Monday, August 21, 2006

Endurance

work in progress
I’m sitting at my desk staring at an envelope. I have yet to open the plain brown letter, but I already know what it contains. I have spent the last 10 days sweating, thinking, wondering, dreaming and dreading the contents of this very plain, unassuming looking package. While I know the contents of the envelope, I do not know where it will take me. What lies ahead could be turmoil, disaster, heartache or pain. It could also be joy, passion, laughter and desire. In all likelihood this little package contains the key to all of these emotional experiences in various combinations and degrees. I rip the closure free, not mindful of tearing it along the dotted line, and tip the envelope to empty its cherished contents into my waiting, trembling hand.

“Its here”, I think to myself, “I’m going. I’m really going.”

Ten days ago I did not know anyone in Europe, I had only just started reading about the World Endurance Championship and I did not even posses a passport. Today, all of that has changed. Sitting in my hand is my very first passport, a small paper device that grants its bearer a broad scope of travel options, paths to adventure and means of acquiring debt. Ten days ago I was daydreaming about a trip to Europe, now my trip looms only a month away and I am only slightly closer to understanding what it all means.

Ten days prior I had read an article on the website for the FIM World Endurance Championship (WEC) that detailed a struggle that many, if not all, of the teams faced when finding crew members for their assault on 24 hour races, in particular the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Being small teams racing on even smaller budgets, they called upon friends and family to fill out their crew slots and have warm bodies to change tires, add fuel and run errands during the grueling event. Upon reading this I had a whimsical fantasy about flying to Europe and becoming a part of a team competing in the race. Of course, I knew no one in the series and had no connections to teams in the series as they are all based in Europe. I chalked it up to whimsy, perhaps attempting to contact a team for the 2007 event as the 2006 race was well under two months away.

“Just try. You never know what could happen, and you’ll never know unless you try.”
My girlfriend’s words rang true and I could feel it. I still didn’t think I stood a chance of actually pulling it off but I wrote the post on the WEC message board anyway.
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll try to find a team that will accept me but I just don’t think this is going to come together this year. Maybe next season, but it is just too soon for 2006. Besides, nothing qualifies me as a mechanic aside from wrenching on my own motorcycle and attending some races.”

“Gregk, this is Hans”, I could barely understand him through his accent, “you have your tickets?”
“Yeah Hans, everything is set. I’ll be landing in Brussels at 2 o’clock.”
“Goodt, I will see you at the airport. Do not worry. If I can’t make it to Brussels I send someone from the team who can speak some English. We will take care of you when you get here. You have nothing to worry.”
“Ok Hans, I’ll see you next week.”

Following that phone call I felt both more secure and less unsure of what I was doing at the same time. I was already aware that of the eighteen friends and family members comprising Primo Racing only a handful actually spoke or understood English. A little internet research indicated that Belgians spoke French, German or both. Unfortunately, the French phrase book I had picked up was not sinking in at all and I had decided to concentrate on remembering all the German I had supposedly learned in high school and college. I spent a few days going over it, feeling more confident and reminding myself that I would remember even more once I was immersed in the culture. I don’t remember which website I gleaned this tidbit of information from, but as it turns out neither language was going to be very helpful.

"You see, Belgium is roughly the size of your New Jersey. But here we have two seperate languages. In the south they spea French, and in the north we have Flemish. Neither really likes the other and so we have many troubles in the government."
He said it so simply I could laugh. This convenient conversation was, of course, taking part some two weeks into my vacation and I had only two days left in the beautiful conuntryside with my hosts.

"Belgians speak Flemish, and Flemish doesn’t have anything in common with any other language besides Flemish."

Two days after posting my little message on the WEC message board I had a pair of replies. One was from a top flight British outfit, the other from a guy named Hans that could write just enough English to get his point across and make him dangerous to my active imagination. His team, Primo Racing, was interested in hearing from me. Upon contacting both teams by email I learned that the British outfit would have me over only as an observer, they had a full team of mechanics and would not need any additional assistance. Primo Racing, on the other hand, was in need of some help and offered to feed, house and entertain me while in Europe on my ideal two and a half week vacation. At this point I had only wanted to go over for the one race, but Hans was adamant about including me at both Assen and Le Mans as the races fell on consecutive weekends. With this, the plan became a simple task of flying to Europe and working as a volunteer mechanic for a motorcycle road racing team at both the Assen 500K and the Le Mans 24 Hour races. Having destroyed and repaired a few myself, I have a fair amount of experience working on race bikes and figured I could be of some use to a team.

It is three o’clock in the morning and we’re preparing for another stop. Our rider just woke up 15 minutes ago and having already peed in the garage's sink he is now having trouble focusing enough to zip up his gear. We get the “pit in” signal (usually a franticly waving arm) from the timing booth on the pit wall and everyone tenses up, though trying to look relaxed and act as though they are perfectly comfortable waiting for our Gixxer 1000 to scream onto pit lane. We watch for the tell tale orange of our paint scheme and bright interior, overhead lighting units we’re using as headlights. Yeah, this is a homegrown team.

“There he is,” I think aloud, “Its only a matter of seconds now…”

The bike rolls to a halt and I snap the rear stand underneath so our rider can crawl from his perch, aching and steaming, on this cool evening in April. I plant my shin on the sticky boiling hot surface of the rear tire and press hard as my teammate Yves unwinds the axle with a squeeze of the air gun’s trigger. With one smooth effort he slides the axle free, and I slip it forward, proving slack as my fingers round the sprocket to remove the chain and place it on the trailing arm. I step backward and to my right with the rear wheel, setting it aside as Fred slams fresh rubber into place and replaces the chain as the axle whips back into its handmade, custom mooring. Our part complete, we watch anxiously as Paul and Robert dump nine gallons of fuel into the beast in only seconds. Race fuel sprays from the quick fill and our rider throws his leg over the bike, stabs the starter and leaves the pits as a wave of relief sweeps over the crew. We check the stop watch and exchange handshakes and pats on the back when we see the time. 26 seconds for a rear tire and full of fuel. Without resting, Yves carries the old rubber away to the Pirelli trailer while Fred and I prepare another set of tires with warmers. In an hour, we’ll be doing it all over again.

“Gregk, why don’t you remove the front forks and rear shock to take over to the Ohlins guy? We need a stiffer spring for the back and new valves up front.”

It was my first real task as a mechanic and I wanted to be sure to help the team as opposed to slowing them down or adding work to their already busy schedule.

1 Comments:

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Nancy said...

Hi Greg
This sounds great, its really like being there, even though some of the technical jargon is lost on me. What happened next?!!

 

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