Sideburn ambassador, John Harrison is back with more tales of how he grew some balls and started racing. Click the link for the first instalment...
By 2013 I understood that having a bike that looked like a flat tracker wasn't enough anymore and that I ought to try it and myself on the track. I had been reading in Sideburn that there were men of a certain age riding ineptly around speedway tracks and having huge thrills and fun doing so, but the sight of 12 bikes on track at once scared me and after all, I'm not a skilled or competitive rider & besides, other people are racers, not ordinary blokes like me. I kept making these excuses to myself until 2014 when I found that I was disappointed for not having entered Dirt Quake 3, especially when I watched the brilliant 'Scratching in the Dirt with Guy Martin' video.
I determined that I needed to grow some balls and take my Triumph to the Hayride where I would be able to rag it around the Tongham dirt oval.
Only three other bikes entered and my for my first race I drew a nutter on a ridiculous chopper, who, it turned out was also having a go because he had missed out on Dirt Quake as well. I was bricking it because I hadn't ridden off-road since my teens and expected there to be no grip at all. I thought that if I didn't crash I must be able to stay ahead of a chopper. The nutter turned out to be Chris Hatton, who told me he'd been riding motocross at a national level since he was a schoolboy. But his chop looked as if it would be hard to ride on the road let alone on dirt. A stonking hand shifted, open primaried shovel, rigid, riding with his knees up around his oxters and bars about 9ins wide and with a skinny ribbed front tyre it should have been a forgone conclusion really, but for one thing. I was scared witless whilst Chris was lovin' it. You can tell by our body languages in this pic of us on the pre race parade lap. Heroic Chris is so happy and relaxed whilst I am tense and worried.
Photo: Tony Bruce
They ran it as a pursuit race with each of us starting on opposite sides of the armco-lined track. I settled in OK after the first bend when I found that amazingly, the front didn't just wash out from under me, but then downshifting into turn 3 on my second lap I hooked a neutral... with my brake pedal on the left and my leg already out I coasted around the outside of the bend on the loose stones, bricking it. I survived and they even reckoned I took the flag, but I still doubt it. Chris's ride showed me up for the sissy I was, but the crucial thing was that I found that I had enjoyed it and wanted more.
He and I had had our own little Dirt Quake and we both made sure that we got our entries in for DQ IV the following year.
As soon as my entry was accepted I booked into Peter Boast's Flat Track school where I had a great day and realised that I would survive Dirt Quake if I stayed away from trouble.
Photo: James Mitchell
My prep consisted of removing the beetle tailpipe silencer, then making some folding footpegs and a hot shoe.
In amongst all the other street trackers I was once again frightened, convinced that someone was going to crash into me. I started as far back as I could in each race, just so that I was aware of where everyone else was and I gradually gained confidence in the loose surface. It was scary...but FUN, and the bike felt good under me.
That sunny July afternoon was a magical high for me and I rode that wave until Christmas. But 12 laps weren't enough. I left Dirt Quake IV knowing that next season I had to join in with the DTRA. The Triumph would cease to be a road bike and needed to turn into a racer.
First I had to make the gearbox reliable, so armed with a Haynes manual and motivation I rebuilt it. My first time in a motorbike gearbox. I surprise myself when the chips are down. Then I found a 19" front wheel on US eBay with a lovely, tiny spool hub. The vendor told me it came off a Dick Mann Ossa and I'd love that to be true. I had to cough up for a new tyre to go on it though. As a Maxxis would be too wide for my forks I found an appropriate Firestone that at least looks period correct. I spent a long time cobbling up a brake lever and linkage on the right side, fitted a lanyard ignition cut out and it was done.
At Eastbourne practise, the week before the season started, I found out that my rear shocks were shot and that I needed to lose some height off the front end. I had a blast though and started to meet the DTRA regulars. I found that the bike was probably fast enough if only I could learn to ride it and stay away from the wall.
Luckily Falcon shocks are just down the road from me and they built me a pair during the following week and I cut 30mm out of the front springs to lower it. Ready to race!
Since round 1 at Rye House I have only made a couple more changes. I've trimmed the bars and fitted a better oil filter and feed pipe.
Photo: Ian Osborne
Without much trouble I have built a Vintage Class Dirt tracker out of a road bike. It is essentially a stocker with bits removed or replaced. In the best Hot Rod tradition it is hopped up and stripped down. I know the tank is too big, it's got odd size wheels, it's heavy and needs steeper rake but I don't mind because at a glance it is close enough to the Triumphs that would have raced at club level Stateside in the seventies, and it doesn't owe me a fortune. It is unlikely to ever make the podium but at Amman in August it did lead a Vintage race for a couple of corners before the rider let it down.
I miss riding it on the road, but that is more than made up for on race days, and it would only take an afternoon to put it back to road spec.
I no longer fear the crowded track and I even jumped it at the Greenfield TT (though not with any style nor much commitment, it must be said).
Oh, and I've shared grids and raced against an XR750 and pukka Trackmaster Triumphs like a real racer.
Can't wait for next season.