On the back with Ron Haslam
Flying through Schwantz Curve at 140mph on a FireBlade, I close my eyes. Weird. By the time I open them a split second later I’m at the McLeans right-hander and leaning over with about 20 degrees of air between me and the Tarmac.
Donington has never looked so blurry. Or lopsided, come to think of it. It helps that I’m not actually in the rider’s seat and that the man who is on the throttle knows the famous 2.5-mile GP circuit like the back of his glove.
" If you want to slow down, then slap me on the back, " advises Ron Haslam at the start of this journey to places I’ve never been. " If you want me to stop, " he adds, " just keep slapping. " Ron’s as skinny as a ballerina. A hefty whack on the back and you feel you might just shove him off.
I do take comfort in the fact that he’s a hugely experienced racer. He’s done it all, as an ex-factory GP rider, superbike racer and now as a man running his own school at Donington.
As for the bike, apart from an Ohlins steering damper, a reinforced rear spring, and a Micron endcan, the FireBlade is off-the-peg. The pillion rides are now being offered at the school, although you don’t have to do the track course if you just want a ride on the back with Ron.
" I wouldn’t do it, " says MCN snapper Howard Boylan, inspecting the knackered grab rail. With a wry smile he shrugs and shuffles off to leave me to my fate.
The first lap is a warm-up. My hands are wrapped around Ron’s waist during acceleration and pressed against the tank for braking. Then Ron starts to wind it up.
On the start-finish straight we hit 140mph. As we pass the pit wall, the front wheel comes up. And stays up. The tendency here is to wave to the spectators, but I’ve been advised that the wind resistance caused by a something as small as a raised hand can throw the bike all over the place. Ron’s already doing a nice job in that department without me sticking my arm in.
We brake for Redgate, down to 70mph. I push hard against the tank. The force is immense, like doing a press up with Fat Rick from Pop Idol on your back.
Suddenly Fat Rick is off my back and we’re flying through Craner Curves at 120. Fat Rick makes a brief re-appearance at the Old Hairpin as we drop down to 90, then rolls off as Ron winds us up through Schwantz Curve.
It is here that Ron swaps his ballet shoes for a pair of Kung Fu slippers. He is now Bruce Lee, wringing the Blade’s neck till it screams and pulling it though the dips and curves at 140mph with a frightening strength and agility. One moment we’re flying, the next lying acutely on our side and still flying, streaking past a few straggling punters still out on the Tarmac on his track day school.
I, meanwhile, am pretending to be a girl. Ron reckons they make better pillion riders as they are more relaxed. He says: " Get someone on the back who has ridden, especially on a race track and you can feel them tense up, especially if you get into a slide on the back end. Girls don’t bat an eyelid, they don’t know it’s unsafe. "
They do now.
Into McLeans and me, Ron and Fat Rick are on and off the anchors though Coppice and into Starkeys Straight where Ron pins the throttle and adopts the race crouch. In this position, the pillion gets the full force of 160mph worth of wind in his face. I can’t think of an analogy at this point because my neck’s hurting too much. Then Fat Rick’s back as we brake down to 60 for the Esses. Ron Kung Fus his way through the gears as we hit 120 belting towards the Melbourne Loop.
Suddenly Fat Rick is joined by Pat Butcher and Dawn French on my back as we brake down to 40mph and lean into the tight right hander. So this is what kneesliders are for.
As we accelerate out the front wheel starts to lift. Problem is we’re still leant over. I make like a girl. Ron doesn’t let up and, still on the gas, somehow wrestles it upright enough for us to brake and lean in the opposite direction through Goddards.
" With someone on the back the front end is a lot lighter, " explains Ron, " You can brake heavy into the corners as all the weight transfers to the front, but if you accelerate too viciously coming out you can get it to do a wheelie when you’re still on your knee. "
Five laps, two sore arms and a very strained neck later, I finally slap Ron on the back. He doesn’t fall off.
" I could have gone faster, " he reveals in the pits, " but then the back wheel starts spinning and gripping and it starts to throw you about. It very uncomfortable for someone on the back. "
Ever lost a pillion?
" Not yet, but I’ve had a few people squealing in my ear and begging me to stop. "
Men or women?
" Both. "
Ron Haslam Racing: Tel: 01332-883323. (www.haslam-racing.com) Pillion rides cost £30 for up to four laps and £50 for seven.