Racing the wind, pushing your limits Motorcyclist: Professional racer Michael Fitzpatrick of Columbia believes that a season without crashes means you're not going fast enough or you are "extremely lucky."

July 10, 1996|By Fay Lande | Fay Lande,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

It was a long day for entrepreneur and professional motorcycle racer Michael Fitzpatrick of Columbia.

He worked 18 hours at his landscaping business, reassembled his Kawasaki ZX-750 in the garage of a house he owns in Crownsville and drove all night to New Hampshire to race 60 miles the next day at speeds of up to 180 mph.

He crashed.

A mechanical failure caused his bike to wobble at high speed. He was thrown into the air and landed on his left arm, sliding along the ground so fast that he was burned from shoulder to wrist despite wearing a leather jacket.

But crashing every so often is to be expected when you are pushing your limits, said the 26-year-old resident of Clary's Forest in Hickory Ridge village.

"If you go a whole season without crashing, you're either not going fast enough or you've been extremely lucky," he said.

No one can accuse him of not going fast enough.

Fitzpatrick has won more than a dozen regional races and has been ranked fifth in the 1995 North American Superbike (NASB) Series. This season, he is ranked third in points in the U.S. Triumph contests.

Those competitions rank below the more prestigious American Motorcyclist Association races, but he's even earned enough points in AMA races to be ranked 30th of about 75 competitors.

Next week, he flies to England for the British Grand Prix. He'll ride a Triumph Speed Triple 900 supplied by the manufacturer.

Fitzpatrick ranks in the top 5 percent of the 4,000 or so people who compete in NASB's 70 amateur and professional races each year, said Roger Edmondson, NASB founder.

Greg Leffler of Laurel, a friend and fellow rider, said: "He's on the upper end of daredevil riding. It's a very select few that make it, but Mike has the potential to do it."

Speed is the centerpiece in Fitzpatrick's life.

"When you're doing 180-190 mph, there's no room for hesitation, no room for errors," he said. "Lap times are measured in 1/100ths of a second -- 1/10th of a second is two bike lengths.

"You have to take advantage of any opportunity you have. If somebody turns wide, you have to be there. If somebody brakes too soon, you have to brake late. You have to be absolutely perfect in everything that you do."

Sometimes his efforts fall short of perfection. Since he began racing in 1989, he has broken his collarbone a half-dozen times, broken his ankle and wrist, torn three tendons and yanked an arm out of its socket.

"A lot of times, my life seems to be a continuous run-at-the-limit ordeal," he said.

A graduate of Centennial High School, Fitzpatrick studied aviation management and flight technology at the Florida Institute of Technology. Forbidden by his parents to ride a motorcycle when he was living at home, he bought one at college and began racing.

He left college to race seriously, the first year subsisting on a diet of orange juice, bread and vitamins, saving every dime for his new love, he said.

"Bikes are a way of freedom, because you're not confined," he said. " It's a whole different feeling. I mean, you can watch the TV and see the world go by, but to be on a motorcycle -- you feel the wind, you smell things, you see things."

But speeding on the big machines involves making friends with chance.

Taking curves at high speed, for example, requires the rider to lean so far over that his knee (protected by a plastic pad) scrapes the ground -- with only physics and ability to keep him from disaster. The plastic knee-shield, called a puck, can wear out in one weekend of racing.

"You go out there and you ride 110 percent, you realize you're pushing yourself -- and the bike -- to the absolute limit," he said.

"When you have the front wheel sliding, the back wheel sliding and you're on the gas coming out of a turn, somebody can say you're out of control [but] the rider doesn't feel out of control until he crashes."

For superbike races, where modifications to the bike are permitted, Fitzpatrick tries to transform his bikes from "racing bikes in street bike trim," as they are on the showroom floor, to vehicles capable of taking him to the absolute limits he dreams about.

In March, he bought a new $12,000 Kawasaki ZX-750 motorcycle, trucked it to the Crownsville garage, and in several hours, stripped it down to "nothing" -- a steel skeleton with wheels.

He removed anything that might slow acceleration: windshield, body shell, fan, lights, starter, mirrors, exhaust system.

Then he exchanged steel nuts and bolts for lighter titanium and installed magnesium wheels, a fiberglass body shell, high-compression pistons and new camshafts and valves, increasing power from about 115 horsepower to 150 and the rate of acceleration -- the time it takes the bike to go from 50 mph to about 180 mph -- to perhaps 6 seconds.

Money can be a problem for such riders as Fitzpatrick. In racing parlance, he is called a "privateer," someone who pays his own bills for bikes, crew, entry fees, travel, food and lodging. The cost of a single weekend can run as high as $3,000.

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