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By Mel Gantly (Cycle Canada, July 2009 Issue)
"Long Way To Go"
~Marcel Irnie desperately wants to find success as a Canadian road racer-so much so that he's willing to live in a tent to do it.~
Ask Marcel Irnie what he learned in his year competing in the Canadian Amateur 600 Sport Bike championship, and he can sum it up in one sentence: "You have to be the guy in the suit and the guy in the race leathers." Irnie started racing only two years ago, but jumped into the deep end in 2008, finishing sixth in the national series despite contesting only four of six races. And although he spent $8,000 in fuel driving his race bike hauler back and forth from his home in Kelowna to the eastern rounds, the 24-yearold is ready to do it all again in 2009. For a British Columbia racer with big aspirations, it goes with the territory.
Although Irnie is too young to remember the era, the 1980s was a good time to be a motorcycle road racer in B.C. In addition to being a mainstay of the superbike nationals all the time, the popular Westwood track near Vancouver was known worldwide and helped launch the careers of Steve Crevier, Steve Baker, Gary Goodfellow, Steve Dick and the late Tom Walther. There were no free rides, but contingency money offered in serval production classes, plus opportunities on genuine grand prix 250 cc machines and superbikes, helped many West Coast competitors attain national--and in some cases international--prominence.
Westwood closed after the 1990 season, however, and with it died the dreams of many B.C. racers still trying to break into the national series. Some travelled to calgary's Race City, but the few who managed to put together one season in the Eastern canada-based nationals--such as 2003 national Amateur 600 Sport Bike champion Jeremy Leduc--found it prohibitively expensive to continue.
Irnie is fully aware of the challenge ahead and embraces the steep learning curve he faces. "This is my one shot at the amateur series, and maybe for my sportbike racing career," he says. After growing up riding dirt bikes with his dad, it wasn't until his post-university travels that Irnie first rode a street bike, dodging animals in the streets of Thailand on a rented Kawasaki 150 cc two-stroke. He bought a new GSX-R750 upon his return to Canada and was soon participating in track days, advancing from the novice group to join licensed racers in only his first day. He had previously had success in car rallies and autocross, earning the title of King of the Hill at Sunvalley Speedway in the sport of auto drifting, but motorcycle road racing quickly became his new passion.
"When I decided that I wanted to succeed, I devoted all my money to racing." Irnie shelled out $12,000 for an ex-Tom Kipp ZX-6R race bike and shortly there-after earned his amateur licence with the CMRA in Calgary. Irnie finished fifth in the 2007 Amateur 600 national at Race City, and then in 2008 swept the first six CMRA amateur middleweight and heavyweight races. He finished third at the Calgary national round, after which he decided to commit to the rest of the Canadian championship.
"I talked with kawasaki manager Jeff Comello, asking what he was looking for in future factory riders," recalls Irnie. "He said I must attend the Eastern Canada races or everyone will just forget
Irnie had carefully calculated his estimated expenses, but even with money saved on hotels by sleeping in a tent at the track, the actual costs were shocking. "I just could not believe I must drive 10,000 miles to go racing. This was so ridiculous, especially with no financial support beyond contingency."
Irnie arrived at Atlantic Motorsport Park for rounds four and five two days late after a gas station attendant in Truro Nova Scotia
mistakenly filled the pickup's tank with gasoline instead of diesel.
"Ten minutes down the road the truck backfired like a tank cannon." When he did finally get on the track, Irnie's first national race on an unfamiliar cicuit was a humbling experience.
"The track is very technical with so much elevation and blind
corners. I soon realized that the competition out east was much
faster. I was dominating regionals in calgary, but Down East I'm just one of 20 fast amateur riders. I placed seventh and eighth at AMP, and learned to be better prepared for Shannonville."
Irnie attended four track days at Shannonville to improve his chances at the series finale. Marcel qualified 4th, and finished sixth in the race after a five-second jump-start penalty dropped him a position.
Irnie has found a way to help finance his racing efforts, both on and away from the track. "To succeed in the racing scene I needed to make money at the race track." Irnie became an AMSOIL dealer, and his best customers are Kreater Custom Cycle, and Munro-Cylinder Heads. Scott at Munro-Cylinder Heads also facilitates his maching and cylinder head work.
Irnie's racing endeavours have thus far been mostly a one-man show, although his brother Mattieu was able to travel east to assist in the pits. Apparently, Mattieu is considering getting his race licence and competing in the nationals, but Marcel is quick to point out that Mattieu will do it the right way.
"I started off with a 600, but I should've done the SV Cup first, so that's what he's going to do. Get a year on the little SVs before jumping into the 600 class, which even at the Amateur level is full of guys who've already been racing for four or five years."
Irnie has posted onboard footage of most of his races on the Internet, and although he says it has attracted some attention from potential sponsors, it also serves another purpose. He believes that a certain level of showmanship is integral to the sport. "On one had you've got Crevier who'll talk to anyone in the pits and are always doing wheelies and stoppies after Superpole and on the cool down laps, and then there are other guys who won't even do autograph sessions. I just don't get that. I love entertaining people."
During the off-season, Irnie went off-road to hone his riding skills. "I find dirt riding is the best way to get physically fit and practice my skills," he says. "Sportbike racing made me a better
dirt rider, and dirt riding is helping improve my sportbike skills.
It's much safer to slide a dirtbike than a superbike at 150 kilometres an hour."
Irnie also prepared for his 2009 Canadian campaign with early-season races in Washington and Oregon, and last winter purchased a 2008 ZX-6R, enabling him to use his '06 model as a spare. He hopes for podium finishes in every race, and although the Amateur 600 championship is the main goal, logistical limitations may put that out of reach.
"To enter all the remaining nationals, I must camp for two months in a tent. I would have to leave July 10th and camp at the racetrack until September 7th. I would like to attend round one and two, but I cannot afford to drive across Canada four times. I also don't want to camp for three and a half months. Sleeping in a tent really sucks."
Irnie's ultimate dream is to race superbikes for a top Canadian or U.S. team, and he acknowledges that he may have to move from Kelowna to do that. For now, though, he's plotting his next racing adventure from the town where he was born and raised. "Who knows?" he muses. "Maybe I'll end up in Formula One someday." That might seem like a stretch for any Canadian racer, but for one who progressed from dodging street dogs in the Far East to Canadian national road racing in less than two years, stranger things have happened. All he needs is the gas to get him there.