Frying Pan Fiasco

 

Less power doesn’t equate to less drama as the CSBK introduces lightweight sportbikes 

 

My trophy is sitting atop a camping trailer belonging to a man named John Taverner. I just watched him scamper up the side of the trailer and place it there. The beer-can-sized trophy crowns Taverner’s trailer because he believes he earned it for a third-place finish in a lightweight sportbike race. But Taverner is wrong. The trophy is mine. The no-nonsense lady in the crisp white shirt from the Canadian Superbike Championship says so. Taverner, clearly, must surrender my trophy. Taverner, obviously, is reluctant to do so. I am hoping official intervention will keep me out of the fray, but as I wipe scrambled egg from a frying pan, Taverner approaches my pit. I step back, lower the pan to my side, twirl the flat bottom to face my inquisitor and brace for a donnybrook.

The author, oblivious to his pursuers, composes his podium speech at speed. He'd have been better off just paying attention.  

That I’m in the unseemly predicament of defending my podium finish with a six-inch aluminum fry pan is grossly unfair. Of the two dozen riders entered in the inaugural race of the lightweight sportbike class, I qualify an excellent third on a Honda CBR500R built by the race series. The Honda 500 is an anomaly in the sea of R3 Yamahas and Kawasaki Ninja 300s (and a few 400s) that populate the grid. (The Honda that should be on track is the machine that competes displacement- and price-wise with the rest of the grid—the CBR300R. But Honda’s 300 is gutless, and deferring to the 500 is like asking an older brother to punch-out a classmate for you—effective, yes, but a little embarrassing, too.)

 

A longstanding facet of road-racing in Canada are horsepower restrictions. In a sparsely-populated country with climate unfavourable to warm-weather pursuits, it’s believed limiting horsepower will curtail modifications, restrain cost, and encourage participation. The lightweight sportbike class limits horsepower to 42 (and mandates a minimum machine weight of 320 pounds). My lardy Honda 500 is granted three additional horsepower to haul its 50 extra pounds.

 

Handicapping horsepower is as black an art as handicapping horses. I hope for organizer miscalculation and that the Honda is the class of the field. I anticipate sandbagging my way through qualifying only to gallop away in the race. My dream dies in the first practice session. I have no advantage or disadvantage. Success will have to be earned. But though no one machine is capable of dominating another, one rider insists on humiliating the lot of us.

A racer does not fear dismemberment or death. A racer fears a foe with skill, nerve, skinniness, and youth. Jake LeClair is all that. While braking, his rear wheel paws the sky. And on corner entry he dangles his leg in the breeze like Valentino. He doesn’t just win all the races he enters, he wins every corner of every lap of every on-track session. He qualifies a time zone ahead of everyone. He never looks back and never lets up. And I doubt Jake LeClair is deep enough into his teens to have yet kissed a girl.

 

We enter the track for race one. I ride to the front row (ah, the front row) and slot in next to LeClair and Frenchman Alex Berthiaume, both on R3s. I trace a whiff of cheap sugary-sweet perfume to a pair of trackside teens. In a year or two this scent may debilitate young LeClair, but not today. His eyes sear to corner one and when the starting lights blink approval he disappears to the horizon. I slot into third behind Berthiaume and near the mid-point of the 10-lap race I’m ahead of the madding crowd but too far adrift of Berthiaume to muster a challenge.

Origami-inspired riding style of Jake LeClair hints at his youth. With winning a given, LeClair focused instead on crushing the competition. 

The race, to a spectator, is boring. But it’s not dull to me. In a few moments I will mount a podium, dutifully (and succinctly) praise LeClair and Berthiaume, and fulsomely thank the balance of the field for lagging a respectable distance behind. Then the unspeakable happens. Two riders collapse in separate incidents on the same corner of the same lap. The red flag is wagged, we slow and pull onto pit lane, and officials descend upon the accident to retrieve body parts and bike bits.

 

On pit row I slump on the guardrail and await the cue to enter the track for the restart. There is a palpable sense of a field revitalized by fresh opportunity, and I shift focus from honing my podium address to fending off the pack. I fail. Miserably. I blow the restart, sink into the pack, and claw my way back to fifth at the checkered flag.

 

But the end of the race isn’t the end of the scrapping. Second place Berthiaume and third-place Taverner fail the post-race dyno test for making too much horsepower, the penalty for which is the loss of finishing positions. This kerfuffle elevates Ninja-man Johann Plancque to second and me (!) to third. I am rewarded for playing by the rules. Except there’s more to it than that. The post-race dyno test occurs after the post-race trophy presentation. Whereas I should rightfully be swept to the podium, I am whisked away as an also-ran. Instead of looking triumphantly to the grandstand into a sea of eyes downcast onto smartphone screens, I return to my pit and gaze at the ground.

 

By the time the infractions of Berthiaume and Taverner are announced, the day is all but over and spectators are filing out. My initial thought is to implore the public address announcer to summon the crowd back to their seats, so the podium of law-abiding non-cheaters can have their moment. My speech, five laps in the making, can be resurrected. But as the sun sinks in the western sky I know the public is unlikely to cooperate—it pains me but they don’t care about our amateur race of little motorcycles.

Berthiaume and Taverner, instead of hanging heads in shame, are upset with the turn of events. But a dyno doesn’t make pejorative decisions. (Which isn’t to say a dyno is a straightforward device. Horsepower readings are dependent on humidity, barometric pressure, temperature, and, seemingly, the fit of your trousers.) All racers have access to the dyno to confirm machine output conforms to the rules before a race. It isn’t simply raw luck that skewers Berthiaume and Taverner; greed plays a part, too. They are attempting to butt their machines against the power limit without leaving a horsepower or two leeway. They play the game and they lose.

 

Taverner’s unwillingness to accept his comeuppance has me on edge, and the tall and strapping rider arrives at my pit seeking an audience. Taverner, undoubtedly, is irked as the no-nonsense lady in the crisp white shirt from the Canadian Superbike Championship has plucked my trophy off his camper’s roof and presented it to me.

Taverner, left, and Berthiaume prepare to give podium addresses that will later be redacted due to rules infractions. It's cold comfort to a rider given a posthumous podium.  

To my horror, Taverner brings emotion, not anger. The trophy, he says, was to be a gift to his young son to remember his father. I am fearful Taverner will break into a sob. Taverner speaks of the boy. I speak of the 42-horsepower limit his Ninja 300 exceeded. He was over. Taverner (with a long and complex justification) admits it. Taverner shakes my hand and glumly walks away. I sink into a lawn chair and look at the trophy.

 

A half-hour passes and I can’t get Taverner’s boy from my mind. I imagine something horrible happening to Taverner. A plunge to his death while extricating a cat from a tree, perhaps. Or a grand piano crushing him outside a luxury condo when a hoist fails. Maybe this trophy will mean something. Perhaps, in 50 years, the trophy will be all the boy—now a middle-aged man—has to remember his father. Enough. I flip-flop over to Taverner, and, handing him my trophy, suggest he place it back on the roof of his trailer. For this I receive a bone-crushing hug and the agreement of all within earshot that I’m a helluva stand-up guy.

 

On Sunday afternoon, in the final race, I podium. I am in second place behind Berthiaume (LeClair sits this one out) until the last corner when I’m punted out of the way by Ryan White. Third will suffice. I ascend the podium. I look up. The grandstand holds but a handful of sunbaked souls. The weekend is done. My speech from yesterday—polished, witty, gracious, self-deprecating—cannot be summoned. I mutter something unintelligible into the microphone while looking up at a man ferociously scratching the valley between his shoulder blades with the bill of his trucker cap. I suspect he has fleas. Or ticks. Suddenly, I become itchy and jump off the podium with a light-footed dexterity I could have better put to use on the racetrack. Too little, methinks, a little too late.