Monday, 13 April 2015

First time racer

Well, that's it. Something I'll never be able to do again: last weekend I did my first race. Was it worth the time, money and effort? Was it fun? Everything I hoped it'd be? We'll come to that.

Seven months ago, in September 2014, somebody planted the idea in my head. Stop playing games. Endless trackdays. Do it properly. Go racing. November saw my ACU test done and licence arrive, December saw an extra bike in the garage and after many, many evenings, weekends and grazed knuckles in the garage, by March I had something roughly like a race bike. And then, the weekend before I was due to race for the first time, I crashed it while testing at a trackday. Cue a couple of frantic weeks of repair work and shopping for parts, ending with yet another bike in the garage being cannibalised for parts over Easter. Entry in, van booked, repairs done, and ready for another go.

Friday started early, picking up and then loading the van, and by lunchtime I was on the road. Cadwell Park is a long slog from south west London, six hours' drive in traffic, and after a lively dash down some single-track roads to avoid jams I parked up in the paddock at next to Mark's tent. Mark is the cousin of a friend of mine, and the three of us are all racing for the first time this season, all in the pre-injection 700 championship class with North Glos racing. Not superbikes and not MZs, it's a keen but relatively cheap class to play in, and not a bad place to start.

I had just enough time to unload the van, sort a few things out and take the bike down for scrutineering. I'd spent the week leading up to the event waiting for the nerves to kick in. They didn't appear until Thursday evening, and it was nothing to do with the race itself. I'd converted the road bike myself, with some professional help with the engine, and the ACU Road Race rulebook is long and detailed. My main worry wasn't that I'd get hurt or look like an idiot on track, it was that scrutes wouldn't let me race the bike at all.

My fears proved unfounded, with just a minor grumble about hollow tips on the foot pedals and plastic dustcaps on the tyre valves instead of metal ones. I promised to sort them out and that was it, my technical control card was signed. A few minutes later my kit had been approved and I was in the race office signing on for the first time. All simple formalities, for the most part, and I've done a lot of trackdays and gone to a lot of races as a (mostly quite drunk) spectator, but as a first-timer at a serious event it was all a bit daunting. Still, job done and I'd pretty much finished setting up in the paddock when my support crew for the weekend started to arrive. Paul (aka Eddie) was going to be around until Saturday afternoon, seeing me through practice and the first race, and Andy and Adie were around most of the weekend. Along with Mark and a few other people I already knew in the paddock, I was far from alone. After a quick dinner in town I got an early and unusually sober night, catching what sleep I could while the wind and rain howled round the shelter.

Saturday started before 7am as I packed up the tent, unloaded the bike from the van and got my head ready for first practice. Each race day starts with short practice sessions to meet ACU rules, and nobody gets to race without doing at least two timed laps. By the time Eddie crawled out of his tent I'd had the bike through noise testing, got the tyre warmers on and was about to get kitted up. And then the rain came back with a vengeance. Practice was going to be wet and windy.

We quickly swapped wheels - everyone has a spare set with rain tyres fitted and I was no exception. And then, minutes before my session was due to start, I noticed two metal tubes on the ground next to the back wheel. Early R6s have an odd arrangement with a roller bearing in the rear wheel, and the inner collar and spacer can easily fall out. That meant there was no inner race on the wheel bearing, so the wheel had to come back out. With perfect timing the wind picked up, and while Eddie and a neighbour fought to stop the shelter flying away, I quickly got to work, helmet on and fully kitted up. As I took the sprocket carrier off I realised I was an idiot - the spacer and collar were from the wheel I'd taken off, not the one I'd put on. I had moments left to fit the wheel, get my gloves on and head down to the assembly area, leaving Eddie to fight against the wind.

Practice felt much like the fast group at a cold, wet trackday, with one big difference - rather than an orderly exit from the assembly area onto the circuit, when the gate opened it was like bulls being let out of a pen. This wasn't playtime anymore. This was serious. And conditions were horrible. The rain had stopped but the circuit was like ice and even rain tyres struggle when stone cold. Coming out of Barn onto the pit straight, as I wound the throttle on, the motor bogged down briefly then came alive, spinning up the rear wheel and lurching it sideways. Taking it steady, I felt for grip and eased myself into the session. Entering the Mountain for the first time the yellow flags were out, and the track was full of marshals picking up a bike laying on its side halfway up the slope. My head wasn't quite in the right place after the last-minute panic in the paddock and the weather wasn't helping, but I needed the practice - my last visit had ended in the crash that ruled me out of racing at Brands the month before - so I stayed out for the session and tried to get comfortable. At the time I felt tense and slow, and my times were nothing to shout about, but looking at the results now they were actually relatively OK - 18th of 30, ahead of some who would demolish me in the dry later on.

Session over, I parked up in the paddock, added enough fuel to see me through the next race, and got busy cooking bacon rolls for breakfast. Racing, it turns out, is a bit like being a gerbil - hours of doing nothing punctuated by short bursts of frenzied activity. With practice over by 10am, and my first race not til around 2pm, I had time to kill, and it was mostly spent walking round the paddock looking at other people thinking the same thing: what the hell was the weather going to do, and what tyres would we need? Fortunately the rain held off, and the rest of the day was cold and windy, but dry. After what seemed like an eternity, the call came over the paddock tannoy - race 9 to the assembly area. It was time to pop my racing cherry.

I've ridden into the assembly area at Cadwell 80 or 90 times over the years for trackday sessions, but it never really meant anything, just a bit of fun. This felt different. At the gate I was told my grid position, which I already knew from the entry list in the programme. The first ten places go in championship order, and the rest are sorted by the postman - the last person to get their entry in goes at the back of the grid, and that was me in 15th place. Or, at least, I thought it was. The gate opened and we rode onto the circuit and down to the grid, where I took up my place at the back. There were no numbers by the markings so I stopped at the back and looked at the gaps ahead, wondering which idiot was in the wrong place. I hadn't realised four more had entered too late to get in the programme, and I was one row back from where I should have been. Still, I didn't mind - it was my first race, starting from the back would just mean nobody carving past me on the way to the first corner. And so the green flag was waved and we were off for the warmup lap. Warmup is meant to be taken at near race pace, and I quickly realised I'd missed a rare chance for a practice start as we took a lap at a pace that would terrify a novice at a trackday but felt quite comfortable on a circuit I knew well, and which was now completely dry.

I barely had time to react as the lights came on, almost wondering where everyone else was off to when they moved. But that was it. Lights out. Go. Go! GO! I watched as most of the pack screamed off ahead of me, took the first couple of corners carefully to avoid trouble, and then got my head down. I passed Mark towards the end of the back straight and spent the rest of the race trying to stay ahead of the bike I could hear behind me through every corner. I counted the laps down, pushing as hard as I could despite feeling tense and nervous, knowing this was the same circuit, bike, tyres and weather that had seen me on my arse just weeks before. Five laps, four, three, two, one, over the Mountain for the last time, through the last corner and I was across the line. That was it. My first finish. I was officially a racer. And I was completely exhausted. Sitting around all morning, the wind howling, too tense to eat or drink, I was dehydrated and tired, rookie mistakes. But I'd finished a race. I wasn't last. I hadn't been lapped. One off the bucket list. Job done.

Well, not quite done, there were two races to go before teatime. Four hours later, after ten more races and a few delays, the call came again. This time I was 16th on the grid - results in the first race deciding the grid for the second - and having started 18th in the first by mistake, I was two places up. I found the right spot, was ready for the lights and got away. Not a good start, but could have been worse, made up one place, and got to work. Another difference from a trackday - the pace is relentless, every corner counts, every straight matters, no time to relax, no chance to check your head after an iffy corner. I felt better than the earlier race, quicker, less tense, but everyone else seemed quicker still, and after I glanced back to see a bike behind me. I thought I was about to be lapped, and foolishly backed off a little, waiting, and then saw the bike I'd kept at bay in the previous race shoot past and start to pull a gap. I couldn't quite keep up, but a target to chase helped me focus and I tried to keep the bike in sight for the rest of the race. Last lap. Two corners to go and yellow flags warned me that Mark was on the grass at the old Hairpin. Last corner. Pit straight. On the gas. Chequered flag and in. I wasn't last again, I'd been passed by a slower bike, but I'd beaten an R1 and it wasn't a novice either. And this was a race that counted - the first had been a qualifier but this was a race with championship points. More importantly, it was worth a signature for my record card - I had the first of the ten I needed to lose my novice jacket and move up a grade to Clubman.

The schedule meant I'd have two races to rest, take a drink, refuel and be ready for the last race of the day. But the weather and delays over the day meant we'd run out of time, and the remaining races would have to wait til the morning. It was time to pack up, open a beer and relax after a long day. Suddenly I felt hungry - all day I'd been trying to force down morsels of food, a biscuit here, a mini sausage roll there, my hollow stomach crying out for me to eat but the constant background adrenaline meaning I had no appetite. But with the racing over I was only too happy to head up the paddock to Andy and Adie's pikey palace for a meat feast on the barbecue.

Sunday started early again, but the still weather overnight meant I'd got more sleep and had a clear head for my second day as a racer. The extra races meant a compressed schedule and fewer sessions for practice. I started the bike to warm the engine up, got changed into my leathers, and then noticed the oil light. The bike has a known fault on one cylinder and drinks oil, and I'd forgotten to check it the night before. The R6 has a dipstick rather than a sight glass, and lockwire means everything takes longer, so I had to work quickly to top up the oil, re-check it, and re-do the lockwire on the dipstick and filler cap before getting my lid and gloves on, warmers off, the bike off its stands and getting out for practice.

Dry practice was less grim than the previous day but I was low on fuel and only got three timed laps before pulling in, bottom of the timesheet. I didn't have long to get more fuel, hydrate myself and get ready for the Newcomer race, postponed from the day before. The Newcomer races are open to anyone already entered in another class with less than two years' experience, and is mostly novices. With two races merged there was a wide mix of machines and abilities, with everything from teenagers on 30 horsepower 125s at the back to cutting-edge 200+ horsepower superbikes at the front. I clearly wasn't going to be troubling the front runners at my pace on a bike from the last century, and the quick guys were faster than the winners in my main class, but the grid was full and I was in the middle. Lights out, full throttle, up from first to second, and then the gearbox jammed, I couldn't change up. I backed off, hooked third as a few bikes passed me, and joined the eight-abreast fray in the first corner. The bike in front, a GSXR750 I'd been stuck behind in practice, did something - moved, slowed, I can't remember what, and I backed off slightly to avoid it. The bike behind me came alongside, there was contact, a clunk, the bike shook, and I looked down to see my clutch lever pointing skywards. With bikes close either side I bashed the lever back down, held a line, and two corners later the pack stretched out along the back straight, faster bikes vanishing over the crest in the distance.

I spent the next few laps hunting down the slower bikes that had got ahead of me at the start. First a VFR400, then a trio of SV650 Minitwins, catching them slowly through the corners, faster along the straights, and finally diving past on the brakes. My first chance to put in proper overtakes, helped a bit by a power advantage, the first two races having given me time to get my head up to speed and the first day nerves having mostly dissipated. As I pulled up in the paddock and got the bike on its stand, I actually bounced up and down with joy. I hadn't troubled the front but, again, I hadn't been lapped, I'd put in some clean passes, beaten some bigger and quicker bikes, and, crucially, the postponement meant I'd got a finish under my belt before lunchtime and was eligible for a second signature towards my licence. That was it, mission accomplished - two days, two signatures and a fifth of the way towards Clubman.

A couple of hours later it was time for the second pre-injection qualifier. Again, due to the compressed schedule, races had been merged, our bikes being bumped down the grid by the Open 600 class at the front. Those boys are quick, some using the club races to keep busy between national championship rounds. I'd done the maths and with them lapping 25 seconds faster than me, I knew I was going to be caught after about five laps, and be caught hard. With that in mind, I made up a couple of places at the start, fighting the gearbox again, and settled down into the race. Five laps in I glanced back and saw what I'd been expecting, took a steady line through Barn and onto the straight and watched as the leader shot past me like I was standing still. The second and third came through soon after as I tipped in at Charlies, the first diving inside me at the apex as I held my line in case the other came round the outside. One more lap and in. Another finish, 7th in class.

As the day passed, the wind picked up again, and as race 18 was called the rain started again. As with the day before, the question would be whether it would pass quickly or settle in, and with us out as race 19 there wasn't much time to change tyres. Within a few minutes the wind was howling and the rain was horizontal. The thought of trying to hold a line in those conditions with the fast boys screaming past just didn't appeal. I had a signature for the day, so the only reason to go out would be to pick up a few points to challenge Mark, as he'd not yet missed a championship race. Discretion being the better part of valour, I called it a day, loaded the van with Eddie's help, and went to watch the horror from the warmth of the clubhouse. For the first half of the race I almost regretted not going out, as the rain had almost stopped and the conditions looked no worse than I've endured at trackdays, but then the wind picked back up and I knew I'd made the right call, confirmed when Mark graciously declined the chance to open up his points lead over me. His bike threw him off at the end of the back straight. Two crashes in two days, you couldn't say he wasn't trying.

The day over, and the van loaded, I hit the road for the 200 miles or so home. By 11pm I'd piled everything I could put indoors at the bottom of the stairs, everything I couldn't in the garage, and crawled into bed, physically exhausted.

So, the money, the time, the effort. Fun? The first day was just hard work. I barely had a chance to enjoy myself in the races because the last-minute changes in the paddock, the sensory overload of the grid, the relentless pace and the sense of seriousness compared to a trackday, wore me out. I knew I must be having an OK time, because at the end of each race I was looking forward to the next one, but I was nervous, tense and quickly tired.

But the Newcomer race on the Sunday, that was spot on. It turns out all I need to have fun is a load of people on bikes that are slower than mine. Targets I can catch. But it's early days, and it takes more to go fast than power in a straight line. And I have eight more signatures to get before I can ditch this silly orange jacket. Pass me that entry form. I think I need to do this again.

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