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Running A Marathon With a Stone in Your Shoe

Photo: Nick Clements

I've spent a lot of time with John Harrison over the last few years. He's a very latecomer to motorcycle racing, competing for the first time on two wheels, at a DTRA race just three or four years ago, and already into his 50s, and with children older than some of the people he was racing on track. I watch him on track when I can, if I'm not in the holding area for my own heat races, and if I think I can give him pointers, I do, though I'm not expert. Anyway, after a race earlier this year he was disappointed that he did so poorly in a final after the track has been heavily watered (a real problem we seem to have with speedway tracks from time to time). I told him the tyres he was using weren't helping him, saying that he was racing in a class where virtually everyone was using modern flat track tyres, saying it was like choosing to run a marathon with a stone in his shoe. This is the reply he's spent two months stewing on... GI

The wet track DTRA Vintage Final at Redcar proved to me one of two things. Either -

I am a complete scaredy-cat when the track is slippery and cannot ride a motorbike at all on a greasy surface, or - The old style tyres on my Triumph afford significantly less grip than modern race rubber.

After that race, (which was the first occasion I had been lapped in a final since my very first meeting three years ago, a fact that demonstrates just how much slower I was going than the rest of the grid) you and other riders questioned (quite vehemently) my choice of tyre.

I had a six-hour drive home to ponder the question. It led me back to something Todd Marella wrote in his Get Schooled- Start Racing in Sideburn 33.

Why do you want to race? I thought hard about this. What is it that rings my own bell?

  • I love the intensity of the races, when nothing else exists but the moment during those precious few laps. The purity of the thrill and experience. But if that was all I raced for I would have a CRF450.

  • I get a great feeling of satisfaction when I do well in race . But if I was really competitive I would chase results on a CRF450.

  • I really love having a dice on track. But if I wanted more dices I would have a CRF450 and enter more classes.

Photo: Nick Clements

So I worked out what I like about racing, but it made me realise that I don't just want to race Flat Track, I specifically want to race Vintage class Flat Track. Why? Well, now we're getting to the nub of it.

  • I like the '70s flat track aesthetic. Why? It must be because I saw On Any Sunday at an impressionable age when it was contemporary and those bikes just looked right. The riders wore flash leathers and lace up boots. The classy ones had the new Bell Star helmets. They rode Triumphs and BSAs. They were heroes.

  • I started to race (and continue to) because I wanted to be like those heroes that impressed me so much when I was a teenager. I already had a bike that looked pretty close to how theirs were. It had to be Vintage then. If I was going to ride a 70s era bike in Vintage it seemed obvious to me that I should keep everything as period correct as I could if I wanted to be like them (The Heroes). I realise and accept that other peoples minds don't work the same way as mine and they don't find it necessary to keep things period correct. But I do. It's the way I'm wired I suppose. I'm not offended if a bike and rider aren't chronologically in tune, but I do feel sad at an opportunity missed.

I bought four sets of leathers on eBay before I was happy with some. I found that Bell made a modern version of the Bell Star to FIA spec. My work boots had laces. Close enough.

To my mind a couple of things define my Triumph as an early '70s racer. The 'bars and the tyres. Both were deliberate choices when I built it. Both made it look American rather than British. Bars with plenty of sweep and tyres with a tall sidewall and (crucially) the right tread.

Other racers (independently of you and for whom I have the greatest of respect) have suggested that my bike would be so much easier to ride and that I would do so much better if I changed to modern race tyres and straighter bars. That may be true. I dare say R6 forks and a pair of Ohlins shocks would improve it too. But then it would only be a part vintage bike, it wouldn't be my bike any more and it wouldn't look or feel right. Would I have any more fun racing? Probably less because I'd be further away from what The Heroes rode and what flat track means to me.

Would you fit modern, sticky, low profile tyres to your Porsche? Of course not. It would look daft and wouldn't be right. No, I like to think it's wearing Michelin ZXs or Pirelli Cinturato CA67s (or at a push CN36s). Similarly my Dodge would look and be all wrong shod with anything but tall whitewall crossplies, however useless, uncomfortable and, frankly, dangerous they are. They were the latest thing when the car was new and although modern radials would be much more effective they would look wrong.

These things matter to me. Evidently more than having a more competitive bike and winning races. So be it, I can live with that. I'll still enjoy dices midpack. If I can stick it on a podium it'll be all the more satisfying.

Thank you for prompting me to work it all out.

All the best,


See John at the other DTRA Sideburn Vintage Class racers compete next at the two-day meeting Amman Valley, Wales, 11-12 August. Spectating free, camping available.

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