The last professional race I rode was the closing round of the Canadian Thunder series back in 2002, aboard a Buell XB9R. I won that race.
So you can imagine that when I got the call from Deeley Harley-Davidson’s Alex Carroni to race the number 22 machine (the late Trevor Deeley’s racing number) of Ruthless Racing/Deeley Harley-Davidson in the new XR1200 Cup, I was pretty stoked.
I was also a bit uneasy. I’d agreed to be thrown into the ring with the likes of six-time Canadian Superbike champ Steve Crevier, 2010 Rookie Pro of the year Cody Matechuk, and veteran Harley/Buell racer Darren James, who finished fourth in the British XR1200 Trophy last year.
That’s some pretty stiff competition, and nine years out of a racing saddle had softened me up a bit. To add to the pressure I also had never ridden Quebec’s ICAR circuit, where the opening round of this year’s Parts Canada Superbike Championship was being held.
GETTING UP TO SPEED
I had managed to get a ride on the actual bike a week before the race thanks to a media event at Calabogie Motorsports Park hosted by Turn2. Having raced a Sportster in the late 1990s, I felt immediately at home on the XR1200, though its rubber-mounted chassis makes it longer, heavier and way flexier than my old, rigid (albeit vibratory) Sporty.
Turn2 also held a track day at ICAR on the Thursday preceding the race weekend, and desperately needing some time at the track, I showed up on the CMG long-term CBR250R (first report coming soon) and got two sessions in before heavy rain put an end to my day.
Of course, racing in a national series is nothing like track testing a bike or riding during a track day. Speeds are way higher, riders are much more aggressive, and you get very limited track time prior to the actual race.
Two 20-minute practice sessions were scheduled on Friday of the race weekend with one more on Saturday morning to prepare us for a 20-minute qualifying session that afternoon. That means you get 60 minutes to learn the track, get familiar with an unfamiliar machine, and set up the suspension — which proved critical on the XR1200 — before qualifying for grid position.
Oh, and the bike I was riding was being used as a test mule to develop shocks for Elka Suspension. Sixty minutes of practice… It may as well have been 60 seconds.
Fortunately, I had the support of the entire Ruthless Racing team behind me, including the advice of my former Canadian Thunder rival Darren James, and his team mate John Ross MacRae. I was pleased to find that the team shares info freely between riders and lets individual riding skill make the difference on the track; there’s no Rossi/Lorenzo wall under the Ruthless Racing tent.
I also had the help of Ian Thomas (not of ‘Painted Ladies’ fame), who took time off from his job as Deeley’s technical service manager for western Canada to work on my bike. Rod Matechuk of RMR Suspensions took care of tuning the forks, and John Sharrard of Accelerated Technologies handled the Elka shocks.
Man, I never had this kind of pampering when I was racing; I felt like a factory rider, so I took full advantage of it by lounging about and picking my nose while everyone else catered to my demands. I haven’t breathed this freely in years…
FAST LAP, SLOW CRASH
My adoptive race team may have made me feel very welcome, but the weather was not so hospitable. The forecast called for rain throughout the weekend, and temperatures during Friday’s practice barely got into the double digits.
In the first practice session, which was very wet, I freaked everybody out (myself mostly) when I posted the fastest lap time — 1.7 seconds faster than anyone else, I’d been told. Maybe it was because I got more wet laps in than anyone else (in the interest of getting better acquainted with the circuit), while the other riders were likely riding with extreme caution, looking ahead to a complete, trouble-free season.
Regardless, I was later offered the opportunity to contribute to the wealth of knowledge under the Ruthless tent, as I became the go-to guy for a rain set up.
The track seemed to be drying out as the afternoon session neared, so Ian and I waited until the last minute before putting on dry tires. Of course, when racing there’s the last minute that comes after the last minute, and as I waited on pit road to enter the track on dry tires for the first time, it began drizzling.
From his experience racing the XR1200 in the U.K., Darren came over to caution me that the DOT tires were very slick and unpredictable in wet conditions and to take extreme care when leaning into turns.
Two laps into the session and the drizzle turned to rain. On the third lap the track was so slick I decided to call it quits and head for the pits. Unfortunately, traction at the front tire also decided to call it quits and as I braked for Turn 7, the bike pitched me to the ground. Apparently the same caution applies when braking.
I must have gone down at about 50 or 60 km/h, and as soon as I stopped sliding and got up, I began walking towards the machine. The bike, however, just kept on sliding. It appears that metal on wet concrete (the ICAR circuit is laid out on a concrete runway at Mirabel airport) has about the same friction coefficient as a puck on ice.
I found myself pointlessly yelling “Stop! Stop!” at the runaway XR as it neared a concrete barrier at the edge of the track. It must have listened, stopping a few metres from the wall with only minor crash damage.
An onboard camera that the CSBK film crew had attached to the bike didn’t fare as well, flying off the bike and spreading its parts across the track. All of the camera pieces were found and it was put together – and in working order, too (a Go Pro Hero HD in case you’re wondering).
Only the memory card that had recorded my embarrassing spill was never found. I’m sticking to my story that I didn’t dispose of the card to save myself from viral YouTube infamy and misfortune and that it flew out on its own and vanished. Yeah, that’s it.
Saturday morning we finished putting the bike back together (thanks to Steve Crevier for lending us the stock footpeg brackets off his bike to replace my crash-damaged ones) and got ready for what possibly looked like a dry practice session. I still needed the track time, but more importantly, we had to work on a dry setup for the bike, especially since ICAR is a very bumpy track.
The first time out on a dry track didn’t go so well as the bike weaved and bobbed about and handled “like a wet noodle” (the source of that quote will remain unnamed to protect his spot on the racing team).
During a red flag, Rod adjusted the forks according to my weight and from data gathered from Darren’s bike, while John made adjustments to the shocks. The changes dropped five seconds from my lap times with a best of 1:39.787.
With a total of eight dry laps since I began practicing on Friday, I was hoping we were well enough prepared for qualifying.
I posted slightly faster times in the early part of qualifying than I did in practice. Then after about five laps the ride began to deteriorate and the bike began behaving the way it did the first time I had taken it out that morning – and as much as I like eating pasta, I don’t like riding it.
I settled for a best time of 1:38.611, which was only good for the ninth spot on the grid. Steve qualified third with a 1:32.270, Darren was second with a blistering 1:30.701, and 17-year-old Cody, who barely practiced, opting to wait out most of the wet practice sessions, got the pole with a 1:30.433. The kid has speed prewired into his system at the factory.
After qualifying we still had to work on the handling issues, so John, who is helping Elka develop the race shocks for the XR1200, recommended we change to a previous version. We were using the latest generation Elka shocks and swapped for an earlier generation late Saturday afternoon.
I arrived at the track on Sunday morning, and again it was hopelessly cold and wet. Being that I knew how the bike handled on rain tires, I decided not to practice in wet weather, as I didn’t want to put unnecessary wear on them in case we rode a wet final.
This meant that the bike was in an unfamiliar dry setup and the first time I would get to test it would be during the two warm-up laps – just before the start of a dry race.
We broke for lunch without a morning practice session, but I wasn’t too concerned. While having one of Caroline James’ (Darren’s wife) scrumptious sandwiches for lunch (I think half the team members are on the team just for her delicious treats) I pondered my strategy. If it rained I’d try to maintain a comfortable pace, and if we raced on a dry track I’d try to latch onto a fast rider early in the race and let him guide me up to speed while I got accustomed to the new setup.
The first final of the day, Pro Sport Bike, was run in wet conditions (Darren rode his Buell 1125R to a fifth place in that one). Miraculously, the sun began poking through the clouds, and the second final of the day, Amateur Sport Bike, was run on a drying track.
By the time it was our turn to hit the track it had almost completely dried, so all the teams were given a half-hour to swap to dry tires.
Rod came over for one last check and asked, “Are you aggressive on the brakes? Are you going to race or just ride around? ”
“I’m hard on the brakes and I’m gonna race,” I told him.
“Good,” he replied, and took out his tools and did his magic on the forks one last time.
John had set the new shocks up for a dry race when he put them on the day before and was only going to come see me if they needed to be readjusted for a wet race. He came by to wish me luck.
With a brand new set of Pirelli Diablo Supercorsas on the bike, I rode like hell during the two warm up laps to try to get a feel of the bike. It felt right.
My start was only mediocre and I lost a couple of positions before going into Turn 1. I regained those positions within a few turns and hitched onto the tail end of a six-bike train. Leaders Cody, Steve and Darren took off.
Immediately ahead of me was Olivier Spillborghs, and I tried my hardest to keep on his tail. As the laps counted down, I found it easier and easier to keep pace with him and started to look for passing opportunities, but then he moved around J.R. MacRae and slowly pulled away.
I tailed J.R., who was riding hurt after highsiding during qualifying and was riding about a half second off his qualifying pace.
In the meantime, I had dropped my qualifying lap time by more than three seconds and was riding comfortably and confidently.
However, I now needed to get around J.R.
I quickly realized that I carried more speed than him into and through turns and was only giving up some speed to him on the straights.
At first I though his bike had more power than mine (the XR1200 makes 88-92 rear-wheel hp in racing trim), but then I remembered the guy is pencil-thin. The extra 50-or-so pounds I carry around my waistline is like sending few of those hard-working ponies to the glue factory.
Around the mid point of the race, I made an attempt to pass him going into Turn 1, but he’s an experienced racer and as I got beside him he got harder on the brakes, while altering his line just enough to mess up my own.
It was a smart move and as a result he was able to get back by me going into the next turn. He was now also well aware of my intentions and from then on his XR1200 became about as wide as a tractor.
I made a few more unsuccessful attempts to get by him, but also made a decision not to try and push my way through, as I was just a racer for the day and wasn’t participating in the championship. I didn’t want to risk messing up his season because of an egotistical move on my part, so I resigned to follow him and wait for him to make a mistake. He never did.
I crossed the line in eighth place, but entirely satisfied with my weekend. My best lap time was 1:35.389, though that’s more a reflection of J.R.’s lap times. With a clear track ahead I could have gone faster still.
Cody took the win, just 0.168 seconds ahead of Steve, with my weekend team mate Darren finishing third.
Being part of the Ruthless Racing/Deeley Harley-Davidson race team made me feel like a true factory rider. Getting help from suspension specialists like John and Rod shortened the learning curve dramatically and I was able to get up to speed much faster than if I had tuned the bike on my own.
And despite the shitty weather, I had a fantastic weekend that made me realise just how much I miss competing and everything that comes with it; the camaraderie, the problem solving, the fans, the speed.
But I have to say thanks for nothing to the folks at Deeley Harley-Davidson, now all I want to do is go racing again.