The Grand Prix des Frontiers | Beyond Borders

Trials and tribulations at the Grand Prix des Frontiers

By Ari Henning, Photography by Patrick Bodden, Catherine Brennan, Etienne Photography, Thierry Dricot

My initial impression of the bike during Friday practice is excellent, but we quickly run into problems. Although Lionel had run-in the bike at a track day a month before, the rigors of race practice quickly set the bugs crawling. The electronic tachometer is acting erratic, and the lightened and balanced crank makes judging engine rpm difficult. The second lap out my boot slips off the left footpeg as I transition for a turn, and when I look down the side of the bike is glistening with oil. Then, when I go to make the four-gear downshift for the final turn, the shifter slips on the shaft. We diaper the leaking oil seal, tighten the shifter pinch bolt, and take the slack out of the brakes as someone runs off to check the schedule for the next available practice group.

I get another crack at the track a couple hours later, but oil is still spraying from the crank seal and the throttle cables are catching on the fairing when the fork compresses under braking, lifting the slides as the fork rebounds and powering me into the turns! It’s all I can do to keep from crashing. I’m permitted to ride in several other sessions, but they all end with me throwing up a hand and coasting off the track. Friday’s practice is a wash, but there’s still a five-lap qualifying session on Saturday, so I maintain a sliver of hope for learning the track.

Fed up with the interruptions, we all agree that quick fixes won’t do; we need solutions. Lionel abandons the dry ignition and installs a stock sealed stator cover. David and my dad search the swap meet for a replacement shift shaft with decent splines. The race engine has no accommodation for a stock cable-driven tachometer, so a rev-counter is out of the question. We work to within minutes of my qualifying session, but as I hurry to bump-start the bike the engine turns over as if there’s no compression. I’m totally baffled; did a spark plug come loose? As I look over the bike, I notice that the shift linkage is pointing up; it had been pointing down before. It got flipped and the shift pattern is reversed. I’m in sixth, not first! By the time I shift into first and fire up the engine, the last of the riders are disappearing around Turn 1. Riding angry, I begin charging through the pack, elbowing one rider out of my way and passing another on the curbing.

With three laps to go, I finally get an un-interrupted run down the back bends known as the Barnyard Dash. It feels fantastic to finally hit this section at something close to race pace, wedged behind the bubble in top gear arcing from wall to wall, ripping past the riders who don’t have the nerve to keep it pinned. But with no tach to reference and a deceptively smooth-spinning engine, my excitement gets the best of me and I push the motor too hard. That’s when it happens: I’m wide-open in sixth when the engine loses power and the exhaust note switches to a sick, hollow burbling. I pull in the clutch and throw up a hand, glancing back through a cloud of smoke to see if any of the riders I’d just motored by were about to ass-pack me on what is the fastest, most dangerous part of the track. When I roll back into the hot pit, I’m beside myself. Patrick and Lionel run up, spy the mess in the belly pan and we all fall silent.

Ever indomitable, David, Lionel and Patrick remove the still-hot engine for an autopsy. Meanwhile, I walk off so the team won’t sense my anguish. I head to the timing office, where the qualifying results have just been posted. My lap time would have put me on the second row for the 25-bike race.

“Decent time, but it won’t do me any good now. I just blew my engine,” I say to a tall man examining the same timing sheet.

“Oh, what bike do you ride?” he asks delicately.

“A Honda 350 twin.”

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