March 11, 2007
The half-full soda can flew through the air in front of my helmet,
falling harmlessly to the ground below its intended target, contents
slowly emptying into the sand. The aluminum projectile had left the
hand of Mr. Bill Gusse a half-second prior, a message to riders that
no one – not a soul – would be permitted so much as a half-wheel-
length advantage over anyone else on the starting line. When Mr.
Gusse sacrifices a perfectly good beverage to express himself, people
listen. The line remained straight.
Hibernation was over.
Between December 2006 and February 2007 we had, in Northern
Illinois, what is called Winter. Or as I call it, Three Months of No
Riding. The theory of global warming seemed an impossibility during
that time, as I awoke one February morning to minus-8 degrees
Fahrenheit and hallucinated my way to the train station a ½ mile
down the street. I shoveled three-foot snowdrifts inside city limits. I
witnessed snowfall when the outside temperature was 5
Both my bikes sat idle during this time, as my one chance to ride in
the milder climate of Missouri came and went when an ice storm hit
St. Louis the weekend I’d been contemplating the 300-mile drive.
Even though the spring thaw was still in process, it was time to race.
The last time I'd raced on frozen ground was 11 years before near the
town of Washburn, Illinois, where my parade lap took so long that the
race had already started when I finally made it around the course.
Prophetstown was much more forgiving. After a 2-kick start, I was
comfortably in the middle of the pack of Pro's and various A classes,
eating bits of sloppy grease (is there any other kind?) and the
occasional silty sand that makes P-town rideable in most conditions.
Less than half a mile from the start was a sharp right hand turn which
cut across a small berm forming the outline of the beaten path. All dirt
was solidly frozen in this area, one of the lower spots of the course.
While walking through this section during the C-class race, riders
were banging into each other here, spinning tires while going
nowhere, and generally cursing their way up a very moderate incline.
Scoping out this section was my single act intelligence for the day,
gaining me a couple positions as I squared the corner and cut to the
inside for a more direct approach to the frozen berm.
One of the more unusual sights in my pre-race scouting was
remnants from what appeared to be piles of snow cleared inside the
woods, presumably by a Bobcat or similar device. As usual, Mr Gusse
again proved what great lengths he will go in order to make a race
happen. Too much snow? No worries, says Mr Gusse, we'll just clear
it out a bit. I'd wanted nothing to do with the previous weekend's race
in 30 degree temps, instead focusing my productivity on adding
ridiculously loud air horns to my Chevy Blazer. Today, what remained
of the snow had been cleared earlier by the previous racers.
While the snow wasn't a factor, sections of frozen mud kept the back
end of my KX250 swinging side to side like drunk Germans on the
dance floor of the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square. At one point
early in the race, the rear wheel, performing its drunken dance,
slammed into a tree on the chain side. Following this was grinding
noises in the chain/sprocket region. I backed off the throttle and by
some miracle these unpleasant sounds disappeared a few seconds
later. Later in the race I would discover what really happened.
The riders spread out quickly on the first and second laps, and I
found myself in a small group alternately passing and re-passing
each other as we all tumbled in various slippery sections. My best
show for the non-spectators in the woods was a 4th gear high-side in
a wide trail just after the tricky frozen berm. Overconfidence kills, or at
least makes you wish for more throttle control while you're wondering
if you'll ever stop sliding on your hands and knees. Thirty feet later
the KX and I came to a halt, me in front thanks to a forward ejection;
the bike behind me with a slightly bent brake lever.
A few solid laps later, the trail had changed very little. Photographer
John Gasso was on hand to capture a few of my awkward moments
in the sand. Thankfully, John avoided the short motocross track,
which after a couple days of direct sunlight was rapidly turning to
soup. I rolled through there with the speed of Bill Slowski and the
coordination of 1980s ski jumping Olympian Eddie the Eagle.
My race was shortened by one lap when my chain jumped off the rear
sprocket. Naturally this occurred in the most inopportune spot on the
course, a short off-camber climb out of a ravine. Riders behind me
could barely squeeze by, where just ahead was road kill along the
trail. The exact species of animal was unknown, but its spring thawing
was well underway. After a minute of fiddling with the chain, I climbed
out of the ravine, dumped the clutch in a sandy straight section and
felt the chain jump off the sprocket again. This time I could see that
the bent chain guide had ground off enough of the sprocket teeth that
any aggressive use of throttle would be futile. I eased the KX through
the rest of the course, finished the lap and called it quits. The thought
of one more lap of finessing the bike through sand and frozen ground
wasn't all that appealing. But it was a good tune-up after one long,
March 25, 2007
2nd of 8 in Vet A
Lined up as one rider in a row of 40, finding your place in the first
corner of a hare scramble is not easy. At Hooppole, the starting line
was located in one of several barren fields of which we’d see plenty
during the race. I’d chosen a direct line to the first corner and arrived
safely in what I thought was the top half of the row of riders. Then
came the second wave. These were the racers who lined up far to the
left and made the right-hand corner a wide, fast sweeper, flying by
me on the outside and tearing a path towards the woods. So much for
Five minutes before, #401 Will Heitman showed up on the starting
line with a new KTM four-stroke and a message: roosting on the
parade lap is not cool. Apparently I had thrown a few mud cakes his
way during practice, as about 100 other guys had done to me. By the
time I’d reached the starting line, my #407 on my front number plate
was barely readable.
Inside the woods, I fell in line with about 15 other guys in a slow train
winding through narrow trails. Like much of the terrain in this part of
Northwestern Illinois, black dirt was intermixed with sandy sections.
We soon found some deep sand and whoops, then more tight woods,
and finally a full-throttle field in front of the staging area. Bystanders
cheered the first wave of riders to dump clutches and open throttles. I’
m sure a 70 mph pass across a flat field looks simple enough from a
distance – just turn the throttle all the way to its stop and hang on,
The first complication in this simple concept is the fact that at these
speeds the rear tire hops from one dirt clod to another, never really
planting itself on much of anything. The front wheel would probably
jerk the handlebars all the way to the steering stops in about 1/10th of
a second if not for strong arms and assistance from a steering
damper. Then there is the sheer force of a 70 mph wind against
helmet and goggles. In these instances, the goggle’s foam
compresses from half an inch thick to about half a millimeter and I
can usually feel my eyelashes against the inside of the goggle lens.
And finally, there is the varying terrain of sand and black dirt. The first
half of this run next to the staging area was sandy, which caused the
engine to struggle a bit to reach a compromise with the rear wheel in
its attempt to reach top speed. When sand turned to black dirt, the
KX gained 10 mph in about half a second. Like hyper-drive in the
Millennium Falcon, three words always come to mind in these
situations: “Punch it, Chewy!”
Next up was a 90-degree left turn into a grass pasture and another
full throttle dash to the other side. Once again inside the woods, the
trees narrowed to one of the tightest sections on the course. One
downside to my fancy new Fox knee braces was my right handguard
kept bumping against the thigh extension part of the guard whenever
I turned the handlebars fully to the right. Naturally, this was due
mostly to my lack of bike maintenance, as over the last couple years
the metal handguard has gradually bent itself downward to the point
that it doesn’t really protect much at all. Now the handguard’s primary
purpose was to annoy me, and it this was surprisingly effective.
Eventually the woods ended with another series of open fields that
led us back to where we’d started. While the first full-throttle field had
been a soybean field last year, these fields were formerly corn. Today
they were a chisel-plowed, rutted mess that was claiming many bikes
and bodies. Mixed in was a mud hole and a wet gully crossing.
Somewhere here, #401 Will Heitman’s rear wheel found an old piece
of fence that halted his progress for a couple minutes. Little did I
know, he’d handed over the +30A lead to me while he and a spectator
unwrapped the fence wire.
Several laps later, Will caught up and passed me in the pasture. In
the process, he paid me back for my parade lap roosting by kicking
up a piece of dirt that smacked me in a place where an athletic cup
would have done a lot of good. It was the first time in my racing career
I’d wished I was sitting instead of standing.
At this point my lack of riding during the frigid Chicago winter was
starting to hurt. I was tired. Along with unseasonably warm
temperatures, I was also a bit warm. The open fields continued to be
scary throughout the race, particularly the rough one leading up to
the starting area. Near the end of the race, I was overtaking two riders
while pinning the throttle to its max, one guy on my left and the other
on my right, hoping to beat them to the woods. The closer I came to
passing the riders, the more they both converged into my path. Like
Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid-monster’
s teeth in The Empire Strikes Back, I squeezed through before the
gap closed, then threw the KX into hyper-drive and shot into the
The last few laps, the gully separating two corn fields was
deteriorating badly. Course workers had thrown down a pallet in the
center, which became slick as ice but remained the best line. The
only option was to line up straight, gather more speed than seemed
safe, skate across the pallet and slam the bike into the slimy clay
bank on the other side. It worked each time – barely.
When the race finally ended, I was as tired as I’d been on a
motorcycle in long, long time. Will Heitman took the class win and I
somehow mustered enough energy to hang on for second place. All I
could do was load the bike and gear into my truck and drive home
with a Mountain Dew to keep me awake. The course was fast,
choppy, and fun as ever.