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Don't Call It a Comeback

Time marches on. Not sure how it happened but last weekend was my first time back flat track racing in about five years.

It wasn’t a conscious decision that I would stop racing, it just sort of happened. I’ve been a part of the UK flat track scene since the very beginning, however a handful of negative factors aligned themselves and I found myself letting things slide (pun intended).

As the UK scene continued to thrive, I took on an organisational role within the DTRA. This was a fantastic way to stay connected; I got to know a bunch of the newer riders (some who got the bug from entering Dirt Quake) and I loved the camaraderie and social aspect of the club. On the ‘double-header’ race weekends we would sit around a camp fire and talk would often turn to the subject of myself getting back in the saddle (DON’T call it a comeback!)

So a few weeks back, Ross ‘King’ Herrod sold his Rotax Thunderbike and was building a Yamaha YZ490 that would be eligible for the vintage class. It was another late night boozy BBQ session when it was suggested I lend my bike to Ross for the next round. In exchange, Ross would get my bike race ready (Dunlop tyres, engine and carb freshen-up)...and I could then ride it at the last round of 2018. I don’t drink but I found the collective enthusiasm intoxicating.

Ross was true to this word, my bike was prepped, raced and returned to me and I duly signed up to race.

As the date approached I felt a weird mix of excitement and apprehensive dread. In my duties close to the action as an onlooker, on the finish-line flag or corner marshalling, I would think to myself how relieved I was NOT to be out there. The level (and aggression from some riders) in racing has taken some giant strides in the last few years. Is it fair to say my friends who have continued to race through this transitional period just got dragged along and haven’t noticed the new intensity?

A friend who has no connection to racing pointed out to me that I had to go back and try it again, not to see if I would still enjoy it... but to possibly confirm I had made the right decision to stop. To me this was the scariest aspect of all. That it was over forever. One of the reasons I stopped was I was no longer travelling to races with teammates or crew. Skooter Farmers John Lee #76 and Pete Wilky #99 quit racing in relatively quick succession. For this (DON’T call it a comeback) race, Ryan Battle stepped up to accompany me. I’m needy and feed off reassurance. He was there to make sure I was molly-coddled!

I intended to only race the ‘Thunderbike’ class on the Sunday but Ross suggested I also sign up for ‘pro/inter’ on the Saturday just to get some track time. Historically, the ‘Thunders’ have always been less ruthless than the other classes but with the introduction of timed qualifying sessions with transponders, the notion of running in the pro/inter seemed less daunting. Saturday practice went surprisingly well as I reacquainted myself with the riding techniques and body positioning. I felt in control and at ease but inevitably off the pace (was I ever on it?)

In my first of two timed qualifying sessions, I tried to quicken my pace. After just a couple of laps I went in too hot, got off the groove and drifted right up to the hay bales. Happy to have averted disaster I opened the throttle only to find I’d stalled the engine. This is something that would regularly happen to me when I first started out racing. I couldn’t restart the bike and with the familiarity of embarrassment, my first qualifying session was over.

My second session went better. I focussed on my technique not my speed and predictably failed to qualify for the main event. Happy times though as I realised I would still get two further consolation heat races, safely away from the big hitters.

In heat race one; I nonchalantly fired up my bike in the holding pen...only for it to conk out just as the race was called onto the track. I realised I had run out of fuel. The referee graciously gave me two minutes to refuel and I arrived at the start line somewhat flustered. I had a second or so to realise that in the time I had been away from racing, the start procedure had changed to traffic lights instead of starting tapes....and I had not even considered a starting situation. In a moment of confusion, I heard the other bikes take off and I dropped my clutch...only to find I was in neutral gear. I spent the entire race playing catch up.

My second race was an improvement. A satisfactory start, no major incidents and a second place finish (it should be noted there was only three of us in the race!) Saturday’s racing was great, that night, I reflected on it tucked up in my sleeping bag. No injuries, no major mechanical failures, no tiredness, stiffness or aches. I chuckled to myself about the rookie errors I had made: stalling the bike mid corner, failing to refuel and starting off the line in neutral gear. All gentle reminders and no harm done. I felt warm and fuzzy and a bit more prepared for Sunday’s ‘Thunderbike’ class.

Next morning, racing started early and I found myself one of the first to eagerly sign on.

In my first heat race, I had a back row start. I mentally set myself a target of not getting lapped. I finished last...but did not get lapped. I was happy to take that. I was aiming to slowly build my confidence and momentum as I progressed though my heat races but that wasn’t to be.

In my second heat race, I had a second row start position. I felt relaxed and ready to push a little harder. As we took off, somebody on the back row to my right, wheelied across into me, dropping his clutch lever and handlebar end, down onto my right wrist. This forced my throttle wide open causing my bike to go into overdrive, dragging me ‘Superman-style’ behind it. Physics were against me; I had zero chance of closing the throttle and I let go and watched my poor bike go into orbit, damaging it beyond repair with bent front forks, splintered seat unit and a crumpled exhaust. My race day was over. Unhurt, I picked myself up and started heading back to the pits. It dawned on me that the race had been stopped. Not due to my incident but another, just 45 seconds later down at the far corner involving Gary Inman #13. Wrapped up in my own drama, I’m not entirely sure what happened but I know he hit the deck very hard and was unconscious for a little while. A couple of riders avoided him but then Chris Jenner #134 used Gary’s laid down bike as a ’Dukes of Hazzard-style’ launch ramp, successfully jumping about 15 feet and riding away clean.

The tone of the day took a sharp downturn as Gary seemed to take an eternity to stabilise in the ambulance before he could go to hospital with Post Traumatic Amnesia. The DTRA fraternity sprang into action, figuring out how to get Gary to hospital and the SIDEBURN van, race tent and Gary’s bike back home. Big thanks to Pete Wilky and Jeremy Skipp for helping out respectively.

This all happened yesterday and it’s too early for a full analysis of my return to racing. It turned out to be a pretty eventful weekend and the distinction between the ruthlessness of the classes seems to have become blurred. It brought home to me just what a fantastic collective of people the DTRA is. The offers of help to repair my bike and the goodwill shown towards a downed rider were in abundance. In an ideal world, I’d like to continue to help run the DTRA in whatever way I can. I’d certainly like to attend practice days and maybe get to do one or two races each season. Most importantly, I would like to continue hanging out with such great people.

Big thanks to Anthony and Anna and all the people behind the scenes that allow the DTRA to function. Also many thanks to George at Greenfield Dirt track for creating such a tremendous racing facility here in the UK!

Photos: Tom Bing and Ryan Battle

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