Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Checkered Flag at Sriperumbadur

This is the defining moment, one that leaves an indelible mark on the memory.
The hands of the tower clock push max angle between them; 12:30 on a hot Sunday afternoon on the Madras Motors Sports Club Race Track at Irungattukottai, Chennai.
I see nearly 10 other bullets through my visor, ahead of me on the grid. There are spectators on the sidelines wanting to catch the start; the lenses zoomed in, larger crowds gather on the two towers overhead.
A Marshal runs up with a “Three Minutes” Placard. A bead of sweat slides down from within the helmet, the breathing gets deeper, and all senses coalesce on the five red lights up ahead. There is a deafening thundering roar as the bikers rev up their variously modified bullets. “Two Minutes”, “30seconds” and “5 seconds” cards come and go, in quick succession; the 20 odd bikers looking ahead in enervating anticipation. I pull the clutch lever and shift into first gear, rev hard and keep it there. Five red lights go on, one after another from right to left… one, two, three, four, five opening the floodgates of adrenaline in sync. And then they go off, all at once… my race has just started.

Rewind quickly three days to find out how I landed here. The fourth leg of the Ucal Rolon National Road Racing Championship was adding (after nearly 10yrs) the Bullets and (other?) superbikes class to its 110 and 160cc categories. The invitation was extended to RTMC, and after re-affirming with Mamadi and Prashy, I decided to check out the track myself. In the hindsight, if I had even a semblance of what was in store for me, I swear, I would have chickened out.

There were a few easy-to-overcome roadblocks. Get the bullet in shape – replace the chain and sprocket and removed the main stand. The plan to go to Chennai was made over hot Mysore filter coffee at Java City at the club’s meeting. The forms were filled and everything was in place. I had to put lotsa gas to convince folks at home, this time I have stretched limits, I reckon. I applied leave on Friday (yes, contrary to most cases, my weekends are spilling over my work days and I, for one, am not complaining).

Mama, Anil and I left to Chennai on Friday (1st Sep) at 7 in the morning. Riding steady 80kmph on the bare Krishnagiri-Vellore route, we reached Sriperumbadur by 1:30pm, some 340 odd kms. The vroom vroom sounds of the 110 and 160cc bikes as we entered the MMSC race track, brought the first signs of doubts if I wanted to be among these mad men. We were welcomed with bad news at the pits from the Rolling Thunder Assault Team, Prashy and Abhi, out two leading racers had a crash, Prashy’s piston had two holes, exhaust valve broken and wrecked the head & tappet rods and Abhi had crashed trying not to run over Prashy on the track. All this on the very first day, two more such days to go!

The Madras Motors Race track at Irungattukottai was the first of its kind in India was inaugurated in 1990. The grand prix run a full 50 laps here. I was sapped out for a mere 5 laps, the 110cc and the 160cc classes ran 8 laps.
In the next 24 hours, I rode to Chennai, met up my relatives, caught up with two batch mates from IIML, Kamal and Krishna at Tidal Park.
I had to do a lot of “------- (replace by name of place) yenge?” to find my way around. “straight pongo sir, last le, right turn panna, ange iruku”. Meaning “go straight, and take a right turn in the last (end)”. You would not go any further on a straight road if you knew you had to take a turn, right. The road will continue, and hey, I don’t know where to go (if you get any of that, you are either a Tamilian or a genius).

Anyways, I got back to the race track by 3:15 on Saturday afternoon, with the practice for the bullets starting at 4:30. I thought I had enough time to take off my crash guards, mirror, tape the indicators, etc. Wrong! The bullets were already on track and there was 15 mins left to get any practice.
I was ushered into the track on my fully loaded TB, just managed to take off my tank bag. As I entered the hot lane, instruction given to me was simple, “Ensure you don’t fall, you have too much glass”.
For the practice, the bullets shared the short loop with the super bikes – Ninjas and CBRs. I was glad I had the mirrors on, to make way when the super bikes sped past. There was one rider who was flashing headlights and all, I caught him on my rear view mirror. After burning some fuel and rubber (off my foot peg only) on the wet track, I got back to the pits, 6 short laps later. The veteran racer, Subhash Chandra Bose, gave us some valuable tips on lines to take, there is so much more to learn.

After the practice, most of us headed back to Chennai. After checking out the MadBulls Shridhar's office (half of RTMC used the office to crash for the night), I headed to Porur, my cousin’s place.

On Sunday morning, I reached the race track at 8, hoping to get some more practice early in the morning. The rest of RTMC was late, sleeping over the hangover from Bikes n Barrels the previous night. Unlike the previous night, there was scrutiny of the bikes and riding gear. I was under clothed for the race, no full gloves, no knee pads. Prashy had pulled out of the race, despite an overnight engine rebuild and I got to use the champ’s riding suit.
The races for the moped class, 110cc and 160cc class went on till noon. By now my ears for-ever reverberating to the sound the mopeds and bikes revving on track or testing in the pits. The 50cc mopeds race at 100-90kmph, throttles locked at max.
At noon, the announcements for the bullets sounded. I said a silent prayer, the idea of backing out did cross my mind once, do I really want to go out there! Hell, I was not going to chicken out now.
We wheeled the bullets to the cold lane and waited as instructions were barked out. When the bullets came out into the track, one after the other, it was almost like the gladiators come out into the Roman arena. I started among the last four on the starting grid, feeling like Narayan Kartikeyan. By the time the first curve (MRF curve) was taken, there were 3 bullets behind me and one close ahead. The qualifying was my best race, for a large part I was catching up with the heavily modified (it had a double silencer) No. 1 bullet ahead. I got him on three occasions on tight inner line, but was unable to keep the lead. I had to keep my nerves tight, especially when the lead was taken from me.
For most part of the race, my strategy was to move from the outer to the inner line. I really loved most corners:

MRF Corner – Took this one mostly at 90-100kmph. The straight provides the chance to clip and take the curve at nearly fully throttle.
GoodYear Corner – The straight before this is a long one, I would consistently hit over 100kmph before braking and gearing down before the Goodyear corner.
The Never ending – This is one I loved most. Keep the throttle open, tilt the bullet till the rubber on the foot peg scrapes the camber, take the inner line and keep going and going and going, never ending really. I hear the super bikes take this at 220kmph!!
The Bridge Corners – I hated these, the S-shaped corners were where I scraped my pegs and god-knows-whatever else most. Couldn’t do any speed on this either.

There is so much to learn to be able to take these corners with élan, to make the curves work for you. But when you clip on those curves, the bullet tilting to hug the curves, and every part - the eyes, hands, thighs, knees, ankles working in sync, you forget the world.

I finished 15th out of 19 bikers on qualifying almost feeling like Narain Karthikeyan. It was a good race for Abhi from RTMC, who finished first on the 350cc category and second overall.
The next race was at 5:15 or so. In the meantime, the super bikes who took to track, to the delight of the crowds, also had a major crash, also to further the delight of the crowd. Ordinary packed vegetarian food tasted great, maybe also because it was covered in the 100 bucks you pay for the registration.
The race in the evening was a replica of the qualifying – only this time around, I didn’t have the No. 1 guy running in front and had the track for myself after the first lap. I tried to catch up with Sultan on his 500cc, but fell short of power.

At the end of the race, all the bulleteers were given mementos – a trophy to take home and show-off. I had to fit back my side stands, guard and lights in a hurry to make the bullet highway-fit.
We left the track at 6:30 in the evening. Boom was at the point, ripping at 100+, sultan and I formed the sweep. After Krishnagiri, we had to slow down, to stay with Manan, who had a loose chain. But the whole road is simply awesome and a great one to do at night. Got back home by 1am – 935kms of bliss!!

As I type this entry, I am being driven on bumper-to-bumper traffic on Airport Road and I am translocated, so much that I almost smell rubber.

Some race track terms that I googled:
parade lap
When the bikes in a race travel around the track before the start of a race. Done to warm up the bikes, particularly the tires.
The roll, angle, or canter of the road surface left and right from the direction of travel. Often corners are angled or banked in favour of the driver; when angle is unfavourable the road is described as off-camber.
cold lane
Lane in pit where bikes wait to enter track. See "hot lane."
hot lane
Lane in pit used by bikes exiting or re-entering track. See "cold lane."
green flag
Track ahead is clear for driving at speed.
yellow flag
Standing or held steady, it indicates there is a minor hazard on track ahead or perhaps a bike off-track. Use caution. When the flag is waved, it means there is a major hazard ahead; so use extreme caution.
A person working at a station along the track, usually a corner. They monitor and report the condition of bikes and the behaviour of drivers. They will display flags to provide information or warn a driver. They maintain contact with the chief marshal or "track steward."
decreasing radius
A corner that tightens. It requires increased steering input after the apex. Very challenging. Opposite from an increasing radius.
deep into a corner
Braking later into a corner, usually to overtake a bike. Often needed when taking an inside line. Also referred to as "going deeper."
inside line
If attempting to pass in a corner, race drivers will often attempt an inside line or "groove." They move to the inside surface of the track before a corner, then they attempt to outbrake their opponent by braking later but harder. If done successfully they will shoot by the bike driven the racing line and be ahead at the apex. This often causes the aggressive driver to early apex giving the defending driver a better line at the exit. See "outbrake," "the line."
in slow, out fast
A reminder that your overall or exit speed in a corner will be faster if you're slower at the entrance. A driver that exploits this is described as being "quick in the corners."
line, the
An imaginary line around a track that permits the highest speed. Through corners this is the greater arc from the outside edge from the end of a straightaway (turn-in point) through the inside edge of a corner (apex) to the outer edge at the end of the corner (exit point). This is often visible on a race track as a darker region from tire residue. This is not necessarily the shortest distance around a track. Sometimes referred to as the race line or dry line. See "wet line," "off-line," "inside line."

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