Fresh Out of the Trenches, Pits, and Paddocks: Looking Back at My First Year as a Motojournalist


I had been an avid fan and supporter of motorcycle road racing in the United States for nearly a decade. I had watched hundreds if not a thousand motorcycle races on TV, assembled an impressive library of recorded races, and had built up a fair amount of knowledge about the sport. But I always felt that there was something more I could do. I had had a notion for the longest time that I could take everything I had learned and everything my mind is capable of and contribute to rebuilding the image and popularity of the sport. In 2013, the year before the sport’s salvation appeared in the form of the KRAVE Group and its MotoAmerica brand, I tried to help the sport. I prepared a 60+ page strategic plan for how to turn the sport’s fortunes around. I will probably never fully know whether that plan made a difference in the sport’s direction. However, even then, I still believed there was more I could do. I still believed I had a bigger contribution to make to the sport that has given me so much.

Last year, an opportunity presented itself to make a bigger contribution. I had met Larry Ward and Roy Dyckman from iHeart Media’s Two Wheel Power Hour Motorcycle Show (TWPH) way back in 2009. It was sheer chance that we stayed at the same Super 8 in Greenfield, Indiana, which would become our annual meeting place for the next five years. The more we saw each other during our annual pilgrimage to the MotoGP weekend, the more Larry and Roy were able to see both my passion for and knowledge of the sport. Larry was even kind enough to give me airtime on the TWPH back in 2013 after I had mailed out my plan to the American motorcycle road racing establishment.

After I moved back to Ohio in 2014, Larry, Roy, and I began to see each other more often at motorcycle events, and eventually we hatched a plan to create a social media platform for the TWPH. As Larry is fond of saying, “Members of your generation probably cannot even find the AM band.” In an evolving world of media, I was able to assist the show in reaching new listeners and positioning it for future growth with a strong social media presence. It was a couple months after we launched the social media platform that the door opened for me to join the ranks of motojournalists.

That opportunity began with the cancellation of the MotoGP race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 2016. One of my friends and I were planning on riding to the MotoGP race at Circuit of the Americas in 2016. Both Larry and I realized the opportunity to cover the MotoGP event for the TWPH. We immediately found some airtime for me to acclimate myself with being live on-air, as well as obtaining media credentials for both the MotoGP event and the MotoAmerica season.

I honestly was not sure what to expect as a new motojournalist. I knew a couple of riders in the MotoAmerica paddock, and had been to a dozen professional motorcycle road racing weekends. However, aside from writing an occasional article for the high school newspaper, I had never “covered” an event in my life. Larry and Roy gave me a few pointers on what they normally did when they covered an event. I also talked quite a bit with my friend Natalie Liebhaber, who covered the old Champ Car World Series for years and continues to cover the college football scene. I figured it was going to be different from the typical fan experience at an event. I realized I was not going to be able to spend every practice session snapping photos from every corner of the track or be able to peruse the vendors on the midway. Little did I realize just how different it would be, or how much I would end up enjoying it.

The MotoGP/MotoAmerica event was probably not a great choice for my first foray into covering a motorsports event. Upon walking into the media center (which is also doubles as a conference/event center during non-motorsports events), I was overwhelmed by both the sheer number of media personnel there (several hundred) as well as the plethora of information available about media scrums, press releases, and lap time sheets. Just trying to find an open spot to set up my laptop in the media center was a challenge, as there were few seats left unclaimed. It was cool to be walking through the VIP/media area behind the garages and seeing the likes of Keanu Reeves just hanging out in a team’s hospitality center, or walking by Yamaha MotoGP team boss Lin Jarvis like he was just any other bloke. However, the entire experience was a bombardment of both the senses and the mind.

To complicate matters more, I has also elected to cover the AMA Pro Flat Track race that night, and had to rush over to the dirt track to pick up my media credentials in time. I texted Natalie at some point that day, and she helped me realize I needed to be selective about what I was covering. While I was at a MotoGP event, I realized I would primarily be covering MotoAmeriva the rest of the year. So I decided to focus more of my attention there. There were just so many riders I wanted to interview, people in the MotoAmerica paddock I wanted to see or meet, and places around the track I wanted to watch the action from. Another usual part of the CotA experience were the restrictions on where I could and could not go as a media person. At most MotoAmerica events, I am allowed to work the back of pit lane. I tried going out the podium celebration, and was kept back by security. It was confusing, to say the least. Overall it was a successful weekend from a media perspective, but I quickly realized that I had an awful lot to learn.

After CotA, I was able to settle into my role as a motojournalist. Without the overwhelming environment, I was able to get to know some of the other personalities in the MotoAmerica media community and eventually began to feel like I belonged. One of the biggest parts of my job was doing interviews. My graduate coursework in qualitative research methods really came in handy. A lot of the interviews I did I didn’t record. I realized this was my first year in the press box and I needed to establish my reputation with the MotoAmerica rider community. As the season went on I was able to do just that. At the end of the season, when Josh Hayes walks into the media center and knows you by name, that’s a big success. I was still able to get out and take some pictures like I did in my fan days, but did not have nearly as much time for it. While I miss it a little, I really enjoy the media work even more. I also spent a couple weekends honing my media skills by covering the Ohio Mini Roadracing League’s event at Circleville Raceway Park and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

One of the other things I had to get used to doing was being live on-air. It sounds cool to those who have never done it, having so many people listening to what you have to say. However, it is also live: there are no second chances. If your mind slips for a second or you are not prepared, there is no take two. However, eventually you get used to it and know how to prepare and keep things brief. Though, I have to admit, I still hate hearing the sound of my own voice on the podcasts.

The most important thing I learned about media work is the importance of working together. After all the racing was done, media people do not go back to their hotel rooms and lounge around. We would all be there late, writing press releases or daily summaries. We would be sharing information back and forth, answering each other’s questions and helping each other get out of the media center at a reasonable hour. Another important skill I was able to improve on was building professional connections. Among the people in the paddock I got to know this season were Richard Varner (who met on a paddock shuttle at CotA), Wayne Rainey, Josh Hayes, Cam Beaubier, Jake Zemke, Chris Fillmore, Jake Lewis, Caroline Olson, Valentin Debise, Ashton Yates, and Jody Barry. On the minimoto side, I was able to get to know Kent Klawon and Brian Conrad from the Ohio Mini Roadracing League.

Even though it was overall a positive first season, I have a number of things I want to improve on for next season. First and foremost is my pre-event preparation. I usually did not get to the events until Saturday morning. I did not give myself enough time to review the practice times from Friday, let alone the past performance of riders and teams at each track. Also, for example, I made a mistake asking Cam Beaubier a question about qualifying times. I had forgotten that MotoAmerica had switched to using a qualifying-only rear tire in 2016. I cannot afford to make those kinds of mistakes in media work.

I also need to get into writing more. Even though I am in the radio business, I am not on the air until Tuesday night, and need to be in the business of doing more reporting from the track. I also need to do a better job at getting photographs of the riders, team members, etc. who I get interviews from. I may also transition to doing more video interviews when possible.

My first season as a motojournalist would not have been an overall success without the help of several people. Chief among them is TWPH host and editor, Larry Ward, who gave me the opportunity to show what I could do. My other associates on the TWPH, Roy Dyckman and Bob Wentzel, also provided me with support and advice during me rookie season. Richard Varner, the CEO of MotoAmerica, took the time to talk with me about the direction of the sport, and I am indebted to him and the other members of the KRAVE Group for all the work they have done to revive the sport. In the media center, I could not have learned as much as I did without guidance and advice from Sean Bice (Yamaha) and Matthew Miles. I am indebted to both of them for showing me the ropes of media work. I am also indebted to photographer Michael Brock for giving me pointers on both media work and photography. It was a pleasure to meet and chat with Brian J. Nelson, whose photographic work I have admired for years. I also need to thank Natalie Liebhaber, whose counsel and media experience was invaluable to my development as a motojournalist. To all of you, thank you so much for everything you did to help me in my first season as a motojournalist. I owe each and every one of you, and look forward to continuing to work with all of you in 2017.

2016 Riding Season Review


As we get closer to the first snow falling and the end of the 2016 riding season, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what has been one of my most memorable riding years to date. Despite not going on the western states adventure I had hoped to, I rode more, saw more, and learned more than I had in any previous year. 2016 was also a year of firsts. It was the first time I got to try some new farkles for my 2003 Yamaha FJR1300 (named Fiona), and the first time I visited some places that I had been wanting to visit for years. Even though I did not accomplish everything I had planned to, I had an absolute blast accomplishing everything that I did.

2016 was a year of milestones for me. The first of these milestones was how much I rode. In 2015, my first year with the FJR, I logged 13,900 miles. That was a personal record that I hoped to break in 2016. Instead of breaking my record, I shattered it. While being employed full time for the vast majority of the riding season, I clocked over 18,000 miles this year. For someone who is neither retired nor rich, that is a lot of asphalt to cover in the course of eight months. Another milestone was the number of trips I took. The only weekends I was home lounging around during the summer were holiday weekends. Between adventures, rallies, and motorsports events, I was on the road nearly every weekend from April to August. In total, I spent around a month out of this year living in hotel rooms.

Two things that made my riding season such a personal success were some of the upgrades I equipped my bike with, as well as how I learned to be a more organized long-distance motorcycle rider. The most important of those upgrades was the seat. In March, I purchased a Sargent World Sport front seat. I had had Sargent re-do the seat on my old Suzuki Bandit 1200, which had made long-distance riding much more enjoyable. The seat for the FJR, on the other hand, was a brand new seat that used a wider base pan and more of Sargent’s specialized foam. The result was a seat that was even more comfortable than my old Bandit’s seat. That comfort allowed me to double how long I could ride the FJR before I needed to give my rear end a break.

Another upgrade was the addition of Spiegler braided steel brakes lines and clutch line. Not only do braided steel lines never need to be replaced, but the bike’s braking performance and feel were noticeably better. Another change I made was converting from charging my phone directly off the motorcycle’s battery to using $10 power banks from Amazon.com. This allowed me to feel safer by keeping my phone inside my riding jacket without being tethered to the motorcycle’s battery by a charging cable.

In terms of being a more organized rider, I built on last year’s acquisition of hard luggage with the FJR to optimize packing and touring. I went through the tool kit I had assembled for my bike and found ways to carry fewer tools while still being able to make nearly any roadside repair. I also put some of the tools underneath the seat where the stock tool kit would be to better distribute weight. I also revised my standardized packing list. I made the saddlebags more balanced in terms of weight, as well as bought a few items so that I would not need to take toiletries, tools or anything else from the apartment when getting ready for a trip. I effectively reduced my pre-trip packing to, “add clothes and go.”

Among my favorite memories from the 2016 riding campaign are my two big trips. The first of these was in early April and was my first non-solo trip. Fellow motorcycle enthusiast and distance riding noobie “Speedy” Dan Zosky and I battled cold, wind, downpours, and a packed Circuit of the Americas to attend the MotoGP weekend in Austin, Texas. Except for a small stability problem at high speeds with Speedy Dan’s borrowed ST1300, we had a cold to warm two days of riding down to Austin. Along the way we stopped at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. We had a blast both checking out the old Corvettes, as well as seeing the sinkhole the opened up below part of the museum a few years ago.

Once we got to Austin, Speedy Dan and I headed over to a custom bike show in downtown Austin. The setting and atmosphere for the show were matched by its great turnout. I will cover my experience at CotA in another article about my first year as a motojournalist. Needless to say, Turn 1 at CotA is even steeper than TV can ever really show, and it was great to see so many fellow riders attending the event. On the way back north, Speedy Dan and I stopped in Longview, Texas (hometown of three-time AMA Superbike Champion and 2009 World Superbike Champion Ben Spies) for lunch.

We also stopped at the Barksdale Global Power Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, Louisiana to check out the old U.S. Air Force fighters and bombers on display there. I never thought I would get that close to an SR-71 Blackbird in my life. Our stop at the museum delayed us just long enough to hit a massive lightning storm. We spent two hours unsuccessfully trying to dry out at a gas station while the lightning kept stopping and starting. When we could finally get going again, we realized we were not going to make our planned overnight stop in Memphis and had to stop in Little Rock instead. The next day was 12+ hours on the road but we made it home safely. It was Speedy Dan’s first ride of more than two hours, and I doubt it will be his last long-distance ride (despite what he says now).

My other favorite trip of 2016 was what I call my “Down South Trip.” I took six days to go visit several museums and twisty roads that had been on my list to visit since I started getting into motorcycling. The first day took me from Columbus to Nashville, and included stops at the Motorcycle Superstore Outlet and Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, and the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. Day two took me further south to one of American motorcycling’s most hallowed sites: The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The five-story, 144,000 square foot museum, which is currently being enlarged by another 85,000 square feet, was absolutely stunning. No narrative can do the museum justice. Suffice it to say that the 4 hours I spent there were not nearly enough to fully enjoy it.

I finished the day by riding to my hotel outside Atlanta. The next day I went to an Atlanta Braves game. It was the Braves’ last season at Turner Field, which was originally constructed as the Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Summer Games. The future is uncertain for the facility, and I wanted to get there at least one time before the Braves move to a less iconic home. I also tried to visit Underground Atlanta while I was there, but found it to be akin to a dead mall.

The next day I began to trek back north. I stopped at the International Tow Truck Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While I had planned to visit the Wheels Thru Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, a traffic delay kept me from making it there before it closed for the day. So I continued on my way to my accommodations for the next two nights: The Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge in Stecoah, North Carolina. The setting and atmosphere of Iron Horse exceeded my expectations. The food was also great, and it is conveniently located within a short ride to the area’s many attractions.

After enjoying my first of two nights in the Iron Horse bunk house (that I ended up having all to myself), I spent the next day riding two roads I had been impatiently waiting to ride for several years: The Tail of the Dragon, and the Cherohala Skyway. After riding NC Route 28, which turned out to be my favorite road of them all, and stopping to admire the “Tree of Shame,” I began my ride along the 11-miles and 318 turns of US 129. While the Dragon can be dangerous due to oncoming traffic, there was little traffic on it and I was able to have the road mostly to myself. It was easily the most technical road I have ever ridden.

After getting a workout riding the Dragon, I stopped for lunch at Tellico Grains Bakery and later began my ride along the Cherohala Skyway. With changes in elevation from roughly 1,500 feet to 5,000 feet above sea level, the Cherohala offers great views and less technical, sweeping curves for riders of all skill levels. Although part of my ride was ruined by a repaving project, I found the Cherohala to be as good as expected. After spending my last night at Iron Horse, I began my ride back to Columbus. I took US 441 over the Great Smoky Mountains and then took the Gatlinburg Bypass. What a zoo city Gatlinburg turns into during tourist season. After suffering through traffic jams getting through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg’s other tourism colonies, I had a smooth ride back to Columbus.

A number of my other trips were related to my gig with iHeart Media’s Two Wheel Power Hour Motorcycle Show (TWPH). I had the privilege of representing the TWPH at the MotoGP/MotoAmerica event in Austin, Texas, as well as standalone MotoAmerica events at New Jersey Motorsports Park (twice), Road America, and Virginia International Raceway. I also traveled to cover AMA Pro Racing Flat Track events at Austin, Texas, Lima, Ohio, and Springfield, Illinois. One thing that was sorely missed this year was the MotoGP event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even though I got to see a MotoGP race last year at Austin, it just was not the same. That event, and the former AMA Superbike event at Mid-Ohio, had become such staples in my summer calendar for the previous half-decade. It felt weird this summer sitting home watching MotoGP race in Austria on TV rather than sitting on the top row of Grandstand H at Indy Motor Speedway.

This summer also marked the beginning of my Johnny Cash initiative. I was able to collect pictures or shot glasses from 14 places mentioned in the song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” It is not a grand start, but it is a start nonetheless. Hopefully I will get to double that total by this time next year. I also did not have time to re-attempt my 1,000 miles in 24 hours ride. I will be looking to do both the 1,000 in 24 hours, as well as the 1,500 miles in 24 hours rides next year.

The season did have a couple downs. I have never been stuck in as many traffic jams as I was this year. On my Down South trip, I got stuck in four traffic jams of at least 30 minutes in 90-degree or higher heat and high humidity. Southern heat is a different kind of heat. I also had the FJR experience a major electrical snafu. The key cylinder wiring shorted out on an afternoon ride on Ohio State Route 83. I MacGuyvered the bike into working again and barely got it home. However, the story ended on a high note as I was able to fix the problem for under $20.

Despite the downs this past riding season, the peaks definitely outweighed the valleys. I met so many amazing people on my trips this year, got to learn so much more about American history, and birthed a second career in motorsports journalism. It is still not uncommon for people to question me about the risks of motorcycling. The risks are very real indeed. But when you look at how little it takes to protect yourself and how much one can allow motorcycling to open their minds to new knowledge, experiences, and people, the benefits definitely outweigh the risks.

 

The New Rider Advice New Riders Hardly Every Receive


If you are going to ride like you have something to prove, please do not ride 

One of the biggest problems motorcycling as has faced for a long time is its hooliganistic image. Try walking up to three random people in the mall and ask them what is the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word, “motorcycle.” Chances are it will be Harley (not a bad thing), biker gangs (not a good thing), kids popping wheelies down freeways (really not a good thing), or loud exhaust. Without opening the cans of worms that is exhaust noise, two of those four things are examples of the wrong reasons to ride. It is because some riders allow their ego to overtake their judgment that the American Motorcyclist Association is constantly fighting bike bans (as in you cannot legally ride a motorcycle in a village or city), motorcycle-only checkpoints, and the like. It is because of such riders that myself and countless others get followed around by law enforcement, feel less welcome in some establishments, and have parents usher their kids away from us.

I have has several former co-workers who did not want to buy a bike that was too small to keep up with their friends who rode back roads at 140mph. More on engine size can be found in the next section, but for those individuals, the problems was not that they wanted a big bike. Rather, they had the wrong mentality towards riding. They were too interested in fitting in, and not interested enough in what was safe or what was best for them in the long-term. Riding is your own adventure, not someone else’s. Too many riders get into riding to feel accepted or to prove how brave they are, only to find themselves in traction, in a casket, or back on the couch all weekend. We are all ambassadors of this sport the moment we swing our leg over a motorcycle. We have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as each other, to not ruin someone else’s time on a motorcycle. This includes not letting our insecurity get the best of us. If you want to get into riding but do not feel comfortable riding with your family or friends, contact the author. I will help you find the right group to ride with. Motorcycle riding can be one of the most positive or destructive forces in one’s life. What makes the difference is the attitude we bring to riding. Just like shouting out the ending before a movie begins, please do not ruin riding for everyone else. Don’t be that person.


 

Size doesn’t always matter, but you don’t need a big one to have fun

Back to those co-workers of mine who did not want to buy too small of a bike. The truth is even 250cc motorcycles are much higher performance that your average saloon car. A Scion TC averages 6.8-7.3 seconds 0-60 ($21,300 new). A Subaru WRX STi ($38,995 new) is around 5.0 seconds 0-60. A used Kawasaki Ninja 250 (model years 1987-2007) has a 5.75 seconds 0-60 ($1,500-$3,000 on Craigslist). A 1999-2001 Suzuki SV650 has a 3.2 second 0-60 ($2,000-$4,500). As one can see, you do not need a big motorcycle engine to obtain superior performance. If you are worried about riding 140mph, not only are you missing the point of riding, but you will not enjoy it as much. When you highside for the first time and realize just how much power you have between your legs, you may not want to go back to riding. When you have a little less power that you can learn to manage, you will soon leave your friends in the dust when you hit the twisties. Moreover, a new rider needs a bike they feel comfortable maneuvering in an emergency. You cannot power your way through that deer that jumps out in front of you.


 

Develop your (real) riding skills

Sure, there are the skills that you consciously use to ride a motorcycle. Practicing your steering, braking, and accelerating are all very important (more on these in the next sections). However, there are lots of other skills and senses that riding a motorcycle requires. The sharper those senses are, the faster, smoother, and safer you will be able to ride confidently. Most important among these is what I call “eyework.” Nick Ienatsch has a great chapter on this topic in his book, “Sport Riding Techniques (1).” Some of the following section is borrowed from that book, and it is recommended that new riders read it in its entirety.

The first example of eyework is practicing looking through the corner, and looking as far up the road as possible. This was one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp when I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF)’s Basic Rider Course (BRC). It felt very unnatural at first. Honestly, I did not really understand where the instructors wanted me to look. Why would I want to look at the exit of a corner just as I am turning into it?

But once I got used to it, it was more than worth it. I could navigate corners much more quickly and sharply than when I first started riding. This was because I felt more balanced, and I could better tell exactly where I was in a bend. On long, straight roads, look as far down the road as you can. When there is something lying in the road that could put a gash in your tire, it will give you the most time to react to it. This is not to say a rider should ignore what else is going on in front of them. A safe rider keeps their eyes moving, constantly scanning for threats in the road and alongside it. That said, looking down the road helps you “slow down” what you are seeing, giving you a feeling of even more time to react. When you come over that crest and there is a critter in the middle of the road, you need all the reaction time you can get.

For cornering, I will look down the road in the direction of my braking marker, then look to the apex of the corner (what I am turning toward) as I initiate my turn-in. As I begin to tip in, I quickly change my glance to where I want to exit the corner, or as far ahead in the corner as I can see. As I progress my eyes through the corner, I scan the road surface for anything that could cause an issue (gravel, dead animals, crack sealer, etc.). The hardest part is learning to not overreact if you do see something in the corner. Our instinct is to look at the obstacle and try to maneuver around it. Motorcycles are so sensitive to their riders, that such a reaction will often result in a collision. To practice avoiding such hazards, focus your eyes on the solution (a path around the obstacle) and not the obstacle itself. Go to a parking lot and practice turning. As you are turning, start changing only your gauze and see how the motorcycle reacts. Then pick a couple points in the parking lot (maybe where parking lines cross) and pretend they are objects. Start turning toward them, then change your focus to a line around them. Vary your speed to get a better idea of how your particular motorcycle will react to different inputs at different speeds and lean angles.

In addition to making sure you are focused on the right points on the road, it is just as important to “see” what you are not focusing on. If all obstacles were immobile like gravel or a dead animal, motorcycle safety would be orders of magnitude easier to achieve. Sadly, inattentive drivers, live animals, falling debris, and the like do not always cross out direct line of sight or stay in one place. In order to deal with such hazards, one must practice keeping their eyes moving when riding, as well as strengthen their peripheral and other visual skills. Our peripheral vision is probably the most important of these skills. Just because a rider is focused on the path around a hazard does not mean he or she does not need to be able to see what the hazard is doing. If a deer suddenly starts crossing the road, one needs to both focus on a path around the deer as well as be able to see what the deer is doing. If the deer suddenly turns around, a rider will want to see that and adjust their line and speed through a corner. To develop this skill, try watching TV while looking only at one of the four corners of the screen. You do not have to miss your entire favorite show while doing this. However, you will be impressed with how much of the show you will be able to “see” the more you do it. For more techniques and information on this issue, see Ienatsch’s book referenced above (1).


 

Go back to the course, and often

As you begin to master the vision skills discussed above, apply them to the same drills that you did during your MSF BRC. While some ranges are not open to the public, many of them are located in parking lots at community colleges, career centers, motorcycle dealers and the like. Here in Columbus, Ohio, the Iron Pony has a range painted in the outer part of its parking lot. You may not find yourself using all of the skills that the BRC emphasized in your everyday riding. However, those techniques are like tools when your bike is broke down on the side of the road: Better to have them and not need them, than need them and not have them. If you do not have a range around you, use an empty parking lot. Parking spaces are usually 18’x8′. Use this links to practice guides prepared by the Idaho STAR Motorcycle Safety Program to see some of the ways a rider can use a parking lot like an MSF range:

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=9B7F8C9FBADF30FC!209755&authkey=!AFjXhAIM-rU5HRo&ithint=file%2cpdf

http://idahostar.org/resources/practice-guide


 

Gear up

New riders are statistically predisposed to crashing at a much higher rate than more experienced riders. While no rational rider plans to crash their bike, new riders all too often find themselves doing some soil sampling due to entering a corner with too much speed. Another common accident is a car driver turning left in front of a motorcycle. In light of the probability of a crash and the severe injuries that can result from one, it is best to be prepared for the worst. As a lot of veteran riders told me when I started riding, “Dress for the crash.”

Even though I am an “all the gear, all the time” (ATGATT) rider, I am not here to tell you what to wear when you ride. As long as you do not take me out if/when you crash, it is not my skin and bones on the line. If you want to ride in a t-shirt, gym shorts, and flip flops just like your riding buddies, just do a quick Google image search for “motorcycle road rash” before you do. It is hard to conceptualize what it feels like to slide on hot asphalt. You are tough, right? You will get right up, rub some dirt in it, and feel fine. Unfortunately it is not that simple. If you would not want to run an electric belt sander over your skin, riding without gear might not be for you.

I realize riding gear is not inexpensive. Plus, it does get hot outside in some parts of the U.S.. However, personally, I would rather be soaked in sweat for an afternoon than covered in skin grafts for the rest of my life. Just ask yourself before you ride if it is worth blowing your entire health insurance deductible on something that could be prevented with $300-400 in riding gear and drinking a couple extra bottles of water? Skin grafts are not exactly easy on the eyes, and quite painful to have done. Do yourself a favor and Google image search those too. From experience seeing several people crash without riding gear, it is hardly worth risking so much to “fit in.” The most memorable of these was watching my best friend crash in front of me. We went over a set of train tracks and he tucked the front. He was coming past me to lead us back to his house, and instead almost took my bike out. He is an Iraq veteran who was in a number of firefights and hand-to-hand combat scenarios. Even after all of that, he confided in me that the most painful thing he has ever experienced was scrubbing the polyester out of his road rash wounds. His shirt had literally melted into his skin. Think about your family, friends, and significant other, and ask yourself if it is worth the risk. If you still think it is, I will not do anything to stop you or change your mind.

For those of you who have decided to change your mind, there are plenty of options for sturdy and relatively inexpensive riding gear. Start with a good helmet. While a full-face helmet offers the best protection, a number of three-quarters helmets with face shields also offer a strong level of protection for the entire head. While some brands are of a higher quality than others, it is more important to make sure the helmet has the proper safety certifications. All on-road riding helmets must have a DOT-approval sticker on them (usually on the back of the helmet). A Snell 2010 or later rating is also highly recommended, as it means the helmet has passed another rigorous set of safety tests. Also, if you do happen to have an unfortunate crash, be sure to get yourself a new helmet before swinging a leg back over a bike. Chances are the helmet is fine, but is it really worth the risk? For more information on helmet technology and fitment, please visit The Service Pavillion’s website: http://www.theservicepavilion.com/

In addition to a helmet, a riding jacket, pants, gloves, and boots complete the riding wardrobe. The jacket and pants can be made of leather or a motorcycle-specific textile material. What is important is that it is an abrasion-resistant material. Denim-based garments like jeans and denim jackets are really just plain cotton. While they may seem study on a work site, they shred very easily in high-abrasion situation like a motorcycle crash. While a great many riders wear riding jackets, far fewer wear riding pants. In reality, the legs are far more susceptible to injury in a motorcycle crash. Between contact with the road surface to the motorcycle coming down on top of them, a rider’s legs are in great peril when the shiny side goes down. Motorcycle-specific riding pants are usually equipped with armor and/or padding to protect the legs in a crash, and sometimes have extra padding in the rear for those longer rides. Similarly, motorcycle-specific gloves have curved fingers for gripping the handlebars and have extra protection in the parts of the hand the usually make contact with the road during a crash. While racing style motorcycle boots generally are not necessary for the street, and sturdy set of over-the-ankle work boots will help keep your foot attached to your body if you should go down. If you have more specific questions about riding gear, please do not hesitate to ask the author.


 

Don’t be afraid to get wet

When I was a graduate student, I used to ride my motorcycle to my part-time job rain or shine. When my co-workers would ask me if I had lost my sanity, I would respond, “There are only three ways to improve at riding in the wet: Practice, practice, and practice.” When I first got into motorcycle riding, I was a fair weather rider. That all changed after I got stuck in the rain a few times. Meteorology, despite its name, is not exactly an exact science. Like other riding skills, it is far better to have strong wet weather riding skills you never have to use than to put yourself and your bike at risk in wet conditions. Sitting under a bridge on an interstate highway is actually quite a scary experience.

When I decided to get into long-distance riding in 2009, I knew this was an area I needed to improve on.  So I rode every chance I got in the rain. Today, riding in the rain really does not phase me at all. In reality, riding in the rain is great training for all sorts of low-traction conditions. Whether it is rain, gravel, sand, crack sealer, or a combination of the above, riding in the rain will improve your chances of successfully navigating any less-than-perfect riding surface. A lot of motorcycle riding gear (which is discussed in the previous section) is waterproof (or relatively close to it). Riding gloves tend to be the exception to this. However, rain gloves are relatively inexpensive, and easily double as cold-weather gloves.

 

(1): “Sport Riding Techniques: How To Develop Real World Skills for Speed, Safety, and Confidence on the Street and Track” by Nick Ienatsch

RaceRip: F1 Australian GP 2016


This past weekend’s Australian Grand Prix delivered just about everything it could be expected to. Surprises, talk of safety, great midfield battles, a failed qualifying “innovation,” and the debut of an American team were all on tap. Indeed, the Australian GP has carried on the pre-season tones that will likely define the 2016 world championship.

One cannot begin this discussion without first touching on Fernando Alonso’s massive shunt on Lap 18. When I first saw the “wreckage” (if it even amounted to that), I did not think that could possibly be the car. My first thought was with Fernando, and hoping he was okay. Once we all saw him emerge from the car, my next thought was, “Oh lord, here comes all the discussion about the closed cockpit.” I am grateful for Jenson Button’s post-race comments about the use of the “halo.” While I favor a truly closed cockpit, it is important that we not let the “success” of F1’s safety technology in this crash overshadow the need to prevent future tragedies. Given the angle that the McLaren took after the collision with Gutierrez’s car, Fernando could very easily have hit his head on a catch fence post (a la Dan Wheldon). While it is welcome that he did not, we need to not allow miracles to be an excuse for sidestepping safety in the name of tradition.

The crash was a strange one to watch develop. Gutierrez had been reporting problems with his Ferrari power unit, so that would explain why Alonso caught up with him so quickly or unexpectedly. It would be hard for me to believe a driver of Fernando Alonso’s caliber could make that kind of mistake. The other unfortunate part of the shunt is that it happened to teams that really need time on track. The McLaren-Honda looks much improved this year. Even though Button finished down a lap in the other McLaren, Honda have obviously improved their power unit quite a bit over the off-season. Still, Honda and the rookie Haas team could really just use more on-track data at this point.

Aside from the Alonso/Gutierrez shunt, the race was memorable for both its start and its conclusion. The qualifying session was a borderline joke with the “new” format. While fans may agree with Bernie Eccelstone’s desire to not see Mercedes dominate the championship again this season, it is disturbing to see the lengths Eccelstone and other in F1’s “strategy” group are willing to go to prevent that, as well as how fundamentally flawed their approaches have been so far. Whoever thought that the “timing” portion of qualifying was somehow going to catch Mercedes out was clearly not thinking clearly. Instead, Haas  and several drivers were severely penalized for doing nothing wrong, while Mercedes still ended up on the front row.

To me, this whole thing started with freezing engine development after the 2005 season. Someone took a look at team budgets and realized the majority of team resources were going to engine development. So engine development was frozen to cut costs. Something was fatally missed here: Telling teams that have $400m budgets they cannot spend money on something does nothing to prevent them from spending it on something else. This kind of thinking, which will be covered in a later essay, has grown to a toxic level in F1. Consequently, the part of this weekend’s race that I enjoyed most was the start. Despite everything the Eccelstone cartel has done to “improve” the on-track product (the magnesium boxes that make the sparks, DRS, etc.) Vettal zoomed past both Mercedes and into a commanding lead. Some may argue the newly mandated “single clutch” made that possible. However, in the following laps, the Silver Arrow cars did not blitz Vettal, who showed he had the pace in the Ferrari to stay in the lead.

However, the Scuderia’s day went downhill quickly after the Alonso incident. Ferrari sent their cars out on the supersoft tires whereas everyone else had changed to the harder mediums. But for that poor strategy call and a problem with Vettal’s left front tire when he pitted on Lap 36, Vettal could easily have ended up second or first in the GP. It appears Hamilton wasn’t kidding when he said he thought Ferrari had something serious to offer this season. Vettal’s teammate Raikkonen also had a bad day at the office. He came into the pits on Lap 22 and had fire billowing out of his air intake. Not a great finish for Ferrari, but the pace was definitely there.

Lastly, a kind note about Haas. Despite the problems with Gutierrez’s car, Grosjean brought the other Haas home in P6. For those who remember when the three “new” teams came into F1 in 2010, the new cars were more like rolling chicanes. Haas’ nearly unbelievable performance in Australia demonstrates the important of having a strong technical knowledge base when entering the F1 arena. The funding from Gene Haas and the close technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari likely have a lot to do with the team’s early success. Having said that, the Haas approach of waiting a year, securing the services of a team principal like Gunther Steiner who has years of experience on an F1 pit wall, and the general racing knowledge the Haas organization has gleaned from its time competing in NASCAR may prove to be an example for future F1 teams to follow.

RaceRip: MotoGP Qatar GP 2016


In my season preview article, I noted that this was going to be a MotoGP season full of unknowns. The usually consistent “premier class” saw a number of rules and equipment changes over the off-season. The first round in Qatar answered a lot of those questions, and not the way I was expecting them to. We saw several glimmers of the gems that may yet emerge from the 2016 MotoGP season, as well as a couple things that raised eyebrows.

The most notable of these surprises is the life of the new Michelin tires. Reviewing statistics from the 2015 season, 14 out of 18 fast laps came on Laps 2 through 5. At Qatar, Lorenzo was setting fast laps all the way to Lap 20 or 22. We know Michelin has been a big proponent of direct return on investment with its racing participation. That said, I do not believe many saw such a dramatic coming. We will need to wait and see how the next few grands prix play out. However, if this becomes a norm in MotoGP, it will be interesting to see how aggressive teams and riders become on tire choice, and how much it changes race strategy. It could also make grands prix boring if no one begins to lose pace as a race goes on. On the other hand, if two or more riders are locked in a battle, they may not need to worry about tire wear. The larger 17-inch rims and did not appear to hurt the visual aspect of the on-track product the way some had feared, The close racing at the front made the grand prix very entertaining to watch, regardless if the riders were carrying 62-degrees of lean angle or 64-degrees.

Another takeaway from the race was the performance of the factory Ducatis. Despite Iannone crashing out on Lap 5, Dovizioso finished second. Moreover, both Ducatis showed they had the pace to stay with the Yamahas. Where the Ducati appeared to gain its advantage was on the Losail Circuit’s long front straight. Ducatis have never been short on top-end power in MotoGP. The problem has usually been getting that power to the ground early on corner exit. That is where Stoner’s unique riding style could do things all other Ducati factory riders had not been able to. This is where innovations like Yamaha’s cross-plane crankshaft come into play. Even with the simplified electronics, it appears Ducati engineers have found a way to address their age-old problem. MotoGP’s next stop is Argentina, before making their way to the United States’ Circuit of the Americas. We will have to wait and see how much of an advantage the Ducatis can gain on both of those circuits’ long backstraights.

Not surprisingly, off-season favorite and 2015 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo took a convincing victory. Lorenzo’s strong and consistent pace throughout winter testing easily made him the favorite for the Qatar race. Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s nine-time World Champion teammate Valentino Rossi came home in fourth. While having some technical problems with his Yamaha R1, Rossi never appeared to be a threat to Lorenzo, and had a hard time staying with Marc Marquez  after Marquez passed him on Lap 3. We do not have a big enough sample size to determine how much of a threat Rossi will be this year. With his future at Yamaha secured with a two-year contract extension, Rossi can ride off into the sunset on the brand that brought him four of his seven MotoGP titles. It will be interesting to watch this season unfold and see if Rossi can stay with Lorenzo and the Ducatis at more technical tracks like Assen or Misano.

Race Rip: WSBK Thailand 2016


Until the last few laps of Race 2, I was going to start this report by saying that the on-track action at the Chang International Circuit had been overshadowed by the track conditions. The slippery surface that had riders regularly running off the track at several corners was detracting from the on-track product. Then the last 5 laps happened. Then we saw a real scrap between the Kawasaki powerhouse teammates Johnny Rea and Tom Sykes. The two Team Green riders put on a epic display of speed, cunning, and true grit as they jockeyed for the lead. The slippery asphalt raised the stakes, making the scrap even more impressive to watch. While Tom Sykes got the victory, despite his previous problems maintaining rear tire grip over a full race distance. But this was no ordinary victory; it was more than a win. After having won a world championship and having narrowly missed out on two more, Johnny Rea turned Tom Sykes’ world upside down last year. Rea’s dominant championship-winning year left many wondering how good Skyes really was. Despite losing Race 1 to Rea, Sykes boldly answered back in Race 2. While last year Rea was the clear number one rider at the Kawasaki team, Sykes has now proven he indeed has the talent and confidence to beat Rea head to head. However, Sykes’ performance at Phillip Island two weeks ago was not nearly as spectacular. Despite taking the pole in Australia, Sykes finished P5 and P6 in Race 1 and Race 2, respectively. The next track on the WSBK calendar, Motorland Aragon, is a fast but technical track. It will be interesting to see how both riders perform there.

While the epic battle between Sykes and Rea made the headline in the end, the track conditions at the Chang International Circuit were less than ideal. Riders were seen having to sit their machines up mid-corner in several areas of the track. Most perturbing among them was  Turn 3, the right-hander at the end of the track’s longest straightaway. Although ample, paved run-off room was available to the riders, having to suddenly change one’s line can make for hazardous on-track conditions. The slip-and-slide asphalt detracted from the races, as riders who were otherwise performing well were penalized by poor pavement rather than poor riding. While the conditions were not egregious, one would expect them to be addressed before next year’s event in Thailand.

Another notable performance was that of Dutchman Michael van der Mark. Riding for the Dutch-owned Ten Kate Honda team and teammate to American Nicky Hayden, van der Mark has shown astoundingly fast cornerspeed and scrappy racecraft in the first two rounds of the WSBK season. The 2014 World Supersport Champion and weekend pole winner, van der Mark has shown both speed and consistency this season. He has usually been able to get solid starts off the line, and has been able to maintain solid track position to the end of a race. Having podiumed three times in his rookie WSBK season in 2015, look to van der Mark to continue to develop both his speed and his racecraft as the season progresses. The Dutch round of the championship at Assen is the series’ next stop after Aragon. Two of van der Mark’s three podiums in 2015 were at the Dutch circuit. Johnny Rea also always seemed to do well at Assen when he was riding the Ten Kate Honda. We could be in store for something very special if van der Mark could pull off a home soil win in motorcycle-crazy Holland.

For American fans, Nicky Hayden had an up-and-down weekend. While Hayden DNF’d in Race 1 (by no fault of his own), Hayden came back from the technical problem to place in the top 5 in Race 2. While it appears Nicky is still getting used to the World Superbike package, look for Hayden to become even more competitive as the season progresses. Of note, Hayden has performed much better in both Race 2’s than in Race 1’s. If that trend continues at Aragon, it will be apparent Hayden just needs a little more time to get used to the WSBK brakes, tires, and chassis before he’s right up at the front with the Kawasakis. Another American favorite, long-time AMA road racer and 2008 Daytona 200 Champion Chaz Davies has performed very well this season. Riding one of the two factory Ducati’s, Davies has placed in the top 5 three times, and has been on the podium twice. If Davies had not crashed out of Race 2 at Phillip Island on the last lap (where he still managed to finish 10th), Davies would be right near the top of the championship standings. Davies has historically done well at Aragon, so it will be an opportunity for him to get right back in the fight for the title.

Why I am so excited about Nicky Hayden’s move to World Superbike


At first glance, Nicky Hayden’s move from MotoGP to World Superbike seems like a step backward. Hayden is moving from a series where a crankshaft is probably as expensive as an entire superbike. This is something we have seen other riders do toward the end of their careers. Talented riders like Carlos Checa, Max Biaggi, and Marco Melandri (all of whom had the misfortune of racing in MotoGP during the Rossi era) have made the same transition when they were no longer as competitive in the “premier class.” Superbikes, despite their name, are usually several seconds slower on the same track than MotoGP machinery. They do not lean as far, accelerate as fast, or turn as nimbly. Some equate the difference even more extremely, and compare MotoGP to Formula 1 and World Superbike to touring car racing.

So then, why is this author so stoked to see a name that many American motorcycle road racing fans practically worship taking such a big step down? Because to the author, it is anything but a step down. Technical sophistication, lavish hospitality tents, and absurd factory budgets do not, alone, beget great racing. Sure, MotoGP, as a championship, is even older than Formula 1. World Superbike (as we know it today) did not emerge until the late 1980’s. But to the author, what matters most is the quality and authenticity of the on-track product. It does not matter how many millions of dollars a MotoGP machine costs when “grands prix” turn into really, really fast motorcycle parades. Nor is the domination of a couple teams on budgets alone impressive. Nor the nearly NASCAR-like rule-making MotoGP is beginning to become accustomed to. With the exception of Johnny Rea’s dominant season in 2015, World Superbike has historically produced the best racing on the planet. There is usually a battle at the front, or at least several good scraps in the midfield. A number of different riders win races each year, and manufacturers have had a much easier time getting to the front. Moreover, the machinery and environment is much closer to what we here in the States are accustomed to. In short, MotoGP may be the technical pinnacle of the sport, but WSBK has, time and again, proven to be the “sporting” pinnacle of road racing.

Moreover, Nicky is now in an arena where he will finally be able to show how great of a rider he is. He may not have gotten on the podium at Phillip Island. That said, to score a P4 and P9 on one of the oldest bikes on the grid speaks volumes. Nicky’s stop-and-go, throttle happy riding style will find a compliant home on WSBK’s soft-carcass Pirelli tires. Nicky hasn’t lost a thing. Rather, he has finally shed a series that was designed around one particular riding style. Moreover, Honda is rolling out a brand new, redesigned bike in 2017. This will give Nicky a chance to test the new bike and provide feedback to Honda. Perhaps next season Nicky will get a bike that matches his talent for the first time since 2006.

So why is the author so happy for Nicky? Because Nicky is racing in a series to means more to many of us for many reasons, and will let the world see just how good he still is.