Ever since my interview with road racer Walt Sipp for the February, 2005, issue of Cycle Connections, I have been looking forward to attending a race. The perfect opportunity arose when the American Superbike Racing Association (A.S.R.A.) and Championship Cup Series (C.C.S.) came to race at Heartland Park south of Topeka, Kansas, and less than ninety miles from home. The event took place the weekend of June 16 through 18. Due to other commitments, including a charity ride in St. Joe on that Saturday, my attendance was limited to the final day.
When I decided to cover this road race for Cycle Connections, it occurred to me that this was a form of motorcycle competition that I knew very little about. For years, I have attended flat track races, scrambles, motocross, hill climbs, and drag races, but I could remember attending only one road race, years earlier at Heartland Park Topeka. One thing I knew for sure was that in order to get good photos of the action, I would have to have close access to the racetrack. Acting on Walt’s advice, I contacted Ryan Hoyler who handles communications responsibilities for C.C.S. In the interest of safety, Ryan wanted to hear about my past experience at racetracks. After looking at a few photos I e-mailed, Ryan decided that I had sufficient racing exposure (no pun intended) to be granted track access. Since Ryan would be making his first trip to H.P.T., we determined that the best way to get set up on race day would be for me to call his cell phone when I arrived that Sunday morning. I grew more excited each day as I anticipated the opportunity to watch really talented riders in action on some of the fastest two-wheelers around.
In order to get to the track as early as possible on Sunday morning, I rode directly from St. Joe to Topeka on Saturday at the conclusion of the charity ride. As I headed toward the sunset, it became apparent that the first race of my weekend would be between me and the thunderstorms that were moving toward my path. The thunderstorms won, and I arrived at my brother’s home in Topeka soaked to the skin. Although feeling, and probably looking, like a drowned rat, I felt fortunate that it was only rain and not hail.
By Sunday morning, the storms were long gone, and the day dawned bright and clear. Ryan had arranged for my bright green photographer’s vest to be available at the pit entrance. I was also handed a list of safety rules that I would be required to observe. A point of strong emphasis was that I should make my presence known to the corner workers and follow their instructions to the letter, never setting foot on the track without their approval.
I met Ryan shortly after entering the pit area and found him to be as cordial and cooperative in person as he had been over the phone and through our e-mail contact. Ryan confirmed that I had become familiar with the safety rules, gave me a few tips on good photo spots around the 2.5-mile course, and offered to introduce me to C.C.S. Staff Photographer Ryan Schlagheck at the 11 a.m. riders’ meeting.
During the morning practice sessions, I got some practice of my own—with my camera. I spent most of the time touring the north end of the track where a series of turns offered several good vantage points for photography. This gave me a chance to get a feel for how fast these two-wheeled rockets would be moving at various points along the course. One of the corner workers delighted in sharing some jokes disparaging Harley riders. To his surprise, I provided him with a couple more that he had not heard. I had noticed that most of the racers waved as they went by on their final lap returning to the pit area. I remarked about this, and the corner worker told me “We have a saying, ‘No wave, no save.’” I thought the riders were just being friendly.
A large group from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Harley Owners Group rode to H.P.T. to serve as Walt’s personal cheering section. Blue Springs Harley-Davidson is Walt’s primary sponsor and also co-sponsors the H.O.G. Chapter along with Worth Harley-Davidson North. Dave Worth of Blue Springs Harley had generously made arrangements for the chapter members to enjoy a delicious catered lunch at the track. Walt took a few minutes from his pre-race schedule to join the group for lunch and a brief visit.
The riders’ meeting was pretty much routine, I’m sure, for the racers, but it gave me an additional chance to learn some of the nuances of motorcycle road racing. I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit with Ryan Schlagheck and benefit from his expertise at photographing this kind of racing. After the meeting, I returned to the north end to photograph some of the C.C.S. regional races, expert and amateur, that preceded the national events. During a break between races, a couple working one of the corners offered me a bottle of water. The afternoon heat had been building, and I gratefully accepted. This encounter provided another opportunity to further my road racing education as an interview ensued.
CC: What are your names and where are you from?
Alan: We’re Alan and Jennifer Bennett from Independence, Missouri.
CC: How did you come to be corner workers here at Turn 13 at Heartland Park?
Alan: We’ve been corner working mainly with sports car events since 1990. Most of the time, we are volunteers, but we’re getting paid for this event. We belong to the Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts Club which is the liaison between the track and the sanctioning bodies for the races. That’s how we came to be at this particular race.
CC: What are your duties as corner workers?
Alan: We communicate to the riders any conditions they need to be aware of whether it’s an obstruction on the track, another rider down, or anything that they need to be careful about. We are the first responders if there is a crash. We assist the rider in getting the bike out of the way, and we radio for medical help if it’s required.
CC: I see you are wearing heavy gloves.
Alan: Yes, sometimes hot things fall on the track and have to be retrieved. If a bike falls and pins a rider, you need to be able to grab anywhere on the bike to free him, and there are lots of hot parts on these bikes when they race.
CC: You have quite a collection of flags. Please talk about what each one means.
Alan: The yellow flag is the primary flag we use, and it indicates the need for caution. If you just hold it and don’t wave it, that means there is something that needs the riders attention in the next corner or two. If you are waving it, it means danger, and riders need to slow down. It might be something hazardous on the race track or just off the track. It could be a downed motorcycle, workers on the track, or something like that. The red flag means racing is stopped, and the riders should enter the pits at the next opportunity. The yellow and red striped flag indicates that there is something about the track surface that represents a safety hazard. It could be something slippery such as an oil spill or mud. It can also indicate there is debris on the track. They don’t stop racing but they have to be alert. The white flag indicates that there is a vehicle other than the racing bikes on the track. It could be an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance or a pickup and trailer sent out to haul something off the track.
CC: You are in constant radio contact with the other track staff, so you are aware of what’s going on everywhere around the track.
Alan: That’s right. We inform control of what’s going on at our corner and what we are doing about it. Control tells us if we need to display a flag and which one. Control advises everyone when the race begins and, during practice, when a session is ending. Control identifies the last bike, and each corner reports that bike passing, so everyone knows when the track is clear. We refer to the track as being “hot” or “cold.” If the track is “hot” you don’t want to be out there unless you are on a race bike.
CC: If I’m out there on a “hot” track, I’m going to lose my green vest and be sent home.
Alan: That’s quite likely.
CC: OK. Thanks for the lesson.
Since Walt focuses his primary effort on the Thunderbike Class, that was the race of greatest interest to me. I decided to pay a visit to the starting line as the racers took their pre-grid positions. It seemed odd to see bikes sitting on the asphalt sheltered by umbrellas against the blazing afternoon sun but with the tires wrapped up in warmers as if winter were imminent. While waiting to be released for their warm-up lap, the riders sweltered in their leathers with minimal relief provided by fans and shade from the awnings under which they huddled. When the field moved out for the warm-up lap, I hurried back to my trackside vantage point at the north end.
Since Walt had qualified for a front row position, I expected him to be among the first wave of riders to go by on the first competitive lap. However, I was shocked to see a large number of bikes pass before Walt’s blue, white, and black #221 Buell Firebolt came into view. It appeared that his advantage had been lost, and he would have to work hard in order to finish well. By the end of the first lap, Buell-mounted Dave Estok, the defending National Thunderbike champion, had taken the lead and would not be challenged for the win. Behind Estok, there was lots of action. In spite of a start Walt later described as “horrible” he managed to work his way through the pack. Two riders ahead of him left the race with mechanical problems, and another crashed on lap nine, leaving the door open for Walt to finish in third place behind Estok and Suzuki-mounted Ed Key. It was a good day for the Buells, as they also collected four wins and eight podium finishes during the C.C.S. support races at H.P.T.
My day at Heartland Park exceeded all of my expectations. Motorcycle road racing is a colorful and exciting sport. These riders race close together at high speeds and corner at amazingly steep angles. It’s like a graceful ballet, but with disaster ready to strike at the slightest waver of concentration or error in judgment.
Several days later, I stopped by Blue Springs Harley-Davidson where Walt works as the Service Manager. He was able to take a few minutes to share his views of the weekend at H.P.T.
CC: Fist, let’s talk about the track. Tell me about Hearland Park.
Walt: The track was built in the Eighties. Based on low fan attendance and the fact that the track was somewhat dangerous in its original configuration, motorcycle racing was discontinued until 1998. At that time the races were sanctioned by the North American Sportbike Series which became Formula U.S.A. which became the A.S.R.A., the series I race in. One of my first road races was at that track. After that, they didn’t hold any races at H.P.T. until 2003 when we went back there with Formula U.S.A. At that time the track was fun, but it was pretty bumpy. There were several spots that weren’t very good at all. Now, with new pavement and a change in configuration, it’s really a nice track, very smooth. It’s awesome, finally a track worth racing on!
CC: Was there a change of ownership that resulted in a new focus on road racing?
Walt: Yes, the current owner also owns the track at Blackhawk Farms. He’s a major motorcycle enthusiast, so that helps. He wants to get more motorcycle racing at the Topeka track, and one way to do that was to improve the surface.
CC: This was a Friday through Sunday event. When did you have your first chance to get on the track for practice?
Walt: I missed the first couple of rounds of practice on Friday due to other obligations. About a month before, I had been to a track day out there. We ran in a slightly different track configuration, but I still got to learn roughly 75 percent of the track. It was a chance to check out the new pavement, tire wear, general bike setup, and that sort of thing, so that was good. It helped me get re-acclimated to the place. But Saturday morning was my first chance to get on the track during race weekend.
CC: What was the weekend schedule?
Walt: On Friday, there were practice sessions and an endurance race. Saturday was practice in the morning, C.C.S. regional races, and A.S.R.A. national event qualifying in the afternoon. So I got a few laps of practice Saturday morning and went straight into qualifying.
CC: How does qualifying work?
Walt: Qualifying is conducted during twelve to fifteen minute timed sessions. You just try to put in the fastest laps you can during those sessions. Some racers like to go out together and work off each other. Sometimes you can use a draft. I intentionally went out by myself because I have some good track knowledge at Topeka, and I don’t want to give away the places where I can go fast. That way I could keep in my back pocket some things I knew would help me later during the race.
CC: You race two bikes in different classes.
Walt: I have a Buell that I race in the Thunderbike Class and a Suzuki that I race in the Sportbike and Superbike Classes. I ran in Superbike at Topeka primarily because my normal tire supplier wasn’t at the event, and the only thing I could put on it was slicks. It’s kind of underpowered for that class, but I ran anyway.
CC: How many total classes were run at the event?
Walt: For the national event series, there were three different classes, Sportbike, Superbike, and Thunderbike. Thunderbike is the class with the most riders. Sportbike and Superbike are both faster classes, but Thunderbike has a really interesting mix of bikes with a larger field of entries.
CC: How did your qualifying go?
Walt: In Thunderbike, I qualified fourth which put me on the front row. In Superbike, I didn’t qualify on my Suzuki. I decided to start at the back, since I didn’t get enough time to set that bike up properly. I didn’t want to hold up other riders because I was on the track with a bike that wasn’t set up. Superbike was also a lower number of entries, I think only twelve, so coming up from the back wouldn’t be as difficult as coming from the back in Thunderbike where there are usually twice as many riders.
CC: Let’s move on to Sunday.
Walt: There was one round of practice in the morning. Then there were some C.C.S. regional races and then the national championship classes. I had the Superbike Class up first on the Suzuki. I started in the back and finished eighth. I rode pretty hard for the first half of the race, and then eased off for a couple of reasons. First, I had a bit of front-end chatter I couldn’t figure out. More importantly, this wasn’t a class I run often, so I wasn’t really worried about accumulating points. I wanted to get myself relaxed for the Thunderbike race, since it was more important to me.
CC: How did that race go?
Walt: I had a front row starting position, but my starts have been poor this year. I got another horrible start in this race. I think just about everybody passed me at the start. It really broke my rhythm. Other than Estok who was on the pole, I thought I could match the pace of the other two riders on the front row. It was just a matter of getting a good start and getting away with them, but that didn’t happen, so I pretty much had to work my way through the field. I just tried to pass as many people as I could. As it turned out, some riders in front of me had problems that allowed me to make the podium.
CC: Talk about how the start works in road racing.
Walt: You start out on a ten-minute clock with the bikes in a pre-grid position. At the end of the ten-minute count, the five-minute board goes up. At that time you get the tire warmers off and go out for a warm-up lap. If you don’t take your warm-up lap on the five-minute board, you lose your grid position. By three minutes, you should be in your grid position and ready for the start. Then the one-minute board comes up After it goes sideways, the race will start at the wave of the green flag by the starter.
CC: On such a hot day, it looked kind of strange to see the tires all bundled up in the warmers.
Walt: You can go a lot faster on warm tires than cold ones. We want the tires at 170 degrees. The warmers are usually on for a total of about an hour before you go out. You wait until the last minute to pull them off so the tires have little time to cool off.
CC: You drag raced before you were a road racer. What’s the charm of road racing for you?
Walt: In drag racing, you pretty much get pumped up for your passes, but it comes and goes. For a road race, I’m always looking ahead and going through the track in my head, what I’m going to do, where I’m going to brake, and whatever. I’m going through it over and over during the week before the race, on the way to the track, I’m just constantly going through it. The excitement just builds and builds. You’ve run the race many times in your head before you even get on the track. It’s like nothing else! Then when you get there, and you’re on the track you get the adrenaline rush and the sense of speed and all of that, it lasts. It’s not something that comes and goes.
CC: Your concentration has to be intense.
Walt: Yeah. When you are sliding the bike on the asphalt, coming into a corner and going out of a corner, wheelieing on a short straightaway, banging bars with somebody at over a hundred miles and hour -- that gets you going! Motorcycle road racing is like that whether you’re just getting started or you’re an expert at the top of your game. As you advance in the sport, obviously your skills improve, but that sense of what you are doing never changes. You’re doing all those fun things, but you’re doing it at a different level. It’s awesome!
CC: What’s your approximate top speed at H.P.T.?
Walt: On the longest straightaway, we’re hitting 145 or so, and that’s not even one of the faster tracks.
CC: I understand your new bike was just delivered. Let’s talk about it.
Walt: It’s Buell’s new factory race bike. They are only building fifty with only twenty-five of those staying here in the U.S. As far as I know, we’re among the first to get one. The bike made its debut at Daytona in the Formula Extreme Class with world championship riders. We’re going to finish out the A.S.R.A. season on this bike. Next year’s plan is kind of up in the air whether we’re going to run A.M.A. or A.S.R.A. or a combination of both. This bike weighs 360 pounds and has 150 horsepower, so its 40 pounds lighter than my current bike and makes 30 more horsepower. I rode one of these at Topeka on Saturday morning, and I was really impressed with it! We’re going to be running it in the Superbike Class, so I’m going to be out of Thunderbike for the rest of the season. We’re trying to change out the Suzuki so we can go new with that as well. For Suzuki contingency money, you have to be on a bike no more than two years old, so I will have to get a newer one to be eligible for Suzuki money next year. I’ll need an ’06 or ’07 next year. They make improvements every year anyway. This year I’ve been underpowered on a bike that’s only a year old. You have to keep up with the technology to stay competitive.
CC: It helps to have good sponsors.
Walt: Definitely. Blue Springs Harley and my other sponsors help me out a lot. The Suzuki is kind of privately funded at the moment, but we can make a little money on it to pay some of the bills. Racing isn’t the most affordable way to spend your life. It takes a lot of money to do it. Without sponsors helping me out with tires, brake pads, safety equipment, travel, and everything I couldn’t do it, so I really can’t thank them enough. I addition to Blue Springs Harley, I get help from Lockhart Phillips, Sidi Boots, KBC Helmets, EBC Brakes, Buell, Sprocket Specialists, Laser Cycle, Funtastic, Vortex , and Hotbodies Racing .
CC: Thanks for the visit, Walt, and good luck with the new bike.
Readers, if there is a road race in your area, I would highly recommend that you check it out. The A.S.R.A. and C.C.S. circuit races at tracks from coast to coast. The schedule is available on their website.
Story and photos by Stripe
Podium photo courtesy of C.C.S. photographer Ryan Schlagheck.
Special Thanks to Ryan Hoyler, C.C.S., and a wave to all the corner workers.