YES! I’m doing it! I’m actually doing it! Do you recognise those words? They’re what went through your head when you were in the process of losing your virginity. And they’re also going through mine right this minute.
But before you start guffawing, this particular first time has nothing to do with women – though the feeling is much the same. I’m sitting among a grid full of motorcycles as I prepare to take part in my first ever road race at one of the fastest circuits in the UK. I’m experiencing what I’ve only seen from a grandstand before. It feels very real and somehow surreal at the same time.
The adrenalin is pumping. My main concern is keeping the front end down. I look for the starting lights, except I can hardly see them because about 30 strokers are spewing out thick clouds of blue smoke. The sound is deafening. I’m not even sure if I’m in the right grid position. What have I let myself in for? It’s too late now. Scared? Let’s just say I’m glad my leathers are tight and my boots are waterproof.
I’ve done dozens of track days on my CBR600 and met plenty of competitive types out there on the Tarmac, but I always wanted to try the real thing. I always figured I couldn’t afford it. Then, last year, I went to the bike show at Ally Pally and got chatting to some blokes on a stall who were standing around what appeared to be a race bike, of sorts.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: " What the hell is that? "
Bloke: " An MZ 250cc race bike. "
Me: " What, one of those crappy Eastern Bloc commuters? "
Bloke: " Yes, but it’ll do 100mph and out-corner most 600s. "
Me: " Yeah, and I’m Olivia Newton-John. "
But then he showed me some pictures of the bikes, gave me an MZ racing newsletter and told me about the club. The more I heard, the more I liked it. The MZ bunch are very eccentric, but it’s a one-make class and the lap times are very impressive. Then he told me how cheaply you could get the bikes for. Clutching the newsletter I went home, checked my savings, then reached for the phone.
The club president, Paul Emanuel, put me in touch with someone who was selling a race-prepped bike. He knew the bike and said it was a good one. A quick call to the seller and I was off to Stoke-on-Trent, Staffs, clutching some cash to buy my first racer.
As I looked over the MZ I realised I knew nothing at all about race bikes. The bloke selling it obviously did, though, as he told me about tunes, squish clearance and jet sizes. It started first time, came with almost a whole bike’s worth of spares and had the recommendation of the club. He wanted £750 and it seemed like a good deal. I managed to get £80 off by part-exchanging an old set of leathers and I left a happy man.
Next, I needed to be able to transport it. My dad has a collection of old bikes which break down regularly and I managed to convince him he needed a trailer. We went halves on a £400 Titan single bike model, which dismantled into three pieces and packed neatly into a corner of my garage. (You can pick up secondhand trailers for as little as £100.)
I now had a bike, transport for it and loads of spares. The next stage was to enter a race. For this, I needed an ACU licence and proof I belonged to a race club. I joined the British Motorcycle Race Club (BMCRC), which organises MZ races, and received a set of entry forms.
The first race was just around the corner, but a quick call to BMCRC revealed it was fully booked. Racing lesson No1: Get your entries in early. I filled in applications to the next four races and sent them off. A week before the next one I still hadn’t received anything back and was beginning to think I’d never get a race. Another call to the ever-suffering Bernadette in the organisers’ office and she told me to stop worrying – I was No96 in the next race at Snetterton. Wa-hey!
A few days later, my entry form dropped through the door. This consisted of a card which you have to hand in to the scrutineers and a timetable for the day. I read the section marked " Scrutineering " . This was to take place between 7.30am and 9am on Saturday and any vehicles in the pits had to have a fire extinguisher. Eh? A panic-stricken dash into town revealed that B&Q sold them for £25. Job done. Maybe I should read the rules again…
The bike would hopefully pass scrutineering, but would my kit? One-piece leathers? Check. Gloves? Check. Helmet with ACU Gold sticker? Check. Boots? Check. Dog tag? Bugger. The ACU says every racer has to have a metal tag around their neck with their name and membership number. Another run into town. I picked up the dog tag from – where else? – a pet shop and enlisted a jeweller to engrave the relevant information on it.
Now I was sorted. The only think I hadn’t done was ride the bike – it didn’t seem right to take a race bike out on the road. I didn’t want to tinker with it either, since the previous owner obviously knew much more about prepping an MZ for the track than I did. So all I had done was open the garage door and look at it a bit. I had started it up once, but the loud banging of windows all around me as the neighbours made their objections clear persuaded me it wasn’t a good idea.
It was too late, anyway. The race was the next day. I put the bike on the trailer, crammed as many spares as possible into the car, checked all my kit, then had an early night.
The following morning I pulled into the pits at about 7am. Actually, it was a grass field beside the pits. You have to get there even earlier if you want to park on Tarmac. Most of the people here had already put in several hours of practice the day before. Surely that’s cheating?
Presenting my bike to the scrutineer was unnerving. Even after all my efforts I was terrified it would fail, especially as it looked such a heap alongside all the 600s, 400s and superbikes. Amazingly, it passed, much to my relief, though I was told to clean it. There were no problems with my kit, either, so after signing on I was ready for practice.
Once I had put my leathers on I made my first discovery. I had left my orange novice jacket at home. Novice riders have to wear an orange bib for their first 10 races so other riders know they’re new and are liable to do strange things, like fall off. I popped my head around the door of the caravan next to me. " Don’t suppose you have a spare orange jacket? " I asked.
" Sure, my son finished with this last year – keep it. " The jacket felt like an heirloom passed through generations as I slipped it on and headed out.
This was the first time I had properly ridden the bike. The circuit was damp and unfamiliar and I was quite happy just to stay upright on the three practice laps we were allowed. My first race wasn’t until midday so I decided to wander around the pits to calm my nerves. Everywhere I looked there were bikes. Race bikes, paddock bikes that ranged from minimotos to customised Honda Melodies, kids zipping around on scooters, racers on pushbikes. It was almost a carnival. Some racers had caravans with their names across the side, some simply had trailers like me. I spied another MZ and went over for a chinwag.
It was the bloke I had been chatting to at the Ally Pally, Kev Fuller. He was camped with a load of other MZ riders, or Zedders as they call themselves. I was instantly introduced to everyone and was given plenty of tips. They wished me luck for my first race and I returned to my car to prepare for the race feeling a lot more confident.
After checking the MZ for the fourth time, I put a bit more fuel in, even though I already had enough to get to London and back. I then decided to leave it alone and wait for the Tannoy to call my race. When it did I pulled on my helmet and did my best to adopt an experienced race face, rather than the gurn of a nervous novice.
Before the race, you’re held in a collecting area with all the other bikes for about five minutes. I was told what grid position I was in, which I promptly forgot, then spent the rest of the time revving my bike trying to look like I knew what I was doing. The race before ours finished and we were waved on to the circuit.
And so, after a quick sighting lap, here I am on the grid desperately trying to make out the starting lights through the dense fog of two-stroke smoke from 30 assorted race bikes being revved for all they’re worth. The lights turn from red to green and all hell breaks loose. I haven’t practised a start, and nor has the bloke next to me on the grid, as he shoots off while the lights are still red. I just dump the clutch and hang on. The MZ lurches forward at a surprisingly rapid pace and before I know what’s happening I’m at the first corner.
Unfortunately, so are about 30 other bikes. " Chaos " doesn’t even come close to describing the kind of madness around me as all of these machines try to occupy the same few square feet of Tarmac at the same time. Bikes are shooting either side of me as I attempt to avoid either ramming the one in front or getting rear-ended myself. Somehow we all make it around and the field opens up a bit.
I manage to outbrake a few bikes into the next corner, then it’s on to the back straight. MZs aren’t that fast in a straight line and this lack of speed is hampered even more by my 12st weight. I spot another MZ through the smoke up ahead and use it as a target to aim for. I adopt the best aerodynamic shape my 6ft 2in frame can contort into and try to make some ground up. To my surprise, I quickly catch him. As I pass I noticed his chain has fallen off. Thought that was a bit easy. Oh well, one down, only another 20-odd to go.
The next corner is like a scene from Mad Max. A battered-looking MZ is spinning in the middle of the track and its rider, who has obviously applied the brakes a bit too fiercely, is curled up next to it with bikes whizzing past either side. That’s two down, I think as I narrowly avoid running over his head.
The next four laps pass in a blur as I chase any MZ in sight. On the last lap, two bikes pass me on the back straight. I briefly consider letting them go and just finishing the race, but then the red mist descends and I tuck in even tighter. The inevitable happens. On the last corner I gracefully lowside the bike into the mud right in front of a small crowd as I try to brake as late as possible to catch them up. Bugger.
One race, one DNF – not a great record. Luckily, the bike is undamaged. As well as being cheap, the other thing these MZs have going for them is that they crash well. I’m up and running in time to complete both the other races I’m entered in today. I’m not sure what position I was, but I know I finished, and that’s enough for me.
Whatever you learn at track days, you can’t prepare for a race. You have to learn as you go along. There’s no better buzz than outbraking someone into a corner, outdragging them on the straight or battling with a five-man freight train for six laps then making the move that puts you out in front. The list of thrills goes on. And now I’m hopelessly addicted.
That was all at the start of the season. I’m now near the end. Since then I’ve ridden in 12 more rounds and 24 races and progressed from novice to clubman. I’ve made loads of new mates through racing and am now starting to get on the pace. I’ve finished in the top 10 and am fourth newcomer in the MZ trophy.
I’ve learned loads about bikes and am a much quicker rider than I used to be. I can hassle superbikes and 600s at track days – on an MZ! It may have cost me more than I originally thought, but it has been worth every penny.