One Man, One Bike, The Manx GP

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Categories: Hell For Leather, Real Riders, Racing

Everything about racing is menacingly attractive; it is your own personal exploration of the limit. While few exceed that point on the Isle Of Man TT Course, even fewer can walk the line. More than 260 corners beg you to turn in too early, enticing you to run just a wheel wide on exit.

Each stone wall, cottage and fence tests everything you are capable of on a motorcycle. Those that refuse to take the easy route—the same brood that hates days that don’t include pushing themselves beyond what is physically and mentally comfortable—will understand why I am taking on the Manx Grand Prix this week.  For real time updates, check my Facebook page or my Twitter feed.

The Beginning 

In February of 2012, while on an internship in LA, Brian Murray and his fleet of DR-Z400SM’s provided my first taste of real track time. Sure, Adams Motorsports Park isn’t exactly a full road course, but the feeling of pushing hot, grippy tires on blacktop was addictive. Armed with more riding confidence, skills and an even greater passion, I started pushing my daily-driver SV650 a bit harder every chance I had. I desperately wanted more, but as a full time mechanical engineering student, it wouldn’t be until a year later that I would have the chance to get back on track.

My final undergraduate degree exam was officially finished on a Thursday morning. I took out a student loan that same afternoon and two days later, on the way to full-time employment in North Carolina, I bought a race-prepped ZX-6R. That following weekend, I took to Carolina Motorsports Park for my first full track experience. Three weeks later, with only two days track exposure, I was driving nine hours to Jennings GP for my first race weekend. The bait had been set, and I was hooked.

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Manx GP

Dirt track- my most valuable tool and the choice training method of all American Grand Prix World Champion. [Photo Credit: Aaron Stevenson][/caption]2013 was nothing to boast about. I ran a partial season with a best finish of 7th place at Summit Point—an amateur backmarker, but I refused to give up on it. I sought guidance and practice, anything I could do to improve my results. When I started training with Cornerspin (dirt track rider training) and Cornerspeed (track school and track day organization) in the fall of 2013, my riding skills truly took some serious leaps and bounds in terms of improvement.

Through the winter before the 2014 season, I worked hard with Cornerspin’s Aaron Stevenson and his top-notch coaches to develop throttle control, slide control, braking performance, racecraft and even upped my fitness regime.

If you are serious about improving your game, the dirt track training approach is a great way to get ahead on the tarmac—I wholeheartedly recommend it. Dirt track changed my approach to racing. I now understand the tires better. I can save a front tire lock-up and keep the rear in check when it steps out.

In the spring of 2014, I came out physically prepared, mentally focused and ready to win. This season, I’ve scored 12 podiums, six race wins and gained an expert license. Most importantly, I’ve really started to believe I can make something out of my future in racing.

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Manx GP

Leading into turn 5 at Virginia International Raceway. [Photo Credit: Lisa Theobald][/caption]

Persistence Matters

My endeavor to race on the Isle didn’t begin when I was accepted to the Manx two months ago. It started in 2008, when a few college friends (instigators and eventual riding buddies) showed me a highlight video of the Isle of Man TT Races. The rest, as they say, is history. That was it. I was utterly infatuated. The day I saw that video, I told myself, I don’t care what it takes, eventually I will race there.

Almost six years later, here I am, about to become the youngest American to ever race on the Isle of Man and take on the Manx GP. From my first road ride, through circuit racing, to the crashes and the victories, it has all led to the upcoming challenge.

I wanted to experience the event and the course first-hand before making a final decision to race there, so a trip to the 2014 Isle of Man TT was in order. Through a friend, I was able to spin spanners for two experienced racers with a combined 14 years of experience racing at the TT. Their course familiarity and racing experience proved to be invaluable assets as I continued to learn about the event and the best way to take on the Mountain Course. If you have any interest in tackling the TT, I guarantee that visiting first is the best way to go about it. Standing on the guardrail pit wall, waiting anxiously for your rider’s fuel stop, feeling the heat from the bikes flying by at 170mph—you have to feel it. If any fiber of your being is excited by speed, do not give this event a pass. The whole TT trip simply affirmed that I wanted nothing more than to be racing there myself. When I returned stateside, I hit the ground running.

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IOM Weather

Here’s an example of the island’s unpredictable nature: clear on the mountain and downright dreary in the paddock. [Photo Credit: Welsh Wizard (left), Gabriele Pezzotta (right)][/caption]To begin the hunt for much-needed support, I created a personal racing Facebook page, built a website and penned an official sponsorship proposal. Not many realize how vital PR is to a racing campaign. I’ve been fortunate enough to have solid guidance in the field and I certainly recommend finding someone who has a racing PR background to assist you. You have to market yourself. You have to be aggressive, let people know what you have, what you can provide them and why you are their best opportunity for success in the racing arena. Be prepared for about 95% failure and 5% success. The truth is, with the current motorcycle market and general economy, not many companies are willing to risk shelling out extra cash. Does it make finding sponsorship impossible? Not at all; it just means you have to sell yourself that much harder. That 5% success can be the difference between a new set of tires and takeoffs, enough fuel for the transporter or the spare brake lever needed to continue your race. Especially at the Manx or the TT, the less you have to worry about gear, transportation, sundries and all the rest, the more you can focus the event and the safer you will be.

There are a few ways to race a bike at the Manx: you can ship one over from the states, hire one in the UK or be so good that you’re asked to ride one. Since I had to sell my own race bike to contribute funds to the trip and free rides are about as common as a Ducati GP victory these days, I was left to hire one overseas. I put out a few feelers while I was at the TT, posted on a couple forums and eventually sorted a kitted SV650 from Rea Racing out of Lancashire, England, to run in both the Newcomers B and Supertwin races. Nigel Rea has been competing at the Manx since 2009, while his son Ben took victory in the Newcomers C race last year on a Honda RVF400. Their experience at the Manx, along with strong, reliable, familiar machinery, is a recipe for a great debut on the Isle.

Beginning in February of this year, I started getting really serious about learning the course. Every day for the past four months, I have studied onboard video like a Rhodes Scholar. Whenever I’m not working my engineering day job or training my body to take on two 150-mile races and a week of intense daily practice sessions, my nose is in the books. It takes so much time to extract the intricacies of the course, at least the ones you can extract, from a video. The various onboards are my only sources of information that I can utilize on a daily basis so far from the actual track.

The riders I wrenched for at the TT have helped immensely with knowledge transfer. Leading up to the event, we’ve had multiple conference calls and video chats to talk through the course. By picking their brains about different sections, not only do I pick up invaluable hints that will undoubtedly accelerate my learning, but they can also explain what I can’t feel from watching the videos. Everything counts: the rhythm, the undulations, the lines. Get one turn wrong and it could be your last. Of course, what you see from the top of the bike is a broader perspective than any onboard can provide, but knowing that the general layout of the course is ingrained in my memory makes me feel safer and more confident heading into the race. There are a number of onboard laps on the internet, but a great place to get started is Milky Quayle narrating John McGuinness on a Paton 500cc Classic. It’s about as fast as a supertwin, and the narration is clear and concise.

Leading up to and during the event, I plan to use various onboard laps as a way to refresh my memory and recap practices, identifying where I can make improvements. I’m also planning to rent a car for the first few days of practice to get to know the course more intimately. I’ll fill up before the fuel stations close for the night before going out in the pre-dawn hours to avoid traffic and soak up as much as I possibly can. Time on the course is priceless for newcomers, so I want to do as much to supplement that as possible. Weather wise? The Manx Grand Prix organizers will and have run in manageable wet conditions. As with any other race on the island, it can be pouring on the mountain and beautifully clear at the grandstand—you just have to hope for the best.

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Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to die out there. I study and train relentlessly so that I can be as safe as possible. My career in motorcycle racing is just beginning and I know there are greater things beyond the Manx. In fact, I hope to use the opportunity as a media springboard into the Pirelli National Superstock 600 series, a support class of the British Superbike Championship. That being said, the Manx is the next challenge, the next mountain to climb, the next port to conquer. The racer inside is always going to push me beyond my natural comfort zone, to take chances that end either in sweet triumph or immediate failure. Taming (not suppressing) this instinct will be my biggest challenge against achieving success. I never roll onto a racetrack without the thirst for victory, and the Manx will be no different. Sure, I’ll be racing Manxmen who have spent their whole lives exposed to the roads of the mountain course, but I still aim to do everything in my power to win. I’ve done the homework, I’ve trained, I’ve prepared my body and mind as best I can (short of living on the island). I’m ready as one can be.

Exclusively for RideApart, I will be chronicling my experiences as I take on what is arguably the greatest test of man and two-wheeled machine on the planet. I want to show readers what it's like to take on the TT course. I will be riding this week, but expect to see a full recap after the campaign.

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