THE LONG ROAD HOME
March 12, 2018
I interviewed the soul of a weather-torn showman at Vanson Leathers last year. His name was Rhett Rotten, he wore a cap everywhere he went, and his eyes looked back at me in a way that suggested there was more to his story than his words might tell. He struggled as he sat there on the edge of his Wall of Death, to explain what it all means to him, even though I could tell it means everything. So I paused my camera, I stepped so close he will remember me always; I looked straight into his eyes and said, “In my experience, the people who appreciate the most in life, are the people who have lost the most in life. …I watched you ride your wall, I saw you with your fans – you appreciate the hell out of what you do. …So tell me, what have you lost?” He answered, “Everything.”
About twenty-nine years ago, in the dead of east coast winter, while my brothers sat around our kitchen table talking with my girlfriend at the time, I sat motionless in the corner leaning up against the refrigerator. Finally she caught my eye, wearing an expression that spoke without words, “Where are you right now…?” I reached my right hand forward, I lowered my head into a tuck, and I twisted the throttle of a motorcycle I did not own, on a racetrack I had never seen. …and that’s how connected I was to racing, before I’d ever raced.
I appreciate racing more now than I ever have before, now that I have lost it. Turns out it wasn’t the winning, or the losing that I missed the most. In fact they weren’t a thought. It was the other things I missed the most; like driving through the night, like building my way around problems, like running and cycling and lifting weights with a purpose, and being alive with the passion and drive and energy the likes of which I have never found a match.
I love watching MotoGP, but the next time somebody finds me watching a race at 11am on any Sunday, when I could be out there racing myself, shoot me.
A comeback to racing will be tough without support I think. I used to have sponsors, even some I am quite proud of, but regretfully I have lost so many of them. Time away will do that. No more tire deals, no more free parts, no more bike to show up and ride, no more mechanics or fuel or boots or gloves. Nothing more for free, which in a way, is something.Photo by: Tracy Gulbransen
I raced a real character years ago on the east coast, named Rick Doucette. Most racers have long lists of sponsors but this one year Rick had none. At the awards banquets back east every champion gets a moment with the mic, to say anything they want. Speeches are typically painful and long and riddled with “Thank you Yamaha, thank you Dunkin Donuts” and so on. Rick walked up to the mic and simply said “Thank you nobody, I have no sponsors.” And that was it; he walked off to genuine applause. I’ve always looked back at that as a pure and honest moment to learn from. But I never learned anything from it. Not until this first race back.
Alex Hernandez, Hollis, and a monster of a guy named Taco helped me race-prep our KTM Superduke at CalMoto Livermore. I’d like to say I could have done it myself but I’m not sure I could have. Not before summer, and not without half the parts falling off by the third race. I made a poor (literally) decision to not buy tires for the first weekend. I still had one new set leftover from the first round of 2016, when simply riding the R1 tore my ACL in half. And I had one used set leftover from the 2015 Superduke from hell. That bike blew up every time we looked at it, so the tires we used didn’t have many laps on them at all. I planned to use the old Michelins Saturday. I expected they’d give me the worst traction ever, while I hoped for anything better than that. Shockingly they delivered much better than that. My first practice we ran 1:58s. Second 1:57s, 1:56s, 1:55s. Not as horrible as I feared. Then it happened, our first race back…
I made a promise years ago that I wouldn’t enter the Formula 40 races (the first of the old people races) until I was 50. I figured I’d do the same for Formula 50 (the second – older people races) until I was 60. But after strategically shifting most of my muscle-weight to belly-fat, and after being gone two years, I figured I’m actually too slow for Forumla 40 now. I didn’t even enter it. One race was already too much after only four practices anyway, so I just entered Formula 50. Before we lined up to start, I looked down at the special new dashboard flashing warning messages at me like ABS, Launch Control, Wheelie Control and so on. “What happened since I left racing… what is all this new crap?” I left everything as it was and did my best – which was terrible. I got the worst start in AFM history. This launch control basically removes the engine from the frame and ties squirrels to the front axle who slowly pull you toward turn one. It was like starting a car up a hill in third gear. But that’s ok, “Breathe” I kept telling myself. Just breathe, and breathe, and everything will work out. Pretty soon I started hyperventilating. While I was happy to be in second place, first place was leaving me for dead. Enough breathing it’s time to ride the f’ing motorcycle.
By halfway point of the race I noticed the leader had stopped shrinking. I’d finally matched his pace. So I took inventory of where we were and how we got here:
• Two year old used Michelins – check
• Forgot to activate the Power Commander Auto-tune system – check
• 91 Octane pump gas – check
• Last time I raced a Superduke here I broke Tracy’s heart by crashing from the lead – check
I knew what I had to do and I knew what I’d better avoid. From what I could tell our advantage was in braking, so I focused there and clawed away through lappers and eventually got close enough to make a run up his inside going into the last turn on the last lap. I’m a bigger person now, meaning, I weigh more. So once I got under him I thought big thoughts like ice cream and pizza, which rendered him no path to pass me back as we rushed to the checker.
To be honest, I was more than happy with the win – I was relieved. Which seemed to be the sentiment that Tracy wore too, as she threw a leg over our Superduke’s tail and rode back to our pit with me, to celebrate.
An interesting element of growing older that I am reluctant to accept is the loss that comes along with it. Unless you work on flexibility, you lose it. Unless you work on strength, unless you work on creativity, unless you work on simply being alive, you lose it. In youth it’s given to you, with age you must earn it. It doesn’t take much to turn the loss around I think. You don’t have to win a doggone thing. You just have to try. And that’s what racing is for me now. It’s trying.
Sunday brought with it the ominous threat of my past coming back to haunt me. Although Tigerboy is gone from Open Twins now, his adversary Brendan Walsh has only gotten stronger on his powerful Ducati. Brendan won the championship last year, which does magical things to your confidence. I ran into Brendan in the pits on Saturday. He smiled like Brendan does, he made small talk like Brendan does, and he fired a warning shot across my bicycle tire like Brendan does. That shot sounded something like, “GoGo, you’re looking good out there. I think 55s? 54s maybe? That’s really fast for such a long time away…” Sure that may sound mild to you, but Brendan is a DJ. He spins all sorts of tunes between words. And this tune said quite clearly to me, “It’s 2018 GoGo, and I’ve got two seconds on you. Can you remember all the way back to the years you had two seconds on me…?”
The AFM let me grid on the front row, two positions to Brendan’s right. This was a perfect place to watch him leave me from the line like I was glued to the pit wall. I will never use Launch Control again. By turn three I was on his rear tire, and I could tell staying there was within reason. We swept through the tight switchback turns – front tire to rear, until our first run toward the epic-fast and banked Riverside right-hander. As I powered the Superduke over the bumps leading up to Riverside, the rear of the Superduke collapsed. I had a flat; I knew it sure as rain. But I’ve had flats before and still finished well, so I hung in there a few turns more to see what could be done. I backed off full throttle, I made no harsh moves, and I gently paid almost all my attention on whether this problem was getting worse or staying just the same. By the next time around Riverside I could tell it was just the same. So I did not have a flat. But something was extremely different about the bike. Did something break? Did something bend? I scrolled through any changes I had made before the race – just one click of compression and one millimeter more preload on the spring. These changes should do the opposite of what I was feeling… WTF was going on, I couldn’t figure it out. My only option was to learn to ride around it. So no more hard acceleration toward Riverside, gentle on the gas exiting Lost Hills, and watch your ass through the hard acceleration exiting turn two. Brendan was very small by half race distance. He had nearly the front straight on us by now.
“…and then he turned around to see where I was. He’d run a perfect race until that moment.”
A few years back Brendan and I were at a trackday. I offered to run a few laps with him, to share where I thought he could go faster. To help him. He seemed pretty jazzed about it, which felt great to me. But just one lap into our segment with him leading, he pushed the front too hard and crashed in Thunderhill’s turn 1. I was pretty bummed that happened, for obvious reasons. I like Brendan a lot. He didn’t get hurt, and his bike wasn’t bad, which was great. But I left that day with the feeling that maybe us riding together got in his head. Maybe he pushed too hard because he knew I was behind him.
“…and then he turned around to see where I was. He’d run a perfect race until that moment.”
Turns out the reason our bike was so different was not the suspension, it was the tire. And it wasn’t a problem with the tire, per se, it was a problem with the bike not being setup for the tire. Remember, Today’s Michelin tires were two years old as well, but these were “brand new” two years old. And as it turns out, these were not only brand new Michelins, these were very special brand new Michelins. These were the first generation MotoGP design Michelins from their first year back in the big game. They’re called “Ultimates”. Special temperatures, special speeds, special traction, and in the case of the falling Superduke’s rear suspension – special hard carcass. To put it simply, Saturdays Michelin design was a carcass soft as marshmallows; Sunday’s Michelin design was a carcass so hard you could drive fence posts into the ground with it. So now our suspension was completely off.
But as I was learning my way around bumps, and experimenting where I could get away with hard throttle, I was also learning some other traits that set this Ultimate apart. Side grip was intense, braking was provocative (I felt like a teenager locking eyes with a sexy female pool-shark luring me in for a double or nothing round that would surely break me), and somehow even with gentle throttle I found the motor banging against redline in places it never had before. Obviously this was the fastest we’d been all weekend, even with the failed setup. …and Brendan Walsh was drawing closer.
With three laps to go he turned back to check me, I was a hundred yards back. With two laps to go he checked me again, I was half that distance. With one lap to go he didn’t need to look, he could hear me. I drove out of turn 1 and into turn 2 like a man possessed. My goal was to come up under him on the brakes in turn 3, but first we had to make it there. He entered turn 2 wide, after going in a touch too hot. I thought I was too hot too but once again that sexy pool-shark had me covered. I went into that right hander on the inside, and I came out on the inside, which turned out excellent because Brendan over-stepped his bounds and high-sided himself to the left of my bow. At first it launched him, he recovered, then it spit him off again – arcing all the time back into the racing line in front of me. I dodged him to his right, cleared his bike, and rode on for the victory.
Turns out Brendan broke his hip, but otherwise he’s fine. I hope he comes back soon, healthy, and all the wiser for it. Maybe I’ll convince him to try an Ultimate. On second thought… maybe not.
Two years, four practices, old Michelins and finally we reached the gate at the end of a long road home. It’s been three months building this Superduke. By far this is the best one yet. Ohlins rear shock, GP Suspension forks (which to date are the best forks I have had on a Superduke since starting back in 09), Michelin tires and 91 octane pump gas.
*full disclosure: Value my Michelin comments as fellow racers with the understanding that neither Michelin nor their AFM distributor Alex Florea sponsor me, or offer me a discount. In fact I even paid to have my tires mounted this weekend, something I haven’t had to do since 1991. If you can create an opportunity to try any new tire, also create the opportunity to set your bike up for it – otherwise it’s not really an opportunity, is it…
Special thanks to Mike Meissner, Alex Hernandez, Hollister and Taco at CalMoto Livermore, Lee Simmons and Jeff Leggitt at Mach 1 Motorsports, Austin Racing Exhaust, GP Suspension, Bob Robbins for helping me buy this salvaged Superduke in PA, and my special wife Tracy Gulbransen. Without these key people none of this happens.
Until next time, much love,