IENATSCH TUESDAY: Age-Appropriate Activity

My return to motorcycle racing.

Don Cook FL Winter Series race action 1973
starting grid action

“When life itself appears lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness—and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in Don Quixote

Do yourself a favor: Don't search the web for "age-appropriate activities" for 57-year-olds. Yes, it's that bad. You really don't want to know. (If your brain was a grape, now it's a raisin!) There is far more truth and hope in the words of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra written in the early 1600s. Truth never changes.  Make his words your mantra. Seek to make your life a story worth writing about!

In my own quest to find my path forward, I looked back to what may have been the most joyous, carefree days in remembrance. In "Saved by Two Wheels, Again (Ienatsch Tuesday June 30, 2015)," I wrote about how motorcycles, the mentors they provided, and the discipline I learned took me off a path to nowhere and propelled me into a wonderful, rewarding life and career.

In 1976, at the age of 18, I raced professional motocross for the last time at Unadilla, New York. I then hung up my leathers and concentrated on academics. Every vestige of my motorcycle life disintegrated to dust as college, medical school, internship, residency, fellowship, job, and family consumed decades of my full attention. Motorcycles became nothing but a file of old memories. What had become of the “me” who found so much joy in speed on two wheels? I had always felt most alive when my brain was bathed in adrenaline.

Don Cook MX Pocono race action 1974

An adrenaline-bathed Don Cook circa 1974.

Fortunately my "motorcycle cortex," the part of my brain where all things motorcycle reside, still had a spark. In a moment of cognitive awareness, that part of my brain sputtered to life again in 2006. I tried briefly to convince myself that I would be safest on a big cruiser. While 1800cc provided plenty of torque, it wouldn't turn and couldn't stop. Radical acceptance led me to acknowledge who I still was. The cruiser went away; a Ducati Multistrada took its place. The Multistrada would accelerate, turn, stop, and loft the front wheel effortlessly. The "motorcycle cortex (my brain)" was again showing signs of growth!

After a very long hiatus, I again subscribed to Cycle World magazine. In 2012, an email from Cycle World arrived promising me $100 worth of Yamalube swag if I followed the link and signed up for the Yamaha Champions Riding School (YCRS) at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah. I had never ridden a sport bike or been on a road track. Somehow, I just couldn't let it go. I signed up (I'm still waiting on the swag). Suddenly, I was on a Yamaha R6 on a real race track, my own version of naked and scared!

The trip was a great but somewhat intimidating adventure. I knew nothing about riding a sportbike on a track. The message delivered by the YCRS staff was clear: "Every rider gets the level of instruction he or she needs." They did a great job and worked diligently with what little talent or ability I arrived with right through the last lap of the last day. I thought my track days had come to an end on that last day of school. There were no accessible tracks within 200 miles of the remote West Texas outpost I called home.

Everything changes. A shovel parted the earth in a forgotten area east of Austin, Texas. The Circuit of The Americas (COTA) was born. A few years earlier, while searching for water in the desert that is West Texas, I had acquired a lake cottage that, as fate would have it, was now one hour from a world-class MotoGP track. I nervously waited, apprehensive that opportunity might knock.

The knock was an email from Ducati in the summer of 2014. They invited me to participate in the "Ducati Revs America" event at COTA; two track days at a world-class facility. I had no sport bike, no leathers, and two days of track experience that were a distant memory from two years earlier. I signed up. There was little time and much to do. I had about six weeks.

The Yamaha Champions Riding School was back in business and working out of New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, New Jersey. I booked a two-day class in August of 2014. I had been studying and practicing what I learned at Miller two years earlier and was a marginally better rider. The YCRS staff gave it their all in NJ. I was a safer rider, but still slow. They preached, “Practice these fundamentals (eyes up, hit every apex, brake longer and softer, maintain good body position) and speed will come, without drama.” I still thought I was in way over my head signing up for the Ducati event scheduled for September 2014.

Don Cook COTA track action

COTA opened only an hour from Don’s lake cottage and a 636 carried him around in grand style, “re-addicting” him to an earlier passion.

Only mildly daunted, I found a lightly used Kawasaki 636 at a local dealer. It was a capable bike but aesthetically challenged by a color scheme only Kermit the Frog might find attractive. Its homeliness became only more apparent when surrounded by the stunningly beautiful works of art that are Ducati’s trademark when I arrived at COTA. I made no provisions for shade that day and was thoroughly prepared to fry in the Texas sun with neither pit garage nor canopy. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Vito, the proprietario at Ducati Austin, invited me to share their pit garage. I was then shown the pinnacle of service and hospitality by the Ducati Austin staff.

That day, Ducati Austin added another loyal customer to the fold and I found a supportive community that had passion for beautiful Italian motorcycles, trackdays, and racing. I picked up my Panigale 899 in October 2014. The "Ducati Revs America" event had hit its mark. The staff at Ducati Austin continues to exceed all expectations.

The next email was from the Yamaha Champions Riding School. They set up shop for the winter at Inde Motorsports Ranch in Willcox, Arizona. Now, the best riding/racing school was only a nine-hour drive from home. It’s a great track and fantastic facility. Track riding was now available all winter.

Don Cook track action on a Ducati 899 Panigale

Winter practice came in the form of an 899 Panigale at YCRS. “Hey Don, you’re goin’ good. Ever think about racing these things?”

My frequent winter trips to the YCRS in Arizona became meditation retreats for me. I practiced mindfulness meditation from the time I climbed into the truck until I again found myself mindlessly pounding the computer keys back at work.  My brain gorged itself on audio books from the “Great Courses Series” as I drove. I loved learning again. My brain was thriving.

“He who reads much and walks much, goes far and knows much.”

—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in Don Quixote

I had never planned on racing a motorcycle again. I was just having fun riding track days. It would be a fun activity during retirement. My brain was preparing for something else. The brain loves exercise (stimulation). If you keep practicing something your brain develops new neural pathways (experience dependent neural plasticity) to improve performance and efficiency. I was getting faster without crashing; without the perception of risk.

“To be sure, if it so happens that they offer me a heifer, I run with a halter.”

—Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's Squire, in Don Quixote

And so it was, I was offered a heifer; or in this case, the opportunity to participate in a "nice, no pressure, relaxed, nothing but fun" club race in Pueblo, Colorado. In addition, a former AMA and WERA national champion offered to be my coach and crew. True to the advice of Sancho Panza, I ran with a halter.

Being a surgeon taught me that luck favors those who are best prepared. How better to improve my chance of being lucky than to spend two days at the Peris Riding School in Willcox, Arizona? I knew Chris Peris as a lead instructor for the YCRS. He is blindingly fast with a smooth, relaxed style of riding. He is also a gifted teacher of his craft. My journey to Colorado again passed through Willcox. Three hundred track miles later I was ready to go racing. Chris also introduced me to yoga as a way to increase mobility and resuscitate my aching body. I now try to make it a daily practice.

Don Cook truck trailer at a rest stop

Roadtrip anyone? Cook took a quick detour through Willcox, Arizona, for a pre-race Peris tune-up on his way from Texas to Colorado. The Kawi came along for some Colorado canyon riding, the Panigale to do some racing.

Flash forward a few days and I find myself in a surreal, dream-like state. Now I’m at Pueblo Motorsports Park for a Friday trackday. There’s fresh rubber on the Panigale (or was it Rocinante, Don Quixote’s faithful steed?). I’m learning the track from a modern iteration of Merlin the Magician, aka Nick Ienatsch. (He’s everywhere, he’s nowhere, he appears, he disappears, he sees all; it appears not to matter which way he is facing on the motorcycle.)

Saturday brings a day of nonstop, frenetic, two-wheeled activity through undulating Colorado canyons behind a red FZ1. I recall neither food nor sleep. My eyes close for only an instant before Sunday jars them awake. My last memory was driving my truck, followed closely by the trailer hauling my Panigale, now in full race regalia. I told my coach that Sunday morning, “The story of today has already been written. It just isn’t for us to read yet.” In a moment of sublime mindfulness came the realization: After a 39-year absence, I’m going racing again!

Don Cook with other racers
starting grid positions

This is almost every racer entered in that day’s Rocky Mountain Racing Series, the new grassroots club that runs at Pueblo Motorsports Park managed by Judy Faass and Ray McPeek. See the racer standing far left, in the tan shirt? That’s Doug. Three months ago, he rode a Victory and had never been on a track. He’s added a CBR600RR to the stable now and races every month. Is there a better place for your first roadrace? Cook is far left on the grid…revs are up, heart rate, too…back racing again.

And then it was Tuesday. I'm back at work mindlessly pounding the computer keys for which I have a profound dislike. But something is different. I've reconnected with a part of myself I thought lost forever. It was an important part, a great part; one I would have missed forever.

Don Cook office wall
Don Cook with trophy

A doctor’s office wall with new additions. Cook entered two races, had two holeshots, and finished with a first and a second for the day. Now that’s what we call an “age-appropriate activity!”

More next Tuesday!

Don Cook FL Winter Series 1973.

Starting grid action.

Don Cook MX Pocono 1974.

Don Cook COTA track action.

Don Cook stock Ducati 899 Panigale.

Don Cook truck trailer at rest stop.

Don Cook with other racers.

Starting grid.

Don Cook's office wall.

Don Cook with trophy.