The motto of the great State of Kansas, where I have lived my entire life, is “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” a Latin phrase meaning “To the stars through adversity.” This seemed like a fitting sentiment as I reflected on the happenings of this summer’s Topeka AHRMA event.
On Thursday before the race weekend began, Editor Hall and I pulled into Heartland Park with the Sea Beast in tow. We decided on our pit location and began the process of setting up camp. We made pleasantries with the neighbors, one of whom told me he had been following this project. I was flattered to say the least. I’ve always assumed a few people outside my immediate circle of friends and family had read my blog, but I can’t say I ever expected to actually hear that directly from them. As it turned out, these amicable neighbors were a group of gentlemen also racing CB350s. Scott Wilson was racing Production Lightweight AND Heavyweight on his CB, and David Miller and Bill Howard were racing their own CBs in the Sportsman 350 class. Supporting the group was Chuck, whose last name evades me (sorry, Chuck), the wrench behind Rebel Dog Racing. These guys were friendly, they were fast, and they became a corner post in my race campaign right off the bat.
I was extremely nervous about passing tech inspection; I had never done it before, and it was kind of the final exam of my project. I asked one of my new pit-neighbor-friends if they would mind taking a look over my bike to see if anything glaring was going to cause me to fail tech. With tech opening at 7 a.m. on Friday morning and race school beginning at 8, failure was not an option. David took a walk around the Sea Beast and pointed out a handful of fasteners that the tech inspector would want to see safety wired. I made the recommended alterations and got as prepared as possible for the long day ahead before I tried to get some rest.
No amount of rest could have prepared me for the long day ahead, but it didn’t matter because I hardly got any anyways. My nervousness and excitement combined with the unrelenting heat of June in Kansas made for a rather un-restorative night of tossing and turning in my tent. At 5:30 a.m. I got up, ate breakfast, and lugged my gear, the Sea Beast, and the thousand-pound lead weight in my stomach up to the tech building.
The first AHRMA official I encountered asked for my name and transponder number. “So you’re Shane Powers …” This might be really good, or really bad. Has he read my writings? Is he aware that I’m a mechanic of intermediate aptitude, throwing my final product at the mercy of his tech team? I never found out. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask him to. To my eternal surprise, the inspector looked around, twisted and released my throttle to ensure it snapped back properly, squeezed my front brake lever, and put his sticker of approval on my front number plate! Amazed at having overcome my first, and what I thought would be largest, obstacle of the weekend, I returned the bike to my pit and double-timed it over to the Fast & Safe classroom.
On to the track
The first classroom session was brief. We discussed the various flags we could encounter as new racers, took some specific instruction regarding our first few laps, and onto the track we went. That’s when it all started coming unglued. Having come down to the wire on completing the bike at all, and not having access to a suitable location to test the bike at speed, the Sea Beast had not been thoroughly proven. I had ridden it around my block a couple times in constant fear of encountering an officer of the law who might want to discuss my lack of lights or registration. As I turned the bike onto the track for the first lap, it was almost immediately apparent that something was amiss; this thing’s a dog! I didn’t know exactly what the Sea Beast should be capable of in terms of performance, but I knew there was a massive disparity between the claimed top speed of 110mph and the roughly 40mph I was currently capable of achieving. After a few laps around the track at ego-bruising slow speeds, we returned to the classroom where I was promptly dismissed to fix my bike.
One thing at a time, and one failed track session after the next, various mechanics and I worked our way through possible fixes; pod filters were first altered, then removed. Fuel filters were removed. Timing was checked. I limped the poor Sea Beast, and dragged my dejected self, through a gauntlet of wrenching, testing, classroom training, testing, wrenching, and testing again. I was able to keep the bike on the track for all required activities, I passed my verbal exam, and I was granted a probationary AHRMA race license, but I was also told “you can’t take that machine on the track tomorrow if it’s not fixed!” Friday night found Editor Hall and myself checking and re-jetting carburetors with some smaller main jets provided by our pit-neighbor-friends.
With the new jets in place, I set out for my first real race on Saturday morning. My family and a few friends had come to watch, which only made it worse when the bike seemed fixed, and then lost power before turn one of the warm-up lap. I left the track unable to grid for my first race and feeling lower than dirt.
The bad news was plenty; I had missed my race, embarrassed myself in front of my friends and family, I had built a bike that I could probably outrun in a foot race, and even with the help of some great mechanical minds, I couldn’t figure out why! The good news seemed only one; it was early in the day and I wasn’t expected back on the track for 24 hours. I was battered, but not yet beaten.
The problem was eventually discovered in fuel delivery. A faulty petcock was dripping enough fuel into the carburetors to make the bike go, but not enough to go fast. One last time, our pit-neighbor-friends came to the rescue! First they commiserated: “Those petcocks are garbage!” Then they guided: “Here’s what we do.” I was handed a hardware store shut-off valve and given a list of necessary supplies to gather. A run to the local hardware store for a couple brass fittings was made before lunch. As I licked my wounds at a nearby brewpub, Editors Hall and Fellenstein kindly assembled my new fuel supply gizmo and left it in the pit for me to install upon my return.
If the Sea Beast is the astronaut turned bionic super-spy, Steve Austin, the new petcock is Hellraiser. All function and no form, this collection of brass and rubber held together with myriad hose clamps was exactly what the doctor ordered! I completed Sunday morning’s practice session at speed and I was pulled from the depths of despair one more time as the last race of the weekend loomed mere hours away. My family gathered again, and I set out to grid for the first time.
There were four racers on my grid including the Sea Beast and me. I was vibrating with nerves and excitement as I pulled into position, put the bike in neutral, and watched the starter. On his cues, I clicked the Sea Beast into first gear. The cacophony of engine and exhaust noise grew around and within me. With no tachometer on the bike it was hard to judge how present a part of that cacophony my own machine was. No matter. The green starting flag went down, I dropped the clutch, and the Sea Beast lifted its front wheel like a tiny, pissed-off bull out of the chute. I giggled like a leather-clad child at the absurdity of it and opened the throttle as I pushed towards Turn 1. In my first lap, I passed someone! With my class consisting of four racers, I was in a podium position! First and second place had a sizeable lead on me, but I could see them!
At this point I feel it’s prudent to pause the race story and impart a lesson Andrew Cowell shared during race school, and a piece of racer lore David Miller shared early in the weekend, both of which were apparently lost on me. Andrew’s lesson was this: race the track first, then race the competition. David told me “I’ve got new leathers this weekend and if I go out on the track in them, I’m going to go down. That’s why first thing tomorrow morning, I’m going to put them on and go roll around in that dirt over there.” I told him I would be right there next to him in my shiny Vanson suit. In all the mechanical hullabaloo, I must have missed that party.
Turns 5 and 6 at Heartland Park are a relatively sharp right, followed quickly by an extremely sharp left. On my second lap I successfully negotiated Turn 5, but I knew I was too hot coming into the sixth. I minded my lessons; look through the turn, brake hard, don’t crash … the first two went pretty well. So well, indeed, that I was as surprised as anyone when suddenly I found myself no longer riding the Sea Beast, but instead sliding along beside it. I had three thoughts in very short order. First: “So this is crashing. It’s not so bad.” Second: “I hope my bike is OK.” And third: “I hope my leathers are OK.” As both rider and machine came to rest in the grass, I took stock: I’m OK. No major damage. I picked up the Sea Beast. It seemed OK as well, but some perceived twists in the front end made me feel uncomfortable getting back on and finishing the race. The bike turned out to be OK as well, and as I stood in the grass waiting for the tow truck to come pull us from the course, I thought “This is the perfect ending to the story. If I couldn’t win, I’m glad I crashed.”
With the crash behind me, and the race bike still capable of racing, I look forward to getting some more track time under my belt. I hope to participate in some track days at Heartland Park where I will sharpen my track skills. Over the winter, I plan to straighten up the bike’s bent bits and improve my racing/pit setup so I can give the 2020 AHRMA season my best effort. I owe so many debts of gratitude to so many people for making this happen for me. All my sponsors, my family, the AHRMA team, my friends and colleagues here at Motorcycle Classics, and the guys at Rebel Dog Racing … I couldn’t have fallen without you! MC
The AHRMA Fast & Safe Roadracing School
Recently I undertook a project that culminated in my first experience riding a motorcycle on a race track. It was exhilarating in a number of ways, and I immediately understood how a person could grow to like it. Opportunities to really see the outer limits of our riding abilities and those of our machines are few and far between, but there is no denying the joy to be had in opening the throttle of a vintage motorcycle and leaning into a long sweeping curve. Maybe you’ve participated in track days at your local race track, or maybe you’ve never been on a race track before, but you think there might be a place for you on the grid at an AHRMA race. Regardless of your level of experience on the track, there is something for you to learn at AHRMA’s Fast & Safe Roadracing School.
Fast & Safe School is the high-speed version of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse. When you take the MSF course they teach you about lane positioning and that a motorcycle is, in fact, capable of running over a 2×4 should you ever encounter any loose lumber on the road. When you take the Fast & Safe Roadracing School, they teach you not to look backwards, you learn the on-track communication system and how to read the various flags, and you learn the best practices to observe as you and half a dozen of your closest friends race yourselves, race the track, and race one another.
Your experience at Fast & Safe School will be divided into a series of rotations between classroom time and track time, plus a provided authentic race track lunch of a turkey sandwich and chips! First thing in the morning, directly after passing tech inspection, you will report to the classroom where the instructor will give you the most basic of instruction. Next is a briefing on entering and exiting the track, as well as a few hand signals that the instructor will use to guide you on your first track session. You’ll be shown the “lines” of your specific track; essentially a map of the most efficient path to follow around the course.
After this brief initiation, you’ll don your race gear and head out for a few laps. Upon returning from your first track session, if you ride anything like I did, your instructor will kindly tell you that you’re terrible at being on the track, why you’re terrible at being on the track, and what you should do to become less terrible at being on the track. Some pieces of advice I heard in the classroom after the first track session were, “Study the map of the track, make sure you’re staying on your line,” and, “We’re going to work on your body positioning. I don’t want you cornering any faster until you’re getting your knee down.” That last one wasn’t directed at me. In fact, I was chided for being too slow. As mentioned, some mechanical issues caused my bike to run poorly all day while I was in school. It was a major point of frustration and worry because I thought if I wasn’t present for every minute of class that I would fail the course and not be able to race the weekend. I learned that it was acceptable to miss a little classroom time to work on the bike, even though it isn’t ideal. There is so much important technical information disseminated during classroom time that I wish I could take the course again to gather what I missed and refresh what simply didn’t stick the first time.
Once you’ve completed your day of cycling on and off the track, you will face what essentially amounts to two “final exams.” The first, and by far the most fun, is the mock race. During the mock race you and your classmates will grid just as you would in an official race. Other racers who are present for the weekend, AHRMA staff, and anybody so inclined will gather at the starting line to cheer. The flag man will do his ritualistic dance and the field will take off. Your goal is to go fast, because it’s a race, but not too fast! Remember, this is your field exam and failure to complete it (i.e., crashing your bike or flogging it into mechanical disability) is failure of the course.
Upon successful completion of the mock race, only one final hurdle will stand between you and the illustrious world of vintage motorcycle racing: the one-on-one verbal exam with your instructor. During this exam the instructor will quiz you about the most important pieces of information you should have learned throughout the day; the four rules of road racing, how to react to different scenarios on the track, and what to do when you see any and all of the various flags that could potentially be waved at you. Having bested your mentor in this battle of wits, you will be handed your certificate of completion and with a firm handshake you will be an officially probationary AHRMA licensed racer!
If this sounds to you like the perfect way to spend a Friday, check out the race schedule. AHRMA offers the Fast & Safe Roadracing School at every race weekend of the year with the exception of Barber. The price for the Fast & Safe School is $300 for the day, a great value when you consider the hours of classroom time, numerous laps around the track, and individual instruction from seasoned racers. For more, visit the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association website
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