Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Notes from the blue groove - Du Quoin

I just got back from Du Quoin, where AMA Pro Racing held the first indoor flat track race in about five years. The whole journey will take a while to write up; suffice to say that I started and ended the trip from Kansas City on my corroded Triumph Bonneville, but that I arrived and left Du Quoin in a rental car. Use your imagination...

Nope, it was way worse. Oh well, all's forgiven now that the Triumph's running again.

I thought battery life could be a problem on those electric bikes...
Before Du Quoin, I chatted with a few flat track lifers who told me that on those really short tracks (laps of less than 12 seconds!) anything could happen. I can't remember who won last time they raced there, but I think it was a guy who'd never won a national before, and hasn't since.

Walking into the arena itself was a little underwhelming. It's no Astrodome, if you're talking indoor nationals. It's not even a Cow Palace. There's about 2,500 seats along one side, and the bikes were packed into a space about 30 feet wide between turns 2 & 3,  and the outside wall of the arena.

The surface in the arena started out fantastic. Walking across it in my sneakers, it was so tacky that that my feet actually made little sucking sounds with each step. Chris Carr told me, "It's great! It's the 'Mile' dirt but it's indoors so it won't dry out."

AMA Pro worked the surface at every opportunity in practice and qualifying, when the riders - as much as possible on such a tiny track - tried to stay out of each others' way and put in a clean lap. 55 Experts showed up (54 guys and Nichole Cheza.) There were more Experts than Pro class riders. With only 48 slots up for grabs in the heats, that meant several guys would be sent packing after - get this - a total of less than two minutes of practice and qualifying. You had to come out of the pen with your hair on fire from the first moment.

Early in the night, grip was not an issue.
In those first sessions, while it was the tackiest imaginable clay cushion, the grip and lean angles were awesome. The handful of fans who showed up that early saw some amazing riding. Sammy Halbert told me after the first session that he thought he had too much grip, and that his bike was hooking up and running him wide. As frantic as it looked, riders had to be as precise as possible. There could be 10 guys in the same tenth of a second, so there was no such thing as a tiny error. And there was a mark to hit every second or two, so there wasn't much time to gather things up if you missed one. This was racing reduced to its essence, with many riders electing to start in second gear, and not shift even once all race. Picture speedway, but with the entire night's field on the track at once.

As the stands filled up (not totally, but I'm guessing there were at least 1,500 people for the show) AMA Pro let the groove develop; fans, understandably, would rather watch racing than the tractor. Everyone I talked to before the heats had expected a groove, but most of them thought it would have enough grip that the winning tactic would be to nail your start and then pole-putt around the inside.

Instead the groove got slick, and the fast line was at the edge of the cushion. Carr and Coolbeth, in particular, dominated their respective heats. Kenny Tolbert must've forgotten to tell Chris that he's an old, slow guy on the verge of retirement. He looked about 19 out there.
Textbook style, just the way they teach it at American Supercamp where he's the most regular guest instructor. Carr ran away from the field in his heat race, and the Dash For Cash was a preview of the Main. No one at Du Quoin had anything for either Carr or Coolbeth.

With the inside line that slick - it was slippery even to walk on it - there was not much chance to "high-low" the guy in front of you. The door seemed to be open, but there were very few guys who could hook up on it at all. It got pretty physical out there, although the Experts might've been slightly chastened by watching a Pro crashfest that included a couple of real pile-ups.

At the end of the night, while anything might've happened and we could've seen an unexpected winner - one of my tipsters picked Jimmy Wood - it was Coolbeth who took advantage of Carr's one bobble in duel between the two smoothest and fastest guys out there. Jake Johnson was the best of the rest, so the three single-digit guys on the podium were the same guys who've accounted for something like 200 Grand National wins between themselves.
One insider tipped Chad Cose (49) as a dark horse going into the event. He spends the winter riding the Barn Burner series in NorCal, and raced Cow Palace before Du Quoin. Indeed, he led Coolbeth early in their heat, then on the next lap...

...this happened. Coolbeth was not to be denied, all night.
 As everyone packed up and left, we walked out into a night that had grown almost breathtakingly cold. It sure as hell didn't feel like an April evening in a place that's nearly in Tennessee. It was lucky as hell that the event was indoors, or the audience would've been frozen by the last race.

By the time the Main  rolled around, the groove was so slippery I could tell it was useless to race on just by walking across it.
 I'd love to write a bit more for you, but I'm on about three deadlines Gotta' go!

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