I'll be rolling south Thursday for round #3 of the AMA Pro Road Racing series at Road Atlanta. Road A has always been one of my favorite places. In part because it was my "home track" throughout my high school and college years, I've enjoyed dozens of two- and four-wheeled race weekends there, certainly more than any other track I've visited.
In lieu of a preview photo or two, how about a little story I wrote for Superbikeplanet.com a few years ago? Enjoy (hopefully).
The trip from Athens to Flowery Branch was not a long one. I arrived at the track early, eager to see all the action I could. After miles of quiet, rural Georgia lanes the first glimpse of the track and the colorful transporters assembled in the paddock was a welcome one, simultaneously confirming and intensifying the sense of anticipation that had been building over the 40-minute commute.
I made my way through the gates and along the access roads. Although one of the support classes was already on track for the weekend’s first practice, the infield was still quiet. Campers were rolling out of their tents, starting fires, cooking breakfast, heating coffee. A few locals like me were parking bikes or cars, reading programs, and applying sunscreen in preparation for the sun and heat to come. The heady aroma and haze of dew-dampened grass and campfires drifted over the hilly terrain.
It was June 1998, and in due course the Friday morning AMA Superbike practice at Road Atlanta was underway. I was standing at the fence alongside the braking zone for Turn 10, watching bikes approach from my right at top speed, grab a handful of brake, and descend the hill past my vantage point before finally tipping into the slow left-hander. I had entered the track grounds only a few minutes ago and here I was immediately presented with the spectacle and violence of a modern Superbike ridden with intent – the brief shock of a lone 170-mph projectile suddenly appearing over the crest, the sound of a race-tuned engine driving bike and rider down the hill, the sight of the rider tucked in on the back of his machine willing himself down the hill and deep into the braking zone, and finally the smell of tortured brakes, superheated oil, and race-fuel exhaust that wafts over the area after the bikes have passed.
I was happily taking this all in, enjoying a brief silence and gap in the bikes on track, silently thanking my father, the fates, and whomever or whatever else gifted me with a passion for motorcycle racing, when a red motorcycle made its appearance at the top of the hill. The somewhat flat-in-tone yet still manic engine note announced “Honda RC-45,” the #17 number plate promised “Miguel Duhamel.” It took only a tiny fraction of second to make the identification, and only a tiny fraction more to realize this approach to Turn 10 was a little more serious than those that I had witnessed just seconds before.
The v-four’s rasp was more insistent, taut, Miguel’s posture more tense, willful, and full-throttle bike and rider made much greater inroads into the braking zone before finally relenting to the laws of physics and trading speed for heat. Just as quickly as Miguel had shattered the brief calm with his power-on appearance he closed the throttle and began braking, filling the air with the howl of front Dunlop, screeching slipper clutch, whirring gears and chain, and a few quick reports from the exhaust announcing the necessary downshifts. No longer in his slippery tuck, Miguel was now upright, facing his challenge, arms and shoulders holding back the mountain of momentum pressing from behind, weight shifted forward and slightly to the inside, left knee hanging in the breeze and indicating the intended path forward. All the while the front suspension was completely compressed, the rear at maximum extension, and the fat rear Dunlop had only the most tenuous grip on the track surface as it waved back and forth, left and right, engine note wavering, as Miguel strong-armed the bike through the braking zone and to his chosen turn-in point.
I didn’t think he was going to make the turn. Judging by what I sensed to be a collective intake of breath of those around me, I don’t think anyone else standing along that fence thought he’d make it either. Surely any second he was going to give up, stand the bike up, and roll straight on into the safety of the expansive gravel trap. Or crash trying to make the corner. Miguel did not give up, nor did he crash. Deep into the corner he judged that he had shed enough speed, put an end to the rear wheel’s incessant wagging, and slammed the bike down onto his left knee. The front tire held, Miguel picked up the throttle, tossed the bike immediately onto the right side of the tires for the second half of the chicane, and was soon laying a long darkie up the hill to the bridge, v-four shrieking away in erratic bursts as his right wrist and the rear tire flirted with the traction limit.
After Miguel and bike powered over the hill and under the bridge, there was a brief silence. No other bikes were following immediately behind. The cheering and hollering from the few spectators around started quickly. I found myself hooting and clapping. Strangers were exchanging bewildered glances, nervous smiles. The hair on the back of my neck was standing tall, charged with the electricity of the moment.
It was early on a Friday morning, a practice session. Pole position was not at stake. No race wins were on the line. There wasn’t even a rival in sight. Miguel presumably didn’t have a reason to be trying that hard, yet he was. Perhaps his motivation was perfectly rational. Perhaps he was merely testing his braking limits, trying to get an idea of just how deeply he could rush into the corner so he’d know what he and bike would be capable of in the two races to come. Maybe he made a mistake, missed his braking marker, and never intended to rush the corner that hard. Maybe he had a mechanical problem. Or maybe, as I prefer to think, he was riding that hard simply because he could. As a mere spectator, as one who rides enthusiastically but is fully aware he lacks the skills and mindset of a Miguel Duhamel, I prefer to think he came flying down that hill the way he did simply because it was within his capability to do so. It was fun.
The next day, while powering into the last corner on the last lap of the first Superbike race, Miguel executed what in my mind has long been recorded as The Pass, his overtaking of Ducati-mounted Anthony Gobert to take the win in Race #1. For those of who witnessed Miguel’s corner-charging antics into Turn 10 Friday morning, his frame-twisting, tire-torturing downhill block pass on the “Go Show” was more of the same stuff. After the race, Miguel said of The Pass that one doesn’t attempt such an aggressive move unless he is very confident it will end successfully. Once so assured, one need only commit himself fully to the task. Half-measures will end in tears.
Aggression, judgment, risk analysis, commitment, skill, and simple bravery – these are the makings of a winning rider. And, in Miguel’s case at least, these are the makings of a lengthy, productive career. Knowing that he’s still at it, still fully competitive and driven, if a tad more measured in his approach, makes the memories all the more real for this face in the crowd.
Thanks, Miguel. It’s fun for me too.
Maybe one photo, of Miguel at Road Atlanta, of course (if a few years later than in the story).