The name alone conjures up a bit of spirited lawlessness - always good fodder for a motorcycle outing - appropriately summing up the newest addition to Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California. Some West Coast moto literati were invited out to lay down some of the first rubber on its virgin tarmac so we at Motorcycle Online decided to use the occasion to flog out a big twins comparison.
Horse Thief Mile is the pet project of Willow Springs' owner Bill Huth, who took the design of the track from a combination of corners he regularly rides on Highway 1 in Oregon and recreated them here for all to enjoy.
The course is comprised of eleven turns and, as the name suggests, is exactly one mile in length. Don't let the brevity of length predispose you to judgment. The track is generously wide and laid out over the undulating topography at the base of the hills that form the backdrop for Willow Springs Raceway.
Although relatively tight and with no real straightaway the diminutive circuit is an absolute gas to ride. The layout is such that you can get a good rhythm going and even though the top speed is going to be much slower than most tracks there's still the inherent rush of adrenaline that comes with pushing each section to your personal limit.
Also, because of the constant elevation changes, your ability to assess braking points becomes paramount. Downhills allow you to gain speed rapidly and force you to get on the binders earlier than expected. Conversely, uphill corners allow you to move your brake points deeper. Mentally, this continual juggle keeps you on your toes. By removing the sometimes spooky aspect of 150mph plus speeds inherent to race tracks, Horse Thief Mile's technical layout represents a unique training ground to concentrate on technique. Beginners new to track days and pros alike, will find something of value here.
"The test bikes that would be leaving behind the rubber were an eclectic threesome of V-twins; the new Buell XB 12R, BMW R1100S Randy Mamola Replika and the new Ducati Multistrada."
With regard to motorcycles, it doesn't get much broader or dissimilar than this. Or does it? All three bikes are un-conventional air-cooled twins and when you look at the lap times, they're all quite-close in outright performance. In addition to this threesome, let's toss-in 105 degrees of California desert summer sun, an unruly gang of journalists eager to put down their first footprints on a new track and the task of working-up a comparison between these bikes, over a day of raucous 20-minute sessions. The riders that would be leapfrogging from bike to bike were; Eric Bass (aka "EBass"), Sean Alexander (aka "Dirty"), Alfonse Palaima (aka "Fonzie"), and guest tester, Jeff Buchanan. This crew reflects a wide range of skill, as well as the diversity of riders common to the real world.
As the day's sessions progressed and we began taking turns trading between the three bikes we quickly answered the first and perhaps most basic question, "Which bike was fastest and why?" We were in agreement across the board on this one.
The Buell XB-12R gets top honors. Its motor pulls like a freight train right off the bottom and keeps on punching all the way through the powerband. You could practically leave the bike in third gear and run Horse Thief all day. The Buell allows you to come into a corner a gear high and just torque your way through. That low-end grunt was a huge advantage when corners exited into an uphill. We each also felt the Buell was the most sporty of the three bikes, the ergonomics making it the easiest to move around on and the most comfortable to hang off of in corners.
More than ample ground clearance with the XB helps build confidence when leaned over. The Buell feels planted and solid which is what you want on a track like this. The XB's brakes work well, and it seems to have less of that un-settling tendency to stand-up under trail braking, than our previous XB series test bikes had. You can run right up to the entrance of corners and slow the bike down with good predictability using a light two-fingered squeeze. However, slamming the bike down through the gears too quickly results in some wicked rear-end hop. Make sure the tach is at the lower end of the rev range, before downshifting for corners, or at least do a god job of rev-matching your downshifts.
We usually wear earplugs to muffle wind and exhaust noise, but with the Buell, we use them to squelch the odd sounds akin to churning broken glass and marbles coming from below. Seriously, the engine sounds like a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower with a dozen bolts loose. We also managed to find a few false-neutrals between gears during our time with the Buell. However, it certainly shifts better than what you'd expect from a Sportster based mill.
ROSAMOND, Calif. / August 15 / --
Featuring numerous elevation changes, tight turns, and scenic panoramic views, Willow Springs Raceway's new one-mile course, Horse Thief Mile, (AKA "The Mile"), was created to let drivers experience the physical and visual challenges of a winding mountain road.
"I noticed there was nowhere to learn how to negotiate the twists you might encounter riding up a mountain course, so I decided to create a track that emulated a mountain highway," said the track's chief designer, Willow Springs Raceway owner Bill Huth.
"With its demanding sharp corners, sweeping crests, and 11 degree rises, Huth designed "The Mile" in consultation with racing veterans Keith Code, Rod Millen, and Eddie Lawson."
"The Mile is unique," said motorcycle cornering instructor and California Superbike School founder, Code. "It's probably got more elevation changes in its one mile than any other circuit around - and it's got an aspect of canyon riding that other tracks don't have. Because you find yourself riding into crested corners where you really can't see the other side, the course also presents some very good visual challenges. The only level section of the course is a 500 foot stretch at the start/finish line."
To ensure the course had the necessary elements to accommodate drivers on four wheels, Huth called upon champion off-road racer Rod Millen. Huth said one of Millen's major contributions was ensuring the course had a straight segment long enough to give drivers a sufficient passing opportunity.
"The Mile adds variety to the whole Willow Springs complex," said Millen. "It's a different type of course, demanding different skills of the rider or driver. I like that, because from a testing standpoint, you always like something new and challenging and demanding because it helps you develop a better machine."
Huth also obtained advice on the course layout from multi-time motorcycle champion-turned Cart racer Eddie Lawson. "On this track you can overdo the speed pretty easily and riders will learn that," said Huth. "Just like on a paved mountain road, you have to use judgment on how fast you can go."
Huth said The Mile will be used for all types of vehicle racing, but predicts the course will become best known as a place to learn how to control a bike or car on tight corners.
Huth said, despite the winding layout, there are sections of the track where riders can jump on the gas - if they're smart. "The third turn of The Mile was built to duplicate a turn located up on Highway 101 running along Oregon's Gold Coast. You'll go down into a dip and then swing around, but you can get on the gas just as hard as you want when you get near the bottom because the down-force won't let you slide away. It's a great turn," said Huth.
"I think The Mile is similar to a road rally course in that it winds, going up and down hills -- kind of an all-terrain road course," said track manager Stephanie Huth, who predicts the track will become a favorite with riding schools.
"The track is very scenic and photogenic, and we're purposely not allowing any garish signage," said manager Huth. "We'd like to establish The Mile as a place where magazine and film crews can come to shoot beautiful footage of vehicles and their drivers in action."
Willow Springs International Raceway
The universal second choice for track honors was, surprisingly, the Ducati. Now, taking a Multistrada out on a racetrack is a little like driving a Bentley through the drive-in at Burger King. You can do it, it just isn't really appropriate.
We would rather have used the Ducati Supersport 1000DS for this shootout, but alas the Multistrada was the only 1000cc air-cooled Ducati available at the time. That having been said, the Multistrada had wonderfully usable power, with a silky-smooth delivery. In the V-twin world, it's hard not to love the classic Desmo motor. Overall, the bike is tight as a drum and everything works with precision. It also has easily the best transmission and clutch in this group. Despite being an upright against the sportbike ergos of the others, the Multistrada was surprisingly fun to ride on the track.
Ground clearance was non-existent in right-handers as we demonstrated by taking turns mutilating the rock guard on the low-slung exhaust, grinding an array of holes in it, so that it looked like a piece of aluminum Swiss cheese by the end of the third session.
Remember, to be fair, the Ducati isn't intended for a racetrack. It is designed for and at home in real life situations; canyons, streets, and highways. I have a feeling the Multistrada may have delivered the biggest grins for our staff riders. Surprisingly, Jeff buchanan logged his fastest lap aboard the Ducati. They say transponders don't lie. That leaves (shall we say third place?) the BMW.
This is somewhat surprising, because it looks to be the most serious racer of the three. However, in a time of punchy, high revving motors and awe-inspiring rear-wheel power, the Motorrad engine is disappointingly sluggish, especially for track situations.
This combined with a few too many extra pounds on the old girl don't lend themselves kindly to a supposed "race replica." The long wheelbase results in wonderful stability but the tight turns of Horse Thief don't accommodate it. The BMW is a workout to jump from side to side on and had us sweating by the third lap. By the end of each session, we were still trying to find somewhere to plant our feet and knees so they wouldn't hang up on cylinders or passenger footrest brackets. Handling is superb, but you get a lingering suspicion in corners that those expensive and vulnerable cylinder heads are just waiting to touch down as costly outriggers. Sean and Jeff had a few "moments" with the anti-lock brakes on the BMW. That unnatural, arbitrary feel is the last thing you need when slamming down from speed into a corner, only to have the brakes do their own thing. Don't get us wrong, the anti-lock brakesare fantastic in most street situations. But on the track you need consistent response and feel lap after lap. We were caught out by the brakes, once because they felt like they'd gone away and a couple times because they unexpectedly grabbed hard, when trail-braking. After that, the seemingly independent minded servo brakes, saw us tentatively trail braking, with thoughts of tucked front ends and scraping up that beautiful blue paint and Randy Mamola's signature.
"The Buell's aggressive layout with regard to handlebars, pegs, seat will pretty much negate any long distance touring, unless you're comfortable with the typical race replica ergos."
For street practicability we all agreed that the Ducati's seat would be a bit hard on the bum for long hauls. Also, its design pushes you forward and has your groin constantly getting friendly with the tank and it's hard to look cool at red lights while un-wedging your jeans from your crotch. The Ducati is much better suited to a day of exploring on lengthy twisting, turning canyons and back roads, but it held its own pretty damn good and got the nod above the BMW for power delivery. Much of that is attributed to its excellent motor and by far the best transmission of the three. The Buell's aggressive layout with regard to handlebars, pegs, seat will pretty much negate any long distance touring, unless you're comfortable with the typical race replica ergos.