After my unexpected good fortune at the July race date, I decided I should give my best shot to continued improvement. I have a poor record when it comes to being able to get much out of the AFM's half-day Saturday practices at Sears Point, so I felt that giving it my best shot meant forking over the money to attend Dennis Pegelow's dP school on the Friday before the race weekend. Otherwise I worried my riding would suffer from lack of track time. I also hoped the school would give me the opportunity to test suspension changes I had made to the A bike hoping it might handle more like the Flying W. In addition to having a spare bike that handles well, I'd like to learn more about suspension setup.
I set myself a goal for the weekend, and I worried that it would be too ambitious. The goal was to better my personal best lap time by a second or so. The Flying W had given me such a big performance boost at Sears in July that I wasn't sure I could do anything further on short notice. I knew I was giving away time in a few places, but knowing that hadn't yet helped me stop doing it. My best was a 2:06.7 from practice at the July date, and I settled on doing a 2:05 this weekend as my goal, but a goal I could forgive myself for missing. There was no one in particular I wanted too badly to beat in the race; I'm horribly out of the points this year, so good finishing positions are nice but I can sort of take or leave them as long as I'm improving my riding. My second-place finish in July seemed like sort of a fluke, and I didn't set my sights this weekend on any particular rank at the finish line.
With all this stuff in mind, I woke up early on Friday morning and headed off to the track. In the first session of the day, I rode the A bike (my spare) to see whether changing the spring on the rear shock and the front preload to match the W bike had improved the A bike's handling. The A bike felt essentially unchanged, so I set it aside and decided I could spend my time more profitably elsewhere until I could get some concrete advice about how to set the A bike up. In the next session I rode Juan Vera's EX250 so I could comment on it for him. It has very nice handling and a very nice motor. It's set up pretty tall on both ends, and I'm sure that had something to do with its giving me the first little wheelie I've had exiting 3A. The W doesn't do that! After most of a session on Juan's bike, I switched to the Flying W to try to work on my own riding. I had developed a habit of entering turn 2 fairly tight, and conversations with Terri Vogel had convinced me this would be a good habit to break; she told me a wider entrance is definitely preferable and this was the only really specific item I wanted to work on.
Friday was pretty uneventuful. The Flying W got me down to a 2:06.4 in the afternoon, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn't do better. Still, I was able to forgive myself because everything felt very comfortable at that pace. I signed up for two one-on-one sessions with instructors to get some advice, but I stupidly forgot about the first one until it was too late. Rather than wait for Dave Emde at the pre-grid, I just went out and rode for a few laps, and then I remembered I was supposed to be working with Dave. We both tried to find each other, but we didn't manage to hook up. My second one-on-one session was with Dan Reeser, and it was more productive. He didn't offer me much in the way of constructive advice for improvement, but he gave me some great compliments and said he thought I was on the right track and improvement would probably come naturally. Not long after that, I started talking with Roque Torres, who agreed to ride around with me and see if he could tell me where I could improve. He warned me, though, that he had watched my riding earlier in the day, and he thought the best advice might be, "Just Go Faster." It turned out that Roque and I didn't get to ride together, maybe because he had trouble finding a bike to use. He went out on a VTR250 that Juan, Ginny Cutler, Steve Chan, and ... who else? are planning to race in the upcoming 4-hour endurance race at Thunderhill. Unfortunately that bike had enough quirks that he wasn't able to keep up with me, so he couldn't watch my riding. Even so, I enjoyed talking with him about the techniques he had used once when he raced one of Jeff Leggitt's EX250's some years back.
Roque also stopped by our pits and gave me some concrete advice about how to change the suspension on the A bike. I turned the knobs while he was there, but I didn't make time to ride that bike during the remainder of the day. [Note to self: The changes were one click less compression damping and four clicks less rebound damping on the rear shock.]
Friday night, Juan graciously let me sleep at his place in the city so I didn't have to make the trip from Boulder Creek to Sears Point and back three times during the weekend. He and I went out to a delicious and spicy Indian dinner and I had no trouble falling asleep, exhausted and stuffed with good food. Juan also introduced me to Motoracer, a game I had heard about but never tried. It's pretty fun, but nothing compared to actually riding a motorcycle. Juan didn't promise me it would improve my riding, but he did say he thought it might, so I played a couple of rounds. Juan is very good at it! :-)
Saturday was pretty uneventful, except that as usual, there were spilled-fluid-cleanup delays that robbed us of track time. Saturday brought me no improvement in my times, but I grew still more comfortable and consistent, so I felt I was making some progress. The good news is that I'm not aware of any 250 production riders who crashed Saturday! The weather had been pretty warm Friday, and it was genuinely hot Saturday. The forecast for Sunday was that it would be even hotter.
Sunday came, and it was hotter. I took the A bike out in the first practice to see whether Roque's suggestions had changed anything about its handling. The bike still wasn't as good as the W, but it had definitely improved! Maybe there is someone in the world who understands suspension after all! I am still not such a person myself, but perhaps there is hope. I had fun riding around with John Prelock; first I towed him, then he towed me.
The W and I were in the third practice group. I had fun. Lap times were no great shakes, but I got to watch several of the other 250 production riders, including Brian Bartlow (because he got stuck behind the Frustrating CB-1 From Hell whose rider Andy is an apparently nice guy, #911). In particular, Brian's entrance to the carousel impressed me; the W handles well, but it doesn't feel up to flying in there and turning on the brakes the way he does. He really loads up that front tire with confidence! This was especially impressive to me on Sunday because he had just crashed at the last race date because he overdid it. I talked to him afterward about what he's doing in the carousel, and hearing him describe it made me feel even less ready to try it myself. :-( Maybe someday I'll have the guts. :-)
Unfortunately Nick Tenbrink fell in practice on the brakes before turn 11. Darren's theory is that Nick's front tire lost traction because Nick braked hard on a part of the track that hadn't warmed up because it was still in shadows. True to form, though, Nick was unhurt and he got his bike back together for the race!
While we sat in the pits waiting for other practice groups to do their thing, in came a truck with a couple of people I was really happy to see: Bruce and Joyce! Bruce had broken his back in a practice crash in 8A in July, and was back on his feet! He's got some trick titanium parts in his back now, and he showed up using a cane and a production-class racing walker, complete with his number plate on it! This man has an attitude I admire deeply; my hat's off to you, Bruce, and seeing you come out to the races meant a lot to all of us!
Every time the weather gets hot, the gods order up a big mess of boiled racers. This Sunday, 250 production riders were in the chosen group, since 250 production was the first race. Being in the first race means you have to sit still through the riders' meeting in the sun with your leathers on. Ugh! Finally the meeting ended and the time for our warm-up lap neared.
Just before our warm-up lap, Darren smiled at me and said, "I'm taking an inside line in four," recalling the way I had passed him there in July. I've seen him make that turn with some amazing inside moves, so I took him seriously and wondered whether I might be able to muster the courage to try going around the outside of him there, if indeed I would even be able to keep up. Darren has done low 2:06's, and although he hadn't passed me in practice, he always seems to find a way to go faster in the race (and I usually don't).
The warm-up lap came and went, and we lined up on the grid. When the #1 board came out I closed my face shield as usual, and then I noticed it was covered with little bugs. My face shield is always covered with little bugs because I'm so lazy about cleaning it, but I had meant to clean it before the race and I'd forgotten. Through the haze of daydreaming about the bugs on my face shield, I saw the #1 board go sideways and revved my motor, but for some reason the daydreaming carried on until the green flew. Of course this didn't make for the best start. It was still better than the starts I'm used to, thanks to the Flying W's Magic Launch-A-Matic feature, but I found myself behind a lot of people going into turn 1. 250 production racers seem to be a courteous lot, though, and they all lined up single-file for the first turn. Rude loser that I am, I rewarded their kindness by passing a whole bunch of them around the outside of turn 1, and then stuffing brusquely up under a couple more on the entrance of turn 2 for good measure. I don't even remember who all these people were.
I exited turn 2 behind Darren and I thought Nick was just ahead of him, but Nick claims to have been behind me. I think there was a mystery bike in front of Darren. Next up the order was John Prelock, following Kevin Scott. I believe Kevin was in third, behind Frank Mazur (who had gotten the hole shot) and Brian Bartlow (who had passed Frank coming out of turn 2). I'm not sure where Chris McGrail was; he was probably somewhere and I just don't remember where I got around him. Through 3 and 3A, the group kept up its single-file ways, but the line there is narrow enough that I couldn't take advantage of their kindness. Entering turn 4, though, Darren was still lined up right near the outside edge of the track. This surprised me because Darren had promised to protect the inside going into 4. I set up on the inside to pass, and as I started the move, Darren seemed to remember his vow and scooted over to the right. It was too late, though; I was already past. I don't remember much happening for several corners after that. As we entered turn 11 on the first lap, it was Kevin, followed by John Prelock, and then me. John set up to pass Kevin, and I set up to pass both of them on the brakes into 11. Kevin started braking, then John, right on cue. Just as I was beginning to brake, John's wheel locked and down he went. I had the good luck to be inside of him, so I didn't have to worry about running over John or the bike. Kevin apparently wasn't so lucky: John's bike completed the pass without its rider, and went straight. I heard Kevin had to stop almost entirely to avoid hitting it.
While I had been working on passing these several people, Frank Mazur who was now sitting second had been opening up a gap. As I exited turn 11 on the first lap, I think he was already well into the chicane, or maybe even out of it. I was pretty certain I wouldn't be able to catch him because I remembered how he had checked out and won the July race. I still wanted my 2:05, though, and if I was going to have it this weekend this race seemed like the most likely time. With that thought in mind, I thumbed my stopwatch button as I passed start/finish after the first lap.
I wasn't sure, but it seemed on the second lap like maybe I was gaining on Frank. He turned around to look back at me fairly often, and each time I wondered whether he was slowing himself down by doing that. That lap was uneventful except that Frank and I came upon a 450-class backmarker between turns 10 and 11. The waving yellow was still out in 11 for the workers sweeping up hay from John's first-lap crash and the standing yellow had been out in turn 10 when Frank and I went by. Even so, Frank rolled off and hesitated a little bit, then gassed it again and pulled past the novice 450 before braking for turn 11. I had clearly seen the standing yellow in turn 10, so I couldn't do the same thing in good conscience. I waited, cursing, behind the monument as Frank increased the gap between us in turn 11. I finally passed the backmarker in the turn just after we were by the incident. In spite of Frank's pass, when I exited the chicane it was clear I was closer to him than I had been the previous time around. For better or worse, I forgot all about my 2:05 and my stopwatch, and started racing Frank instead of the clock. Frank continued to look back every now and then, and when he looked back exiting turn 2 he saw me about seven or ten bike lengths back. Now on the third lap, I closed on him a bit more in 3, 3A, and 4, and passed him up the inside of the carousel. I couldn't believe it! Even if he was letting me by, I had never thought I might be anywhere near Frank at Sears Point. Frank has serious drive out of corners, or serious motor, or both. Terri was watching from where she could see several turns, and she said she thought he carried more momentum than I did. He showed me a wheel on the power before turn 7, but I braked later. He showed me a wheel again on the power exiting 10, but I braked later into 11.
As we started the fourth lap I thought surely he would come by on the front straight, but I saw no sign of him there. But sure enough, there he was again on the straight between 6 and 7. This time he showed me a whole bike, not just a wheel, but he still braked rather early and I didn't lose the position. I don't remember whether he said hello to me again going into turn 11, but the fourth lap ended with me in front at the halfway flags. Once again Frank didn't come by on the front straight. When we came around to turn 7, we were greeted with a waving yellow flag, a bike and rider scattered mid-corner, and a turn worker motioning for an ambulance. I assumed the race would be stopped, so I watched carefully for waving black flags. No flag in 8. No flag in 8A. No flag in 9. No flag in 10. And then I must have stopped watching for flags, because when I exited turn 11, I saw a vintage bike practically parked near the chicane and thought, "Geez this rider is *slow*!" I passed and pulled out of the chicane only to see Brian Bartlow parked off to the side near the track entrance, a worker in the middle of the track at the bridge with a red flag, and another worker motioning emphatically for me to slow down and stop. I must have missed a waving black flag in turn 11. Someone told me later the red flag in the chicane was slow to come out, but I might have missed that one as well. Oops! I'm glad nobody suffered because of my cluelessness, except maybe the worried workers who thought I was just going to keep racing no matter what flags they showed me.
So the race was stopped, and because it was more than half over, it would be final, with scoring reverted to the lap before the red flag. I felt mixed: I had finished very well, but the race hadn't run its full eight laps -- who knows what could have happened between Frank and me in those laps? And besides, I was having fun and I wasn't ready for it to end! But second place and beating Frank (especially at Sears) is enough to make me grin no matter how it happens, so grin I did as the mounting evidence slowly overcame my disbelief.
There's no way, really, to convey what it felt like to ride back into the pits and see Terri, Joyce, Bruce, Steve, Scott, Kelly, and ... I confess I probably don't remember who all was there. Brian Doherty, were you there then? Others? As the other racers rode into the pit area and started to talk about the race, I felt overjoyed to share another little success with this group that had cheerfully supported me and put up with my whining through harder times. I don't know whether I'm more insufferable when I'm disgusted and cynical, or when I'm elated.
I pulled the stopwatch off my handlebar only to discover that I had remembered to push the button just once, so it was still running and I had recorded no lap times. This wasn't a big deal to me because I was so happy about my finish, but I was a little sorry I wouldn't find out whether I had done a 2:05. It felt like I might have been going a bit faster than before, but probably not by much because it had been so comfortable.
Later in the post-race conversation Steve Chan caught my attention and said, "Two oh four, man." 204? This number didn't mean anything to me. I tried to figure out who racer number 204 was, and I just looked at Steve, perplexed. "You did a 2:04!" Apparently Steve had been timing me, but this figure didn't seem possible. "Really? It must have been a high 2:04 if I did." Steve said it was 2:04.0x, for some value of x. Yow! I had no idea such a lap time was even possible for me, much less at my current skill level. Later I learned that Paul Reynen timed me at two 2:03's in a row. Unfortunately he doesn't remember what came after the decimal point, but these almost certainly were high 2:03's. When I started racing in 1996, races were won at Sears with consistent 2:04's. The track changes since then mean that old times and new times aren't directly comparable, but I didn't let that keep me from feeling ecstatic! I'm still astounded to have done those times, and a little scared because it's such a big leap for me, and big leaps can sometimes mean trouble.
Brian Bartlow set a new personal best time for himself of 2:01.2. Absolutely incredible! To use one of Jon Fosgate's favorite phrases, he was *flyin'*! Speaking of Jon, he seems to enjoy ribbing me on the PA when the Flying W manages to haul me up to the front part of the pack. According to some spectators who were listening, this month's Fosgate-ism goes something like, "Now it's Mazur's turn to chase the ponytail!"
Some time later, after watching my fellow Iguana Scott Elledge take fourth in his Super Dinosaur race, Darren, Scott, and I were talking in Scott's pit. I didn't do a very good job of reining in my bubblings-over, and with gentle firmness, Darren counseled me when I was talking excitedly about the 250 production race, "Robert, you're gloating." Darren is quiet and wise with a strong tendency to do his talking on the race track, so when he speaks it's almost always worth listening to. I confessed without remorse to the charge on the spot, but I also heard the truth in what he said, and tried my best to calm down and shut up a little bit. When my luck is good, it's sometimes hard for me to remember how annoying my overboard ebullience can be to people who are struggling.
No one had seen John Prelock for a long time and his bike hadn't shown up at the pits, so Darren suggested that he and I go to the medical center and try to find out what happened to him in his crash. We found him patiently waiting for someone to show up and help him figure out how to find his brother Mike who was spectating. Luckily John isn't seriously hurt, but it seemed like he had probably broken a metatarsal or two. He is going to be fine, though, and I look forward to seeing him back out on the track again soon.
Wow. This is probably long enough. I'll try to stop now. The summary: I ended the weekend upright (most important), and having far exceeded my goal of doing a 2:05. I got a gorgeous and tasteful bright red and gold plastic second-place trophy as a bonus, and once again I am fortunate enough to be grinning at the end of a race date. I'm looking forward to Thunderhill!
Big thanks to Terri, Roque, Brian, Dan, and Tom for their advice and encouragement. Lots of gratitude, too, to all the other 250 production riders for the highest-quality racing ambience I've seen anywhere. Thanks to Juan for sharing his space with me on Friday night, and thanks to Redwood City Honda/Kawasaki/KTM/Suzuki for reliable no-nonsense parts dealings.