That was fun!
This past weekend was Round One of the Masters of the Mountains series, and after a long winter of bike prep and anticipation, I was there with my camera, and my Aprilia RSV4.
It was GREAT to see all my friends at the track again, and to hang out in the paddock. What a cool group of people. Definitely one of my favorite things about racing.
I signed up for three races, but really didn’t know how many I’d wind up doing. I figured I’d wait and see how practice went, and how much I felt like racing. I also didn’t want the racing to interfere too much with my photo duties, as I always miss a big part of the races before and after my race, because of having to change into and out of my gear, and preparing and winding down from the races.
The weather was predicted to be sketchy, cool with a pretty strong chance of showers. I’d decided ahead of time that I really didn’t want to race if it was wet, because I didn’t want to take the additional risk or spend the additional money for rain tires. Because I’m just racing for fun, and not chasing championship points, it’s pretty optional for me. I signed up for Open Superbike, Open Superstock, and Formula 40. I figured the most likely one I’d race would be the Open Superbike class, because it was scheduled to be run just before lunch, which meant I wouldn’t miss taking pictures of a race directly afterward.
Saturday’s weather turned out to be pretty darn nice, with highs around 60, and no precipitation at all. I ran four of the practice sessions, and although my lap times were very mediocre, it felt great to be back on the track on the coolest bike I’ve ever ridden. Everything was working very well, except I was struggling to get enough rear grip, and the tire was tearing badly. We tried a number of different adjustments to the rebound and air pressure, but nothing seemed to fix it. In the afternoon the tire was about shagged, so we put a new one on, and the wear and grip seemed slightly better in the warmer temperatures. The west track at Miller is known for being particularly rough on tires, especially in colder weather. It was strange, because in my two earlier outings in California on the bike, the rear grip was astoundingly good. Instead of the rear sliding when I got on the gas coming out of corners, the bike would just wheelie, and I’d fight to hold on! At Miller it was sliding and squirming all over the place, and it was making me wonder exactly when the traction control would actually engage!
Sunday morning the weather looked really gloomy, but we were hoping any rain would stay away. I did a couple more practice sessions, and pushed as hard as I could, but there was no dramatic improvement in lap times (or rear grip). The tire continued to tear, despite slowing the rebound quite a bit more.
I went out to shoot photos of the first few races, as the skies grew darker. Just before the Open Superbike race, I zoomed back to the paddock to put my gear on. Just then, it started to rain, very lightly. The ground was getting wet, the bike was getting wet. Should I bother? But, I knew I’d regret not going out to race if it cleared up suddenly, so I decided to head out. Just as we went out for the sighting lap, the rain stopped. The little bit of moisture that came down dried quickly, and grip on the track was just fine.
Back to the starting grid! It had been a long time. I guess almost a year. I wasn’t nervous, or particularly excited – just ready to go have some fun, and try to improve. I was gridded in the third row, position C (11th), toward the back. I’d done a couple of practice starts in the hot pit earlier in the day, and was pretty confident about the launch capabilities of the bike. In fact, this bike launches better than any bike I’ve ever raced. The clutch engagement point is perfect, and really smooth, and it feels like the gearing is just right. The green flag flew, and off we went. I was surprised by how relaxed I felt as I maneuvered around the outside of the pack into turn one, passing a few guys along the way. I picked off another approaching two, before almost getting my nose cut off by a racer cutting across my line into the next turn. This was fun! I’ve always loved the starts and first laps of a race. So intense, so exciting, so fun. There’s really nothing else in life that can compare to that sort of thrill.
As the race went along, I got passed by a few guys, mostly because they were faster than me and I’d just gotten a better start than they had. Also, I was still struggling with rear grip, especially exiting the Blackrock Hairpin and the final turn onto the straight. It was frustrating, because I’d catch guys on the brakes, only to see them pull away easily at the exit of the turns. I had my video camera on the bike, and you can see it happen again and again. Still, I was having a blast just being out there racing.
The race ultimately became a two-way battle between me and Brian Prax, who races a ZX-10R, and is getting pretty fast! I’d late-brake him into turn one and get past him, and then he’d block-pass me up the inside into Blackrock Hairpin. It was really fun, even though it was a battle for 10th place! He got by me on the white flag lap, and I hoped to square off the final corner and pass him coming out of the final turn, as I knew he’d take the inside line. He did, but ran a little deep and had to slow down, which wound up blocking my ability to get on the gas and drive out when I needed to. He took the checkered just ahead of me.
Still, I had a huge smile on my face. It was just so much fun to be out there racing again. I know my lap times will improve once I get the rear setup corrected. We adjusted the preload afterward, and are hoping that will make it better for next time. I decided to not race the other two races I could have, because I was very content with how the weekend had gone, and really wanted to focus on my photos for the rest of the day.
Despite the temporary struggles with rear grip, I absolutely love the bike, and I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy riding it and racing it. It does everything SO well. It’s so easy to turn, especially compared to my Ducatis, it sounds glorious, has great power, and is by far the sexiest bike on the grid. All sorts of people in the paddock kept coming over to gawk at the bike and compliment it, and a bunch of people were raving about how incredible it sounds going down the front straight. I absolutely love it!
It will definitely be tough to be completely focused on being a great racer, while also trying to focus on taking the best photos possible. I’m determined to have fun racing, work at improving my lap times and techniques, while also providing great photos for my friends in the paddock. It should be a great season!