11 years ago this weekend marked the end of an era: The final 24-hour motorcycle endurance race at Nelson Ledges. For years there had been talk that "this 24-hour at Nelson will be the last one", but on the weekend of July 3-4 in 1993 the rumors came true and 34 teams arrived in Garrettsville, Ohio to give it one last thrash.
The Great Equalizer
Endurance racing has long been viewed, usually through a rose-tinted face shield, as a great equalizer; the kind of event in which an unknown David can, with perseverance, determination and a little luck, beat a roadracing Goliath. Especially if some bad luck falls on Goliath and a little good luck finds its way to David. In reality, the well-financed (meaning "sponsored") Goliath can afford the best equipment, the best riders and the best crew and usually gives David a thorough trouncing. But racers are dreamers by nature and the prospect of 24 hours in which the unexpected can and usually does happen gives the dreamer an extra incentive to believe in the impossible. Or at least hope for the unlikely.
In 1993, yours truly was apparently even more removed from reality than most racers because I offered up my *own* race bike as a sacrificial lamb and got a team together to make Nelson Ledges' final 24-hour race my first one. I'd been hanging around the Rochester Road Racers for years and it seemed as if every one of them had raced at half a dozen or more 24-hours-at least to judge by the countless stories I'd heard. It seemed that throwing together a 24-hour team at the last minute was almost a tradition. My longest endurance racing experience at that point had been a six-hour and I was keen to get on a team for the big one. Even if we didn't do well, one of the great things about a 24-hour is that, like running a marathon, simply finishing is an accomplishment. At least that's what we told ourselves when we realized that there no longer was a lightweight class and we'd be racing my FZR400 against a pack of 600s...
A Midwestern Bangladesh
Part of the charm of the Nelson Ledges 24-hour was the facility that hosted the event. Charm, of course, is a relative term. Let's just say that the place has "character": Dusty dirt roads through the paddock, hot and cold running water (only without the hot) and toilets that consist of a concrete shed over a pit in the ground that's been capped with a 12-inch PVC pipe and a crudely attached toilet seat. Men can take advantage of a kind of "group urinal trough" that's best not even described (especially the smell). One wag suggested that mothers in Bangladesh keep their kids in line by telling them they'll be sent to Nelson Ledges if they're not good.
The track itself is the important thing and it represented both the best and worst that Nelson Ledges had to offer. I've heard it's since been improved somewhat but I think 1993 must have been the low point for the track surface there. The stories of how bumpy is was are true. Frost heaves, crudely patched potholes, jarring pavement transitions and more. But the layout of the track is fundamentally excellent: With mostly fast corners and only two turns where you have to really get on the brakes, it's a circuit on which you can get into a good rhythm and make time consistently. If you know the track, that is...
Track knowledge is the key. All those bumps, potholes and pavement transitions? Those who raced there regularly had them all *memorized* in detail. My teammates would be fellow FZR400 racers Rick Bair and Mike Hausknecht (who'd done shorter endurance races with me) and long-time Nelson experts Tommy D'Ettorre and Broderick Walker, both of whom had won national titles and had raced on numerous Nelson Ledges 24-hour teams. We all knew the fast line around the track, which was nothing like a traditional racing line. The fast line around Nelson Ledges, if diagramed, would look like the route taken by a drunk on a tricycle with one wheel falling off. But anyone trying the traditional racing line through any of the turns there would end up on his head in short order.
All the teams that considered Nelson their home track were counting on the local knowledge advantage to increase the "David factor" of their own race effort.
A Magnet for Eccentrics
One of the best things about a 24-hour is what and who it brings out of the woodwork. Teams who aren't even hoping for an upset but who come out knowing they're going to take a beating and race just for the challenge. I said before that just finishing a race like this is an accomplishment and it's true; some people show up fully aware that they're going to need a major helping of good fortune just to be running at the checkered flag.
There was team American Harley Davidson, who entered with a Sportster-based 1200cc machine (which ran in the mediumweight superbike class with the modern 600cc fours). They completed 856 laps and were credited with 27th place overall.
But the team that took the prize for optimism was Vintage Ventures. Their choice of weapon? An air-cooled Yamaha RD-350 two-stroke twin. Forget David. We're talking Don Quixote here. I didn't get to monitor their progress much myself, other than noticing the frightening speed differential when I passed them during my first shift (God knows what it must have been like for them when the 1100 superbikes went past), but I heard they retired after their second-or possibly third-engine swap. They only made it through 324 laps, but with an official 32nd place finish they weren't last.
Woodstock on Wheels
With teams ranging from Team Suzuki to-well, to us-the facilities and amenities along pit lane varies widely, shall we say. There were deluxe screened canopies right next to hastily-strung-up K-mart tarps. The pit area resembled a cross between a carnival, a rock concert and a motorcycle swap meet. If Woodstock had been a road race it would have looked like this.
Some pits had the full complement of pneumatic tools including tire-changing machines. Some had just a few old tool boxes. And of course there was every level in between. Many were camped out in tents. We at least had Tommy D'Etorre's motor home (known to motorcycle racers up and down the east coast as the Barbie Fun Bus) in which to occasionally take a break or prepare food. (Question: What do you make for breakfast when you're in a big hurry during a 24-hour race? Answer: A spaghetti sandwich on rye.)
This event even had, believe it or not, spectators. You might think there'd be few souls desperate enough for entertainment to go to a funky (to put it kindly) race track in Ohio to watch 24 hours of motorcycle racing for the July 4 weekend, but right from the beginning there were people who pitched their tents on the outside of the front straight and set up their lawn chairs and coolers to enjoy the show. If you have enough beer in the cooler I suppose you can have fun anywhere...
Victory - of Sorts
The race itself was outstanding. And Brutal. Because of the unbelievably rough track surface, you felt by the end as if you'd been in a 24-hour boxing match (with nothing but body blows dealt) rather than a motorcycle race. But the toughest thing was the weather. A hot July day in Ohio can hardly be described. I think you could actually see the humidity. Air temps were in the mid-to-upper 90s. The track temp reached at least 128. Not so much as a cloud in the sky for relief. And though those of us campaigning small bikes against bigger machinery prayed for it, not a drop of rain during the event. I literally couldn't stand after my first shift. Does this sound like fun or what?
Of course it was fun, in the slightly perverse way that roadracers understand the word, and the Great Equalizer did provide some upsets. Semi-local team Force Racing hustled their FZR1000 through 1021 laps (2042 miles) to defeat the mighty Team Suzuki (who actually put in a stellar showing by finishing third after losing a full hour in the pits repairing crash damage). Second place went to Team Pearls Suzuki on a GSXR600 in the Mediumweight Superbike class.
There were few crashes, even fewer red flags and no major injuries. In fact, despite the majority of the teams being entirely amateur efforts with all-volunteer staffs, the level of professionalism was very high. I never saw anyone do anything stupid on track and every pass made on me by the bigger, faster bikes was clean and safe. Oh, and we did manage to keep those passes by bigger, faster bikes to a minimum: We brought my FZR400 home in 16th place overall after completing 926 laps or 1852 miles in 24 hours. Good for 3rd place in Mediumweight Production. Probably not enough of an upset to qualify as David but a lot better than Don Quixote.