What happens when a sane, reasonably well-adjusted 50-year-old abandons order and routine? He goes road racing in the SV Cup, of course, a sport that’s roused his inner predator and summoned the “Blood Red Haze.”
Why would someone 50-something want to race a motorcycle? A good question, one occasionally asked by my ex-wife, my sister, a nurse, and doctors. My daughter, who is 20, however, doesn’t ask. I realized a few years ago that I had only so many years left of serious physical activity. Surely I could have taken up bicycling, but I had raced motorcycles briefly in the early seventies, collecting an astounding string of near last places in amateur production (street legal) road racing with a Yamaha R5, a great bike that kept the rubber side down for an entire season despite my ignorance.
Later I motocrossed briefly, then flirted with death in the California desert, immediately followed by a near-drowning experience, cross-country racing in the Oregon woods in the rain. Overall, it was a short bout that left some hazy memories. I felt it was time to charge up the memory banks before everything became a senior moment.
Of the two wheel possibilities, grand prix (road racing) emerged as the only reasonable possibility. With an artificial hip, I just couldn’t take the bashing that serious off-road riding would require. In any case, if I wanted a scary ride over a nasty surface, any Quebec road would do. The real question was, what kind of machine could I ride? The serious boys and girls start in the in-line four-cylinder 600cc class playing with about 100 horsepower. Success in this class can lead to a professional career.
Also, this is where you get the most bang for your buck on the purchasing end. This option isn’t so sweet however, when you consider that serious racers will burn off a set of racing tires in a day. That’s about $400. I talked to one fairly active 600 amateur racer and he said that he spent $40,000 yearly racing across the country. Ouch.
The second thing that bothered me was all those intense, young and sometimes-not folks riding the 600s. There is often a grid of 30 people starting and that can make starts a spine-tingling experience. Corners often are dominated by testosterone and not judgment. After a few seconds of serious thought, I gave up on the 600s.
There was one class, however, that stood out. Suzuki launched a new motorcycle in 1999, the SV650. This is a 650cc V-Twin sporty bike with about 70 horsepower. It is more fun to ride than the in-line fours because of its high torque all through the power band. It doesn’t sound like a sewing machine and isn’t demanding in terms of gear choice. The design lacks much of the sophistication of a 600 machines but it is about $3,000 less to buy. Surprisingly, on the track, the SV650s are only slightly slower than the 600s, so Suzuki got the design right.
Suzuki promoted the bike by sponsoring a class for this bike only (the SV Cup). The class has grown very rapidly but is still small compared to that of the 600s. Most importantly, the racers don’t take themselves too seriously. Had it not been for this class and the friendly people that I met as I visited the track, I probably wouldn’t have raced.
I GOT INTO SV CUP RACING TO COLLECT SOME MEMORIES, AND THERE ARE some great ones. The first time I touched my knee down on the track, a tremendous moment, I came back to the pits and the guys indulged my “I did it” joy with smiles normally reserved for children who announce themselves to be potty trained. Another particularly spectacular memory is my duel with Tanya Doyon at the end of last summer. Eventually she passed me after I got into a moderate rear wheel slide, but what a battle that was. But surprisingly, as I cycle back through my mind over the seasons, the most vivid memories I have are of the crashes. Each has distinct colour images, sensations and the most powerful lessons.
On the road, I’m a very sane driver and certainly not competitive. On the track, however, something happens when I start moving up on someone. The predator in me emerges.
My first race in the SV Cup, in 2003, was at Ste-Eustache about 30 minutes from Montreal. It’s a small and sometimes bumpy track, generally not well thought of. I was at the back of the pack and comfortable with that. My second race was also at Ste-Eustache and this time I passed someone. I was in “The Blood Red Haze” and the predator had possessed me. As I passed someone else before heading onto the back straight I was exhilarated as I had not been for 20 years. The feeling was indescribable. My most recent victim passed me at the end of the straight, turn six, and we went through turn seven leading to the hairpin. The hairpin, turn eight, leads out onto a short straight and is also the start of the drag strip. In my excitement, I downshifted once more than usual. With my prey right in front of me, leaned way over, I accelerated too hard leading into a low-side crash along with a surrealistically slow slide on my back across the track. What happened to me or the SV? Almost nothing. My shift lever was bent but my frame sliders had protected the bike. I was elated. I was invulnerable. Dropping a bike didn’t hurt you or the bike. Of course, I learned a bit about throttle control, but that wasn’t my take-home lesson.
MY LAST RACE OF THE FIRST SEASON SV CUP WAS AT MOSPORT, ABOUT an hour east of Toronto. The track is heavenly. It’s beautiful, with fast sweeping turns, ups and downs, just magnificent. I learned the track on Saturday and during the Sunday race I found myself trapped behind two slugs. I could tell that I could go faster, but these guys were dueling and blocking me. In Moss’s corner, turn 5a, the only tight corner of the track, I made a bold move and tried an outside pass. The other rider barely tapped me, but I went off into the dirt. I low-sided again but unfortunately my frame slider no longer slid. Instead, it acted as an anchor for the bike and I flipped forward slamming my shoulder and face into the ground. After I had opened up my face shield to shake the dirt out, the corner medic gave me a thorough check-out and said “you bounce just like the young guys.” It was funny then, but four hours later the humour wasn’t quite as rich. Without a single major injury, I could barely drive home the next day. The lessons were simple and profound. First, I certainly wasn’t invulnerable and in fact, crashes could really hurt. Second, passing requires some very clever riding and planning. It’s probably the hardest part of racing.
SEASON TWO : Back at It
MY DAUGHTER MADE ME PROMISE THAT THE SECOND SEASON OF THE SV Cup WOULD be different. “No crashing,” she said. On the first lap of the first practice session of the first day of the 2004 season, I low-sided again at Ste-Eustache. I was shocked, enraged and mystified. Motorcycles fall for a reason. After much questioning, the problem was tracked down to tires. There is a lot to be said about tires, proper temperature, usage and so on. I became an avid apprentice of the Michelin tire man and managed to stay upright the rest of the season. I had regained my confidence and improved considerably by the end of the season when I dueled with Tanya …
For this year’s SV Cup, I started using tire warmers. They allow you to start your ride at close to operating temperature for maximum traction and they can also prolong the life of your tires. Tires are, by far, the most expensive consumable at the track. A set may last only four days so careful heat control is essential.
At Shannonville Speedway, about a half hour west of Kingston, I touched my exhaust pipe in a tight corner . To compensate I decided to get some more height by adjusting the suspension to raise the bike. Coming off of the back straight at Ste-Eustache the next race day I made a right hander leading to the infamous hair pin, and I low-sided at turn seven. Vivid memories of sliding, face down this time, over grass. A new experience—face down, much better over grass, very peaceful and colourful. Once again, it was practice, but I had been using tire warmers. What happened? Once again, the postmortem revealed that it was probably a combination of techno things.
First, I had most likely cooked my tires by overheating them for long periods on previous race days. Second, I had adjusted my suspension up about 20mm. Bad move. That changes the rake angle, steering geometry and shifts the weight dramatically. I should have adjusted only 1mm at a time. The good news was that my new rigid back-set foot pegs acted like frame sliders and only the rear brake lever was damaged. Since I don’t use the rear brake, I taped over the broken end and took myself out on the track for the afternoon race. About halfway through the race, I was riding in a very controlled fashion because I was still a bit shaken up. A few drops of water had fallen on my visor, and in the hairpin I pulled out onto the drag strip area where I crashed two years ago. Bang! I went down again with a low-side fall showering sparks as my bike slid away on my rigid foot pegs. Someone else went down at the other end of the track almost simultaneously, and the officials stopped the race until the track dried. There wasn’t any serious damage, but I’d completely had it. The lessons here are twofold. Specifically, “don’t ride in the rain … especially on the drag strip.” More importantly, sometimes you have to listen to The Force, and it says unambiguously, “Don’t race at Ste-Eustache.”
I’ve gone back to racing, of course. I’m still in my post-crash confidence restoration phase, but the path is well trodden. Look for me, why don’t you? I’m the old guy with the scarred leathers.
by Eric Salon Canadian Biker Issue #216