Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Race Day at Leyda

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Thursday, September 21, 2006

On Sunday, September 3rd I got up early and drove the car out to Leyda, near San Antonio, a few km inland from the coast. I was headed to the 7th monthly race of the 2006 Championship at the Autódromo Pacífico Sport.

My friend, KarlitosGP, Carlos Traub, would be racing in the 400 cc category, and I wanted to take my mum's reflex camera, a Canon EOS 1000F, to take advantage of the 210 mm telephoto lens.

That day several categories would be racing: Turismo 600, Promocional 600 and Turismo Nacional (all of them cars) and the 400 cc speedbikes, which included the Promocional and Expertos sub-categories.

I arrived just in time for the start of the races, at 13:30.

This is the Leyda racetrack:

The bikes race in two sets of laps. One is 18 turns, the other 22. Both Promocional and Experto categories race together.

Karlitos pulled some strings, and I was allowed onto the track, camera at the ready. Equipped with a tripod, cloth hat, shorts, backpack and North Face fleece, I looked like a mix between a photographer and a lost tourist.

During the first half of the race I set myself up near the pits, and during the second, near the large curve at the extreme right of the aerial photo.

To make this post more interesting, I've interspersed a running commentary written by KarlitosGP. The pics aren't in chronological order and are not meant as a point-by-point illustration of his narrative, but rather to give a general idea of the images and emotions that one could experience that day.

It was a nice day, and the track was in good condition: an ideal day to play with our bikes.

The day before, on Saturday, I spent the whole day transforming the CBR 400 RR, my beloved streetbike, into a racing machine. In this process everything counts, both for the race, and your safety.

I finished adjusting the suspension, carburation and a whole lot of extremely tiring details. All that was left was the pilot's mental preparation. This is no detail, since you must be concentrated on your objective and focused. You need to have your senses at their best, in order to perceive details as subtle as the sound of your engine at high RPMs and warnings of grip loss as you exit the curve, knee hugging the ground, searching for an exit trajectory. And for this, one needs a good night's sleep.

It all starts when the green flag comes down, indicating that the race is about to begin. That's when you say a little silent prayer, your heart rate goes up to the tune of your engine's RPMs and your mind goes over all the strategies, braking points, trajectories and fears that the track holds for you.

The red light goes out. RPMs go up from 5000 to 9500 so as to gain some ground, being careful not to have the front end come up and to avoid the other riders. This is one of the most critical moments in the race. Adrenalin floods your bloodstream, just like pressured oil lubricates your engine's pathways.

Second gear, third, fourth, fifth stretched up to 14000 RPM and searching for an opening to get in line, drop it to third, hovering on the redline, and take it in, bike on its side, searching for an exit from the large curve onto the straight. Next curve coming up, brake hard remembering that, in no more than 10 metres, you're going from 14000 RPM to 10000 or so, so as to get it just right.

Damn, someone shot past me while braking, and I lost a place. It doesn't matter: wer're on lap 8 of the first half of the race. There's still time, but his bike, number 17, is quite a bit more powerful than mine. I'll have to think of something fast, lest he get away.

And that's how it was during all of the first half of the race. 17 and I battled it out constantly. Eventually he managed to gain 107 milliseconds on me at the finish line. Ah, what the hell, that's how this game is. I need more power!

And it's understandable that KarlitosGP didn't have as much power as other riders' bikes. His 1990 Honda CBR 400 RR has a minimal amount of modifications, just enough to be able to race. When you use your daily vehicle as a racing machine, you have to compromise on both ends.

After the first set of laps, at the racetrack's exit gate, staff remove the small radiofrequency tags that are used to measure lap times. This was so that they could be handed to the next set of vehicles.

KarlitosGP rode back to the cheers and congratulations of Martín and his partner Angela, Karlitos' support team.

And so it went, other vehicles raced, but I had my mind on other things. I had trouble with the camera, and I was kicking myself for having taken only two reels of 36/400 ASA.

The bikes were called to the start line over the PA system, and I trotted over to the center of the large 180º curve at the south end of the track. I had 4 main shooting directions, and I was no further than 10 or 15 metres away from the tightest part of the curve.
And now we're on lap 8 of the second set of laps, and in the chicane number 144 goes down, "Pillu Rojo", apparently he lowsided. I enter the chicane, drop a gear, and catch a glimpse of him standing up, his bike on its side.

I too saw him go down, and the could of dust, and how he tried to get up and walk, but he lay down almost immediately. He wasn't in good shape it seems.
Coolant patch coming up on my trajectory!!! A touch more front brake, and I tip the bike over even more– what was that noise? And that tug on my knee? Watch out! We're at the limit, a little more throttle and I ride out of it. As I pass the downed rider we exchange glances: Are you OK? Yes, thanks. Great. I must regain concentration and forget that I saw him go down, since the other curve is coming up and I came out of the last one rather crooked, and to make matters worse, 17 is coming up, I haven't seen him, but I can certainly hear him!

Coming in to the straight, I signal the race director. He raises the yellow flag, and we do several laps behind the Safety Car. The white flag with red stripes is up, indicating that there's an emergency vehicle on the track, in this case picking up our friend.

Meanwhile, Martín, a seasoned racing pilot, was acting as an improvised flag man by the side of the track. With that good will and sporting spirit that are so characteristic of him, every time I passed, he'd give me coded instructions with hand gestures, for when the race got underway again.

Green flag coming up! The race starts again with 6 laps to go. I'm second, and in the same situation as last time: battling it out with 17. I need more power! I'll have to think of something fast, otherwise he'll get away from me, and I won't see him again.

Damn, he passed me again, and there's just 2 laps left. I'm stuck to his back wheel, being sucked along, but he manages to break away on the straight.

Meanwhile, 77 and 54 were also having their personal duel. They were the leads of the Expertos category.

My last option is in the chicane: He's two bikes ahead. He always slows down too much and comes in wide: it's now or never! I stretch my braking all the way and catch up with him, I'm on the inside, and forced to take a very demanding trajectory. Downshit and I'm in the power band, ready for the exit, and wham! I cut him off from the inside, make a mad dash for the reverse curve and come out ahead!

This is it, last right hand curve and we're away! Pushing the redline, there's the checkered flag, at last!

What a race! I've never had so much fun!

And it was indeed a fantastic race. I was quite surprised to hear that KarlitosGP had won the first place in the Promocional category, and fifth in the Expertos. Excellent!

As the cars ran their second set of laps, bikes were loaded onto trailers and pickups, taking advantage of the last light of the day. As the shadows grew longer, it got colder and colder. Good thing I came in the car!

To take my mind off the cold, I wandered over to see the other races, but I wasn't thrilled.

Night fell, and the short and simple awards ceremony was held. The best part: seeing KarlitosGP with a big smile on his face and holding the cup.

That night we drove half the way back to Santiago together, and stopped for food at the over-the-highway Copec restaurant on the Ruta 78. I was eager to see how the pictures had turned out.

The next day I took the reels of film to be developed, and had the negatives scanned. The results weren't great: you've already seen them. They are grainy, and not of very high quality. Also, I had forgotten that the camera had a slight magenta filter on the telephoto lens, which tinted everything a strange pink.

Oh well.

And last, but not least, a wave from Karlitos.