Scooter racing at Thunderdrome
Posted by elizilla, 18 October 2010 · 1013 views
This isn't a VFR story, but I had such an awesome time last weekend that I wanted to share it with you guys anyway. I got to go scooter racing! I didn't make this video and I don't know the guy who did, but I'm in it. You can see me at around 5:45, getting off to a lousy start. I'm wearing the same leathers as in my userpic.
So here's the story:
My friend Erik at Current Motors invited me to go scooter racing at an event called ThunderDrome. Current Motors makes electric scooters and they had an extra one that I could ride. It sounded pretty fun, so I got up earlier than I ever normally get up on a Saturday morning, and rode the NT out to Dorais Park, on the north side of Detroit.
The event parking was in a lot on Mound Road that obviously didn't belong to the park. I suspect there might have been a building there at one point, but now, all that remained was concrete, with weeds and small trees growing in the cracks. The lot had a huge fence around it, a serious fence, fifteen feet of chain link and a second fence about half that tall, and about two feet between the fences, with spirals of barbed wire. There were several mechanical gates whose mechanisms had obviously not been used in years. Once upon a time, someone really didn't want people getting in there. But one of the gates had been torn down, allowing entrance. The cars were all clustered in the south end. I picked a course that avoided the worse of the large weeds, and made my way down there and parked. All the pedestrian traffic was going through a hole in the fence, into the park, and I followed. This corner of the park was overgrown and shaded by small trees, but someone had cut the grass at least once this year. There was one large pile of trash but other than that it wasn't too bad. I liked it, it felt like trespassing. On the other side of the trees, there was a path that was probably once paved, but it was well on its way back to nature. It led towards all the activity.
The race course was a velodrome. Velodrome bicycle racing was hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when indoor courses with wooden tracks drew large crowds to watch as bicycles with fixed gears and no brakes raced. Velodromes are steeply banked ovals, and they're steeper at the ends, so steep that you never get onto the sides of your tires. There are still velo bicycle clubs here and there, but it's nowhere near as popular as it was in its heyday.
The Dorais Velodrome was built in the 1960s, and is concrete rather than the traditional wood. Like much of Detroit's infrastructure, it had been abandoned and neglected for many years, until the Thunderdrome organizers got interested in it. They spent a lot of volunteer hours there to unearth it, remove the weeds and small trees that had grown up, clear debris, and patch the pavement as best they could. It was still fairly bumpy, but not unmanageable. As they said, the bumps won't kill ya. And at least they didn't put down any tar snakes. Dorais Park also featured a big grassy hill with a ramp at the top, where soapbox derbies were held in more innocent days. (Check out the Thunderdrome website, it is interesting to see the story of how they unearthed the track.)
The pit was to the left side of the path, in a bowl at the bottom of the soapbox derby hill. The grass was tall, and other folks reported it had been slippery earlier with the frost, but by the time I arrived, a little after nine, the sun was well up and it was nearly dry. The track was a little farther up the path. Imagine a small football or soccer field, in a bowl of stadium seating. Now imagine no seating, just a sloping paved surface where the seats would have been. This was the Dorais Velodrome. There were a hundred or so people milling about, but it was by no means crowded. There were people of all ages there, but a large portion of the crowd were in their early 20s and had facial piercings, retro eyeglasses, chucks, and ironic t-shirts. I guess scooters are the new skateboards.
I found the Current Motors banner on an EZ-Up shade awning in the infield. Erik was there, along with Terry (also from Current), Erik's son Jacob, and friend Clarissa. They had a large Current Motors bike there for people to see, but the bikes that would be racing were smaller, and were out in the pits. We went back out there and looked at them. They had four bikes to race, altogether. Three were painted black and obviously well used, and the fourth was a red one that looked brand new. It was agreed that I would ride the red bike, because while I feared I would be the slowest, Erik thought I was least likely to crash, and this was their display bike. :) Terry said he had already had all the bikes tech inspected. The organizers told us to go ahead and start our practice laps, so we all went out on the track.
I have rarely ridden the electric scooters before. They're pretty nifty. They don't make a sound, when you're sitting still, but when you roll on, they jump to life. It was a little unnerving riding my scooter on the tall grass, over uneven surfaces, to get it up to the rim of the bowl. The worst part was actually trying to fold my legs up and tuck my feet into the floorboards area, it just felt *wrong* not to have footpegs! There was a lot of debris scattered about, for example a piece of 2x4 about three feet long, and lots of large rocks and pieces of broken pavement. Also, there were bikes (with and without motors) milling around, and pedestrians, and camp chairs scattered about. There was a shortage of flat level ground, and all of it seemed to be occupied. Since the electric scooters are so quiet, pedestrians didn't hear them when you came up behind them. But since the electric scooters are so quiet, you can stop at any time, and talk normally to the pedestrians. The scooter was light and very maneuverable, so it was actually not so bad to navigate all that, once I got used to it.
I've been to a few track days in the past, and normally there's a designated person exercising strict control over who enters the track, and when, and where, and how. There's usually a pit lane that no one is in except people whose sessions are starting/ending, and a fence, with just one entrance and exit from the track. Tire walls, etc. But they didn't do this here. Everyone was going counterclockwise, but other than that there wasn't much order. People were clustered all along the wall of the bowl, and you just cut through where you could and got on the track. But everyone was relaxed, cheerful, friendly, and polite. No "race face" here.
The track was bumpy, but manageable. The first few times around, I didn't go fast enough to get a proper angle with the banked track, so even though I was going counterclockwise I was wearing the right side of the tires. There was a nasty bump in the racing line, in the second turn. I made a mental note to stay higher there. Round and round! Whee! The electric scooter is so quiet that you can hear every bump as you hit it, but the suspension soaked them up well enough, I didn't feel they were impairing the handling any.
After a few laps, I was comfortable so I came in off the track. Not long after that they called in all the motorized bikes, and let the bicycles have a turn to practice.
I got checked in and received my wristband, then I was instructed to get the bike teched again, since I needed the tech inspector to initial my wristband. The guy at tech recognized me; we had been at American Supercamp together. He had me put tape over the headlight, taillight and signals. It already had clear packing tape on it, but he handed me a roll of white duct tape to hide the lights. He also wanted the killswitch marked, but the electric bike doesn't have a killswitch. :-) Erik marked the ignition switch. The rules described some riding gear requirements, but no one asked any questions about my riding gear - looking around, I was probably closer to dressing like a racer, than 90% of the people there.
I put the bike back in the pits, and went back to the Current EZ-Up. Ate some snacks, and talked to Clarissa about riding, then wandered around checking out the other few vendors. There was a bicycle shop called Sweet Bikes, and something called Suicide Squad. I asked the guy there was it was, and he said they were called that because they were crazy - they don't obey traffic laws, they run stoplights, etc. He reminded me of the people I used to meet at the hardcore club I sometimes went to when I was in college.
A rider for the last Current Motors bike arrived, Andy. Andy is a champion racer, so Erik and Terry were hoping he'd be able to finish well. Erik said the bike that Andy was going to ride was similar in performance characteristics to mine. The one Terry was riding was the fastest bike they had that met the requirements to compete. (The bike parked by the EZ-Up was just there to display, because it was too large to compete.)
Finally it was time for the scooter race. They had all the scooters pull up on the rim of the bow to be counted. There were fifteen. They divided us into three groups of five. Each group would race for fifteen laps, and the top two finishers in each group would do a second race of 20 laps. They used a LeMans start, which means that the racers would stand across the track from their bikes, ready, set, GO! and the riders would run to their bikes, leap on and take off.
The first group started. No electric bikes were in this group. One rider quickly opened a comfortable lead, and a second rider opened a comfortable second place. One bike was so slow that it was very quickly lapped.
The second group was called, and we realized that three of the four electric scooters were in this group. Terry quickly got one of the gas bikes to take his place so they wouldn't all be together. Erik and Andy were in this group. They came in third and fourth, respectively. Andy was giving second place a run for his money until the last lap or so, but the electrics have a very specific top speed and that's as fast as they go. One of the gas bikes in this group had something wrong with it that required the rider to ride with one hand down on the motor, holding something, to get any speed at all. He was lapped by everyone, I think. Partway through this race, the announcer said "I've just been told there's an electric bike our there! Which one is it? Two? There are two electric bikes out there! Why doesn't anyone tell me this stuff? Which ones?"
Then it was my turn, and Terry's turn. I'm afraid I don't run well in leathers, and the bike was still not familiar enough for me to get on quickly, so I got off to a poor start. I was in last place, but I don't think it mattered that much, really. I quickly passed one of the others; his bike was very slow. I heard the announcer asking if there were two women out there? Someone must have answered in the affirmative, because he started blathering about the two women on the track at once. I tuned him out, because she was right there in my sights. I think we must have been one of the better contests that day. I passed her, she passed me, I passed her again. We were neck and neck, lap after lap. I discovered the passing trick, which was to go into the turn on the outside, and then turn sharper and dive to the inside and pass the other bike there, where the slope gave you just a little boost in speed. Just like they taught us at American Supercamp, except without the sliding. :) Unfortunately she learned it too. I had the throttle pinned to the stop, lap after lap. When I got the lead I could never open it up; I could hear her right there on my tail. Finally she passed me, and when I tried to take her again on the next turn, she dove first and I had to brake to keep from hitting her. At which point it was all over - I lost about 20 feet on her and was never able to make it up again.
But Terry won our group! So, at least one of us got to the finals. :)
In the last session, the guy in the yellow and red 'stich, on the pink scooter, did not finish. His bike died in the second lap. He got it going again as the other riders were finishing, but he wasn't a contender. Of the remaining five machines, Terry came in third.
Next up was the mountain bike race. There were twenty or thirty bikes in this group but they decided to have them all run together. They would do a different course - they'd go 3/4 of the way around the velodrome, and then go over the lip of the bowl, and up the grassy incline to the soapbox derby ramp at the top of the hill. Then back down and into the velodrome. They'd do four laps. Once of the mountain bikes opened up a huge lead very quickly; by the end of the first lap he was about 50 feet in front of the guy in second place, who was also comfortably ahead of the guy in third. By the fourth lap, the leaders were passing lots of the people at the back of the pack. The bicycles looked slow after watching the scooters.
There were a couple of road bicycle classes that stayed in the velodrome. I'm not sure how they split them up. I decided it was time to call it a day, so I went back to the NT and rode on home. The NT felt large, unwieldy, and powerful, after my time on the scooter.
All in all, I think this was an awesome event, and I can't wait to do it again. I suspect everyone else there felt the same, and that it will get a ton of positive word of mouth, so it will get much more crowded in the future. The cheerful chaos was terrific fun but I suspect it will give way to more order, if the crowds get larger. I'm glad I got to attend the first one.