Things Are Not Going Well, So Is A Crash Inevitable?

Recognizing and redirecting the downhill karma train

There are valid, real reasons for crashing motorcycles, reasons you tell your friends and they nod in agreement. “Nothing you could have done,” they will say, believing it. But often, our crashes come at the end of a string of issues that, in hindsight, point us directly to the eventual crash. We think of the steps we took and the hints we missed. The hints we miss are what this week’s column is about.

I try not to use vulgar language in this column so use your imagination when I write: Crashes come when that downhill train filled with “snow” finally gathers enough momentum to careen off the rails. The earlier we recognize that the snow-filled train is gathering speed down the mountain, the more times we will stave off the almost-inevitable crash.

Ryan Burke
That’s Ryan Burke, but not his Yamaha. A last-minute bike change and a frustrating weekend set the stage for disaster. The karma train was rolling downhill fast.Jim Browning

Right now I’m 40,000 feet in the air on a Sunday, headed to a Champ school in Arizona. My friend Ryan Burke is lining up for the Mountain Roadracing Association (MRA) Race of the Rockies (RoR) and has everything in place for a crash. The RoR is the big money race and decides the overall club championship. I will not know if Mr. Burke can recognize and control the train he is in, but I will know when I land and I will add the information to this story.

The downhill train started rolling right away, when Ryan's R1 threw a rod as soon as practice started for this first MRA race of 2018. It was done—a 400-pound paperweight. But Ryan is the defending club champion and wasn't about to give away points from a round, so he borrowed a bike. Not just any bike, but a Ducati Panigale, on loan from Patrick Lansu and built at Boulder Motorsports. The train gathers momentum as the $20,000 price of the bike gets loaded in. The train gains even more speed when we realize Ryan has never ridden a Ducati Panigale in his life, much less raced one.

Yesterday Ryan fought hard on his new R6 and scored a pair of third-place finishes, after winning every 600 race he entered last year. We talked on the phone and he was pissed and frustrated, and the train rolls just a bit faster. Racers are never okay with getting beat—it sticks in their craw.

Meanwhile, he’s quick on the Ducati but it’s too soft and there aren’t a lot of tuning pieces available. The train gathers steam. Just before I boarded the plane Ryan texted that he was leading Open Superbike an hour ago but made a mistake and got third in his first race on the Panigale, against guys he beat last year. Now three third-place trophies are in the pit area where there were only first-place trophies in 2017, he already led Open Superbike but gave it away with an error. And the big-money of Race of the Rockies is next. The train’s throttle is pinned and Ryan’s ability to see and control it is being tested right at this moment.

A clear choice has been presented to Ryan Burke: Ignore all warning signs and push the borrowed $20,000 Ducati Panigale over the limit and into the dirt in the first meeting of the season or somehow recognize the karma train and then control his destiny and outcome. I’ll update you at the end of this story.

1. My Case

As a younger man I would blunder into the path of that snow-filled train, or ride the snow-filled train right off the tracks. “Dang,” I would think. “That hurts. I wish I wouldn’t have done that.”

So now, in present day, I’m lucky enough to race Rusty Bigley’s Spondon TZ750 and I consider this a dream come true and a privilege. Most, if not all, of my personal racing heroes have raced a TZ750 and to be able to race this bike gives my life great pleasure. It’s a freakin’ riot on two wheels and as close as I’ll ever come to having consistent access to a true Grand Prix two-stroke.

Spondon TZ750
We found this picture of the Spondon TZ750 in Webster’s Dictionary under “weapon.” Okay, we didn’t, but at 320 pounds and 140 hp, there are no dull moments. Seen here at Phillip Island Classic in 2016, a meeting in which we missed the entire first day of practice due to gremlins.E-Tech

But the Spondon is almost 40 years old, and it’s been 40 years of abuse on the aluminum chassis and welds. Bigley and his mentor Kurt Lentz are good, but they are not the Yamaha factory. The Spondon was originally designed for an engine making around 100 hp, but Bigley’s makes 140. Nothing is new on the bike except the rear shock that Jon Cornwell built for us. The wheels and brakes are from a Honda Superbike circa 1993, as is the conventional fork (now updated…details next week). Rules dictate many of the parts, but so does Rusty’s budget. We check it meticulously, but 40 years is 40 years. We have never had a “smooth” weekend in three years of racing because fast vintage bikes will always have issues.

We were invited to run the 50th anniversary VRRA race at Mosport in Canada last year, celebrating the anniversary of Canada’s one and only motorcycle Grand Prix. It was last-minute, we had no budget, but knew we had to make this fantastic event with the legendary Spondon. Rusty invited legend Kurt Lentz, threw the Spondon in the van, and those two drove up from New Jersey while I flew in. It was last-minute and I had a niggling feeling that a train could be filling with snow.

We pitted next to Rob Ianucci, David Roper, and Michelle Duff on one side and Dennis Curtis, Fran Hall with Steve Baker on the other. We entered two races and also planned to take part in the VRRA parade of racing legends and legendary bikes. We bought tickets to the dinner and spent time in the legends tent talking to the greats; listening to Jim Allen and Yvon Duhamel reminisce about the 1967 Mosport GP was priceless, as was a personal guided tour of their bikes. In other words, the weekend was split between something really dangerous, like piloting a TZ750 in anger around Mosport, and meeting and partying with the legends of motorcycle racing.

This split weekend clearly got the snow-filled train rolling slowly out of the station. Racing a TZ750 and hobnobbing with my heroes are two distinct and separate undertakings, both of which I enjoy. Talking with these guys and gals, seeing the rolling artwork of Dennis Curtis (CMR), watching the fettlers work their magic on bikes I’d only heard of, finally meeting Phil Read and Steve Baker and seeing their love of motorcycling—all magic and worth the trip.

But we must juxtapose that against the pull of competition, lining up against other racers as we stare into the downhill turn one at this fast and entertaining racetrack. I love to race. I love the Spondon. And it loves to be run hard. Ride it slowly and it’s a jangling buckboard with no cohesion, power, or purpose. I hope to someday do it justice, but one thing’s for darn sure: I’m always going to try.

But the train wasn’t close to scaring me yet. I thought I could handle legends and racing.

Rusty arrived with the same tires we had raced at an NJMP AHRMA event. They were shagged, a Michelin front and Pirelli rear. We had never run on the same brand of tire two events in a row, instead buying the best-priced tire that met our needs; these two tires had given their best in the four races at NJMP yet here they were at Mosport. I heard the faint whistle of the train.

We were in a jam due to time and budget, but also because the Spondon needs a 180/55-17 to fit in the swingarm, and many race tires are now 190s. No go. There were plenty of tires available at Mosport, but nothing that fit our swingarm. “We gotta run on those tires.” (A note here: Dunlop just released a 180/60-17 slick that fits our swingarm, so we will be on Dunlops this season.)

Starting to see where this is going? But wait, it gets better. I’m getting ready for first practice and it’s chilly. I’d ridden Mosport three years ago, but not on a TZ750, so it’s almost like a new track. We fire Fran Hall’s generator to get some heat in the tires and nothing; it’s out of gas. All our gas is premixed as Steve Baker is riding a CMR TZ750 that Fran built. Unwarmed shagged race tires.

Spondon TZ750
When it’s right, the Spondon TZ750 is evil joy. When it’s wrong, it’s just evil. Getting it right isn’t always possible and that requires the pilot to adapt…or suffer.E-Tech

The snow-filled train is really rolling at this moment. I’m distracted by the fanfare of the event. It’s chilly. I’m on tires that are well past their prime and will be ice cold when I roll out for the first practice.

This is the point in the story when your friends truly do understand why you fell down. “Nothing you could have done. Crap tires, cold day with no fuel for the generator, an angry TZ750, your focus was pulled away by Bar Hodgson letting you ride his custom Vincent. Nothing you could have done.”

Riders and racers: Crashes are a series of events, rarely one factor. Kyle Wyman talks about it at YCRS and focuses endlessly on it in his Superbike career. This column acknowledges that the series of events will string themselves together, they will happen, but we do not need to be on that snow-filled train when it leaves the tracks. We must recognize the series of events, the downhill train, and interrupt them.

Will I stop the train before it’s too late? What about Ryan Burke? In Part 2 we will find out.

More next Tuesday!