Like many American boys in the 1950s, I grew up wanting to be many of my heroes: Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Davy Crockett, Geronimo, Micky Mantle, Bob Cousy, Sugar Ray Robinson. My parents fed my fantasies with birthday gifts of outfits that allowed me to terrorize the neighborhood while looking the parts, and occasionally breaking a few windows attempting to play the parts, as well.
After discovering girls in the early 1960s and attending a Beatles concert in 1965, I quickly learned that rock stars got the girls, so my haircuts stopped and I swapped my crew neck sweaters for turtlenecks in order to look that part, as well.
Sadly, whether I was 4 or 14, and despite my ability to look the parts, I lacked the talent of my heroes, so my only hope for getting the girls was bullshit and bubblegum, with a little charm thrown in.
Years later, after becoming a motorcyclist, I was taken to Pocono Raceway, where I saw my first motorcycle race and everything changed. Now I wanted to be Kenny Roberts. Once again, I set about looking the part. I built a Rickman-framed Honda, bought a used set of Bates leathers from my neighbor, Peter Frank, who just happened to be the founder of WERA, and with his introduction began a four-decade plunge into a world that allowed me to pretend once again that I was something I really didn’t quite have the talent to be: this time, a roadracer.
Of course it didn’t take long to realize that I lacked not only the talent, but also the dedication and focus to take racing very seriously. That realization didn’t thwart my love for the sport or my end my need to pretend, every once in a while. Years before the concept of track days was born, I’d register to race at various East Coast venues, utilize all of the available practice sessions to ride around and have fun, and occasionally start a race knowing exactly when to pull in before becoming a lapper and getting in the way of the leaders, who were taking this far more seriously than I.
In 1992, almost 20 years after first seeing King Kenny at Pocono Raceway, I was part of a group of five riders that started the first trackday club east of California. We called ourselves the Reduc Sportbike Association and now my pretending became a much more regular practice and perhaps a bit more serious. But in reality, I was still pretending, and just like when I was 4 and dreaming of being Mickey Mantle hitting the game-winning homer, I’d still dream about being a roadracing star. Their lives looked so much more wonderful than my own.
Fast-forward another 20 years to 2012, when my motorcycle and I received an invitation to a private test day at the Jennings GP track in northern Florida. What made this day at the track so special was that I’d be sharing the track with only three other riders: the friend who had invited me and two AMA professional racers, Larry Pegram on his factory BMW S1000RR superbike and his fellow Foremost Insurance-sponsored teammate, Eric Stump, on a Supersport-spec Yamaha YZF-R6. Not only was I about to see how the “other half” lived, but I was also going to spend a day living the same life, just at a slower speed.
I kept remembering that old warning to be careful what you wish for. I wondered if this day would teach me how tough the racer’s life could be. Maybe the life I’d dreamed of all those years wasn’t all it appears to be.
I was wrong to worry. The grass really is greener on the other side.
I watched as Larry drove up in his new BMW M3 and parked behind the huge Foremost Racing rig, which had been there for a couple of hours while his crew readied his machines to be tested and sorted out before heading south to Daytona for the first AMA Superbike race of 2012.
One of the three crew members, a former 250 GP champion from Canada who was on loan from Ohlins, was revalving, respringing, and adjusting forks and shocks all day. I assumed the other two were engine management and tire guys, but they looked really busy and I didn’t want to interrupt them to ask what they were doing. After all, I was there to take advantage of unlimited time on an open and empty track.
The track really was almost empty. Larry came past me once in the morning and once in the afternoon. He probably rode half a dozen sessions all day, and after each session there was a conversation with the crew and they’d go to work on the machines. I guess this is a day of work for Larry.
The rest of us pay hundreds of dollars a day to enjoy a similar experience, but at lower speeds and on a more crowded track. Plus, we set up our own pit, maintain it, break it down at the end of the day, and any attention our bikes need is on us, too. Larry rode the bike, provided feedback on set-up changes, and rode again until he was satisfied the machine was as perfect as it could be. Not a bad day of “work.”
So as I contemplate the arc of my life, I don’t hear my mother’s voice telling me that I could have gone to law school or medical school if I’d studied harder. Instead, I ask myself why I can’t find those lousy 10 or 15 seconds a lap that separate me from the very best.
Damn frustrating, that is. When I was 4, my abilities were miles from those of the heroes I pretended to be. Now, it’s just those 10 or 15 seconds, which seem like not that much, that stand between me and the life I only dream of. The life the other half lives.