On The Ground… MotoGP at IMS, 2011 Edition

(Note: WHAT?!? Another non-indycar related post? I know, I know; before anything else I was a fan of The Speedway so getting the chance to write about it is always exciting. I really enjoy these on-the-ground reports and many open wheeled eyes will be pointed at IMS this weekend. So here is a MotoGP primer: my weekend report from 2011. )

Another beautiful late August weekend brought me, the traveling circus that is MotoGP, and 130,000 best friends I have never met, back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for one last weekend of racing in 2011. This event is absolutely fantastic! If you can make it out to the speedway for this, do it. I have seen all four editions of the event and it keeps getting better. From torrential rains and high winds during year one, to the always epic performance that the American riders seem to put in here; this is year in and out, a great weekend out at the track. Track activity starts early in the mornings and goes until late afternoon. This year, the additions of IMS after dark, a series of concerts following the day’s activities, on Friday and Saturday night saw the speedway open until ten ‘o clock or so. To my knowledge this is the latest the track has ever stayed open to the public.

I arrived with my brother on Friday morning about nine thirty or so. The 125cc two stroke motorcycles were finishing up the first free practice of the weekend. I have seen these guys before and I am never impressed. Yes, they are very fast for how small the engines are, but they just don’t sound like race machines. The sound is more akin to an angry hive of weed eaters wrestling each other. Next year, the FIM is going to cancel this class and add the Moto3 category. These will be four stroke, 250cc engines nestled into prototype chassis. I cannot wait to hear these new bikes. We were hoping to get a sneak peak of a few test laps of the new bikes, as the series brought a Moto2 chassis and engine to test in 2009. Alas, no 250 was to be found this weekend.

MotoGP practice was next. There are not many things as crazy as seeing a motorcycle do over 200 down the front straight. The riders really man handle the bikes, wrestling them into submission every corner. Just the act of driving one of these things quickly is a truly physical activity. Add racing into it all and I am surprised that some of the smaller, jockey sized riders can even handle them. We perused the vendor village in the gasoline alley garages. It is always a weird feeling seeing all of those garages filled with merchandise with not a racecar to been seen. There was also a show area of sorts running the length of the backstretch. Tents were set up by many of the bike manufacturers, custom shops showing their stuff off, aftermarket parts and a stage for QA type stuff near the SPEED tent. The amount of stuff to do away from the grandstands is truly amazing; it puts even NASCAR to shame. My brother had never been into the IMS museum so we had to go and check it out as well.

By pure chance, we stumbled into the AMA Pro XR1200 garages. This is a development series for young riders using Harley Davidson XR1200 chassis. These bikes are actually cool looking; they have no fairing and have a real café racer feel to them. Unfortunately they don’t sound as good or race as well as they look. It seemed like class is a pure stock engine class as the bikes roaring down Georgetown road were far louder than the bikes on track. Ultimately the series was disappointing, but it seems like an inexpensive and competitive way for young riders to rise through the road racing ranks. All in all Friday was a very relaxed and enjoyable day. The chance to mingle with all the international fans is always fun, and they were there. The MotoGP and support series garages are invisible and inaccessible to the public. There was a tall, blue fence surrounding the whole area ‘a la F1. The fence makes travelling difficult when circulating behind gasoline alley. Once you reach the Ducati island in the turn 1 complex, it is a long walk back to the rest of the action.

Race day we arrived just as the 125’s were starting their race. I like the general admission tickets because you don’t feel obligated to camp at your seat all day and forces you to circulate the track taking in all the views. First stop was the end of the backstretch. The small bikes were braking past the 100 meter mark, very impressive. Walking the length of the backstretch, the esses were next. This is always enjoyable because you really get to see the riders fight the bike to make the three consecutive, opposite corners. We left halfway through the Moto2 race and made our way to the start/finish straight. These are not the best seats in the house, but for the standing start there is no place even close to this. The sound is deafening and the aluminum grandstands vibrate with a fair amount of force. Turn 1 is the best place to sit, and Indy T4 is the worst. Out there you are so far away from the bikes that it almost seems cheap, hence the main straight seats for the big boys. The most rabid and dedicated fans can be found in these seats as well. Every single year there is a huge Spanish contingency supporting their usually top performing countrymen in all three series, and this year was no different. It’s amazing how many people make the long flight overseas to Indianapolis and visit the track for GP weekend.

The engines are also heard best from this area. The MotoGP engines all sound different and it is a nice change from what I usually watch at the facility. There are two types of engine configuration that the manufacturers use. Yamaha and Ducati use a big bang firing order, Honda and Suzuki use the more traditional “screamer” engine. The big bang engines don’t even sound like normal combustion engines, but they are just as loud. It has more bass and gurgle to it compared to the other engines. The Ducati goes even further, using desmo valves with a major aural difference, there is a pronounced clicky clack sound to the engine. The two screamers, Honda and Suzuki, are just that… Incredibly loud and high pitched. These two have a very Formula 1 like sound. Pneumatic valve trains and nearly unlimited revs are the order of the day. The technology showcased every weekend is astounding, other series should be taking note…INDYCAR, are you listening?

It’s always hard to judge crowd size at this race because so many people drive motorcycles in and the track parks them in spots not usually used to park cars in. Our local FOX affiliate, FOX59, put the three day total at about 130,000 and race day crowd in the area of 64,000. I don’t know how many people need to buy tickets so the Speedway breaks even, but the crowd wasn’t great. By the end of Sunday afternoon, the stand had sort of filled up, but there was a lot of aluminum showing. I emphatically urge everyone to come and enjoy the 2012 weekend with me, it is not one to forget and has a different atmosphere than even the F1 races from a few years ago. Thank you IMS and MotoGP for bring such a great event to my city.

Eric Hall

(Note: Originally published at Triple League Racing on August 30, 2011. Thanks to Dylan for throwing me a bone early in my blogging days.)

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