This weekend, I decided to make a comeback to AFM and take pics. Something I hadn’t done in almost exactly a year. Mostly because I’ve been away at other events, but partly because I know AFM is in good hands with Max and Koi out there doing their thing. This weekend, I just happened to be free, it was along the way to my next event, and because, frankly, I could use a bit of extra cash.
I got to see a lot of faces I hadn’t seen in some time. It’s always great catching up. I also met many new faces…racers whom I’d never seen in events past…everyone’s numbers were different. Half the time, I didn’t recognize who was who out there…on one hand, it was good. I shot all my photos fresh and new, as if i didn’t really know anyone out there. There was no favoritism. I didn’t particularly lean heavily on anyone (except the few that preordered photos and I’d commited their race numbers to memory). I simply did what I know how to do best: made memories of everyone to have and share.
Bear with me, if you’d like; I have no particular path with this post, only a final destination. I’ve got many, many thoughts, and they’re in zero particular order.
I’ve been taking photos of motorcycles, riders, and racers for about a dozen years now. I’m not sure there’s anything left that I haven’t seen. Both good and bad.
On Saturday while on track, I was thinking back to one instance in particular some years ago where Michael Earnest had crashed in the opening laps of Formula Pacific while cresting t3a at Sonoma. I caught it all on camera. He’d hurt himself, but managed to get the bike up and going again and restarted the race. Honestly, I don’t even remember where he’d finished after the restart, but I do remember it like a hero-story. I chased Formula Pacific around the track that race as fast as I could, capturing this “saga” of Michael Earnest. I was at start/finish when the race ended. As Michael crossed the line, he pulled off to the tire wall on the left, put his head down, and whimpered, leaning on the tire wall, unable to dismount his bike, unable to even finish the cool down lap. He was in a lot of pain.
I captured all of this. It’s something I’ll never forget. I was proud of man-kind at that exact moment. I don’t fully even know how to describe it, honestly. Michael was able to do something that not a lot of people can. It may not have been smart, but the pure guts and determination of it all…it was memorable. It was honest. It was pure.
On the flip side, I’ve seen many riders crash to greater and lesser degrees. Not all of them get up. At least, not right away. One of the first things I do when someone crashes in front of me is take pause and listen. Why? Because the next sound they make tells me how hurt they really are. When I hear a string of curse words first thing, I know they’re good. When I hear the moan of pain, I know they’re hurt, but it’s likely not all that bad. When I hear the wet gurgles, then I know it’s not good at all. When I don’t hear anything…well, I just keep listening because eventually they’re gonna wake up and I’ll hear something.
Twice now while shooting photos, I’ve heard the nothing. I kept listening, but they never woke up.
Allen Rice was a track rider on a Triumph 675. He hit the wall at about 50 miles per hour. Right in front of me. I didn’t know Allen. I’d never met him in my life. I don’t ever recall seeing him at the track prior to that afternoon. But I remember his name. I remember the way his face looked as he lay there on the asphalt while medics did CPR. I remember the sound his body made as they did chest compressions. I took one last click with the camera and walked away dazed. I didn’t ride that day as I’d intended. I briefly wondered if I even wanted to ride motorcycles anymore. It was a haunting memory for a long time.
Joseph Pusateri was a racer on a Kawasaki 636. Another human I’d never met before. It was my first time shooting a WERA race. I clicked away at 6 frames per second as he lowsided, seemingly gently, in a pretty slow corner. I remember thinking to myself that that should be a guaranteed sale. Everyone loves to get their crashes on camera. Except…he didn’t get up either. Instead, he lay slumped in an awkward position next to his bike. The medics came. Then the coroner.
I can’t even remember anything else about that weekend. I don’t know if the races continued. I don’t know if they were cancelled. I don’t know if I even took more pictures after that. The only thing I can remember was thinking about Joe’s wife running out onto the track, fighting with the corner workers and medical personel trying to get to Joe. I cried then. I’m fighting back tear now.
Inherently, motorcycles are dangerous. I’ve joked about how dumb we are as motorcyclists in the past. Really, we are. We’re not smart beings. To take the risks we do, day in, day out. On the track at speeds “normal” people would consider ludacris. On the street dodging cars and thousands of other hazards every day. In the woods, avoiding cliffs and trees. On the motorcross track jumping 100 foot triples. It’s risky. And to put yourself at continual risk like that…it’s not smart.
But it’s what we do. It’s what we need to carry on. It’s in us like the blood that runs through our veins. Smart or not, it’s what we motorcyclists need. I can’t refute that. If i said I could quit riding, that would be a lie. I’d never be happy again not riding.
I’ve seen SO many people injured doing what we do. Bad. Life alteringly bad. Dave Stanton, Mario Bonfonte, Eric Arnold to name a few. Eric ended up taking his own life rather then carry on. I’ve wondered to myself many times how I could cope. IF I could cope. I really don’t know those answers. I only know the questions.
In all this, I’ve learned to hit the “off switch.” At least, I try. I guess it’s never truly off, but I’ve been able to close off most of the dam, so that it’s only a trickle that gets through anymore. I’ve even been accused in my personal life of being “robotic” at times. It’s true. I can be that way when faced with emotional things. I try and set aside emotion and instead rely on logic to get me through hardships.
Sunday was no different. Jason Blancas, racer #780 passed away at Thunderhill during a race. From what I’ve been told, he made contact with another rider in turn 8 and was highsided from his Yamaha R3.
I wasn’t in turn 8 when it happened. A few of my friends were. Glenn was there. As he told me about it, the lost look in his eyes was soul crushing. I didn’t say much. I only hugged him and fought back tears myself. Taylor came in to the building in tears. She was on com in t8, relaying information as best as she could, holding her composure like a true professional until it was time to come in. It was only her second time corner working at AFM. She just had her 18th birthday. Another corner worker came in, whom I don’t know her name. She was also sobbing.
I kept smashing the “off switch” over and over until until it finally stayed in the off position…and I went about my day, hoping no one would ask me about it.
So many lives change in literally a fraction of a second. Jason is gone. I didn’t know Jason, but many people did. I’m sorry for the loss you feel with his passing. I’m sorry for everyone who was there, trying to save him, if he could even be saved. I know that every single person at AFM feels it. I know the corner workers and the medical staff and race direction did the best they could in any role they could fill. I thank you guys and gals for everything you do. You are all amazing. Your efforts at keeping everyone as safe as possible in this crazy sport we choose to do will never go unnoticed or unappreciated. Thank you.
Rest in peace, #780.