It had been a couple months since TVS Racing groomed me to be ready for an upcoming, full blown racing season. Armed with the learning from a track and classroom training session, I stood there among fluttering flags, gusty winds and a very damp Kari Motor Speedway. The scale of the event confirmed its grandeur too. Since the media race is a part of the INMRC schedule, there were TV cameras, an enthusiastic audience, a busy pit lane and champion racers walking around with a smile, before they went out to set the tarmac on fire. It was a bit overwhelming that I wasn’t there to be a spectator. The butterflies in my stomach confirmed, I was there to race! So does it wash out in the water, or was it always in the blood? It was time to find out.
We had 25 and 15 minutes of practice and qualifying time on a Saturday, before we lined up on the grid for a race on Sunday. It had poured before we were to go out and learn the track layout and the fastest way around it. Struggling to slip into our damp leathers with a moist body, some were taping the insides of their helmets to prevent the visor from fogging. Although, once our 24 HP Apache RTR 200s were fired, the rush of blood was enough to warm up our senses. All checks done, it was time to head out.
After a couple of casual laps helped to understand the track, I decided to up the pace. The surface, although not wet, was still damp. The first two turns at Kari are very interesting. You barrel down the straight into a downhill right hander and the bike is always bent to the right, before the rider pins it towards an uphill right hander, which funnels towards a fast left. Almost like going down a bowl and coming back up again.
Just when I was in the middle of that bowl, I had a moment which made me set a mindset for the rest of the weekend. I had locked up the front while trying to trail brake. The violent judder and the moment where the front tyre almost washed away, was enough for me to turn the focus towards my primary goal which I had set for myself at that very moment – No matter what I do, I’ve got to stay on the bike!
That one moment alone had set the tone of ‘Caution’ for the rest of my time on the track. Because a few years ago, it was on a track that I broke my arm, and since then, motorcycling has been mostly a Bi-annual event which my Mother should never know about. Did I not want to ride? I did, but when those who love you ask you to stay away from where your heart lies, you do give in. I did. But it couldn’t go on forever, so now I’ve learnt to lie. Why should I be telling you this? Because if like me you haven’t been a regular rider lately, your muscle memory, when it comes to riding a motorcycle and riding it fast, is weak. It does a World of good if before heading to the track, you’ve spent ample time on the saddle in the real world.
Also when I realized that whatever goes on in the head of a racer, the kind of thoughts he/she harbors, has such a huge impact on how one performs on the track. Excess caution will make you under perform, make you brake earlier and too much, get on the gas late, and carry far lesser corner speeds than you can. While on the other hand, ride out of your skin and you will make mistakes, the ones which will end up breaking your own or your bike’s pegs and levers. What’s the right way then? Well, you’ve got to focus, understand and then exploit your strong points and at the same time, work on your weak areas. And you’ve got to do it gradually. Because as a first timer, if you think you’ll just get on the bike and burn the time sheets, forget it.
Coming back to the racing, with a mis-shifting bike, I had managed to qualify fifth on the grid for the race on Sunday. Post the session, since most of us were first timers at the Kari Speedway, Harry, our mentor from the TVS Racing team took us for a track walk late in the evening. It turned out to be such an eye opener as you are up close to the the tarmac and someone who has done it all, helps you with the right lines, braking markers and the Dos & Donts. Also, when you turn around and look back, you’ve carved the fastest line through a section of the track in your brain already.
Come race day and the reality of living a dream had begun to set in. The pit crew was out on the track to ensure the bikes ran as expected. A man scurried in and ran out with a 30 seconds board, the red lights went out and I had momentary lead. Only to be overtaken by half the field after a couple mis-shifts. At the first corner, I had to brake too much and still, my bike’s front tyre kissed the rear rim of a bike ahead. More caution settles in and after a few corners, I realise I’m running in fourth. But I was slow I knew and the gearbox problem crept up again. By the end of it, I had finished among the last runners and after easing into the pits, I was handed a four seconds penalty for a jump start.
But through those 15+ laps during those two days, there was so much that I learnt. For instance, I realized that I wasn’t using my lower body as much to steer the bike. That I still wasn’t glued to the racing line throughout a lap. Although, on the bright side, I was getting better and my confidence was on the up. The fact that most of the bikes I’ve ridden in the real world were faired, I was still trying to get my basics right with the ergonomics of the Apache RTR 200. So when we moved for the next round to Chennai, getting my posture and the center of gravity right to gain more confidence with the bike was my personal goal.
In Chennai for round 2, thanks to the earlier training session, I was well acquainted with the track layout. Taking it easy, the focus during the practice session then, was to feel more confident with the bike. Once that happened after three or so laps, I turned focus towards working on my weak points. Which were – I was cutting the gas while going around C1 (a flat out corner), running wide and going off track on almost every lap at C3, and going too slow around the last left hander before the main straight. The last bit made me lose a lot of drive coming out of that corner and made me slower even in a straight line.
As much as I tried to iron those issues out, I was still struggling to find the right technique to ride a naked bike fast, which is also a little compact for my frame. Nothing wrong with the machine, it seriously is brilliant out on the track. The shortcomings were my own which I had to fix. Anyways, the learning process continued even during the qualifying session, as a result of which, I qualified 8th on the grid with two riders behind me. But even then, I was happy that I learnt so much more about the bike, the track and myself.
Come Sunday and I had managed to carry that confidence into the Race. A little fumble by one of the chaps at the front of the grid meant everybody was confused and I was one of the latest to get off the line. But I started to claw back and was fighting for fourth with two other bikes after the first lap.
Like the earlier sessions, C3 turned out to be my bane that day. On that corner alone, I went out three times during the race! But when you’re racing and you see a target ahead, even mistakes like these don’t hold you back. So I would leave the track at C3, run an off-road race of my own by standing on the pegs in third gear with a pinned throttle, and still manage to catch the two bikes ahead.
I wasn’t faring any better at the last corner either. I would enter too slow, lose momentum on the straight, and the guys behind would catch up. But by now, I had gained the confidence to go all out through C1 and that is where I was overtaking two bikes, on the outside! With half race distance left on the last lap, I had a decent gap between myself and the guy behind, while running fourth.
But then, as I was braking through a right hander, the front forks were too compressed already and I grabbed a lot more of the front lever than I should’ve, for I had left the braking too late. I released the lever just in time, straightened the bike, but by then, I was well past the last point of turn in. So I started downshifting and jammed the rear brake, while tapping the front. Thankfully, it was the mildest of head on kisses those tyre walls must’ve had until now and I was still on the bike.
I restarted the bike and finished the race in the penultimate position. But I was still happy because of the progress I had made. I had managed to shave 8 seconds from my lap times between free practice and the actual race, and that was my joy. What more can I tell you from my personal experience? Fitness is key, and not just physical, but mental too. Spending as much time as you can on a motorcycle in everyday life will be a definite help.
If like me, you used to ride a lot, but ride only occasionally now, change that. Be prepared to fall, because it will happen when you’re out there trying to find your own and the bike’s limits. Keep it real. Don’t set yourself targets which are beyond your capabilities at that time. Give yourself the time to find that confidence. It cannot be explained in words here, but it’s a feeling you will experience once you’ve stitched a few laps together.
I’ve got still one more final round to go and for this dream sequence in my life, I’ve only got the gracious and ever smiling TVS Racing team to thank for. Think about it. They’ve been at it for 36 years and such is their belief in what they do, the bikes they race on a Sunday are the same as the ones they sell on a Monday!