Racers race. From stories in the 1960s movie “On any Sunday” of Pro racers soaking off plaster casts so they can go racing, to more recent events like Jorge Lorenzo racing on Saturday in the 2013 Assen MotoGP race (and finishing 5th!) after breaking his collarbone during a practice crash on Thursday, let us know how determined the top ranked racers can be. But what about club racers? Yes, some of them are just as dedicated. I was recently reminded of a story from my club racing days when I was trying for a class championship.
In 1976 when I decided to contest the AFM’s 750cc Production Championship with my Ducati 750 Sport, Virginia and I needed to go to every AFM points race. That meant roughly two races a month during the season, a local race at Sears Point (45 minutes from home) and races in Southern California at Ontario and Riverside (about 8 hours or 9 hours drive, respectively). Usually we would drive to SoCal on Saturday, race on Sunday, stay over Sunday night and drive back to Oakland on Monday.
I had a Dodge A108 race van that looked like the one pictured here, a white panel van customized with a wide blue stripe with red pin striping. There were double doors on the side and the same in the back. It easily held the two race bikes, my Ducati 750 Sport and VA’s RD125 Yamaha, and tools and spare parts, since the only seats were for the driver and one passenger. It had a 318 ci V-8 motor that was set right between the two seats. The good thing about this was you could remove the panels and work on the motor while inside the van — no worries about rain. The bad thing was it was noisy even with the insulated housing, and driver and passenger were right in front. Colliding with anything would be bad.
Once, on our way to a race at Riverside the van died at a gas station on I-5 near Buttonwillow. There’s a racetrack near there today but in 1976 there were a couple of gas stations and not much else. What to do? We called AAA and had the van towed to the Dodge dealer in Bakersfield, the nearest town of any size.
Most sane people would have given up on the race at this point and spent the weekend in Bakersfield, but not us. We had a race to get to! The dealership was closed on Saturday, so I left a note and the keys in the key drop. We found a nearby U-Haul outlet and rented the smallest vehicle they had, a 10-foot box van like shown here. We put the bikes, tools, spares, etc., into the U-haul and headed south. This all took several hours, of course, so we neared Riverside well after midnight.
We had about 60 miles left to go when I realized the van’s fuel gauge had dropped from 3/4 full to 1/2 full but hadn’t moved for more than an hour. Gulp. A quick calculation and we realized that the fuel gauge was broken and we must have been nearly out of gas. We tried a couple of gas stations along the route but by then it was around 2 am and all of them were closed. We stopped at one of the closed gas stations, drained the fuel from our bike’s gas tanks and put it into the rental van.
We finally made it to Riverside and checked into the motel where we had reserved a room. It was, as I recall, around 3 AM by then. Most sane people at this point would have given up on the race and slept in, and maybe went to the track later to meet with friends. But not us, we had a race to get to! We got up at 7 AM to eat and buy more gas and get to the track on time, so we didn’t get much sleep.
To get out of the motel parking lot we had to drive past the office, which featured two lanes, one with an carport-like cover and one that bypassed the cover. Some idiot had parked their car in the by-pass lane, so the only way out was to pass under the cover. It was clearly marked with the feet and inches of clearance, but I had no idea how tall the rental van was. I crept as slow as I could toward the overhang, but just when I thought we had cleared the roof, CLANG! The rental van was too tall.
We could have backed up and parked, gone back into the room and slept for a couple more hours, but dammit, we had a race to get to. At this point I considered using the rental van to physically move the car that was blocking my path when the motel manager appeared. He had heard the loud clunk, realized the problem, and unlocked a gate at the other end of the parking lot so we could exit and be on our way.
We made it to the race, raced, had dinner with some SoCal race pals, and went back to the motel. Monday morning we both called our worksites and begged an extra day of vacation time, figuring we would be back sometime on Tuesday. There was no car blocking the way so we got on the road back to Bakersfield.
When we arrived we found that the Dodge shop had read my note and had already worked on the van and diagnosed the problem. After a credit card swipe they went right to work on it. We unloaded the U-Haul box van and returned it, complaining loudly about the faulty fuel gauge.
Bakersfield might be a nice town, but with no transportation all we saw were a few blocks. We had to hang out at the dealer’s place as they finished work on the race van.They did finish the repairs by late afternoon, and we re-loaded the bikes into the van and hit the road north.
We made it home to Oakland very late Monday night and collapsed into bed. We ended up unloading the race van Tuesday after work. It was an exhausting, long, and expensive weekend, and we had several chances to give up but we persevered and raced our races. I don’t remember how we finished in our races, but I’m sure we each earned a few points. Every little bit helps when you’re aiming at a season championship. I did eventually win the AFM’s 1976 750cc Production Class championship, which convinced Dale Newton to ask me to ride the Ducatis he was developing.
If you are serious about competing, even at the club level, you have to be willing to go to great lengths to race. Ask yourself, how dedicated are you? Then, go out and give it all you’ve got. You never know where it may lead.
If you have a story about overcoming obstacles in order to make it to a race, feel free to tell your story in the “comments” field below.
Although the main point of this story is that racers go through almost anything to race, as an aside I’ll explain what happened with the race van. We stopped at the Buttonwillow exit to get gas. I had noticed the brake pedal had been getting a little mushy, not unusual as the drum brake shoes wear. With the model Dodge van we had, the way to adjust the brakes was to back up quickly and stop hard. This would cause some adjuster to click up one notch and firm up the brake pedal. When I performed the operation the van died, and refused to restart. Not even a sputter or cough.
When we got Bakersfield on Monday the dealer had found our van and the note, and started working on it even before we arrived. By the time we got there, around 1 pm, the problem had been diagnosed. To keep the noise down they used plastic gears on the timing chain between the crankshaft and the camshaft, which were supposed to be replaced every 60,000 miles. I had bought the van used and didn’t know about this maintenance feature. The gears had worn and when I backed up and stopped quickly the cam chain had jumped a couple of teeth, putting the valves and pistons out of sync.