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Racing demands a special breed

28th Jul 2017 6:49 pm

A thrilling first taste of motorcycle racing reveals why many of us aren’t made for it.

I recently participated in my first ever motorcycle race at a national level and it was the experience of a lifetime. You can click here to read all about my dramatic weekend as wild card entry in the Open Category of the TVS RTR 200 one-make national championship. What I want to talk about here instead is how this experience finally gave me the clarity to something I’ve known for a long time, but couldn’t quite explain.

Over the years working in this field I’ve had the good fortune to experience a spot of racing. My first taste came in 2012 as a competitor in the inaugural season of the Toyota Etios Motor Racing Championship. Then, late last year, Volkswagen was kind enough to let me participate in the final round of the Vento Cup at the BIC. Both experiences were tremendous, but left me with a lingering taste of doubt as to whether I had the right mental constitution to properly enjoy life as a racer. Money is the primary concern naturally. A journalist salary doesn’t afford the luxuries of routinely participating in the most expensive sport on the planet. But money has always seemed like an excuse behind which lurks a deeper feeling of doubt...

While a season in a high-level four-wheeler championship like Volkswagen Vento Cup costs many lakhs, one-make motorcycle championships are ridiculously cheap in India. Rs 3,000 buys you a full weekend of racing (practise, qualifying and two races) in the TVS championship and that includes the bike, fuel, damage repair and even the protective apparel. You’d be hard-pressed to find cheaper racing anywhere else. This I can afford, even with the costs of flights and accommodation factored in. So there goes the money excuse.

My introduction to motorcycle racing was humbling. Being securely strapped into a race car’s bucket seat and knowing that hefty roll cage is there to protect you, encourages taking extra chances. On a bike, the tarmac is flying by just a couple of feet away and all that’s keeping you separated is some armour and a few millimeters of leather. Bravery is required in big doses. I have a decent turn of speed on a motorcycle, but out there with the real racers, the best I could manage in the first practise session was 8th position out of eighteen. Not too bad a debut until you hear the difference in the lap times. The fastest rider’s lap time around the MMRT was an enormous 6.4s ahead of mine. In racing, that’s a lifetime and if you can’t do better, you might as well go home.

The next day, I went out into the fifteen minute qualifying session fully expecting improvement but not hoping for miracles. Latching onto a group of fast riders gave me the the sense of perspective I needed and it became my mission to keep up. The five odd laps that followed saw me have more squirms, slides and moments on a motorcycle than the last few years of motorcycling combined. I was on the raggedy edge of my realm of talents and pushing my personal limits well beyond their usually well-guarded comfort zone. The risk was worth it - I’d reeled in the distance to the top to just 2.2s, good enough to qualify for fifth position on the starting grid. If you’ve read my race experience article, you’ll already know I lost a few places at the start, but quickly recovered fifth position before getting hit by another rider at last corner of the first lap, resulting in a rather fast crash.

The crashing didn’t scare me. There was no time for fear and gushes of adrenaline helped me pick the bike back up and fight back from last to ninth. This fighting spirit helped me rule out what I initially believed was a personal lack of the ‘killer instinct’ that all racers must possess. I’m not a super competitive person in general and tend to avoid conflict wherever possible. I assumed that this character would be a negative in a racing situation, but my pre-crash fight from 8th to 5th in the first lap was confident, decisive and, I’ll admit, quite enjoyable.

As it turns out, the problem does come in the crashing, but not in the way I’d imagined. The falling and injury part isn’t as troubling as the events that can lead to a crash happening. If I were to make an error and crash, the damage to my brand new leather race-suit and retirement of my dearly beloved (and rather expensive) helmet would be entirely down to me - a mistake was made and now the price must be paid.

But racing takes that sense of control away from you. You could be absolutely clean and still get caught in an incident. It’s why they’re called racing incidents - they happen and you have to move on. To the young racer with an unquenchable thirst for victory and everything to prove, this is not a thought worth entertaining. Winning is all that matters. But to the not-so-young salaried employee with responsibilities at home and more in the workplace, this is all you should be considering.

At the end of the day, the idea is to have fun and the track remains one of the most fun places on the planet. Racing is the most highly distilled form of thrill at the track, but it comes at perhaps too steep a cost. Open track-days offer almost all the fun with far less risk than full-on race weekends. Call me a control freak (or just plain chicken), but I like to call the shots on when my bones need mending and when my gear needs re-investing. Yes, we all dream of being racers, but for some of us, it’s a dream best lived from the safety of the sofa. 

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