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Apr 25, 2002

Letter From The Grid: One Racer's Disastrous Fontana AMA National

Copyright 2002, Roadracing World Publishing, Inc. <BR><BR>Let Me Tell You About My AMA 250 GP Race At Fontana...<BR><BR>By John France<BR>AMA 250 GP #19<BR><BR>It started about two weeks before the Daytona race. I was on the phone for many hours making arrangements to get all my equipment and truck from the East coast of Florida to the West coast of California. I had made an arrangement with fellow competitor Simon Turner and his team to haul their equipment, my sort-of-teammate Greg Esser's equipment, and all of my stuff to Fontana, then Sears Point and back. Well, I bit off more than I could chew and couldn't get my truck set up to transport everyone's stuff. I had to call Simon's team manager Per Hogdahl and tell him I had to back out of the deal. They understood and made other arrangements for themselves. <BR><BR>After Daytona it was back on the phone to Greg Esser and we found another way to get all of our stuff out to Fontana. That involved having my friend Curtis drive the truck so we would fly out. Having to work a full-time job is a real inconvenience. But we managed to get everything out there. Plus you can always count on Curtis for a laugh or two.<BR><BR>Wednesday before the race I went to work for two hours, drove to the airport in Orlando (one hour away) sat around the airport for two hours after being suspected, sniffed, swabbed, searched, detected, ID'd, poked, prodded, questioned. Finally I shoved my way onto an airborne cattle car (run by an airline that doesn't assign seats) with people dressed like they were planning on spending the day watching the Jerry Springer Show at the local soup kitchen! Nice, very nice. Luckily, I only had to spend eight hours with them.<BR><BR>Curtis picks me up at the airport and it is off to the motel for a nice quiet night. The tremendous sound from the horrific amount of traffic on I-10 roaring by inches from your room lulls you right to sleep.<BR><BR>Thursday we get to the track nice and early to set things up. Greg is already there milling around. At least we have plenty of time to set things up and go through tech because there is no promoter practice. The AMA advised the track and/or the promoter (Mob style?) not to hold a Thursday practice day. They claim they needed Thursday to get the track ready for Friday's activities. I wonder how they found time to get Daytona ready with CCS/Formula USA and AHRMA running the previous five days to that event? Anyway, there was really no reason for Thursday practice, sure it was a brand-new venue for most of us but the factory teams had already run there a few times and knew what to expect. No, one extra day would not put any true privateer on par with the factory teams or the very best of the private teams, but track time for us is very rare and valuable. Oh, they did have a club race there the previous weekend. Most of the locals and the well-heeled out-of-town privateers were able to get some of the above-mentioned valuable track time. Too bad I, and a lot of others, couldn't afford to blast out there a week early for a few club races. Strike one!<BR><BR>Friday morning looks pretty good, weather wise, and Curtis and I hitch a ride with Team Oliver to the track at the crack of dawn. Everything is set, warmed up, ready to go. The only problem now is that somebody noticed the turn-one section (a make-shift contraption) has standing water in it. Most probably from the sprinkler system keeping the grass in the infield (the only grass within ten miles of the place) green. The grass did look lovely!<BR><BR>Finally they had the track ready to ride on by about 10:30. Only 1-½ hours late! Good thing the AMA used Thursday to get the track ready!<BR><BR>I head out on the track for my eye-opening practice session. Lots of walls, haybales, Air Fence, cones, and plastic curbing delineating the prescribed route. Not the best, by a long shot. But, I've been on worse. Doesn't really flow together. As a matter of fact the only way to make that place flow together would be to heat it up to 1,500 deg. F. and tip it on its side! Who or what designs these places?<BR><BR>I make it through in one piece. Not the fastest or the slowest. Did I mention that I, like a lot of other riders have never been to this place before and just guessed at the set-up?<BR> <BR>Friday's afternoon session rolls around almost on time. Since the morning session I have changed the gearing and jetting. I head out on the track and go faster than the first session. On about lap eight the red flag comes out because someone has augured into the wall. All of the trucks and ambulances are either attending that incident or driving on the track to get there. Must be a bad one! I return to the pit lane and start looking around to see who is missing. Turns out it is my sort-of-teammate Greg Esser. No problem, he's tough and has been known to toss it down the road from time-to-time. Could just be cheap theatrics.<BR><BR>We get the green flag and take off again. No time to worry about Greg now. I'm riding down the back straight on the first lap of the re-start when I see the Medical Helicopter lift off. Let's see, Greg has crashed, red flag, trucks and ambulances, helicopter, now I have to worry about him! Just the thing you need when you are trying go fast and learn a new track! Strike two!<BR><BR>Practice ends and I blast back to the truck to find out about Greg. Nobody knows for sure, lots of guesses. Usually when someone hits the wall and is flown out it is not very good. I send Curtis to find out where Greg went, what was wrong with him, and where they left his bike. A few minutes later Curtis, Greg's friend Hector, and, I think his name was Dean, a track official, roar up in a car to tell me they are going to the hospital to check on Greg. They don't know his condition, either.<BR><BR>I get on the cell phone to try and find Greg's brother's phone number. I called a mutual friend near where he lives to look up the number in the phone book. If you're at the track with someone and you know they do not have anyone at home (like Greg) to call, you should probably get some numbers from them ahead of time. Anyway, I called his brother, told him what I knew, gave him the number to the hospital and then waited. Did I mention Greg had the rental car that I was supposed to return to the airport? Of course I didn't know where it was parked, what kind it was, or where the keys were. But I figured I could find the keys and car.<BR><BR>While I was waiting (seemed like forever) to hear from some one, anyone, I started to pack Greg's things away. I root through his clothes (kind of creepy) and find the rental car key with the make, model and license plate number on it. Finally about 8:00 p.m. someone calls me and tells Greg he is basically OK and that Curtis will meet me at the motel later. Turns out Greg had a broken ankle, separated shoulder, maybe a concussion but otherwise no biggie.<BR><BR>Team Oliver gives me a ride out to the parking lot and we find Greg's rental car. I go back to the motel and wait for Curtis. He shows up about 9:30 p.m. and gives me the report, same as before. Except nobody knows when he'll get out. Maybe Sunday or Monday.<BR><BR>Saturday morning we head to the track nice and early. Too bad it is lightly raining. The track is dangerous in the dry. I can't even imagine what it would be like in the rain! Nothing better than crashing in the rain, hitting the wet grass and picking up another 10 mph before you hit the wall. I'm sure those plastic curbs are ripe with traction when they're wet.<BR><BR>We spend all day waiting to see what is going to happen. Bored and needing something to do, we get Greg's bike and other equipment loaded up to be shipped back to Florida with some other team. Finally, late in the afternoon we get a 12-minute practice session and I go slightly faster than on Friday. Maybe, barely.<BR><BR>Sunday rolls around and we rush to see what the new and improved schedule has in store for us. A little practice in the morning. A qualifying session a little later on, and then the 250 race around 1:00 p.m. Practice goes pretty good.<BR><BR>I lean it down a little for the qualifying session. Need to get a decent spot on the grid, you know. And wait for the session to start. I head out there, give it about two laps to warm up the engine, forks, shock and tires, on the third lap I take off to try and pick up my time and the engine starts to detonate and then seizes. Not the best way to qualify. I limp it back to the paddock area where Curtis and I remove both cylinders and inspect the damage. Tools are flying; we don't have much time before the race. Lower cylinder is shot. Upper one is OK! We toss another piston, cylinder, and head on it. Fatten up the jets, back off the timing, and we are ready to go ten minutes before the start of the race! Whew! Got a lot work done very quickly but soon the race will start and it'll be worth it! <BR><BR>I put all of my gear on and get set to go when Curtis hears that I and about 11 other guys haven't qualified! What the f--k! How could that be! There are only 32 bikes entered and they will start a maximum of forty on a track like this. Then Curtis says "you didn't make it under the 112% rule" (I told you he was good for a laugh). I thought about that for a second and he was correct! 19 guys qualified, I was the 20th about 0.500-second too slow with only three laps in qualifying. I firmly believe I would have been within the "112% rule" if I hadn't tuned myself out of qualifying. I went out onto the grid to see what was up and the officials told me I wasn't going to race today. I think most of the other guys that didn't qualify went out, too. I took the warm-up lap, sat at the back of the grid in disbelief. Was told to leave. I crawled back to my hole. Strike three and I'm out!<BR><BR>Yes, by the rules I didn't qualify, and neither did the others. The only problem is that, A: This was a new track. B: There was very little practice (and none on Thursday) C: They haven't used timed qualifying for a 250 race in years and D: they should have told us at the riders' meeting what they were planning to do. But then an axe murderer never tells you ahead of time what he plans to do, either.<BR><BR>Guys monitoring the AMA radios said that Ron Barrick and Gary Mathers realized that everything was pretty messed up and wanted to let everyone race but Merrill Vanderslice overruled them! Nice touch, Merrill. Maybe you could swing by the orphanage on Christmas Eve and tell the children how their parents died.<BR><BR>At the next event I will have two bikes ready for qualifying just in case something happens. And, they're will be no more messing around. I will try and run the first laps as fast as possible in case something happens. I will also read the rulebook and see what other loophole they can try and snare me with. Like, the minimum number of laps, if you can swap bikes (better wear the transponder on your leathers). Or any other number of rules they may or may not impose. Should I bring a lawyer to read the fine print and "interpret the rules"? Maybe the top management of the AMA Pro Racing is as inept as everyone says they are!<BR><BR>PS: Do I get the paltry $100 for 20th place?