Taking a Knee: An Addictive Story

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A Story of Track Day Addiction

My name is Tommy, and I am a Track Day Addict. No longer do the lonesome, twisty, Texas back roads give me the fix I need.

There, the pavement is too slick with the muddy tracks, gravel, and tar patches. My tires never warm up enough, so I start sliding long before anything begins dragging, and the constant fear of plowing into a vulture (it hurts, trust me), dog, cow, or worse keeps me from satiating my thirst for speed.

Now, I crave the sound and feel of my knee-sliders scraping along the ground, the g-forces slamming me into the saddle as I rip through a tight, fast, uphill turn, and the thrill of keeping it screwed open just a bit longer than the last lap before I squeeze hard on the brakes as a turn approaches.

It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when I was satisfied with spirited street riding, and laps around the track brought more terror than joy. My first experience on a track came on my father’s Suzuki SV650S at Portland International Raceway. I was quite certain that I would come away from the day with a contract to mount some factory’s bike in the coming season and likely be hailed as the next Rossi, Doohan, or better.

After all, I had rubbed the chicken strips from the rear tire of my Yamaha TT600 dirt bike racing down lonely farm roads in Texas, and surely that is a sign of a fearless and exceptional rider. Indeed, I planned to glide around each turn with my knee planted firmly on the pavement, which would be no easy task on the silver SV, given the suspension modifications completed the previous winter.

I am not quite sure what had been done to it, but the meddling had resulted in raising the Suzuki’s rear several inches, making the SV disturbingly tall, while seeming to crouch at the same time. Sitting in the paddock, it resembled a silver flea-poised and ready to leap off the earth at any second. Half-faired and standing on spindly legs, this bike would not prove easy to pull over far enough to scuff up my new knee sliders.

Nevertheless, I had stuck the footpegs in the ground while chasing my old man on some winding, wooded road near my childhood home. So, I reasoned that, after a few laps to acquaint myself with the track, dragging a knee while making an inside pass on an instructor would be easy.

In the morning briefing, a female instructor laid out the plans for the first session of the day. “We’ll take it easy these first couple of laps,” she explained. “Ride at a nice, slow pace so you all can get the feel of the track and learn the proper lines for the turns.”

Okay, sure, fine, why not. Get a couple of laps under my belt, let the tires warm up, and then dazzle these punks with a finesse and lunatic speed rarely seen in North America-or the world for that matter.

Tearing down the front straight with the throttle wide open, it was immediately apparent the barking little gnat beneath me was down on power compared to the rest of the bikes there that day. The meager little machine simply would not go faster than 130 mph, no matter how hard I wished it. If another rider had any balls at all, he would overtake me midway down either of the straights at PIR.

No matter, I thought. This thing handles well enough; I will make it up in the curves. Get a good drive out of turns six and nine, pass the buggers, and make them work to get the distance lost back on the straights. I will be a streak of silver, knifing through the bends, elbow hovering inches above the ground, and smoke pouring off my knee sliders. My lines through the turns will be so tight that I can pick daisies as I hang out over the grass.

Following some missed shifts and obnoxious backfires, the entrance to turn one was rushing up with alarming quickness and no apparent slowing on the part of the instructor. Turn one, a double-apex right-hander, was drawing closer and the little needle kept trembling around the 130 mark.

I remember thinking the woman must be mad. The evil witch must have some sort of death wish and was planning on taking us poor fools with her. All my natural urges-those little whispers that have kept my hand out of the cookie jar all these years-were forcing my right wrist off the throttle.

I thought to myself, “Nuts to the whispers!” Cookies are tasty and should be eaten at all times, and the screaming flea was already slow enough; no sense in amplifying the problem. I would keep it twisted open. Losing ground on lap one was not an acceptable scenario.

Fighting with my nervous wrist in order to keep the throttle open, I suddenly remembered how my friends told me they thought it was idiocy to straddle the top of a fast and twitchy projectile when I could be safely strapped into a car. To that statement they added that doing it on a track with no speed limits was a sure indicator that I should be institutionalized. Eh, what did they know? Faster is always better, right?

Approaching number one at near triple digits, I noticed my arms had seized up and were no longer functioning in any normal manner. It took heroic strength and determination to tug on the left grip enough to pull the bike over for the turn.

I would have been screaming obscenities into my helmet; however, I have now concluded that certain, less important, body systems shut down when confronted with extreme terror at high speeds. All I was able to utter was a hoarse, squeaky whine.

Speech-make that frightened, obscene babbling-is not a function your body needs to perform in such a situation, and neither is the ability to produce saliva, apparently. My jaw had gone slack too. It appeared all operation of most of my facial muscles ceased to occur, as demonstrated by my inability to swallow.

The failures of these routine systems had left my mouth dry and leathery. Nevertheless, my eyes maintained operational status through all of this. I am now quite certain, had I the ability to leap outside my body and look back at me as I careened into that first turn, I would see my eyes had grown large and horrified as they took in the blurred scenery.

Leaning in for the first part of the double apex, I began to lament that I had earlier dismissed the notion of packing my colon with coal. If I had, I am sure that come day’s end I would have produced a small fortune in my toilet at home. I also found it impressive that, despite the obnoxious growl coming out of my pipe and the scolded wail of those around me, all I could hear that first lap, and every other lap as well, was my heart pounding in my ears and repeated, shallow, quick, breaths.

Despite the surging terror, I made it through the turn, and all the rest for that matter. The back straight was a nervous stretch, though. It bends slightly to right over its entire length and there is a large cement wall all along the inside, making it a blind curve.

As if flogging the motor with no way of seeing where the turn ends wasn’t dicey enough, the turn is also off-camber. Get too far to the outside and the slant will push you into the weeds, which can be a tad dangerous at 115 mph.

Each time I returned to the paddock following a session, I swore to myself I would never make another lap, certain of being shot skyward from a nasty highside or burning a nice hole in my leathers as the bike slides out from under me during a high speed turn.

Still, waiting for the next session, watching the other bikes come around that last corner and then screw it on to burn down the straight, had a narcotic affect on me. A queer urge to join them crept slowly through my veins.

The oddly soft, velvety, chest-buzzing, thump of the Ducati twins. The high, violent, banshee scream of the Japanese fours. That one, inexplicable guy lapping on a Harley, were all tugging me back out on the track. Never have I partaken in an activity where terror mixed so intoxicatingly with fun. I craved the howl of the wind, the speed, the fear. I did not know it at the time, but I was in the process of taking my first steps down the path of addiction. Never again would riding a motorcycle be the same for me.

Chronic cottonmouth would prove to be an incurable problem that day, as would an unusual case of rigor mortis that prevented me from shifting my body weight around on the bike as I navigated the turns. As the day wore on, I was able to grind down the curve feelers and put moves on a few unsuspecting goons that had the gall to pass me on the long front straight at PIR, only to slow up when the track got kinky.

However, despite what I thought were good efforts, I never did manage to slide my knee on the pavement while cranked over in the turns-so much for the factory mount and umbrella girls.

That night, despite the nearly incapacitating fear I felt while bolting around the track on the back of the silver flea, I could not shake the image or the feeling of rounding corners faster than I ever had, or the freedom of all-out speed on a clean surface. Unfortunately, it would be a year before I got another hit of the track.

My second trip to the track came at Pacific Raceways, just a little southeast of Seattle. It is surprising what a year of street riding and a single track day can do for a person’s comfort and confidence while buzzing around a race circuit.

Gone was the paralyzing fear that had plagued me at PIR. This time, it was only the high felt as I bolted around the track on the same, gutless silver SV650. My father was dragging his knee on his second trip to the track and, as I am not going to be outdone by the old man, I was determined to do the same.

I distinctly remember the instance I decided I was going to get a knee on the deck at the coming track day. It was on a night given over to heavy drink and gambling, and sometime shortly before sunrise in the course of frenzied jabbering I exclaimed, “I will get a knee on the ground, even if it means the rest of me has to follow.”

Proclamations such as this are not easily forgotten among my friends, despite the toll their VIP status at eight local watering holes had taken. For good or ill, I was going to have to make good on my promise or suffer endless harassment.

My go at Pacific Raceways suited me better than PIR. I say this not because Pacific is a better track, far from it. The track in Portland is wider, smoother, and is generally easier to navigate, except for the hairy back straight. Pacific is narrow, rough in places, and sends a rider screaming along at high speeds, perilously close to large trees.

No, Pacific gelled with me because I knew what to expect. I was prepared to respectfully nod as I blew past the Reaper well in excess of 100 mph. Death is a slow mover and can only catch you once you have come to a stop-keep it pinned open and never look over your shoulder.

While thundering down the front straight was interesting-its tremendous length afforded enough room to get the SV rolling at top speed long before I reached turn one-most of the track proved easy to manage, with the exception of exiting the tight chicane (turns three and four) on the backside.

To really get a good push down the abbreviated back straight, I needed to twist it wide open while still leaned over coming out of number four. Because the SV is not equipped with a steering damper, doing so caused the silver flea to angrily shake its head at me.

This was a nuisance to be sure, though one made manageable by the fact that the little 650 didn’t have enough power to get out of hand while rushing up through five and then braking hard to rein in six. Its behavior on the backside of the track was not unlike that of a drunken midget spoiling for a fight-a lot of slapping and dancing around, but never enough brawn to cause any real trouble.

The day wore on and, while I am sure it hung dangerously close, my knee had yet to touch the ground. This thought kept worming through my mind as I buzzed around the track. By my last session I was comfortable and frustrated enough to finally do something about this problem.

I had already leaned it in for number nine-a fast, long, banked, sweeper to the left, and the last real turn on the circuit before the artificial kink designed to slow us all prior to flogging it on the front straight. Down low on the inside, with the bike leaned over I decided to have a go at it.

Now’s the time, I thought, just hang off the side and pull the bastard over. Draped off as far inside as by bravery would allow, still keeping my right toes on the peg, head twisted around and looking down at the end of the turn, I resolved to keep adding gas and pull it over until I finally touched down.

And then it happened, my knee scraped along the ground as I came around the end of nine, just before I had to set the bike back upright to brake hard for the final turn. Looking back on the day, it was at that moment that I forever lost myself to this addiction.

Thankfully, I have been able to meter this problem, and it was yet another year before I returned to the track. Unfortunately, that third visit confirmed my worst fears. It seems that the faster I go, the farther I lean it over, and longer I can slide my knee on the deck of a turn, the harder I must push it.

Even though I have seen corner workers frantically scrambling to wave the dreaded red flag, only to cruise around the next bend and see my buddy’s Yamaha R1 wadded up beyond recognition, I must return to the track. I know that there is a good chance that will soon be me, riding off under the red and white lights of an ambulance, but I must return to the track.

My name is Tommy, and I am a Track Day Addict.

Story from previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.  

Photography by James Larson