Motorcycles A Look into The Psyche of a Sidecar RacerBetty Herlocker details the struggles sidecar racers face on the track.
- Words Betty Herlocker
- Illustrations JAPA
I have two angels on my shoulders. On the right side is the spirit of racing; on the left, the spirit of those souls claimed by the sport. Both are concerned for my well-being, but they bicker constantly, sneering and prodding at each other from opposite sides of my psyche, like an old married couple. Their incessant dialogue is enough to drive a person mad — and it would, were those of us with two angels not mad to begin with.
One of our young local racers, Pearce, left his coma and joined my angels a week after his wreck in turn 13 at the Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington, this June. We’re so fucking stupid, I thought as I read the news of his passing. We racers traipse around, repeating hackneyed adages about stepping out of our comfort zones, how life without risk is hardly worth living. We purport to understand the potentially dire consequences of the sport we love so much, claiming that we would rather die young, knowing the thrill of the pursuit of speed, than live to old age never having known such bliss. Then one of us meets an abrupt, unceremonious end at the hands of our wheeled mistress, and we fall mute for a moment, silenced by the painful realization that our love could actually kill us.
My angels were screaming; to silence the din, I just kept repeating to myself: "Something will happen to make this all clear. Something will happen, and you will know what to do."
But it isn’t long before the opposite angel pipes up again. “He would want us to keep going,” we declare. “We’ve gotta do this — for him!” we trumpet, just before we resume parading around on our motorcycles at death-defying speeds, proclaiming this is what it means to be “really living.”
Preparing my sidecar for the AHRMA Bonneville Vintage GP race event at Utah Motorsports Campus this weekend, the ongoing spat between my shoulder angels seemed to have reached a fever pitch. My friend Russ was paralyzed in a racing accident a few weeks ago, and his wreck provided fodder to both sides. As he and his new wife fretted about retrofitting their home to become wheelchair-accessible, he was simultaneously scheming about paraplegic-friendly race bikes. At the event, a prominent AHRMA racer, who had developed custom, race-worthy landing gear that enabled him to pursue his hobby without the use of his legs, wheeled around the pits and track, wreaking havoc on my mind. The battle within my soul had turned from a game of tug-of-war into something more resembling Vietnam.
A new racer had expressed interest in buying my sidecar, but something gave me pause. I admired the older racers around me who refused to succumb to the fear of their own mortality. I’d always dreamed of joining their ranks, inspiring the novices the way this older generation has inspired me. But my desire to actually live to see old age with all my faculties intact made this seem absurd. My angels were screaming; to silence the din, I just kept repeating to myself: “Something will happen to make this all clear. Something will happen, and you will know what to do.”
I hugged my passenger, Kendra, as we idled on the starting grid Sunday morning, and instead of listening to the little voice in my ear telling me I could kill her today, I tried to embrace the feeling of excitement that comes over me when I flip down my visor and await the flying green flag. As I dumped my clutch and volleyed for position heading for turn one, my fears disappeared in an instant and my full focus was on passing the car ahead of me. This happened to be number 64, Bill Wollermouth, and we had a hell of a battle, thrilling ourselves and spectators alike. But I had a problem.
I had been experiencing consistent difficulties in the two sustained right-hand turns — in the form of front tire hop — all day Saturday. Despite changes in tire pressure to smooth these corners out, the front wheel persisted in skipping across the pavement like a stone. Hopping rather than gliding through these problem turns had been jarring, but manageable; however, as the pace and intensity of the race turned up, I found myself having a harder and harder time maintaining my line each lap.
The voice of the angel on my left grew louder: You aren’t strong enough. You can’t control this thing. This isn’t safe.
Bill passed me. The other angel piped up: Don’t let him get away! This is what you came here to do! Go get him! As I tried to reel him in, it took everything in me to keep the car on track.
You can do it, push harder!
You won’t be able to catch him without losing control, don’t do it.
He’s not that far ahead, you can still get him!
You’re going to get hurt. Slow down.
I let Bill’s bike get smaller and smaller as he built a substantial lead. But even at my slower pace, I was having trouble commanding my machine. Now it wasn’t just the right turns — all the turns were now giving me trouble.
You’re going to get lapped, you baby! Don’t chicken out! one angel screamed.
It’s okay, you’re just not cut out for this anymore, the other cooed.
The chaos was intolerable. I started crying in my helmet, but the tears halted abruptly as I entered The Attitudes, a downhill series of turns in the shape of a backward “S,” and the bars were practically ripped from my hands. We careened over the rumble strip into the gravel. I checked Kendra, and in a cloud of dust and debris, we re-entered the track, determined to finish the remaining laps at whatever dogshit slow pace was required to keep my unruly vehicle under control. My angels struck a tentative truce, their voices quiet.
But when I entered the next turn, the car had other ideas; the following turn was the same. Something was very wrong. I pulled off — my first “Did Not Finish” in four years.
The voices in my head were back at it again as I limped my bike through the pits. I parked it, hyperventilating. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Russ and Pearce and I couldn’t do it,” I sobbed when Kendra asked what had happened. “I got too scared.”
Through my tears, I saw our fairing had twisted and warped, sending me into further hysterics. I finally got it together enough to remove the bodywork, revealing the true culprit. There were massive tears in the steel on either side of the steering head, where the stress of the wheel hop had been too much for the frame. The trouble wasn’t that I wasn’t strong enough to control the car at race pace, it was the fact that the frame was trying to tear itself apart at the seams — a perfect visual representation of my internal struggle between my dueling desires. I started laughing. “I’ve been fretting all weekend about whether or not I should sell the sidecar … Looks like that decision has been made for me!”
I was heartbroken about the state of my car and our inability to finish the race, but throughout the rest of the day, racers — not just those travelling with us from Portland, but from all over North America — came and expressed their condolences, as well as astonishment that things had not turned out worse. Each person’s jaw dropped upon seeing the chasms in our frame.
“Thank God you backed off. A failure like that could have killed you.”
A deaf and mostly blind young man, who Kendra and I had delighted Saturday afternoon by taking him for a ride around the pits, waved and squealed at me, pointing at the car, then laying his hands reverently over his heart, his lips pulled down into an exaggerated frown.
“I know, I’m sorry too. Thank you,” I replied.
Bill, our competitor on the track, congratulated us on a challenging race and offered to take the sidecar to Southern California, where it will hopefully be fixed. The racing family had come together, as they always do, to support and bolster our spirits.
My friend Jeff and I looked at my twisted frame, and he shook his head in disbelief. “Jeez,” he said. “You girls must really have some angels following you.”