When I moved to California in the late 90's I packed everything I owned into the largest Penske truck that I could rent without needing a special license. The seat was uncomfortable, there was no cruise control, but knowing I would never have to endure another midwest winter made it worthwhile. The drive from Wisconsin starts off pretty flat, gets way flatter when you start passing though the fly-over states, and then boom... Mountains. I was not exactly sure if the truck was going to make it up that first big climb. The motor bogged, wheezed, and sputtered all the way up. As I watched the tach needle start pointing at higher numbers while the speedo needle did the opposite I knew I needed to approach the next climb with a bit more momentum.
This memory popped into my head as prepared to go out for my first practice session of round 1.
2020 was a massive hill for the majority of humanity to climb. I watched people at their own personal redlines going absolutely nowhere, and I am not ashamed to admit that I was right there with them some days. I opted to not race in 2020 so I could devote 100% of my time at the track to my photo business and the health of the AFM in general. I knew that in order for me to get back to where I was as a racer, I was going to need to build as much momentum in that first practice session of 2021 to get up the hill of not racing for a year. Back to my drive out to California for a minute. As I crested that first big hill, I kept my foot to the floor figuring that with the hammer down I would have no issues with the next rise. Once the I started to build speed, however, the truck started to act up. I was met with an abrupt disruption of fuel delivery that was jolting enough for me to get on the brakes and pull over at the bottom of the hill. Not ideal, but given I had no idea how severe the problem was it was the smartest option. This memory popped into my head as I entered the bus stop on my first lap of practice.
Over the wheelie bump, the bike hesitated. It did it again in Riverside, and three more times between Riverside and the esses. I threw my hand up and pitted in, meeting a surprised-to-see-me-so-soon Jim from Catalyst Reaction at my pit. He looked some things over, tightened a slightly loose shift linkage and reminded me to not bump the quickshifter. I thumbed the starter to find that my battery was dead, and after a failed bump start that my slipper clutch put the kibosh on, I begrudgingly put my bike on the stands, my tires on their warmers, my battery on a charger, and my ass in a chair. The first time that I had to pull that stupid truck over, I was also baffled. I looked things over, made sure nothing was obviously disconnected under the hood, and started the truck again. It fired right up, and off I went to climb another hill with no momentum. I remembered this as I rolled out for my second practice session of the day.
I was hyper aware of my foot position on the rearset. There was no way that I was bumping anything, but the bike was sputtering through left handers, right handers, straights, on acceleration, on maintenance throttle... You get the point. I pit in again without gaining any momentum. Since it had rained the night before and the bike had been outside, I turned to the possibility of maybe having bad gas in the machine. I found a siphon (Thanks Gordon!), a bucket to dump fuel into (Thanks Dean!) and again bugged Jim for his expertise. He examined the fuel, looked into my tank, and gave both a clean bill of health. He then suggested that I remove the quickshifter...as he was removing my quickshifter. When the truck hesitated on the second downhill, I decided I should call the rental company and exited the freeway to find a payphone. The conversation went a bit like this. Obviously not the exact conversation, but for the sake of a race report it will do. Me: Hey man, this truck is acting up. It feels like the motor is cutting out, but only when going downhill. Him: You goin' 'bout 68?
Him: You know that thing's got a governor. Can't go 68. Gotta keep it under that. Me: ... ... Him: They shoulda toldja that. Me: They did not. How the hell am I supposed to get up these hills?
Him: You didn't hear it from me, but if you put 'er in neutral and shut 'er down at 65, you can turn 'er back on and hit the hill with more speed. Just don't turn 'er on above 65. You did here this next bit from me, don't ever shut 'er down when you are moving cuz your steering and brakes are crap. Understand? Anything else?
I politely said thanks, and took his advice. The next downhill I shifted to neutral at about 60, shut the motor off, and used the weight of everything I owned to build speed. Once I got to about 60 on the next rise I fired things up again. While it was a bit scary, I had the momentum I needed to keep going.
Back at the track, I didn't have the ability to test out Jim's theory until the outlap of my Formula 40 Middleweight race. I told myself that if the bike was behaving I would grid up, even if it meant that I was starting from a dead stop at the bottom of a massive hill to climb. I knew I was going to be off pace, but I am a fairly consistent rider and that when the heavyweights came by I wouldn't be a hazard. Jim's handy work did the trick, and as I approached my grid spot I noticed that there was a bit of confusion about who was supposed to be where on the row in front of me, with a rider first trying to move into the spot occupied by El Presidente, and then settling into a row of his own between Berto and me. I put it in my mind to get a great start and leave the loner to his own devices somewhere behind me. The green flag dropped and shockingly I was not last going into turn one...or two...or three... by the wheelie bump I could still hear a bike behind me. That didn't last long, and soon I was all by myself at the back of the race.
Lap three, Stephen Rue saw that I was lonely and gave me a little tap on my right foot with his left rearset going through cotton corners. I always struggle a bit there and was likely a touch off line. He told me later that he thought I was taking the "courtesy line" that I have given him before and didn't expect me to drift back to the racing line. He went off but thanks to experience he stayed upright. Once he rerouted himself back on track I settled in behind him hoping to follow at least through the busstop. As it turns out Rue is much, MUCH, MUCH faster than I am (duh) and I hit the wheelie bump at a speed I have never done before. When the front started to gain altitude at an aggressive pace I went to drag a little rear brake to keep it honest. The new-found stabbing pain in my ankle made this impossible, and once the front wheel came back to earth I ended up going straight through the access road. I reentered the track at Riverside and knowing I was a lap down I settled into a slow rhythm doing my best to stay out of everyone's way. I brought things home relieved to be finished, albeit slightly battered. Climbing off the bike with a little help (Thanks Paul!) I was reminded of the last few hills that I climbed in that giant Penske truck.
By the time I had made it into Reno I knew I didn't have much farther to go. My back was sore, my ankle was stiff due to no cruise control, and I knew I would still have to trick the truck into going against how it was built in order to make it to my new home. I knew that there were some calculated risks that would need to be taken not just on my move to California, but for life in general. I had a sense of accomplishment that was building with every hill I conquered, every mile I put behind me.
Round two is a bit over a month away and I have a mountain of things to do to prepare. But unlike going into round one, I have momentum.