7/28-29/2006 @ NHIS: trying to get my groove back
I got to the track Thursday night under threat of rain for at least Friday and Saturday, which I was not looking forward to. Not only were the showers declared "scattered" (last minute tire changes are not fun), but this was going to be my first time out after the crash and I just didn't know how the bike (or myself for that matter) was going to feel. I had fitted some padding just right of center on the tank in order to make it a little easier on my left side ribs in right hand turns. I was anticipating 2 places where it might be an issue: the bumps in turns 3 and 10. The good news, however, was that I had a beautiful brand new Rev'It suit and gloves (big thanks to everyone at Rev'It USA for getting it to me so quickly) and a new Arai (another big thanks to CycleTherapy).
I woke up to see nothing but beautiful blue skies. It was a little humid, but the day seemed to promise nothing but good weather. As before, I was pitted next to Ryan (206) & Hauk (909), as well as our new friend Mat (119), who had just started racing this year. Hauk signed up for the Penguin advanced racing school, but the rest of us had to wait until the afternoon sessions. I figured, for my own peace of mind, to get a new rear slick (cha-ching). Other than that, I really didn't touch anything on the bike.
About 20 minutes before our session, the clouds moved in and in another 10 minutes the skies opened up and it began to rain pretty hard. My spare rims only had a DOT front mounted and rear had no tire at all. It was definitely pretty late in the game to go mount a rear tire and swap the rims and I figured the rain wasn't going to last. Pretty soon it cleared up, but the track was still wet, though there was no standing water as far as I could tell. I was a bit apprehensive to go out with the rear not being scrubbed in, so I waited a bit to see what would happen once the bikes got out. Ryan came out straight away and started circulating. Seemed like it wasn't so bad. I started to see a bit of a drying line and made the call to come out and at least try to scrub in the rear. If I didn't like it, I could always come back in.
It proved to be not so bad, though I was going so slow, I could have probably walked faster. Nevertheless, it was good to finally get out and work on the line a little bit. There was only one puddle (turn 12), which was fairly easy to avoid, though it did require a line change in that spot. At the end of the session, however, it started to rain once again and I knew it was time.
Unfortunately it continued to rain on and off after that, as promised, until our second and last session of the day. There were some conflicting reports as to the weather forecast for the rest of the weekend, but I bet on it being dry and decided to not worry about the wet setup, so a few very slow laps was all I got on Friday.
As soon as I got out in the first practice session, I knew things were not the same as before the crash. It wasn't the bike exactly, but my riding was just not up to par. The only problem I felt I was having with the bike was some more-than-I-felt-comofortable-with headshake going down the front straight, which was quite annoying as it prevented me from going full throttle. Who woulda thunk? -- of all the things at the track, going in a straight line proved to be the most problematic. But other than that, it just felt like I was circulating without much of a drive. I figured I'd need to give it time. Second session felt a wee bit better, but the progress was definitely slow in the making. I was still being very conservative on the brakes (especially into turn 1) and not at all aggressive on the throttle either.
I had plenty of time to kill between morning practice and race 13 -- my only race of the day. When the practice times were posted, the news wasn't good -- I was more than 4 seconds off the times I was doing before the crash. I had an idea how to improve -- mostly it was my corner exits. I simply wasn't getting on the gas early enough. Additionally, I was still having a stability problem on the front straight. I went to Pete of GMD Computrack and talked a bit to him and his wife. I thought it might be my steering damper, but they pointed me in the direction of sitting further forward on the bike, thereby putting more weight over the front.
I got an opportunity to try this advice in the race (middleweight superbike) and it seemed to all by eliminate the problem. It's a good feeling when you can get resolve things just through a bit of a mental adjustment. Aside from getting a piss poor start and not being able to keep Ryan in sight as he worked his way through 2 or 3 slower riders at a time, the race went as I probably should have expected. I finished 16th out of 28 -- outside the 50% cut-off point for going back to amature status. It was certainly a big downer.
Morning practice went a little better as I took the padding off the tank. It didn't seem to be doing anything other than sticking to the suit as I moved around on the bike. On the last lap of the first practice, the shifter arm came off the shaft and I ended up doing about half a lap in 3rd gear, which actually wasn't all that bad. Other than that, I just kept slowly getting my confidence back and bringing my brake markers forward and getting on the gas a little harder. Things seemed to be slowly picking up.
My first race of the day was race 6 (heavyweight superbike). I got another so-so start, passed a few riders, but generally tried to be paitent for the first couple of laps waiting for the field to cluster into groups. I knew I was somewhere midpack when I caught up to a group of 3 bikes. I closed on them much quicker than I expected and I started to make a plan of attack. When I there was about a second separating me from the last bike in the group, we went through turn 1 and I saw a big cloud of dust on the outside and a bike flipping around in the dirt, rider still sliding on the pavement. I made sure not to target fixate on the carnage and made a mental note it was now gonna be an easier job for me, as only 2 of the bikes were remaining. Another lap and the formation changed a bit with me being right on the tail of one of them (a Ducati) with the other bike having broken away from us. I made a fairly easy block pass into turn 3 and I began feeling like this could turn into something good. More laps went by, marked by more yellow flags. At some point I recall finding the Ducati on my outside as we came through turn 12. I thought it would not be an issue, but this guy obviously was familiar with this passing zone as he stayed side by side with me and ended up on the inside going into the final chicane. There was no room -- I had to let him go. I knew the time was running out and I had to fight back right away. I got a better drive onto the front straight, drafted almost rear-ending him and snuck out to his inside for turn 1. Everything seemed to be working out as it shoud. However, given my previous get-off, I was very mindful of where I put the bike going into that high speed corner and I realized I was running out of room on the brakes a bit, this time on the outside. I probably didn't have to drive so deep into it on the brakes, but it was too late. I stood up and went through the NASCAR turn 1 instead of going through the middle. There were no cornerworkers to guide me back on the track, contrary to what was said in the riders' meeting and I was forced to gauge my re-entry myself. As it turned out later, I was quite fortunate because my mistake in 1 almost cost me the cut-off point for junior license again -- there was only one more position behind me meeting it. I finished 12th out of 24. The Ducati I was chasing finished 8th, which means I cost myself 3 spots, if not 4.
The final race was 13 (middleweight GP). I made sure to get a good decent start. The grid was not large (10 starters in our wave) and I was able to keep track of my absolute position. For the first couple of laps I rode around in 3rd place, after which a very quick rider on an RS125 passed me going into turn 6 (the bowl). Having observed him in practice and other races, I knew he was good 5 seconds a lap faster than what I was capable of at that point, so I just let him go. "4th place, not bad," I'm thinking to myself, "let's just keep it together." But just as that thought went through my mind, I began noticing fatigue setting in. When you know you're not going forward anymore, it's good to make sure you don't go backward. In other words, I should have take a look back on the front straight and ridded a more defensive line at that point. Had I taken a look back, I would have seen a Suzuki I passed earlier right on my tail. But I did neither of those things and continued riding as usual, albeit slower, which didn't feel good. I just kept hoping there would be some extra juice kicking in, but it never did. As we took the white flag, the Suzuki snuck past me on the inside into turn 1 and I didn't have the momentum to close on him in time for a pass into turn 3, one of the best passing spots on this track. My only option, as I saw it at the time, was to get a really solid entry into the final chicane a good drive onto the straight and try to beat him to the checkered with some draft. Unfotunately that was not to be as I screwed my entry into the chicane and at that point I was just holding on hoping there was no one behind me. I managed 5th out of 12 (10 starters).
All in all, it was not a complete wash, though it was certainly disappointing managing a pace still a good 1.5 seconds slower than previously and losing every scrap I got into. Still, as they say, a poor day at the track beats a good day at the office.
I'm going to sit out the following round due to my upcoming wedding to my lovely fiance Alix. We've been engaged long enough and it'll be good to close that deal finally :) See y'all at the track September 2nd and 3rd (right before my birthday). Hopefully I'll make the old girl go more like what she's capable of.
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