Take me home, El Capitan!
Track Day Report: First Time In Advanced Group.. "I came.. I Saw.. I Had My Ass Handed To Me On A Plate"

At the closing event of last years track day season I was riding like a balding moto-god on my Yamaha R1. All the accumulated knowledge of the Krell, Keith Code’s Level 1 & 2 courses in 2006, and hours of gleeful practicing over a dozen 2007 track days was finally “clicking” in the old gulliver. In last years non-Pulitzer prize winning article.. “The Perfect Curve“…I chronicled my (up to that point) crowning two-wheeled achievement which transpired on the last lap of the last track day of the season at the Barber Motorsports facility. A personal best that I’d relive over and over in my thoughts and dreams during the shitty winter non-riding months.. Was my one-time “perfect curve” a fluke? Or would I be able to repeat it when back on the track?

As soon as the 2008 Sportbiketracktime.com season schedule went “live” in early January, I booked no less than 6 weekends for the year with the first event starting this last April 12th. In the past, I have always signed up for the “intermediate” group and always felt right at home riding with similarly skilled riders, but a few of my riding buddies have been telling me I should move up to the advanced group. Something I honestly never thought seriously about. After all.. those advanced guys are REALLY fast. They aren’t like us. While I thought about blowing them off, an insidious inner voice was reminding me that at last years last event I was probably the fastest intermediate rider on the track. Perhaps my buddies are right. Perhaps I should give the advanced group a try. If they can do it.. and they are no faster than I am.. Why shouldn’t I? Perhaps my skills are now good enough to ride with those guys.. Perhaps my testicles are of sufficient proportions. I mean.. how fast could the advanced group really be?

Caving to the weight of my aforementioned massive testicles, for this years first track weekend I decided to take the plunge and signed up for intermediate on Saturday and the sacrosanct advanced group on Sunday giving me a full day to get back in the groove and up to speed before riding with the “big dogs.” On Sat, with the help of my new MotoGP tire warmers, I was surprisingly back in form by mid day and by late afternoon I was (for me) in perfect form, dragging my knee at will with total Zen confidence. Not the fastest on the track mind you, but probably in the top 10. In my mind, I wasn’t worried at all about holding my own with the “fast” guys.

Back in the pits after a blazing intermediate session, DYL Jim and I were discussing the next days venture into the advanced group when our buddy, Brian (a Barber virgin here on his new Repsol Honda) chimed in with a simple question which at the time seemed innocuous, but hours and even days later I really started pondering the “real” significance of his question. .. “Why on earth would you want to ride in the advanced group?” My off-the-cuff reply was.. “If I ride with the fast guys, I’ll learn their lines, and by watching I’ll become faster myself..and.. It‘s a safer group.“ That’s what I’d heard my buddies spew forth and it made since, but after my first outing in the advanced group on day two, I realized this answer was total BS….

There’s a scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where after all their best efforts to elude the relentless posse, Butch while looking through binoculars at the approaching men, says to Sundance .. “Who are those guys?” That’s kinda what I was wondering after riding with the advanced guys. I was one of the two slowest on the track (along with my buddy) and while not humiliated, I was certainly out of my league. Those guys are blazingly fast. In a valiant yet futile attempt to salvage a glimmer of dignity, I immediately picked up my game to a full 11/10ths and I still couldn’t keep up with even the slowest rider in the advanced group. Forget about watching their lines and learning valuable lessons as unless you just so happen to be in the same curve with them.. you’ll not see anything but their tail pipe as they are past you and gone in a micro second. Within 1 second they are 100 yards ahead of you..

Safer? Well.. Statistically yes, as they do run the exact same lines in very predictable form.. at almost twice the speed.. and just inches apart from each other. They may have fewer crashes but I’d hate to be caught up in one.

Note: That's me in the pic at rght. It was taken by Chris Anderson.. a pro photographer who freelances for Roadracing Magazine.. (Click for larger image)

Click Here To See a Larger Image..

In one advanced session on the wide sweeping turn 3 & 4, the exact same curve I wrote my “Perfect Curve” story about last year, I was leaned over at maximum aging Pirate speed.. knee to the ground.. balls to the wall…when two guys passed me simultaneously on both sides. Each within 12 inches from yours truly. Before I could spit out the words “holy mother of god” in my helmet.. a third guy blew by me, passed those two guys with ease, and was out of site in a blink of an eye leaving behind nothing in his tire shredding wake except 3 humiliated wannbees, the sweet smell of racing gas, and my disbelief. To this point in my 35+ years of riding I had never seen anything like it except for MotoGP racing on TV. It was impressive. I am dumbfounded. I am humbled. I feel my balls shrivel up and recede into my body cavity. “Who are those guys?”

Back in the pits after my shrunken cohones had somewhat dropped and re-inflated, I wander amongst them trying get a glimps into the world of these “fast guys.” Most seem to be in their late 30’s. A little too old to be competitive in “real” racing, yet still faster than us mortals. I notice their bikes aren’t foofoo pretty like most of the novice or intermediate guys. Body panels are mismatched colors or primer. Many of their bikes have road rash all over them. Every nut and bolt is safety wired. Most are sporting lap timers. Tire warmers which have seen better days are on every bike. Most of their bikes seem to have number plates on them as if they had recently been racing. Many have slicks. Their leathers are mostly tattered and dirty. These guys are no posers. I’ll imagine that as toddlers, instead of the standard feel-good bedtime stories, their fathers regaled them with the Cimmerian “Riddle of Steel.” These guys are serious and I find out later that most are ex or even current WERA or AMA racers..

A newfound respect has emerged within me and a sobering realization that at 52 I’ll never be as fast as these guys, nor do I want to be. They were scary fast. A pace that I neither need or aspire to at this juncture in life. I don’t know if the guys I rode with were exceptionally fast.. a cut above.. or the norm. What I do know is.. They are the fastest guys I’ve ever ridden with.

Getting back to Brian’s question..“Why on earth would you want to ride in that group?” In hindsight, I now realize that I never did really want to ride in that group nor am I worthy. With only minor confidence inspiring urgings from my friends, I let my massive ego get the better of me… again. O, well. It’s not the first time.. Probably won’t be the last. I’ll not even try to armchair psychoanalyze my friends as to why they’d choose to ride with that group as they are no faster than me.. Perhaps that answer lies within their own monsters from the id.

While I try never to say “never”… I hope I don't have to ride in the advanced group again. We‘ll see. The painful reality is I’m past my prime and I know it, but that’s not even the real reason I‘ll stick with the intermediate group. I‘m hooked on track days because it‘s possibly the most fun I’ve ever had. When I’m riding in the intermediate group and dicing it up with others riders with similar skill levels.. passing and being passed.. it’s exciting.. it’s intense.. it’s primal.. and if you could see behind my dark tinted face shield you’d see a massive smile on my face. I didn’t smile once while riding in the advance group… Not once.

And that's all I've got to say about that... Pirate out...
Jerry D. Finley / Captain
/ Pirates' Lair

Post script: Just after writing this article, I discovered that the advanced group I was riding with was actually a cut above the norm.. I'd forgotten there was an AMA /Superbike race at Barber the following weekend.. Apparently, many of the guys on the track the day I was riding were professionals tire testing.. So they really were the real deal... and that actually does make me feel slightly better..

DYL Jim Kriner and Jerry (aka Pirate).. Click  For Larger Image