MO Goes AMA Roadracing: Part 2
Dog-paddling in a deep pool
Competing in an AMA national roadrace proved to be an intense experience. We brought you the first installment about racing a Buell XB12R in the SunTrust Moto-GT series at Road America in Wisconsin, and we recommend reading it prior to the story's conclusion below.
In the meantime, sadly, Buell’s parent company Harley-Davidson announced in October the cessation of Buell production as a cost-cutting move. We’ve long been enamored with Buell motorcycles, holding an affinity for the creative American mind of company founder Erik Buell.
His street motorcycles will be missed, but his race bikes will continue to live with the support of Erik Buell Racing, a new independent race shop to supply race-only parts and preparation services, tech support and the sale of 1125R-based racebikes under license from H-D. Buell announced last week in this story the sale of the first of his new 1190RR-B race machines to a European team. The bike’s name implies a larger displacement than the 1125R, which is likely the size of the engine in the new streetbike Buell was preparing to launch this spring before Harley pulled the plug.
Our practice session the day before qualifying for my first AMA national roadrace was one I’d like to forget. Recall that I had blown up the XB's race motor with an ill-timed downshift during practice, and we were forced to install a spare motor with unknown history. After working late into the night, James Gang/Hoban Brothers Racing crew chief Mike Kirkpatrick and the multi-talented co-chief Matt King had Big Chief's new engine running as the midnight hour approached, but it carbureted poorly and wouldn't idle. Teammate Troy Siahaan and I had an uneasy night as we questioned whether we'd have a functioning motorcycle ready for our race
We arrived at the track completely unrefreshed early the next morning, anxious to find out how our day would treat us. With Chief's fouled plugs swapped and the ECU re-flashed, we were pleased to hear it now able to chuff away at its usual loping cadence, although it exhibited a slight stutter at low revs. More brightness shined once we realized our tireless pit crew had stolen an 8-piston brake caliper from some 2009 XB12R streetbike and fitted the more powerful binder to our machine.
Butterflies like pterodactyls rammed my innards as the Daytona SportBike practice session began at 8 a.m. Soon – too soon, really – we were unleashed into our final practice session before qualifying for the race later in the day.
The 50-minute session would go by quickly. Having stolen time from Troy in Thursday's practice, he would go out for the first 25 minutes before we'd practice a pit stop in which we'd need to familiarize ourselves with refueling and swapping wires for the Autocom two-way radio.
Troy showed good pace during his practice stint, and we were both relieved Big Chief’s new motor continued to chug. The rider handoff during our pit stop was weird but uneventful, and I tentatively hit the track again with fresh rubber and topped-off fuel. As I accelerated out of the pits – thankfully with a street-shift gearbox! – I was slightly incredulous that I was about to turn tentative wheels in a national AMA roadrace event after just 1.5 practice sessions.
My major brain malfunction the previous day haunted me throughout my session, my mind fraught with jitters as I attempted to get up to a competitive pace. If I crashed the bike after my crew worked all night to install the new engine, I was sure I would just keep walking past the pits and all the way back to California. But I was pleased with the extra power of our new front brake, and I pounded out what I thought were a few decent laps.
However, AMA scoring told me the sad-but-true news that I was a massive 3 seconds off my best lap from Thursday and much slower than my teammate's pace. Troy’s speed through the traps was 2 mph faster than mine, showing he had better exit speed out of the final corner, so that was one area I knew I could improve upon. And I knew I was losing time entering Turn 6 and the Carousel and in Turn 13. But even though I had this critical information, it was a check my wrist was reluctant to cash.
Racing is like a round of golf – no matter how talented you may be, you'll probably never have an absolutely perfect lap. Another couple of feet deeper on the brakes, a tenth of a second quicker to full throttle, another degree of lean angle – small areas of improvement on a racetrack add up to significant differences in relative lap times.
During Superbike practice, I feel proud to notice Mat Mladin braking into Turn 1 about 50 yards earlier than I am, but then I realize he's carrying about 50 mph extra than our modestly powered Buell. There is a vast chasm between being a fast rider at a track day and the speed and grace of a pro Superbike pilot.
|Arai Helmet Trackside Support
One of the perks of being a racer is having access to the deep experience and knowledge of top-line helmet reps. Racers who wear Arai lids – likely the most popular helmet in the AMA paddock – are treated to no-charge helmet prep by the company’s expert technicians.
“We go to the races for R&D, to help make our helmets better for everyone,” says Jeff Weil, half of the Arai duo working AMA races.
Heading the Arai helmet team is Bruce Porter. Over the decade I’ve known Porter, he’s regularly proved to be one of the smartest helmet guys in the world. He’s also a pleasure to talk to and has an endless supply of amusing and intriguing racing stories. Perhaps his best trick is being able to size anyone for a helmet just by looking at a head! He and Weil are fascinating to watch as they dexterously swap shields and carefully fit tear-offs.
Our race at Road America was held in cold and moist conditions, so the Arai guys installed for me a clear shield with anti-fog coating. It also came with the directive to remove the tear-off at the first drop of rain, as water collecting between tear-off panels can create a view akin to looking through a fish bowl.
Arai has a new double-pane shield for its latest helmets developed from Grand Prix experiences. Nicky Hayden used it to great effect at the hurricane-soaked '08 MotoGP race in Indy, earning a rare podium finish. The trick shield retails for $125, but it is given free to racers in extreme rainy conditions.
“We are here to make the best motorcycle helmet in the world, to make the riding experience that much better, and ultimately to help save lives,” Weil proudly boasts.
Just minutes before the session began we noticed the tie-strap on the fork leg was compressed almost all the way down, evidence of the front suspension bottoming, probably during hard braking. Without adequate time to make a spring-preload adjustment, we hastily decide to add three clicks of compression damping. Then we found out it had just only extra click available. Just ride it!
Troy was sent out first in the hopes that he'd be able to set a solid grid position for our team, leaving my rattled nerves to simply learn more about the track and bike. Thanks to my brain fart on Thursday, Troy would be qualifying for his first AMA national on just 1.5 practice sessions!
For no apparent reason, Troy’s best times during his two hot laps were about 3 seconds slower than his times in practice. He was devastated, and his face looked like a T-ball slugger who whiffed on his at-bat. During my session, I went nearly as quickly as Troy but no faster. The time sheets told a sad story – we qualified seventh out of seven!
Early morning at the track saw weather that was far beyond ideal: temperature in the low 40s and overcast, It's so cold that we're shivering in the pits, and the only gear I brought was for warm weather – vented leathers and gloves from Shift and vented Sidi boots.
Our final practice session was scheduled for 8 a.m., but we rationalized that we weren't going to be learning much about gaining speed on a track so cold and decide to sit it out. I second-guess our decision when we see our competitors out on track, probably learning something we weren't.
The Moto-GT class isn't nearly as stacked with ultra-fast competitors as the sprint-race classes, but there are plenty of talented riders, several with top-level credentials. In the faster GT1 class, multi-time World Superbike champion Doug Polen would be lining up on the grid near the effervescent and ageless dirt-track/roadrace star Dave Aldana. And in our GT2 class was dirt-track legend Jay Springsteen, 250GP ace Jimmy Filice and his fast son, Justin. Even though we're in the shallowest end of a very deep pool, we feel like we're in over our heads.
It’s now two hours before our 11 a.m. race, and we're cold, sniffling and nervous – there's so much still unknown. The ink in my pen feels like my body: reluctant. I go inside the RV to warm the ink and the core of my body. Further riling the butterflies is a forecast for rain to arrive at noon, right in the middle of our two-hour race. Yikes!
Given the nature of an endurance race, plus our relative lack of pace, we plan to simply ride steady and safe, letting other teams to ride hard enough to force mistakes. It's a long race, and the worst thing we could do is toss the bike away in the pursuit of an imaginary and elusive lap time. A crash would make our effort and the team's hard work for naught. We can't let them down.
With the race scheduled for two hours and enough fuel range to do 45-minute stints, one rider would do just one stint. Troy was a bit quicker and would take legs 1 and 3. I spend time in our pits running virtual laps around the track in my head with my eyes closed, imagining places where I could improve my lap time.
Race – This is it!
With drops of rain falling shortly before the race's start, we hastily fit rain tires for Troy's first stint. Needless to say, it's pretty gnarly to start our first AMA Pro race on tires we've never ridden on before! With not even one mile of experience on these tires, this is sure to be interesting.
A few laps into the race, the rain lets up and we know we've made the wrong decision. “I knew on the sighting lap that we made the wrong choice starting on wets,” Siahaan related. “But since we didn't have time to change them back I had to deal with it.”
Troy reports over the radio that the large tread blocks in the front tire causes extreme instability. And, if you recall, we had backed off the steering damper to its lowest setting.
“I was losing so much time in the Carousel on the wets because I was getting crazy headshake when the bike was on its side. Those tread blocks were definitely fighting me. I couldn't reach down and adjust the damper, so I tried all kinds of body position adjustments to try and tame it, but nothing worked. It was especially difficult because the back portion of the track was drying out, but the front section was still pretty damp.”
We call Troy into the pits 25 minutes into the race to change to the dry-weather Dunlops and to refuel the Buell. The eight-piston front brake caliper makes for a slow wheel change, and we lose about 90 seconds sitting stationary in the pits.
As luck would have it, rain again toys with us as it resumes about 10 minutes after Troy switches to dry tires. I don't envy the challenges he had out there, but he did a fantastic by running quickly yet keeping it on two wheels. We became concerned at one point when Troy was unresponsive to our questions over the radio. It turns out that his radio plug had disconnected during his stint, which had the potential to cause many issues with our pit plans.
The damp track wreaks havoc for some riders, as crashers cause the safety car to enter the track 45 minutes into the race. Thankfully, this gave Troy the opportunity to plug his radio back in.
Apparently we're not the only team which the weather is messing with – we're running in fifth place as we catch up to the pack behind the safety car. We're ahead of the MIM/Repsol SV650 team and the Buell-mounted Old Glory squad.
The slow running behind the safety car has allowed us to extend our pit-stop window, so we decide to keep Troy out on dry-weather tires despite damp sections on the track. We're tempted to bring Troy in for a rider change, but with a tank of fuel able to last only about 45 minutes, this would necessitate an extra pit stop. We decide to let Troy soldier on until the window opened up for me to finish out the race on one last tank of fuel.
The race resumes at noon, and Troy has already had one hour in the saddle. We're just one spot behind the fourth-placed Pair-O-Nines team piloted by the legendary Springsteen and fellow dirt-tracker Nick Cummings aboard a Ninja 650. Troy has been doing a stellar job riding in foreign conditions, and there were many riders in the gravel traps that wished they rode as well as he did!
The weather continues to be dicey, and as my stint approaches we radio Troy to ask about the track conditions. “It's too wet for drys and too dry for wets!”
Without any experience in these conditions, I decide to play it safe and do my stint on rain tires. I don't want to spoil our team's huge effort by pitching the XB down a wet track with dry tires, but I'm also nervous about the sketchy handling on rain tires that Troy previously reported. There seems to be no ideal choice.
At 12:15 Troy enters the pits after 75 minutes of hell. The stop for fuel and rain tires seems to last forever but is actually expedient. While the crew changes tires, Troy debriefs me with reports about the track conditions and the bike's behavior on rain tires. None of it alleviates the incredible tension I have as I prepare to join the field.
I'm not even through the first corner when the front end gives me feedback akin to having a flat tire. The handlebars squirm in my hands disconcertingly, and I feel like a slug as I try to get up to speed.
Rain is falling and the track is wet, but the surface isn't quite soaked. Compounding a tricky situation is that most riders are on dry-weather tires, reluctant to lose track position by pitting for rain tires.
If I imagined the conditions were treacherous, this was solidified when got an up-close-and-personal illustration going into the hard-braking zone of Turn 5 about three laps into my stint.
As I gradually grabbed the front brake lever, the rider in front of me instantaneously went from full upright to a 100-mph slide on his butt after locking his front brake. It looked surreal to me as his bike slid to the left and the rider to my right, taking up the width of the track. Just as I was deciding which one I'd prefer to run over, Big Chief slowed at a greater rate than the sliding bike and tumbling rider, clearing the corner's apex for me to gingerly knife through safely.
The big blocks in the tread of the rain tires supplied great grip, but they allowed the front end to wag all over the place. With the rain tires squirming beneath me and a couple of caution flags around the track, I made the tough decision to try a few desperate attempts to tighten the steering damper while at speed. This frightened me further, so I was relieved when the safety car was again sent out on the track, giving me a chance to cinch up the damper which calmed the bike's front end and made it more stable.
The rolling restart was exciting, especially because there were bikes with 40 extra hp and because some riders were still on D209s dry tires and had no grip on the rain-slickened track. They were rolling the dice in dicey conditions. I was grateful for our team’s decision to send me out on wets.
My confidence began to swell on the rain tires, and I was amazed to be able to carry more corner speed through the Carousel than dirt-tracker Cummings, the rider right in front of me. I toyed with the idea of riding around the outside of him but imagined a scenario where the youngster who is accustomed to slick surface conditions would out-brave me in the following braking zone.
I decided to give it another lap to see if I might make the move, but I was again sickened to see another rider go down in front of me, doing a terrifying slide as he charged too quickly into a braking zone and caused another local caution.
My brain defaulted into self-preservation mode, and soon after, none of it mattered anymore. The safety car was brought out for the third time after Jimmy Filice – who was leading the race overall at the time – suffered a massive highside in Canada Corner, laying unconscious in the gravel trap as I gingerly rode past.
Endless laps ensued as they attended to Filice and attempted to gather the field behind the safety car.
By this time, the rainy conditions had deteriorated even further.
In front of me was a Liberty Waves Racing Buell 1125R GT1 rider with dry tires who struggled to keep pace with the safety car, and we began to lose touch with the pack in front. As I watched him tip-toe around directly in front of me, he nearly crashed several times.
During this safety-car period, a battle was going on inside my head. At the front of my brain was internal pleading to get the race back underway so I could actually do some racing. Further back in the gray matter was a quiet voice hoping the race's two-hour time limit would pass before seeing the green flag. If the race restarted, it was sure to be a free for all for whatever laps remained, guaranteeing there would be more riders on the ground before the checkered flag flew. I didn’t want to be one of them.
Race officials, unaware of my internal strife, eventually made it a moot point. The race ended before another green flag was shown, two hours, two minutes and 43 seconds after it began.
I pulled alongside the Liberty Waves rider and gesticulated wiping imaginary sweat off my brow, and he wildly nodded his head in agreement. Later, as I pulled into the pits, Big Chief lost its fire and stalled. Better then than earlier.
Meanwhile, I was chuffed to have finished an AMA Pro race in one piece, and my chest puffed imperceptibly during the cool-down lap as race fans and corner workers waved and cheered in appreciation of our efforts. The experience was intense from start to finish, I was proud to have completed our mission of staying off the ground.
We ended up fourth in the GT2 class, which sounds good unless you know there were only seven bikes in our class. I chastised myself for not passing Cummings when I had the chance, as I initially believed that might've given us a podium finish. However, it turns out he was actually a lap ahead of our team at the time.
“Those were worst riding conditions you can have,” commented Paul James, the owner of our bike, trying to build up the impression of our achievement. The challenging conditions turned out to be a positive for PJ and co-rider Jeff Johnson, as they took the GT1 class victory for the James Gang/Hoban Brothers Racing GT1 team at Road America – nicely done, guys!
With the recent annulment of the Moto-GT series, the James Gang is hoping to participate on their Buell in select rounds of the 2010 Daytona Sportbike class, including the Daytona 200. “We’re currently seeking sponsors to help us keep our Buells flying in the 2010 season and beyond,” says James. Fans and potential sponsors should check out the team’s website by clicking here.
The only strategic change that might've helped our team was starting the race on DOTs. Still, the way it was looking at the start, choosing rains was the safe way to go. Our competitors agreed. All of the GT2 teams except the Touring Sport Ducati squad started the race on wets.
When I returned home and related my experience to a colleague, he asked if I would do it again. Remembering how cold and nervous we felt before the race, I might’ve declined the offer. But once the race was over and the scale of our accomplishment hit me, the hook was set. Yeah, let’s do it again!
Do you play golf? Imagine hitting several balls into the woods and the water hazards, and out of frustration nearly throwing your club as far as you can. Then, on the 18th hole, you smack a couple of great shots and birdie the hole. That's kind of how I feel.
It’s one thing to cut quick laps at a track-day event, but it's quite another to throw yourself into the heat of competition at a national level. A day flogging a bike at the track, although potentially scarier than riding on the street, is nothing as intense as a race.
“Racing is like climbing a tree while people below you are throwing rocks at you and you're afraid of heights,” quips Jeff Johnson who has 25 years of racing behind him.
I look forward to climbing that tree again. I hope the rocks are small.
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 an integral 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.
An extra special thanks to Mike Kirkpatrick, Matt King and, most of all, Paul James, for giving us a fantastic opportunity to race an AMA national roadrace. Thanks also to a friendly crew of supporters that included John Dahmer, Alex Opperman, Pete Johnson, Amy James, Rita Johnson,
Ben Schmidt, and Zach Erb.
MO Goes AMA Roadracing: Part 1
Erik Buell Racing Makes First Sale
Kevin Duke to race Moto-GT
2009 Buell 1125R Daytona Sportbike Review
2007 Buells Ridden
Buell XB12S Open-class Standards Shootout
2007 Air-Cooled Twins Naked Comparo