November 1, 2022
I am not sure if I am superstitious or not, so I make it a point to never put the same shoe on first… Which of course suggests that I am.
I have this thing about our National Anthem on race days. No glasses, no hat, and I have to find our flag flying somewhere. Always I speak to my Dad. I picture him in WWII, reaching for a hand up onto his tank. I know by now his thoughts every time he closed that armored hatch – sealing their fate inside. I picture him with no glasses, a site I almost never witnessed, diving through the Long Island Sound in a ferocious Butterfly Stroke – basically blind. I talk to him about battles. About risk. About vulnerability. I ask him for a hand without speaking, and I promise to respect the life of mine and those around me.
It’s not a superstition or a habit, officially. It’s simply me. But there are some things I do that I might admit, are, superstitious. Take my number plates for instance. They may as well be holy to me. I save them at each season’s end, however they look. I think of my number plate as a badge of honor. Every event we attend during a season, somebody glues their sticker on. Every track day company, every race organization, every group, or session run. That’s where we were, here is what we accomplished, this is our rite of passage.
Saturday at Laguna was legendary for me. I still cannot define its meaning. Its challenge. Its triumph. So, I thought on our way back to the fog-covered racetrack Sunday morning, “We won an unwinnable race yesterday. What do we do today?”
Fog brought with it delay. Delay brought with it boredom. Boredom brought with it a change of fortune. I don’t even know where I was or for how long I was gone from our garage, but I returned to Mike, my great friend and mechanic, smiling at me. He looked up like a twelve-year-old boy who had just finished the dishes without even being asked to. With a rag in one hand and a half empty bottle of soap in the other Mike said, “GoGo, look what I did. Look at your number plate. It’s so clean and every single one of those annoying stickers are gone!”
I nearly threw up. My heart fell to my stomach. My knees got arthritis. I knew that instant we were done. Our weekend run of incredible fortune had just ended. But my face never gave up the goods. Mike had no idea. I dismissed it best I could, like it was Monday morning and I never put the same shoe on first anyway. But somehow everything suddenly had changed.
There I was on the line of the first race of the day, F50. I started from pole. My eyes on the flag station, waiting for my cue like I’ve done a thousand times before. But this time I was in the wrong gear. I quickly shuffled straight past it, twice, fumbling like I had lost my mind. As I looked down to question what was suddenly happening to me, the flag dropped. Fuck it I let out the clutch no matter the gear, let’s just go. And so we did, me in third, everyone else in first – blasting ahead of me like I was pulling a horse trailer. I finally got up to speed at the top of the hill and charged back through the field to 4th place going into turn 2. I positioned myself just to the outside of 3rd place, planning to head back under him on the exit. But he never turned in, instead he faded outward and outward, basically blocking me from turning in too. I remember thinking to myself, “Anytime you’re ready…” And then suddenly his motorcycle snapped sideways in front of me, perpendicular to my direction, and it catapulted him straight up into the air like Superman. And by “Superman” I don’t mean he simply flew, I mean he actually took off for the sky vertically, like Superman does. The next instant his bike launched into the air too, but not vertically. His motorcycle was now flipping side over side in the air right in front of my number plate.
Yea… …That number plate.
So I pulled my left hand from the grip and smash, that airborne demon crushed my clutch lever and master, smashed my number plate, and knocked me straight off the track. I reached back for the bar, uninjured and still upright, and tried my best to avoid the crash wall. Nothing doing, that deep gravel is like ice, I couldn’t turn in time and ditched us on the ground. I got up covered in dusty gravel and looked for the fallen rider. He looked mobile, uncomfortable but getting himself to safety. So I ran for his bike, still mid track with the second wave of racers barreling through. I lifted the bike and rolled it onto the gravel but when I checked the rider again he was down. Not moving. So I threw the bike down again and ran to his aid. He lay there in the fetal position, not moving. I got up to his face and talked to him. He groaned and moaned and finally spoke in a struggle of words about his back. It sounded painful and he wasn’t moving anywhere soon so I tapped my helmet calling for an ambulance. Unfortunately, I know back injuries intimately, so I supported his head in my hand to take pressure off his spine. When I looked back and saw the ambulance, I suddenly had an unexpected flash of selfishness occur to me. And I still feel guilty about this today.
“If there’s an ambulance on track, and my bike’s not that badly damaged, I may be able to make the restart!”
It is today that I would like to ask someone else WTF is wrong with racers. How and why and where else in life would someone think such selfish things like this. As the EMT ran to us I hoped the first thing he would reach for was this riders head. And he did. I handed him off, wished everyone well, then turned and ran for my motorcycle which was now being carried away by corner workers to some faraway place where I have no access. I shouted instead, “Hey can I ride that back?!?!” Twenty-five seconds later I was going through turn 4 all by myself in 5th gear with no clutch, a bent bar, dust all over my face and leathers and pebbles in my belly pan.
I reappeared on pit lane pointing and shouting in a desperate effort to assemble the troops to fix this fallen beast beneath me. Ironically Mike ran straight past our perfectly cleaned but now damaged number plate, and went to work on the clutch instead. Within minutes they called for the restart and there I was again on pole position, eyeing the starter, awaiting my cue. And this time I had every reason to be confused about what gear I was in but wasn’t. I knew exactly where I was and why, and off we ran with the drop of the flag to restart this Sunday with another win. I took the checker with a few sighs of relief but when I came toward turn three on the cooldown lap I saw them waving a meatball flag at me. Specifically, at me.
Meatball flags are obvious to see from a distance. Big, black, with a circular orange blob in the middle, waving with sometimes hysterical corner workers pointing toward you and your motorcycle. Well, shit, I thought, something is still broken and now I’ll be disqualified. But as I got closer still I noticed the hysteria of this corner worker was not bad after all, it was good. And that was not a meatball flag he was waving. It was my black shirt with my orange KTM logo that I had given him earlier that same morning. I wasn’t in trouble after-all. So I wheelied all the way to turn 4, because that’s what we do for the corner workers that we love.
With race one done we quickly regrouped back in the garage, went over all the damage more carefully, straightened crooked things a bit more, cleaned my leathers and helmet, installed a fresher but not fully heated rear tire and went out for the F40 race. Still rushed, still a bit disheveled, but focused. All was well again and the “number plate curse” was dispersed.
Or was it.
I gently leaned into turn three on the warmup lap, just inside of the riders line ahead of me – because suddenly I had a thing about riding directly behind people – and down I went. The rear never bit the pavement. Not even a little. It just laid down onto the ground in what has to be the softest most gracious and mysterious crash I have ever experienced. Instantly on my back sliding as I watched the bike skip away I thought of peanut butter. Not oil. Not water. Not cold weather or fog. Peanut Butter. As in that’s what it felt like my rear tire just rolled through?
As I stood up from the crash I had two striking epiphanies.
#1 – OK our number plate wins, this weekend just ended.
#2 – Apparently I need to eat more, because, peanut butter?
Stay safe and always put your shoes on,