Today was all about being at the track. I popped out of bed a little before 8am and decided to save a few bucks and eat the continental breakfast the Econolodge was shelling out. I went to the tiny office that sat about 4 people and the clerk handed me a bag that contained a box of cereal, a yogurt, an orange juice, and a small carton of milk that was frozen solid. I’m not one to complain about food, but this offering didn’t seem very “continental” to me. I microwaved my milk until if was liquefied and I shared the cook time settings with the next shocked guest who couldn’t believe the milk was cubed. That’s life. Sometimes you have to adapt and roll with the changes. Sometimes you will get a block of white ice for milk. Figure it out.
Food was far from my deepest concern because today I was going to head to the track and watch qualifying for the race that would take place tomorrow. I went back up to my room and threw on my Dainese jacket and grabbed my helmet. Just as I stuck my key in the Brick, this excited guy came up to me and proclaimed, “He won! He won everything, come on you have to check this out!” I didn’t understand what he was talking about but I figured I would check it out. I followed the stranger to a few other guys that were hanging out by a brand new KTM Adventure. The first man said, “He won over 40 thousand dollars and that bike!” The other guys were screaming and yelling, and then one of the men threw three playing cards on the ground face down. He had a wad of cash in his hand and was trying to act as if he won the money and wasn’t afraid to lose it. They were grifters setting up a Three-card Monte scam. I smirked and turned away as they continued to bark and howl to draw marks into the game. Not this old dog. I’ve seen it too many times…
I brapped the Brick to life on the first crank and headed to the track. To avoid the turnaround issue I had when getting to the track on the first day, I calculated another route that employed some back roads. This was a stroke of genius in that the roads were smooth, not crowded, and curvy. I saw a bevy of bikes on the ride to the track including a set of four cops riding in a regal formation. They looked polished and their machines were spotless. I also passed a group of vintage bikes including a gaggle of two-stroke machines with their bumblebee drones rattling like BBs in tin can.
I was lucky enough to own a two-stroke bike back in 1991. It was 1985 Yamaha RZ350, one of the last two-strokes ever commercially produced. They were smoky creatures that were harmful to the air quality, and they were slowly phased-out of production. I would blast around with the RZ on the roads on northwest Tampa with my girlfriend Maddie on the back clinging to me for dear life as I swept through the corners at high speeds, the two of us often in shorts. We were young. We were invincible. I enjoyed that bike, but I unfortunately laid it down when stopping abruptly behind a car that pulled out in front of me at an intersection within the subdivision where I was renting a room. Even though our relationship was short, I will always have a spot in my moto-heart for the RZ350. I still look for them on eBay with the hope to somehow own a garage one day filled with the bikes of my youth.
I arrived at the track just in time to catch the MotoGP Free Practice #3. Seeing the riders I have followed for so many years in person was a surreal experience. Even more surreal was that I had taken a lap on the very track they were circulating. I felt a deeper connection to racing because of this. I now knew what it was like to look down the long straight of Indy and roll over the brick start/finish line. I enjoyed the practice thoroughly and seeing Casey Stoner in his last season was something special. He announced his retirement from motorcycle racing back in May. I wondered why a guy at the top of his game would do this. He recently had a child with his wife and I am sure this had a lot to do with his decision. Motorcycle racing is a dangerous sport and he has already won two championships and made all the money he will ever need, so I understand. Stoner was the fastest in the FP3 session, followed by his teammate Danny Pedrosa and Yamaha rider Ben Spies. Ben has had some very tough luck this year so I hoped he could get a decent result here at his homeland Grand Prix.
After the practice session I walked around the grounds. Displays were littered about along with a menagerie of more exotic bikes than my mind could absorb. There was a sense of sizzle in the air as bands played and food and drink were consumed. I happened by a talkback on a small stage with a few motorcycle riders, one being Kevin Schwantz. Famous for his early battles with Wayne Rainey in the early 90s. Schwantz is a driving force in the world of motorcycle racing. He runs his own racing school and is largely responsible for bringing MotoGP to the Circuit of the Americas, Texas for the first time coming up in 2013. A wireless microphone was being passed around and I decided to ask Schwantz a question. “Your battles with Wayne Rainey were legendary in the early 90s. Wayne has been quoted saying you guys would put on a show for a few laps before you both actually started to race. Is this true and do you have anything else to add?” I queried. Kevin responded, “If he was putting on a show he never told me about it! I was always racing!” The crowd laughed at the witty answer and so did I. He is such a down to earth guy and really cares about the sport. The world could use more Kevin Schwantzes.
My stomach grumbled for food so I visited one of the vendors. I had a sausage with onions and peppers, and a Miller Lite – a combo that’s hard to mess up. I enjoyed eating my lunch among race-minded people. I have a lot of friends in NYC but not a single one is into motorcycle racing. Some of them say it’s too boring watching bikes go around the track, yet they watch soccer games where a single point doesn’t even get scored. I believe racing is something that must be passed down. As a boy my father always had some kind of racing on the television. He even took me to the Firecracker 400 in the late 70s to watch Richard Petty race his stock car around the high banked curves of Daytona. I am sure my father’s influence is why I like bike racing to this day.
The day lingered on and the time for qualifying finally arrived. I actually had a tightness in my stomach. The practice I watched earlier in the day was just that – practice. The session now decided the starting position, and the intensity level on the track reflected that fact. I sat in the sun sipping still more Miller Lite as the riders circulated the track, slowly whittling their times down by tenths of seconds. The session was not without drama as some of the top contenders crashed. Casey Stoner had a horrible high side and was done for the day yet, still managed to grab a sixth position start if he could mount the bike for tomorrow’s race. Nicky Hayden, one of my favorite racers, also binned his Ducati Desmosedici and suffered a concussion. Nicky has had some tough times since winning the championship in 2006 and the Ducati has proven to be a beast he just can’t seem wrangle. When all was said and done the starting line up for the race was determined. Pedrosa on his Honda would start on pole position followed by Jorge Lorenzo, and Andrea Dovizioso both on Yamahas. The second row featured the unlucky Ben Spies who could hopefully force a change in a string of mysterious problems that have plagued him this season.
After the qualifying session, I walked around the grounds again. I came up the Cycle World Rolling Concours vintage motorcycle exhibit. As me tree of life adds more rings with each fleeting year, I suddenly find the objects of my liking in the “classic,” “vintage,” or “nostalgia” sections. This is a curious phenomenon but I am sure the idea is connected to the landmarks in my timeline being marked by the cars, motorcycles, and music that I enjoyed at the time. I will always be fond of the 1972 Plymouth Satellite Sebring because it was my first car. My buddies and I would pile into the blue beast with Black Label beer embezzled from our fathers and head to whatever rock show was at Jacksonville Coliseum. Those were the days of my youth and that car was a marker for those good times. I can’t see a Satellite online or on the street without a huge smile coming to my face.
The same goes for bikes. When I see the motorcycles I used to read about in the pages of Cycle World and Motorcyclist, I am immediately transported back to 17 years of age. In 1982, my father bought me a leftover black 1980 Honda Hawk CB400T that I had been drooling over and he let me pay it off week by week. I loved that bike and damn near waxed the paint off of it by constantly buffing every surface at my dad’s muffler shop when things were slow. That Honda gave me a sense of freedom and power like I had never known. It was fast and beautiful and immediately I was somebody tougher than my classmates. I owned a vehicle few parents would let their kids buy at age of 17. I was a rebel. The dream didn’t last too long because after a few short months, I was hit head on by a guy who cut in front of me at a McDonald’s. But because of those few months on that Hawk I was hooked for life. I was a motorcyclist.
Seeing the vintage bikes at the exhibit brought back old pangs of youth. The mindset of being invincible, and that belief that there was nothing I couldn’t conquer. The Kawasaki KZs, the Suzuki Katana and Gamma, and my all time favorite dream bike the Yamaha RZV500 2-stroke, which was the aluminum framed version of the RZ500, all recalled a beautiful time in my life when I knew I was going to be a rock star and the world was just out there waiting for me to arrive. These bikes were the markers of those dreams, yellowed bookmarks now dog-eared and misplaced deep in pages never revisited. I was not sad at this moment, but happily reminiscent. Sure I let go of some rose-colored dreams, but I had new dreams like this journey I was currently taking, and being here at the nexus of motor speed. I didn’t want to go back in time, I wanted to make the most of the present and I knew I was doing it.
I went for the pit walk as the sun receded behind the bleachers. Again, I was amazed at being allowed to trod on such hallowed ground. The garage doors were open and mechanics were wrenching final tweaks on the bikes for tomorrow’s race. Fans chanted for their favorite racer’s names beckoning them to appear from the catacombs of their garages, but none showed face. The most crowded pit was for Valentino Rossi even though his season on the Ducati was far below lackluster. He is still considered the best motorcycle racer ever by many fans including me. I was okay with the racers not appearing as I was just enjoying the atmosphere of being in the race environment, plus I already talked to Kevin Scwantz earlier in the day.
The day drew to a close and I headed out to the Brick feeling overfull from new experiences. As I suited up, I noticed another guy sporting an Arai Phil Read replica helmet like I wear. I snapped a pic and we philosophized about Read being the underdog to Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini back in the early days of road racing. I always seem to pull for the underdog. I prefer the Mets to the Yankees, and the Jets to the Giants, knowing that the end of every season will amount to disappointment. But there is part of me that will never let go of being a dreamer.
I rolled out of the lot and headed to a small restaurant called Coop’s Sports Bar. I had a Miller Lite and a pan pizza that was nothing fantastic, but it satisfied the most basic need for nutrition. The place had a golf driving range in the back, which I thought was a cool idea. There will never be a restaurant like this in NYC where land is a precious commodity. There’s far too little of it, and pavement or buildings occupy most of it. I went back to the motel and rested for a few hours. But after too long I got itchy and decided to venture out to a place called The Library. It was a bit fancy for my utilitarian tastes but the bartender was very nice. I just downed one beer and headed back to the motel for bed.
Back at the Econolodge I stared up at the popcorn ceiling while supine in bed. The words from the John Lennon song “Imagine” tumbled through my mind. I thought about the exhausted dreams I once had and again, I was not sad thinking about them. I thought of the future hope and the dreams that lay out on the road yet to be driven. I thought about friends that have given up and friends that haven’t. I mumbled a vow to myself to spend more time with the latter.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
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