Memories of My Career in Motorsports – Part VIII
Leading Rides, Racing Karts, and Announcing Events
An important part of my new job at Cycle Barn was to lead customers on rides. Obviously, (I thought), this would be the best part of the job and might create jealousy among others who worked for the dealership. Turns out my assumptions were totally and completely wrong – again! I learned that most folks who work in the motorsports business do like customers and enjoy dealing with them, but do not want to actually ride with customers – ever. Further, most motorcyclists, in the business or not, rarely stray very far away from the particular niche of the sport they enjoy. Other than the rare chance to ride OEM bikes as a demo day, most people do not want to ride a different style of bike, sometimes not even a different brand, and in some cases not even a different model!
Here I was, jumping in with both feet with the opportunity to ride a different bike virtually every day. On one occasion I was taking a used Suzuki 800cc cruiser home. Two different sales people asked me why in the world I would take such a bike, which they described with scatalogically laced derision. My response that I had never ridden an example of the model was greeted with scorn, and yet I always learned something. In this case, I figured out the target market. The person who purchased this bike would most likely be someone who liked to ride but had many other interests. The bike would be used very occasionally for short rides on sunny days, with perhaps one “long ride” a year – perhaps the Oyster Run in late September or an all-day lap of Mt.Rainier. In return, the bike would need maintenance virtually never and had shiny paint and a lot of chrome. In fact, both my wife and daughter thought it was gorgeous.
I also learned a lot by going on HOG Chapter rides led by others. Most importantly, I learned that riding slow (relative to my previous personal preferred manic pace) could be very enjoyable. I came around a corner on such a ride on a road I knew well to be astonished by a glorious view of Mt.Baker – which I had never previously noticed in twenty years of carving that corner because I had been going too fast to pay attention to the scenery.
Not that I liked everything. For a time Cycle Barn was a dealer for “ThunderMountain” choppers, at the height of that craze. These bikes had the mandatory steam roller rear tires, and to make room the Harley engine was offset two inches to the left. To “balance” this, the right hand frame tube was filled with lead. This was not entirely successful, as the bike wanted to turn left all the time. Not a problem if you wanted to turn left, but a sweeping right turn of a freeway entrance ramp led to a wrestling match that I almost lost. On my way home one evening I decided that the way to make the bike turn was to wait to corner entry and then slam on the brakes, putting the weight forward and allowing me to turn with the front wheel. Alas, I forgot about the lack of cornering clearance, so loud scraping greeted my efforts. Not what you want on a $35,000 bike, but it was a demo.
I was describing my findings the next day to Boltz and his major finance guy, and the CFO turned to him and said “He’s riding a 35k chopper and talking about how to hit the apex of a corner!” Well, yes – wouldn’t anyone?
Over time, operational systems for leading customer rides grew and settled into place. The rides were initially pretty much sport bike rider groups, but quickly evolved into a wonderful 3 ring circus of everything possible.
Rules developed over decades for HOG chapter rides were just fine and dandy – for HOG Chapter rides, where virtually all of the bikes are Harleys, cruisers, and very heavy. Relatively slow bikes that neither turn nor stop very well, many are ridden with a passenger. Many of the riders have never had any training beyond a basic rider course taken possibly decades earlier. For those reasons, it is safest and the most fun for Harley and other cruiser groups to travel in herds over a route that is not that challenging.
For my widely disparate groups, a different set of procedures was required, which gradually came to look like organization, but not control. There were tricks of the trade I am sure I did not invent, but used as routine. Most people do not want to follow any printed directions, for example, preferring the “I’ll just follow you” approach. This has obvious logical flaws if the group is larger than about 3 bikes, but you can improve the odds. You play with traffic lights by coasting toward a green in the hopes of it turning yellow so you can stop and let others catch up. Out in the country at a stop sign you look both ways, adjust a mirror, and check a glove strap – anything to use up a few seconds. Nobody will notice this, but it allows people further back to catch up to the stop sign just as others were leaving.
There are many other concepts I used for these rides, but I’ve written about them before and they are somewhere on this web site!
In such a fashion I developed a menu of about 4 dozen rides of a few hours to 5 days duration, covering the areas east and northeast of Seattle, but also the Olympic Peninsula, all of Washington and Oregon, some of Idaho, and at far as Salt Lake City. I look forward in retirement to revisiting many of them without the need to keep looking in my rear view mirrors and thinking about the needs of everyone in the group. Despite what many think, leading group rides is real work, although certainly some of the most enjoyable work you can do.
The rides were put on twice a month at that time, and in addition I often did an “echo” ride on Mondays for people who had that day off work. I eventually had to drop those as other projects ate up a lot of my time. For one, Cycle Barn was opening a go-kart center. This provided many adventures, some of them hilarious.
Ironically, my entry into motorsports at 17 was supposed to feature karts and racing. My parents would not hear of a motorcycle, but I had a good friend who was racing karts. After going along with him to a couple of races as the most ignorant pit crew ever (I did keep anyone from stealing Don’s stuff while he was racing), we decided to form a two driver team and go racing the next summer. All excited, I drew up plans for a trailer to haul our race karts, including the one I did not own. For Christmas my parents signaled their approval by having Santa give me a Bell 500 helmet, which at that time was the best you could get.
How cool was that? If possible, I would have worn it whenever I drove a car! Sleeping in it seemed too immature – just barely so.
But… Don decided to retire from karts and move on to competitive water skiing, so that was that. When my parents’ attitude toward my having a motorcycle finally changed, I already had a great helmet! Sadly, my mother was dying of cancer at the age of 48, giving them sort of a “What the hell” attitude. And on to motorcycles I went.
I’d been to an indoor kart facility a few years earlier with the Miata club. My first track session was horrible. I was uncomfortable from the get go, and suffered arm pump within two laps and could barely finish the stint. Back in the pits a friend got out of his kart and announced “Well, it’s always nice to find another branch of motorsports I suck at!” I could relate.
While watching the next group I noticed two things. First of all, the karts were not all the same size. In ignorance I’d climbed into the first one I came to, which was set up for a driver of about 5’6”. Thus the arm pump, as I simply did not have enough room. Secondly, the “equal” karts were not quite equal. If you listened carefully as they passed on the one straight with some length, you could tell that some were turning slightly higher rpm. I noted that #13 seemed to be the best one, and was also scaled for a fuller-size person. Next time out I took #13 and dominated! Know your tools…
Cycle Barn was developing the Kart Barn store in Lynnwood and a rental kart facility at Evergreen Speedway, and put on a Sunday free day to introduce staff to the concept. I was proud to be the first person to spin one of the rental karts, as I tried to see how hard you could get on the throttle coming out of the tight corner. Later I got schooled kart store manager Bill Hettick, a former successful racer. We went out in identical rental karts, and Bill, 3 inches taller and about 60 pounds heavier (at that time), should have been at an enormous disadvantage in such a light and low car. Instead, he proceeded to walk away from me at about 40 yards per lap. On a short track. I knew the correct lines and how to brake, but his lines were just that little bit more precise and he got on the throttle that partial second sooner and the brakes a foot or less later. An impressive lesson.
Later that day the owner’s daughter took out a race kart as I left the pits in a rental. The racers were much faster, and she shifted and rocketed away. Coming up to a corner she stayed to the outside, and stayed, and stayed. I decided Kim was not going to turn in for whatever reason and much later on the brakes than she, I dove for the apex just as she did turn in at last. As a result, I t-boned her kart!
Cycle Barn, through a subsidiary business, was also the importer of the Rotax Max spec racer karts. I was given the opportunity to edit a racer’s user manual, and I learned a lot about setting up a kart. Even in a spec class you could alter the wheelbase a bit, the width, and other fiddly bits. By changing the height of the seat mounts you could alter the handling appreciably. Only the engines were sealed to cut costs and ensure a reasonably level playing field. I learned a lot, which was about to become handy.
Owner Boltz called me into his office one day and said “The finals of the Rotax Max Challenge series are next week in Denton, Texas.”
“They suddenly find themselves without an announcer for the weekend.”
“You could do it.”
“Oh good, you’ll go. I’ll make all the arrangements.”
“I’ve only one requirement.”
“At the end of each day I’ll need a hot shower followed by a glass of Scotch on the rocks.”
A week later I found myself in the Dallas airport, the owner having flown there earlier. He met me with his LincolnTown car rental, and chauffeured me to the motel room we would share. He had friends to visit in Dallas, so each morning we’d have breakfast and he would drive me to the track. At the end of the day he’d be waiting as I turned in the microphone and drive take me back to the motel. After my shower there’d be a glass of Scotch on the rocks waiting, and then he’d take me to dinner. It was great!
The first day I walked into the pit area and met the people running the race. I was handed a microphone and started talking. Ample information was displayed on various time charts and scoreboards, with lists of the rider’s names and home towns and so forth, and I never lacked for material. I talked all day long and had a great time for the entire weekend.
Once back at work I wrote an article for a national kart magazine and sent it in. Later Bill Hettick surprised me with a copy of the magazine with my article. They’d never told me it would be published. They also did not pay me, but since I wrote it at work I was not bothered.
Today I occasionally recognize one of the better teen racers from the weekend, as a couple of them are now Indy Car and other pro series veterans.
The fellow who organized the national series was thrilled with my performance, and e-mailed me that he wanted me to do all the regional race weekends and the nationals the following year. Whoa!
I replied that I was receiving many invitations to announce (which was true) and had found it necessary to establish a fee schedule. All expenses, plus $500 for any day that began or ended at my home, and $1000 a day on the road. By leaving on Thursday and returning Monday that would be, um, $4,000.00. I figured this would end the discussion, and by golly it did. Later I ran my fee schedule by Boltz and he said “That sounds reasonable.”
It does? Then why did I spend a weekend in Denton, Texas for only my usual salary? (I chose not to utter that out loud)
Later the Kart Barn put on an annual race for two years in Centralia, and I was pleased to be the announcer to those as well – at my usual rate of pay. The first one was particularly enjoyable, as part of the deal was that local community groups had food stands around the area where I was announcing. They kept up a constant supply of various food items, pop, and beer, and I almost felt sorry for the race crew that was schlepping hay bales around with great abandon all day long in front of me as racers erred on their corner entries. In 90 degree temps. But I hung in…
My last kart adventure came when I had the radio show. The manager of an indoor facility that used electric karts was to be the guest on my show, and he invited me down the day before to tour the facility. Then he asked me if I wanted to try a kart for a few laps, and by gosh, my helmet and gloves were in the trunk of my car. How handy!
As we strolled to the karts I thought this would be humiliating. The manager was decades younger than I, weighed about a half a ton less, and used the karts every day on a track he designed. Oh well.
The karts had two settings. The “customer pace” used less electric power and allowed more laps before needed to be charged. The “pro level” was reserved for staff and extremely experienced customers. We did two or three laps on the standard setting and then pulled in to switch to the pro level. He graciously allowed me to go first, or gave himself the chance to pass me and feel superior. We zipped around for three or four laps until the karts began to run out of juice, and to my surprise I remained in front. I had not made any mistakes, other than a little too much throttle out of one corner than had the kart graze the tire wall.
On the show the next night I dared to ask where he would have passed me if he was not being polite. I was elated to hear that if the kart was driven on the correct line with reasonable speed, there was not anywhere a pass could be made. He had been waiting for me to be slow on the go or early on the brakes, or to make a mistake, and I never did. His only chance came when I touched the tires, but it did not upset the kart enough to allow him to pass. Major ego boost!
Next (and final, I think!) chapter – Dealing with the Famous and Infamous
Copyright 2013 David Preston