Two Wheels, 24 Hours

Motorcycle Endurance Racing at the 24 Hours of Nelson Ledges

Story by Mark Roberts - Photos by Karen Kershaw and Leanne Vincent

A version of this piece was also published by

Exiting turn 13 at Nelson Ledges It's the middle of a July afternoon in Ohio and the temperature is in the mid-90s. Even sitting in the shade of the canopy next to pit lane is almost unbearable while wearing full racing leathers, boots, gloves and helmet. There's not a cloud in the sky and the sun is beating down mercilessly, raising the track temperature to a sizzling 128 degrees Fahrenheit. It's so humid the air feels like soup.

In spite of the sound of racing and the constant activity all along pit lane, the last moments before a pit stop have a strange sense of tranquility as the rider and bike complete one more lap. Nothing to do but wait out that last minute or so...

"Here he comes!", someone shouts and suddenly our pit springs to life. #741 comes to a stop and is instantly surrounded by crew members. One person grabs the bars from in front to steady the bike as the rider climbs - almost falls - off and staggers over the guard rail into the shade. Meanwhile the crew chief has removed the filler cap and one of the crew is emptying the quick-fill into the gas tank. The chief mechanic rushes around the bike checking tires, chain and anything else he can think of. It's difficult to believe that these people are all volunteers helping out just for this race; from the way they work you'd think they did this every weekend. When I step out onto the pit lane it feels as if I'm standing on a griddle - the heat radiating from the pavement and the engine is astonishing. I climb on just as the gas cap is snapped shut. The stand is pulled out from under the rear wheel and I start the motor. I take a quick look over my shoulder for traffic entering pit lane and feel someone slap me on the back just before I click the transmission into first, twist the throttle and slip the clutch to launch back into the race just seconds after the pit stop began.

Down pit lane at full throttle. Shift to second. Under the bridge and the pit lane merges onto the track just before turn one. Keep to the inside in case there's any traffic coming through. I shift into third and my right knee lightly skims the ground in turn one as I keep the throttle pinned, hoping to get the bike up to racing speed before turn two. There's barely time to catch a breath between turns one and two and the only thought that enters my head is: "I don't believe I'm doing this again!".

I'm already sweating and I have an hour still to ride...


A 24-hour motorcycle race is an event like no other. All the old cliches about a "supreme test of man and machine", etc., are true; there is nothing else that will punish a motorcycle as much as a full day under racing conditions and the strain on the riders, even with load split 5 ways, is tremendous. In the last hours of the race, everything on the bike is close to wearing out and the rider's physical and mental capacities are stressed tp the breaking point. A high speed crash is just a heartbeat away if anything gives under the strain.

A project like this begins well before the race itself, even for "club level" racers who finance their own teams mainly as a hobby. The most difficult part is getting a motorcycle to race because not many people are willing their bike take such an extremem level of abuse for such a long time; after the race virtually every component on the bike will require a complete overhaul, which is time consuming as well as expensive. The chances of a crash, which has the potential to completely destroy the motorcycle, go up exponentially during the final hours, when mental and physical fatigue have taken their toll.

You need at least three sets of tires. And gasoline, oil and lots of spare parts (preferably an entire bike standing by with every nut and bolt loosened, ready to serve as organ donor at a moment's notice). You also need lots of volunteers to help during the race and most of the work is boring and unglamorous. Some people can work in the pit, doing the small tasks the chief mechanic doesn't want to be bothered with. Others handle logistical matters like preparing food for the team or making sure there's always plenty of water or Gatorade available to the riders. The most boring job is also one of the most vital; that of scorer. The scorers sit in the building overlooking the front straight and the start/finish line and write down the time every time their bike comes past. It's stunningly boring and easy to miss the bike if your attention wavers at the wrong moment. At night it's difficult to even tell the difference between the bikes as they flash by at a hundred miles an hour.

The bike we would be racing was a Yamaha FZR 400, a lightweight machine with brilliant handling capabilities but not a lot of horsepower. At least, not a lot compared to the competition we'd be facing: WERA, the sanctioning body for the race, no longer has a lightweight class in endurance racing, which meant we'd be racing the 400 in the 600cc class against machines with a lot more horsepower. Trying to exploit the FZR's handling and stopping advantages against the bigger bikes' superior acceleration and top speed was sure to be tiring.

My teammates for this adventure would be Rick Bair and Mike Hausknecht, experienced FZR 400 racers with whom I would be sharing the daytime shifts. Broderick Walker and Tommy D'Ettorre, both of whom had races on several 24-hour teams in the past, would be our night riders.

A local performance shop offered us free time on their dynamometer to get the carb jetting right. After that the bike went bike over to Tommy D'Ettorre's shop where he started adjusting, lubricating and replacing various bits and pieces in preparation for 24-hours of serious abuse.

Besides the usual preparation, a 24-hour race creates the unique necessity of putting lights on a race bike. You need (and are required to have) headlights to see by and a tail light to be seen by. some high wattage halogen bulbs were installed in the original equipment headlights and relay switching system that could handle the extra current draw (provided that the alternator could provide it) was wired up. Since the factory shop manual for the FZR 400 gives no information at all about the alternator output there would have to be some trial-and-error testing at the track. We also added some marker lights to help the scorers distinguish the bike from all the other identical-looking sets of headlights they would see streaking down the track at them at 3:00 a.m. A pair of turn signals from another motorcycle were grafted onto the FZR; one slightly below the normal right front turn signal mount and one sticking up vertically through a hole in the tail section at the back of the bike. It looked a bit ridiculous but it didn't look like any other bike at the track, which was the whole point.

Our Co-Crew Chiefs Mike LaMartina and Chris DeMinco started rounding up equipment that we'd need for the race and making plans for every eventuality they could think of, knowing full well that the eventualities you don't think of are the ones that usually happen. They also started recruiting team members to join us in this endeavor ("You could just be a scorer for us. It's easy; you hardly have to lift a finger!").

We lucked out when Mark Steele offered to wrench for the team at this race. Mark is good shop mechanic, but more importantly he's worked on several 24-hour teams in the past. His experience would prove invaluable during the race. So would his ability to go without sleep! Defying the odds for what would be the first of several times in the ensuing days, we finished our planned preparation on schedule and on Thursday afternoon loaded the bike into a pickup and set off for Garretsville, Ohio, home of the Nelson Ledges Road Course.

Rick Bair in turn 13 The trick to riding an endurance race is to find ways of exerting yourself less than you do in a sprint race while sacrificing as little speed as possible. Conserve energy on sections of the track where it won't cost you much time. Go flat out any place where backing off won't save much effort. Cornering through tight sections of track and hard braking are the things that require the most exertion. Unfortunately, these are also the areas where an FZR 400 needs to be ridden hard in order to use its handling and stopping advantage over the 600s.

Turn twelve at Nelson Ledges is the most physically demanding - it's a fairly slow turn (about 60 mph) but you approach it at full speed (about 125 mph on the FZR 400) coming off the back straight, so you need to brake hard, straining against the bars under deceleration and nearly lifting the rear wheel off the ground. During sprint races, turn twelve is my favorite corner at Nelson. In an endurance race it's just hard work. Brake. Downshift three gears. Pitch the bike into the corner hard. When I'm riding well, every entry into turn 12 is heart-stopping; it feels as if there's absolutely no way I can possibly make it at the speed I'm going but somehow the tires stick to the road lap after lap. I throw the bike hard to the left, my knee smacks the ground solidly at the apex and a split second later I'm out of the corner. Grab a handful of throttle to get a little acceleration in the fifty or so feet between twelve and thirteen. Brake and downshift one gear for thirteen and toss the bike into the slow right-hander. Careful not to catch a knee on the concrete "turtle" blocks in the grass inside the corner (they're a safety feature for cars that race at this track, but a hazard for motorcyclists). Be aware of anyone trying to pass on the outside. Because of the poor condition of the track, it's a bit dangerous to pass on the outside in thirteen but some people try it anyway. During the course of the race, I perfect a pretty good "pass-proof" line through the twelve and thirteen. Perhaps it annoys a few other riders. Tough. Of the 34 other bikes out there, approximately 32 of them have at least 50% more motor than the little Yamaha. If anyone's wants to pass me they'll have to wait a moment and do it on the front straight if I have any say in the matter!


Rick Bair and I arrived at Nelson Ledges just before 10:00 p.m. Thursday night and picked a spot for our team along pit lane. It rained during the night and the track was still wet Friday morning. The forecast was for good weather all weekend so we spent our time setting up the pit area. Mike Hausknecht arrived around noon and we began practice and suspension experiments. As the day wore on, more of our team and others arrived and the pit lane gradually filled up. Afternoon practice was fairly uneventful and when darkness fell we began working on the aiming of the headlights while we waited for Tommy and Broderick to arrive. They showed up when night practice was well underway and we were struggling with various lighting problems. First a bulb burned out. Then we discovered the alternator couldn't put out enough current for the ultra-high-wattage headlights we were using...or the lower-power back-up set...or the wimpy stock set. Mark Steele discovered an open winding in the alternator, which we then swapped for in a stator from Rick's bike, which seemed to be sufficient to run the 100/55W headlight bulbs. We worked through these problems while Tommy and Broderick practiced and got used to the bike. They're both big guys and they race big bikes so the FZR 400 was a bit of a change for them. I was worried that Tommy, especially, would find the bike annoyingly slow. When he came in after his first practice he pulled off his helmet with a grin and said, "Man, that thing's a ball to ride out there!". I just laughed. I was starting to think that this was going to be fun.

The site of this race, the Nelson Ledges Road Course, is not the most well appointed racing facility in America. To put it mildly. There is no indoor plumbing, the toilets are cesspits with concrete shacks over them and the few outdoor taps offer cold and very cold running water. The track itself is in fairly poor condition; there are assorted patches, bumps, cracks and tar strips scattered throughout the two miles of narrow asphalt. A good working knowledge of where the worst bumps are is crucial to determining the best line through each corner as the classic racing lines will often get you pitched into the weeds. Somehow though, it still manages to be a very enjoyable track to race on. The arrangement of corners and straights, rights and lefts, lends itself well to what racers refer to as rhythm. Once you get into a good rhythm at Nelson ledges something just feels right.

Turn one is a fast right hander at the end of a quarter mile straight. On a stock FZR 400 you're at the top of fourth gear and you just touch the brakes (no downshift) before you enter and get the power back on as soon as you're leaned over with your knee on the ground. When you're going fast through turn one it feels as if the tires are about to let go with every bump and ripple in the pavement and each millisecond might be the last one before centrifugal force overcomes traction, turning both rider and motorcycle into ballistic projectiles, bouncing and sliding into the field outside the turn. There's a straight just long enough for you to get the bike upright before entering turn two, another right hander with a large patch of torn up pavement about a foot away from the inside line. You have to get onto that foot-wide section of good asphalt or you're in trouble.

Turn three is a left hander separated from turn two by about 200 yards. You approach three at the top of fourth gear and brake just down to a speed at which you don't need to downshift. You can pitch it into three much faster than it looks because the first half of the turn is slightly banked. Just be sure you know where the banking gradually ends (and where the bumps are).

After turn three is the long (something over 180 degrees) right hander known as the Carousel. there are a million possible lines through the Carousel and every rider seems to have a different one that works best. Shredded bits of tire rubber that tend to accumulate toward the outside of the track, like tiny black marbles in appearance... and in traction properties. You also need to know that the exit of the Carousel offers particularly poor traction in the rain. Yes, the race does continue even if it rains and, though non-racers might find the prospect terrifying, one of my most enjoyable racing experiences ever was in the rain at Nelson Ledges. Since rain reduces traction everywhere, it puts the bigger bikes at a distinct disadvantage since they can't use their additional horsepower well. Riding a 400, we were hoping for a lot of rain.

The Carousel exits onto the back straight, which is about three quarters of a mile long and not very straight. There's a slight bend to the right about a third of the way down. If you sense a bigger bike approaching from behind, it's best to leave room for a pass on either side. You really pick up speed on the back straight and the rises and dips in the pavement make the bike undulate up and down beneath you in quite an aggressive fashion. You get into sixth gear just before a dog-leg bend to the right known as the Kink. The Kink wouldn't be very memorable except for two factors: 1) You're going just about flat out, and 2) this being Nelson Ledges, there are some exciting pavement patches, bumps and irregularities that make the racing line very narrow and threaten to throw you off at triple-digit speed if you're not careful.

When you get through the Kink you resume full throttle acceleration for a short while until you approach turn twelve (the turns are named for the nearest safety worker stations rather than their exact sequence). Twelve is a slow left hander which is probably the least important corner on the track in terms of getting fast lap times, but it's my favorite because it requires hard braking from high speed, sometimes even lifting the rear wheel slightly off the ground. It can also be a strategically important passing spot.

Immediately after turn twelve is turn thirteen(!), a 180 degree right hander that is the slowest turn on the track. The pavement is severely rippled through thirteen except for the very inside. Pass at your own peril. Thirteen exits onto the front straight and it's tempting to get on the throttle too hard, too early. Those who do may have the rear wheel spin, step out to the side and then regain traction suddenly, flipping the rider through the air in a crash known as a "high side".

After thirteen you have about 200 yards to the start/finish line, then you pass under the infield bridge and on towards turn one to begin the whole process again. In our team's case, about 900 times in 24-hours.

Saturday: Race Day

By 9:00 a.m. it was already hot and everyone could tell it was going to be a scorcher. You could feel the humidity in the air like a blanket. We didn't practice much. The bike was working well and we all knew Nelson Ledges about as well as we were ever going to. And no one felt like tiring himself out more than necessary in the building heat.

At 3:00 p.m. the race began with 36 motorcycles screaming into turn one. The bikes are divided into four classes, determined by their engine size and the amount of modification allowed. In simplified terms, for four-cylinder engines, Heavyweight is any bike 750cc or larger and Mediumweight is anything 600cc and under. Superbike class allows extensive engine and chassis modifications while Production class means you're running a machine very close to stock. We were entered in Mediumweight Production and, because we because we didn't think that a 400 stood a chance of placing well against the 600s, had entered this race just for the experience of doing it. But when Mike Hausknecht (who has since won two national championships) finished the second shift we found ourselves third in class and nineteenth overall and it slowly dawned on everyone that we actually stood a chance of taking home a trophy.

On the front straight Near the end of my first shift. I can't believe that it hasn't been an hour yet. It's like racing inside a furnace. Finally I get the "PIT" signal and pull in on the next lap. I come to a stop and stagger off the bike. I hadn't been getting any overall time on the pit board while riding so I hadn't known how to pace myself and had pushed too hard for too long.

I almost fall trying to climb over the guard rail into our pit area. I need help to get my leathers off and find my way to a chair where I collapse and put a wet towel around my neck. I've run 10k races on foot in the summer and not felt this bad. I must look pretty bad too, from some of the concerned looks I'm getting. I sip water very slowly and consider the fact that I have to ride again in two hours. Dehydration is always a threat under conditions like these. I get in the habit of sipping a little water or Gatorade whenever I find myself not doing anything else. Never a lot all at once. Just a little bit all the time. Get ready for my next shift and plan to pace myself better this time.

Tommy and Broderick took over the riding as darkness fell and we discovered that even a good alternator wouldn't keep the battery charged with the 100-Watt high beams on. The FZR 400 came with wimpy 35/35W headlight bulbs stock and we were finding out why. The riders decided to try using the 55-Watt low beams as much as possible and changing the battery whenever it got too drained. Fortunately we had two spare batteries, two battery chargers and one unstoppable mechanic. Rick had done a little night practice on Friday and helped out by doing some of the night racing with Tommy and Broderick. They made good time during the night in spite of having to change batteries at regular intervals. (And in spite of Broderick occasionally slowing down to get a better look at a female rider on one of the other teams.)

The spectacle of motorcycles racing at night is mesmerizing and bizarre. Headlights have to be aimed slightly to the sides in order to provide visibility while the bike is leaned over. As bikes come out of turn thirteen and go from extreme lean to upright, beams of light pierce the fog and wave crazily through the night sky. The sounds of racing engines howl through the darkness all around like unseen beasts of prey, madly chasing each other in circles.

Around midnight Tommy got rammed from behind when he had to brake suddenly for a rider pulling into pit lane. He kept the bike upright but the rider who hit him went down hard and brought out the red flag, which temporarily halts racing. In the pit, the rear tire was found to have gashes in the sidewall from the front axle of the bike that hit it. Our last rear tire was quickly mounted and the racing resumed as soon as the track was cleared.

A night pit stop It's difficult for a racer to sleep during the 24-hour. With your ears full of the sound of racing and your blood full of adrenalin, what sleep you do get is pretty poor quality. After dozing on and off through the night I get up around 6:30 a.m. and head down to our pit to see how we're doing.


At 7:00 a.m. the daytime crew started riding again and Tommy went back to his motorhome to cook up a big batch of spaghetti for breakfast. Not the traditional "Breakfast of Champions", but at that point everyone's internal clock was out of synch and spaghetti was just the kind of high-carbohydrate food we needed at the time. I was sitting in the pit when Judy Johnson arrived with her breakfast. "It's a spaghetti sandwich" she grinned, "on rye!" Mike Hausknecht rode the first daytime shift on Sunday and kept up his usual brisk pace, building our lead over the fourth place Mediumweight Production team as the temperature started to climb.

The sight of pit lane was a wonder to behold. There were tarps and canopies set up haphazardly everywhere. The atmosphere was like that of a festival or a concert. I got the feeling that if Woodstock had been a motorcycle race, this is what it would have looked like. Surprising as it may seem, there were some people who came out just to be spectators at this event. Several had camped out on the rise that overlooks the front straight: Tent, lawn chair, cooler full of beer and snacks. Let's watch a weekend of racing.

As I waited to start my next shift I started to feel ill (no, it wasn't the spaghetti sandwich). Mike LaMartina decided to send the tireless Rick Bair out while I took something to calm my stomach. I suspect it was the gasoline (and other) fumes in the air that made me ill because as soon as a steady breeze came up I felt much better. After 45 minutes, Rick was ready to come in and I was ready to ride, but as a result of this last minute schedule change, my next turn to ride would come up around two o'clock...The last hour of the race.

I love roadracing...but I've had just about enough of this. I'm so tired I don't even want to know what my lap times are. It's so hot I feel as if I'm going to melt. The face shield of my helmet is spattered with enough bugs that I'd have difficulty seeing even if sweat wasn't dripping into my eyes...which it is. The stiff racing suspension has been transmitting the plentiful bumps in the track through to me for so long that I feel as if I've been in a boxing match rather than a motorcycle race.

The last time I went by, our pit board showed five minutes left. Mike is trying to keep me motivated by giving me signals that exaggerate the time left in the race. It doesn't work because I can see everyone else's pit board as well. Of course, no two of them agree! The estimates vary from three minutes to an optimistic "1 MIN".

I guess that I have another two laps to go to the checkered flag and feel as if I can barely make it, even at the reduced pace I'm running. Coming around turn thirteen I see people lined up on the guard rail along the front straight, jumping and waving and, though I can't hear them, obviously cheering wildly as I come out of the corner. I'm so surprised I can hardly believe it; I thought I had another lap to go! There's the checkered flag! To see the commotion along the straight, you'd think we'd won the race but they're obviously giving this treatment to every bike and rider crossing the finish line. During the cool-down lap I wave at the corner workers as if they were long lost friends and they wave back the same way. There's a throng of people along pit lane as I pull in and come to a stop feeling as if I'm in the middle of a huge party.

24-hours after it began, the race is finally over. I can barely comprehend it...I can barely stand!

There's no point in trying to tell what it felt like to cross the finish line at the end of that race. To quote Louis Armstrong: "If you have to ask you ain't never gonna know!" Out of 35 teams that started, we finished sixteenth overall and third in the mediumweight production class on the hottest weekend of the year and the only 24-hour at Nelson Ledges that anyone can remember with absolutely no rain! All but two of the other teams (both of which were racing in the Superbike, rather than Production, class) were on 600cc or larger machines. Our crew, quite simply, made the race for us. Everything from the routine pit stops to the emergency repair work was taken care of smoothly and efficiently, leaving the riders free to concentrate on riding. The crew worked like paid professionals, not volunteers who actually spent their own hard earned money to come and help us out. In 24-hours we made 21 pit stops and Mark Steele worked on 20 of them.

I've faced lots of challenges and had many adventures, from running marathons to climbing mountains, and I can't be certain which has been the most difficult, most rewarding or most exhilarating. But I can tell you which 24-hours of my life I'll remember longest.


Crew Chiefs:
Chris DeMinco (night shift)
Mike LaMartina (daytime shifts)

Chief Mechanic:
Mark "The Man of" Steele

Pit Workers & Scorers:
Jim Bair
Paul Cooper
Jay Edgerton
Doug Emmons
Zack Emmons
Judy Johnson
Karen Kershaw
John Meng
Bob Sherman
Brian Steltz
Phil Viruso
Leanne Vincent


Rick Bair
Tommy D'Ettorre
Mike Hausknecht
Mark Roberts
Broderick Walker

Thanks to our Contingency Money sponsors: EBC Brakes & YAMAHA.

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Copyright © Mark Roberts