Friday, June 19, 2009

Just Flat Amazing

I just watched the Springfield Mile, which I taped off Speed TV last Sunday. I’d been saving it, like a tasty dessert, and tonight the time seemed right to indulge myself.

I’ve been a flattrack fan for many years, but since I moved to Oregon I’ve managed to see only one race, a National TT at Castle Rock, Washington, in the late 1980s. Dave Despain was the announcer for the Springfield broadcast, and they could not have chosen a better person for the job. Despain knows flattrack like Vin Scully knows baseball. Working with him was Steve Morehead, a racer I once saw do the near impossible—or so it would have been for me—at Ascot Speedway in Gardena, California.

It was a night race, and practice commenced in the afternoon. Dirt tracks like Ascot change with the temperature and the humidity, so that the surface you practice and time-trial on might well disappear by the time the heat races and main finally flag off.

Ascot was like that. It’s a little known fact that they got the dirt for the track from a nearby cemetery. Coming as it did from as much as six feet under, it had a lot of clay in it, and when it was not too dry, not too moist, but just right, it offered phenomenal traction.

Morehead went out in practice and his bike was all over the place. It wouldn’t steer going into the corners, and it wouldn’t hook up coming out of them. It was full-on dark, with the lights lining the track blazing, as he went out for his last session. He might have been hoping the track would come to him as night fell and the surface got tackier, but it didn’t.

I was in the pits that night. A lot of people think there’s nothing particularly complicated about flattrack racing—go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left; repeat until checkered flag—but like a lot of things that look simple at first glance, it’s not. Bike set-up is critical, as is knowing the track. As I walked past Morehead’s pit he rolled in, put his bike up on the stand, and dove into his toolbox. In the space of five minutes, he slid the fork tubes up in the clamps to quicken up the steering; changed the gearing, which also changed the wheelbase; put on a different set of shocks, which changed the rear ride height and thus the front/rear weight distribution; and changed the air pressure in both of the tires.

The rule of thumb in race tuning is never change more than one thing at a time. That way, if the bike is faster or slower, you know exactly what you did that made it that way. There wasn't time to do it that way, though—there never is at a flattrack race—so Morehead went ahead and did everything at once.

And damned if they weren't all the right things to do. The bike hooked up, it steered, and it was fast. Morehead had a good night, I recall. So did I. I’d seen a master at work. What looked like a desperate hail-Mary move was in fact the practical application of years of experience. I never forgot it.

Years later, I got in touch with Morehead to see if he’d be willing to answer some questions about flattrack racing. I was writing my second mystery novel, Hotshoe, which takes place on the flattrack circuit, and I wanted to make sure I got all the racing details right.

He was good enough to spend an hour or so on the phone with me, and at some point in the rambling conversation I mentioned that night at Ascot. He remembered it. He remembered every change he’d made to the bike, too. And to my everlasting astonishment, he even remembered me, standing there watching him, taking in every detail.

So flattrack really is very simple after all. Go straight, turn left. Remember the minutest detail of every race you’ve ever run, including the track conditions, the chassis set-up and gearing of the bike, and some guy you’ve never seen before or since standing there gawking as you pretty much change everything on your bike but the gas cap. Go straight, turn left. Repeat until checkered flag.

1 comment:

ProCucle said...

20 years since watching your last flattrack race is way too long. Gene Romero's show comes to Oregon August 8th at Willamette Speedway in Lebanon. My buddy Drum Evans will be there riding his TT500 and I will be in the pits keeping the bike (and Drum) race ready.