AFM round 7, 2011 – RACEBALL

Posted: 18th December 2011 by GoGo in RACE STORIES - 2011

AFM round 7, 2011
Baseball or “RACEBALL”     Only Scooby Doo could say it better…


I’m sorry, times are different.  We barely spell full words anymore.  Movies play in our hands.  So little talk happens in person.  I’m not sure writing these stories fits anymore.  Still though, thoughts run through my head at work, before I sleep, when I work out – it’s endless.  So again I apologize, this story won’t play in the palm of your hand.  You won’t read this in a minute.

It’s been a hell of a year.  We’ve failed and we’ve succeeded.  We’ve tried our best, but we haven’t achieved our best.  I have regrets. For me racing relates to life.  It’s about passion, it’s about heart.  Doing your best, being your best.  But deeper than that it’s about defining what exactly “Best” means in the first place.  Let’s face it, life is about balance.  Racing is too.  So can I really say we tried our best this year in racing?  We didn’t dedicate every hour of every day to racing.  That would surely be our best.

…Or would it

This year racing was a bitch to hold on to right – loose in my grip, but confident.  For the first time riding my best meant falling back in the order.  My best feedback lead us no place better, my best judgment was wrong.  Let me tell you that wrecked my head.  Or at least it added to the wreck which already had a head start in my head.  There’s one thing you need in racing – far more than horsepower, far more than lap times, in order to win.  You need confidence.  This year I had none.

I play Third Base Thursday nights under the lights.   It’s my favorite night of the week.  I’ve been known to crush some long fly balls now and again, so they usually bat me fourth.  How hard can it be, right?  You’ve done if forever – go clear the bases.  ….not so fast though.  Baseball is a mysterious sport.  Too many Thursday nights this year I went 0 for 4.  Eventually I lost the fourth spot in the order.  Major league players go 0 for 4 often enough and they don’t get canned.  WTF.  But that’s baseball – pitches come at you at 95mph in every direction BUT straight.  I play softball.  Our pitches come in on a high, slow arc.  If you can’t hit a pitch like that you must be worthless.  …and exactly that has been my dilemma all year.  In fact it’s been a few years now.  More often than not, which is clearly far too often, I have retreated to the corner to ponder my own self-worth.  In racing, on the ball field, at home.  More than one night this season I stood at the plate facing a chance to win the game for us.  Instead I lost it, time and again.  Now I’m not saying flying out to right field in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, two men on base, and a two run deficit means you are worthless.  I’m saying it makes you feel worthless.  And I’m not saying losing on an RC8R that wants to do anything but win means you are worthless.  I’m saying it makes you feel that way.  And then there’s losing my favorite person, my wife Tracy.  This isn’t the place to get into babbling about marriage hardships, so I won’t.  But I will say the hardest part of all of these struggles has been the biggest part of all of these struggles – I have been losing while trying my best.   Losing sucks, but losing when you are trying, and when you know you have what it takes to win – sucks ROYALLY.

Used to be I didn’t know what “heady” meant.  Just a term I had heard, about other people.  This year was a humbling experience.  I came to know the term first hand.  It polluted my blood.  It ruined my confidence.  It crushed my spirit.

And then one day it all, and I mean it ALL, began to turn good.  Each element of my life, in a strangely coincidental unison, began to show signs of a pulse again.  Batting seventh now, and pitching of all things, on one cold night in our last game of the year I had the greatest game I can remember.  Our pitcher was hurt.  They asked me to fill in, cold, against one of the best teams in the league.  On the mound I walked no one, struck out three, and pitched around the rest.  At the plate I batted 4 for 4, with a triple and one home run.  While that sounds great it can’t hold a candle to the fact that Tracy was in the stands for the entire game.

…It’s amazing how everything that makes up your life, makes up your life.

As far as racing goes, my year isn’t my year at all.  It is “our” year.  And our year turned good the very day Mike Meissner grabbed the helm and wrung the bullshit out of his team like water from a soaking bath towel.  Up until that point I had theorized my ass in circles around our RC8R, but I couldn’t make a difference.  He did though.  And that’s exactly when a lot of other things began to change as well.

I wrote a story after round 6 which caused a bit of a stir.  I said some things I shouldn’t have.  Strange people responded in bizarre ways.  I apologized.  We all moved on.  …But let me tell you, all that crap made a hell of an impression on me.  And I wasn’t the only one it made an impression on.  In fact if you think about it, the very fact that strange people were even reading this blog in the first place is an indication that I was not the only person who had noticed a difference in our presence out there.  Apparently even Michelin had noticed…

When cranky people notice you they make a lot of noise.  When a company like Michelin notices you they stay pretty quiet about it.  In fact they make you stay quiet too.  And so I was.  Until now I haven’t said one word.  Until now…

About a week after round 6 Alex Florea (AFMotorsports) called me saying Michelin wanted us to test some slicks they’ve been working on.  This was great timing because Gerry Piazza (Gp Frame and Wheel) had just spent two days bending our chassis into a shape he described as “Perfect”.  Up until this point we had only used Gerry as a ruler – to measure our chassis.  Typically we took Gerry’s measurements and used them to completely ruin our RC8R.  But this time was different.  We simply handed him our completely baffling RC8R and said “Please save us?”

Yes, our “Never crashed” Skip Barber School RC8R actually HAD been crashed, at least once.  Turns out the swingarm was bent left, the steering head was bent right, our rear wheel was smoked and our custom triple clamps were a little cock-eyed even more right.  Combine all those points with a rear axle 6mm out of alignment for round 6 and it’s amazing we even finished the damned race, never mind ran high 53’s.

Alex and I drove up for a Pacific Tracktime trackday the weekend before round 7.  He guarded the two top secret Michelin slicks he brought with him like they were bags of cash with huge dollar signs on them.  He refused to give me any ideas what to expect from them.  That’s a Michelin thing I remember from the 90s.  Never would they say a word.  Instead they let you do the talking.  Here it was a decade later and nothing had changed.    Alex wouldn’t even let the tire guys mount these slicks.  And I wasn’t allowed to tell a sole what we were doing.  I went out there first thing in the morning following specific instructions to keep the pace up around two minutes flat.  Yea that’s about six seconds off our pace from the previous race so not much chance I’d be able to assess Gerry’s chassis work.  Or at least that’s what I thought..

The bike felt curiously calming.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  No bucking, it turned the same right or left, it stayed down when I put it there, I could re-adjust mid turn.  While that all might sound normal to you, it wasn’t normal for our RC8R.  Good signs for sure.  But we were still going really slow.  Alex and Barry Wressel (KFG Racing) met me on pit wall after I’d completed the required four laps.  The rear felt low out there, especially mid-turn and under power.  Like the tire was going flat.  But in a strange way I liked it.  I liked the grip of it – but not the height, so Barry made some adjustments.  Our next four laps were to be 58s.  With them came a bit more tweeking after I came back.  We’d been tweaking this bike all year.  In fact every dam time I come in we tweak it.  Never does it improve though.  It’s the most baffling thing I’ve ever experienced.  And sometimes this year we’ve made yard-sale type changes to this bike.  Always the same results – bucking, shaking, can’t turn, steers wide, bla bla bla.  What a bitch.  You can see how this thing got in my head right?  Hell I bet you would strike out five nights out of six in softball too…

By noon we had done three runs on the new Michelin slicks.  Lots of adjustments after the first run, some adjustments after the second run, no adjustments after the third run.  WTF was happening?  The bike felt great.  And I don’t just mean great like it’s right where it always was.  I mean great like this was an entirely different RC8R.  I kept walking around the bike in circles back in the pits with a baffled look on my face.  Only this time I didn’t look baffled because the bike made no sense.  I looked baffled this time because the bike DID make sense.  For the first time ever in not only my history racing this RC8R, but in racing the Superduke R too, everything suddenly made sense?

At this point I really need to give Gerry a heap of credit.  For what I don’t exactly know.  He wouldn’t tell me what he did to our RC8R.  Most I could get out of him was “tiny adjustments here and there all add up..”  Yea whatever.  Trust me nothing Gerry did to our bike was tiny.

Back to the tire test – The afternoon promised two things.  It would be warm, and it would be fast.  Alex and his Michelin buddies in Texas had a plan that we would do two more runs.  One moderately fast, then if the tires still had life left in them the last one would be as fast as we want.  In the penultimate run we equaled our fastest lap time from the Open Twins race the weekend before.  Consistently, during a trackday, with traffic, we ran around at low 1:53s.  Although I was happy with the look on Alex’s face when he read me the times, I was not surprised.  Oddly, I already knew them.

I read race reports all the time.  Spies in MGP, Rossi, Biaggi in World Superbike.  Lots of time all these guys talk about laps like they wear sunglasses with lap timers in them.  Rossi especially says perplexing things like “Well I made a slight mistake in turn seven which cost us three tenths of a second” – usually without looking at data acquisition.  Does anyone else find this hard to believe?  Or at least interesting?  How in the hell can a rider tell this while he’s out there going balls out barely clinging to the grips of an angry motorcycle at speed?  How can you tell three tenths of a second over 180 whole ones?  Well I can tell you how.  Now, I can tell you how.  It’s the little things.  The tiny points “all adding up.”

Typically I take the last run of the day about the same way I take the first run of the day.  Calm.  First thing in the morning the track is cold.  Last thing in the afternoon your tires are shot.  Yet there I sat, on the bike, fully dressed in leathers, late in the afternoon heat, waiting for the last run.  I never do that.  I never look forward to a session.  To be honest usually I’m nervous.  Especially the last couple of years I have been nervous.  You would be if you had to ride a bike that had it out for you too.  But now everything was different.  I was anxious to ride.  And to ride fast.  Just then though, about fifteen minutes before the last run, Alex noticed a cut in the rear tire.  It was pretty deep too.  About an inch and a half long, and at least 3/16ths of an inch deep.  He looked up at me and said “Get out of your monkey suit fruitcake, we’re done.”

Normally I would have stepped down without protest.  Normally I wouldn’t have cared.  But this time was different.  The only reason I can give for this is because I knew something that afternoon which I haven’t known in a very long time – we could go faster.  And I don’t mean just a little faster.  I mean like a second an a half faster.  I can’t really explain how I knew.  Maybe the bike just made more sense.  Maybe the feelings I always get out there but typically discount to something “heady” haven’t really been heady after all.  Maybe when I have felt there was no more grip up front in this turn or that, there actually hasn’t been any.  Maybe when  I have felt the rear spinning or drifting through a turn, or out of a turn, it really has been.  And suddenly this time, on this day, at that very same race-pace, our bike was doing neither.

I looked back at Alex like he just stole my puppy.  “Alex.  ….No.  We can’t stop now.  Not after all we’ve done.  Not after all this time.  Not after all these years.  Please Alex.  Let me run.”  Again Alex said “No”.  He didn’t want anything going wrong out there, which I respect.  I don’t know how I cut the tire.  Maybe it was when I stopped off the track in the gravel trap to help a fallen rider earlier in the day.  I pleaded with Alex again and again until he finally called Texas to explain the situation.  It felt good to overhear him tell his Michelin contact that I had a good head on my shoulders.  “You don’t know GoGo.  He regularly rides straight through problems that would park most others.”  Alex hung up the phone and made me promise if he let me out, I had to come in at the FIRST sign of trouble.  Three laps later we turned a 1:51:5, on warn tires, in the last run on a trackday, in traffic.  That’s a full second and a half faster than we had run only one week before when we took second place in the Open Twins race.

We left that trackday on top of the world.  Yes the new Michelins are great.  In fact they deserve a story all to themselves.  Yes our RC8R was also great.  It too deserves a world of credit.  Gerry Piazza had done his homework, well.  I will never approach working with him in the same way again.  What a fool I have been.  And yes, most of all, my spirit had a pulse again.

On the long drive home Alex and I celebrated by calling Michelin to share the great news.  They sounded jazzed about the progress we achieved with just one set of tires but ironically, with the great news we gave them came crap news for us.  This experimental set of tires would be the only ones we would see in 2011.  No more sets were available.  ….How do you like that?  That’s like handing a starving dog just ONE biscuit from a five gallon bucket filled with them, then turning your back and walking away.

So what do you do now?  Basically we had a new bike, new setup, new tires and new potential – but couldn’t use any of it.  That’s when I got creative.  I said “Come on Alex.  Really.  In this whole country there isn’t just one more set, somewhere?  Don’t make me call my Michelin friends from the 90s…”  And so the dialing began.  Half an hour later Alex had pulled another mystery set out of his hat and we were back in business for round 7.

This is where round 7 gets interesting.  Mostly because I don’t guard my pride I can share an otherwise hidden element of racing.  Head-games.

I have for years now made it a point to get inside my competitors heads.  Not in a typical way though.  Not how you would expect.  I do it in a friendly way.  Every weekend, at some point before the Open Twins race, I make it a point to visit the front runners pits.  It’s actually kind of rude of me, but it doesn’t come off that way.  I sit with them, I ask how things are going, I share things most don’t share, and I wish them luck.  How is that getting in their heads you might ask?  My goal is not answers to questions, secret information, or malicious anything.  My goal is to communicate to them how comfortable I am.  How under the mounting pressure of our upcoming battle, I am laughing, joking, and basically unaffected.  And then with a handshake, I walk away.  I can’t measure if this achieves anything, but it’s definitely something I do intentionally.  This is “Raceball” after all…  But right here, exactly in fact, is where my own head-games turned and hunted me down.

Like I said I made some mistakes here on this blog when I wrote about #54 in round 6.  These things are still what I feel but I shouldn’t have written them down.  Everyone makes mistakes but that one stuck with me.  I couldn’t actually get it out of my head.  It was like a song playing over and over that you just can’t stop.  I knew we had more potential to battle him hard in round 7.  But I also knew we would have to do it down on power, and down on time.  Our current set of experimental tires were cut and worn.  They were done.  That meant we had one set of tires for all of round 7’s practices and races.  Our strategy was to park it for practice – then come at him cold for Open Twins with fresh tires.  Problem is you don’t come at #54 cold and with no practice.

Saturday practice dragged it’s way past me like a seven mile long freight train going five miles per hour.  It was all I could do to keep from getting sick watching everyone else go faster and faster while we sat there waiting.  Worse than that was watching #54 out there on his RC8R.  Typically he parked that bike, focusing instead on his BMW for most of the weekend.  He knew he had the whole Open Twins field covered with one hand on his grip I guess.  Why practice?  But round 7 was different.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had picked up on our increasing speed out there.  He ran his RC8R every session.  That made me feel good, and that made me feel anxious.  All the while I tried not to show it made me feel anything.

Finally Sunday I got the green light to practice via text message from Alex.  “Do NOT show your speed.  Do three laps total then come in.  Save it for the race.”

(side note – *Some people don’t get how I write about racing.  They say with a degrading tone that I write “in the third person.”  The reason I do this is because I race in the third person.  I don’t make decisions all on my own, I don’t sign up for races all on my own, I don’t build the race-bikes all on my own.  “We” do.  By “we” I mean us – my team and I.  I don’t fail and I don’t succeed.  We do – because other than deciding to pass someone on the inside or the outside, I don’t do much else all on my own in racing.)

So there I was, minding my business out there in the warm-up Sunday morning.  I saw Tigerboy up ahead heading towards turn ten.  He seemed off pace so I gently headed to his inside for the hard-braking left hander.  I was careful not to spook him and stayed pretty clear on his inside.  Just as I tipped in, Mr. Attitude jammed himself inside the both of us then sprinted toward the S-turns out of eleven.  “Typical” I thought, as I let him go play with himself.  Just then he turned back, looked at me, then wheelied his way up the back straight.  If I had my cell phone with me I would have turned it off.  If Mike was there telling me to keep my cool I would have pretended not to hear him.  Finally someone was in MY head, and they were loving it.  I threw caution to the wind, I threw secret tires and no practice at speed in the toilet, and I gave chase.  We came onto the front straight nose to tail – #54 in front.  Just then he wheelied again, standing his RC8R almost straight up and down.  I ducked out from behind him and passed with at least fifteen mph advantage.  Here is where you get an idea just how much faster his RC8R is than ours.  Apparently when we passed him on that front straight he landed his wheelie, got back into the throttle, and powered his way back into our mock battle.  How disgusted would you be right now if I told you not only did his motor get him back to us before the start finish line, but it actually got him passed us.  “WTF” I thought to myself as once again he slid by our inside – this time heading toward turn one.  Now I was touched, and slightly annoyed, but lucky for me the charity segments of Thunderhill’s high speed straight sections were behind us.  I stayed in the throttle, glued to his rear tire as we stormed to make one final point before the Open Twins Race.

Like I said before, my confidence has been beaten and battered into submission lately.  But also like I said before, it was again showing signs of a pulse.  I stayed in the throttle till my front tire was inside his, then stood our RC8R on it’s nose braking for the entrance to turn 2.  I can only guess but I can guess confidently, he did not expect us coming by him at any time during this century or next.  Just after the apex of that turn two I backed out of the throttle and saved our only rubber for the race.  Back on pit-wall Barry Wressel wore a coy smile on his face as he asked me “WTF was that all about?”

When I’m on my game I launch a bike pretty well.  Far better than average.  And definitely better than #54.  We hole-shotted him a few times this year.  I kind of wish I kept that fact in mind for the Open Twins race.  Instead I got myself all twisted about it.  That damned heady thing again – I tell you I was haunted that weekend.  I know where to keep my revs just before the flag drops.  I know where to hold my clutch.  I know where to put my body.  But instead of doing what works though, because I was all twisted about this surely epic fight we were about to have all race long, I changed because I REALLY wanted to get the hole-shot.  And because I REALLY wanted to get the hole-shot, I REALLY held the throttle wide open just before the flag dropped.  And that was the end of us.

The KTM RC8R has a wet clutch, which makes setting a slipper clutch up to work just right a little challenging.  There is a delicate balance you need to achieve with a wet slipper clutch if you want it to work right – between not only the clutch pack’s stack height, but also with the amount of oil you have the motor spraying on that pack.  Too much oil and the clutch drags, too little oil and the clutch binds, or grabs.  Keith Rodrigues, our chief race tech, took a lot of time this season getting that balance just right for how I launch the bike.  KTM uses jets, just like carburetor jets, to spray oil coming from the oil pump onto the clutch stack.  Keith actually modified those jets in order to get more oil spraying on our slipper clutch – so that it wouldn’t bind or grab on starts.  Really he deserves all the credit for us hole-shotting so well this year.

While I was busy twisting both myself and our throttle way to far past where we should have been, the resulting higher revs put the balance Keith had managed so well – straight out of whack.  Our clutch dried up on the line.  About a second before the green flag flew, as I stood there holding the front brake with my pointer finger, all of the sudden our RC8R coughed itself into a lurching jump forward.  I hadn’t moved a muscle – I was still – waiting for the flag to fly.  The bike just exploded inside of itself – lurching itself forward.  Immediately I pulled the clutch all the way into the grip so we didn’t false-start.  Then instantly the flag flew.  It all couldn’t have choreographed itself better (or in this case, worse).  As I quickly got the clutch back engaged my haste got the better of me.  The bike stood up and wheelied.  Crap, now I had to back out of it again.  When it landed I got back into the throttle, only to have it wheelie again.  Our great holeshot quickly became a dream never realized.  #54 was so far ahead and our race hadn’t even started yet.

I gave it my best anyway.  Never surrender.  We got closer in the technical stuff, farther in the straight up and down stuff.  In the end we finished not far from where we started – a not so distant second place, again.  But more than battling with #54 I actually had a bigger, hidden goal for round 7.  I wanted to get us into the 1:50s.  I knew I could do it.   I knew the tires had it in them.  I knew the bike was fast enough.  I knew it was handling well enough.  All that was left was me.  Once again I was at the plate, once again it was the bottom of the ninth, once again there were two outs and the outcome of the game rested on my shoulders.

Lapping a racetrack fast on a motorcycle is a fantastic experience which is rarely tired of.  But lapping a racetrack super-fast on a motorcycle is a very special experience, rarely managed.  To do it takes lots of little things.  Lots of barely measurable points, all set perfectly in a row – each of which you need to nail.  Every single one, every single time, in perfect sync.  This is definitely do-able for some.   And I am definitely one of the fortunate ones who can do it.  But really it takes time.  To go that fast, to nail all those points, to not just try your ultimate best, but to BE your ultimate best.  It takes time.

And on this day, during round 7 of 2011, on Tri Valley Moto’s re-born KTM RC8R, with Mike Meissner and his kids in the stands, with even my beautiful wife Tracy in the stands with them – I failed.  I missed our hidden goal by the ever elusive “three tenths of a second.”

It is hard, being me.  I am a builder of things.  Patience is not always my greatest attribute.  But I am learning.  Good things in life, the best things in life actually, you can’t achieve in one day.  You can’t achieve in one practice.  You can’t achieve in one try.

…never surrender



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