as an art
By Gregg Bonelli
Photos: Mark Mitchell
If you race very long
you inevitably notice a pattern about races: You start, then you
pass everyone you can, everyone who can pass you does so, and
then you ride to the end and see where you finish. If you are
a beginner, almost all your concentration has to be devoted to
going fast and dealing with the track, not with other riders.
If you were not expecting to be passed, then when
you are its somewhat startling, particularly if you were
doing all you could and someone comes along and takes away a vital
part of the track you had intended to use in just a moment. Passing
and being passed in a turn is a moment of supreme risk.
Yet there are those who pass you without regard
for your safety and intentionally set out to disrupt your riding
just because they can. This was something I saw at AHRMA races
this past season, which should worry all of us. The purpose of
this article is to see what can be done about it.
Lets begin at the critical moment of the passa
faster bike approaches a slower one from behind. The speed differential
may be due to rider skill, machine capabilities, track familiarity
or any number of other causes. Whatever the reason, one machine
is about to overtake another, and the manner in which it is done
speaks volumes about the riders.
After a long racing career I am not ashamed to admit
to being passed by some of the greatest riders of our time. As
an AMA Expert I saw Kenny Roberts come on the scene as a Junior
and dominate roadracing. I was on the grid with him and others
who made it a habit to pass me at every opportunity. I would gladly
have done the same to them, of course, but seldom could.
What I noticed about being passed by them was that
I had to do absolutely nothing different than what I was already
doing for a safe pass to happen. They came and went without bothering
me in the slightest. I did not have to change lines or grab a
handful of brake or even let off the throttle, because they had
already calculated my speed and line and theirs, and knew it was
going to work out. It had better; it was their responsibility
to see to it.
Passing, then as now, is one of the skills that
makes roadracing continually challenging. My job, as a rider being
passed, is to maintain the integrity of their calculations by
not changing anything. Thats right, all I have to do is
press on as hard as I can at what I was already doing and I will
be protected and safe. Of course, there is one factor with two
expressions that can make all this go wrongrider judgement.
If the guy being passed changes something during the pass, and
contact occurs, then its his fault. Changing your line or
throttle setting or braking in a turn while someone is in the
process of passing you is asking for trouble.
Why? He is faster here than you or he would not
be passing. That being true, he has the only view of both bikes
as he approaches and he alone can make calculations about where
you will be when he passes. If you alter that calculation after
he has committed to the corner and the pass, then you caused the
consequences that come after. Simple enough: Protect yourself
during passes by keeping on doing what you were already doing
as if the other rider was not even there.
I know some of you are thinking that this is going
to cause trouble because Joker A passed you at such
and such last year, and if you hadnt grabbed the brakes
and avoided hitting him you both would have gone down. Maybe that
is true for you, but this is about what the art of passing should
be, not about some failure of it as applied to you.
I want to add here that there is nothing intuitive
about this. When I hit the banking at Daytona on a TZ750 the first
time and Roberts passed me a mile later at 180, I was petrified.
I knew he was good, but I wasnt sure I was good enough to
be on the track with him. If I made some stupid unexpected move
we were both going to pay for it, so holding my machine steady
(and leaving room at the edges) was a necessity. I also should
add that he would pass incredibly close, but we never touched.
He just came and went, and I kept doing what I had before he was
there. His was a standard I still aspire to today.
Contrast that with my experience at Talladega last
season. Im riding along passing folks as I go, and I come
upon this guy and pass him on the inside, nothing close. Instead
of keeping his line, he straightens up, gives up on the corner
and hits me. Boom. Im off the track and dealing with the
grass while he goes on. So I come back up to him in a few moments
and try again. This time I set him up to take the outside first,
then go inside. Boom. He hit me again as soon as I am in front
of him by going straight off the turn to the edge of the track.
I manage to avoid falling, but hes two for two with me.
I let him alone until we come to the straight, and I pass him
Now, its obvious to me that this rider is
either a novice or a hazard. His reaction to being passed was
that he must immediately do something different, not to keep doing
the same thing he was doing. As a result, my calculations about
where he would be were out the window. Add to that his apparent
target fixation on the bike sharing the corner with him, and you
have a recipe for unnecessary contact.
The point of all this is safety. We at AHRMA have
a mixed grid of machines and riders for almost every race. Some
bikes are faster than others, and the same is true of riders.
Every time we pass someone we should strive to set an example
to them and to everyone watching of what an art passing can be.
The measure of that art is the degree of disruption you caused
when you passed. If the other rider could keep on doing just what
he had been doing, as if you had not come and gone, then you have
made a masterful pass, and he should appreciate it as much as
Its a small world for us on the track, and
theres not just courtesy to be consideredsome day
in some other corner that guy you just passed may be passing you,
and if you did a bad job of it and left a bad impression, he may
leave one on you as well. That is what we dont need in this
of the master passer
We all have corners that seem to match
our particular sensibilities. You may be a whiz at flat-out
sweeping bends but cannot get out of your own way in a first-gear
righthander. That being true, when you pass your way forward
in a race to the point that you can no longer catch those
in front of you and those behind cannot catch you, you know
which corners you have wired and which still need work.
you are smart, and if you can go to school on the guy
in front of you, and if he has faster lines in corners
where you are not catching him but you have faster lines
in other corners (because you always catch back up to
him there), then to get past him just learn his lines
and use them. Remember, he hasnt seen your faster
lines, so timing may be a consideration; if you think
you may not get much further up in the results, it may
be wise to wait until the last lap to make your pass,
so he does not have the opportunity to return the favor.
Ever been caught late
in the race by someone you thought you had passed and
left behind? Wonder how he did it? Now you know.
As a final point, there comes the question of what
to do with those who do not subscribe to this orderly view of
how we should apply our skills. You know them. They pass any way
and any time they can, and call it racing. If someone gets knocked
down, thats just tough and their own fault for being slow.
Here is my solution to that problem. There comes
a time in a corner with this sort of rider when he has failed
to calculate or even consider your position in the turn and contact
is imminent. You have been left with the choice of hitting him
or falling yourself. Do you have to save him from his own lack
of skill by letting him go on his way at your expense?
I say no, and here is why. Imagine a conversation
afterward when you are asked about the resulting crash because
you did not take evasive action. In response to being asked what
you did when he appeared in the turn with you, you could say either
that you kept doing just what you had been doing, or you could
say you attempted to take evasive action and lost control. The
former speaks of your skill and composure. The fault is his for
the miscalculation which caused the contact. The latter puts the
blame on you for losing control of a situation that was beyond
your control to begin with. There is one additional benefit to
the first choicethe onus of the mistake of the passing rider
stays with him, and that may mean all the way to the ground. If
it is his fault it happened, then better him than you.
Racing is not safe and never will be. Risking the
limits of speed has its own hazards and all of us have learned
a lesson here or there by falling down while dealing with them.
Some of us have also been put on the ground through no fault of
our own by some predatory passing. The first is unavoidable, the
second unforgivable. Some people die when they fall, some are
crippled for life. Nobody wants that to happen to anyone. Lets
clean up our passes and make the effort to demonstrate our skill
at every opportunity, not just by running up front but also by
how we got there.
Gregg Bonelli (#16) won the AHRMA Formula 500
championship in 1993. He and Kenny Roberts both logged their best
Daytona 200 finishes the same year, in 1978, when Roberts won
and Gregg was 37th
Gregg Bonelli, no reproduction permitted without written consent
from the author. This article originally appeared on the
Many thanks for the permissions of the AHRMA staff and Mr Bonelli