The hard truth of racing: Transponders don’t lie
Learning requires discomfort. At least I thought it did. That’s why I loaded three motorcycles into my van and drove six hours around Lake Michigan to go racing last weekend. I went to Blackhawk Farms Raceway with the hopes of breaking out of my comfort zone and seeing how much I had learned since last year and put that into numbers that couldn’t lie. It was a plan that kind of worked.
This weekend was of particular interest because of the timed nature of racing. The clock simply cannot lie, a fact that had been long established in my brain from years of foot races and other feats of human-powered speed. Equipment, training, or environment may change, but a minute is 60 seconds no matter where you go. That fact allows us gearheads to compare drivers, cars, and tracks over generations—for better or worse. My road racing experience runs shallow, and thus it is difficult for me to know if my skills truly are progressing since I have but a handful of weekends at the track … and none of those were the same track—until now.
Talking about this weekend does require some honesty though. My time at Blackhawk Farms was not a pure A-B test, where the only thing that changed was my skill level. This year I came prepared with a better-built Honda XR250R motard and also my track-prepped Suzuki SV650. This “new” XR is very similar to the XR250R I raced last year as part of Six Ways to Sunday, but this second time around, the one I built came with more horsepower, thanks to a small port job on the cylinder head, a bigger carburetor, and also a better flowing header and exhaust. The power bump was probably good for a little faster lap, but at the end of Friday practice I ran my finger down the white paper printouts stapled to the side of the registration building to find that I was already lapping four seconds faster than last year. It takes more than a meager bump in horsepower to see that kind of time drop off. The track didn’t change at all. The weather was all but identical. Therefore, the reason for quicker times on track was that I got faster. Exciting.
Last year I was just over the moon to check the results and see that my transponder clicked off a single lap where I just barely dipped into the 1-minute, 39-second range. This year I opened my weekend by shaving a full second off that in my first practice session. Before you go off to Google land to see if that is a good time for a lap of the track, I’ll save you the effort: It’s not. The leaders in the motard class were running in the low 1:19s with relative ease. They are also all on new Husqvarna FS450 bikes that not only pack nearly three times the power of my XR but benefit from nearly 40 years of additional chassis technology and knowledge. Stiffer in the right places, better angles in others, and better riders turning the throttle to boot. No excuses, though, as I am not really in the motard class to win races, but rather to learn about bike setup and become a better rider.
Which is a great goal for track riding. While turning race laps I get to compare taking turn one in a particular fashion versus doing it a different way the next lap. It may feel faster to me, but the transponder does not feel. It only tells me the hard facts of which laps were faster. For instance, in the Sound of Thunder 3 race on Saturday, I piloted my SV650 to clean laps in the 1:24 range, which was good enough to finish mid-field. This was markedly faster than my laps in practice, mainly due to traffic. In my practice session I rarely had “clean” track, as I was out with much faster bikes that would cause me to change lines as they passed or I passed other riders. Those passes eat up time, and in the race I found myself in the no-mans land between the best and rest. It allowed me to really focus on my lines and see the result of that work.
The most interesting take away though was how comfortable I was. Both on and off track I had the experience and knowledge to be wound up when I needed to and also relaxed when that was appropriate. It’s the first weekend I’ve felt that way and it was addictive. Likely a combination of going back to a track rather than being in a new place, along with taking bikes that I already knew and was familiar with riding. Getting in a groove is a powerful thing, and to a point it counters my long-held thought that growth requires discomfort. I was not only faster, understood the track and the bikes better, but also was more relaxed and had more fun. Couldn’t ask for much more. After all, the clock was telling facts, and the fact is I am faster than I’ve ever been and still have a lot of room to grow.