Just to make it clear; I don’t actually remember any particular club race day in full. This is a nostalgia piece; I’m trying to capture the special flavor of a raceday. Think of the following story as a collage of race day events during the 1974 and 1975 seasons, before I started racing the Ducati 750 Sport. All of these things actually happened, just not all on the same day.
AFM races, with a few exceptions, were one-day Sunday events. My girlfriend Virginia and I would always load our race bikes, fuel cans, spares, etc. into the van the night before. We wanted to be at the track when the gates opened at 8am so we would be sure to be ready when 9am practice started. It was a 45 minute drive from our house in Oakland to the Sears Point track. I know it was exactly 45 minutes because we would listen to one side of a 90-minute cassette tape enroute. If you don’t know what a cassette tape is you are too young and I’m not going to explain it here. Go google it.
The route from home was through Vallejo then west on highway 37 through the marshlands. Lots of red-wing blackbirds to watch. As we approached the intersection with highway 121 the very familiar outline of the 640 foot hill that forms the backdrop to the track became visible. That’s not all that tall, but with everything at sea level as we approached, it stands out. My excitement would build and my pulse rate quicken. If I wasn’t careful the van got going a bit too fast for the road.
We first would find a good spot in the paddock area. A favorite for us was somewhere near the Solid Gold Racers, a Concord, CA-based group of riders. SGR wasn’t a team in the sense that Yoshimura Suzuki is a team. It was more a racer collective, very informal, and non-Concord area racers would get adopted as time went on. They were a good bunch of people, mainly Yamaha riders. I think they put up with me and my 350cc Ducati at first because I was with Virginia, who raced an RD125. Pat, who was not a racer, kind of watched over everybody and helped wherever help was needed. A good guy to have around. He called himself the SGR Board of Director. Fair enough.
We walked over to registration. The usual suspects were there, Patty and Joanne and crew, making sure everyone had paid and signed their release form before giving out the magic paperwork that got you into tech inspection.
Solid Gold Racers pit area, complete with banner. This is at Sears in 1979. Photo from Bill Mullins.
Back in the paddock I started unloading the bikes, Jack came up to help. I didn’t have to ask, he just did it. If it wasn’t him it would have been someone else. It’s a club racer thing.
Tech inspection was next. Rob was there doing a great job as usual. Sometimes he had help and sometimes he was the only inspector. It’s a tough job. If you pass tech you get a little sticker for the front number plate that makes it legal to be on the track.
With the bikes all ready to go it was time to wander around a bit, see who’s brought anything new and to say hi to people, pals you haven’t seen for a month. Art had shown up with a very nice looking Rickman-framed Honda CB750 motor. I didn’t ask but I bet he installed a big-bore kit. Did he register in the 750cc class or Open? Not my problem, I’m racing 350GP.
People started warming up their bikes. Virginia kick started her Yamaha RD125. It’s a Production class bike and with the required stock mufflers it had a rather quiet two-stroke burble as it warms up. The GP bikes were LOUD. The two strokes, mostly 125cc or 250cc twins then, had the sound of tearing cloth: a high-pitched riiiiippp, riiiiipppp! This was before silencers were required. The big four-stroke-based bikes were very different – whoompah, whooompah! Bass and baritone registers. The air changed; the smell of high octane gas and burnt castor bean oil filled the pits. Ahh. It’s a smell that still stirs the soul. It evoked memories of races past and the excitement about to come. Socializing faded into the background as racers and crews began to focus on the job to come.
I bump-started my little 350cc Desmo bike. With the 250cc Diana I raced the previous year I had problems finding Dellorto carburetor parts so I adapted a Mikuni to the 350. Turned on the gas, flipped the choke lever, and pulled the bike backwards until I felt compression resistance. Ready! Pulled in the clutch, took three or four running steps forward and popped the clutch while simultaneously banging all my weight onto the seat. Boom! The bike fired right up. The Desmo was not a high horse-power bike but it always lifted the front wheel four or five inches on start up, something that I didn’t really understand but liked.
Phil was walking through the pits asking for a base gasket for his TA125. One of his competitors had a spare and offered it. Phil might beat him on the track later, but at this level competition is often more important than winning. Club racers are like that. The camaraderie is palpable.
My little Ducati was quick but slow. It could match the TZ250/TZ350 Yamahas for a few yards but then quickly fell behind as they got “on the pipe” and rapidly headed for a top speed that my bike couldn’t reach. No how, no way. But the Ducati single was fun to ride. The bike handled like a dream, going exactly where I pointed it, and it had a lovely baritone rumble. The weakest of the pair is me – I’m still figuring out this race craft, but I’ve been making progress.
The heavyweight production bikes were gathered in the hot pit; their practice session was next. Art’s Rickman Honda is near the front making lovely big-four-stroke-with-a-megaphone noises as he revved it. Then, right in the middle of a rev there was a loud CRACK! then silence as a con rod poked a hole in the crankcase. Oil starts to drain out. Art recovered from his surprise, jumped off the bike and pushed it into the pit area. Damn. It didn’t make a single lap. Poor Art, but that’s racing.
Today I’m working on the Esses, turns 7 through 10. You can check out the page Tracks I’ve Raced for a good description of the full track. The Esses were a combination of left-right corners that needed to be ridden as a unit. Starting at the exit of turn seven I needed to put the bike at the spot on the track that would get me through turn 10 fastest. As I braked for turn 7 one of the good local TZ250 riders passed me. I put in a little extra effort and was pleased to see I kept up with him all the way to turn 10 before he could use his higher top end to escape. I was becoming a better racer.
With practice finished things got quiet again — lunch time. There’s some socializing but it’s not as raucous as in the morning. Riders are either frantically trying to fix what broke during practice, or doing whatever they did to prepare mentally. Even at this level most racers took racing seriously. It was and still is a high-risk sport. Vance meditated before racing. I ran “loops” of the track through my head, where I should be at each part of the track, the brake markers for the turns, the proper lines in each corner, etc. Some listened to music to keep distractions at bay. Every rider had a ritual.
My race went well – by that I mean the bike ran well and I didn’t fall off. I was starting to understand the Esses. Virginia had a good run as well. After each race I liked to sit for a while and just enjoy the afterglow, then think about the race. Where can I go faster? Can I brake later for turn four? Virginia and I would talk about the highlights of our respective races. After that I would circulate and see how others had done. It seems most people always had a little story about their race – dicing it up with a competitor, a big slide that was saved, running off track for a moment, things like that. Every racer had something worth hearing or telling about — bench racing at its finest.
Virginia and I had the luxury of dawdling because our drive home was short. Others from farther away had to immediately load up their van or truck and hit the road. There were a only a few racers that came all the way from Southern California, but riders came from Chico, Roseville, Stockton, places that are hours away. The pit area starts thinning out around 2pm as racers who have finished their race pack up and head for home.
Then it was our turn. Around 4 pm I loaded the van and we rode home, exhausted but happy.
See you all next month!