I got a text message from my friend and fellow track day enthusiast Mark that Saturday afternoon. He was asking if it would be ok for a 3rd person to hitch a ride with us to Calabogie in Mark’s truck for 2 days at the track.
Ordinarily, this would be a pretty straightforward answer. First off, it’s not even my truck (so who am I to say no) and second, riders are like family, even if they hardly know each other. That’s the reason we wave when we cross each other on the road. Even as strangers, we are a tribe and (most) will help one another out, simply because we share a common passion. More on that later.
On this day however, it wasn’t that straightforward because at that time (August, 2021), we were deep in the COVID-19 pandemic and everyone (even motorcyclists) were being cautious.
Mark and I debated for a while and ultimately, it was decided that it was safest for everyone if this third person just took their own transportation. I then found out that the third rider was Mike -someone I had met briefly earlier in the season at a track day at Cayuga / Toronto Motorsports Park but hadn’t spent more than a few minutes with.
The next day, Mark met me at my place. We loaded my track bike into the trailer, next to his and were on our merry way. From Toronto, it’s a 4 1/2 hour drive to Calabogie Motorsports Park, located just outside of Ottawa. For the last few years, Mark and I had gotten into the habit of going to these events together and he typically drives. He’s got a 6 bike trailer and often shuttles bikes to the track for other riders.
If you’re not a motorcyclist or haven’t ridden on a race track before, you can think of the preparation process as a sort of mental buildup. No matter how many track days you’ve done, there’s a certain energy that builds as bikes are loaded, coolers packed with ice and fuel cans filled. The anticipation, strategizing, and journey is as important as the actual destination which is one of the reasons I enjoy carpooling with Mark. Deep down, I also think there’s a recognition that our sport is a dangerous one and that every time we dawn our leathers, drop our visors and throw a leg over the bike, that our lives are at risk. Some of us may be more acutely aware of this than others but we all know it. And maybe that’s another part of what unites us.
On the way to Calabogie, we pulled off the highway, met up with Mike and our 2 truck, 2 trailer caravan was underway. After a few hours, we stopped for gas. I realized I had forgotten the charge cable for my iPhone and before I could pick one up from the gas station, Mike produced one and insisted that I keep it. I thought that was generous for someone I barely knew and was probably indicative of who this Mike guy was.
Track day groups are typically divided into 3 classes, differentiated by skill level (Red, Yellow, Green or A, B, C). Each group gets 20 minutes of track time and 40 minutes of rest time each hour. This is done for safety reasons and each group has its own set of rules around what’s acceptable when it comes to passing. For example, the more advanced red or “A” group riders can pass anywhere, any time using their best judgement whereas the green group tends to only allow passing on straight sections and not in corners. Mark and I have ridden Calabogie many times and prefer the pace of the yellow or red groups. Mike however was new to Calabogie and was an overall newer track rider. As such, he was required by the track day sanctioning body to ride in the green group. This is a typical procedure that’s encouraged for safety, allowing for newer riders to learn the track before moving into the faster groups. Particularly at a technical track like Calabogie, trying to go fast before understanding the circuit is a recipe for disaster.
The typical order of groups on track days is red first (at the top of the hour), followed by yellow, then green. Following the morning rider’s meeting (a mandatory briefing where the rules for the day are re-iterated in the interest of safety), we went back to our paddock and started final preparations. The mood is always a little tense at this point, especially for newer riders. I remember talking to Mike about my personal philosophy for track days which is basically a bell curve. If I am riding seven 20 minute sessions on a given track day, I like to build up pace in sessions 1, 2 and 3 (have lunch at noon), pick up a slightly slower pace in session 4 after lunch, then build into my maximum pace towards the end of session 5. I like to use session 6 and 7 to bring it down a little as I find that fatigue (and often heat exhaustion) can become a factor, making an accident more likely.
Mark and I (along with a few of the others in our group) were checking in with Mike between sessions, giving him pointers in the sections where he had questions and helping him make sense of the track. By lunch time, he was feeling more confident and all of us were having a great day. Contrary to popular belief, a day at the track isn’t a race (for most), it’s a place to sharpen your skills and to challenge yourself within your own limits. A great day at the track is one where you get to practice your craft at a high level and end the day safely back in the paddock, cracking a beer and reveling in motorsport afterglow with your friends.
It’s not uncommon for riders to have mishaps on the track. Fortunately, most of them are minor and track day organizers are required to have an ambulance on site at all times to minimize the time required to get medical attention to anyone in need. A lowside here (when a bike is leaned over too far for the amount of given traction and slides our from under the rider), a rider going off the track into the grass and falling…it’s routine and happens every track day. Out of an abundance of caution, track marshals wave a red flag when this happens, signalling to all riders on track that they must stop so that the situation can be assessed and action taken if necessary. From the pits, it’s obvious when this happens as you no longer hear the scream of the bikes as they roar by pit lane.
That afternoon, Mark and I were reminiscing about our recent laps when we noticed that the green group appeared to have a stoppage. When this happens, there is an automatic calculation that goes on in a rider’s head: “what are the odds that the person who went down is one of ours?” And in this case, it was “what are the odds that Mike went down?” There are typically 25 to 35 riders in a color group so statistically, the odds if it being Mike were maybe 4%. And even though that may be a small number, our concerns started to escalate when the ambulance was sent out on track. Time slowed for us at that point, as we waited impatiently for an update on what had happened. After what seemed like an eternity, bikes began coming back into the pits, indicating that the lapping session was over. From our vantage point, we could clearly see the bikes as they entered pit lane and we began looking for Mike’s bike to appear. One by one, they rode back to their paddocks, and with each passing bike that was not Mike, our level of concern increased. The flow of bikes leaving the track slowed to a trickle and then stopped. I ran to the organizer (someone we know well and is an ex-racer herself) who was now trackside and asked if all the bikes were off the track. In a moment I will never forget, her answer” “yes…and the guy who is down is in really bad shape”. Holy fuck. It was Mike.
I ran back to update Mark and the rest of our group and suddenly, it was clear that all of our worst fears were starting to come true. It was Mike and by the sounds of it, he was badly injured. As we waited for news from the paramedics, our conversations could be described as a combination of denial, optimism and sadness. Mark (who knew Mike the best) called Mike’s family back near Toronto and notified them of what happened. We were then told that the paramedics were going to transfer Mike to the local hospital as his injuries were life threatening. Although the exact story was unclear, what was confirmed is that he had gone off track at turn 12a at high speed, ridden his bike into a wall and was fighting for his life.
Mark spent some time speaking to the various members of Mike’s family who were understandably alarmed and worried about the situation. I can’t imagine what it was like for Mike’s sons and his wife to get that call. How helpless they must have felt being so far away from their dad and husband whose life now hung in the balance. The rest of us were quiet, each processing the event in our own way and trying to get to terms with how this may ultimately end. It’s at that point that Mark walked back to our group and we knew immediately what had happened from the look on his face. Mike had passed away in the ambulance on his way to the hospital.
It was a sobering moment and one we will never forget. Deep down, I think we all knew that it could have been any one of us. It happens frequently on motorcycles -whether on the street or on the track. We take on more risk than is really necessary and over-extend ourselves, opening a window for accidents to happen. Or our emotions get the best of us and we unintentionally put another rider’s life at risk as we chase a cornering line or lap time.
Mike was a good rider. A smart guy. A really nice guy. He was no different that you or me.
The next day, our group got back on the track and we rode our 7 sessions. The day had a strange and eerie feeling to it. Every time I passed turn 12, I quietly said a few words for Mike in my helmet. As cliched as it may sound, Mike would have wanted it that way. In a sense, I think being back on the track was our way of acknowledging what had happened and the beginning of making our peace with it.
That evening, we packed up and headed back to Toronto. Mark drove his truck, towing the trailer with our bikes. And I drove Mike’s truck, pulling his empty trailer as the bike had to remain on-site for forensics. The 5 hours I spent driving his truck back were some of the most profound hours of my life. With so much time alone, it forced me to really think through the effect that his passing would have. What would his wife do? What about the business he owns? And perhaps most importantly, how would it affect his two teenage sons?
It was late when I pulled off the highway to meet his family in a Home Depot parking lot. Under the light from the street lamps, handing his sons the keys to their deceased father’s truck is a moment I will never forget. It reminds me always of the fragile balance of life and serves as a reminder to be respectful not only to those around me but also to myself. In writing this, I hope it will inspire others to do the same.
Rest in pace Mike.