Gessner confronts powerful challenge

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 21, 2013 

John Gessner races in the 750 Superbike at down The Ridge complex in California.

DARREN BEATTY — Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

It became evident by the end of the 2012 road motorcycle racing season that John Gessner was just faster than everyone else.

A lot faster.

"His goal was basically to beat everyone," said Troy Gessner, John's father and crew chief, in a phone interview.

That was pretty obvious by the end of the season.

John, 15, tallied wins in 20 of 24 races in the 125CC class, signaling a move up to more difficult competition. Instead of making the logical progression to the bigger, slightly more powerful 650CC twin class, John, who calls Ferndale home, and his crew decided he was ready for something much faster: The 600CC road racing bike.

The main difference between the 125CC and the 600CC? About 50 mph, or the difference between going 120 mph and going 160-170 mph.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, that bike was scary,' at first," John said in a phone interview. "There is a lot more power -- and you can feel it."

In an effort to familiarize himself with the feel and power of the new bike, both he and his racing crew decided it would be in their best interest to take a less-heavy race schedule in 2013, focusing instead on specific intervals to gauge his development.

"We were going deeper in the pool with a faster bike," Troy said, reinforcing their mindset of being more cautious than curious.

But John's transition to the bigger bike has been, like everything else in his racing career, seamless.

"His whole racing career has been steady, (with) slow and relentless progress," Troy said. "Every now and again he gets too ambitious, though."

That wasn't the case on what was supposed to be his first outing on the 600CC in mid-March after months of preparation.

A slight drizzle began to fall on The Ridge Motorsports Park race track on Shelton minutes before the start of John's first race. John wasn't comfortable with the conditions, and decided that wouldn't be the makings of his debut race.

"You don't want to go on the track with the wrong tires," he said, acknowledging how he and his team didn't have rain-specific tires. "You can break some bones and break some tires."

Another day, he thought, pulling the bike into the pits, gearing up for the return trip home.

To his father, it was a display of maturity from his son, something that would suit him well on the track when that day did come.

"It was entirely his decision," Troy said. "It was a very good, mature, safe decision for the racer to put off the race (because of) the additional danger."

Eventually John got his opportunity, albeit with a race plan that focused on keeping John out of the pack until he could get his bearings. There, though, is where he felt the true power of the bike, opening up the throttle on the straights and having the sheer force thrust his visor up against his face.

"'Learn the bike. You are finishing,'" he remembered thinking to himself. "I was just trying to keep the bike upright."

John stayed true to the plan set out before the race, avoiding any unnecessary congestion. But as the race progressed, his naturally competitive nature began to show, as he found the urge, and the speed, to move up from the back of the pack.

"He started passing people and picking them off," Troy said.

He finished the first day in and around 15th place among the 20-plus rider field, prompting a change in approach entering day two of the race weekend.

"That night we talked about it, and in the second day, 'go as fast as you would like in Turn 1,'" Troy said. "He started learning how slow the other guys were. ... By the end of the race weekend, he was battling mid-pack and being much more aggressive."

Despite making his way up to as high as fourth place, running just a few seconds off the lap record, John knew he was out of place.

"I knew I wasn't ready to be there," he said. "I couldn't hang with them."

John is naturally inquisitive and curious, oftentimes finding himself immersed in learning the odds and ends of tracks he is about to race. That is how he stays safe: knowing exactly when to brake, when to get on the throttle and how much throttle to use. All are things he and his father work on before taking to a specific course or preparing for a specific race.

"He's always had a logical way of breaking down what he does on the racing track," Troy said.

John stayed true to that mindset once he and his crew decided it was time for him to take a big leap forward in his training, deciding to travel down to Northern California and visit the Thunderhill Raceway Park.

Just as its name somewhat suggests, it's a course that challenges most that take to its tattered and torn tarmac. John, upon learning of the decision, took to watching endless amounts of Youtube videos to learn the track's nuances.

"I knew every single turn," he said.

John and Troy even surveyed the track themselves the night before he went out, walking every inch of the three-mile long course with pen and notebook in hand.

Still, though, that didn't change the fact that John was going up against an entirely different beast when confronting the course for the first time the next day.

"This track was terrifying," he said. "It was a roller coaster.

"The first session, I was really slow, and I ran off the track two times. I took way too much speed going into Turn 1."

It took a few laps until he began to feel some semblance of comfort and familiarity, racing on a track renowned for being the home of world champions and professionals alike. Fitting, then, since that is John's inevitable goal.

John can make the decision to turn professional at the age of 16, which is just days away, but that is of little concern to him and his team right now.

Instead, they are deciding whether or not to make more frequent trips to California in the aim of getting John to race against stiffer competition on tougher tracks.

"In California, there are more national-champion caliber road racers," Troy said. "He is close to being fast enough to race down there."

Reach Andrew Lang at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-756-2862.

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