Road or Track

by

Jeff Hughes

 

 

The sweat drips into my eyes, the salt stinging.  Once again I pull my upper arm across my brow, the already-damp T-shirt sponging away the moisture.  Then I dip the paint brush back into the bucket and return to applying the back-and-forth strokes against the side of the barn.  It’s not hard.

The new paint is a deep, rich blood red, contrasting sharply with the faded, yet-to-be-painted section.  Even knowing it will lose a hint of its sheen once it dries, it pleases me.  It’s just a little darker than the Ducati 1198SP that sits in the shade inside this very same barn, just a few feet away.  Parked in a row on the concrete slab along with the other three bikes.  The thought makes me smile.

An hour later the side of the barn is finished.  There is still one more to be done, but I judge that one side is sufficient for today.  I can finish the other next weekend.

It takes only a few minutes to stow the ladder and put away the gear.  After cleaning the brushes I turn the hose on myself, reveling in the shock of its coldness.

Walking back to the house, the kitchen is filled with the smells of a slow-cooking Sunday dinner.  Ginny is at the stove.  I pull a glass of ice water.

“How long before we eat?”

Ginny pauses.  “Probably an hour.  Maybe a little longer.”

I gaze out the window, contemplating.

“Okay,” I finally say, finishing the glass, “I think I’m going to go run a few quick laps.”

“Don’t be too long,” Ginny says.  “And be careful.”

Back at the barn, it takes me only a moment to strap on the back protector and shrug into the Dainese leather suit.  Pulling on my helmet, I turn to the bikes.  I’d really like to take the SP, but the fresh tires I put on last weekend are supposed to be for the upcoming track day at Mid-Ohio.  After debating for a moment, I swing a leg over the S1000RR.  It still has plenty of gas from last Sunday’s ride up on the Parkway with John and Kevin.

Motoring slowly down the hundred yards of gravel road, I glance up and see Mark, the farmer who owns the land adjacent to me, on his tractor a quarter mile away.  He waves and I lift my hand in return.  A little further and the gravel turns onto the hard-paved macadam.  Just past the small, hand-painted sign that says “Hughes International Raceway.”  I do a quick figure-eight on the small, rectangular section of pavement that serves as the “pit” and then head out onto the track proper.

Just over a mile long, the course is simply a fifteen-foot wide swath of pavement laid down in my lower pasture.  At eight turns and some modest elevation change it’s far from the most technical track I’ve ever been on.  But it’s mine and only two hundred yards from my front door.  I can run it whenever I want.

The BMW spools quickly.  I hold to little more than a brisk street pace for the first half-dozen laps.  Even that is enough to drop me instantly into that place where it’s all smooth and automatic.  One of the benefits that comes with utter intimacy.

With heat in the tires I lift my consciousness for a moment, surveying everything.  Then I squeeze the throttle, bringing the edge.  Making everything harden.

But not too much.  I’m terribly aware that there are no corner workers here.  No ambulance.  No quick response should something go awry.  The line is drawn thin, but not too thin.

Still, it’s enough.  The BMW flows through the turns with a studied grace.  And as I exit the last turn onto the short section past the pit, I think of how incredibly lucky I am.

And then I wake up…

 

 

 

And so there’s my fantasy.  Not fame.  Not fortune.  Not a mansion of a house.  And not a staff of servants to be there at my beck and call.  No, were my ship to come in, the one thing I’d want would be my own personal racetrack.

Alas.

I was reminded of it when some riding buddies and I were recently talking about track days.  One pal has so embraced his time on the track that he has completely forsworn riding on the street.  He’s not the first rider I’ve known that came to that conclusion. 

It’s really not all that surprising when you think about it.  To the neophyte, or to the rider who has never experienced it, the racetrack can seem like an utterly intimidating place.  Its elevated speeds, its intensity, its storied history of danger, and its seemingly much-higher-crash-per-mile ratio all conspire to present an environment that seems altogether frightening. 

Guys will tell you they can’t afford it.  More often than not the real reason – even if they don’t admit it to themselves - is that they are afraid.

But those who somehow manage to surmount that trepidation, who are able to experience the purity and the euphoria of the racetrack, often come back transformed.  I’ve known a couple riders who did a track day or two and called it a day.  But not many.  More often guys end up spellbound by the experience.

Ironically, among those who become zealots of the racetrack - the ones who forevermore give up riding on the street – the reason most often given is safety. 

The cognoscenti have clearly learned a higher truth.  But isn’t it strange that both the virgins and the veterans fly the same flag?

For me, choosing between the street and the track would be like choosing between two children.  I can’t do it.  I love them both far too much.

Against the purity of experience that the track offers – the mind-expanding and skill-enhancing crucible that beckons like an otherworldly light - the street brings a vast richness.  The street may be more dangerous.  But it also is far more varied. 

A few weeks ago I took a Friday off work and - with three days in hand - packed a few things, kissed Ginny goodbye, and headed down the road.  I had but a vague idea of where I was going – just a name on a map that had long intrigued me.

A day and half later I sat a few feet from my bike, hundreds of miles from home, wrapped in that good tiredness that comes after hours of riding hard-curving mountain roads, watching a golden sunset slowly descend around me.  It was one of those magic moments that come unbidden to the street rider, unanticipated, and yet offering a transcendent look into something bigger and more important than we’d have guessed was there.  Call it a quiet euphoria. 

Those moments alone are worth it all.

And then you add the other enduring advantage that the street holds – its simple accessibility.    Riding a racetrack requires at least a modicum of forethought and planning.  You have to decide days or weeks or even months in advance that you’re going to ride on a particular day – and then commit to the logistics and expense to make it happen.  If circumstances change, or your wife is in a sudden bad mood that day – too bad.

Riding on the street can be done just about any time you want.  My pal Kevin was working from home earlier this week.  With a forecast of snow for the following day, he knew he might get stuck not being able to ride for a few days.  So on his lunch hour he jumped on one of his bikes and took it out for a little spin.  Then he brought it home and took his other bike out for a similar quick twenty miles.  Just a spur of the moment kind of thing.

In a similar vein, I can’t count the times I’ve washed away the detritus of a bad day by going for an impromptu after-work ride.  Heck, just knowing that my bike is sitting out there in the shed, waiting for me whenever I’m ready, brings a powerful bit of mental ease.  What’s the old saw?  You never saw a bike parked outside a psychiatrist’s office.

And so no, I can’t imagine not having that immediacy, that ability to ride at the slightest whim.  It’s an advantage the street will always hold.

Unless you own your own racetrack.

 

© 2010 Jeff Hughes