Dark skies loomed the evening before race day.
Oulton Park in Cheshire, for round five of the Golden Era Superbikes, was an important meeting for me to stay in with a chance of finishing well in the Championship. It was a one-day race day for double points and unknown to us at the time, was to be another luckless weekend for me and my team; one that actually started two weeks before in the garage at home.
We’d finished rebuilding the over-bored engine and had it installed ready for a test run. It started first time and everything seemed fine. I tested it through the gears and all was good until I started to blip the revs. Three times, and on the third the con rod broke away from the piston and smashed through the crankcase, completely destroying the engine.
The death of an engine
It was very bad moment for me, and my Dad, who had worked alongside me to try and produce a more powerful unit to help me through the second half of the season. We just couldn’t work out what had happened, we think it may have been a piston circlip that hadn’t seated properly, but we’ll never really know the answer. It was a complete disaster. What made it worse was the fact that I’d booked a No Limits Track Day at the Oulton Park circuit (it’s 7 years since I’ve been there) for a bit of practice the day after.
Work as well as play. My old road bike stepped up to the plate with my race bike’s rear suspension and tank.
I didn’t have time to swap the engine over, so I just took my ZX7R road bike that I use everyday to go to work instead – it was a bit different, but better than nothing. In truth, it was a quite an enjoyable day and took my mind off what had happened the night before.
So, back to Round-5 at Oulton Park with my trusty standard engine again. Only this time I dropped in a more aggressive inlet cam for a bit more power: not much but it helped.
Friday’s practice was a bit messy with the weather being so changeable and I was running an old slick from the previous round - saving my new one for qualifying. The last session was just too wet for dry tyres, but not quite wet enough for wets either. So I just went out to scrub in the wet tyres for a couple of laps; a full session would have destroyed them.
Second on the grid was good enough for me!
It wasn’t until the afternoon qualifier that I really got going. It was great! I managed to put the bike on the front row in second place, just a few hundredths of a second behind Pole position man, John Dieterman. The bike felt really strong and I felt confident about the races to come on the Saturday.
Being second fastest in the morning warm-up was an encouraging start to the day and, after a bit of fine carb tuning, I was ready.
On the Front row – I didn’t know this was a Twins Race.
Race-1 - When I arrived at the gate I noticed a board with the notification that this was a wet race! The track was bone dry, which meant that if it did rain the race wouldn’t be stopped, even though we were all on slicks. Madness! When the light went out I was away to a good start, but John used his horsepower to out drag me to Old Hall and I had follow him into Cascades. It was then I noticed a little rain on my visor. Just as we went into Island Bends John eased off due to the light rain. The rain wasn’t bothering me too much at this stage so I just got my head down. When I came round on my first lap I was already 2-seconds in the lead. I felt very comfortable on the bike with slicks, even though there were spots of rain; grip level was still good. After lap 2, I was 3-seconds in front and was beginning to enjoy the fact that I might well win this one if I played my cards right. But just as I went past my pit board into Old Hall the rain got a bit heavier and I went a touch wide and nearly ran off at the bottom of Cascades; time to slow down a tad, I thought. By the time I’d got to Hizzy’s Chicane, Graham Ward, on another ZXR 750, had closed the gap and over-took me. He promptly crashed on the exit losing traction. His bike was like a loose cannon, all over the track, and it was hard to get past the incident. Once I was in the clear, Nick Williamson, on his Suzuki had caught me up and, taking advantage of the situation, he swept past me up into Clay Hill. He went so quick I thought there must be more grip than I imagined, so I matched his pace and reeled him in through Druids … that was my big mistake. I was just behind him, going into Lodge Corner, when he lost the front on the wet surface. No grip! A split second later I’m in the same situation and down I go. Damn the rain, it must have been for no more than 20 seconds. By the time I’d picked myself up from the gravel trap it had stopped and the track started to dry again. It was a nightmare, but at least Nick and me were OK. However, having hit the tyre wall, my bike didn’t look so well at all.
Down but not out, the ZX7R was up and running for Race-2
We were about to put the bike in the trailer and go home, but when John Dieterman came over to see if I was OK, he offered to help. Once we’d straightened out the front bracket and took all the broken bits off we realised that it might not be so bad. Once I’d bought a new brake reservoir, bled the brakes, replaced the bent clip-on, brake lever, front fairing and seat – I was pretty much good to go again.
With about 40-minutes left before Race-2 the Scrutineer gave me the OK and with tyre warmers fitted, we were ready. Then, on the actual call to the gate, it rained. Hard work got even harder and we were given 10 minutes to change to wets. We just about made it, and I only just got to the gate as it started to close. I rolled onto the circuit without a front mudguard – no time to fit it – and with a guessed set-up for the worsening conditions - not too good for confidence. Anyway, I finished 6th in torrential rain. I was glad it was all over, but not glad about the overall result.
It was a disappointing end to what seemed like a good start to the weekend, but if racing seems cruel at times, I have to remember that the good times are why we do it; I just haven’t many of those lately.
Next round is at Rockingham. It’ll be a new circuit for me to race on, as I’ve never been there before, maybe it’ll be like a new start too. I’ve decided not to expect too much anymore and just go out and enjoy it. Fingers crossed.