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May 1, 2014

SRA-West Race Results From Willow Springs

SRA-West sidecar racers in action at Willow Springs. Photo by Johnny DeVilla, courtesy of SRA-West.

Round 2 of the SRA-West Formula Sidecar Series saw the most drama in recent memory. Returning to the Main Track of Willow Springs International Raceway, teams battled attrition and weather throughout the double-header weekend. Host club AHRMA put on an amazing event with the entire paddock full of vintage and modern machines spanning from pre-war to Panigale. The time sheets from Saturday practice told the SRA-West story; extremely high winds were knocking 3-5 seconds off of lap times from the previous year. At least one driver made mention that his machine was hitting the rev limiter on the back half of the track (down wind) but could barely pull top gear on the front straight (into the wind). Qualifying saw Team Big Dog Garage (Bernard Juchli/Kevin Kautzky) set the fast time by over a second, with the surprise return of defending champions Team Johnny Killmore (John Wood/Giorgina Gottlieb) to the second spot on the grid, followed by D&J Racing (Donn Sayre/John Heenan).< br /> 

However, Saturday's 6-lap Sprint race saw Team Wood Brothers 1 (Chris Wood/Aaron McEwen) jump from the fourth position and dive to the inside of Turn One, side-by-side with Team Johnny Killmore on the outside. The pair battled to Turn 2 where the Killmore machine had the inside and slid into the lead. They showed signs of trouble immediately though as they overshot Turn 3 slightly, then did the same in Turn 5. Driver John Wood later cited an old front tire that refused to scrub in as the culprit.

Regardless of the reason, the leaders were eaten alive on the back stretch and a four bike battle ensued. Starting lap two it was Wood Brothers 1 (Wood/McEwen), Big Dog Garage (Juchli/Kautzky) D&J (Sayre/Heenan), then Johnny Killmore (Wood/Gottlieb). The entire order ebbed and flowed each corner though until ultra-fast Turn 8 as three machines attempted to find the same apex for infamous Turn 9. D&J moved to the extreme inside and took the second spot but couldn't make the apex, citing wind as the culprit. The bike went out of shape sliding one, two, then three times before going off the track almost backwards. Amazingly the machine stayed upright and passenger John Heenan was not ejected, though he sustained a foot injury that would keep him off the machine for Sunday's race.

Onto the front straight Big Dog had missed the fracas and took advantage of the evasive maneuvers of the Johnny Killmore machine to jump into second and chase down Wood Brothers 1. On lap three Big Dog took the lead without incident on the front straight and pull out a few lengths. It seemed things would calm down after this but Wood Brothers 1 began to fall into the clutches of Team Johnny Killmore. What seemed to be an engine problem for Wood Brothers 1 later turned out to be a numb throttle hand. Driver Chris Wood stated, “I thought I was dragging the brake or something because my hand was completely numb. I couldn't tell the throttle wasn't open all the way.”

This meant a three bike battle would shape up but as Wood Bros and Killmore dueled, Big Dog started putting in fast laps, taking advantage of the battle behind and winning in convincing fashion. The battle for second lasted only another lap, with a large gap appearing on the front straight that lasted until the checkers with Big Dog, Wood Bros 1, and Killmore taking the podium.

Sunday brought a major shake up with massive implications for the championship. Giorgina Gottlieb, passenger for Team Johnny Killmore, came off the machine at very high speed at the top of turn 2 during practice. The incident caused a red flag and Gottlieb was transported by ambulance from the scene. Initial reports are of hand or wrist injuries. With this news there is a drastically shrinking possibility of Team Killmore defending their championship, though anything remains possible.

With both D&J and Killmore without passengers, substitutes were found among the brave or foolish, depending on one's outlook. Up and coming passenger Daniel Bergeron would take the chair for D&J Racing, while Team Johnny Killmore lucked out by having their first-string replacement already there racing his solo machine. It had been about two years since Michael Root had been on a sidecar though, and with no practice sessions remaining he would be thrust into action with little ceremony.

The green flag was unconcerned as it waved over Sunday's 6-lap sprint. Big Dog Garage immediately stalled on the line but were saved being run into by the quick reactions of the field. Team Johnny Killmore had a banzai holeshot and were ten lengths ahead of the field by the exit of Turn One, followed by Wood Brothers 1 and Team D&J. Unfortunately for Big Dog they could not refire the machine without tremendous effort and did not join the race until the leaders were already coming around to start the second lap. Team Johnny Killmore actually checked up and attempted to make an outside pass but lacked the power on the exit. They again attempted to get around in Turn 2 but were held up until the exit of the long sweeper, at which point Big Dog were able to get to race pace and pull away, saving them from going a lap down.

The momentary slowing allowed Wood Brothers 1 to bring things into striking distance though, and with a novice passenger aboard the leader's machine, there was no reason to miss this opportunity. The gap would close in the tight section of turns three, four and five and then open on the high speed turns of turns two and eight. This is contrary to popular logic as the long wheelbase ART chassis of Wood Brothers 1 should have superior stability, while the short wheelbase Windle of Team Johnny Killmore should have the maneuverability. Killmore's passenger Michael Root explained after the race that it had to do with muscle memory. “I kept wanting to go faster but without any practice I couldn't find the handholds. I had to physically look for them and it was costing so much time.”

Smelling blood in the water Wood Brothers 1 closed in, but each time they made a pass, Team Killmore would immediately shoot back. Numb hands again plagued Wood Bros 1 and driver Chris Wood began having difficulty keeping the throttle pinned down the front straight on lap 4. This allowed the Killmore machine to stay in the draft with it's misfiring engine. First an outside move in Turn 1 would not work, so an inside move was made that stuck. Wood Bros 1 shadowed the new leaders through the tight section known as “The Omega,” obviously being held up. They retook the lead in Turn 7 and made a decent gap while picking up the white flag.

Team Johnny Killmore procrastinated on the brakes into Turn 1 until an audible gasp was heard from the bleachers, pulling back in several lengths. The machine could be seen protesting as it drifted on two wheels on the exit, allowing them to dive for the inside of Turn 2. Always the sportsman, Wood Bros 1 gave enough room to prevent a collision and the two fought and wobbled around the high-speed sweeper as the wind buffeted them. Lap traffic moved over and Wood Brothers made it to Turn 3 first. Again the gap was increased on the back straight but again the Killmore machine bucked and weaved through windy Turn 8 to pull in an impossible amount of space. Suddenly the red flag waved for an incident in Turn 2 and the drama shifted attention from away from the battle for the lead. The victory went to Wood Brothers 1, followed by Team Johnny Killmore and D&J Racing.

With the level of drama this past weekend the points are only slightly shaken up. Wood Brothers 1 increases their lead over D&J Racing. Team Big Dog Garage had a mixed bag by winning their first race and then having the start-line issue the following day. This bumps them back to fourth and allows defending champions Team Johnny Killmore into third. Racing continues almost immediately as host club AHRMA moves to Sonoma Raceway tis Thursday and Friday, May 1-2. This will precede the AFM race weekend which will also be hosting the Arai Pacific Nationals, round 2 of the GEICO Motorcycle Superbike Shootout, featuring America's top two-wheeled talent.

The SRA-West wants to extend its sincere thanks to the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) for their continued support of sidecar racing both modern and vintage. The SRA-West also sends its heartfelt wishes for a speedy and full recovery to driver Roger Preston and passengers John Heenana and Giorgina Gottlieb. The sidecar community is very small and close-knit, which makes the triumphs and tragedies much more of a shared experience for racers, friends, and fans.