My Day in the Dirt Diary: An Embarrassment of Riches…or Just an Embarrassment?

Wednesday, November 17: “I’ve Got Mail

When I got home from work, a large manila envelope was waiting for me in the mail. When I saw the words “A Day in the Dirt in the return address, I felt a small shiver of excitement. I ripped open the envelope like it was a birthday present, and in a sense it was. The package contained my confirmation of entry, schedule of events, and a copious collection of official stickers. The event is co-sponsored by N-Style, and each entrant receives a set of high quality numbers and other various identification hoo-ha from the graphics giant. My official racing number? 469. Either this was a cosmic coincidence or they do seriously intensive background checks…

Actually, I was looking forward to “sticker day ever since it became clear that I was actually going to participate in this race. I raced it for the first time in 2001, and I clearly recall being amazed at the quality and look of the official graphics, all of which are designed by Troy Lee Designs. This year is no exception; the logo features a goggle-wearing skull with the number “7 etched in its forehead, signifying the 7 th running of this special event.

The graphics package included “ADITD stickers for the front fenders, rear fenders, helmet and more, and also featured special stickers for the more popular events. So I received a spiffy “N-Style Vet Classic decal for the +30 GP, and a smaller, more subdued “Coup de Grace sticker. I also got one of the “Moto a Go Go stickers, which is for the crowd favorite Pro/Am team race. There were also smaller stickers from the event sponsors: Troy Lee Designs, N-Style, Brotherhood Industries and Moto Brew. But the coolest sticker of all is the “Happy Hour sticker. This is the decal that all riders must sport if they want to participate in Friday’s practice session. The cool thing about “Happy Hour is that the proceeds go to benefit the Steve McQueen Memorial Fund for Boys Republic. And the sticker itself features a picture of the actor with the words “Long Live Steve McQueen. Nice.

Strange as it may seem, I don’t own a motocross bike; I sold my YZ250 last year. So why would I enter ADITD? Well, one day I was reading my favorite motocross bulletin board, Motodrive.com, and swap (aka Transworld Motocross boss Donn Maeda) had posted the news that pro racer Sean Hamblin, upon accepting his new Kawasaki ride, had just returned the magazine’s ’05 Yamaha YZ450 test bike. On a whim, I posted a request: “Hey swap, if you’re not using that bike, how about letting me use it for a race? Later that day I got an email that said “Where and when?

I couldn’t believe it. In fact, I didn’t believe it at first, but it turned out to be true. A dream come true, actually. I had been wanting to compete in this year’s ADITD but I didn’t have a bike. Now I had access to a bike, so I was set. Until I realized how much the entry fees were.

Truth be told, the fees are not unreasonable for an event of this type, but with the holidays coming up and all, my budget was already stretched thin, so I emailed Donn and told him thanks but no thanks, I could really afford to enter the race. His response: “Don’t worry about it, we’ve got the entry covered, as long as you write a story about it for the TWMX website.

So here’s the story.

Saturday, November 20: “This Is Not My Beautiful Bike

We decided it might be a good idea for me to spend a day getting acquainted with the big blue beast. After all, the last time I raced was the 2003 Carlsbad Christmas Grand Prix. So Rick McKee, an F.O.S (friend of swap) agreed to bring the bike out to Glen Helen. When Rick showed up with the YZ in the back of his truck, I almost felt like a factory rider. The bike was completely stock, except the standard Renthal bars were gone, replaced by a ProTaper bar with a crossbar brace. Donn was also gracious enough to mount a new Dunlop on the rear wheel. After some quick minor ntrol adjustments and bolt-checking I was ready to go! Preparing myself for the worst, I went through every mental checklist I have ever compiled for starting a cold big-bore four stroke. But the Yamaha lit up on the first kick, and settled into a nice, choke-assisted idle. After a brief warmup, I steered the big thumper onto the track for my first laps in almost a year.

One of the coolest things about Glen Helen is the “Talladega first turn, a corner so wide and steeply banked that you can pretty much take it as fast as you dare, without so much as putting a foot out. Accelerating smoothly into the turn, the big Yamaha made it very clear that it had plenty of oats, but the best part was that smooth, linear powerband. No spikes or surges, just a steady, strong build from idle to redline.

One of the worst things about Glen Helen is how rough it can get in a very short time. Even though the track was tamed down from its National nightmare version, and even though the track crew spent quite a bit of time grooming the surface, it didn’t take long for the ruts, holes and bumps to appear. Launching out of Talladega at 50 mph (okay, maybe 35) into the left-hand hairpin that is the second turn, I found myself confronted by a serious set of braking bumps. The YZ450 had no problems soaking them up, and I was impressed at how well the forks were working. Until I tried to turn, that is.

I was really taking it easy, running a few slow sighting laps, but the front wheel kept climbing out of the ruts in the tighter corners. It became clear rather quickly that my technique was more at fault than the bike; the Yamaha simply demanded that I pay a little more attention to what I was doing. As I slowly picked up my pace and rode a little more decisively, the bike responded by tracking true. Luckily, some of my riding lessons started filtering through the haze that is my long-term memory, and I started remembering the basics: sit forward, weight the outside peg, elbow up (sort of), use a little front brake to keep the wheel down in the groove. Later in the day, a few clicks on the compression adjusters seemed to make the bike corner even better. Or again, that may have just been me riding better…

I have never owned a big racing four-stroke. My last bike was an ’01 YZ250, and I really loved that bike. It had fantastic power and wonderful handling and I thought it was a great vet bike…until I rode a Honda CRF450. That big Honda opened my eyes to how easy motocross can be, if you have the right bike under you. This is not to say that motocross is not demanding… after four laps of Glen Helen, I was ready to head back to the truck… but the four-stroke revolution has definitely made it easier for slow, out-of-shape guys like myself to enjoy ourselves far longer than we could if we were on two-strokes. Case in point: on this same day I also had the opportunity to sample an ’05 Honda CR250, and while it was an incredibly exciting bike to ride, after just one lap I was more winded than if I rode five laps on the valve-and-cammer!

If bikes could talk, the YZ450 would say to me, “You know, we could really be going fast here if you were in a little better shape… but that’s okay, I’ll still work with ya. Whereas the CR250 would say, “Come on man, move it ! Let’s go ! Aw, why don’t you just put me out of my misery and sell me right now? Which bike would you pick for a two-hour Grand Prix?

I’ve got to give a big “Thank You to Rick, who graciously took the Yamaha home, cleaned and prepped it, and patiently waited for me to get my act together and come get it from him. And a special shout-out goes to Eric Sherman for putting me in touch with Rick.

Friday, November 26: “Practice? We don’t need no steenkin’ practice!

One thing that I have learned is that try as you might, you still can’t accomplish great things by yourself. I knew I needed help, so I recruited my good friend Lliam the Unmerciful , an old dirt tracker from Boston, to be my mechanic. Lliam used to have a YZ426, so he knows his way around the big Yamahas. I call him “Unmerciful because he’s a straight-shooting Yankee; he’ll tell you when you’re messing up and he won’t sugarcoat it. (Me: “I think a need a bigger kidney belt. Lliam: “Uh, the belt is fine. You need to lose that gut.)

So the Friday after Thanksgiving is traditionally known as “Happy Hour in A Day In The Dirt parlance. This day is devoted solely to practice, and wisely, the promoters separate practice based on bike size, so the minis were scheduled for the morning practice and the general public on big bikes were slated to run from 12 to 3pm. Perfect.

However, due to various iterations of Murphy’s Law (“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.) combined with my own ill-conceived series of decisions, I found myself just picking up the YZ from Rick’s at noon…and then I was looking at a two-hour drive at least to get to L.A. County Raceway. Add to this the fact that it was Thanksgiving Friday… meaning every early Christmas shopper known to man was on the roads… and practice was looking highly unlikely. After a brief huddle with Lliam the Unmerciful, we decided to forget about Happy Hour. I would be able to get plenty of track time in my first race, the N-Style Vet Classic on Saturday. That would give me enough practice to be ready for the most important event, the Coup de Grace on Sunday.

Later that night as I tried to get to sleep, I noticed my normal, pre-race butterflies had grown to the size of pigeons. Feisty pigeons, at that. See, I was really looking forward to practice; I even had a practice strategy mapped out: I wanted to work on getting the feel for (read: attempting to clear) some of the smaller doubles and tabletops on the course, I wanted to practice some hand-on-helmet starts, and most importantly, I wanted to practice jamming the water tube from my backpack hydration system into my mouth at speed. On that last point, I learned the hard way that stationary practice just doesn’t cut it: when that tube is flapping around in the wind and the scenery is blurring by and your braking point is fast approaching, well, let’s just say it’s difficult to reproduce the same sensations sitting on a stand in the pits.

It was time for an executive decision: I pacified those pigeons in my stomach by promising myself that I would take it easy on the first lap or so, since it would be my first chance to see the new layout. Now I could get some sleep.

Saturday, November 27: The N-Style Vet Classic

Lliam and I arrived at the track nice and early, and we were immediately greeted with a stiff, cold wind. Brrr! It was perfect weather for a sailing regatta in New England, but not for motocross in Southern California. However, the wind didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm seen on every rider’s face; we were all excited to be there and looking forward to the day. The Los Angeles County Raceway facility was packed with huge motorhomes, fifth-wheel trailers, trucks of every description and bikes, bikes, bikes!

One of the many cool things about ADITD is the Vintage race. It’s a combined race featuring vintage bikes (pre – ’75), “Evolution bikes (drum brakes only) and “Revolution motorcycles (’84 ā€” ’90) and it really seems to bring out some fine rides. There were some great examples of Bultacos, CZs, Triumphs and BSAs, but my personal favorites included an antiseptically-clean ’76-77 Suzuki RM 250 with a sweet polished aftermarket swingarm, and a beautiful silver and orange early ’70’s Maico with the coffin-styled aluminum gas tank. Lliam, however, was not impressed. He was having flashbacks from his dirt track days and complained that the guys with their perfectly restored Triumphs were not riding them “hard enough. Luckily, I didn’t have to restraied my good friend Lliam the Unmerciful , an old dirt tracker from Boston, to be my mechanic. Lliam used to have a YZ426, so he knows his way around the big Yamahas. I call him “Unmerciful because he’s a straight-shooting Yankee; he’ll tell you when you’re messing up and he won’t sugarcoat it. (Me: “I think a need a bigger kidney belt. Lliam: “Uh, the belt is fine. You need to lose that gut.)

So the Friday after Thanksgiving is traditionally known as “Happy Hour in A Day In The Dirt parlance. This day is devoted solely to practice, and wisely, the promoters separate practice based on bike size, so the minis were scheduled for the morning practice and the general public on big bikes were slated to run from 12 to 3pm. Perfect.

However, due to various iterations of Murphy’s Law (“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.) combined with my own ill-conceived series of decisions, I found myself just picking up the YZ from Rick’s at noon…and then I was looking at a two-hour drive at least to get to L.A. County Raceway. Add to this the fact that it was Thanksgiving Friday… meaning every early Christmas shopper known to man was on the roads… and practice was looking highly unlikely. After a brief huddle with Lliam the Unmerciful, we decided to forget about Happy Hour. I would be able to get plenty of track time in my first race, the N-Style Vet Classic on Saturday. That would give me enough practice to be ready for the most important event, the Coup de Grace on Sunday.

Later that night as I tried to get to sleep, I noticed my normal, pre-race butterflies had grown to the size of pigeons. Feisty pigeons, at that. See, I was really looking forward to practice; I even had a practice strategy mapped out: I wanted to work on getting the feel for (read: attempting to clear) some of the smaller doubles and tabletops on the course, I wanted to practice some hand-on-helmet starts, and most importantly, I wanted to practice jamming the water tube from my backpack hydration system into my mouth at speed. On that last point, I learned the hard way that stationary practice just doesn’t cut it: when that tube is flapping around in the wind and the scenery is blurring by and your braking point is fast approaching, well, let’s just say it’s difficult to reproduce the same sensations sitting on a stand in the pits.

It was time for an executive decision: I pacified those pigeons in my stomach by promising myself that I would take it easy on the first lap or so, since it would be my first chance to see the new layout. Now I could get some sleep.

Saturday, November 27: The N-Style Vet Classic

Lliam and I arrived at the track nice and early, and we were immediately greeted with a stiff, cold wind. Brrr! It was perfect weather for a sailing regatta in New England, but not for motocross in Southern California. However, the wind didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm seen on every rider’s face; we were all excited to be there and looking forward to the day. The Los Angeles County Raceway facility was packed with huge motorhomes, fifth-wheel trailers, trucks of every description and bikes, bikes, bikes!

One of the many cool things about ADITD is the Vintage race. It’s a combined race featuring vintage bikes (pre – ’75), “Evolution bikes (drum brakes only) and “Revolution motorcycles (’84 ā€” ’90) and it really seems to bring out some fine rides. There were some great examples of Bultacos, CZs, Triumphs and BSAs, but my personal favorites included an antiseptically-clean ’76-77 Suzuki RM 250 with a sweet polished aftermarket swingarm, and a beautiful silver and orange early ’70’s Maico with the coffin-styled aluminum gas tank. Lliam, however, was not impressed. He was having flashbacks from his dirt track days and complained that the guys with their perfectly restored Triumphs were not riding them “hard enough. Luckily, I didn’t have to restrain him from knocking someone off his bike to “show ’em how it’s done. Once a racer, always a racer!

The Vet Classic race was the biggest race of the day, with something like 170 racers starting in 15 rows, lined up from the fastest to the slowest. Well, almost, because I was in row nine, so they must have cut me some slack. Actually, they also lined us up by bike displacement, with the big bores hitting the course ahead of the tiddlers.

Even though I was nicely warmed up before the race, the same could not be said for the Yamaha. It started easily at Glen Helen, but the weather was much warmer then. On this morning it seemed to want a few more kicks than I wanted to give. Then it stalled twice on the way to the staging area, demanding even more kicks. (Lliam: “The bike stalled? Ever think about using the clutch?) This began to concern me, because ADITD has used dead engine starts in the past. Visions of kicking my guts out while my row blasts off without me began to appear in my anxious mind… my fears were eased when I learned it would be a live engine start.

As I sat in the staging area, I tried to collect my thoughts. There I was, on a brand-new, state-of-the-art motorcycle, lent to me by an internationally famous motocross publication! Just a year ago, I was standing in the same starting area, bikeless, thinking about how much I wanted to do this race again. I even said to my friend Lliam, “Next year, I’m going to race this event again. And it was happening! My dream-like reverie was shattered by the sounds of engines starting up. It was time to race.

The starter methodically waved off the rows in front of us and before I could even get nervous, the green flag was waving my row! I slapped the clutch lever, shifted up into second and took off in a decent, mid-pack position. We skated through the flat first turn and accelerated to the first tabletop jump. That was when I remembered, “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be taking it easy for the first lap…! But I was caught up in keeping up, so I did… for a while at least. Then it became a matter of recognizing that the promoters made quite a few changes to the LACR course since the last time I raced there, and I needed to pay attention to getting to know it better before I ended up on my head.

The course itself was fantastic. Despite the high winds, the track crew did a great job of keeping the dirt moist and dust was never an issue. The track was extremely smooth for the most part, although by the end of the race some of the more popular lines were sprouting square-edged holes. But what I liked the most were the relatively tame obstacles. You could tell the race organizers wanted to create a course that was challenging but safe, and I think they succeeded enormously. There were big jumps for the really fast guys, but most of the doubles and step-downs and tables were short enough to be cleared by determined novices. Er, I wasn’t that determined… yet.

And I wasn’t riding all that well, either. After the first two laps, I found someone running my speed (well, actually a little slower), and I chased him down and passed him! Yeah! Shortly thereafter, I took a turn too tentatively and washed out the front end, falling over. Boo! And, of course, I stalled the bike. It started on the first kick, though, and I tried to pick up the pace to get that guy again. Instead, I fell again, this time in the tight chicane just before the track goes up and over a pedestrian tunnel before descending to the pavement section. I was right in the fast line, so I scrambled to pull my bike off of the course. Now the Yamaha wanted multiple kicks, and I felt my energy fading fast. I can’t lie: the idea of not finishing the race quickly crossed my mind. I looked up and saw a woman, maybe 30 yards away, looking right at me. I couldn’t exactly read her expression, but if I had to guess I’d say she was probably thinking, “Why doesn’t that fool start that bike and g