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MO Goes AMA Roadracing: Part 1
Dog-paddling in a deep pool
The Wisconsin countryside was flashing past at two-plus miles per minute as I crouched under the paint to try to eke out a few mph more. The setting is the glorious race circuit of Road America, a bucolic backdrop disturbed by 1203cc of Harley-Davidson-sourced V-Twin thunder blasting forth from a Buell XB12R racebike piloted by a middle-aged but young-at-heart journalist. I'm in the depths of my first professional road race, and I'm wondering what I'm doing here.
This story begins with one of the good guys in our sport/hobby. Paul James isn't just the Director of Product Communications for H-D and Buell, he's also an avid roadracer who campaigns a team in AMA Pro's Sun Trust Moto-GT endurance-racing series. PJ ran a Firebolt XB12R in 2008, but he and teammate Jeff Johnson stepped up to the faster GT1 class in '09 on a Buell 1125R. That left their old XB collecting dust and neglecting potential contingency money. A plan was hatched to round up a couple of journalists to race the XB, affectionately named “Big Chief,” under the team's James Gang/Hoban Brothers Racing banner.
Big Chief was ready to race, but one of its riders was in doubt. Despite logging a considerable amount of time on racetracks as part of my bike-testing duties, in which we go as fast as we dare but aren't usually banging handlebars, my racing resume is actually quite sparse. I've had some club-racing experience in the past, but the most recent series in which I've competed was SCMiniGP while racing a capable-but-hardly-intimidating Honda NSR50R. Single-digit rear-wheel-horsepower had no relationship to the amount of fun it offered. Indeed, it proved to be even more enjoyable than racing full-size sportbikes, and I rode well enough to become the inaugural winner of SCMini's NSR Cup in 2005.
There's nothing mini about the intensity of mini roadracing (note that AMA/FIM riders Benny Solis Jr., Tommy Aquino and Bryce Prince also competed in SCMiniGP), but it was going to be a huge step up in scale to race an AMA Pro national event on a Buell. Special thanks to AMA Pro officials Bill Syfan, Ollie Dean and Lisa McCarty for their assistance in getting me set up with a license.
Road America was going to be another hurdle, as I'd never so much as laid eyes on it. Fortuitously, Buell had scheduled an event at the track the week preceding the races, so I had most of a day to learn the expansive rolling circuit on a stock XB12R, a bike not much different than Big Chief except for a chain-drive conversion that lengthens the wheelbase like on the Buell 1125R racebike we tested here.
Since Moto-GT is an endurance-racing series, I was set up to share the pilot's seat over the course of the two-hour race with Sport Rider's FNG, Troy Siahaan. Troy was an ideal teammate – we're of similar weight, considerably easing suspension setup for the race, and we proved to show a nearly identical turn of speed on the stock XBs even though Troy had previously been to Road America. We took turns chasing each other around the 4.0-mile track so we could take cues off each others lines, and we were rarely more than a couple of bike lengths apart. I was able to stick with him around the entire track even though the bike I was riding wasn't able to keep pace with his down the long front straightaway, pleasing this 43-year-old that he could ride as quick as someone 19 years his junior. Crusty experience, it seemed, was worth as much as youthful exuberance.
Thursday – Promoter Practice
This practice day would be our chance to get accustomed to the James Gang's old racebike. Aside from the chain-drive conversion (with Regina chain and Vortex sprockets), modifications are few. As the XB is already close to the class horsepower limit, the engine receives only a Buell Pro Series racing exhaust and tweaked programming to the ECU. Suspension action is improved by stiffer fork springs and the addition of a fully adjustable Penske race shock, both tuned by Trackside Suspension & Engineering.
It's a simple but effective package. The James Gang team finished third in SunTrust Moto-ST Grand Sport Twins (GST) championship in 2007 and 2008, and it won the ASRA GT Lights Team Challenge in '08. Fiberglass bodywork (including the required belly pan) and a Sportech windscreen finish off the XB for race duty. A dry-brake fuel-filler rig allows quick fill-ups during races.
Big Chief feels mostly like the stock XB12R I sampled a few days previous, but it handled significantly heavier. Part of the cause is the longer wheelbase forced by the new swingarm, but the Ohlins steering damper clamped tighter than Gitmo was the primary culprit. We backed off the damping in subsequent sessions, eventually taking out all but one of the stabilizer's 18 clicks.
Stock XB hand and foot controls are used, but the brake pedal has a smaller lever nub for extra ground clearance. The James Gang doesn't bother with a quickshifter-type ignition interrupter for full-throttle upshifts because they believe that it's just another component that may fail in multi-hour endurance races, but it may have sped up shifts in the sometimes reluctant Buell gearbox. Shifting gears is aided somewhat by using a GP-style shift pattern in which upshifts are made by pressing down on the shifter. This is something I've had experience with on other bikes at the track, but it requires a brain reprogramming so that you instinctively grab a shift in the correct direction.
What, me worry...?
As we began to get up to speed, we honed in on a suspension setting that pleased both riders. The last detail that was holding us back slightly was Big Chief's six-piston front brake caliper. We were shocked at how much extra lever pressure it required when compared to the 2009 XB's much more effective eight-pot clamper. We got used to the weak brake, but the track's three high-speed braking zones produced more pucker moments than we would've preferred.
All things considered, we were in really good shape by the time I headed out for my second session prior to the lunch break. I began to feel more comfortable on Big Chief and began to push the edges of the spec Dunlop Sportmax GPA tires' traction envelope. I was feeling confident right until the thinkable happened.
A faster rider startled me by knifing up the inside of a corner, causing my brain to default into its normal street mode. The upshift I banged as I accelerated out of the corner actually turned out to be a downshift, and the Buell motor began to emit a truly sad and disgusting sound. I coasted to a stop and waited for the crash truck to come and retrieve my sorry ass. My best creative mind couldn't conjure up any excuse my surely disappointed team would bite on.
I was gutted as they rolled Big Chief off the crash truck, knowing even before tearing down the motor that my brain fade on an upshift had sent a valve on a high-rpm collision course with a piston. Chief's heart was broken, and as I shuffled around the pit area, eyes to the ground, I feared our race was over before it began.
However, instead of long and sullen faces, our pit crew began sorting out ideas on how to quickly solve the problem I'd created. The James Gang crewchief, Mike Kirkpatrick, began to pour forth possible options we could take to get us back on track. Paul James and his teammate Jeff Johnson are lucky riders to have a wrench like Kirkpatrick, as he's the kind of guy who can transform a desperate situation into a moderately challenging hurdle to jump over.
Sitting in the team's trailer seemed to be our godsend: a spare XB12 engine. However, this motor had an unknown history and traveled with the team solely as a source of spare parts. Kirkpatrick was reluctant to resort to plugging in the dusty lump, unsure even if it would run properly.
Then PJ walked over, surprisingly sporting a smile. The guy's Blackberry is quite rich with connections at the Buell factory in nearby East Troy, WI, and he was able to pry loose a fresh XB engine from somewhere deep in the shop. As the putz who created the dismal situation, I volunteered to make the four-hour roundtrip to bring Big Chief his transplant. My wife, who pities the fool, volunteered to accompany me. Happily, so did Siahaan, the guy who I stole much-needed practice and setup time from.
If it was a 24-year-old me in the backseat, I would've been stewing in resentment over my co-rider's incompetence, but not Troy. Instead, he was quite mellow about it. Graciously, he even tried blaming himself for expressing his preference for using the GP-shift pattern instead of the street pattern I'm so familiar with.
Kudos to Buell for having an XB engine mounted to a stand and ready for transport when we arrived at the factory. Minutes later we reversed our direction and set off proudly with our new motor. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat!
Not quite. When we proudly showed off the fresh motor to our team, smiles quickly turned to frowns when they realized that it was an earlier-edition engine that wouldn't bolt up to our XB and that it wasn't shipped with the needed electronics or a valve-train! This meant we'd have to take a chance on ol' Dusty, the motor with a dubious history. It was going to be a long night.
This turn of events allows us to give a big shout-out to all the dedicated people who work behind the scenes. Race fans rarely see the midnight oil burned by the tireless support crews – it's usually the riders who receive the glory from what is actually a team effort. Kirkpatrick epitomizes the ideal crewchief: calm, understanding, and a take-charge guy who sees only the solution of a problem.
But, as the rudder on the James Gang ship, Kirkpatrick's primary duty at Road America was taking care of PJ and Johnson, his regular riders on the #70 GT1 bike. Manning up to be the chief of our crew was another indefatigable Harley staffer. Matt King isn't just Project Manager, Product Communications for H-D, he also a gear-head's gear-head, previously working for automotive hot-rodding magazines.
Having already stripped Big Chief of its powertrain, Matt and Mike got down to the business of bolting in Dusty and hoping for the best. Stopping only briefly for a slice of pizza, our diligent duo was busy spinning wrenches through the evening's darkness while Troy and I wondered how we'd fare in an AMA national race with barely any practice under our belt.
Our unrelenting crew finally torqued Chief's final bolts around 10 p.m. long after other mechanics in the pits had already gotten their beer on. Big Chief's new nucleus eventually fired up, but it ran rough and wouldn't idle. That big gulp you hear didn't come from 7-11. The wrench-turners were hoping a spark-plug change might fix it in the morning, but we had an uneasy night as we wondered if the engine would hold up – or even work – during Friday's practice and qualifying sessions.
We hadn't even qualified yet, and the event was already filled with intensity. We were headed for our first AMA Pro race with minimal practice and an engine of dubious distinction. Emotions really get ramped up during qualifying and the race. Check out the conclusion to our story here!
There are countless people who contribute support that allows racers to compete. We'd like to acknowledge the James Gang sponsors, as they also played a role in our race experience: Hoban Brothers Cycle, HD/Buell of Appleton, WI, Darkhorse Crankworks, Buell Motorcycle Company, Kymco USA scooters , SHIFT Racing leathers, Spectro Oils, Arai helmets, Regina USA chains, Vortex sprockets and Spyder Leatherworks.
MO Goes AMA Roadracing: Part 2
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