moisture, and as the evening temperature comes down mists are common. As is rain, as was the case for the night qualifying. Intimidating? Not for Christopher.
“It was fantastic! I expected to be scared, but it was actually really calming. There’s so much less input, I found that you’re riding a mental map of the track with a few little indicators of where you are. It was really cerebral and internal — and super fun! And the rain made it even better, which I did not expect.” Christopher, it would seem, is a born night fighter. He was almost as quick in the dark as he had been in the day, and jumped to 40th quickest in his session.
For Ralph and Gary, the haste with which they’d pulled their effort together was starting to tell. “We’ve never actually raced this bike anywhere — we did a track day to shake it out — so we had a few teething problems,” Ralph explains. “We had a shifter break in the first half of the night sessions and so we were trying to figure what to do, and I ended up going out with a pair of vice grips on the shifter just to get my laps in. It was quite interesting trying to kick down the gears in the rain. The headlamp was pointing a bit low as well, so if I could go with somebody I could go faster, but everyone was pulling away in the rain — I wasn’t able to stay with them.”
Gary — something of a tiger in the earlier sessions — did not find the dark and wet to his liking. “It’s a little scary, because there were a lot of people on the ground and you can’t see if they’ve put fluids down. We don’t like racing in the wet — most of us who have been hurt, it’s because of the wet!”
By the time the race came around at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Ralph and Gary had made 56th on the grid, Andrew and Christopher 59th. Gary had set the quickest time of the four, but their qualifying time was a mean of the two riders’ times and in fact less than a second — on what is a 3:13 lap for them — separated them.
The Le Mans-style grid is a tense place to be. “Being on that straightaway there, holding the bike, with all 70 competitors together, it’s quite something,” Christopher says. “They’re big, loud motorcycles, and when they took off down that straightaway it was very tight.”
Ralph: “It’s pretty awesome seeing bikes as far as the eye can see both ways, I don’t think intimidating is the right word, but daunting, maybe. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I don’t think there were any crashes. I was very impressed with that. You can only go 75 percent in that kind of traffic, so you’re looking for little gaps. Some people are doing that, some aren’t, and some of the fast guys from the back (who didn’t have electric starts) were coming through right away.”
Andrew: “The start was pretty nerve-wracking, but you try to stay calm. You’re not going to win the race by running across [the track] faster. I put the start button on the left side so I could grab the left bar, the clutch and hit the button at the same time. The Guzzi started even before I got my leg over. The weird thing was I found myself on my own pretty quickly, so I settled down and went my quickest. I was on my own, the sun shining, hitting me in the face, and that’s when it really sunk in — I’m at the Spa Classic, racing. The bike felt wonderful. It was really cool.”
Andrew finished the first lap just two-tenths of a second ahead of Ralph, but Ralph nipped past on the run down to Eau Rouge and started building a lead on the Guzzi, hopping up to 53rd place while Andrew was 57th. Then, after just 25 minutes racing — seven laps — Ralph was in trouble.
“A pin and retaining clip fell out of the shifter,” Ralph says. “We had shifter problems the previous night. We took it apart and it didn’t get safety wired, so I was stuck in third and had to drive around and get back. It was a really nice pit job, though, Paul got on to it and there was no panic at all. I got back out in a matter of minutes.”
But a few minutes is a long time in endurance racing. Ralph dropped from 53rd to 65th. He got back up to speed, though, and on his 14th lap uncorked a rapid 3:04.671 — a full 10 seconds quicker than his qualifying time and just barely 10 seconds slower than the leaders (an amazing improvement on the 24-second deficit he’d started with). Ralph had found his groove. He was, though, nearly four minutes down the road from Andrew, who had also found a cadence that did the job, dropping to a best 3:08.113.
Refueling is a major element in endurance racing. Time doesn’t stop when the wheels do, and the bike can only run so long before needing more fuel. The pit lap for Andrew and Christopher took 5:22, Ralph and Gary’s took 5:20. The practiced Europeans were much quicker; winning Team Hampe’s refuel lap was 4:09, while the runner-up German ACR3 team did 3:53 — probably spending just one minute in the pit to the two minutes of our teams.
The guys also had to deal with what can best be described as an “open pit lane” policy. “People were wandering through the pit lane the whole time, not just mechanics but spectators,” Christopher says in amazement. “There’s a different attitude to liability. I think it’s something like if you’re stupid enough to walk in front of a motorcycle coming hot down the pit lane, then you’re stupid.”
Post fuel-stop, Gary’s race was to last a short eight laps. “Gary came by after six or seven laps and there was a lot of smoke,” Ralph explains. “A lot of the pit stewards were just kids, so a kid with a pit board came over to me and asked, ‘Bike 35?’ I said yes. The kid said, ‘I’m afraid we’ve had to black flag him, there’s oil leaking on the track, I’m sorry.’ It was terribly sweet, like he really cared.” The GS1000’s clutch basket had shattered, cracking the case, hence the oil and smoke.
Christopher, meanwhile, was banging in regular 3:08s, noticing that his rivals were starting to fall by the wayside. On his 30th lap he passed the No. 71 Moto Guzzi of Italian team Moto Europa. In endurance racing it’s about the stopwatch, but every now and again two racers will share the same space and time on track. Team Europa had raced 12 places ahead at the start but were on a downward trend and with every lap would lose more places, while Team Guzzi Nerd was pushing ever higher.
The Nerd Guzzi was a study in metronomic efficiency. It punched out lap after lap, never faltering. Andrew, the newbie racer, would rev the old girl hard, using plenty of gears, plenty of brakes and plenty of acceleration to cut his laps. Christopher was letting the torque do the work, and was lapping faster, although ultimately not by much — Andrew had narrowed the gap to barely a half second by the end.
The final hour — which Christopher rode alone (Ralph and Gary were out) — is raced in total darkness. There’s some lighting around the pits and through Eau Rouge, but the bulk of the track is blanketed in a blackness only a forest can bring.
True to his qualifying run, Christopher was the night fighter, pushing his times down to 3:14, only 1.5 seconds off his fastest daytime qualifying lap. “There’s so little input, there’s just a few dots of reflectors to guide your way. You’re looking for the smallest markers on the side of the track. Your headlight points straight, and so you’re tipping into darkness on the tighter corners. You know it’s there and when you tip in eventually the red and white curbing will come into view and it’s a relief when it does. You’re always looking ahead of your headlight if you’re riding quickly. When I was riding to what I could see, I was going too slow.”
The checkered flag came down for the winner at 12:04.04 a.m. Forty-three of 70 starters would see it. Christopher saw it at 12:06.02, incredibly in 18th place. “Awesome!” Christopher exclaimed in the finishers’ enclosure. “That was the most memorable race of my life, for sure — nothing compares to this.”
“Today was better than winning. I’m more impressed the bike lasted the race — that I’m really proud about, that’s very cool,” Andrew says. “I’m not sure I knew what to expect,” Ralph throws in, “but it’s been great, the atmosphere, the track, the folks. The British Team Marlin we shared the pit with have been fantastic, amazing, so helpful. It was as good as I could have hoped for. I think we’ll be back!”
“I’ve enjoyed this immensely,” Gary adds. “I’m 62 years old, been racing since 1964, but this is a once in a lifetime experience, just amazing. I just don’t understand why no Americans have been here before. I just don’t understand it.” MC