2015 AFM Round 1 – Buttonwillow

Leaving Reality

The opening round of 2015 I was both nervous and excited.  My goal for the year is to improve my performance and be more competitive (that’s always my goal).  Like my bike, my skills as a rider will never be quite finished—there will always be something to work on and something to tweak or try.

I made a lot of changes to the bike and had a hand on nearly every part to make sure it would be a incredibly reliable and robust. This also meant that I had to go through the suspension setup and getting myself back into the proper mindset.  Over the course of the weekend, the bike would prove to to be more reliable and on-point than me. I also had to get used to some new gear.  A fresh set of AXO boots needed to be broken in, and a custom BELL helmetthat was minted less than a week prioradded more variables to the mix.

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Looking at the grid sheets, I saw that there were going to be a lot of very fast people, even in the novice classes. Not only that, but some of my competitors had been at the track since Wednesday and had two more days of practice prior to the race.

Finding a pit spot and setting up went smoothly on Friday. For good measure, I headed over to Dunlop to get a fresh set of slicks slipped onto my wheels for the weekend. My rear was toast, but the front lasted for what seemed to be an eternity, so I tossed the takeoff back into my truck for track day use. Even though I got down there too late to run the practice, arriving early afforded more time to relax, get in the groove and say hi to my AFM family.

Saturday

Saturday came early as it always does and I got the coffee boiling. After registration opens I enlisted my lovely teammate/crew/girlfriend Laura to help lug the bike and gear to get tech’d before the riders meeting.

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Practice

This year I’m in practice group 4. This was the first reminder that I’m getting quicker, and I need to be even more diligent and methodical in order to continue to improve. After the meeting, I got through the routine of suiting up and rolling onto the track for the first laps of 2015.

Last March was the first time I ever rode Buttonwillow, and I had not been back since then nor since the re-pave.  I remembered where all the corners were and which way the track went. However, this year everything was different since I’m comfortable on the bike and even more confident.  I was able to focus on the track itself and where I needed to be.

The day prior, I had filled every tank and jug to its brim at the gas station. I normally don’t fill the bike’s tank all the way up, so I knew that I would need to run it down before the race at the end of the day. The extra weight in the morning would make very little difference to me; however, the loss of routine filling would come back to bite me.

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Practice went well and I started falling into my groove. However, there was a bright yellow SV650 that passed me on the outside of Riverside, and this wasn’t the last time he passed me there either. This was a clear indication that I was losing time in that section. My lap times roughly matched my best from the year before, which is a good starting point, but about 5-6 seconds off of where I wanted to be. Laura reminded me not get ahead of myself and work on one or two corners at a time.  I managed to drop to a 2:01, which was in the right direction, but still far behind my competition.  I began to realize that Riverside was one of the critical areas that I needed to work on.

Race One

After some suspension changes and deep breaths, it was time for the first race: Clubman Middleweight.  The grid for first race of the year is based on points from the previous season in that class, so this ended up putting me on the pole.  I was starting to get anxious about trying to stay in front and defend my position.

The green flag dropped and my front wheel climbs skyward as we all tear off towards turn 1.  I’m out muscled and lose a few positions into turn 1 and one more into turn 2.  I was able to keep pace after that and was reeling in the 3rd place rider, who was about to start the second lap.  Going down the I-5 strait, the bike surged and then wheelied out of nowhere.  This was odd, but it has happened before when the tip sensor came loose.

I continued onwards and by the time I crested Phil Hill, the bike was stuttering and cutting out. I tossed my hand up and pulled off the line. I hug the inside of the track, but as the bike shuddered and choked, I realized that I’m not going to make it to the pits. I pulled off and up to the corner worker stand.  Still stumped about what was wrong, it eventually dawned on me that I never put gas in the bike all day. I had been trying to drain the tank down, but without didn’t get into the habit of checking the tank after every session. It slipped my mind. Such a simple mistake threw away not only a good finish, but it put me back at 0 points and dead last on the grid for round 2. My only solace is that another rider suffered electrical issues and joined me in watching the rest of the race from the side lines.

This would normally be embarrassing enough, however, as I’m waiting for the race to finish, I see Laura appear across the track on the dirt bike so I wave. I’m sure she was relieved to see that I was safe albeit disappointed. With help from the amazing Z2 track day folks, we got the bike towed back to the pits to re-group and prep for Sunday’s race.

Sunday

During a normal weekday, I can’t get out of bed even if it were set on fire. However, when the smell of race gas is in the air, I’m able to rise before the sun comes out.  Practice was quick and over before I know it. I still have yet to beat a 2:01, which is nowhere near fast enough to be competitive and I started to get anxious again.

I run a “superbike” and all my races were after lunch, so for the first half of the day Laura and I ride to different corners to watch and see where I could improve.  Many of my rivals also run production, and this was my opportunity to study them from the side lines.  I decided to watch the start of 600 production from turn 1. As the crowd of bike mob their way by I see a rear tire shoot sideways and the rider flung onto the track.  Fortunately, the remaining pack was able to avoid him and he walked off as the corner worker cleared the bike and debris.  It turned out to be Fernando, number 817, who was supposed to grid up next to me.  He complained of a hurt shoulder and was forced to sit out of the rest of the races. I would rather take competition over injuries any day.

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My parents showed up just in time to watch Formula Pacific (the main even).  Once again, we got to watch Joey Pascarella on a 600 destroy a field of liter bikes. I also now had a full crew to support me for the remainder of my day.

Formula 1

After lunch, it was time to get suited up and ready for my first race, F1. I double checked the gas as I got friendly jabs from fellow racers and strangers alike about running out. I rolled out to the grid and take my position on the front row of Novice F1. The main difference this year from last was that the novice and expert launch was done in one wave.  This meant that despite being #2 in novice, there were another eight rows of bikes ahead of me.

Once again, the green flag flew and off we went.  I got a great launch and ended up in the expert field.  I ended up on the inside of turn two and got caught in a massive traffic jam. This time, I saw a familiar number in front of me: #500, Kate Whitmire.  I was determined to claw ahead. I got a good drive out of Phil Hill and saw that she got on the brakes early, so I took the outside to regain position.

Coming down the front strait, I glanced over to see Laura pounding her fists together (not good!). Heading into turn 3, I got on the brakes a hair early and a white and orange bike slides to my inside. Once again a late apex over Phil Hill gave me the drive to pass two, almost three, riders into the Horseshoe.  From there on out, I was stuck behind an expert who is just fast enough that I cannot make any pass stick. I finished off a clean race and came home with a 4th.  Not a podium, but I did finally get down to 1:57.4.  Exactly where I wanted to be.

600 Superbike

This race is always my main race. The one that I always want to do well in. I checked the gas and poured some more in and rolled out to the warm up lap. I took the same position once again and was surrounded by many of the same people. I got a reasonable start, and ended up to the outside of turn two so I could pass the traffic jam on the inside.  As I tear up and over to turn 3, I saw a could of dust and fire! As I approached, there were a few bikes off track and a trail of fire leading across the track. We were all rather unsure of what was going to happen, so there was a lot of checking up and strange lines. Sure enough, by the time we left the bus stop, the red flags were flying and we pulled around to pit.

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We eventually got the call to re-grid and I headed out to try it again. Once again, I got a similar start, however, I ran wide on the outside of two and lost some time bringing the bike back onto line. I was also still mixed up with some experts, however, I ended up battling with another novice who would rocket past me on the main strait like I was standing still. I was fortunately able to sneak by in a few corners. After a lap or two of this, he got past and I was unable to regain my position. This time, despite similar lap times, I only managed 6th in the class (I have a feeling this is going to be a brutal year in the novice division.)

Unfortunately, this was not the end of this race. After I crossed the start finish my bike hiccups again, and by Lost Hills I cannot give it any gas. This forced me to pull off on a bypass and look rather hopeless once again. It turned out that the restart caused me to use more fuel than I had anticipated and once again I ran out.

Due to the tight schedule, by the time I got a ride back in, my next race is waiting for the green flag. So I did not start (DNS) the last race of the day. This was disappointing to me to lose so many points in a weekend due to such a simple human error. However, this was racing and I only had myself to blame. A custom gas gauge is in the works so that I can assess the fuel level and prevent mishaps like this in the future. Routine checklists are also never to be underestimated.

Back To Reality

With a lot of help, the truck got packed up quickly and a few beers were opened in celebration. No podiums or plastic this round, but fortunately I do have Laura, my parents, and my sponsors to thank for all of their support!

Next up is Sonoma.  I have a lot more experience there and I can only hope that April flies by because I want to race again!

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