Motorcycle Racing

photo of motocross racer
    In college, I was introduced to motocross racing by my first partner, and became aware that I was naturally in pretty good shape, but wanted to get even better. I also discovered that I truly hated calisthenics and any other form of exercise purely for its own sake (a distaste I still carry today). We figured that the best way to get better at dirt bike racing was to put in lots and lots of time on dirt bikes (a philosophy that is not without merit). We discovered a very good, virtually deserted dirt bike track not far from our place in northern Delaware, OH, and put in countless hours tearing around the fairly small but challenging course.

    In your early 20's, you can get away with eating pretty much anything if you have the usual insanely high metabolic rate, which I did. However, when the big "30" begins creeping up, things start slowing down, and if you keep eating the same way as you did at 20, you'll be taking in more calories than you're expending, and the excess is stored as FAT. In graduate school, I played racquetball by the hour, and was in the lab by 6am and never left before 10pm. Nevertheless, when I got my Ph.D., when I was still several months shy of my 30th birthday, I weighed nearly 200 lbs. You might think that's not much for someone who's 6'1", but when you have small diameter bones like I do, and have never weighed more than 150 lbs., it's WAY too much.

    Motocross racing, by the way, is definitely one of the coolest ways for adrenaline junkies to get their fixes, and it's a blast to watch as well. The quasi-circular dirt courses are loaded with obstacles like very sharp turns, washboard-style series of peaks and valleys ("whoop-de-doos"), water crossings several feet deep, and spectacular jumps that, if taken at race pace, will propel the rider and bike 20' or more into the air. It's no surprise that the world champions in all three classes (based on engine displacement: 125cc  and less, 250cc, and 400cc or more) are usually teenagers or guys in their early 20's - before they acquire a healthy fear of death and still think they're indestructible.

    As with most motorized racing, the best teams are sponsored by bike factories, who develop new technology by testing it under the most grueling conditions - world-class motocross. Nearly all of the slick technology introduced to production motocross bikes over the past 25 years - drilled brake discs, metal composition pistons (light), perfectly tuned exhaust manifolds, monoshocks, etc., were all created, developed, and refined on the race circuit.

Development engineers know that if their modifications can help a prototype engine run right at the threshold of self-destruction longer than the competition, it has a great chance of withstanding abuse by amateurs. Think of it - about their machines, professional racers care for one thing - that it last the entire race under the incredibly abusive conditions of international racing. They have no emotional attachment to it at all; it's purely a means to an end. Normal bike owners, even if they race, care very much for their machines - they probably paid a bunch, especially if it's a good one - and don't willfully abuse them. So these bikes not only are raced at the edge of demolition; their owners don't care for them at all. Can you think of a better testing environment for new bike technology?

Our Ignominious End to Motocross
My own career in motocross racing came to an end when Bob and I mutually decided that we were tired of courting major injury every week, both of us having suffered nasty injuries within the previous month. I went over a good-size jump on this old Harley (yes, Harley!) oval track racing bike, which was fast as hell but didn't exactly have the suspension for 15 foot jumps. Not familiar with the bike's weight distribution, I landed on both front and rear tires simultaneously, and my head snapped forward and hit the silly steel brace connecting the right & left arts of the handlebars. Not into full coverage helmets for motocross, I hit my front teeth on the bar and snapped one of them about 50% off. Man, did it ever *hurt*!!

A few days later, we were out practicing on our little track I mentioned before, Bob on his Penton 125cc and I on my Husky 250cc. At one point, I was maybe 15 ft. in the lead, and felt Bob getting ready to pass me. (Fine; this was no race.) We went through a pretty bumpy stretch, and I concentrated on stay up, but when things smoothed out Bob was no longer behind me. Unconcerned, I completed the lap, and came upon Bob, with the bike on the ground and him gently holding his forearms together. Uh-oh.

Turns out that, while riding behind me, he'd approached too closely, especially under the conditions, and had hit my rear tire with his front. Of course, this instantly locked up his front tire, tossing him over the pars, where he landed on, and thoroughly broke, both forearms. Wow! Two over-the-elbow casts for eight weeks.

So, considering these serious incidents, we did the logical thing, and immediately got into road racing. I knew I wasn't crazy enough to race those things around an asphalt track (but Bob is), so I did the tuning duties, which appealed to me much more.

    What motocross competition does for production dirt bikes, international road racing does for street machines. Road race course are similar to the LeMans type of automobile racing. The pavement is very smooth and fast, there are lots of S-curves, and straightaways where bikes routinely hit near 200mph. Also, all bikes must pass a pre-race inspection, a major function of which is to ascertain that the bike is prepared so that if the rider goes down, the other racers won't be injured as a result. For instance, the oil drain plug must be safety-wired to the frame or engine; this ensures that oil leaks are virtually impossible even if the plug is barely tight, keeping the asphalt dry.

I don't remember all the details at this point, but Bob used a few of our connections at Kawasaki to manage the purchase of a Kawasaki H1-R (the factory-prepped, racing version of the very fast and popular Kawasaki H1, a 500cc 3-cylinder bike) which had been on the race circuit just the previous year! It came with the blueprints, many extra parts including an extra fairing and carburetor (100% Mg), cables, and several chain/sprocket combinations. And it was a bike to just stare at!

    Riding a factory-built road racer is what I imagine being shot out of a slingshot must be like! The clutch is exterior, air-cooled, and all-metal, and makes one *hell* of a racket, as does the exhaust system, which is specifically blueprinted and built for each engine.

[Tech Sidebar: Most road racer engines are two-stroke (I assume you know what this means; if not, click here), and gain some of their compression from the sound wave from the previous ignition. If the constriction in the tailpipe is exactly the right distance from the exhaust port of the engine, the shockwave from a combustion burn leaves the cylinder and propagates down the tailpipe, hits the constriction, and bounces back to the exhaust port, pushing lots of air with it, and slams it into the combustion chamber just as the piston goes by, sealing the combustion chamber. A well-tuned exhaust can boost compression by over 20%.]

    An important caveat for well-tuned road racers (and, on a lesser scale, most road bikes, especially two-strokes) is that their power band is another phenomenon in the physical world that obeys the famous 80:20 rule. In other words, 80% of the engine's torque is delivered over an RPM band only about 20% of the entire RPM range. This is known as the engine's being "pipey"; that is, their band of greatest power is concentrated in a fairly narrow engine rpm range. For instance, the Kawasaki factory bike which I tuned had its greatest power output between 9,000 and 11,000 rpm. Below that, and there was very little torque; above that, and the flow dynamics collapsed, causing the compression and speed to drop precipitously.

But man, from 9K to 11K, that thing was a screamer with no equal! It was SO COOL to be burning along at 90mph in 3rd gear, give it a lot of throttle, bang 4th, and have to lean forward to keep the front wheel on the ground!! This is probably what was happening to the guy in the photo to the right.

    By the way, blueprinting a two-stroke engine is not an undertaking for amateurs; this is a job for a highly-trained technician with boatloads of experience. I have read occasional comments in blogs that give the impression that anyone can do it by following the right instructions. NOT TRUE!! There may be faster ways to irreversibly damage your engine, but none occur to me right now.

If you don't know, blueprinting involves tearing down the engine to virtually its smallest part, then re-machining the engine parts to tighter tolerances than are possible during typical production, which is heavily automated and allows little time for human-performed repetitive tasks. Clearly, you NEVER want to attempt it yourself or entrust it to a racing mechanic without at least 10 years' experience under his/her belt and who guarantees their work.

Road racing is a terrific sport if you have the time and money to pursue it the way you'd really want to. It helps a lot to have an arrangement with a local dealer, where you display a few of their decals on your bike and truck, and you get a substantial discount on parts and labor. And you'll need it! Road racing is not a cheap sport!

Something we discovered quickly which is germane: A highly tuned factory racing engine puts out such incredible torque that the crankshaft has to be rebuilt every three races. In our case, I was the Service Manager and Bob was Parts Manager of a large dealership, so we had an excellent setup. At one point, the guy who normally did the crankshaft rebuilds "suggested" to Bob that he learn to rebuild his own crankshafts, which actually turned out to be a great idea. We grabbed parts of trashed crankshafts as they were generated, and it wasn't long before we had a complete crank - super-tight and perfectly aligned - to use as a spare!

As Service Manager at the dealership, I occasionally had reasons to speak to the technical  people in Racing Development at the Kawasaki factory. They're so damned smart, and so incredibly good, and so experienced, that I can't remember ever asking a question that they couldn't answer immediately and accurately. They knew I was tuning a year-old Kawasaki factory bike (Model H1R), so were eager to help me keep the bike running at its peak so as to look good at races. Hey, if it worked for them, it was fine with us!

If you ever go and see a motorcycle road race - something I *highly* recommend! - be sure to wander as close to the pit area you can. Depending on the track, you can sometimes get quite close to the area where the factory mechanics are working on their bikes, which is something to see! I once sat on a tree stump and watched the Kawasaki pit crew work a big race in Indiana for an hour. Wow! All of the mechanics - who wore identical spotless green uniforms - were in virtually constant motion, but with little actual interpersonal communication. It was like a big, choreographed ballet that had been laboriously rehearsed until perfect.

As the head tuner, I always had a stopwatch with me, which afforded me a few unique opportunities to accurately measure certain things we all wonder about but about which we can never find data. For instance, the time between a bike rolling in with a blown engine - let's say a cracked ring - and its being rolled out with a new engine is about 5 min. 16 sec. Did you hear that? 5 MIN 16 SEC?!?! Can you even conceive of such a thing??

Actually, I was talking to one of those mechanics after the races were over (we were racing, too, so were legal pit inhabitants), and mentioned the amazing time. He looked sheepish, and said normally they'd have a replacement bike ready in 30 seconds (of course, I'm thinking "Now who are you tryin' to kid, you little &^%$??"), but that none of their spare bikes were geared for that track. They calculated that it would be faster to swap engines than swap chains and sprockets, which had to be adjusted more than once and were thus unacceptable. I was totally blown away by their detached professionalism and rehearsed solutions to every conceivable problem. Their esprit de corps was tangible, their actions crisp and precise, and the team's confidence almost unnerving. I can't even conceive of what it would be like to ride for such a team. Wow.

    I've seen all kinds of incredible sports in my time - hydroplane racing on the Detroit river, where the 50ft hydroplanes hit 130mph, motorcycle hill climbing where they try to climb hills that are nearly at right angles to the ground, and other high death-wish pursuits too numerous to mention, but if you want to see true insanity in action, right in front of you, check out a motorcycle road race sometime where there's a sidecar division. That's right, a sidecar made famous by the Nazis in The Great Escape and by others in movies, usually with a comedic twist.

Well, racing sidecars are NOTHING like that! In the right photo, the driver is making a left turn, and the sidecar rider is hanging way out to keep the sidecar from coming off the ground (which they do all the time) and possibly flipping (less frequent). The bike on the left is making a similar turn, but things are getting a little squirrley (racer jargon for nearly out of control). The tires are 16" wide and resemble dragster tires, and these things are FAST. The bikes in these photos are certainly doing over 100mph, perhaps much faster.

    Since these are large and heavier than typical road racers, the engines are all four stroke, ported, water-cooled,supercharged, and LOUDER THAN HELL!! Look at the rider on the right here - obviously in much better control of his situation than the one in the photo right above, and the rider's elbow is almost hitting the pavement (imagine how that looks at 125mph!). Notice, too, in the body posture and from general feeling of the image, the complete lack of fear in the rider.

    Of course, turns in both directions must be negotiated, and then they don't have the sidecar and its rider's weight to counterbalance the bike's desire to tip over. When these come up, the rider climbs OUT of the sidecar, across the driver's back, and leans with him toward the inside of the turn! When several turns in both directions appear, the rider looks exactly like a little monkey, dashing back and forth between hanging out of his car one second, and across the driver's back a few seconds later. Check out the left photo for this different turn. You can just barely see the rider's helmet behind the driver's, which is intentional so the driver can act as a wind shield, with only one person giving wind resistance. The rider to the right looks a tad off-balance!

    This is the ONLY motorcycle sport I have never once thought that it would be cool to do! But if you're finding yourself wondering what it would be like to be in a race like that, especially if you feel intrigued, go check out a few! It is important to check out several races, so you can experience how things change when the weather does, including the inevitable spectacular high speed crashes when a bike flips over, seemingly with little consequence! However, the turns are all piled high and deep with hay bales, and the cyclists all wear full leathers, so injuries are, incredibly, quite rare.

    Motorcycle racing, in any of its guises, is one of those sports that's almost as much fun to watch as it is to do. If anyone who's been to one tells you that they were not turned on by experiencing fire-breathing cycles tuned within an inch of their lives (usually by little guys in single-color uniforms who can't speak English but can swap out a bike engine in 6-7 minutes) tearing around a track always on the edge of a spectacular crash, with the incredible roar of engines tuned for speed *only* - well, they'll probably lie about other things, too. ;-)

Running Racing

  As I mentioned in the introduction page, I was moved to search for some way to lose weight without suffering the tortures of the damned. So, after looking into different ways of doing this, I decided that running looked good. It used more calories per unit time than anything else, was inexpensive, didn't require lessons, and it got you outside every day. So, I got a decent (not too expensive) pair of running shoes, and took off! Seemed almost too easy! Then I hit the 1/2 mile marker, and thought I was having a heart attack! I was totally out of breath, was flushed, sweating profusely, and thought I might heave right there on the road! "My Gawd!", I thought, "What on earth was I thinking?"

    After 10 minutes or so after the experience, convinced that I'd live through this brush with death, I called a friend who was an experienced runner. He opined that I'd done pretty much everything wrong: didn't warm up, didn't stretch, went out too fast, didn't breathe right, etc. I started reading a couple of running magazines (Runner's World   is definitely the best), joined the local running club (Second Wind Running Club in Champaign is one of the best-run clubs in the Midwest), and made a lot of running friends in the process. I recommend this very highly! You will find that runners are, as a group, about the coolest people you'll ever find.

    I think my first race was in the early 1980s sometime, and I managed to make just about every newbie mistake in a single race! It was 5M (miles) long, outside (in Milwaukee in February - windy and very cold), I went out really fast, and I felt horrible the whole time. I'm amazed I ever ran a second race.

I won't bore anyone reading this by recounting my many training and racing errors; suffice it to say that, after several years of training and racing, I wasn't improving and couldn't figure out what to do. That's when I did what I always read competitors should do: find a good coach. At that time, I'd been talking a lot with an EIU faculty member who used to coach the track teams and always had great advice. He seemed so into giving me input and seeing what effects it had that we decided to formalize the relationship.

Dr. Tom Woodall coached the track and cross country teams at EIU in the late 70s, when EIU Track was a force to be reckoned with. When he gave the coaching to younger staff, he began EIU's Adult Fitness Program, which focused especially on those who had suffered a heart attack and needed to start exercising. These were typically male, over 65 years old, had smoked up to their heart attack, had never exercised, and were still not convinced that exercise could help them. Talk about a tough crowd!!

By the time Tom started coaching me, my 10K PR was something over 38 minutes, I'd been stuck there for at least two years, and I couldn't imagine how I'd break out of that rut. Unfortunately, despite having great sources of information and experienced runners anxious to help me, my intrinsic competitiveness and perfectionism resulted in my experiencing virtually every overuse syndrome known to sports science.

    Anyway, Tom's extensive coaching experience, along with his Ph.D. in exercise physiology and a very analytical way of thinking, gave him real expertise in diagnosing running injuries, and so was a perfect match for an overachieving, intensely competitive runner like me. I summarize my various overuse syndromes here for the benefit of anyone thinking of following my lead, so you can be aware of each painful overuse injury as it develops. Hopefully, this will instead serve as a caution to those thinking that they're the one runner in history who doesn't have to build up slowly, dealing with all little aches and pains before they develop into run-stopping, major injuries.

    Tom first had me write down a typical training week, and also my PRs (personal records) for the various distances I'd competed in. Several days later, he presented me with a training schedule that he said he thought would help me achieve my racing goals. I looked it over, becoming more horrified as the enormity of the tasks sunk in. He was saying things like "I know this isn't too rigorous; you might polish it off in a few days!" Looking at him, I saw the trademark gleam in his eyes, signaling that he was playing with me. The end of the story is that, once I began following Tom's program, I took a full minute off of my 10K PR per year for the next four years, culminating with a lifetime PR of 34:20, set when I was 43! (By the way, my 5K PR is 16:22, and my 10M time, based on a single race, is 59:42.)

    So, what's the ideal training program? There are as many answers to that as people whom you ask. A few basics are generally agreed upon, though, which are provided here as a starting point. Your mileage, of course, may vary (pun not intended, initially). But generally, as with so many other turning points in life, talk to lots of people you trust who are already active runner/racers in your area, and go with a recommendation or two that sounds logical to you.

If there's a local running club, *definitely* join it, unless you hear some local scuttlebutt that says it's not a good thing. But, after running for over 30 years, I've only heard of one example of such an organization. Most running clubs are full of friendly, outgoing folks who vary in fitness from looking like Olympains to your average middle-ager wanting to lose some weight to truly obese people who have decided to attack their problem head-on; I find them very inspiring.

Good running clubs also have various programs throughout the year

Copyright ©2013 - T. Howard Black - All Rights Reserved
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