Everybody has fast motorcycles these days. Some people go 150 miles an hour on two-lane blacktop roads, but not often. There are too many oncoming trucks and too many radar cops and too many stupid animals in the way. You have to be a little crazy to ride these super-torque high-speed crotch rockets anywhere except a racetrack - and even there, they will scare the whimpering shit out of you… There is, after all, not a pig’s eye worth of difference between going head-on into a Peterbilt or sideways into the bleachers.
–Hunter S. Thompson, Song of the Sausage Creature (March 1995)
"Here, put this on,” said someone who seemed to be in charge of this MotoGP 2-seater deal that I had foolishly agreed to, because I am dumb and I assumed I’d be riding comfortably in an old-timey motorcycle sidecar like Indiana Jones’ dad, at a leisurely pace and perhaps with a nice umbrella to shade myself from the sun's harmful rays.
"It’s a spine protector. It protects your — you know…”
"My spine?” I interrupted.
He handed it to me. It was a thick titanium back brace of some sort, to be worn under my firesuit — or maybe it was made of carbon-fiber or iron, I don’t know. I had never worn a spine protector or touched one or knew that they existed. Spine protectors, after all, are not terribly necessary in my line of work – which consists entirely of NOT DOING SHIT THAT MIGHT EXPLODE MY SPINE.
We were off to a heavy start.
There are wild-eyed speed freaks in this world who can never go fast enough, for all the right reasons or no good reason at all. They are the hellraisers and astronauts and Teddy Roosevelts among us who know no fear and/or have terrific life insurance policies. I am not one of these people. I am the very exact opposite of these people, in fact – a nervous driver on the road of LIFE, my hands clasped prudently at ten and two, convinced that EVERY other motorist around me is high on bathsalts and about to t-bone me into the sun. It is an exhausting way to live, I assure you, but I have come to accept it. Ten years ago, though – that wasn’t the case, not at all, but those days are gone. To paraphrase an A.E. Housman poem I can’t recall, having kids and mortgage payments and unexplained backaches each morning tends to throttle back your God-given YOLO!meter. (pronounced: yō ‘ lämitər)
You can still do crazy shit, obviously, but not well – and certainly not without a whole lot of uneasiness.
Still in the dressing room prior to the green flag, Mr. Spinal Board-giver led a 3-minute instructional lesson on what to do during the superbike DEATHRIDE, a lesson which felt insufficiently brief by about 29,000 hours, give or take — especially to someone who has NEVER before been on a motorcycle.
He quickly explained the basic logistical setup of the motorcycle, which did not involve a relaxing sidecar/shade umbrella at all, but rather a small seat behind the rider and pegs near the exhaust where our feet were to be placed.
“Alright, there’s a handle attached to the gas tank,” he explained. The room began to spin. “And what you’ll wanna do is hold on to it. I can’t emphasize this enough: you’ll be doing about 160 on the straights, DO NOT LET GO!! That’s pretty much it. Any questions?”
I struggled to process the 8-point-infinity billion questions quickly engulfing my brain like a grease fire, which in turn crippled my motor functions and balance and vision. Looking back, it was almost certainly a small stroke of some kind NO BIG DEAL, GANG.
"Oh yeah, one more thing," he added. "At those speeds, you have to keep your head down. If your head isn’t down, the wind can rip your helmet off."
Once down on the track, I saw the beast before it saw me: a rugged, athletic, brawler-of-a-bike — a ‘roided-out, ill-tempered brute that our legal system had long ago deemed too dangerous to be on the streets. This was the 3 a.m. Connor’s Pub of racing motorcycles, that much was clear, and the bastard looked like it was doing 70 while parked in its shackles.
It would have been poor form to up & leave right then — or at the very least rude — but I did give it considerable thought. A queasy mind can wander off in all sorts of grim directions if given enough time and panic, and I had plenty of BOTH as I sat on the pit road wall, dry-heaving, awaiting my turn while avoiding eye-contact with the haunted skulls painted onto my helmet. (You can go straight to hell, whoever painted those.)
There was an odd, unexpected sense of calm when I lumbered my way onto the 2-seater for my ride. In a drawn out flash, I had a come-to-Jesus moment where I finally realized that I would NOT be coming to Jesus — not today, probably! — because, after all, this MotoGP 2-seater operation DOES have a 100% safety record…and besides, who dies at noon on an impossibly gorgeous Thursday? Neither of those things guaranteed with certainty that I wouldn’t be horribly maimed, of course, but they were good enough for me.
We sauntered out of the garage and through the first three or four turns at a leisurely enough pace, it was quite pleasant, actually! The ride was smooth and the sun glistened brilliantly and I could see my Indy 500 seats in the G Stand of the SoutheasooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHH FFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCKKK!!!!!!, we were at a leisurely pace no more and whatever sense of calm I had was violently tasered in the throat — we had gone quickly and with great vengeance into the business side of this business trip, and business was alarming.
As we weaved impossibly through Turns NOOOOOPE and ARE YOU SHITTING ME, every single ounce of my physical and emotional and dad strength surged into my hands, which clamped themselves shut onto the gas-tank handle with the power of a thousand bear traps. We had been instructed to NOT do that — to grip lightly instead — but when you’re hanging off the back end of a 600-horsepower DEMONROCKET and laid out sideways through impossibly sharp turns at 95 mph, fuck your “instructions.” There ARE no instructions; there is barely oxygen to breathe. There is only complete, unwavering panic.
We completed about 40 or so more turns there on the back half of the course, none of them particularly well. My 220 pounds of arthritic cowardice & fat was fouling up our aerodynamics, I think — that and my instinct to do the exact opposite of what I was supposed to be doing: namely, leaning INTO the turns (as opposed to cry-puking/remaining as vertical as possible). At some point, my driver — Chris Ulrich — gave me the universal and unmistakable hand sign for “GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER RIGHT NOW.” Although I can’t remember or duplicate the gesture today, at the time it was very clear and very much understood. I began leaning as he leaned, against my better judgment, and things began to improve.
Until we hit the front straightaway.
He opened up the throttle IN A HURRY, aggressively popping through the gears in ascending order and jolting me backwards with each one. I can tell you that it’s quite worrisome to be inching your way rearward at 160 mph, against your will, right toward Life Everlasting and the overall unpleasantness of sliding nuts-first down the world’s most iconic stretch of speedway. No, that would have been entirely unacceptable and also embarrassing — there were too many photographers along the front stretch for that to happen. So I managed to wiggle forward while using Chris as a human shield against the wind and whatever else might be in our way, inadvertently keeping my head down in the process just as I had totally forgotten I was supposed to do. (IN YOUR FACE, LISTENING TO INSTRUCTIONS!!) My hands were by then permanently seizure-melded into the handle.
It was, without question, the most exhilarating/terrifying/wonderful/awful 15 seconds of my life.
That first lap, as I now know, was merely a “hot lap” of sorts. A get-your-bearings WARM UP lap…which I am not terribly proud to admit. The 2nd and 3rd laps, though — those were the KINGHELL, HAIR-ON-FIRE MEGALAPS that neither physics nor I care to explain. Yes, the turns were sharper and the speeds were higher and the WTF-O-Meter was permanently pegged toward the supernatural, but so what? This isn’t a grand & ambitious tale about Conquering One’s Fears or Learning to Trust or Discarding Your Firesuit Because You Soiled Them So Badly, it is none of that. I rode around IMS at unwise speeds atop an unwise vehicle for all the right reasons — or no good reason at all, I haven’t decided — and I will never, ever, EVER do it again.
Here's what Roy's ride looked like from a GoPro camera mounted on the tank of the bike.