Alexey's Log
Tuesday, June 08, 2010

5/29-31/2010: CCS, Summit Point

Following the New Jersey debacle, I didn't think Summit Point would really happen, given the time constraints. But as every cloud has a silver lining, something very nice came out of those troubles. My friend Aron of Rev'It association heard about what happened and graciously offered me to use his Honda RS125 at Summit. His plans included taking a newer RS125 to try out in hopes of possibly buying it. Having regretted missing out on an opportunity to try a 2-stroke GP bike before, I jumped at the chance.

This was a holiday weekend and the schedule was a little unusual: we were going to practice all of Saturday and race Sunday and Monday with some morning track time available both days. Friday night, we went through registration and I was able to change my pre-entry to the new bike -- a longer GTL race on Sunday and a sprint 125GP on Monday.


Aron and I went over some last-minute preparation on the bike the night before and by the time I got to swing a leg over it, I had seen more of its inner workings than I'd seen on a bike like my CBR in the first 6 months. They are that simple and they are made to be worked on. Every aspect of the little bike meant business -- from abundance and simplicity of quick-release fasteners to the relative spaciousness under the tank. Even though the bike is tiny (the whole thing weighs 165 lbs soaking wet!), a 2-stroke single-cylinder engine with a tiny flat-slide carburetor is not exactly space-age stuff. I did get to see some other 125's with a fair bit more electronics, but with the bare-bones mechanical nature and a straightforward old-timey setup, they don't leave one feeling like they are lacking anything.

Needless to say, a 30 hp motorcycle that weighs about the same as the rider requires a somewhat different approach than a typical 600 sportbike-turned-racer with some aftermarket parts and suspension setup. As I rode in the van with Aron and Andrew (another member of the 125 NYC group), I tried to soak up as much information as I could. "Is there really no engine braking?" "How much to trail brake?" "How's the new pavement at Summit?" "Do you blip the throttle on downshifts?" "Where's the power band?" And on and on. And so I stayed in the student mode for the duration of the weekend.

Aside from the technical aspects of learning to ride a true GP bike, I also found myself on the inside of a ragtag group of fun and friendly people, a subculture within a subculture -- the 125 crew. There were Aron and Andrew -- the guys I came up with, Reet, Jordan, Rebecca and Dave. We were all pitted together and the sense of "community" was immediately apparent. Everyone made me feel welcome. They were obviously excited to have a prospective addition to their circle.

But enough chitchat, I had important business to attend to -- learning the bike and the track! There were two things I was told that were dancing around in my brain as I swung a leg over the bike for the first time: "You're gonna love it!" and "You're gonna hate!" Indeed, as I promptly struggled to even just start the bike, by the time I got myself rolling down the pit late, I had worked up quite a sweat and a bit of nerves and there was little brain cycles left for expectations. Luckily or unluckily, given complete lack of experience with Summit Point in dry conditions, I was paying attention more to the track than the bike that first time out and as such was able to not mind missed shifts and my general mishandling of the machine too much. It was amazing to compare my perception of the track from riding it on a 600 in the wet vs now -- it seemed to have opened up immeasurably. I had a few moments that would have ordinarily scared me on any other bike, like losing the front, but whether it was my own mindset of a 125 being closer to a bicycle than a motorcycle, or if it really was that way, once I learned firsthand how forgiving that chassis was I stopped worrying about dropping it and concentrated on ironing out my riding mistakes.

I had a full day of riding, a beautiful working bike, perfect weather, and a great old track. Yukio Mishima spent his life looking for "harmony of pen and sword." With each session, I was able to translate more and more abstract information into action. I was reminded of the time I was learning to ride a bike again. The feedback from the machine was non-threatening and instantaneous -- too few downshifts for a corner and there is no perceptible engine braking, but get it right and you feel it tug a bit as you let out the clutch; get it into a corner too hot and you find yourself taking a different line (not flying through dirt); wait too long to upshift or do it too soon and you lose all power. I must admit, I sat out one or two sessions near the end of the day as I was trying to keep each outing purposeful and not ride too tired (or while still digesting lunch). The day was hard work and now it was time to let my body rest and allow my brain to process and organize overnight what I now held in my conscious mind into new muscle memory. Sweet dreams, brain!

Alix and our friend Amelia drove up that day and arrived at the track as the sun was sinking. With them came our newest addition to the family -- Chloe, an 80 lb Newfie "puppy". She was to sleep in the 3-person tent with Alix and me. She took to it rather well. I recall feeling her sandpapery tongue licking the back of my head sometime in the night. It's a wonderful feeling -- that child-like mix of exhaustion and exhilaration at the end of the day, full of promise of tomorrow.


The next 2 days imposed a more typical race weekend structure: practice in the morning, race in the afternoon. We were to get 2 sessions and then do just the 25 min "endurance" race. I was able to make some more progress in the morning in my riding, mostly having to do with shift points, body positioning, corner speed through the final turn, and paying closer attention to where I was getting on the throttle and how. I also remembered to practice a race start. 125's are rather tricky to launch, as the engine makes no power below 9,000 rpm and the grabby clutch is all too eager to pull it down below that mark if the clutch is let out too soon. Yet another life analogy: when time is precious, be patient.


I was unsure how the race was going to go. It was to be split into 2 waves between amateurs and experts. So, being an amateur, I was not going to get to race my friends. In my wave, there was only one other 125, some big air-cooled singles, and the rest of the grid was filled with SV650's -- my arch-nemeses from the EX500 days. As the flag dropped, I promptly messed up the start. As I told the guys later, I got to start 3 or 4 times in that race. After passing the non-SV crowd, I was more or less left to my own devices. Toward the end of the race, some ultra-fast SV650's from the expert wave came by and lapped me. I was expecting that, given that they had nearly 10 seconds a lap on me and this was a long race. During the event, I must have missed the half-point signal at the start/finish straight and was starting to get worried that I wasn't up to it physically as the laps ticked away with seemingly not even half-way point in sight. I was relieved when I finally saw the final-lap white flag. Final result: 7th out of 10. I beat everyone I was supposed to, was the first non-SV bike.


Monday was to be a lot easier physically due not only to the race being a sprinter, but also because it was to be held earlier in the day. In addition, we learned that we only got 1 practice session that morning, on account of all the riding we'd been able to do previously, and our race was even to be run before lunch. Practiced the race start once more -- a slight improvement, still leaving a lot to be desired.


This was our show -- all the 125's in one group in our own wave. Everyone was looking forward to it. Jordan and Andrew were my main competition. As was now my custom, at the start, everyone took off, while I was in the middle of my 3-start procedure. I put my head down and tried to put in a few clean laps. On a bike like this, it's an absolute pleasure to do this, as it rewards you for getting it right with that perfect timing of its buzzy song on each exit. Feels so good knowing you're carrying good speed past the apex on the right line, anticipating running up on the exit curbing, holding the throttle open. By the end of the first lap, I caught up to Andrew and Jordan. I was able to get Jordan into the final corner and set off after Andrew. I believe I got him on the brakes at the end of the straightway -- something I'd done in practice before. After Andrew, I could see Rebecca about 10 sec ahead. I was never able to stay with her previously, but to my amazement she was not losing me this time. I thought for sure, I can catch her. Why not? For a couple of laps it looked like I was beginning to reign her in, but then the tide turned and she started to pull away. Not having access to our lap times, it's hard for me to say if she sped up or I slowed down. I had half accepted that that was going to be my result. Soon after I saw the white flag. Never did I look behind, though it did occur to me. Sure enough, coming into a tight section, after turn 5, I saw Andrew appear and take away my line into 6. It was a beautifully timed and executed move. Our speed differential was not great, but the place, where he did it, he put me on the outside line around a tight right-hander. He must have put a second and a half right there. I couldn't believe I had let that happen. I was rapidly running out of corners as I inched a bit closer. Pretty soon I knew I had just one opportunity -- the fast kink that is the final corner (turn 10). I knew that section had more to offer me than I'd used so far. As we raced our way to it, I tried to think of how much experimentation I was willing to do just then. Some pushing was definitely in order. I took a deep breath, stayed away from the brake as much as I could, and set faster entry than I ever did before. I came out on the curbing, within Andrew's draft. I willed myself to disappear behind the windscreen, elbows still sticking out, as I locked my eyes on his rear tire, cursing myself for not changing the slightly cracked reed valves that were likely making the bike slightly down on power. Alas, the finish line came too soon with no position change. Once again, 7th out of 10.


Cliches abound when I think about riding these bikes, but what sticks out in my mind most of all is an almost tangible link one feels with the cream-of-the-crop bikes and riders in GP's and the essence of racing now and in years past. It's the single-mindedness of it all, the way the bike disappears beneath you when you do it right, the glimpse of what's it's really like when you try to master a quarter of a 500 GP bike. How did they do it?!

I can't express how grateful I am to Aron for letting me use his bike. I'm inclined to get a 125 just to get up to his pace and duke it out proper :)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

5/15/2010: NJMP Lightning, NESBA trackday

I'm baaaaack! That's right, after sitting all of 2009 out, it was time to get back to business. The overarching plan has been to rebuild the trusty old F4i and contend in CCS's Mid-Atlantic region -- no more Loudon for a little while. In some ways, I have temporarily accepted defeat embodied by New Hampshire rain and a seemingly endless streak of mishaps on the tight and bouncy Loudon circuit. It was time to try something else.

This spring saw a dash of activity in my garage, as the engine went in the frame and boxes of parts kept coming in the mail, seemingly every other day. The motor had a new head, forks got revalved, and all manners of little odds and ends got replaced all over. The bike was getting a new lease on life, or so it seemed.

A track day was scheduled at New Jersery Motorsports Park's Lightning course. Idea being to shake down and issues with the bike, learn a new track, and just generally refresh the track part of my brain. My crew for the day consisted of Alix' cousin Tim (cousin-in-law?), who proved to be a helpful hand during the weeks preceding the event. On the morning of the event, the conditions looked to be perfect, the sun was shining, reflecting in the newly repaired and painted bodywork and fresh slicks. The day was full of promise.

Sadly, the day got cut short. As I came out into the first session of the day, the bike was fully warmed up, but sounding a little on the rough side. It appeared to have full power though and I focused on learning the track. A first session at a new place is always a bit of controlled chaos. I managed to get around the lap with minimal drama (all the while missing just about every single apex) and headed onto the front straight, giving the bike a chance to stretch its legs a bit. This went fine, all vitals appearing normal. As the second lap was drawing to a close, I downshifted just before the final section -- a long right-hand sweeper with lots of positive camber. Just as I did so, a "clunky" noise appeared to emanate from the bike and all went quiet -- no power, no nothing. I looked back and there was a rider behind me. I raised my arm and got the hell off the track. Half-heartedly, I pressed the starter button to see if it would fire -- nothing. At that point I figured it was best to leave it alone until Tim and I could look at it in the pits.

Nothing seemed out of place, except the battery was low. At that point, the working theory was maybe the battery malfunctioned (it was a couple years old and not well maintained) and the computer shut off when the voltage dropped. We managed to find a battery at a local auto parts store that could fit, filled it with acid, charged it and put it in the bike. By this time, half the day had gone by. First session after lunch came up and we fired up the bike. It idled -- charging system seemingly working -- and came up to temperature. We took it off the warmers and stands and I rode it to the tech garage for a post-off-course-excursion tech inspection. As soon as I rode away, unbeknownst to me, plumes of white oily smoke started coming out of the exhaust. All I knew at that point was that the bike was sounding a bit rough. As I shut it off in front of the tech garage, some people came up and let me know what they saw. Tim showed up quickly thereafter and confirmed their reports. I looked down at the oil sight window and saw that we just burned a good quart in about a minute -- no good. Our day was done. There was oil seeping out of every join in the pipe and the tip was coated with oily residue.

All we could do was pack up and go. It was early enough in the day, that we were able to bring the bike to CycleTherapy in Manhattan. At the time of this writing, the bike is in their care, awaiting a possible engine replacement (depending on what it turns out to be).

Despite the lousy outcome, a lot of things went a lot better and smoother than they could have. Most of that, can be attributed to Tim coming along, working in the garage despite his work schedule and showing a lot of enthusiasm and ability to learn. I wish he wasn't moving, as I'd love to have him by my side at race time.

I'd like to thank:

Who says artists don't know anything about tire warmers? Visit my crew chief Alexandra Deitz-Zinger's Art page.

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