Road Atlanta September, 2007
While researching my GSXR750 track bike at Team Hammer, I ran across some track school/track ride options and thought it would be cool to ride at Road Atlanta while getting to meet John Ulrich (Editor of Twist of the Wrist II and motivator of Keith Code) as well as the guy that rode my bike (Chris Ulrich, AMA racer #18) and POSSIBLY the guy that built my bike. Although the price was a bit steeper than what I'd been paying for track days with US Desmo, I figured it would be worth it to ride Road Atlanta, as well as get pit passes for the upcoming AMA races. The downside to all this was being on asphalt at the end of August in the deep south. To hell with it; I committed. On top of that, Mom and Dad committed to driving down to watch me ride there.
The ride day
August 29: Pop didn't want to do a cheap motel, so we ended up at Chateau Elan. I got off late from work (as if THAT is anything unusual), finished packing everything that I normally carry to track dayz, and headed down. Arrived late and hung with Mom and Dad until about midnight, then zonked.
August 30: Woke up at 3am, 4:30am, 5am, then took the wake-up call at 5:30am. Took a shower, grabbed my stuff and headed out. Stopped by a local BP, filled the spare fuel cans, grabbed some ice and bananas, then headed to the track.
I met John Ulrich there. Not sure how he does it, but he was bright eyed and bushy tailed, even after coming from the left coast. We took care of business, then I headed to the paddock.
Ahhh...cool stuff here! My experience up to this point in life with race tracks has been pretty limited... NASCAR spectator as a 5th grader when the Winston Cup ran at the fairgrounds in Nashville, TN (Cale Yarborough beat Richard Petty), spectator at the AMA races at Road Atlanta in '03, Code schools at Barber, and numerous track days at Roebling Road and Kershaw. Although the NASCAR experience was awesome (I was a kid) and the experience of riding on a track while being taught by Keith Code was awesome, nothing quite prepared me for the experience of parking my stuff on the same strip of pavement as Attack Kawasaki (I was next to them), Monster Kawasaki, Jordan Suzuki, Yoshimura Suzuki, Celtic Motorsports, Team Hammer/ RoadRacingWorld, Yamaha, Honda, MV AUGUSTA!!!!!, Pirelli, Dunlop, Michelin... I could go on and on and on. This is the marketing stuff that allows us to ride the bikes we do at the phenomenally cheap prices we do, except the MV Augustas, of course.
So anyways, I'm pulling my bike on my rusting, redneck trailer with my Kia Sorento past these spotless 18-wheeled marketing wonders, trying to find a place to park. I pick a spot behind the Erion Honda team. Walked up the paddock to find the Team Hammer trucks, as well as find out where to bring the bike for tech inspection. Found the appropriate place and when the person teching the bikes showed up, I rolled the bike up to him. That was honestly the easiest tech inspection I'd ever been through. Both Code and US Desmo were more critical of my bike than this dude was. I was initially concerned he would pass anything, but it seems most of the people bringing their bikes here had their stuff together already.
While the bike was being teched, the Team Hammer mechanics came up. A couple guys came out, spotted the bike and came right over to check it out. One dude, after asking what year it was, commented that he had probably built it and looked in a couple places to verify that it was his work. I thanked the dude for putting it together and let him know it was probably one of the best motorcycle investments I'd made. He was cool with it all. I imagine after making numerous motorcycles AMA race ready, they all run together. Didn't get his name, but he was a super nice guy and represented his team well.
On an amusing note, the guy that teched the bike asked why I didn't ride it up to him. My response: the tech inspectors I generally dealt with didn't like to look at bikes that were hot. He laughed. Later in the day, I saw that the factory teams rode the bikes up to the AMA tech inspection tent. LASTLY, the tech inspection for those bikes didn't last much longer than the one for mine, which made me feel better in hindsight.
I brought the bike back to my trailer and started setting up the EZup, only to find that this spot was reserved for a team. I was shown to a spot where us non-racers were allowed to set up. This was actually a good thing because another Team Hammer track day participant was there (Steve), so I offered to help him set up his stuff next to mine, he accepted, and a friendship was born. He had a bud there helping him out, Larry, so we put up his EZup next to the coffee shop and Addicted Motorsports (logo was a syringe and the comment "Always looking for a good line."...VERY amusing!) and parked the bikes.
Steve and I conversed a bit, and he told me he'd done a couple of Schwantz schools there and was pretty familiar with the track, except the new chicanes that were put in after turn 3. Now, I'd viewed numerous Youtubes of this track in mental preparation, but NO one had EVER taken these chicanes because they were so new. This was new to everyone, and we were some of the first people to ride on them. There went some of my confidence. On the positive side, I had someone to follow on the track that actually KNEW the track. Headed back to the Team Hammer truck to get instructions on what was next.
The first couple of sessions were for non-factory AMA racers and were separated into the Superstock, Formula Extreme, Supersport, and Superbike (I think). Not many people were out during those two sessions. Then the call for the Team Hammer track ride session....ooh..the heartbeat picked up, for sure. Up until that point, I'd been conversing with track riders, smelling the smells (race fuel) and seeing the sights (lots of high performance motorcycles), but honestly, it was all a bit unreal until the leathers went on and I was sitting on the bike, warming up with its low growl. That is when the impact of what was getting ready to occur really hit me. What a great feeling that was. Wish I could bottle that in a beer.
Followed Steve out and we got the "sighting lap" from the control rider, but unfortunately, the control rider either left way before we did or the group I was in just couldn't keep up. Everything was ok... until we passed the group that was being sent out from the pits at the same time we were coming through. There HAD to be at least 20 motorcycles in the area from the pit exit to turn 6. Fortunately, everyone kept their heads, and there were no issues. I gotta say, my heart rate was up. I'd never been in a group that large on a track and, although it was REALLY cool, it was a bit disconcerting. Many kudos to all the folks that were on the track. Everyone was smart. Those are the kind of people I wish to be with on the track.
Still on the first session: Turns 10a and 10b (chicane on the back stretch before the Suzuki bridge) aren't as bad as they seem to be. Staying on the throttle from the horseshoe through the back stretch to that point IS as bad as it seems. Although I'd been through the kink at Kershaw solid on the throttle numerous times, as well as being close to redlined on the straight at Roebling Road, this was quite the new experience. Honestly, I'd like to have taken the 250 through there fully pegged so I'd have the confidence to come into 10a at a decent pace. Still, although I could visually comprehend that the approach to that turn could be taken faster, the brain in my right hand kept over-riding the brain in my head and limited the speed I could carry through there.
My next biggest issues were the new chicanes. Not sure what the turns are, but they were a b**** for me. Those damn things are set up so that you just can't straighten them out, and the tightest one is the last one (right hander followed by an immediate left hander that you have to hit just right). The exit leads to a blind turn to the right that is the classic shot for Road Atlanta (turns 5a and 5b, I think). Amazingly enough, the faster you go from the exit of the new-damn chicanes, the easier the turn-in is for turn 5. Unfortunately, I'm slow through there and thus screwed up that series of turns throughout the day.
Well, the session went pretty smoothly. I was as relaxed as I could be, except through the new chicanes and the back straight. Took the rest of the turns based on my Youtube experience, following faster people and the advice of my dealer. Ended up catching Steve towards the end of the session, which was a good feeling. The only time I was really scared was going through the new chicane, the backstretch, and getting passed on the inside. Never got to speak with the guy, but he passed me on the inside to turn 7. I had JUST leaned in when I saw him in my peripheral vision. Reflex got the better of me and I just "stood it up" for a moment. Now that is strong verbiage for what really happened because I was leaned over, but picked it up just a bit to change my line and dude went right through with no problem. My heart rate went up for sure, but all was just fine. That was the first time that had happened for me. Yes, I'm slow. At least I hold good lines!
Oh yeah, the drop off from the Suzuki bridge to the start of the front stretch is scary. The wall seems to want to reach out and grab you. That is the same wall that Duhamel hit that probably ended his career.
My adrenaline was still a bit elevated before the second session, but it was due to some troubles getting my mom and dad in. This all got straightened out about five minutes before the start of the session, so it was a bit distracting. Fortunately, I was just in time to get to the start. I took a moment to unwind before heading out.
This session was AWESOME! I started a bit slow, which isn't unexpected for me, and is how I approach life, but caught up to Steve in a couple of laps. I decided to follow him for the rest of the session to learn from his previous experience with the Schwantz school. All in all I did well following him. Fell behind in a couple of spots and caught back up in others. Probably could have passed him and made it stick, but that wasn't the goal.
My best "passing" point was turn 10B; I had a ton of drive through there (it's very similar to turns 1 and 2 of Kershaw, except easier) and could have taken him on the outside. The problem is that coming through the Suzuki Bridge and onto the front straight is no easy task. There is a significant elevation change from the bridge to the straight, as well as a relatively vague turn-in point onto the front straight. Screw up that turn-in point and you'll go into that fine concrete wall that is along the front stretch.
The advice from the Code school would be to look ahead and be looking for your reference points. The problem is that peripheral vision always seems to have that wall in your sight. It is really disconcerting, and something I never overcame.
Another really significant event was being passed by a group of 5 riders. The first person in that group went by me coming into turn 7 (1st turn in the horseshoe), the next 2 guys passed me IN the turn on both sides and the next 2 guys got me on the inside of turn 8 (last turn leading to the backstretch). Yes, I'm slow. On a positive note, I'm consistent with my lines and there were no issues. The cool thing of this was that I got to see 6 motorcycles, leaned into turns, all rolling on the throttles, all from a distance from me to the end of my driveway. It was SO cool.
Steve and I came in the next lap, just before the flag flew. My heart was beating faster than I had experienced after finishing a track session. I had worked hard that session and had done well in my book. Steve and I spoke about the session and he didn't really know I was behind him, which isn't really surprising with no mirrors and such, but he had had a good session, which was positive enough for me. He had a bud (Larry) helping him (and me) that told me later that we looked good coming through the turns he could see and that I was never dangerously close to Steve, although there were times it seemed to me that we were awfully close. Fortunately, it was me controlling how close we were (to a big degree), and it was never an issue.
Lunch, boring stuff
Not much to say here but that Mom and Dad had dropped me off some apples, bananas and a ham sandwich. The sandwich was awesome. I called them to thank them and they mentioned they were still at the track and asked if they could come down to where I was....SURE! Upon arriving, we decided to head to the Mayfield dairy, which was pretty close by, for some ice cream. Well, after sitting in the heat for a while and sweating like pigs don't, it was an easy decision for me.
Couple of conclusions: eating ice cream in the air conditioning after sitting in the heat of a Georgia summer is awesome. Watching just how poorly your dad drives because of age totally sucks. As much as he tried to do well, the poor guy just doesn't drive too good. Mom doesn't help; she keeps saying things such as "Don, look at that!" while he's making legitimate efforts at driving safely. People, appreciate your parents (and those you love), spend as much quality time with them as you can and tell them that you love them. Watching them grow old sucks beyond belief. I actually felt guilty for asking them to come see me. It really was a physical effort for them. That ice cream we shared was awesome.
The sky was starting to cloud up with thunderstorms and we (Steve, Larry and I) were shocked to even get in another session. Steve suggested that he follow me this time, which was cool. I'd been watching him for a couple of sessions and had a good idea of how he rode. I warned him of my weak areas, so he wouldn't be too close, then we headed off. Nothing too crazy this session except on the first lap. I still had some issues with the turn after the new-chicane and struggled with the turn leading onto the back straight (turn 8 I think). The rear end stepped out on me a bit and some words Steve spoke came back into my gray matter (“I won't do anything crazy the first lap”). Those words stuck with me throughout the session, although there was never a problem afterwards. I came in a bit early and was working on getting my mind right for the next session.
Steve and I spoke when he got in, and he said I was doing pretty well. We did get passed by the same group of 5 that passed us in session 2, but this was on the back stretch, not in the turns. I had pondered whether I'd held them up, but was assured that they had plenty of opportunities to pass but didn't, which was cool with me. Additionally, Steve commented that he rode with NESBA and commented that I would easily make the intermediate group and get into the advanced group with a little effort. All that is good for the confidence, but here in the real world, intermediate is just fine. I'm still gonna ponder the whole NESBA thing.
There were a few bad points on the day which I feel must be highlighted, with the most obvious being I only got 3 sessions. Unfortunately, high heat and humidity in the Southeast brings afternoon thunderstorms. Those that have lived here know what I'm referring to. The rains came, Noah would have been right at home, and the track was closed. The positive note from this: Steve, Larry and I broke down our "pit" in just under 10 minutes. Loading the bikes took an additional 5 minutes. Nothing like teamwork with total strangers. Wish this could occur at the office.
There is a "pecking order" at AMA events. The top of the order is the factory teams, but they weren't REALLY there because they weren't participating. Next are the well financed teams such as Attack Kawasaki, Jordan Suzuki, Team Hammer/ RoadRacingWorld, etc. The true privateers such as Augusta Ducati/Triumph and numerous others are next. The absolute low rung on the totem pole are people like myself. It really isn't very surprising nor really BAD, but I do understand why my dealer is always on me to keep my bike and my equipment clean. My stuff is good and solid, but in environments such as this, my stuff is viewed as low class and redneck.
The truly BAD thing that occurred were from a couple of mechanics from Team Hammer, of all places. I was getting my bike inspected at the Team Hammer pit when the van with the Team Hammer mechanics pulled up. As the guys were getting out, I heard a comment along the lines of "there they are, don't make eye contact". Well, nothing else was going on so I heard that, looked up and the first couple of guys getting out were looking right at me. I guess that's just some "pit humor". Oh well, no big deal. Brush that off as a fluke and move on. Too much good stuff to absorb. Carried the bike back to my spot behind Erion Honda and started unloading. After that, I went walking around the whole paddock to take in all the sights and experience all that I could. One top priority for me was to meet Chris Ulrich. He had ridden my bike in '03 and I really wished for him to sign it.
As I was walking past the RoadRacingWorld pit and actively seeking the #18 that is Chris's ride, the same mechanic that had commented "don't make eye contact", was talking about how "they all looked like guys from Deliverance, shh, there he is". Well, I was the only guy around and certainly didn't look good (was wearing blue jeans with a long sleeved shirt...skin cancer is a family concern), but I certainly didn't warrant such comments. Honestly, I laughed because they got out of a van with Alabama tags (I live in Georgia, for those that understand). Well, having gotten TWO degrees from Auburn (which is in Alabama, unfortunately), I figured they didn't have two degrees between them and laughed it off. I was there to enjoy the total experience, and those rednecks weren't gonna ruin it for me.
Last comment: I didn't get to meet Chris Ulrich. He's answered my emails and signed a poster for me, but I still missed the opportunity to meet the guy. Next time, eh?
After busting on the Team Hammer crew, the good news is that they run a GREAT track day. Bikes really are well teched, and the riders allowed in are experienced track riders. I probably was on the low end of the "rider ability" spectrum, and not a single person complained about me that I'm aware. Although my aspirations don't normally rise to the bottom, I've never ridden with such good track riders. How does this relate to Team Hammer?? They let in really good riders, run a good track day, and they took care of my parents. Don't let any negative experience I had with one or two people affect any decision you have about them. John Ulrich and his people that directly impacted me were REALLY good to work with. I'd recommend a Hammer track day to anyone that meets their requirements. I'll do a track day with them any time. I got to meet Mr. Ulrich, who is the editor of Keith Code's Twist of the Wrist II and Road Racing World magazine. He was super nice to me and to my parents. When he had other minor things to deal with, such as running a track day at one of the major road courses in the world, he came over to let me know that my tee shirt was available at the truck. That is some major points for me, considering he has a couple of race teams to take care of. I got to ride a track that I'd heard/read about since I was a kid. Never got to experience the Gravity Cavity, but honestly, I never would have fully experienced that because I don't have the balls to hold a throttle wide open through such turns. I got to see Kevin Schwantz. Although we didn't meet, he is a super nice guy to normal people such as track personnel and old students. Saw Ben Attard (Attack Kawasaki) on the track. Saw Ben Spies busting his way on a scooter through the traffic on the paddock. Saw the young man that led the Superstock race at Laguna Seca for numerous laps before Roger Lee passed him on the final turn. Just missed Matt Mladin and his wife. Saw the guy that rides for Celtic Racing that is from England (I think)...Chad Davies. Saw every bike from Yoshimura Suzuki go through Tech Inspection (it took less time for those bikes to go through tech than mine. Saw a Yoshimura Suzuki mechanic (Japanese, too!) spraying out a bank of carburetors. Not sure what bike he was working on because all the bikes now are fuel injected. One of the Bostrom brothers was cruising around. Saw LOTS of women in leathers on motorcycles on the track.
I'm sore as shiznit. It takes lots of physical effort to ride motorcycles fast, even if you do it poorly like me. Road Atlanta is fun AND difficult at the same time. People doing track days are generally really good, helpful people. The folks at Team Hammer are good folks. The folks at Road Atlanta are good people that are still in touch with normal people like me. My parents are awesome and I'm very pleased they could come share an experience such as this with me. I thoroughly enjoyed eating ice cream with them at lunch. The whole weekend was worth that.
People, tell the people you love that you love and care for them. After that, ride motorcycles on whatever track is closest. You will learn tons, have fun, and make real friends.