WH. Ask Me Anything

Posted Dec 14, 2015

Recently I was invited to an “Ask Me Anything” session on reddit.com’s Ducati sub-reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/Ducati/). I got a few questions so I’m re-publishing the good ones here, slightly edited. They aren’t all about Ducatis, so non-Ducati fans might be interested. The questions are in bold, my answers are in normal font.

Why isn’t the U.S. producing high-quality, international-level road racers anymore, and what can be done to fix that?

That is a good question with no easy answer. Firstly, I think the KRAVE group is on the right track by making the MotoAmerica rules closer to the FIM rules. Racing similar bikes will make the U.S. rider’s transition to the world stage easier. They are also working hard to increase the fan base. More fans = better TV coverage = more fans = more manufactures getting involved = more sponsorship = more $$ = more race bikes = bigger grids = exciting racing = more fans. You get the picture.

Secondly, if you look at the long string of American champions – Roberts, Spencer, Lawson, Schwantz, Rainey, Kocinski, Hayden, et al. – they all started racing on dirt tracks. It seems dirt track experience helps road racers a lot – it’s no secret. Look at former world champion Colin Edward’s Boot Camp and multiple AMA 250cc class champ Rich Oliver’s Mystery School – they do it in the dirt. How can MotoAmerica ensure their racers get dirt track experience? I don’t have a good answer for that.

While racing/riding, do you recall any moments of particular ‘connectedness’, emotional fulfillment, or joy with your bikes while riding?

Ah, yes. You’re talking about magic happening. For me this can take a couple of forms.

I still remember one morning in 1973, riding north on Highway 385 from Lone Pine to Lee Vining in California. It was a brilliant autumn day and the sun, rising on the right, lit up the rocks of the high Sierras on our right. It was a view that you can’t get in a car, not even a convertible. There was this huge wall of glowing granite as far north and south as I could see. It was awe inspiring. It gave me feelings that I can’t describe in words, but left me with the “warm-fuzzies” for hours after leaving the scene.

Nearly 25 years later I had another “heart-in-your-throat” moment during a ride in the Southern California desert. The full ride story is published in my blog on page ZF. A Ride in the Desert, but the really magic part of it was this:

“The route back to Escondido took us to Parker, Arizona, then to Desert Center along California highways 62 and 177. It was full daylight at Parker, with a blue sky and a few fluffy white clouds. As dusk approached the clouds turned light pink then shifted to orange. The sun dropped below the horizon and the sky went through countless colors, shades of blue from sky blue through lilac to an amazing deep purple just before turning black, with billions of bright white pin-pricks of stars. The stars in particular were a sight; with the clean desert air and no nearby sources of light the Milky Way was splashed across the sky in a way one never sees in a city or town. Amazing, beautiful, stunning. It was awesome in the true sense of the word, not like “awesome fries, dude.” Those 75 or so minutes of the ride made the trip extra special.”

The magic in racing, the feeling of oneness with the bike, is a little different. I have to say, ever though I was a club racer for four years prior, the first time it happened was in the heat race for the 1977 AMA Superbike race at Sears Point. I nearly high sided and ran off the track exiting turn two. The jolt of adrenaline from the near crash had amazing results. Time slowed down, all my senses expanded and I felt everything the bike experienced. I was the bike and the bike was me. The second time was near the end of the race itself, when I realized I was catching up to the leader Cook Neilson. It was magic, there’s no better way to describe it.

After it happened a few times while racing I learned how to “turn on” that feeling and used it in other AMA Superbike races and even some club races. I couldn’t sustain that state for an entire race, however, but used it in key spots during the races. I think the really top racers, guys like Lorenzo, Rossi and the like, can stay in this state for an entire race if they need to.

I’m curious as to your opinion of the Rossi-Lorenzo-Marquez situation? That is, if you followed MotoGP this year of course.

I do follow MotoGP. I think Lorenzo and Pedrosa have come out of it pretty clean. Both Marquez and Rossi have hurt their reputations. Marquez may or may not have been purposely slowing Rossi down at Philip Island, it’s hard to tell. Marquez was definitely messing with Rossi at Sepang and I’m surprised Rossi didn’t park Marquez sooner. He should have been more subtle about it though. As for Valencia I can see the argument both ways. It is curious that Marquez didn’t attack Lorenzo – based on his previous racing history I would have expected that. OTOH maybe he has learned some patience and was waiting for the last lap. If that was the case Pedrosa arrived at exactly the wrong time and messed up Marquez’ plan.

I’m more of a Rossi fan than a Marquez fan, but I would like to see Pedrosa win at least one MotoGP Championship. He’s earned it.

Not motorcycle related, but I’m curious about your writing. Have you always enjoyed writing? Do you enjoy it? When did you begin recording your experiences on paper?

I’ve always enjoyed documenting personal experiences I felt were noteworthy. I think I first started telling old racing stories on-line around 1996. I’ve tried fiction and I can’t do it.

I read a lot when I was younger (I still read but not as much, damn the web), both fiction and non-fiction. Some of my favorite non-fiction authors were Oliver Sacks, Tracy Kidder, John McPhee, and of that ilk. They are basically reporters, able to tell about events in a way that entertains and informs, but they don’t put themselves in the story. You know they had to be there, because they are writing about it, but they don’t become part of the story. It is good journalism but all wrong for a memoir or autobiography.

Initially I wrote like them, more or less. I’d be in the story and I’d describe what I did, but not what I thought or how I felt. Learning to expose my feelings and emotions in my writing was not enjoyable; it was hard work. It’s still something I struggle with. I worked on the book for six years and six or seven re-writes, each one being more personal and revealing. Sometimes I wondered if it would ever be published.

Racing the Gods 1_8 Cover-1 resized larger plus OP logoBut the final result, I think, was worth it. My wife, Dee, is one of my harshest critics and she likes it. Joe Gresh published an insightful review of the book in the current Motorcyclist magazine. He wrote, “The mark of a good book is the emotional reaction of the reader: Did it make you feel? By that measure ‘Racing the Gods’ is a great book.”

Thanks, Joe Gresh. You can read his review on-line at https://www.octanepress.com/book/page/motorcyclist-review-racing-gods.

Which was your favorite track and what made it your favorite?

I liked different tracks for different reasons. The three California AFM tracks where I raced many laps were each fun but quite different.

Sears Point was my first racetrack and the site of both my AMA Superbike wins, so it’s special. It’s a difficult track, very technical with steep sections, many blind turns, and no long straights where you can let the bike do the work. Doing well at Sears is very satisfying because you know you earned it with riding skills and hard work. The track has been changed some since 1979, but it’s still my favorite.

Ontario was big, with two long straights and lots of fast sweeping turns. The bevel-drive Ducatis did fast sweeping turns really well and I could just drive past people on other bikes. It was fun, and a very safe racetrack with lots of run-off room. It was absolutely flat, no elevation changes at all. I would have liked some up and down.

Riverside was more intimate than Ontario but less technical than Sears. Riverside had the Esses, a long set of left-right combinations, one right after the other, which were great fun on the Duck. There was a long straight just before the last turn, a large radius more-than-180 degrees sweeper, great hunting ground for the Ducati. It did have some hills but nothing as dramatic as Sears Point.

You should check out my blog, the page titled “ZH. Tracks I’ve Raced.” Besides these three, it includes a few others.

Is there any way to restore the status of the Daytona 200 race? Also, I recall you had an epiphany regarding Daytona’s high-banked turns – will you share that here?

I’ll answer the 2nd part of that first. The high banking are both left turns. The first time I went onto the banking I dropped down to the flat apron along the bottom. I hauled myself back up on the baking to continue the turn, and I’d go right down to the bottom again. WTF? This happened several times. Finally, in the middle of the second banked turn, I discovered that on the Ducati Superbike I raced in 1978 the banking would carry me around the turn. I had to ride the banked turns as if they were straights, in a full tuck with neutral pressure on the handlebars. I was initially riding them as left turns, with a slight push on the left handlebar. That’s what was causing me to drop to the bottom of the banking.

Yes, the Daytona 200 used to be the most important motorcycle road race in the world. International champions like Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostino would compete. Fans bought tickets and came to watch it. Then it became a Superbike race and it was still good because all the top U.S. racers would race it. But it kept being downgraded, because of tire issues I think, going to Formula Extreme then to the Sportbike class, which allows for 600cc four-cylinder bikes and 675cc three-cylinder machines. People in the class still care about it, but it’s not the premier class and there’s no international component. Fans aren’t as interested and it is run with empty grandstands.

I think the Daytona 200 needs to be an International event. MotoGP is not appropriate but World Superbike would work. I’d love to see the Daytona 200 be a World Superbike event with all the top MotoAmerica Superbikes riders getting wild card entries. If Pirelli, the tire supplier for World Supers, can build a tire that will handle both the east and west banking, then run the 200 on the classic course, if not use the shorter course with only one banked turn.

The bikes will need to make stops for fuel and tires, but I’ve seen how fast Superbike tires can be changed on the grid when it suddenly starts raining. It shouldn’t be a problem for either World or MotoAmerica Superbike teams. Then promote the hell out of it and make prices low enough so people actually come to watch, just like in the good old days.

Is it possible? I don’t know. It would involve lots of politics, but it would make the Daytona 200 an important race again.