Ducati 999 – Learning Curve

Ducati 999 - Learning CurveI’m getting to live a dream, and at the moment it doesn’t matter.  Why?  Because when I last looked I was going 270kph down the front straightaway of Portland International Raceway.  And I, being a bit daft, didn’t keep an eye on the braking markers the last three times through – I got caught up in the excitement of it all.

The dream of riding the 999 on the track has been made reality by an event called Ducati Northwest 2004, and a loaner bike from John Valk BMW Ducati.

However, the fact that I’m down-shifting and braking for all I’m worth in anticipation of corner 1, and a constipation of demo riders at its entry has made all that “live your dream” stuff completely secondary.  The track, motorcycling in its most intense form, has obstacles it seems.

Navigating through corner 1, with fair aplomb and a lot of pre-entry passing, I give the 999 a little more throttle, cross the apex and accelerate into the “gentle” turn of 1A, a mere 55 degrees.  Not bad that, I hang off a bit and think things are well under control.  I touch the front brakes and the 999 decides it wants to be upright.  It unsettles me …  I’m too busy with riding to even look at the speedo.  I don’t need to though, because in the back, the front, and possibly to either side of my mind, klaxons are going off.  Their meaning is clear, “Too fast!  Tooooo Fast!  Too hot you fool! You’re in over your head!” They might be right.

Ducati 999 - Learning CurveThe worst thing I can do is pay attention to them.  Which is exactly what I do.  Then something completely short-circuits; my right hand has become totally deranged and disconnected from my brain – it is moving to its own beat and is not letting off the gas.  It’s completely possessed and I think it’s the 999’s fault.

I touch the front brake, and the 999 sits up again… it’s way too early in the corner for such behavior.  Adrenaline kicks in and we’re in for one hell of a ride.  Still my right hand refuses to ease off.  Hello hand, this is brain, if you wouldn’t mind paying attention for a moment?  I hang-off and my errant throttle hand sees us accelerating through corner 2 at what feels like an insane lean angle and impossible pace.

It’s seat-of-the-pants the entire way through corner 2; there is no logic, just pure reaction.  I don’t ride the track often and I’m certainly no Eric Bostrom with his reactions honed by years of practice.  My brain doesn’t have the context on which to cope with the speeds the 999 and I seem to be going now – there’s simply no cognitive framework.

In an instant I’m bee-lining for the runoff, and then a ludicrous thought crosses through my brain, “This is a loaner bike!  I can’t return it scratched!”  The danger is likely more imagined than real, this is a 999 after all, this is what it was bred to do and there’s lots of track space.

Thoughts of the runoff are flicked away instantaneously and replaced by an absolute journalistic vanity and imperative not to be embarrassed.  Inspiration and salvation, it seems, come in asinine forms.

I lean and hang off.  My throttle hand still, impossibly, seems possessed by this red demon of speed.  I seem unable to roll off and find myself doing everything else in my power to make the corner; press the pegs, hang off more, counter-steer harder, press the tank harder – it’s all about more and harder.

The 999 leans more than I would ever have thought possible.  This is mad, on any other bike the pegs would be eating into the asphalt.  I feel the pavement rapidly grinding into my right boot.  If we make it out of this together 999, I’ll keep the ball of my feet on your pegs next lap. Briefly I think I may not have to keep the promise – but no one truly on the brink would be grinning this hard.

Ducati 999 - Learning CurveMy right hand continues on its self-determined mission.  The world is a blur.  The red and white flickering beside me are the stripes painted on the track’s edge.  They are close, distracting and invigorating – if I weren’t busy I could reach out and touch them.  All they do is scream danger, I slingshot out of the corner hanging overtop of them, and away, right into turn three.

If corner 2 felt all “seat-of-the-pants”, then turn 3 is “skin-of-the-teeth” as the Ducati 999 and I careen through it.  The bike is leaning wildly, and I’m hanging off like a rabid, grinning simian.  The corner stripes are a screaming blur of red and white peril under my left side.  This bike is fast, proper scary fast, the kind of fast that starts with a capital “F” and get you filed under Fool.  I love it.

And my throttle hand?  Well it hasn’t shaken off its possession – I’m sure it’s the 999’s doing.  Wait, that may have been another bike standing still in the apex?  My line feels wild, uncontrolled and desperate.  A corner of my brain dedicated to all things vain hopes it doesn’t look as hysterically uncontrolled as it all feels.  The thing is though, in the back of my mind, I know it isn’t – almost despite myself I’ve hit on the fastest line through corners 2 and 3.

Between the excitement, adrenaline and even a little tinge of panic I don’t think I’m even breathing.  There is nothing in this place but speed, adrenaline, and split-second moments of insight.

Corner 4 just extends 3, and the 999 and I peel into it.  Something changes – my sense of control is returning.  My right hand is responding to rational thought again – it levels out the acceleration.  I hang off over the corner stripes purposefully this time.  Almost idly wondering what it takes to scrape a knee on this bike.  Cognition has me roll-on and I power out of 4 and into 5.

Turns 5 and 5A bring a vague realization that I’m passing other riders.  I’m in control again; the 999 and I, in full hang-off, rocket through the high-speed sweeper and into the back straightaway.

This bike and I, we’ve come to some sort of understanding in our manic strafing run of the corner stripes back there.  The insight is this; the 999 is an aristocrat of the track, and I am an absolute duffer by its standards.  My panic, my skin of the pants actions, my fear, all that was just the 999 letting me know that I needed to play by its rules.

I failed to handle it with the diplomacy it expected; failed to take measure of it and the track correctly – in response it showed me just what it could do, both good and bad.  It terrified and exhilarated me, took me to the very brink of disaster then brought me back from that edge by letting me lay it over in ways I can’t begin to comprehend in my mental replay.   And good gawd it made me follow its rules; press the pegs, hang off more, more knee press on the outside of the tank, more lean, more bar input, and a little less panic.  Forget the signals, this is no streetbike; the 999 is far more imperious and unforgiving on the track.

End of the straightaway is coming up, my new friend and I… no, “friend” is too strong a word, my ambassador from Italy and I, we head into corners 7 and 8.  Our alliance chooses lines that shoot us past the slower riders.  Some new spirit has taken us, it’s not enough simply to ride; passing is better – far better.  We set up for number 9, the final corner that slingshots us onto the straightaway, past snapper Kevin and the grandstands.

I go back to living my dream, in the stands I imagine MotoGP crowds, I hang off, straighten up the 999 and give my right hand over to its possession. Last lap, a silly thought and desperation saved me…  this time we’re going to do better.  We thunder up to 270 kph again, and this time I remember the markers.

Special Thanks to John Valk BMW Ducati for the use of their still-unscathed Ducati 999 and Ducati North America for the opportunity to rip it up on the track a bit during Ducati Northwest 2004.

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