Events: Daniel Hawri Memorial 31st Annual Lower Providence Spring Classic Criterium
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About a decade ago, during the exciting time of the Indy Racing League (Indy Cars) one driver propelled a private team to the winning circle based on his preference of where he preferred to circle the track. His style of racing was remarkable with regards to the speed and closeness he ran to his competitors, all the while his hands were gently manipulating the steering wheel. Retired racers from other disciplines of auto racing stated when the Indy Racing League raced, they had to turn the channel on account of sweaty palms.
There was one race in particular that made Sam Hornish, Jr. and his Panther Racing team exciting to watch. Texas Motor Speedway was a full throttle display in trust. Buzzing around the two-mile semi-oval the cars remained inches apart either on the banking, down the back straight, or through the double dogleg of the front stretch. Usually at the front was Sam Hornish, Jr.’s yellow Pennzoil car occupying his oddly preferred line: the outside line. He wanted to be there. He fought to be there. I imagine the other drivers had no qualms about his desire to take the longer way around the track.
Among the plethora of reasons running one lane up from the bottom is avant-garde is that it is not the preferred line. Those extra feet add up over dozens of miles. There’s also the trust factor. Putting pressure on your fellow drivers by going outside and staying there for laps on end can be exhausting. Am I looking forward while driving or looking out of the side of my eyes to see what he’s doing? Not only is it longer to go around the high side of the track, it’s also not economical for two racers to slug it out while those in front drive away and those behind bunch up. I shouldn’t have to point out the safety aspect that if the driver on the inside loses his nerve or traction, the occupier of the high line turns a one-car crash into a two-car melee.
These were all the thoughts I had while buzzing around the Daniel Hawri Memorial Lower Providence criterium to start the 2018 cycling racing season. Considering my turbulent off-season I had no idea what I was capabie of for the twenty-five mile distance. During my commute I decided I would stay in the back and keep myself safe from any risks. It might be a flat (ish) course, but it’s fast and to the risk takers go the spoils of victory. Today I wanted to finish with the group and be satisfied with that.
Talk about a beautiful day for racing. The skies were without clouds and the temperature at start time was a perfect 70 degrees. The sun was deceptively intense as evidenced by the red-faced official who may have gotten a little too much of the early season base. Our race was one of the last on the schedule, so he had been out the entire day. During warm-up I had noticed the wind would be a factor. Gone was any chance for a breakaway to stick. With a tailwind into the final turn, the finish sprint would be dangerous, especially if someone wanted to occupy the outside line and wind up for a furious sprint.
As planned I hung around the back, keeping vigilant of any chance of coming unhitched from the group. The headwind would bunch things up nicely for me, the pace would pick up along the slight downhill into the wildest turn, turn three, which always sees the highest speeds. Each lap was nearly identical with its pattern. Riders would send it off the front to create a sizeable gap only to have the wind deal too much of a resistance. The field was in no mood to let anyone get a concerning split and chased down anything quickly. Yet each lap I realized I was hardly winded. I began having second doubts about sticking to my plan of a conservative race.
As the laps dwindled, and nervous riders yelled at increasing regularity, I started wondering if I should move up. The field was getting itchy. Winter legs had been shed for preseason pistons. Where the first ten laps were acclimation to racing, the final fifteen laps were the hammers to deliver the new season. Tactics were being considered. Perhaps there were a few others riders like me who found there was a lot of gas left in the tank with dwindling laps to do something. I noted a perfect place to get down to business just in case I found myself near the front.
And then it happened. A few laps after I labeled the approach to the downhill turn three as the perfect place to fire off an attack, something briefly told me it was now or never. If I was going to abandon my conservative race, it was with five laps remaining. So from the very back of the pack, I watched as several riders gunned it at the exact spot I picked, sending the field into a fury. All I could do was shake my head and think I should have tried. The attack never made it more than a few bike lengths off the front, but that doesn’t mean something couldn’t have happened.
Into the final three laps I still found myself at the back after concluding I had missed my only chance. I had ridden the race not only in the back of the pack but also around the outside. I had channeled my inner Sam Hornish, Jr. by zipping the slightly longer way around the course. Despite this preference, the last couple corners saw me move to the inside and sprint for ‘not last’ to cross the line. Wouldn’t you know, not a single person crashed in the first race of the season?
I packed up the car and drove home wondering if I should have been up farther to recognize the move with five laps to go. Would an extra rider have made the acceleration stick? Or would I have blown up from the attack only to get dropped when I needed to be there the most? I guess it’s a lot better to drive home in one piece and have doubts about my placement than it is to take risks in just the first race of the season. Yet there I was buzzing around the outside line for twenty-five miles feeling about as comfortable as I imagined Sam Hornish, Jr. used to feel when he was racing his Indy car. Just like him, I came back around for every lap. Unlike him, he usually podiumed when he raced. It’s the first race of the season. The green flag on 2018 has been dropped.