Saturday, November 24, 2007

Love on the side.

From the Seattle Stranger by WM. Steven Humpfrey

"Life is never more perfect than when a moment stops and we realize where we are. There's a moment Dawna Holloway remembers: her face hovering two inches above the pavement that is moving beneath her at over 100 m.p.h. On the racetrack's corkscrew curves, her hands tightly grip the edge of her sidecar as she extends her entire body toward the upcoming left turn. She listens to the roar of the engine as her partner downshifts, and as they power into the curve -- smack! The front end scrapes the lead car's rear fender. Dawna's laughter fills her helmet, as it often does after a close call. As her padded shoulder brushes the pavement, she notices the fat rear wheel of the opposing car just three feet in front of her face. There's a little white pebble embedded in the hot rubber. That's her moment. That's when the world stops.

Boxes of Parts

"See all these boxes?" Dawna asks, as she shows me around her Georgetown warehouse. "All filled with junkyard parts. That's how I got started; begging and borrowing so I could build my first sidecar." Dawna Holloway is your average motorcycle sidecar racer -- if your idea of average is a gangly, puckish woman with the chatty hyperactive energy of a seven-year-old. "I paid three grand Canadian for a chassis with a bad motor," she says. "I had no idea what I was doing, just that I had to do it."

Unlike street-legal motorcycles and sidecars, Dawna's machine looks like it would be more at home in a wind tunnel. Barely over knee-high, the fiberglass-covered triangular frame rests on three fat wheels just a few scant inches above the ground. The driver sits on his knees, leaning forward to cut down wind resistance. The sidecar is no more conventional; it's a short, flat platform with a single hand-hold, and nothing to protect the occupant should the bike skid out or flip.

Though motor sports tend to be solo activities, sidecar racing is a team sport. The driver controls the speed, shifting and braking, but due to the width of the vehicle the person in the sidecar is responsible for making the turns. For example, a hard left requires the passenger to extend her body out over the roadway, using her weight to turn the car. Conversely, on a hard right, she literally leaps on the bike's back fender, grabbing whatever part of the chassis is available. It's like mountain climbing; there are times when you only have one point of contact -- except this mountain moves at 180 m.p.h.

While most people aren't fighting to race sidecars, there are those, like Dawna, for whom it's a calling. "I was never really into racing," Dawna says. "In fact, the first time I ever saw sidecars race I started laughing -- they were so ugly! But, for whatever reason, I just knew I'd be good at it. So... why not?"

Unfortunately for the human race, dreaming is always easier than doing, and Dawna's first year was particularly rough. After purchasing her first unassembled sidecar, her racing partner and mechanic suddenly decided to bug out. With practically no mechanical experience, or money to finance this expensive project, Dawna was seriously screwed. That's when she met her next partner, Tim.

"He should have taken one look at all the parts on the floor and left," she says. "But luckily for me, he was crazy, too."

A year later they completed the car, but even then, Dawna and Tim's first race was a comedy of errors. The sidecar shook so violently they were literally black and blue that day. It broke down at every turn. People were suggesting towing companies to haul it away.

"It could've ended right there," Dawna says, wiping her greasy hands. "My whole life had been a series of projects I couldn't seem to finish. This time I had moved from Olympia to be closer to my mechanic, rented this warehouse, and used every last ounce of money and energy to race sidecars, and what happened? We got around the track ONCE. But thanks to supportive friends, I kept going, and by the second race everything worked and I actually started to get a feel for it. Of course, that's when we crashed.

Dawna is on the back of the bike showing off her moves -- and looking right at home. Though she didn't initially strike me as particularly graceful, her movements are balletic. I ask her about the crash.

"We were both so new. Maybe Tim took the corner a little too hot -- but that's how you learn your limits. You push it, and push it, and then you crash -- that's where your limit is."

Dawna describes the scene as the car skidded off the track into the grass. Under normal circumstances they would have slid to a stop, but instead, they hit a gully which caused the car to flip. Dawna was thrown forward while Tim was trapped underneath the 600 lb. sidecar, the exhaust pipe burning his leg. Uncharacteristic in other motor sports, the lead racer immediately pulled over to help, and by the time Dawna and Tim returned from the medical tent, the club's president had welded and repaired their car.

"Then somebody flipped me a couple of prescription ibuprofen and asked, 'Ready to go again?' and I said, 'umm...Okay.'"

As it turned out, Dawna's collarbone was broken in three places, but she continued racing -- and has been doing it for the last three years. With her next race coming this Sunday, October 17 (at Seattle International Raceway; racing starts at 11:00am), she's ready for a win.

"This will be a big race for me. My new partner, Chris, and I know the track well, and our confidence is up. But win or not, I do it because I love to. When your timing is right, and the car is moving beneath you... it's kind of amazing. It's like flying.

"I mean, before the race, my bike can be in total chaos -- I'm working on it, throwing tools, trying to figure out what's wrong, and then all of a sudden it's first call. But when I close the lid on my helmet and hear the motor, everything else disappears. If I do this right, we'll do well; if I do this wrong, we could die. It's a meditative, grounding moment. I was crazy, now I'm calm. Then the flag drops and my mind is on nothing except what I'm supposed to do -- and I've never been like that before.

"Even when things get squirrely and I feel the back end of the bike breaking loose, I find myself laughing in my helmet. It's sort of a crazy laugh, and then the back end straightens up and we make it."

Dawna touches the smooth fiberglass of her sidecar.

"That's why I love it. It's all about finding that moment. And knowing exactly where I am."

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