Inside a pit crew at Laguna Seca during the MotoAmerica season finale.
As exciting as a track day is, especially when one is riding a new track like Sonoma Raceway, I knew our West Coast racing adventure had just begun. To have a successful weekend we needed two essential ingredients- preparation and relaxation. Those two tend to go hand in hand in my experience as the more prepared you are, the more relaxed you’ll be when the racing starts.
I woke up the next morning and got some exercise in before the day’s activities began. Seeing as we were deep in wine country, we thought it wise to make sure we did the second item on our list and relax. That meant having the tough task of visiting the local wineries. As we made our rounds, I couldn’t help but think this must be what some of the MotoGP riders do before race weekends in picturesque locales in Italy or Spain. It all felt a bit surreal.
Two essential ingredients- preparation and relaxation
The next day Pat and I got to work on his bike prep for the weekend. One thing we needed to do was a clutch change, so we got down to business. Doing maintenance like this requires the bodywork to be removed, which is a perfect opportunity to give the bike a once-over to ensure everything is where it should be, all the nuts and bolts are tight and nothing needs to be fixed.
Once the preparation was done, we got back to more relaxation. A short drive later we grabbed a nice seaside lunch and stopped by the ocean to take in the views. As much as I love wrenching, I will admit the relaxation part of the race weekend prep was quite appealing. As we headed back to Sonoma for dinner, we picked up a local delicacy of fresh clams and I experienced my first go at shucking. It was a great evening with mild temperatures and a calm atmosphere. We discussed some of the logistics for the trip down to Monterey for the following day and got a game plan together for move-in. In addition, we discussed scenarios for the weekend and setting up our camp at Laguna Seca, which would be home for the next couple of days.
California Wine Country is breathtakingly beautiful.
For the race weekend I had two main goals. One was to make sure I could help Pat be as successful as possible. Next, I hoped to observe and learn as much as I could for when I try my hand at MotoAmerica racing next year. Our game plan for a successful weekend was straightforward. Pat wanted me to help during practice and qualifying in case we had an issue to fix, make suspension changes, or any tire swaps. During the actual races he wanted me to go out and make sure to get some photos of him, which I was happy to oblige.
Thursday morning, we got packed up and got under way for Monterey. Our convoy consisted of Pat, Erica, their dog Bruce, Matt (Pat’s Brother), Loree and her husband Mike, one of Pat’s sponsors and were also our amazing hosts in Sonoma. We made good time down to Monterey, avoiding the San Francisco traffic and arrived at the track with time to spare.
Hurry up and wait.
One of the first things to be ready for when a MotoAmerica weekend starts is the wait for move-in. There are three groups designated by MotoAmerica and once you arrive at the track, you need to tune in to the track frequency on your track radio and wait for your name to be called. We were at the beginning of the third group, so we knew we had some time to kill. Since not all teams are on the radio or run late, progress into the raceway tends to get backed up and take longer than expected.
Since we had extra time, we stopped off for some breakfast then rode to our campsite in the beautiful hills nearby to set up camp. Once we got situated, we headed back to the track. We checked in, picked up our credentials and got our first glimpse of the legendary track. We walked out of the registration building, which is situated just to the right of the track after Start/Finish and soaked in our first sights of Laguna Seca. From here, you could see most of the track other than the back section around the Corkscrew. However, you could see the elevation of the hill leading up to the famous section of track. Viewing all the various elevation changes and how the track carves itself through the hillside is quite breathtaking. I envisioned myself being on track, hard on the gas over the hill at turn one, all the way to the roller coaster downhill section out of the Corkscrew, through Rainey Curve.
Laguna views do not disappoint.
After some more waiting, we got the call to move-in. We pulled into our designated area and worked on setting up our pit for the weekend. Pat rolled the bike out and I walked with him to tech to get the tire sheets, weekend schedule and tire fitment schedule. This schedule, I learned, lists when each class is eligible to visit the Dunlop tent to get tires fitted. You cannot bring your tires over before your designated time.
We got through tech and Pat finalized his plan with the team for tire changes and which compounds he planned to run during practice and qualifying. Our goal was to do a tire change midway through Practice, Qualifying 1 and then Qualifying 2 if needed. The purpose was to see where we could get on used tires before putting on new rubber. We dropped off the wheels to have fresh rubber mounted then returned to mount the freshly shod wheels on Phil’s bike. By now it was late afternoon, so we headed out for a walk of the track which I was eager to do. Even if I couldn’t ride the track this weekend, being able to walk it was the next best thing.
The elevation change in the Corkscrew is incredible.
With Road America being my home track, I was looking forward to a shorter walk around Laguna as the track is a little more than half the length. The tradeoff is much more elevation changes are compacted into this shorter circuit. The part I was looking forward to the most, as one might guess, was the famed Corkscrew, among the most iconic corners in racing. Much like the Grand Canyon or Pikes Peak, pictures do not do this justice. The elevation change in the Corkscrew is incredible and you can’t really grasp it unless you’re standing there, which I did. Picture a blind crest followed by a 5.5 story drop in only 450 feet of track length, from Turn 8 entrance to the exit of Turn 8A, with a combined total of just over 10 stories when Turn 9 is counted.
As we continued our walk, I noticed how beautiful the area surrounding Laguna is. At the top of the Corkscrew you can see Monterey and the ocean in the distance while the countryside surrounds you within its rolling hills and expansive landscape. Walking the track at sunset just added to the experience. As we continued walking corner to corner, Pat’s brother Matt gave us some insights on his time riding there and some general guidelines for Pat to remember when he was on track. I did my best to soak up what I heard and commit his knowledge to memory. Once we finished the track walk it was getting close to dinner time, so we left the track with a good feeling as we prepared for the weekend ahead.
There are views, then there are views.
The next morning, our first practice session was set for at 9:50 AM. Our plan was to start with a set of tires Pat used from the track day at Sonoma then change to a fresh set midway through. With some time to kill, I grabbed my camera and headed over to the garages for Superbike practice. I stopped along the way to chat with some familiar faces and touch base with Max Flinders and Ben Smith to make sure we would be able to get our final interviews for the season later in the weekend.
Once I returned, we finalized bike prep for Supersport Practice 1. We sent Pat out then moved everything we needed into our trackside pit area. Pat started out with a good pace, building up each lap and working on different brake points and lines. One area of specific interest was Turn 11, the last and slowest corner on the track and so important for drive onto the front straight. After a few laps Pat came in, we did the tire change and chatted briefly about what he was feeling then sent him back out. By the end of the session, Pat was in P16 with a best lap of 1:32.648, a solid start to the weekend considering this was his first time at Laguna Seca.
Suddenly, Pat came in after only 5 laps.
After each practice, qualifying and post-race all competitor machines must go to “Parc Ferme” for a technical inspection. After roughly 30 minutes an announcement is made over the radios that machines are ready to be picked up. Once this was done and with the bike back in our pit, we discussed Pat’s strategy and any changes he wanted to make. The only thing he wanted to change was the angle of his shift lever for easier gear changes. I made the adjustment, checked to make sure it was tight (remember this for later) and we were ready for Qualifying 1.
The game plan for Q1 was the same as Practice. Pat run hard several laps and then come in to change the rear tire. Then we would send him back out and he would do his best to improve. Our guess was he would do around 8 laps or so before he would make his pit stop. Everything seemed to be going as planned when suddenly, Pat came in after only 5 laps. Apparently, I made a mistake and the bolt holding his shift lever had come off. I felt terrible and quickly rushed back to the pits to retrieve the spare nuts/bolts so we could get him back underway. We made sure to have some tire warmers, basic tools, duct tape, zip ties and a tire gauge but no spares. Something I made mental note of for next time. While I ran back to the pits, Pat decided to do the rear tire swap so he could go back out on fresh rubber. I put a new bolt in and triple checked to make sure it was tight. Pat rolled back out of the pits and I nervously waited to see if my fix worked. Thankfully, everything was good and Pat got back into the groove. Unfortunately he kept getting caught up in rider traffic. Yet he managed to improve on his time from practice with a best lap of a 1:31.364 placing him in 17th overall and only a couple of tenths from the top 15.
Yes, the Corkscrew is steep.
Even with these minor setbacks, Pat felt he had time left on track which is always good to hear from a rider. It can be frustrating when you are working your hardest, racing at 110% and you can’t figure out how to go quicker. We took the positives from the day and felt ready for Q2 the next morning and the races ahead. With the Pat’s on-track activities done, I took some time to go out and shoot photos of the other classes, as I was still covering the weekend for Road Dirt and wanted to catch up on our final interviews with Max Flinders and Ben Smith once the weekend was over.
When I returned, we finished loading up for the evening and headed back to our campsite to shower and get ready for dinner. We decided to go catch the sunset by the ocean and have dinner in Carmel, which is known as the higher end area of Monterey. Even though I have been around higher end areas over the years at events such as the Vintage Car Weekend at Road America, there is something to be said about walking in a quaint southern California town and suddenly seeing a Ferrari 250 GTO parked casually on the street. What a sight. With dinner completed, we headed back to the campsite and readied for Saturday and the first race of the weekend.
Suddenly seeing a Ferrari 250 GTO parked casually on the street. What a sight.
The next morning we arrived at the track early for our aforementioned “preparation & relaxation” ritual. I took this extra time to snap some photos and walk around the paddock to check out the special “King of the Baggers” class. These teams brought some impressive rigs and while I’m not a cruiser guy, it was fascinating to see all the engineering that went into these bikes to make them race worthy. The teams certainly were taking this seriously and it was good to see more interest brought into the sport.
Before Pat rolled out for the second Qualifying session, I checked the shift lever again just to give myself peace of mind. Pat wanted to try a different tire compound with our normal tire change strategy part way through the session. As planned Pat did his thing, Matt gave him his position and time on a white board while Mike gave needed updates on live timing. Given the cost of a full professional pit board, I have to say I was impressed with the low-tech but effective solution. Another item I put in my mental toolbox for future use. Pat made his planned pit stop and we did the rear tire change which to my relief was uneventful. Pat went back out and was running consistent laps, but we could tell he was getting caught up in traffic. We discussed having Pat wait and get some space if he ran into this issue and he did just that. Once he got clear track, Pat was able to drop his times and finished strong by the end of the session improving again with a lap of 1:30.315 to put him 16th on the grid. The first task was done and now all we had to do was get ready to race!
Seen in town. Ferrari 250 GTO. Racing runs deep in Monterey.
After Qualifying was over, I went to catch the Superstock 1000 race where I got to see the now Wisconsin based rider of Danilo Lewis take his first podium in the class. Danilo did some racing at several of our CCS club events this season so seeing him come away with a great finish was very exciting.
Since Laguna Seca was not open to fans for this final round of the MotoAmerica season, the Supersport class was using a quick start procedure which meant no interviews on the grid. The riders got a sighting lap, stopped on the grid with one crew member, went back out for the warm-up lap and then the race would start. As Pat rolled out of the pit area, I decided to go up by the Corkscrew to catch the start of the race.
I excitedly waited to see the bikes wind into view.
The green flag dropped, and I positioned myself at the bottom of the Corkscrew facing the entry to watch the snake of bikes come through. As I heard the bikes approach, I excitedly waited to see the bikes wind into view. As they made their way down the elevator drop of the Corkscrew, I held the shutter button to capture as much as I could and saw Pat come into view. He had lost a couple positions but was right in the pack.
I made my way next to Rainey Curve to watch the bikes flow through the long downhill left-hander. By Lap 5 Pat had made up several positions and was in 15th place. Over the next few laps, Pat built up a gap and due to some attrition and his steady pace, moved up to 14th. Roughly 2/3 of the way through the race, I walked back up to the Corkscrew so I could catch the bikes on the last lap. As I watched the field roll through, I noticed Pat was giving ground to the rider behind him. Looking at timing and scoring, I could see he was losing time throughout the lap. Pat was riding defensive, holding off for all he could but by the end he lost a couple of positions and ended the race in 15th. Still a solid effort in the points but not what he was hoping for.
Getting my knee down on the Corkscrew.
After the race, we found out Pat was losing power and the bike was sputtering on the throttle. We discovered the tank foam that is required to be placed inside of the gas tank per MotoAmerica rules had gelled and worked its way down to the fuel pump causing a clog. The foam did what it was supposed to but lessons learned- you need to clean your fuel pump more regularly when racing in MotoAmerica. It was disappointing and I felt bad for Pat because his hard work and dedication was hindered by a random issue, but it was better than putting the bike on the ground.
With the fuel pump cleaned, we all made our way up to the Corkscrew for the much-anticipated Baggers Class race. Mike’s wife Loree shares my love of photography and is an accomplished shooter in her own right. This was her first experience at photographing Laguna and we were both eager to catch shots of the Baggers. If there is one spot on track that was sure to be entertaining, it was the Corkscrew, with these big cruisers scraping hard parts along the way down. The race did not disappoint with some good battles throughout and Tyler O’Hara came away with the win on the S&S Indian Challenger after a slight off-track excursion and fighting his way back up to the top spot. Hopefully MotoAmerica brings the class back next season as I am sure it will be a fan favorite.
There is something to be said about an actual family run and supported team.
After the race we got back to the campsite, cleaned up then met with Pat’s family for a nice relaxing dinner. Seeing how supportive Pat’s family is to his racing made me smile. The racing community is a family, but there is something to be said about an actual family run and supported team. It adds a special element to be surrounded by those who know you so well and I was glad Pat was amongst family and friends after a day that did not go according to plan. After the much-needed relaxation we headed back to our campsite for the night.
With a new morning upon us, the feeling of a new day to reset the misfortune of Saturday was welcomed. Everyone was feeling good but Sunday was going to greet us with an added twist. Typically, each morning at Laguna Seca the track is covered in a dense fog that lifts throughout the morning as the sun breaks through. The temperatures start cooler but quickly warm up. However, this morning the fog was lingering and as the morning warm up sessions got under way, fog gave way to mist.
Pat railing through Rainey Curve.
I was up in the Corkscrew just as the mist picked up at the end of the Twins warm-up and I could see the entire Superbike field tiptoeing their way around. The mist engulfed the track but at the higher elevation of the Corkscrew it was coming down heavier. The track was not wet enough for full rain tires, but was slippery enough that riders needed to be extra cautious. The hard part about these conditions is even if you are careful you can still get caught in a crash without warning. One of those unfortunate riders was Kyle Wyman, who crashed as he slowly entered the Corkscrew. I felt for him as he has endured a rather difficult season, but his bike didn’t look too beat up and fortunately he was not hurt. Not many riders stayed out after those couple of laps, so I headed back to the pits to see if Pat was planning to venture out.
We wanted to make sure the fuel pump cleaning had fixed the power issue, so the original plan was to go out for a few laps for warm-up. However, with the wet track, Pat decided he would do only two laps and come in. He just needed to run the bike wide open on the straights to ensure it was not being starved of fuel. He rode gingerly out onto the track and two laps went by, yet he stayed out. We figured the bike must be working well. Also, as a bonus, he got some broadcast time, being one of the few brave riders out on track. When you are a privateer giving your all, any TV time is welcomed and I always enjoy MotoAmerica showcasing their riders like Pat who are doing everything they can, making it happen themselves without factory support and big budgets. Even as more riders ventured out Pat was able to stay at the top of the time sheets for the warm-up. Some would say it is not a race and doesn’t matter, but being quickest in a session still means something.
Being quickest in a session still means something.
With the fueling problem fixed, we were feeling good and ready with everyone assigned their jobs. I was going to stay in the pits this time and give Matt the info he needed for the pit board. In the meantime, I went to catch Superbike Race 2 which was declared wet. They let the riders out for a 10-minute sighting lap session with most riders opting for rains. However, by the start of the race everyone had changed over to slick tires. The weather shook things up at the start, but Cam Beaubier ended up winning the race in his usual dominant fashion.
With the Superbike race concluded and the Twins race getting under way, I made my way back and the team made final preparations for the Supersport race 2. By now the track was fully dry and Pat was feeling ready to serve up some speed. He rolled out of the pits and we made our way to the wall to catch the start. Even though I’ve been around plenty of race starts, it still gets my heart pumping when the green flag drops and a field of high powered motorcycles claw at the pavement, struggling for traction as the front wheel fights to reach skyward.
The author with Stock 1000 racer Danilo Lewis, upon taking his first podium of the 2020 season.
Pat got a great start and made up a few positions. However, coming out of the last turn he was hit by someone and lost several positions, ending the first lap in 18th. As we watched the laps progress Pat was having trouble matching his times from the day before, yet was running a very consistent pace. A little over half-way through the race he started dropping his times. As he came by to start lap 11, he set his best lap of the race.
I watched the segment times and noticed Pat had not made it through sector 3. We turned to watch in the distance as the bikes came down Rainey Curve and Matt said he did not see him. Fearing the worst, I grabbed Erica and we hopped on the scooter to head towards Turn 5, which starts the uphill climb towards Rahal Straight. We didn’t see anything but I figured out by this time that Pat had crashed out. Quickly, we made our way back to the pits and saw Pat in the distance with his bike parked by the tech area.
Pat fought hard to the end and gave it his all.
We were relieved to see Pat, figuring it was not a serious crash. Pat explained he kept getting chatter going into corners which he did not experience the day before. We theorized it may have had something to do with the cooler track temps. This also explained why his pace was slightly slower than the previous race. The bike itself was in decent shape, mainly some cosmetic damage to the bodywork but easily repairable. Obviously, this was not the way we wanted to end things, but Pat fought hard to the end and gave it his all.
Regardless of how the races went, I was proud of Pat and admired his attitude and how he conducted himself throughout the weekend. Having been around when Pat started off as an amateur club racer in the Midwest, it was inspiring to see how much he has improved as a racer on and off track. Unlike myself, Pat is one of those racers who seems like they can just hop on and be fast. I know there is more to it than that, but I guess he just makes it look easy!
In so many ways, racing is truly a family affair. Thankful I could spend the weekend with them.
As we packed up to end the weekend, Pat and I concluded we will have to come back next year for some redemption. Who knows, maybe I’ll join him on track in the Twins Cup! We said our goodbyes and got our team photos in before parting ways. Pat and Erica were heading off to Lake Tahoe for some R&R, his family was heading back up to Sonoma and I was heading to San Francisco to catch my morning flight. As I left the track and headed north, I looked back on the weekend feeling content. Yes, it ended in a crash, but you cannot put a price on memories and this week had been full of them. I feel very privileged to have been part of this family race weekend and I can’t thank Pat, Erica, Matt, Mike, Loree, and Pat’s family for all of their hospitality and making me feel like one of their own.
If you have the opportunity to experience a race weekend with a friend or family member, I encourage you to do it. Even at the club level, the feeling of camaraderie and family is immediate and no matter the outcome you’ll leave the weekend with a different and better outlook than you started with. I have been around racing for a few years now and I always learn something new. I constantly yearn for that feeling of togetherness that you get at the track and it’s something I think we could all use a bit more of in our lives.
Ryan “Ryhno” Nolan