About a month ago I had my first try at a sidecar as the driver, and had a blast. My passenger at that time, Adrian also had his first go at a sidecar, and seemed to enjoy it a lot – he later said it’s the most hard-core form of motorsports he’s ever done. I was still lacking my own experiences to confirm this.
During the first weekend of September, the Estonian circuit Auto24ring was hosting a Baltic Road Racing Championship race meet, with some Finnish teams attending. After an unfortunate accident on Friday’s practice sessions, where one passenger got injured and hospitalized, Petri Virtanen’s sidecar was left without a passenger.
I was just having some beers & barbecue with friends, as I noticed what’s happened on Facebook. After thinking about it briefly, I sent them a message that I’d be available, if I was needed. Soon my phone rang and I was asked to come there first thing in the morning.
As I got to the pits, I familiarized myself with the sidecar and did some cold practice on how to move from side to side. I was told to try and optimize my movements with the movements of the sidecar and to use my legs instead of arms to move myself around.
One thing that’s constant, is a grip of the sidecar handle with the left hand, it’s not to be loosened at any time. The basic form has you sitting on the floor of the sidecar on your knees, with the legs on the left side of your butt. When turning left, you put your feet on the rear fender and extend your legs and arms so that your butt hangs out of the sidecar. When turning right, you lie on your side on the fender, against the air box cover, grab a hole on the side of the fairing and have your head towards the ground. Easy.
You’re supposed to have moved when the driver starts braking, so when you’re going to turn left, you lean your left arm on the sidecar fender, and when turning right, you lean your chest on the air box cover. If you have to move from one side to another, you do it when the driver releases brakes. In the straights, you’re supposed to sit in the middle with your head down to minimize drag, but I really didn’t do this if we had consecutive turns to the same direction in order to minimize movements required!
I also had to familiarize myself with the track, as I had only driven there with a car once. Luckily there weren’t that many side changes, and you’d spend most of the lap on the left. However, the side changes were such, that there wasn’t any time for lingering about.
For the equipment I used my leather suit with all the removable protectors out (in order to improve mobility), the softest gloves I have and riding sneakers I had borrowed from a friend.
We’d have just one practice session in the morning before the qualifying session. We agreed on signals to ask for speed changes and out we went.
One thing was instantly clear. Being a passenger in not unlike being in some crazy amusement park ride. As you spend most of your time sideways, the acceleration when cornering or accelerating/decelerating feels pretty goddamn weird, and in the beginning I even felt a bit sick.
Moving about is really hard work, if you don’t do it at just the right time. In the beginning I was really tense and tried to move too quickly, both of which wore me out in just a few laps. When you get tired, you start making mistakes, and while moving from right to left, I bent my knee so that I wasn’t able to put load on it. I needed to ask for Petri to come in.
Trying to do that was another surprise. When the sidecar is accelerating, it’s really hard to try to go forwards so, that you actually reach the driver. Obviously you can’t do it in a corner, and if you try to move forwards when braking, you’re sure to fall off. Pushing my strength to the absolute limit, I managed to get forward so that I could pat Petri in the back and he came in the pits.
I explained the situation, and tried to move my leg about, as it usually helps. After a while we headed out for a few more laps. After the session I went to the ambulance to get some painkillers and a cold pack to put on the knee, which helped to some extent.
In the qualifying we did a few fast laps before I again had to ask Petri to slow down for a while. After resting for a lap, we did one more fast lap, which got us 6th place on the grid. Petri informed me, that he wouldn’t come in the pits for small reasons, such as me getting tired, which was sort of worrying. I had already noticed that when riding passenger, you really don’t fade out, rather than your strength just suddenly runs out. After that it’s a struggle just to hold on. I really wasn’t confident I’d be able to hang on for the whole race.
Luckily one of the classes racing before us, the newcomer class was a proper demolition derby. They had three tries at a start, and after a total of 10 crashed bikes, they announced that there wouldn’t be a fourth start. However, our race had to be cut down to just 8 laps. That was still quite a bit of hanging on.
On the warm-up lap I wasn’t paying attention and bent my knee again. By then I had noticed that when we were turning right, the right leg doesn’t really do anything, so I was able to move it around so that it I’d be able to push properly with it.
We took a good start, and I must say, hanging out of the sidecar with a bunch of other vehicles around you is pretty exciting. After the first corner we found ourselves up one position, fifth, that is. We were going at a decent pace, and I was holding up, as I had realized how and when to move, so I didn’t get nearly as tired as quickly. However the pair we had overtaken in the start suddenly appeared in our tail and quickly overtook us. This was probably on fourth or maybe fifth lap.
Although I had struggled more during the weekend, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up, if Petri decided to start racing with them, so I pat him in the back to take it easy. He took a bit out of the pace, and it was surprising to see that a few seconds a lap makes all the difference. At that pace I could have gone around forever. The winning pair just managed to lap us, so we in fact only had to do 7 laps, which, despite the easier pace, was quite all right by me.
We had just a short pause before race 2, which would be 10 laps as we had managed to catch up with the schedule. At the start we got to the tail of another pair, and Petri decided to try and keep up, which meant aggressive riding and braking in a manner where the sidecar would be moving about.
This is when I finally realized, what’s so tiring about being a passenger. It’s the G-forces coming from weird directions and not really being able to see where you’re going. It not only wears you out, but also makes you (or at least me) a bit motion-sick.
With the aggressive braking I felt by head was jiggling about like one of those bobble-head dolls. After a few laps of being thrown around I had had enough and had to ask Petri to slow down. After this we just cruised to finish on another sixth place.
Although during the day I noticed my head’s not up for it, so being a passenger is not for me, I had a lot of fun. I only wish I had had a bit more practice, as I saw myself improving every time we went out. Still, I was definitely holding Petri back. At least he got to race, even if it was with a novice passenger.
To me, the most exciting thing as a passenger is right hand turns. It’s a wild sensation to have your head a foot from the surface of the track or the pit wall. And I can whole-heartedly agree with the statement that being a sidecar passenger is definitely the most hard-core thing, at least the most hard-core thing I’ve ever done. It’s seriously intense to change your position when doing 3-figure speeds, to have your ass scrape the curbs and to watch the track surface go by as you’re hanging off the sidecar with your head upside down.
Even though I liked sidecars a lot already after my first experience, getting a chance to ride passenger only deepened the sensation. What’s special about sidecars is that the driver and the passenger have to manage wordless cooperation, as they really can’t communicate when on the track. Moreover, a good performance is needed from both. If one fails, the other one isn’t able to make up for it. It’s a unique and brilliant form of motorsports, and definitely harder than going on two wheels.
All the sidecar racers have my utmost respect.
(All images by Raminta Photos)