There I was, the regular season was over and the Grand National Finals were here. Just an early morning ride from home to Road Atlanta. A ten minute ride to the highway, seven minutes to the first exit, and another ten minutes of back road to the main gate. Just enough time to consume the McMuffin breakfast meal and a cup of coffee on the way.
My first reflex took me into the infield pit. This is where we pitted for the July race as well as previous races. But as I drove around the pits, it was obvious that there were almost no vintage racers there. On my way around the first loop, I ran into Dean as Keith (on the cell phone) told me we were pitted on the outer pit area. Dean reiterated the information just after Keith passed it on. Flying down the gravity cavity pit road to the other pits, I saw Keith and Chris Adams pulling into the driveway in front of me.
We had the place all to ourselves. Downhill grade from our pits toward the second helipad meant no effort required to push start the bikes. Not bad for the old timers in the group. We unloaded and didn’t bother erecting the canopies. It was cool in the morning and we had a few things to get situated before our first practice session. A little tweak here, an oil leak there, and a few more things to accomplish before we took our bikes to technical inspection.
While at tech inspection, Tony the tech guy noted that this was the last race for the helmet. A 2005 helmet made in October meant that this puppy was about to exceed the five year mark. No helmets allowed on the race track beyond the five year mark. I had to mention that it was going to be nice to send a decently unscathed helmet to pasture (street riding only) for a change. As a matter of fact, this was to be my first year without crashing since getting into racing. My average had been about two crashes a year since hopping onto a Honda 350.
With the bike teched and ready to go, it was time to see who made it to the GNF this year. Bucky Sexton was the closest to my lead for the GP500. He was only three points behind me. As I learned at VIR, he is one fast jockey on the 350 stocker bike. He also knows VIR quite well. Jamie Brenton, the local Lilburn guy (a 155 pound marine at the end of his first complete racing season) was five points behind me. He also spent most of this season trailing me and Keith until the last lap and then makes his move to finish in front of us. Jamie had his wife with him. So did James Walker (fastest racer on a stocker 350 I’ve ever seen) and Chris Adams. Even Corinne made it out to cheer me on, by race time.
Practice sessions were a strategic ploy as Keith made it a point a few races back to point out the we don’t need to give Jamie any instruction during practice sessions as he would be trailing us (tracking his prey) during the race anyway. So, out we went and re-familiarized ourselves with Road Atlanta Raceway. Only getting to race this track once a year in early July, we don’t really get to master the course. On the other hand, for the guys that live too far to make that race, the only time they get to run it with WERA is at the Grand National Finals at the end of the season.
The track had no issues to note and/or avoid. The sun was out and the track was warm and dry. All we had to do was enjoy the ride. Practice session one was a good pass at timing and trailing. Knowing where to hit the brakes and just how early to hit the gas was key for performance. Rehearsal is more like it then practice. The real deal was here and it was rehearsal for the real performance.
David Hurst was in traditionally excellent color coordination with his perfectly painted Yamaha DS7, two stroke, open-port screaming machine. Tom Marsden was there on his Triumph 650 for the GP500 race. He bumps up to the V1 class, so he is also on the track with us for the GP350 race. I also got to meet Steven D’Angelo and check out his Ducati 350. That was one very nicely prepped Ducati race bike!
That meant there would be eight of us in the GP500 class race. Bucky didn’t make it for the GNF. So, all I had to do was make sure that Jamie didn’t have anyone in between us, should he be able to get in front of me. With my five point lead in front of Jamie and the GNF counting double, if I followed him across the finish line, I would take the GP500 National by one point. If there was someone between us, he would take it by one point. So all I had to do was draft him to the finish line if he got by me.
We gridded up and I just barely made it out in time to take the warm up lap. We were the first race and I had concentrated on cameras on Keith’s and Charlie’s bikes, then got mine situated and barely remembered to top off the gas tank. Then, I remembered I had not started my camera. I fired it up, waited for a few seconds, and then hit the record light. Luckily, GoPro included an LED viewable from behind the camera as well as the indicator in front. I was the last bike to make the grid. And, I had the pole position. Maroon Monsoon was the first bike in the front class of bikes with the outside advantage.
Most everybody else was ready to go when I got there, so Chuck didn’t need to wait long. Chuck and Charlotte were starting there last race. Both of them were retiring. It was a truly sad side to the GNF this year. I have always considered Chuck as our father who keeps us running safe on the track and is there to ensure we do get to have safe, fair starts and play like sportsmen. This would be the last time we got to experience his super consistent… 2…, 1…, GREEN FLAG and we were off the line in fine formation.
The heart of Maroon Monsoon had been replaced by yet another “loaner motor” plucked from the coral of 350 Honda twins waiting to be resurrected. I had to do so, after Silver Bucket blew up at Kershaw. Now it was taking me down the runway and speeding me to turn one. I had successfully kept the lead through the first turn. Climbing toward the “bus stop”, Tom Marsden on his Triumph 650 and Dean Middleton on his V1 built up 350 Honda passed me…
Most of us racing the 350 Hondas in our “bump up” class find in silly that we are placed in front of the V2 and Formula 500 race classes even though the 350 Hondas make up 90 percent of the GP500 class. But that’s the way things are. So, the first few laps include the faster bikes passing us at different locations on the track. All things considered, it’s actually good for us as racers. It continually keeps us pushing hard, because we don’t know if it is one of the bikes we are racing against until we are passed and get to see who it is that is passing us.
The Maroon Monsoon’s motor is connected to me by vibration only since I replaced the exhaust system just before the GNF. I can’t really hear it anymore. I don’t have a tack to read since the new motor had a damaged tach drive housing. It’s all by feel now. It could be another reason why my performance this season really picked up when Silver Bucket exploded in a splash of oil… I felt quite comfortable on Silver Bucket. But perhaps that comfort did not translate into performance.
As the rest of the first lap progressed, I felt quite confident of my performance. The tires stuck to the track quite well and the suspension only scared me when I came through turn one the second time. It was at full speed, unlike the first pass from a dead start at the green flag. This time it was a bit of a wobble. The first suspension issue I experienced on Maroon Monsoon. Trying to ignore the apprehension, I pushed MM hard into each turn hoping for a little more performance and a little more racer’s enlightenment. Just a little insight into what it takes to go faster and stay on the track.
Finishing the first lap, nobody else had passed me. Going into turn one, Steven D’Angelo passed me on his Ducati 350. He looked good and made me feel even better, having held him off for a lap. Climbing up toward the bus stop again, Paul Garland passed me on what I believe was his father’s bike #72, the 250 two stroke Yamaha. A big guy making the bike seem even bigger, he knows how to make’m go fast. The funnies Paul Garland story I have is when we were racing on the Norton and running Road Atlanta on the old turn 12. I looked back about the end of a race and Paul was not only lapping me, but took the time to wave to me. What a sportsman?
Coming out of turn seven, Kevin Ayscue took the opportunity to pass on his 400cc Yamaha V2 class bike. And then, just before the start/finish line, Chris Adams passed me before the end of the second lap. He is the “ghost” I have been chasing ever since he entered the race scene two years ago. I have to really up my game to give him a run for his money. Perhaps the T250 could be the advantage I need. More on that next year…
Just before setting up for turn one again, I believe it was Philip Turkington who passed me on a Honda 125 cc V2, two stroke factory built race bike. I had checked the bike out before the races. He said it was the half size racer version of the 250 Elsinore. Small tires, wheels, and brakes gave this bike an advantage in weight reduction. Having followed him for a while, it was easy to see that he had skills that matched the bike.
I went the whole third lap without being passed and then Charlie Young came up on his V1 bike on my right side a passed clean and clear of me. Going into turn one he began to pull away from me. But by the time we got to the bus stop, he was in my way and slowing me down.
I took a look back to see that my turn one surge really paid off. Keith and Jamie were nowhere behind me. James Walker was behind me and holding a constant distance. For a couple weeks now, James and I were troubleshooting his bike which was not running well. We had worked on his carburetors over the phone. Floats were misadjusted, but that was not the total sum of the problem. We covered condenser testing. Points possibilities and cam chain timing had been verified. Just not solution in what has to be a simple problem. This problem that we had not resolved had left James back with the “regular guys” to race with. Otherwise, we find out about his race results from Doug Bowie and the V1 racers that he messes with. Today, he was close to my pace and waiting for me to fatigue.
For the next lap, I pushed it hard and caught back up with Charlie on his V1 bike. I stayed on him till the back strait when his power allowed him to pull away from me. By turn 12 I had closed significantly, only to watch him pull away in the front strait. By the bus stop again, I was gaining on him and by turn 4, I followed him out toward turn 5. I followed Charlie out of turn 7 and he pulled away with power toward turn 10.
I started to notice that Charlie was drifting ahead, or I was drifting behind. Knowing that James must be getting closer because my stamina was fading, I was also becoming more erratic. I rode over the rumple strips in the esses and went wide on turn 4 over those rumple strips. I calmed myself down and took turns 5 and 6 smooth. Then it happened. Or, at least I thought it had. Setting up for turn 7 and Chris Howard passed me on his V2 Yamaha 400 two stroke bike. It wasn’t James after all…
I followed Chris through turns 10a and 10b and watched him start to pull away as he got to turn 12 well before me. There we both got the white flag. This was the last lap and I was in fourth place. More importantly, I have seen no sigh of Jamie, but then again, I stopped looking back a few laps ago. My race was in front of me so that’s where I concentrated.
Then it started to change. Going into turn 1, James Walker passed me and got in front of me for the up hill climb. He then started into the curves of the bus stop and pulled away. This was not a problem. Even if Jamie passed me, all I had to do was follow him across the line. I followed James into 5, 6, and 7, no problem. Heading toward the back strait, James had a good lead. But then over the course of the back strait, I was able to catch up to him. I passed him just before turn 10a and climbed toward 10b where he passed be back, quite skillfully. The uphill climb out of 10b showed difficult for James misbehaving bike.
We were both climbing up and then pointing down toward 12, the last turn before the checkered flag. No sign of Jamie in the mix yet. My momentum took me past James and down toward turn 12. I waited as long as I could to brake, without risking missing the turn…
It’s at this point where I have to thank the readers who have followed this year’s race season. I also want to thank Martin Mattes at Sirius Consolidated, Incorporated for all the support through all the ups and downs this season. I am going to stop my written description and simply complete this exciting episode with the video of the race. Feel free to read this again as each and every turn is viewed. Turn up the volume and enjoy the completion of the GP500 race at the WERA GP500 Grand National Finals.
Edited version with footage from racers: Keith Bennett, Jamie Brenton, & Jack Houman http://youtu.be/xG7B_yuaF38
JackCam only version http://youtu.be/wTT1e0fSzL4
Will pick back up with an epilogue in a few weeks…