Six Ways to Sunday: Code word discomfort

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Casey Maxon

It’s worth discussing one important part of this story up front. The people I interact with seem to fall into two camps: those who embrace discomfort, and those who want nothing but comfort. In this modern society, it has never been easier to stay inside your comfort bubble. I am one of those who seeks out discomfort … and also revels in making it back to the “safety” of the known. Lately, I’ve been trying to discover where on the discomfort-embracing/comfort-seeking spectrum I actually fall, and my trek to the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association’s Heartland Motofest was a telling time.

My best stories never begin with an explanation of how comfortable I was. The whole scheme of Six Ways to Sunday is campaigning one motorcycle in six different kinds of racing. In itself, this is a recipe for being uncomfortable, and I nominated myself to do it. How bad could it really be?

***

Kyle Smith pickup loaded
Kyle Smith

“You need to drive faster” were not the words I wanted to hear, hours into a day-long odyssey from Traverse City, Michigan, to Topeka, Kansas. Together with Kyle Bowen, who manages Hagerty’s motorcycle insurance program, I was rumbling down the road in a fully loaded pickup: three motorcycles, gear, and two people in a regular-cab, short-box ’99 Silverado. Such trucks have surely worked harder, but I’m not one to tax my equipment on the first leg of a journey. If we were late, so be it.

We blew through the gates of Heartland Motorsports Park right as the wind began to pick up. After affixing plastic bracelets around our wrists, the kind couple who stayed late to check us in gave us our first bit of bad news. “The space for off-road camping was supposed to be over there,” they said, with a vague gesture into the dark sky that meant nothing to our road-weary minds, “but with all the rain in the last two weeks, it is just a swamp.” Tent camping in a gravel parking lot it is. Time to embrace the discomfort.

heartland motofest first night camp
Kyle Smith

After 14 hours together in the truck, the one-person tents felt all too cozy—an illusion that was rudely shattered when massive raindrops began to pelt the blue poly taffeta. As a native Kansan, I wasn’t surprised by the storm’s sudden, severe onslaught, but the gravel lot we were calling home was not equally prepared. The bottom of my tent soon felt like a waterbed. After four hours of trying our damnedest to sleep (and failing miserably), we admitted defeat, crawled into the truck, and headed for an early breakfast at a diner just down the road from the track. Little did we know that, 24 hours into the adventure with no appreciable sleep, the hard part hadn’t even begun.

Coffee and pancakes gave us the will to live, and we headed back to the track to dry out the bikes for tech inspection. Bowen would ride my 1988 Honda XR200R in the same events in which I would be competing with the super-fresh ’89 Honda XR250R. I would be knocking out two of the six disciplines for my Six Ways to Sunday project. The cross-country course was laid out fresh for Motofest, but back-to-back weeks of heavy rain made the organizers nervous about how the course would hold up to hundreds of riders ripping through the woods—if they would even be able to ride through it at all.

Tech inspection was a breeze. Off-road disciplines are a lot less stressful in this regard simply because the speeds, and therefore the risk, are far lower than those experienced in road-course events. Does the throttle have a return spring? Brakes have stopping force? Race numbers clear and present? If yes to all three, you are more than likely good to go. The bare-minimum criteria likely caused the second headache of this trip.

Due to the overcast and chilly weather, the course wasn’t drying out much as the Friday afternoon start-time approached. The organizers made the call to push the race a day in the hope that a warmer, sunnier, and windier Friday would help bring the course into shape. Friday then became a knock-around day for me and the motley crew of friends that had joined us for the weekend: Kyle Bowen, my passenger for the ride down; Casey, who lives near the track; and Evan, who flew in with a backpack full of riding gear for a weekend of fun. This was a reunion of sorts after our last race weekend in 2019 at the Barber Vintage Festival. With a racing schedule wiped clean by the weather, we had plenty of time to cook up dinner and walk around the paddock making friends while chatting motorcycles. The organizers even brought in a band for the kickoff party that evening.

heartland motofest tunnel
Kyle Smith

Saturday broke early, and I fired up the camp stove for some hot coffee to carry to the riders’ meeting. The weather was brisk if you stood still, but the temperature was perfect for vintage, air-cooled machines to race with minimal risk of overheating. The riders’ meeting ran longer than expected, leaving just 10 minutes for me to grab a helmet, fire up the XR250, and head across the street to the starting line. Not exactly a stressful margin, if everything went properly. I coaxed the XR to life—only to hear Evan’s voice cut through the dull roar of multiple exhausts.

“Shut it down, shut it down!”

heartland motofest Kyle Smith flatlanders tent
Casey Maxon

In a short five or six seconds, my thumper engine had produced a sizable oil puddle. The group gathered around as I kicked the bike over with my thumb, ready to push the kill switch almost as soon as it fired. We quickly spotted the leak: the line that led from the oil pump up to steering neck-mounted oil cooler. Chaos ensued as we attempted to make the starting line in time, but after one attempt to disassemble/reassemble, we realized this bike was not going to make the flag drop.

I hadn’t driven across the country just to drink beer in a parking lot, though.

We dug into the tool stash. Between my meager travel toolkit and Casey’s robust one (he only had to drive 20 minutes from home, so he packed everything, including the kitchen sink) we looked at spare O-rings—that were just the wrong size—and RTV sealer before settling on a real home-brew fix.

Evan devised a plan to trim a sliver off a chunk of fuel hose. The inner diameter was a bit smaller than either of us really wanted, but it would still allow plenty of flow through the engine. We cleaned everything as best we could in a gravel parking lot while covered in oil and cinched down the 6-mm bolt that held the line in place. After topping off the oil, I tickled the kickstarter while Evan watched the line. The engine sputtered to life, and the bodged seal held strong through minutes of idling on the stand.

We shut down the engine and walked over to the registration booth. By switching from the novice to the intermediate category, we could still manage to race that day—with a batch of faster, better prepared riders. Enter a different kind of discomfort. Add the thought that, at any point, the “new” seal could fail, pump out all my oil, and within seconds turn my freshly rebuilt engine to scrap metal, and there was a little bit of stress brewing.

Luckily, humor interrupted this thought pattern. We started our machines and puttered over to the starting line where the other racers were gathering. My row was not incredibly popular, as my class had six competitors. The gentleman who lined up next to me had a battle-worn Husqvarna automatic. He leaned over after the starting instructions and asked if I had any pictures of my bike. Confused, I responded that of course I had pictures of the fresh build.

“Good, because it’s never gonna look like that again. It’s muddy out there right now. Have fun!”

AHRMA utilizes a dead engine start for its cross-country races, meaning that riders must kill their engines roughly a minute before the starter waves the green flag for their row and sends them off racing. Unconcerned with being the first bike into the woods, I watched the experienced riders skillfully kick their machines and take off with a precision that, given the age of the machines, was really quite shocking. By taking my time leaving the line, I had clear trail in front of me and I immediately appreciated it.

The course had clearly dried out a bit, but the mud was greasy and seemed bottomless. I was happy to have rolled on a new rear tire, but the fresh rubber didn’t feel very effective. There was no way to turn the throttle slowly enough to keep traction. The bottom-end torque I love so much when riding the XR250 on the sandy northern Michigan trails made any attempts at locomotion in the long mud slogs a tire-spinning, mud-flinging affair. My boots spent more time on the ground acting as outriggers than they did on the pegs.

One thing that kept me going was knowing that the race length was set in time, not laps. If I could manage to fumble my way around for one hour, I would be a finisher, and luck alone would put me in anything but last place. While struggling my way through the mucky course and watching as more skilled riders lapped me, it crossed my mind that my lack of speed might be preventing my success. Wheels are gyroscopes, and those only work if they are spinning, right? Good science, bad idea. Picking up the bike after dumping it at speed confirmed my original plan was the best for the situation at hand.

I should have strapped a watch or timer of some kind to the handlebars so I could have an idea of where I was in the race. Without a time reference, it was difficult to properly ration my meager and rapidly decreasing strength. When the black-and-white checkers appeared across the clearing that led into the old railway boxcar, which served as the checkpoint and finish line, I audibly sighed inside my helmet. The slog of a race wrapped, Bowen and I commiserated over cold drinks. Muddy gear dried on tailgates. Brats burned on the camp stove.

heartland motofest Kyle Smith post cross country chat 2
Casey Maxon

As I lay down in my tent that night after an entire day spent in varying shades of discomfort, I couldn’t help but feel excitement at the thought of doing it all again. The XR and I had survived our first challenge of the Six Ways to Sunday adventure; the next day, the bike and I were scheduled to take on the motocross course—an event I’d never attempted. Right back to the uncertainty and discomfort.

Honda XR250R after cross country
Kyle Smith
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