September 27, 2009
Geneseo, Illinois
6th of 9 in +30A
September, the most pleasant 30 days on a Midwesterner’s calendar,
did not disappoint in 2009. At the annual Silver Dollar Shootout, a
San Diego-like climate permeated the atmosphere. This year’s event
was a Sunday-only race, rather than the two-day affair of 2008, when
at the conclusion of the Saturday race I could not comprehend the
idea of being flogged on the same trails the very next day (I didn't
even try).

One of the primary attractions of the Silver Dollar Shootout, besides
the actual racing, is the door prizes. In addition to a complimentary
ticket that came with each race entry, offering each rider a chance at
such prizes as a new helmet or a tire or (for me) a new hat, a
separate one-off raffle was gaining much attention as the riders filed
in to register. The Springfield Armory had donated a handgun.
Anyone with $5 and no felony convictions or mental illness was
eligible to win a shiny new certificate which could be redeemed at a
gun shop, subject to the necessary background check. While it could
be argued that what we enduro racers do is, at minimum, a form of
mental instability, this did not slow the $5 bills pouring into the raffle
lady’s coffers. Seeing as my only personal experience with firearms is
my dad’s antique .22 rifle and a couple of rounds from Uncle Fred’s
30-30 back in ’94 (with bullets the size of my middle finger!), the
appeal of a handgun wasn't enough to pry open my wallet to buy a
raffle ticket. Jeff Snedcor, on the other hand, had already found a
source to sell the gun, should he be the lucky winner, at what was
described to me as a sort of flea market for gun traders. The handgun
raffle was a hit.

On the other hand, the Gas Gas was not a hit, in terms of its engine’s
power delivery characteristics. While that is mostly by design, I had
made a few jetting changes which amplified this lack of hit, which I
shall explain shortly. In only its second action of 2009, the 300EC
would carry me through the race on row 24. For a change, I had
arrived plenty early and actually felt somewhat relaxed as I prepared
for the race. The course would be 2 loops around a 30-mile route,
with no need for a remote gas fill-up. The loops began and ended at
the staging area. My Watchdog computer had already been
programmed the night before, the bike was totally ready to race, and I
was able to take a leisurely 15 minutes to warm up the engine.

Two other riders joined me at the starting checkpoint next to a barn,
located about a quarter-mile from the staging area. I took the lead
when our minute came up and sprinted through the same opening
trails as had been used in the previous year’s race. With rains earlier
in the week, the trails were a bit slick, but still rideable. This part of
Western Illinois is laced with steep ravines which shape the
countryside as the last of Illinois’ water runoff makes its way to the
Mississippi River, about 15 miles west of the race site. These ravines
were the setting for the initial timed section. The enduro followed a
restart format, so upon arrival at each checkpoint, we sprinted as fast
as we could. This worked well for me until I arrived at the first steep
hill, where a rider and his bike were sprawled across the trail about
halfway up. I attempted to cut my own path up the hill, but quickly
discovered the slickness of the dark clay soil. After coasting
backwards down the hill, I had no other choice but to wait until the
rider pulled himself off the trail.

Once I passed by this rider, Tim Taber caught up to me from row 25. I
couldn't come close to matching his speed, and should not have even
been trying. The trails were narrow, twisting up and down the ravines.
The Gas Gas was struggling up each hill, thanks to my earlier jetting
changes which were proving to be a disaster whenever I needed a
quick handful of throttle. This bike has been a jetting mystery from
the start, and leaning out the main jet was clearly not the way to solve
it. On the other side of the RPM spectrum, the low end was perfect.
Grunting the two-stroke through technical trails was almost magical,
as if the engine had morphed into a 4-stroke. But once I opened up
the throttle to climb a steep hill, the power delivery morphed once
again, this time into something similar to my old
Suzuki SP200 dual
sport.

Since most of the trials were not suitable for much beyond second
gear, the jetting woes probably had only a limited affect on my overall
speed, but it sure was annoying. At the end of the opening 5.7-mile
test section, I dropped 11 points but felt like it should have been less.
From there, we exited the woods and traveled down country roads to
a new section of trails. I knew we weren't being timed through these
woods, but the tight trails and my slow pace had me wondering if the
free time between test sections would be generous enough to keep
me on track for the next restart. After a mile or so, the trails led back
to open road and I arrived at the second test section with plenty of
time to spare.

This next timed section was a mix of tight woods and open fields,
where we passed through just about every type of terrain Illinois has
to offer. The highlight was a hog farm, where we entered a swampy
low area and exited to higher ground only after slogging our way
around what smelled like fresh piles of excrement. A couple miles into
this 5.3-mile section, Tim Tabor passed me in an area carved through
fields of giant ragweed. The trail was wide but gooey on top and
offered almost no traction at all. I dropped another 6 points through
here and on the way out of the hog farm, saw that the swamp section
had its own spectators. It would surely be even more entertaining for
them on the second loop.

A long road section took us back to the woods around the staging
area for 5 more miles of tight trails. I came across one poor lad
pushing his KTM down the road and offered to help. With no tow
rope, I could do little, so I continued onward. Inside the final section of
woods in this first loop, Tim Tabor once again caught up to me in
about the same amount of time it took him during the previous test.
Some of the larger hills on the course were inside these woods and
the Gas Gas struggled up each one. The end of the loop was a sprint
through a curvy route around the harvested cornfield next to the
staging area. I dropped another 5 points and ended up carding a 22
for the first half of the race.

The trails on the second loop were now broken in well, and with
several classes running only the first loop, the riders were more
spread out. A mile or two into the 4th timed section of the day, a
repeat of our first test, I found an area where the trails were a little
too
broken in. A narrow, muddy gully cut through the woods and forced
us to cross. The parallel approach to the gully and thick underbrush
made it difficult to navigate. Thirty feet of space would have been
enough room to gain speed and wheelie across, but we had no such
area to work with. Now that a couple hundred dirt bikes had churned
their way through the gully, it was a mass of black muck. I took a wide
line to the left and tried to locate the least imposing rut to drop my
front wheel into. As luck would have it, the rut I chose stopped me
dead in my tracks. The mud had sucked in my rear tire and it refused
to be lifted out. Tim Tabor arrived shortly after and launched his bike
across a rut to my right. His bike immediately went horizontal and his
body followed about 18 inches above, until both slammed into the
slimy ground. Tim was wet and muddy, but his bike was on the other
side of the gully. Mine was not.

On the far opposite end of the mud hole was a rider in the same
predicament. “I’ll help you if you help me,” he said. “Deal,” I replied.
We lifted his bike out of rut, then trudged back over to mine. About
that time Jeff Snedcor arrived and I pointed him to a better line. He
crossed easily. My recovery partner and I tugged on the Gas Gas, but
it would hardly move. He suggested firing up the engine and maybe
we would pull it out with the help of a spinning rear tire. This actually
worked very well and in no time I was free of the mud hole. However,
the engine was slow to start, so I turned off the gas and started
kicking, hoping to un-flood the carburetor. As the engine fired to life, I
wasted no time in moving forward down the trail. My partner had
already taken off and about 100 yards later, was stuck on a tree root
near the top of a steep hill. While examining my options for scaling
this hill, my engine died. Naturally, I’d forgotten to turn the gas back
on. I kicked over the engine for a solid minute before it restarted, then
found an alternate trail a few feet to the left of the main line. In an
instant, I was up the hill and on my way.

The mud hole cost me about 7 minutes, as I dropped 18 points at the
end of the section. Along the route to the next checkpoint was a pile
of logs which had been cut into approximately 2-foot sections and
stacked vertically. On the previous loop, a narrow path took me
through this minefield of logs, but this time it was arranged differently.
A group of ATV riders were leaving the area just as I arrived to a wall
of upright logs, each about 18 inches in diameter. Those bastards
had restacked the logs so that I had no choice but to ride over them,
EnduroCross-style. I managed to wheelie my way on top of the
stumps, but the front wheel fell into a small gap between them and I
lost my balance. After rolling a couple stumps out of the way, I
restarted the Gas Gas and continued to the next test section.

The trails within this section were in much better condition on my
second pass, save for the swampy area next to the hog farm. I let
another rider lead the way, then passed him before re-entering the
woods. In the giant ragweed fields, small ruts had formed through the
turns, so at least the tires had something to bite into. Tim Tabor
caught up to me just after this, at almost the same spot in the trail as
he’d blown by me on the first loop. Even though I was slightly further
down the trail when he passed me, which suggested an accelerated
pace, somehow I arrived one minute later at the checkpoint in
comparison to the previous loop.

At the final section of the day, the speed average was bumped up
from 24 mph to 30 mph. Tim’s Tabor’s consistency matched my own,
as he passed me exactly where he did in the first loop. The Gas Gas,
itself a model of consistency, chugged its way through the last of the
singletrack. As I approached the cornfield track, I felt like I could do a
third loop. Instead, I finished the race by dropping 6 points in the final
section. My final score: 53. The mud hole probably cost me a couple
spots, but I didn't care. My satisfaction from the trails nearly matched
the pleasure of winning a
new Moose hat as a door prize. It was a
good day.

October 11, 2009
Thayer, Missouri
4th of 10 in A Sportsman
New bikes tend to make me do things I would otherwise not. Consider
Thayer, Missouri and the next-to-last round of the 2009
Missouri Hare
Scrambles Championship. Google Maps shows this location as 545
miles from Dakota, Illinois. Each way. Yet that distance was seen as
not unattractive for two reasons: 1) I had a new race-ready KTM
250XC waiting to be trail tested; and 2) I've attended at least one
MHSC race for 11 years running and didn't want to mess up the
streak. For various reasons I’d not had an opportunity to race in
Missouri yet this year and knew my schedule wouldn't allow for the
most convenient event, the final round of the series at
St. Joe State
Park in Park Hills, Missouri. So on Saturday afternoon I loaded up the
KTM and headed for the Matt Sellers estate outside of Wright City,
stop #1 on the road to Thayer.

The Sunday morning drive to Thayer was almost 4 hours from Wright
City, making for an early wakeup call. Along the way we drove
through Franklin County, the
(now former) methamphetamine capital
of the world
; Bourbon, believed to be the only town in the United
States named after Bourbon whiskey; Houston, the county seat of –
what else? – Texas County; and West Plains, home of the
Fighting
Zizzers
. The Thayer race site was located a few miles northeast of
town at a
motocross track surrounded by enough woods to make a 6-
mile hare scramble course. Upon arrival, Matt fiddled with carburetor
problems on his KTM 300XC-W while I took a practice lap.
Jon “Spud”
Simons had laid out a classic “Spud-cut” trail which could have been
mistaken for a typical Illinois hare scramble, other than the generous
scattering of rocks throughout. These were not your typical Missouri
woods, with widely spaced trees and third gear trails. In fact, my new
KTM could barely pull second gear through most of it.

And speaking of the new KTM, this first lap identified a few interesting
facts about the 250XC:

  1. It is designed for the fast guys. The suspension is set up with a
    harsh initial stroke, or at least it felt that way while putzing around
    the staging area. Once you reach A-class race speeds, you can
    hit various trail obstacles aggressively without feeling suspension
    components clunking together and wondering what expensive
    parts are bending inside. The rocks were a little too punishing for
    me on the practice lap, so I backed off the stock compression
    settings by one click on each end.
  2. The stock sprockets (14/50) are geared a bit high for such tight
    woods. Upon further analysis of the XC’s transmission gearing, a
    13/49 sprocket combo, also shared by my KX250, is better.
  3. Finally, KTM gave me a bike with a strong front brake and spot-on
    carburetion. The front brake was as solid as my KX250 and the
    jetting was perfect.
  4. The XC feels more like a Japanese motocrosser than any KTM I've
    owned. It absolutely loved the moto track.

Before the race began, #500 Marty Smith had to adjust his eyesight to
confirm that he was seeing yours truly at a race less than 10 miles
from the Arkansas border. I did the same when I pulled up to the A
Sportsman class starting line and saw Rick Kinkelaar next to me.
While his home at Shumway, Illinois is a more reasonable 315 miles
to Thayer, he had used a weekend hunting trip in Southern Illinois as
a convenient excuse to bring along his motorcycle and make a
diversion to the MHSC event. As the first two rows of AA and A-
Intermediate riders blasted down the motocross track to start the race,
I fingered the magic E-start button on my bike, practically drooling
over the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I could finally achieve a
decent start at a Missouri race. Through my purchase of an
electrically-started 250XC in July, I had figuratively bought myself a
chance at the holeshot, which all sounded good until the sign board
dropped. I pushed the red button and the only result was a lot of
bikes around me moving forward at high speeds. My head dropped in
disbelief. The E-start had failed me. Fortunately the kick starter did
not, and a couple seconds later I was rounding the first turn of the
motocross track.

Two riders in my class, including #53 Chili Roberts, had even worse
starts, so I wasn't quite dead last entering the woods. I quickly caught
up to other riders, trading positions for the first few miles until I
reached for the tear-off covering my roll-offs. The tear-off is a little
trick I use to preserve my vision in the early stages of a race, where
tightly packed dirt bikes create the greatest risk of a large, messy
chunk of mud finding its way to my face. Even with roll-offs, a thick
splattering of goopy black clay can disturb the clear plastic film
enough so that the next two hours seem like I’m peering out of a fox
hole on the Red River, a couple clicks north of Hanoi. The problem is,
I sometimes go a little overboard with the tiny pieces of duct tape
used to secure the tear-off to the goggles. When the duct tape sticks
a little too well, sometimes the goggle strap pulls down my helmet as
I yank away the tear-off. Such was the case here, as I ripped away
the tear-off and the goggle strap ended up around my neck. While I
pulled over to reset the strap around my helmet, Chili and another
rider passed by. I was now officially in last place.

Eventually I caught back up to Chili and followed him for two laps.
The biggest surprise of the day came when I nearly passed him on
the motocross track. I couldn't make the pass stick, but that was the
closest I've been to passing someone in my class on a motocross
track in years. I stayed close to Chili for another lap, but gradually he
pulled away. I was now mostly alone in the woods, trying to ride
smartly and smoothly. The XC’s gearing was too tall for such narrow,
twisty trails. My original KX250, the 2003 model
sourced through
Canada, had been set up with similar-sized sprockets when I first
began racing the green bike in Missouri. This kept me on pace in the
fast hare scrambles courses of the MHSC, but when I moved to
Illinois, the gearing for its tight woods was as tall then as it was today
on the KTM. Though I was spending more time in first gear than I
preferred, my results would show a gradual progression through the
ranks of the A Sportsman class during the remainder of the race. My
lap times, however, slowed in the second half of the race. The softer
areas of the course, helped by rain earlier in the week, had developed
ruts and the motorcycles were churning up more and more rocks as
the laps added up. Traction was difficult, even though the stock
Bridgestone tires on my KTM were as good a choice as any I’d used
when I was a regular on the MHSC circuit.

One very pleasant change in the MHSC over the past few seasons is
the complete separation of the motorcycle and ATV series. Gone are
the days when the ATV’s would uncover every rock and leave a dusty,
gravelly, 3-foot-wide trail. The motorcycles now enjoy generous
singletrack, mostly unadulterated by the fat tires of Satan’s
destroyers. The RFID transponder scoring system, one of the first to
be used in hare scrambles racing, works as well as ever. The only
stopping I had to do at the scoring lane was to wait for a guy who fell
over while navigating a 180-degree turn that led us through the RFID
pickup apparatus. The rules say no passing is allowed within the
scoring lanes, so there I sat, waiting for this guy to slowly upright his
bike and then kick over its 4-stroke engine, again and again and
again.

The course was consistent in its terrain and was absent of any “No,
not again!” obstacles. Other than a series of logs and/or tree roots
here and there which required some patience and technical skills, the
trails were challenging but enjoyable. I finished up my two hours of
racing a few minutes behind Rick Kinkelaar, Chili, and Jim Yeager.
Those guys were flying through the trees and deserved their top-20
overall results. I finished just outside the top-20 and took home 4th
place in my class. On the ride home, I thought back to the good old
days of driving with Matt to endless races in every imaginable type of
terrain and weather conditions, chatting it up with the MHSC regulars,
seeing kids on mini-bikes evolve into accomplished racers and mature
young adults, and pushing myself to my absolute physical limits to
prove to nobody in particular that I could hang with some of the best
racers in the land. I miss that.
Geneseo, Illinois
Thayer, Missouri