My Friday started around 9:00 AM, loading my Triumph Tiger with all the gear I’d need for a weekend of camping. My panniers were full of clothes and gear, then strapped to my pillion seat were a tent, bed roll and sleeping bag. Yet this wasn’t just any random weekend camping trip. I was on my way to join Johnny and the rest of the Motoworks Chicago and ChiVinMoto crew at Road America for a weekend of moto fun. The now combined AHRMA races at Road America and Rockerbox motorcycle street festival were about to shift into high gear.
For Johnny, Craig and other Motoworks racers, the AHRMA weekend at Road America is a can’t miss. This year, we also added Jonathan to the racing ranks, fresh off receiving his racing license. This would be Jonathan’s first racing event riding a bike in anger, and we were all excited for him and his SV650.
While at first I thought I’d do the straight shot up 41 from Chicago to Road America, it was such a gorgeous day I couldn’t help but take the scenic route. Avoiding Milwaukee entirely, my Tiger and I meandered through the Wisconsin countryside, taking our time getting to the track. Friday is a practice day, so since I wasn’t racing, I could just enjoy the sunshine and the open road.
I arrived at Road America to find the Motoworks crew had set up an impressive paddock encampment. It joined with the ChiVinMoto gang adjacent to us to form an entire paddock row of bikes, gear, people and Windy City pride. The flags waved high, as if to say “We claim this land for Chicago!” Bikes buzzed by on the track nearby, and even though the racing hadn’t started yet, the whole paddock was buzzing with activity. Bikes were being worked on, worked over, started up, tuned, fiddled with, disassembled, reassembled, cursed at, wiped down and ridden around.
Setting up camp amongst the other tents and vehicles, the sense of camaraderie was so immediate. Even though I was just meeting many of the people gathered under the EZ-up tents, we were all here for the same reasons: to celebrate grass roots racing on two wheels. Though I was new to the goings on, I quickly realized there were longstanding traditions at play. There was Johnny in his signature post-race bathrobe, for example. As night fell, more and more of the Chicago contingent began to gather under our generator-driven lights for perhaps the best of the track-side traditions: freshly grilled fish tacos. The party strolled into the night under the red banner of the Motoworks EZ-up, but things didn’t go too late. After all, tomorrow there was racing to do.
There’s no sleeping-in when you camp trackside. If the dawn doesn’t get your eyes open, the sound of growling motorcycle exhaust will do the job well enough. Saturday morning saw the final practice sessions before racing began in earnest that afternoon. As I made my way over to the Road America concessions pavilion for some breakfast and the biggest cup of coffee I could get my hands on, Johnny went out for a practice session on his own SV650, better known as the Panitona. By the time I got back with my big cup of go-juice, Johnny was regaling the pits with the story of the cold tire low-side he’d just had at about 80 mph. A tire with not enough heat + too quick a dab of front trail braking = new scrapes on your racing leathers and a banged-up bike. “I won’t even have a bruise” Johnny reported, unharmed from his unscheduled track exit. Unfortunately, while the Panitona wasn’t damaged too badly, it wasn’t going to be track-worthy again before race time. That’s the beauty of AHRMA racing though, with many classes to choose from, Johnny was still scheduled to race a Triumph Thruxton as well as his BMW airhead in other races that weekend.
Meanwhile, it was time for me to collect my photographer’s vest and start staking out corners. The racing action was about to begin. I made my way around Road America’s expansive track grounds, with my Tiger 1050 doing double duty as an oversized pit bike. I got setup in a corner, then waited for a group of angry motorcycles to come growling past. Then as they made their way around the other 4+ miles of Road America’s course, I’d reposition and try to catch the action from a different angle. Here are some of my favorite actions shots:
The racing underway wasn’t the only thing going on at Road America, however. Though we’d had the place to ourselves on Thursday and Friday, Saturday was also the main day for the newly relocated Rockerbox bike festival. At the bottom of the hill, below the paddock and past the concessions pavilion, Rockerbox was in full swing. Vendor tents were set up from one end of that section to the other, and the massive lower parking lot was overflowing with motorcycles of every type imaginable. The din of noise — with racing happening all around us and the sea of spectators and festival goers alike buzzing around on their motorcycles and scooters — the whole thing was a wonderful cacophony of internal combustion splendor. There were stunt shows, product demos, wares for sale, and all along a judged bike show going on. For bike fans, I can’t imagine it getting any better.
The rest of Saturday played out as a duet between two great events. The announcements over the loud speaker would call and answer between announcing the Rockerbox events and giving the trackside play-by-play. While browsing the sea of bikes at the bottom of the hill, the racing buzzed all around us and up the main straight toward the finish line. I have to say that Road America is a great facility for this combined event. There’s room. There’s facilities. There’s a common spectator set. The two events really do seem to compliment each other really well. I hope this becomes the new normal each summer.
As the festival activities began to die down, the day trip spectators began to file out in search for either a local supper club or the road home. Soon, the track and the rest of Road America pretty much belonged to the racers again. What to do? Make more tacos and party, of course. With one more day of racing, spectators and racers alike played chicken their next day’s handicap. If I have too much fun tonight, will I be able to function tomorrow? Would a hangover and lousy, tent-bound sleep be the great equalizer when the bikes lined up for Sunday? Only one way to find out.
For me, and I dare say for all of us, it was the time spent in the paddock that really made this event special. Sure, we love the bikes and racing is as addicting as anything the cartels have to offer, but for those of us who never even touched tire to track, just being together was enough. That common bond of two wheels and not taking life too seriously made for fast friends, no pun intended. Between the bench racing and watching Paul put his gigantic lap dog, Sarutobi the Akita, through his full gamut of tricks, there was no better place to be in Wisconsin that night as far as I was concerned.
Sunday saw a few extra Motoworks crew members and significant others making their way up cheer on our riders and add their cheer to the paddock. The racing went well. First time road racer and longtime Johnny wingman, Josh, actually took third in a CB160-class race thanks to some stellar riding and a really good LeMans-style start. Johnny and Triumph Brand Ambassador Sarah both made great showings in the Thruxton Cup, although that race saw some controversy thanks to one competitor who seems like he’d rather win than race. What fun is that? Our own Craig Chawla also grabbed podium in the BEARS class aboard his BMW. Paul was very competitive, in the top ten actually, in Formula 2 aboard his own SV650. Our ChiVinMoto compadres were peppered throughout the race results.
Thing is, the standings don’t really matter for most of these racers, and certainly not for anybody sharing our paddock. We were there for the sheer joy of racing and the electric fellowship of our fellow moto nuts. It’s about being there. It’s about sharing an experience that’s so much more than a checkered flag. Although I’ve attended the AHRMA races at Road America two other times, for me, this was the first time I’d really experienced the sprit behind the event. This was not some cold, obsessive, dollar-driven racing event all about thanking the sponsors on camera and spraying champaign from the podium while nearly naked women hold an umbrella between you and the sun. This was about our fellow riders, and about getting together to have fun at the two extremes of the speedometer. Low and slow in the pits, and fast and loud around the corners. Needless to say, I’m hooked.
As I headed out and back to life and work in Chicago, I was sad to put Road America in my Tiger’s rear view. We’d had perfect weather, with only a 10 minute bluster of sprinkles the whole weekend. We’d had the best possible time just being together between races, and cheering each other on from the stands and the corners. Yet I didn’t have to feel too sad. There’s next year, but before that, there’s Barber. Plan your trips now kids, you’re gonna want to be there.
Special thanks to AHRMA, Rockerbox, Road America, ChiVinMoto and everybody at Motoworks who stayed behind and kept the shop hummin’ while some of us had an amazing weekend.