It’s snowing now. My 1980 Suzuki GS450 is covered with a thin bit of dust. But I keep looking at the tires.
They’re rock hard in the cold Albuquerque winter, but they’ve still got little knots and bumps of rubber near the sidewall from where they were like hot glue just a few months ago.
Motorcycle racing has been a dream of mine for I don’t know how many years (sorry, Mom). But living the life of a newspaper reporter in Albuquerque never really afforded me the chance to buy a dedicated track bike, tires, gear, or to pay for the expensive track-day time, races, club memberships, or even health insurance.
But as I’ve gotten older, my priorities and employment have shifted. I was finally able to buy a second bike for getting around, a nice 2009 Triumph Bonneville, and turn my GS450 cafe racer into a track bike. Let’s face it: Starting racing is daunting. And expensive. A one-piece suit, good boots, tires for a season and suddenly it costs more than the mortgage. But I wanted to do it. I’m not getting younger and 2019 was the year.
How I became rookie of the year, on the cheap
Let’s just get this out of the way first: I didn’t know what I was doing. At all.
But tracks and racing clubs — like my local Sandia Motorcycle Racing, Inc. — are finally beginning to offer options for those of us who don’t want to spend $40,000 on a season and are clueless about racing. Finally, we can try the sport on the (kinda) cheap before we commit our first-born. My local track launched a series called Super Street, that lets you dip your toes into racing.
It’s a run-what-you-brung class. Sort of. Almost anything can run in this beginner class, and it made racing accessible for me and eight other newbies this season. The bike rules are simple: Prep your bike as you would for a track day, get the appropriate gear, take a class to get a race license and go racing.
First you have to take the Racing School class. It’s an intensive class that teaches everything from the basics, like what racing lines are, how to heat up tires, proper bike setup, passing techniques and much more. It’s taught by Kevin Gibson, an accomplished local racer who finished second in the Unlimited GP class this year.
The rules for Super Street meant that I could race even my 40-year-old bike. Basically, any well sorted street bike can compete in Super Street. There’s a rigorous inspection process, but I only had to do a few mods, like tape up my lights. That keeps the costs down.
I found some used gear and bought gloves on closeout at Cycle Gear. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the pricey extras, like the requird AMA membership, the track membership, and race-day fees. The costs add up quickly, but it's as cheap as racing can be.
The idea of the class is to entice people like me to dive into racing. And it worked. This season, about eight folks joined the class at the beginning. It was an intimidating group, especially because I was on an old, loud but slow air-cooled, carbureted twin. The Super Street class is a wild menagerie of bikes. Kawasaki Ninja 250s, vintage Hondas, modern supersport 600s, Yamaha R3s, Suzuki GSXRs, a Yamaha R1 — the grid was certainly not a set of look-alike sport bikes. The only rule is that if you win, you can’t come back and race in the class again. I wasn’t worried about breaking that rule.
The mock race
You don’t get a racing license unless you pass a mock race. And it’s terrifying.
The mock race is nothing like you expect. After a warmup lap, I pulled up to the line, praying I wouldn’t make an idiot of myself and roll into the wrong box. Motorcycle racing lights work the opposite of every other light I’d seen: Off means go. For anyone who’s ever bracket raced at a drag strip, it’s super confusing.
When the starter hit the red lights, everyone else at the start/finish line was revving their engines to 8,000 rpm and I couldn’t hear my own little twin zing to 6,000. The last piece of advice I'd heard before the race was from one of our local championship racers, Steve Brown, who told me not to wheelie off the line, so when the lights went out, I dropped the clutch and popped my front wheel eight inches in the air and the entire field passed me. I entered turn one in last place.
But I was OK with that. I had one goal: Don’t crash.
Lap one went fine and lap two started good, until a Ninja 250 showed me a wheel in turn one. I froze up. I didn’t realize anyone was behind me! How do I let him pass me? Do I let him pass me? How do I hold my line? He pulled around me, and showed me what a race-pace line around the next few turns looked like. I tried to keep up.
Then it happened.
I was coming out of the final corner, by the grandstand, where my friends — Steve, Nathan, my girlfriend and others — were cheering me and I looked up. Before I knew it, I’d blown by my braking marker. I clamped hard on the brakes. My front didn’t do enough and I got hard on the rear. I locked it up. It started to chatter. My rear wheel was hopping and the bike was bucking under me as a tried to steer into the turn. If I put a wheel in the dirt, it would have meant a “crash” and I would have to swallow my pride and retake the $180 race class.
I got off the brakes and leaned hard right. Trusted my tires to grip.
And they did.
I put the bike back in second gear and gunned it into the turn. In last place. But I didn’t crash.
I finished the race, fist in the air. I was a licensed racer.
The most thrilling part, though, was getting to choose my race number, my number for life. I picked 416.
Team Shoestring enters the paddock
Now I had to devise a way to get to races. I didn’t have a truck to haul the bike to the track, so I did something that no one else seemed to do. I rode to the track.
The rider meeting was at 8 a.m., so I’d get up at 6 a.m. and load the GS450’s saddlebags with water, snacks, lots of tape for the lights, tools, a change of clothes and all the other goodies you need at the track. I’d put on my leathers, and head out. At the track, I would tape up the bike and prep it. What I didn’t take with me was available at the track. A tire company rep, for example, is always on hand with air. By the end of the season I had it down to a science, and with some prep work on a Saturday night, I could get the bike ready in an hour.
The first race day was the most unnerving, and the most gratifying. I rolled into the paddock not knowing anyone but Kevin, the race instructor, and a couple of track officials. I found a spot on the back side of the pits that wasn’t taken, between a Subaru with a trailer carrying a 636 Ninja and an RV with a pair of BMW S 1000 RRs. These dudes were serious, but they made me feel like I was part of the fraternity with a race license tucked in the inside pocket of my second-hand leathers.
Ken and Lance, owners of the 636 and the S 1000 RR, let me share their shade, conversations and water, and before I knew it I was helping them with tire warmers, slipping stands under wheels, and helping guys in and out of race suits. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but when I couldn’t find the spools for his stand when he came in, I was sure Ken thought I was just a poseur.
What I learned was that though everyone in the club competes on the track, we’re all each others’ pit crews when we’re not on the track.
Finally racing for real
I counted down the minutes to my first heat at 11 a.m. When the time came, I put my boots on, grabbed my leathers, and realized I was so nervous that I’d forgotten the order of operations. Back protector. Leathers. Boots. Helmet. Gloves.
Friends in the stands cheered me on as I headed out for a warm-up lap. I was doing it! Racing! I slotted into my box at the back of the grid. The starter hit the lights. The revs climbed. When the lights closed, I was off and in the pack. By the end of the first corner I was in fourth place! I didn’t have enough power to catch the other bikes on the short straight, but I didn’t care. I was in it for 10 laps.
Then it happened. A second class was racing with us. Frances Sayre was on a well prepped Honda CB400 four from OCD Cycles. She showed me a wheel in the hairpin. I had no idea she was there and I almost took a dime-sized chunk out of my bike’s seat when I saw her. I rolled on the throttle even harder and leaned left into the next corner. I couldn’t see her, or hear her, but she was there. I could feel her. I leaned on the brakes hard for the next right, and I caught a glimpse of her doing the same.
In the next sweeper, she pulled away from me on a much better racing line, flat out. I tucked in. I gave my bike the beans. I saw the little Honda gain ground on me. For the next four laps I chased her down, following her lines, and paying attention to where she braked. I got close a few times, but in the end, I was still fourth. It was glorious.
As I was there, racing, actually racing, wheel-to-wheel chasing down Frances, I think I shed a tear or two. I’d read every article, some books, and watched every MotoGP video, seen 10,000 Indy car, NASCAR or Formula 1 races, and been to dozens of local sprint car, stock car and flat-track races. But I’d never been there, on the track, doing it. As I scraped my pegs through the corners and tried to hit my braking marks, realizing that I could eek out another 10th here or take a faster line there, even though I was on a 40-year-old Suzuki, to me, I was Fangio, Márquez, Unser or Kenny Roberts. And it was glorious. I was hooked.
Throughout the season, I made better and better friends at the track and found my home in the pits. The little Suzuki wasn’t fast, but I took enough third- and fourth-place finishes in the six races that I racked up enough points to earn second place overall in Super Street at the end of the season. Consistency pays in racing. And, at 43, I shared in the Rookie of the Year honors alongside Marcos Baca, a promising 17-year-old who races a Ninja 250.
I wanted to race, but didn’t know how. I had no truck to take a bike to the track. I had no knowledge, no team, no history, and no idea. But thanks to a good group at the track, and a few friends off the track at Mongo Motors, I was able to field a bike, keep it going, and come back feeling like a winner.
Anyone can do it. It won’t be cheap, or easy, but it will be fun.
He's hooked; now on to 2020
Since I got inspired, I bought a 1994 Ducati 900SS to race this season and a truck to take it to the track for race days. The Ducati cost $500, partially dismantled. It didn't run. No title. The guy we bought it from left us several surprises, including a half-welded rear subframe, a rusty tank that leaks gas, tires with a 2001 build date, no seat hardware, wacky flat-slide Kiehin carbs that need an unobtainable accelerator pump diaphragm, and brake fluid that looked like bloody snot.
We just got it running and I think we can get it sorted by mid-May when the 2020 season starts.