Someone asked the other day if I will miss not driving up to Brainerd this year for the Superbike event, now that BIR is off the 2005 schedule. The track is for sale and its future seems, at least, murky.
I replied that "miss" would probably be too strong a word for the way I feel.
I've had an interesting relationship with the track that sits just a few hours from my office door. I've been attending races there since
1983, club-raced there and have attended every professional motorcycle roadrace at BIR since the first one in '83, including being stupid enough to choose Brainerd over Mid-Ohio in 1991 when WERA F-USA held an event at Brainerd on the same weekend as the Mid-Ohio national. It was neat, however, to watch Rich Oliver on a Team Roberts YZR500 wheelie out of turn ten and down Brainerd's long straight. That almost made up for the wall of boredom that surrounded that event.
Brainerd International Raceway, to me, went from being just a local track my friends and I could travel to relatively quickly to a giant dragon that blow-torched my life after I bought a set of leathers, safety-wired a bike and started club racing there. I don't think anyone can truly appreciate Brainerd International Raceway until you've raced there. On television the track looks dry and featureless, and from the inside of the track, the bikes lap continuously at such a blurring speed you get numbed to what is playing out in front of you.
BIR's most infamous feature remains, of course, turns one and two, the former of which remains in my mind the fastest right hand corner in America. There was a near decade-long period where no matter the motorcycle, from a Superbike 750 to a 250 GP twin to a 600 Supersport machine, it went through BIR's turn one in top gear with the throttle pinned. It wasn't until the mid-to-late 1990s that applying brakes and downshifting as you entered turn one became common on Superbikes, and henceforth a little easier in my mind, even though trap speeds actually went up through one after that practice was adopted.
Slightly banked and dead fast, turn one was nasty. After nearly a mile-long run down BIR's front straight, turn one loomed like a giant wave awaiting to destroy surfers and their boards. The surface in 'one was always rough, bumpy and dirty, especially if you found yourself off the racing line. It separated the men from the boys in a hurry; and the live from the dead as well. Riders died in turn one, or on the exit of one; not regularly, but incidents had a habit of going wrong there. Things happen fast at 160 mph and weren't exclusive to bumbling rookies. Kevin Schwantz collided with his team-mate Satoshi Tsujimoto before the entrance of turn one in June of 1987 and put them both down at 160 mph plus. This infamous incident is well known, as the medical technician asked a prone post-crash Schwantz what day it was in order to gauge his post-crash mental facilities. Schwantz responded that although it was Saturday when he crashed, he slid so far and for so long that it "may very well be Sunday now". Tsujimoto spent weeks in a Minnesota hospital recovering from injuries suffered in that incident.
Brainerd: Where WSC Got Its US Start
In 1989 World Superbike made its first appearance in the US at a sleepy little vacation town not three hours from the Canadian border. For more about that event, click here.
Now, fifteen years later, I've just started to get my head around riding through turn one.
For me, starting a club racing career at Brainerd was like a fresh off-the-street soldier jumping out of a troop transport and wading to the Beach at Normandy in 1944. It was terrifying, somewhat exhilarating, and life-changing all at the same time. Now it seems insane that they allowed goober-level rookie club-racers to learn the ropes of racing at BIR.
For my friends and I, club-racing stopped being a fanciful pastime that would hopefully lead to more racing fun after the first open practice at Brainerd. We'd sat through the new riders' class put on by the local club, passed the written test, did some laps at half-speed and then were let out to wick it up. Even at the now certainly geriatric speeds we were traveling at in the middle of turn one, it was terrifying. We'd grown up and started riding on the street with the 55mph speed limit in full force, and back-road blasts up to perhaps 100 mph didn't prepare us for the monster of Brainerd's turn one and the track's required velocity. Speeds on the straight topped out at 140 mph and seemed to be just short of that through turn one.
If the speed didn't shock you, turn one's rutted and failing surface would certainly keep you awake by bouncing your head off the tank, necessitating a tight grip on the clip-ons, which only made the period wobblers handle worse. Some professional riders never acclimated to turn one, and a few local heroes used their turn one experience into gold. Minnesota native Tom Mason remains one of the few true privateers to qualify on the Superbike pole, which he did at Brainerd in the early 1980s.
The local club ran an open Trophy Dash a few times a year, where nearly all bikes were racing at the same time, from one-lung SRXs to fire-breathing GSX-R1100s. Being gridded on the fifteenth row meant you'd get to turn one just in time to watch the fast bikes self-destruct, endo-ing themselves into garbage on the outside of the corner. Again, terrifying. Even today, when it's late and I'm tired but I have to drive or write, I'll close my eyes, shut the world out and re-live a few laps at Brainerd, including that monster called turn one. It instantly wakes me up, my body rejuvenated by the fear.
For me, coming from a drag racing enthusiast background, and having done some quarter-mile racing myself, club-racing at Brainerd showed me how much a successful part of roadracing the rider is, and how roadracing really can't be faked. In drag racing, it seemed to me, a very mediocre racer could buy himself into being a successful drag racer. Certainly there was skill involved, talent required and some technique needed to be learned, but if you're a decent drag racer, money could definitely make you a lot more successful. That remains largely impossible in roadracing. At Brainerd, fast guys on slow bikes nearly always smoked the slow guy on the faster bike. It's still true today: mediocre riders on fast bikes usually end up barrel-rolling bikes into crumpled, hissing hulks even the scrap-yard will not want, no matter how much money they spend. The rider remains the most important ingredient in roadracing. Even today, when there is such a focus on set-ups and levels of equipment, I still believe that the skill, level of desire and talent of the rider are the most important elements in roadracing.
Miguel DuHamel has a list of racing accomplishments as long as his arm, but for me, one of the biggest is his leading the '94 Superbike race at Brainerd on the VR1000 Harley-Davidson, a bike clearly out-paced at a fast track like BIR. Incredibly, DuHamel nearly qualified on the front row (against Troy Corser, Fred Merkel and Colin Edwards, no less) and led the main until he rode off the track, still finishing a strong fourth.
With a bit of local knowledge, much later, I quizzed DuHamel on exactly how he did thatcompeting with much faster bikes while mounted on a very slow bikeat ultra-fast Brainerd of all places. He told me that when he really needed to make time on the VR at Brainerd, he'd keep the throttle half-pinned all the way through the slower corners, controlling it, modulating it with both the front and rear brake until the exit. It sounds impossible, and maybe it is, but so was the idea of a VR leading at Brainerduntil DuHamel did it.
As much as Brainerd was my governess in this business, I haven't missed racing there, and I won't miss the race not being held this year. A number of years ago it stopped being an event that, as a local, you could have some pride in. You see, in the last track ownership change, something happened that made the current owner cut event costs and raise ticket prices, infuriating spectators in the process. Clearly the event started to go downhill.
People have a hard time remembering beyond five years, and many will now say that the Brainerd event has always been a problem spectator-wise, based on what they'd seen there recently. Few remember it's where World Superbike in America got its start. Nobody will remember that, in the mid-1990s, the US Superbike race at Brainerd attracted 44,000 spectators. And the track features perhaps the most terrifying corner in racing: turn one.