VZ. Racing Starts

Posted March 28, 2016.

This isn’t a single story from start to end. It’s more of a collection of observations, some personal, about race starts.

In my day the start procedure went like this: there was a guy holding a big sign with a 1 on it. Next to him would be the flagman, holding behind his back a green flag in one hand and a red flag in the other. Once everyone in their correct grid position, the 1 sign was turned sideways. If everyone behaved, within a few seconds the flagman would whip the green flag out from behind his back, the signal to start the race. If someone messed up the red flag was lifted slowly, and everybody would reset. After correction the process would start again.

What can cause the red flag? Usually it was a stalled engine, and the racer raised a hand. The team is given a few minutes to restart the bike and if they fail the bike is pushed off the grid. Another problem I saw, although it was pretty rare, is someone will actually drop their bike. Some of the superbikes were pretty tall and very heavy, and some of the racers were small, short folk and would be on tip-toes on the grid. Get slightly off balance and crash! bike and rider were flat side down. Talk about embarrassment! A third reason to get the red flag was if someone made a early departure, a “jump start.”

During my AMA Superbike career I never had a jump start but I got plenty of poor starts. I got a good start only once, in the qualifying heat race at Laguna Seca in 1978. Years later I learned why. I read where a journalist asked a drag racer how to get off the line well. He said start with revs at the engine’s torque peak, use the clutch to keep revs at the torque peak as long as possible. Once rpm reaches redline then shift up as usual. I thought to myself, of course! This is a simplification, but torque provides acceleration while horse power gives top speed. If only I’d known at the time. I tried to start at the hp peak, near redline. The torque peak was at least 1,000 rpm lower. I felt like an idiot; if I had gotten better starts I would have had some better results.

The starting procedure in MotoGP is different. As the racers return from the warm-up lap there’s a guy in the middle of the racetrack holding a red flag. There’s another guy at the back of the grid waving a yellow flag. Once the grid is set the guy at the back waves a green flag and the guy at the front gets out of the way. Very soon a red light comes on. When the light goes out, which is supposed to be within two to five seconds, the race starts. If someone has a problem like a stalled engine, they lift their hand, red flags appear and the start is delayed.

Try to imagine what it feels like as a racer. You have the engine racing, in gear (hopefully), holding the clutch lever in. You’re leaning forward with your eyes focused on the starter or red light. Don’t blink! Everyone around you is revving their motor and you can actually feel the noise. You are pumped up, with all dials at 11, thinking Come ON! Let’s get this party started! It’s intense.

You might think the MotoGP pros have done this often enough they won’t make mistakes. You would be wrong. At the 2014 U.S. MotoGP race Jorge Lorenzo, a MotoGP champion, made a horrible jump start from the middle of the second row. You can watch a YouTube video of it here. He was given a “ride through” penalty, meaning he had to ride through the pits, at the pit speed limit (60 kph I believe, or 36 mph), before rejoining the race.

At the recent Qatar event at the Losail circuit the Moto2 race had eight(!) riders penalized for jump starts. None of them as blatant as Lorenzo’s, but EIGHT? There’s a YouTube video of it here. Watch the replay starting near the 5 second mark. Some were given ride-through penalties, others were docked 20 seconds. What happened? Some of the racers said the red lights flickered. Others admitted they were sucked in because a rider next to them jumped. Another said the red lights were on more than the allotted 5 seconds. Talk about drama.

In 1976 I was working in an AFM New rider school. We were doing practice starts and I quietly told the sign holder and the flagger I was going to jump start, leaving when the 1 sign was turned sideways instead of waiting for the green flag. When I left early one other rider came with me; I expected a few more. The flagman lifted the red flag and everyone else relaxed.

The two of us who jumped were sent to the back of the grid for the restart. Later the rider who jumped with me thanked me for the lesson. He laughed and said. “I’ll never do that again.”

There was one really thrilling start at a club race at Riverside in 1977, but not thrilling in a good way. The heavyweight production race included three classes, 550cc, 750cc, and open. The grid was set by class with the open class first, then 750s and 550s. I was racing Dale Newton’s Ducati 750SS so I was gridded in the third row. The grid was set up so each row was offset from the row ahead of it, so I was a few bike lengths behind my pal Vance who had a front row spot on his Moto Guzzi 850 LeMans. When the green flag flew everyone took off, er, except Vance. I’m stuck! Vance starts doing this little dance: put your brake foot down then lift your shift foot up…

OH MY GOD! HE STAGED IN NEUTRAL! 750 and 550 class bikes are zipping by us left and right. I’m yelling in my helmet, “Come on Vance! Get it in gear!” I suddenly had this image of getting run into by a 550cc bike who hadn’t noticed I wasn’t moving, so I dropped the clutch, did this little flick of the bars, and went past Vance with about 2 inches to spare. Thankfully Vance’s flub didn’t cause any accidents, but I had to work really hard to get up to the front.

Good racing starts are not easy. When you’re so amped it’s hard to ignore all the racers around you, keep the correct rpm, and wait for the GO signal. If you do it right or not can make a difference in your finish position.