New Favourite Meeting?

May 30th, 2018

I think I've said before that the reason I go racing is to be able to race the TT course. If I couldn't do that, then I probably wouldn't bother at all. But for the last couple of seasons the Pre-TT Classic has become a firm favourite too, and this year was no exception.

The run up to the event was not exactly smooth, as described here. But after both bikes ran well at Jurby, most of my fears were laid to rest, and I felt a lot more relaxed. I'd arranged my travel logistics to stay across on the Island for the few days between Jurby and the Pre-TT Classic, and my very understanding boss was ok with me working remotely for three days, so I was 'in the office' sat at keith and Becca's kitchen table for 3 1/2 days. I took a few hours out of my work day on Tuesday to grab a decent spot in the paddock, and pitch my awning and the team tents. By the time I'd finished, I had the new awning up, and full with both bikes, tools and equipment, gas fridge and camping cooker, and it all looked full factory! The weather was scorching, and looked set to remain so for the duration.

Thursday was first proper 'event' day. I headed down to the sea terminal in Douglas at lunchtime, and met Alex and Simon off the 1pm boat. Alex had cycled the near 100 miles from his house in Shropshire to Liverpool, setting off in the middle of the night to make the 11am ferry check-in! He has these regular "get fit" periods, and has dropped 20kg since Christmas. To cap an epic ride, he'd crashed on the way and suspected he might have cracked a rib. Turns out he hadn't (we think), but alcohol and ibuprofen were pressed into service over the next few days to manage the pain. Simon was on his rattly K75, which was sounding like a tractor due to a cracked exhaust manifold. So not so full factory, then.

We spent the afternoon sorting out the workshop area and living space, and doing a few little jobs here and there. Signing on was at 7pm, and I got there 30 mins early to find half the field had a similar idea. But everyone was very good natured, and when the doors opened we all got processed through, checking riding gear, licence, transponders, etc and I was out in good time. I headed back to the paddock, grabbed the guys and we went into Douglas to eat. My partner Vanessa was on the 10pm boat, and after eating I met her off the boat and we all returned to the paddock.

Friday - First Day of Practice

The great weather continued, with Friday dawning bright and sunny. First practice was this evening, with the roads closing at 6pm. The bikes were basically ready, but there were a couple of small jobs to attend to, and a lot of lock-wiring of items that you don't worry about on short circuits - front fork clamps, brake caliper bolts, etc. The consequences of a failure on a public roads circuit are obviously much more serious, and if a bolt is lock-wired, the scrutineers can visually assure themselves that is is secure. As usual, the Southern 100 club ran things with military precision, and we had times for scrut'ing both bikes, and out practice sessions, written on the white board in our awning. Both bikes were given a clean bill of health by the scruts, although the TZ250 was given an advisory to check a hint of play in the head-races, and were soon sat up on stands with tyre-warmers on in Parc Ferme.

TZ & ZXR in Parc Ferme before practice

As usual before a first practice session, I was very nervous, and had to keep finding things to do to keep my mind occupied. But the time soon ticked away, and the roads closed on schedule at 6:15pm. The newcomers were out first, led round by a travelling marshall, and then the various classes each had their turn. The TZ250 is in the "Post-Classic Junior Superbike" class (the name makes no sense to me), and our slot soon came round.  Alex and Simon warmed it up (using my fancy, and quite expensive, socket-with-a-clutch-in-it on a battery drill to start it), and soon they were pulling tyre warmers off and I was heading out to the colecting area with more than 20 other ring-a-ding-ding two strokes. The class also allows 600s, up to 1986, and the were a handful of GPz600s out too, including my good manx mate Andy Cowie. We set off in pairs, and I was soon re-acquainting myself with the circuit, and reminding myself of how good a TZ250 on song feels. I was pleased that I could remember the circuit pretty well, and felt comfortable with where I was going. My braking points still felt way too early, but that is as much about reminding myself with just how well the TZ can stop. While out, there were a few spots of rain on my visor, and the marshals did put out the 'rain' flags (red diagonal cross on a white background), but the road itself never got wet, and I don't think I slowed much if at all. It was only the first practice, and the session was soon over, and I had some laps under my belt, and was confident that I'd qualified. As was the case - the rule was that you had to be within 118% (for an 8 lap race) of the average time of the first three riders, and I was comfortably within that. In case you're interested, this margin is calculated to minimise the chance of slower riders being lapped by the leaders.

Once back on the 250, we parked it back in the awning, and waited in par ferme for the practice session for the ZXR750. However, we heard the bikes go silent in the preceding session, and concluded that there'd been an incident, and the session red-flagged, which was the case - three riders down, and one airlifted to Nobles hospital, but fortunately without serious injuries, we later heard. But by the time the marshals had cleared everything up, and the air-med helicopter returned, time for the evening had run out, and our practice session was cancelled. Such is road racing. So we packed everything up and went to find food and drink in Casteltown.

Saturday - Practice Day 2

Saturday was similarly bright and sunny, and hot too! Practice was during the afternoon, and we had hoped for an extra session for the big bike, so that if we had any sort of problem we'd have chance to fix it and run again. However, the race office said no, we'd just have 5 minutes longer! And then, when scrutineering came round, the 750s were put through first, and we were told we could do a couple of 'speed controlled' laps behind the travelling marshal, with the newcomers. This at least gives the bike a run, although at slower than race speed. (How I found this out was by word of mouth, and the one criticism I have of the organisation by the otherwise flawless Southern 100 club is that they could really do with a tannoy in the paddock, or some other way of getting information to teams and riders. Even a chalk board would be an improvement on the current system of hearsay and rumours. I shall write to the club!).   After this we were back on the scheduled practice programme, and due out on the 250 in the fifth session. As the alloted time came around, Alex and Simon fired up the TZ to warm it, blipped the throttle a few times....and then it suddenly died. We instantly diagnosed some electrical failure, as the powervalve servos were not cycling when first switched on. We didn't panic - Simon and Alex worked the problem, found a broken wire (to the charge system sensor I'd fitted months ago) which was shorting to earth, fixed it and got me out just as the rest of the field had headed out onto the track. I was all alone, which was fine. Some four-stroke had dumped oil on the racing line from Iron Gates to Ballabeg, which wasn't. I initially thought the oil might be from the previous practice session, but the marshals were busy trying to tidy it up, so it must be fresh, and only just happened. After a couple of laps a bike in front came into view, and it was my mate Andy Cowie on his GPz600 - he'd also been late getting out in the session, and was also being very cautious over the oil, so I managed to catch him up, and waved as I went past. I was six seconds faster than Friday evening, and was actually 9th fastest, but this might just be down to me being a bit braver over the oil. Still, I came in buzzing, as I usually do from riding the TZ.

TZ at Casteltown Corner

The session for the ZXR was important, as this was the only opportunity to qualify. A gang of around 30 growling and rumbling late 80 and early 90s four cylinder four-strokes gathered in the holding area, and we were then waved off in pairs. The field felt fast! I became embroiled in a group of 4 or 5, and picked them off one by one. On this circuit, at race speed, overtaking takes some planning - fortunately, my £300-stock-road-engine-from-ebay seems pretty fast, and I was able to pass a few on the straights (obviously due to my superior drive off the previous corner - honest!). The bike felt like it was flying, until as I crossed the line for the fourth or fifth lap, it hesitated near peak revs in a high gear. It felt exactly like fuel starvation, a problem that had plagued us at last year's Classic TT. I started changing up a few thousand rpm early (10k instead of 12k) and this kept the bike running ok. "Touring" i.e. riding round at a much reduced pace, is strictly forbidden - there have been some awful accidents when a rider running at race speed hits a much slower machine ahead of him, so I was prepared to stop, but my pace had only dropped very slightly, and I judged I was safe to finish the lap. The chequered flag was waved as I crossed the line, so it was the last lap anyway. I brought the bike in and reported the bad news to the guys. We set to and stripped the fuel system and Alex seized the canister-type fuel filter and said "what's this piece of crap doing back on the bike?" We'd removed it as the suspected culprit at the Classic TT, and, er, I'd re-fitted it. This time it went in the bin, and we checked everything else, including the tiny filters in the carbs, and everything seemed good. And then we tried to re-start it, and the starter solenoid just clicked! So we traced the system, and found the mating surface on the (cheap, second-hand, remember?) engine to the earth strap was corroded. A bit of emery paper cleaned this up, and everything was fine again. As this was first night of TT practice, we piled into the van and headed to the Railway Inn at Union Mills to watch the evening session, and get something to eat. The weather was still glorious, and watching the TT boys scream through on their modern bikes, while eating chicken curry in the sun, was a good way to end a great day.

Sunday - Race Day

Unusually for this event, race day was on Sunday, rather than Bank Holiday Monday.  The roads closed a little after midday (to allow the faithful to get to church, I think) and the first race was the 'Support' race, for all the non-qualifiers, across all the classes. There was a very varied mix of bikes, as you might imagine, but this system at least means that if you have a problem with your bike in qualifying, or are just a bit too slow, you can still get a race, and a race finish. After this we were onto the full program, and the TZ race was around 4pm. I stayed hydrated in the sun, drinking lots of fluids, and consequently making lots of trips to the portaloo! I was nervous, as you should be before a road race, but comfortable that the bike was ok, and I knew what I was doing.  My combined practice position put me 11th - middle of the fourth row, a little ahead of midfield. We formed up on the holding area, then followed the course car round for a sighting lap to the grid.

TZ on grid

The start marshal's board went up - "select gear", then "watch lights" - the lights came on, then off and we were away. Getting the TZ off the line is an art, and today I didn't do it well, losing lots of places as we headed away. But as the TZ came on song, I got some of those back, got good drive through Ballakeighin, and got my head down to wind in some others as we headed down to Iron Gates, making back a couple more places. A guy a couple of awnings along in the paddock, Adrian Skaife, on his Honda RS250, was just ahead of me, and I was lining him up for a pass at Cross Fourways, when suddenly a green Kawasaki came past me on the brakes, and nearly t-boned Adrian. I tucked inside the Kwack, and chased Adrian through Church Bends. While his RS is probably more powerful than my TZ, I must have got better drive off the corner, as I came alongside through Great Meadow, and was able to outbrake him into Stadium corner. And then I just had open track in front of me - the next group of bikes were obviously running faster lap times, and soon there was no-one to be seen ahead of me. Mind you, I knew I was going faster than practice, as the TZ was getting a proper headshake on through Ballawhetstone - the steering damper could do with a few clicks more! But the was no chance of me doing that while riding the bike, and it wasn't scary - the bike was just letting me know what was going on.  My clear view ahead was then interrupted when by that damn green Kawasaki came past on the brakes again! I tucked behind him, and out-dragged him down the next straight. We did this a few times, which at least kept me honest and focussed.

TZ chased by Kwak

Unusually for me, I had kept count of the laps, but I was, as usual, relieved when the last lap flag came out. By this time I think I'd managed to gap Mr Kawasaki, or perhaps he'd outbraked himself again, and I crossed the line and took the chequered flag with no further drama. Those 8 laps were some of the most intense I'd experienced - the TZ is such a focused machine that racing it damn near fries my brain!

I got back to smiles all round, and a very welcome drink - it was still so hot! And it turned out I'd finished in 10th place, which I was very pleased with, with a best lap of 2:54, which was 6 seconds faster than Saturday's practice time. And, symbolically, prize money is paid for the top 10, so I'd wn £50!

The roads were due to open for 45 mins at 5pm, to allow the locals to come and go, but as I wandered up to parc ferme at 4:30, I heard some modern four cylinder machines head out. It turned out that, because the programme had run ahead of schedule, the Post-Classic Superbikes, the class for my ZXR, were getting an extra few laps of practice to make up for the loss of Thursday. But, again, this info had not been communicated. Please fix this, Sourthern 100 club!  It would have been useful to check that we had solved the fuelling problem. Anyway, time ticked around, as it does, and the 350 Junior race, the one before us, went out. But then the road went silent again, as their race was red-flagged. We were told that the 350s would come in, and we would go out next (instead of the more usual immediate re-start of the red-flagged race).  So it was quickly warm up the engine, and within 10 minutes we were rolling off the stands and heading to the holding area. For this race I'd qualified much worse - down in 18th place, on the 6th row. I don't think I'd gone any slower than normal, just that the class had got more competitive. We did the warm, formed up on the grid, selected gear, the lights went on, then off and we were away. I got a much better, but not perfect start, with a bit of a wheelie, but definitely made up a bunch of places on the way into Ballakeighin. One chap (Alex Whitwell, I think, on the Funky Monk Racing GSX-R1100>, was a bit forceful round the outside, but I drew alongside him in the braking zone to Iron Gates, and was a bit forceful back. And then I was chasing a few others, and actually racing them, outbraking people into Ballabeg and Cross Fourways, and racing wheel to wheel down Great Meadow to Stadium. This was brilliant! I was riding what I think of as 'the back section', from Ballabeg to Cross Fourways, better than ever, but still losing ground to some bikes ahead of me, so I can find some improvements there. But the bike was wheelying off the crest before the Billown Dip, and felt like a proper superbike. I got in front of the bikes in my bunch, and focussed on the guys ahead. I thought I might be able to draw up to them, but then on the fourth lap, as I came down Great Meadow, there were waved yellow flags, then a red flag at Stadium Corner. I naturally assumed some 'incident', and we were sent back to the paddock. But that was it - the result was called after three laps. It turned out a very sudden but intense shower had drenched the last couple of corners, and with half the field on slicks, the race had been red-flagged to stop people barrelling into a corner on a soaking road. And, with no time in the programme for a re-run, especially with the previous race also having been red-flagged, that was the result called. I was placed in 11th, which was dissappointing, as I'd hoped for slightly better, but in that class field I should be happy. But just outside the money! The shower was gone as quickly as it arrived, and we were in the paddock sun again, cracking open the beers for the team.

Epilogue

With an evening race, we'd thought we might struggle to get out to eat, so Vanessa had prepared a fabulous chili, which went down very well with more beer and wine.  And then we walked into Casteltown and, er, had some more drinks.  It was a great evening, as usual after a successful day's racing.   The next day Simon headed home, and Alex, Vanessa and I had a day of being tourists - we went down to the Calf of Man and the Sound, and had an ice cream and a beer.  The we called at the Chasms, a set of rock formations on the coast with big splits down them, and then drove north and had a beer and a chinwag with the Cowie's.  And then we could put it off no longer, and returned to the paddock to tear down the awning and load the van, ready for a early ferry the next morning, 

This was another fabulous Pre-TT Classic, and it is now firmly cemented as one of my favourite meetings of the year.

Season start MkII

May 21st, 2018

After the failure of the ZXR750 at my first meeting of the year, I had my work cut out to get the season underway.  This was all getting a bit last minute dot com.

Fortunately, Graham File had finished working his magic on my TZ250 motor, and I collected it a couple of weeks ago.  He proudly showed me a little video on his phone of the crank on v-blocks, with a dial gauge hardly moving as it rotated!  As well as the rebuilt crank, he did his standard meticulous rebuild, matching port heights, cylinder volumes, and making sure everything in the motor was just so.  I fitted the engine relatively easily (which is not that demanding, it's so small and light), and methodically worked through fitting carbs, exhaust, radiator, etc.  It fired up easily enough, and that was one bike ready to roll.  Next job was to run it in on the dyno, which the good chaps at Dynotech did for a few days later.

In the meantime, I had other, bigger problems.  The symptoms of a blown head gasket on the ZXR turned out to be much more serious - the cylinder head had cracked.  Worse, it needed some replacement pistons, and Kawasaki don't make them anymore!  There was no way the race engine was going to be ready by the time I needed to pack the van and head to the Pre-TT Classic on the Isle of Man.  Andy at Dynotech was a star - he found that JE do a piston kit (1mm oversize), and I have a spare set of barrels for just such a purpose.  As I also have a spare head, that he will flow for me, I will have a race motor back, but it will take a little time.  So he also tracked down a stock second-hand motor on eBay, which I bought and collected that Saturday, from Anglesey, which is 250 miles from where I live. By the time I'd done that, I had  5 days left.  But I know that bike inside out, and got it running, although with only a couple of days spare.  Of course, it's a completely stock engine, that is 20+ years old and of completely unknown provenance, so I had no idea how well it would actually go.

So it turned out that I found mysefl collecting the TZ from Dynotech and then fitting the ZXR bodywork a couple of hours before I loaded the van, the night before heading for the Isle of Man ferry.  As I said, all a bit rushed.  And taking both bikes to the Island for 10 days, two race meetings, and camping kit for four people meant the van was pretty bloody full.   The next day I was up early, again, to make the trip to Heysham, for the ferry.  There's a side of  racing which most people never guess at, and on occasion one does wonder if all the effort and expense is worth it.  But that's enough background and existential angst for now.  For once I had a completely traffic-jam free drive to Heysham, and arrived unexpectedly early for the ferry.  It was a beautiful late spring day, the Irish Sea was as calm as a mill pond, and as usual I had a big smile on my face as we arrived in Douglas bay.  I do love the Isle of Man.

Back to racing.  After staying with great mate's Keith and Becca, I was up early and arrived at Jurby and met mate Graham who had very kindly given up his Sunday to help out.  We set to, unloading the van, and soon had the awning up and tools and kit under it.  Graham took the TZ to scrutineering while I fired up the 750 and ran it up and down the car park to check the clutch and gears worked - the first opportunity I'd had!  Fortunately, they did.  The TZ came back from scrut'ing with a pass and a couple of 'advisories', and Graham took the 750 down, while I got my riding gear checked and signed on.  The ZXR passed too, with a couple of very minor things to address, and one sorted we were ready to go.  After the usual rider's briefing. which I could probably deliver myself by now, practice started about 10:30am.  There were no sidecars today, so the program was slightly shorter, and we were soon pulling the tyre warmers off and I headed for the holding area.  I was as nervous as a kitten!  I'd put so much time and effort into getting the bikes ready that I was really scared of something going wrong, or of making a stupid mistake and wasting it all.  Consequently, my lap times on the 750 were slow - and I was even more nervous on the TZ!  But both bikes ran well, and having qualified the two of them without issue, my nerves started to subside a little

Practice Results

  • ZXR750:    13th (8th in class)       1:20.397
  • TZ250:         8th (6th in class)       1:18.646

When I rebuilt the 750 I thought I'd had a problem with temperature gauge, which wasn't registering.  But on return to the paddock, it was flickering with some signal, which made me think that it was more down to the system not being full, and therefore water not filling the thermostat housing, when the temperature sender is.  I stupidly removed the radiator cap, although I did have the foresight to put on a bike glove first.  Of course, it's a pressurised system, so water spouted out - fortunately, it wasn't too hot. I replaced the water, little by little, running the motor and topping up, but I don't think I've got to the bottom of issues with cooling system yet.  More to follow, I think.

After the usual lunch break, racing commenced, and I was out on the 750 in the second race on the card, which has the post-classic class running with singles, twins and triples.  This year, Andreas Racing had extended the post classic cut-off to 1996, which allows the Honda 600 "steelies" in.  Call me prejudiced, but I don't think a CBR600 is anyone's idea of a classic, or even a post-classic, and more importantly, those boys on the steelies are fast!  Unlike in previous outings on this bike with this club, I now had zero chance of a class win.  But results weren't the purpose of today - it was to run the bikes, and to get my head back in the right place.  And so it turned out - we circulated to the grid, did a practice lap, watched the lights and were away.  I immediately found myself at the back of a group of four bikes that I knew I could race with, and managed to have a great race for the whole six laps, getting past all of them, and even then closing on the next couple of bikes in front, but the chequered flag came out too soon for me to claim any more scalps.

Race 1 Result: 9th (5th in class), best lap 1:16.030 

This race really buoyed me up - I'd stopped worrying about the bike, and just enjoyed racing.  And my stock, unproven engine performed well, setting, perhaps the fastest time I'd done round Jurby on my 750! (I'll have to check back).  Now I was in the right frame of mind, and looking forward to the rest of the afternoon.  Next up I was out on the 250, which is a very different animal.  The TZ always draws attention and turns heads - a full race two-stroke is a fairly rare animal at a club meeting nowadays, and there's a lot of nostagia for the sight and sound of them.  But this wasn't a concours show, it was a race, and so I lined up on the grid again.  I managed to get the bike off the line fairly well (which is no easy feat with the tall first gear and narrow power-band), but the guys in front rode away from me, and the guys behind didn't trouble me, so it was a fairly lonely race.  This is probably the reason my best lap was actually slower than in practice - I only seem to get my race head going when I'm actually racing people.  But the bike ran well, and I started to remember the precision needed to get a GP250 bike to work properly.

Race 2 Result: 8th (6th in class), best lap 1:19.643

By the time the race card came to repeat we'd lost some time,  and the races were cut from 6 laps to 4.   Race 3 was quite similar to my first race, once again dicing with a gang of bikes and having a whale of a time.  I was so determined to get past Jack Hunter, which I very nearly managed in the run to the flag, finishing just 0.078 seconds behind him!  Mind you, Steve Beale was only 0.228 seconds behind me - in fact, 4th to 9th place were covered by less than 2 seconds.

Race 3 Results: 8th (6th in class), best lap 1:16.277 

Race 4 felt a lot like race 2 on the 250 - a lonely ride with no one else about, in stark contrast to the two races on the 750.  And it was even shorter, being red-flagged because of an incident on the last lap.  But that's just the way it goes sometimes.

Race 4 Results: 6th (5th in class), best lap 1:19.707 

After that we packed up, drove back and after running through the shower, went to the pub.  And then had a boozy meal with good friends in the evening.  All in all, a very good day at the race track.

 

First meeting of 2018

April 23rd, 2018

It's well into April, and my season has only just started.  But that's not to say it's been a quiet winter.  After the ZXR 750 disgraced itself on the third lap of the Classic Superbike TT, I took the motor out and gave it to the good chaps at Dynotech.  They stripped it and announced, to everyone's surprise, that the crank had snapped in two!  So I sourced another L series motor, and Andy at Dynotech made one good motor out of the two, mostly using the bottom end of the 'new' motor, and keeping the head work from my original race motor.  On the rebuild, Andy found that both water pumps were damaged (where the pump takes its drive from the engine), so he sourced another one for me from ebay for 20 quid.  More of this later...

I fitted the motor, with help from the good Simon Wilson, and fairly methodically plumbed in electrics, carbs, exhaust, radiator and coolant.  It fired up pretty easily, and a couple of days later we ran it in on the dyno at Dynotech; at the end of this we did a quick power run, and got a peak of 125bhp - with a new motor, and the mixture very slightly rich,  I was happy enough with that.

The TZ engine is with Graham File, after it went off song at Donington last October.  Popping the heads off, it looked like the front cylinder had injested a foreign body of some sort.  For those who don't know, Graham is *the* guy to build your TZ motor in the UK.  I had hoped to have it back by now, but Graham is making sure everything is *just right*, which for a 2-stroke at the TT, is what you want.

I had been thinking of doing the NGRRC meeting at Brands Hatch in early April, but Britain was hit by a late touch of winter, and the meeting was cancelled due to the forecast snow and sub-zero temperatures.  Which was the right call, because the cold and snow arrived as predicted.  The next potential meeting was two days at Jurby, on the Isle of Man.  It's a long way to go, but as racers from the UK get discounted entries and ferry crossings with Andreas Racing Association (ARA), it's not as expensive as you might think.  And I've got lots of mates on the Island, so it's a chance to catch up with them, too.

I loaded the van up with ZXR and all the racing paraphernalia to go with it on Thursday evening, and headed  up the M40 and M6 on Friday afternoon.  Traffic was as appalling as I remembered, and it took over 5 hours to do the 200 miles to Liverpool.  But we made the boat, had something to eat, chilled out, and I drove off the boat into Douglas with a smile on my face, as I always do when I go back to the Island.  We even managed to arrive at Keith & Becca's in Ramsey in time to have a night cap.

Next day I was at the track in good time, and set about putting up my  <drum roll> new  awning!  The last one had done 4 seasons, and the storm at the last meeting at Donington in October had shredded most of the canvas, so I decided to shell out on a replacement.  And this one is stronger, lighter, and has a white (rather than green) roof, so the light inside is much more, er, natural. 

ZXR in new awning

The forecast for the day was good, and so it turned out. 

Sunny Jurby

I did the usual race day things - signed on, got scrutineered, fitted transponder, put the tyre warmers on, and eventually the time came for my practice session.  Out I went, on a dry track, that I knew well, and I felt at home straight away. Until about my 4th lap, where the acceleration didn't feel quite as strong as it had.  And then my foot slipped on the footrest, and I looked down and saw oil.  Oh dear.  Straight to the pits, bike on stand in awning, and the investigation started.

I dropped the belly pan off, and immediately saw oil *and* water - what was going on?  Looking round the engine, the cause of the oil leak was pretty obvious - a bolt in the side of the cylinder block, which locates the pivot for the cam chain tensioner blade, had wound itself out.  Fortunately, it was still sat there, but because it was no longer engaged with its thread, I struggled to thread it back in.  While I was wrestling with this, and figuring how else to get access, paddock neighbour Rhys Hardisty came in, saw the problem, grasped the bolt between thumb and forefinger and immediately managed to thread it back in.  Thanks Rhys - you have the magic touch!  Meanwhile, Vanessa had been cleaning out the belly pan, and presented me with a small 6mm bolt with a copper washer on it, with the words "Is this important?"   "Probably", said I, and started looking for its home.  Remember the replacement water pump I mentioned at the beginning?  Well, I hadn't stripped it, nor checked fastener tightness before fitting it, and the bolt had come out of the bottom of the water pump, which explained the water as well as the oil in the belly pan.  There wasn't a lot of water there, tho, so I didn't think any damage would have been done. 

So, with oil and water topped up, all the oil cleaned off the bike and rear tyre, and everything back together, I was ready for the race.  Or so I thought...

I'd qualified 9th, which was ok for my curtailed session, so I gridded up on the third row, the lights changed and we were away.  The fast boys at the ARA meetings at Jurby are properly fast nowadays, and they we soon gone, but I made a decent start and wasn't doing badly...until lap 3, when I saw some steam and water, and noticed water spraying onto my right leg.  I put my hand up and pulled back into the paddock.  Water was overflowing from the radiator catch tank - not a good sign.  I dropped the fairing off, put on leather gloves, and at arms length removed the radiator cap - a lot of hot water and steam jetted out (don't try this at home, kids).  I replaced the lost water, started the engine without the radiator cap, and immediately saw the tell-tale signs of a blown head gasket - the cooling system was being pressurised by escaping exhaust gases.  Bugger.

The odds of changing a head gasket in the next 18 hours were pretty slim, but I did try to track one down on the Island, but to no avail.  But then something happened to change the weekend from a complete disaster to a minor victory - the amazing Andy Cowie offered me the use of his "steelie" - his 1996 Yamaha Thundercat.  The same bike that I've ridden twice with him in the ARA end of season 4 hour endurance event.  Yet another reason to race with your mates at Jurby!  So at the end of a gloriously sunny day, I headed to Andy's with the van and collected his venerable steelie.

The evening was convivial and friendly, and we caught up with manx mates over dinner at Keith & Becca's, including an impromptu celebration of Andy Stewart's birthday.  This may have contributed in some way to the state Vanessa was in the next day; I was racing so "just had one glass of wine to be polite".

I left Vanessa nursing her head the next morning, and headed back to the track.  I needed to tweak a couple of things on the steelie before scruting - it had just been parked since last year's endurance!  But I soon had it right, and scruting wasn't a problem.  Practice was good, but I was a different bike, and everyone else had got their eye in yesterday (althought the circuit was run in the opposite direction), so I only qualified 11th, with a best lap of 1:21.  This is much slower than usual for me, having got down to 1:16s at the endurance last year, but softly softly catchee monkey.  The Thundercat really is great to ride - it's got really surprising mid-range for a 600 from the 1990s, and steers and brakes smoothly and confidently.

Rain was forecast, and it tried a few times, but never came to anything, so swapping wheels was never something to worry about.  I gridded up for race one on the 4th row and got a decent start, as usual.  Once again, the fast boys were quickly away, but I found myself chasing three other bikes which were running at a similar pace.  About now I had an angel and a demon perched on my shoulders - the angel said "You're on someone else's bike, and all you need is a finish"; the demon said "Catch them, pass them, wave goodbye".  Which of these two do you think I listened to, dear reader?

On the last lap I was right on them, and got great drive onto the back straight, passing one bike (Steve Beal) on power, and the other (Jack Hunter) on the brakes into the bus stop.  Hah!  I kept the advantage to the line, whooping inside my helmet.  Result: sixth overall, 2nd in class, best lap of 1:18.3

At this point I had my finish, I'd had my fun.  If we'd had time, I'd probably had rushed to catch the afternoon boat home, but that option had gone with a few delays in the programme.  So I decided, after checking with Andy, that I was there anyway, so I might as well get the track time, on a cold, windy, but still dry afternoon.  I checked oil and water, topped up the fuel, and gridded up for race 2.  By this time the cold and wind had deterred a few people, and the grid was a bit thinner.  The lights changed and off we went.  I soon found myself chasing Jack Hunter again, but he usually has the beating of me, and this time just rode away,  with a best lap a second faster than my best.  Steve Beale got past me too, but I latched on to him, and passed him on the straight on the penultimate lap.  I knew he was there, though, and fully expected an attack at the bus stop on the last lap, and so it turned out.  But his outbraking manoeuvre was waaay too ambitious, and he came sailing past me without a hope of making the corner, and continued onto the grass.  He stayed on, and regained the track, but a few seconds behind me as I crossed the line.  Result: 5th overall, 2nd in class, best lap of 1:18.8

So then we packed up, loaded the van, said our goodbyes, and headed to Douglas, for fish and chips, and then the ferry home.  We both managed to doze on the boat, which made rolling off at gone 11pm and driving for 240 miles (from Heysham this time, not Liverpool), a bit more tolerable.  Home at gone 3am, and straight to bed.  That's racing!

Last meeting of 2017

November 1st, 2017

After two DNFs at the Classic TT, I was a 'signature' further away than planned for my 2018 TT Mountain Course licence (everyone calls them signatures, but nothing actually gets signed - you just need to finish a race on a day, six times; qualifying for the TT or Manx also counts for 1 'sig').  So I looked to see if I could squeeze something in before the end of the season, and it turned out the ThunderSport GB had a meeting at Donington at the end of October.  I'd run my Kawasaki ZXR750 in their Golden Era Superbike class at Mallory in the summer, but the ZXR is out of action having its broken crank replaced.  However, reading the eligibility rules, I noted that GP250s up to 1999 were also eligible, so I could give the TZ a run out! 

So I set to prep-ing the TZ, which hadn't had any attention since the Classic TT.  First job was to fix the broken gearchange linkage, and then change gearing and jetting from those used for the TT, and generally give the bike a bit of a fettle.  All ThunderSport meetings are two-day events, so I loaded the van on Thursday night and set off straight after work on Friday, collecting girlfriend Vanessa from work on the way. Of course, all the good spots in the paddock were gone by the time we got there, and were setting up in the dark, and the very high winds (of which more later).  TT crew stalwart Simon Wilson had also volunteered to help out, and he arrived at a similar time; importantly, he'd brought his powerful cordless drill with him, of which more later.  After battening down all the hatches, we settled down in the van, which Vanessa is converting by stealth into a camper van, and had a few drinks while listening to the wind rattle around outside.

Saturday dawned dry but just as windy.  I took the TZ to scrutineering, and was immediately everyone's friend, as all the scruts gathered round to admire the bike.  A GP250 really is a thing of beauty, and many lament their passing from most road racing.  And the same happened throughout the day as people walked past our awning.  But once scrut'd, we had a job to do - we drilled a large-ish hole (OK, only about 40mm diameter) in the side of the fairing, aligned with the end of the crankshaft, so that we could use the fancy socket-with-a-one-way-clutch in it, that I'd got from the USA, at great expense, as a starting system for the bike.  Instead of having to bump start it, we could now spin up the motor with Simon's drill and the socket.  This was to come in very useful later.

We had a little wait until practice, and then went out on a damp but drying track.  I had a few concerns as we gathered in the collecting area, noting that everyone else seemed to be on full wets, but I was sure my treaded KR 364s would be fine.  I had full wets with me, but it really wasn't wet enough to warrant them, in my opinion, and besides, I didn't want to change wheels just to change them back for the race, by which time it would definitely be dry.

I last rode at Donington about 12 years ago, but I seemed to remember where it went ok.  I wasn't fast, but then, as I'd found at Mallory earlier in the year, ThunderSport GB is a very competitive club.  In the mixed grid of classes I practices with, I was 36th out of 48, with a lap time of 1:29, which was some 8 seconds slower than pole. In case you were wondering, we were using the shorter National circuit, not the full GP circuit with the Melbourne loop.  This put me 19th on the grid for myrace, on row 7, but still with 11 people behind me.  That soon changed as the lights went out - a TZ250 is an awesome machine, but it's no drag racer, and the big 750 fourstrokes I was racing against (I was the only 250 out there) all get off the line a lot quicker and cleaner.  Still, I wasn't last as we all piled into Redgate, and I threaded my way through the usual first corner melee of people running wide and bouncing off each other.  I negotiated this without issue, and then got my head down and actually started racing some people.  It was fun!   As expected, the TZ easily carried a lot of corner speed compared to the 750s, but what also suprised me was how I seemed to make ground on the brakes at the end of the straight.  Of course, I was racing against the back half of the field, as the fast boys were well away, but I had people to race with, so I was happy.  When riding a TZ, you're always expecting the worst, and I did feel the bike holding back a few times when pinned in the upper gears, which made me worry.  I covered the clutch lever with my left hand, just in case (for non-bike riders: if the engine seizes, the back wheel will lock up and probably cause you to crash.  To prevent this, you pull in the clutch - fast!).  And I tried to be smoother, and to not rev the bike so hard, and not only did the problem fade, but I also set my fastest lap!   Thundersport races are longer than most club races, and we did 12 laps, by which time I was 3 seconds behind the chap in front, but less than a second in front of the person behind me.  When the flag came out, I was 20th, out of only 23 finishers.  Still, I'd got that finish which was the main point of being here.

I returned to the awning, which was only just coping in the wind.  In fact, the wind was making a bit of a mess of it.  I'd foolishly not done a plug chop on my in-lap, so couldn't really tell if the jetting was right, but I looked at the plugs anyway, and decided, based on their appearance, and the way the bike had behaved on track, that I should probably go up a jet size.  So I set to, feeling like a proper GP250 racer, while the awning shook and rattled around me.  But when I came to start the bike - it wouldn't rev properly, and ticked over at 4,000rpm.  Curses.  Simon and I took both carbs off again, checked and double checked, and eventually it was ok, without us ever really finding the real reason for the problem.  While troubleshooting this, being able to start the bike with the drill was utterly invaluable.

We had plentyh of time for this, it was getting on for 5pm when we lined up for race two.  I got a decent enough start, and was racing with the same set of people, but on lap four the bike just didn't pull properly in the powerband.  It was still running, but the real power had gone missing, and I know now that on one of these bikes, you stop as soon as you have a problem, so I pulled into the pits.  So that was race 2 done.

When I got back to the awning, we realised that we only had an hour or so of daylight, and it was cold, and the awning was still threatening to become a huge kite. We had a look at a few things - first idea was that the electrical system and/or battery had a problem, and the power-valves weren't working, which would match the symptoms, but a quick test showed that there was a healthy 13.5 volts or more in the system, and the power-valve servos cycled correctly when the system was powered on.  So, in the fading light and gale force wind,  I decided these were not the circumstances under which Simon and I might diagnose and fix the problem, and so made the decision to cut my losses, pack up and come home.  Not a great end to the season, but who turns and runs away...

So now I have two broken race bikes to repair over the winter.  It's a good job I enjoy working on them; this is not sarcasm, as I really do find time in the garage working on bikes very relaxing.  I'll post an update when I find the issue with the TZ.

Jurby Endurance 2017

October 11th, 2017
The Andreas Racing Association has an end of season 4 hour endurance race each year, usually in early October.  I've raced in it a few times, and last year teamed up with my Manx mate Andy Cowie, using his venerable but lovely Yamaha Thundercat 600.  We had such a whale of a time last year that we decided to do it all again this year.  To make things even better, my mate Neil Ronketti had been tempted out of retirement by another longstanding racing mate, Chris Foster, to ride in the same event, on the Darvil Racing SV650 Supertwin. You can read all about Neil's experience in his blog, but the relevant bit for this part of the story is that we combined travel plans, and I enjoyed a good old catch-up and chin wag with Neil and Foz in the car and on the boat.
 
Riding someone else's bike makes one feel like a bit of a works rider.  You turn up with your leathers and kit, and the bike is there waiting for you.  And that's much how it was for me this time - the bike was all prepared, and all I did was help load it into the van.   I was staying in Ramsey with long-time racing (now retired) mate Keith, and all I had to do was get an early night and get to Andy's for 8:30am on Sunday morning.
 
Andy's old steelie (racer-speak for a steel-framed 600) really is lovely, and this year, with some fresh paint, it even looks lovelier!
Andy Cowie's Thundercat
 
Helping us out was John Holt and Graham Wilcock, of Wilcock Consulting, who were sponsoring us for the event.  And we looked quite professional, under the gazebo that Andy bought from B&Q for £57 the evening before (sorry about the trying-to-look-moody face)
 
Team Wilcock Consulting
 
Practice was damp, and while everyone knew it was going to dry out, times were definitely 10 seconds or so off a dry pace - pole was a 1:19, and we set a 1:23.  But the times didn't matter anyway, as we lined up in number order.  Despite being told to run for the Le Mans start when the flag *dropped*, pretty much everyone except me set off when it was raised :-)  But it's a 4 hour race, so stealing a few places at the start isn't going to last long.  I enjoyed the ding-dong of the early laps as people sorted themselves out, and the bike was fast and predictable in the mixed conditions.  The track was still damp in places for the first hour, and unusually for Jurby, there wasn't any wind, so it was a good way into the race before the whole track was dry.  Sponsor and pit board man Graham gave me lap times as I passed the start, and I quickly got down to regular 1:16s with the occasional 15 thrown in, before pitting after approx 40 mins (and 31 laps).  We had an uneventful change, and Andy did his first stint, posting consistent laps and getting into regular 17s too.  When we changed for the third rota we were in 9th overall, which was bloody good, I reckon!  And I was having lots of fun - look:
 
 
I started my second stint full of enthusiasm, but after 8 laps Dudgie (on the even -older-than-our-bike ZXR750) came past waving at me, and I looked down and saw the rear shock remote reservoir hanging by its hose and flapping around by the swing arm.  I pitted, and John and Andy set to with cable ties.  The timing charts show that we lost 5+ mins here (6:47 lap instead of 1:20 or less), which might have made the difference of a place at the end.  But ifs and buts...  I went back out, and the repair was fine, but the unscheduled stop had dropped us to 15th overall when I rejoined the track, and I could only improve this to 11th before my stint was over.
 
 
Andy did his second stint with another set of 16s and 17s (and a few slower, but with endurance racing you can easily lose a couple of seconds in traffic), and then it was time for my third and last stint.  I went out, and after only a lap or two, Derren Slous passed me on the straight on the aforementioned ZXR.  I didn't think about it, but noticed a lap or two later that he hadn't got away by much.  So then I started to try...and I slowly but surely wound him in.  And in the process, I set my fastest times - a few 15s, a 14 and then a 13!   And then I was past Derren!  This was quite a scalp for me. I kept my head down for a lap, but then gave myself a talking to and settled back into a 16 pace, and, sure enough, Derren came back past a few laps later.  But still, it hadn't ended in tears.  I finished our session in what looked like a fairly safe 11th place, and handed back to Andy.  The stop dropped us to 12th, but Andy posted a host of 16s and 17s again and brought the bike home in 11th place overall and 6th in the 600 class.  And, importantly - first Steelie!!!  There was only one other steelie out there, and their fast rider, Dean Osbourne, posted a bunch of 1:10s,so they should have had the beating of us, but they spent 17 mins in the pits early in the race, and that's really difficult to come back from, no matter what speed you have on the track
 
I've got to the point in my racing where results barely matter - it all comes down to how much fun I had.  And, by that measure, I was stood atop the (fairly crowded!) podium  :-)