Passing 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 it’s 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.

Let’s begin at the critical moment of the pass—a 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. That’s 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 wrong—rider judgement. If the guy being passed changes something during the pass, and contact occurs, then it’s 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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t 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. I’m 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. I’m 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 he’s two for two with me. I let him alone until we come to the straight, and I pass him there.

Now, it’s 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 you should.

It’s a small world for us on the track, and there’s not just courtesy to be considered—some 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 don’t need in this sport.

Secrets 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.

If 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 hasn’t 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, that’s 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 choice—the 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. Let’s 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 AHRMA Website. Many thanks for the permissions of the AHRMA staff and Mr Bonelli himself.

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