THE MOST HONEST PLACE I KNOW
(Published in Sport Rider Magazine, June 2003)
It’s the first session of the day and it’s still cool on this Autumn morning. I shiver in my leathers, not entirely because of the venting in the Dainese suit. The track still has patches of dampness from the fog which rolls in every night off the Dan River, but is drying quickly. We’re helping it along with our laps. The last track day of the year. It’s going to be a good day.
The South Course at Virginia International Raceway has a hell of a long front straight. More than half a mile. Coming out of Oak Tree, the hard right-hander leading onto it – where legend has it that years ago the car racers used to deliberately rev their motors trying to shake acorns loose onto the tarmac - I’m in third gear on the GSX-R1000. Deliberately overgearing it, trying to keep down wheelspin. Once onto the straight, speed builds in a rapid crescendo. Even short-shifting – trying to keep the front wheel on the ground – I’m soon on the far side of 160mph. God’s country.
Some of life’s experiences defy description. Braking hard from those speeds, in what your mind tells you is an impossibly short distance, is one of those. Those HH pads and the six-pot calipers provide what seems to be perfectly fine braking – really powerful braking – everywhere else. Just not here. Past the braking marker, two fingers on the lever, squeezing like the trigger of a rifle, the pads of those fingers feeling for the load on the front tire. The rear end all light and softly shimmying, like the subtly-turning tail of one of those smallmouth holding station in the river over beyond the trees. There are damp patches here, too, and I can’t help but wonder if I haven’t overloaded that front tire as I roll through them. But, no, I’m ok.
You never think you’re going to make it. The end of the straight comes at you like the earth towards a crashing plane. It rises up like an unremitting wall, but with a rush like a cutting scimitar. Only at the very end, just when you’ve nearly given up all hope, does it seem like “yes, I think maybe I can make that turn”. It always seems a surprise.
Look at a sportbike and you see studied, purposeful aggression. From the flowing bodywork to the race-inspired seating position to the short, stubby clipons, the message is unmistakable. There is power here, and speed. Wield it as you will.
Given that compelling message, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that an entire culture has arisen around it. That new converts are assembled every day. And that, as with most cultures, a hierarchy inevitably arises out of the multitude. Unfortunately, for a vocal minority, their place in that pecking-order is based on bluster and bravado and denial as much as on skill and talent. It’s often the guy who exudes the most hot air, who’s most in denial about the risks he takes, who lives the largest – at least in his own fantasies.
You see it every Sunday. Everywhere we sportbike types gather together. Along with the coffee and scrambled eggs and laughter you’ll hear more exaggeration and embellishment and excuses than you can shake a stick at. Everything from how we saved that front-end tuck to why we ended up going wide in that one turn to how come we’re not running up front today. We work hard to fashion that golden image of ourselves.
And then there’s the track.
The track is many things. Obviously it’s fun, like the very best stretch of curvy road imaginable, but without the trees and the traffic and the gravel and the cops, and run over and over again, as if by some miracle. So euphoric that it defies description. A magic place. A legal drug.
But the track is other, more-subtle things, as well. It is a teacher and a guide, not just on how to ride better but also serving up lessons in some of the more far-reaching qualities that affect our lives. Things like patience and persistence, humility and fortitude. The joy of rising above one’s limits. The satisfaction of doing something better than we ever thought we could. Mostly, though, I love the track because of the truth to be found there.
Riding a modern sportbike on the street is kind of like leaving that supermodel at her door with naught but a goodnight kiss – satisfying certainly, but leaving much to be desired. Yet to hear many street riders talk about it, you’d think they hit the ball out of the park. Some of them actually try.
Sportbikes today are so remarkably good, their performance levels so astonishingly high, that one is able to extract only a small fraction of that performance on any public road. Fact is, riding really fast on the street is a whole lot less about skill and talent and a whole lot more about simply how big a bet one is willing to place on the table. The bet, the stakes, being you, of course.
Which leaves the track.
Only there can anything approaching the real truth about how good we really are be found. Only there does all the bluster and bravado and exaggeration fall away to a blunt reality, the certain truth, of the numbers on the stopwatch.
It’s the most honest place I know.
© 2003 Jeff Hughes and Sport Rider Magazine