Six Ways to Sunday: Left turns only (sort of)

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Stephanie Vetterly

After three race weekends this year, I am finally hitting a groove on one thing: Packing the van. The Honda XR250R is a new challenge at every turn, with each event forcing me back to my dog-eared AHRMA handbook to ensure that both the bike and I will be legal and welcome to take to the (usually far-flung) track. But the packing is easy. Nearly meditative. It’s as simple as running through a mental checklist, evaluating each step against the previous trip’s preparation. Oddly enough, my latest race was the same form of measured progress.

Flat-track racing is second only to drag racing in its simplicity: The course is a short, dirt oval—flat, obviously, with no banking. Races are based on lap count. So straightforward. It’s got to be the easiest event on my ridiculous, six-discipline calendar right?

Wrong.

Kyle Smith dirt track start liine
Stephanie Vetterly

The simplicity of flat-track racing creates highly specialized motorcycles. Even more event-specific than the motards I ran with on the road course. Lowered suspension valved particularly for the left turns, 19-inch wheels with blocky race rubber, and altered steering geometry are just the start. I did none of those things to my XR before arriving at Pine Lake Raceway just outside Ashtabula, Ohio. I was little nervous I was going to embarrass myself, or be told I could not compete due to my XR’s long-travel suspension. Luckily, the conversation at the registration table went a little differently.

“You must be my sole preregistration.”

“I am, but I’m a little nervous about this because my bike has too much travel according to the rulebook.”

“Man, if you show up with a bike, I will find a class for you to race. I’m not about to turn anyone away who came to play.”

My kinda place.

I hadn’t even brewed a cup of coffee on my little camp stove before the track prep started, with heavy equipment smoothing, raking, smoothing, watering, and smoothing the dirt again. My registration was for only the short track, but somewhere in conversations with the registration table, I was coaxed into signing up for the TT. Short for tourist trophy, this event takes the short-track oval and replaces one of the straightaways with a trip through the infield for a right turn and a jump. Only problem: I hadn’t come prepared for that.

Mentally I did, but like an idiot I left the removed front brake components in the garage. A front brake is allowed—often encouraged—for TT races, whereas it is banned for short track. When I loaded up, laser-focused on what I’d need for the main event, I didn’t even have the TT in mind. I could still run it, just at a disadvantage.

And what a disadvantage it was. The TT ran first and as soon as I rolled out for practice, I knew I was in trouble. Not because the XR was too fast or that I didn’t have enough stopping power, but because my stopping power did not last. More than about four laps at any kind of quick pace and the new set of EBC brake shoes tucked inside that rear brake drum built heat and caused the whole operation to fade. This is where I have to eat my words a little bit. When I began this project, more than a few commenters said that the rear brake was worthless. I countered with a litany of statements about proper setup and the fact that I’d never had an issue before. This last weekend cut the knees form under my second argument: I had never had problems with the rear brake because I am so comfortable using the front one. Maybe too comfortable, even—and that was why I spent so much time on the ground during the wet cross-country race earlier this year.

Kyle Smith TT small jump
Stephanie Vetterly

I decided to ride like a brakeless rider and use the healthy compression of my thumper to pull the bike down. This took all my self discipline because the tight TT course included two nice tabletop jumps that the XR loved. High-flying antics aside, the TT also served as extended practice to both literally and figuratively get in the racing groove. With each sweeping left corner, Danny Walker or J.D. Beach’s voice called out all the things wrong with my body position or line choice. Elbow up. Straighten that inside arm. Push the bike down with your outside leg. Move over on the damn seat.

The TT flew by, and I returned to my shady pit to reassess my choices and triage the failing rear brake. Part of the problem was that the axle-adjuster was shifting, thus allowing the rear wheel to move forward ever so slightly. This slackened the chain and, due to the mechanical connection between the brake lever and rear hub, effectively lengthened the adjuster rod for the brake. An easy fix, which restored a slight amount of braking power. Knowing I was on borrowed time, during practice for the short track event I focused on body position rather than twisting the throttle all the way to the stop.

The conservation play worked. Despite a small grid of well-prepared flat track machines I was not in last place when the day was done. During the heats and mains for the short track, I put up a decent battle with a DT175. Going back and forth with him brought down my lap times and generally resulted in a fun time. After he got a nice inside pass on me, I set up mid-corner to drive out underneath him only to watch his bike get checked up pretty hard. After that I could still hear his two-stroke pipe stalking me, but he seemed to fall back with each lap. Turns out, his shifter fell off. A win is a win. I’ll take it.

Pulling off the track, the rear hub was scorching hot, adjuster full in. Not good. Yet slightly okay, because the day of racing was done. I survived. The XR survived, even if just barely. More importantly, I had a blast. All the other competitors were relaxed and supportive. It would have been easy to protest and have me knocked out because the bike didn’t fall within the rules, but instead, they invited me out on track to get hooked. Come to find out, I might get hooked in a more literal sense, because there was a drawing among the pre-registered racers for a brand-new Dunlop race tire. Winning by default is not usually my thing, but, as the only pre-registered one there, I gladly accepted it. Maybe I’ll build a set of 19-inch wheels, do some suspension tuning, and come back next year.

Actually, no “maybe” in that. I’ll be back. Only turning left really was that much fun.

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