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Are you sure you want to go there?

Jump2Vaughn K3 Meyer Putnam 4-6-11


At any track day event, you’ll find a few riders who have taught themselves to be really fast.  When such folks compare their lap times to those of the local club racers, a strange thing often occurs.  Based on their performance, these track day superstars start going on about the success they’d enjoy if they could be bothered to actually compete.  By their logic, the great and indisputable lap timer indicates that they’d win every race they entered as amateurs.  Having made short work of the yellow plate crowd, they’d then only need to step it up another few seconds to be victorious as experts.  From there, a factory ride would be pretty much guaranteed.  As gratifying as it is for these guys to speculate about where their riding abilities could conceivably take them, there’s a basic fact that such riders don’t seem to consider.  Although track days and racing may look alike and take place at the same venues, they are two very different activities.

If you’re considering a competition career, it’s important that you base your decision upon reality.  There are some ugly truths about the sport that you should understand before you begin.  Much of what you’ll read here will go against popular perception but if you doubt the validity of what is written, simply ask a few of the racers in your area for their thoughts.  When you’re seeking knowledge, it pays to consider numerous opinions.

The ability to run fast lap times does not make you a racer; competition makes you a racer.

There are those who will be violently offended by the statement above but it is absolutely true.  Cutting hot laps merely shows that you have the potential to be a competitor; it does not earn the title for you .  Racing is about far more than being quick.  If your experience is limited to track days, then you’ve never seen just how serious real racing can be.  There is a vast difference between cranking off a few hot laps towards the end of a twenty minute track session and doing it from a standing start, bar to bar with several other highly motivated riders who want nothing more that to beat you to the checkered flag.  The racers you’ve ridden with during a track day have never shown what they’re truly capable of, for several reasons.  First, an experienced racer is intimately aware that speed is both expensive and risky.  In competition, if he can run a pace three seconds per lap slower than his best and still earn first place, he’ll do so rather than ride flat out and take the chance of blowing up or crashing.  At a track day, there’s nothing for a competitor to win and everything to lose.  Also, racers are painfully aware that they need to be on their best behavior at a track day.  Like wolves at the all-you-can-eat buffet, they know full well that if someone’s arm gets bitten off, they’ll catch the blame, regardless of who made the mistake.  Unlike racing, the skill level of track day participants runs the full spectrum.  In this environment, experienced competitors ramp their aggression levels down to about what would be socially acceptable on the freeway.  One thing they’ll absolutely never do is to give you a serious race during a track day.  Before that happens, you’ll need to have earned your license, proven yourself as a competitor and earned their trust in close quarters.  Then they’ll see you on the grid and you’d better be ready.  Try one of these guys in actual competition and he’ll race you far harder for last place than he ever would for the “win” in an advanced session.

Racing is vastly more expensive than track day riding.

If you decide to make the jump to competition, you’ll find yourself paying far more money for substantially less track time.  The same cash you’ll drop for eight twenty-minute sessions at a track day will net you a pair of fifteen minute practices and two or three short sprints at a race weekend.  Have you ever felt tired or sore at a track day and gone home early?  You’ll never consider skipping a race once you’ve entered it unless your bike, body or both are damaged beyond any possibility of making the grid.  The mindset when you’re racing is just completely different.

You have no hope of earning sponsorship.

Sorry!  You absolutely don’t want to hear this but it’s true.  No matter how fast you may be, sponsorship is not in your future.  Yes, you might manage to find a company willing to give you a paint job, a free helmet or a discount on parts or labor but no one is going to write a check for you to go club racing.   If you doubt this, ask the five most successful competitors in your region who is paying for their program.  The answer is that they are.  In the rare event that you run across a really well financed club level team, some digging will reveal that the company paying for the show belongs to one of the team’s riders, a very close friend or a relative.  Aside from such a golden spoon scenario, there simply isn’t any sponsorship money available to the club racer, regardless of how good he might be.  The reason is simple.  At a club race, there is no TV, no press coverage and no crowd of spectators.  Whatever exposure a potential sponsor might get is basically limited to the competitors in attendance, their families and any other warm bodies who have decided to tag along.  Worse, these “potential customers” are all racer-broke!  Any company considering sponsorship would need to be selling competition parts or gear to stand any chance of making a buck from them.  Such companies do exist but their owners (or the owner’s kids) are almost always the sponsored racers.  The bottom line is that if you want to go racing, you’ll either need to burn through your parents’ retirement fund or pay for it yourself.

You’ll never score a factory ride.

So what about that factory ride?  Surely you could get there if you’re really good, right?  Well, maybe.  If you’re just getting started then you’d better be five years old.  These days a pro prospect needs to have ten years of competition under his belt before he turns fifteen and if he hasn’t made it at least as far as a satellite team by the time he’s twenty, the rider’s future is beginning to look less like MotoGP and more like Mc Donald’s.  Obviously, kids that young aren’t paying their own way.  This type of career building is a family affair and for every clan named Hayden or Bostrum, there are dozens of others whose prodigy fell short of the brass ring.  The going might be easier if your dad is named Rossi, Roberts or Duhamel but even then you’d better measure up or you’ll be gone in a hurry.  Sure, if you really do well as a club racer you can qualify for an AMA license but even when you get to the big leagues, you’ll most likely be paying your own way as a privateer.  To quote a very old and very true saying, “You can make a small fortune in racing.  You simply need to start with a large fortune.”

The dark side of racing.

Track days are all about the fun of riding fast and challenging yourself.  You’d think that racing would be the same, right?  Well, that is how it starts out but things become far more serious in a hurry.  In the free-for-all environment of track days there are a million built-in excuses for being slower than the next rider, such as bike type, skill level and equipment.  If a guy on a 1098 Ducati with top-shelf Ohlins, Marchesini and Brembo everything smokes past your tired, bone stock old 600, you don’t feel so bad.  In racing though, you’re grouped for competition by displacement, level of machine prep and rider experience.  Not only has the playing field been leveled but there will be trophies and contingency for the winners.  At this point, either you win or you suck.

Racing tests not only your ability to win but also your ability to lose.  Can you handle being beaten?  What lengths will you go to for the top spot on the podium?  If your opponents show up with all the best equipment and throw on new tires for every eight lap sprint, will you accept that this is beyond your financial means or will you find a way to get the things you need to step up?  People have been known to lie, cheat, steal and deal in order to stay in the game.  Longtime racers can tell you horror stories of competitors who’ve ruined their lives trying to stay in the sport.  Personal relationships suffer when everything else becomes secondary to one’s racing obsession.  The divorce rate in this sport is high.  People have driven themselves to physical or financial ruin.  Many have lost jobs or thriving businesses.  More than a few have turned to supporting their racing budgets by illegal methods and have eventually traded their leathers for prison jumpsuits.

The justification for such behavior may elude you now but can easily begin to make perfect sense once you start to compete.  It’s simply a matter of weighing how much time, money and personal risk you’ve already invested into racing against the additional amount which you perceive will be needed to achieve your goals.  The deeper you go, the easier it becomes to make ever more irrational decisions in order to continue.  At some point you’ll find yourself suiting up as the sutures from your latest collection of plates and screws seep blood into your Under Armor or pulling a borrowed helmet on over a concussed brain.  Seeing double?  Aim for the middle!  Racing can actually make decisions as bad as these seem perfectly logical.

Finding a happy compromise

If you’re beginning to think that racing sounds more like a narcotics addiction than an enjoyable pastime, you’re catching on.  It can literally become so bad that you hate racing with every fiber of your being but can’t bring yourself to truly care about anything else.  Racing doesn’t automatically become an obsessive, destructive force in your life but will happily go there if you let it.  Most folks can drink socially while others become raging alcoholics.  Many people buy lottery tickets but some gamble until they’ve lost everything and a loan shark is looking to cut off their fingers.  Maintaining a healthy attitude towards racing requires controlling desires which can easily consume you if you’re not careful.  This sport can grant you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  It is often stated that the average racer stays in the game for two and a half years.  By then, he’s been financially, physically or spiritually broken.  Most likely, all three will have played a part in his desire to quit.

If this article reads like a cautionary tale, then so be it.  Racers will tell you that there’s nothing better than their chosen obsession but then so will cocaine addicts.  Can you remain happy and satisfied if you never venture beyond the safe haven of track days?  There are a thousand good reasons to do exactly that and absolutely no dishonor if this is your choice.  On the other hand, if competition is something that you simply need to experience then do it, if only so that you won’t have regrets later.  Racing can be the grand adventure of your lifetime or it can be the thing that destroys you.  The choice is yours.

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