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A weekend at the races

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 25, 2016

Full throttle Riding a modified CBR250R at the Madras Motor Race Track in Irungattukottai

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An automobile journalist is introduced to the exhilarating world of motorcycle racing



Until last week, I had ridden for many years and I had ridden many bikes. But nothing prepared me for this past Sunday, when I found myself tearing up the inside lane on turn 4 of the Madras Motor Race Track, frantically trying to control the wobbling front end of a heavily modified Honda CBR 250R, simultaneously trying to block off another bike that was mere centimetres away.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves though. The story begins on Friday, with me arriving at the track about an hour and a half after the appointed time. MMRT, in Irungattukottai - about 34 km outside Chennai, was hosting the final round of the National Motorcycle Racing Championship and Honda had invited me and a few other journalists to compete against each other on the sidelines. The weekend began with track training and I’d missed the opening session, which dealt with track safety and racing etiquette. “Guess that’s one lesson I’ll never learn,” I thought to myself.

Training wheels

Ramji Govindarajan holds forth. He is the Director of Ten10 Racing - Honda’s satellite team in the national motorcycle racing championships, and the man tasked with introducing the track to ten seasoned motorcycle journalists. And me. He has a powerpoint open behind him, but thankfully he is an engaging speaker. He’s talking about braking on a race track. “The aim of braking is not to slow down,” he says. “It is to be able to go faster after slowing down.”

The bikes that we will be riding are very different from their road-legal siblings. In order to ready them for the track, they have been shorn of unnecessary, ornamental parts like the rear seat and the stand, and fitted with high-performance components such as a racing exhaust and soft-compound types. The end result is significantly lighter and more stable. Every modification shaves seconds off the time needed to hurtle around the 3.7 km of bends and straights that MMRT offers. Top speeds exceed 150 kmph and a full complement of safety gear is not optional.

“You will be riding the small bikes. Well, small for me,” says Sarath Kumar, a Ten10 rider who, at 24, is already a veteran of the motorcycle racing circuit. A former Moto3 rider, Kumar is explaining to us how his 6-foot-something frame is a disadvantage on the track. “I weigh 63 kilos. Some of the guys from the East Asian countries are in the 40s and 30s. On the 250s, this gives them a huge advantage. The moment I make one mistake, they fly away,” he laments.

In between the classroom and workshop sessions, we ride. Fifteen-minute runabouts trying to get our braking and lines right, staying in single file and the same gear in order to simplify things. Sarath and two other riders lead us around the circuit in small packs, setting the example.

“I can see you kicking up dust,” says Ramji to me. “You’re going where no bikes have gone before. Stay on the line. It’s easy - out-in-out.” This is one of the many seemingly simple but difficult to implement axioms that he likes to repeat. “Stand on your toes and pivot.” “Look where you want to go and the bike will follow.” “Never use the rear brake.” “Relax your upper body.” “Shift between 9,500 and 9,800 rpm.” “Hang your knee and one butt-cheek out.” Ramji’s instructions would have probably improved an enthusiastic novice rider’s technique no end. For this hapless scribe though, there were simply too many to process. In the next session, I ended up with my backside on the grass, having gone into a corner carrying too much steam. I was looking dead-straight at the tyre-wall and the bike had followed. At the end of the weekend, I was still the only one who had crashed during a practice session. The bruises to my ego were worse than the ones to my body.

The competition begins

The next day, I was there - bright and early. Proceedings began with the race briefing. “If you crash, don’t just stay down: for your safety and others’, get off the track,” implores Rustom Dastur, one of the race officials.

The final practice session began immediately after. The faint glimmer of my own unique riding style was starting to emerge - a curious mixture of Ramji’s instructions and my own intuitions. I was slowly getting more comfortable on the track and beginning to push myself. But despite my increasing confidence, I finished second from last in qualifying. I might have gone faster, but for an unfortunate mishap involving my press pass. I had forgotten to remove it before hitting the track and I was forced to spend the best part of a lap trying to get a grip on it with my mouth, lest the lanyard choke me. Fortunately, three riders didn’t manage to register a qualifying time and I would start Sunday’s races in sixth place on the grid.

Qualifying had been a sobering experience. Getting technique and form right is one thing, but once the starting grid was posted on the notice board, the pecking order within the group became clear. With one of the weakest qualifying times, I felt the pressure to perform completely evaporate. So while the other riders checked their linkages and made sure their tyre pressure was right, I chilled at the media centre.

“The result doesn’t really matter to me,” I told anyone who’d care to listen. “I’m just here for the story.”

Race day

With the first of two races set to begin in half an hour, we began suiting up. We’d been advised to warm up before hitting the track, but getting into tight-fitting racing leathers requires one to spend at least ten minutes performing an awkward imitation of a penguin trying to fly, which to my mind, invalidated the need for any kind of stretching and jogging.

The bikes are on the starting grid and we’re off. I got off to a horrible start. But the way some of the older journalists were riding, it was clear they had children and mortgages to worry about. With the carefree abandon of one who hadn’t yet filed his first set of tax returns, I braked later and dove in harder at every corner. The leaders had pulled away, but I managed to execute a few daring passes and finish a creditable fifth. On my return to the pit lane, I was ushered into the garage, past the jubilant podium finishers who were taking photographs with the pit girls.

A quick lunch followed and we were soon back out on the track again for the second and final race. My start was even worse this time, dropping me from sixth to dead last. Yet again, I rode like a man possessed and made up several places. All the bikes are made to the exact same specifications, but my nerves and my belly are in better shape than my competitors and this enables me to go faster on the straights and bend lower on the curves. But even for a young man, racing is tiring business and I was glad to see the chequered flag bring an end to the contest before my aching limbs gave up the ghost. On my way back to the pits, I learned that I’d finished third. But there would be no podium and no pit girls waiting for me. The race had been delayed and there was the serious business of the National Championship to get back to.

The madness kicks in

Exhausted, I got out of my leathers and began to make my way back home. I had always known that a passion for motor racing was accompanied by a special kind of madness, but I had never quite appreciated how easy it was to slip over the edge.

I had spent three days boiling under the hot sun in borrowed racing gear caked with second-hand sweat, inhaling petrol fumes and subjecting my body to more stress than it has known in a long time. But all I could think about was that incredibly tight pass that I’d made down the inside at turn 4.

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Published on February 25, 2016
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