YX. The Heat Race (an excerpt)

[This excerpt describes the heat race for the Sears Point AMA National Superbike race in 1977. It was the second year of the new Superbike class and the AMA increased the size of the grids by granting a special “Expert for Superbike only” license to club racers like me who had been doing well in the Production classes. It was my first professional race.

We didn’t have transponders in the late 1970s so the grid positions for the Superbike final were determined by a 5-lap heat race. Usually the heat race was on Saturday with the final on Sunday. Grid positions for the heat race were by the number of points you had earned so far that racing season.

This excerpt has been modified slightly to make it a stand-alone article but is otherwise right from the manuscript.]

I never started out with the idea of becoming a competitive American Superbike racer. It just seemed to be the logical direction things flowed. I discovered I loved riding, and then I realized I liked riding fast in the curves. I moved to road racing for the relative safety of the track as compared to the street. As time went on my skills improved and when I started racing a competitive motorcycle I started winning. I won a club championship and earned a sponsored ride, something that sort of fell into my lap when Dale Newton asked me to ride the bikes he was developing.

I kept getting faster at club races on Dale’s Ducati Superbike, culminating in the AFM’s warm-up race, when I raced Cook Neilson head-to-head and we both left Reg Pridmore in our dust. That was pretty cool, but it was still just a club race.

So with no real planning on my part I was about to race in an AMA National Superbike race, as a rookie, with a legitimate chance of winning. Sure, Superbikes was a support class and I wasn’t going to try to keep up with Kenny Roberts or Gary Nixon, but it was a National race and some very talented expert riders were entered. At Saturday lunch I thought about what was about to happen, and I got a case of the jitters that stayed with me all the way to the start of the heat race that afternoon. Gulp.

* * * * *

The Saturday Heat Race
What am I doing here? I thought. I was in the middle of the starting grid at Sears Point raceway on a Ducati 900SS Superbike. The first row had some of the best road racers in North America: class champion Reg Pridmore, Daytona-winner Cook Neilson, the veteran Ron Pierce who won the Loudon National earlier in the year. Just behind them on row two were four other expert-ranked fast racers, all on 1,000cc Kawasaki Z1 Superbikes. The third and fourth rows had the rookies, me and the other racers who were competing in their first professional road race. I was in the middle of the third row, surrounded by snarling Superbikes on all four sides. We were gridded up for Saturday’s five-lap heat race that would establish the starting positions for the next day’s 16-lap Superbike final.

As the one-minute sign turned sideways and the revs rose around me I thought, I don’t belong here. I’m a computer geek from a non-motorcycling family. Who am I trying to kid? I snicked the bike into first gear, held the clutch lever against the bar and leaned forward, eyes focused unblinking on the starter and the green flag in his hand. Like everyone around me I opened the throttle until the motor was screaming, near red-line. The starter waved the flag and I released the clutch as quickly as possible while still keeping the front wheel on the pavement. We all roared off toward the first turn like a pack of greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit only we could see. By the time I got to turn 2 the adrenaline had kicked in and my thought was, Now I remember what I’m doing here. There were eight guys in front of me. Time to get to work.

Cook Neilson took the initial lead on his Daytona-winning Ducati. I moved up quickly, passing a few racers in the hill section and another two going through the Carousel, to get into fourth half way through lap one. Just ahead of me were Reg Pridmore and Steve McLaughlin fighting for second. I slipped past them both at the bottom of the esses to take over second place as we completed lap one. I could see Cook a little bit ahead and wanted to catch him quickly. Exiting the right hand turn 2 at the beginning of the second lap I was a little too, um, generous with the throttle while still leaned over and things suddenly got very exciting.

Too much throttle while still leaned over caused the rear tire to lose traction, spin, and slide to the left. When that happened my instinctive reaction was to close the throttle. Error. The rear tire caught grip again and the bike snapped violently upright. I was thrown into the air but managed to hang on to the handlebars – imagine me above the bike, with a death grip on the bars and my feet over my head. When I came back down my chest hit the fairing windscreen and it shattered into several pieces, my stomach landed on the fuel tank. The Ducati straightened itself out and I was able to slide back into the saddle.
Mush Emmons has the knack of being in the right place at the right time. This is me trying out racing slicks on dry grass and dirt. Photo scanned from Cycle magazine.

All these gymnastics widened the bike’s line and it ran off the track on the outside of the turn. Somehow I managed to stay upright, bumping along through the tall trackside grass until I could get back onto the pavement. McLaughlin and Pridmore went past while I was busy grass tracking. McLaughlin later told me that as he passed he thought to himself, we won’t have to worry about Ritter any more.

He was mistaken.

Once I was back on the pavement something magic happened…the extra shot of adrenaline from the near-crash…It’s difficult to describe, but it felt like time slowed down, all my senses expanded, and I could feel every tiny detail of what was going on between the motorcycle and the track. Once I realized I was back on the pavement, the only thoughts in my mind were Go! Win! I turned three of my fastest laps ever, caught Steve and Reg on the third lap and passed Cook in the Carousel on the final lap, and won the heat race.

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! What the hell happened? Did I just win a 5-lap sprint race after running off the track? There was no one in front of me. Looking back I saw Cook close behind, giving me a thumb up. I’ll be damned, I did it.

I finished the cool off lap in a daze, waving to the cheering spectators, and then rolled back into the pits. Dale came trotting up to take the bike, a big smile on his face. Then he noticed the fairing screen was completely gone and the smile turned to a look of puzzlement. I just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll explain later.” I hadn’t come down from the adrenaline high yet and I was nearly dancing with excitement. Lots of people were coming by to offer congratulations.

When things calmed down a bit I told Dale about the near crash that shattered the windscreen, the off-road excursion and the magic results that came from it. He just smiled and shook his head. He then showed me the lap times he recorded, which made my jaw drop. Lap two was pretty slow but laps 3-4-5 were stunning. My fastest lap was 1:51.4. That was a good two seconds per lap faster than I had ever managed before.

[So I would start in pole position for Sunday’s 16-lap final. If you want to find out what happened in the final you will have to get the book.]


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