Six Ways to Sunday: Hurry up and wait
The chain link fence was cool against my elbows as the shade brought the feeling of heat down to a manageable temp. It was still humid. Aggressively so. No amount of water poured down my throat seemed to be enough, and I was only walking around getting a lay of the land at BlackHawk Farms. The motorcycle was still in the van.
I was prepared for this feeling. After all, wrapping yourself in a massive armored cow hide is not exactly the coolest way to experience a northern Illinois summer weekend. At least for normal folk. For a group of people who are a few degrees off straight and true, it’s the perfect way. I did my best to blend into that group for 72 hours. It went better than expected, but there was still something that no one warned me about.
The joke is that any weekend at the track is better than a day in the office. If that’s true, I’m amazed at how much thumb twiddling the average worker does. It could also be that my week leading up to the Thursday drive to Blackhawk Farms in South Beloit, Illinois, was filled with a flurry of office work and then late nights in the garage doing a nearly complete engine teardown and rebuild. The $4 countershaft seal wrecked my planned weekend of racing at Gingerman Raceway, but with any luck a speed rebuild would hold together for some wide-open throttle action on a different track.
Gear refreshed and after an engine test run in the garage to check for leaks, I loaded up the van and piloted the “Big Red Express” south around the bottom of Lake Michigan, ready for a second attempt at placing last. That sounds harsh, but my humble XR250R never stood a chance in a field of modern 450cc purpose-built machines. That’s not the point of this project anyway. The goal is to show that you don’t have to have the nicest toys to go out and play in the sandbox. And what a sandbox it was.
The racing part was highly interesting, and the XR had surprisingly good manners. So much so that between practice rounds and races it needed nothing. Pull off the track, put the bike on the rear stand, check the tire pressure, and do a visual inspection for anything out of place before plopping down in a chair to wait. And wait. And then wait some more.
This hurry up and wait was the part of racing I had not mentally prepared for. None of the mentors I had discussed this project with mentioned that the time on track was a mere fraction of the time you spend at a race weekend. Steve McQueen got it at least partially right with his famous quote, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”
I arrived at the track as a tightly wound spring ready to burst forth and learn about going fast. Instead, it was about keeping myself entertained and ready while expelling as little energy as possible. I came ready to race, not sit around. That was my own fault.
After all, the schedules are published. I’ve been to the races before—literally just the week before—and got caught up in how there are always bikes on track. It never settled in my head that there are six practice groups that run in successive order. I would only be one of those. This means for every 15 minutes I’m on track, there would be over an hour of sitting in the pits. This was obvious, but that just never played out in my speed-addled daydreams. It was a rolling schedule, meaning each group would start as soon as the previous group wrapped up. It was predictable but also could be drastically different on a moments notice.
The first day it burned my nerves down. Feeling I needed to be ready to ride on a moment’s notice just wore me out. By Saturday I started to understand how to flip the mental switch so I could unwind between rounds and then, upon hearing first call for my practice or race, effectively prime the spring in time to be sharp when pointing the XR out of the pits and onto the track. Boy, was the XR ready for that.
Since the countershaft seal failure happened so early in race school the week before, I never got to truly run a full lap at speed, let alone in traffic. For everyone’s best interest I requested a slower practice group while going through tech inspection on Friday. This meant not only was I on a more even keel with the riders in practice, the speed differential was much lower between me and the fast folks in my practice group. I was still getting passed, but the closer relative speed allowed me to see what was happening and how to handle each situation. Following each of the four practice sessions, I picked a different bike that I’d seen on track and looked to find the rider in the paddock in an attempt to gain some feedback on things I was doing wrong or right. The blue 3XL t-shirt overtop of my leathers—signifying that I was a rookie—gave me a certain amount of leeway with most of the competitors whenever I made a mistake, and the act of seeking out the feedback of experienced riders went even further. People noticed that I was trying to get better, and they cut me some much appreciated slack.
The XR250R took right to pace. It was not the limiting factor in my lap times. Sure, it was “slow,” but I was slower. Following each session, the transponder on the right fork leg would tell me inarguable facts. Hard numbers. Over the course of the weekend my lap times got better and better, even during the races where I was forced to deal with traffic (more appropriately, as traffic had to deal with me.) The hour meter started the weekend at 7.5 and was over 10 before I loaded back up. The low power of the 250 meant it spent a lot of time at wide open throttle. This engine was not designed for that type of running, so the fact that it never so much as hiccupped was quite impressive. The suspension kept the bike predictable, and that massive 320mm front brake provided all the stopping force I could ask for and then some.
When the only thing I have to complain about is that I felt like I spent too much time waiting around, that’s a great weekend at the track. The fellow racers were so kind and helpful as I continue my education. The hardest part now is to not go out shopping for a faster bike, thinking that will make me competitive. The bike was underpowered, but I have a lot to learn before I’ll be able to find its full limit. I look forward to doing that, but it’s going to have to wait awhile because the XR is going back on the lift as soon as possible to get prepped for the next event.
The racing returns to dirt next month. Bring on the flat track.