However, this drive with Dan is my first opportunity to get a "racer's" feel for the track at speed.
Though it is still several weeks from completion, I'm quite impressed with the track; push back a barrier here, add some air fence there and Larry Miller's 80 million dollar Alan Wilson-designed baby is ready for prime time.
Unfortunately, today's scheduled ride of Miguel Duhamel and Jake Zemke's works Honda CBR 600RR Formula Extreme racers has to wait for tomorrow and --fingers-crossed-- better weather.
In the meantime, we enjoy a catered lunch and a surprise birthday cake complete with moto journalists singing "happy birthday to Sean", and we listen as Alan Wilson explains the story behind this state of the art facility. It seems this was originally going to be a five million dollar play track for Miller and his gentlemen racer friends. However, Larry Miller seems to have an excess of liquid capital and with Wilson's help, Miller Motorsports Park has grown into 80 million dollars worth of a Formula 1 and MotoGP spec facility, complete with 4.5 miles of FiA/FiM quality race track, fully-equipped garages, a real media center, a trauma center, VIP club house, helipad, go-cart track, supermoto track and just about everything else you've ever dreamed of having in your back yard. Built on a grand scale, MMP is sure to become one of, if not the premier motorsport facility in the US.
"If the weather hadn't improved on Friday, the track visit alone would have been worth the trip. Bonus!"
Friday dawns bright and sunny with snow-covered mountains in every direction. As we arrive back at the track, we find Honda Road Racing Team Manager Ron Heben, Miguel's Chassis Tech Chris Vandervoort and Jake's Chassis Tech Rick Boyles busy prepping our unobtainable steeds for the day's flogging.
We had a good chance to look the bikes over yesterday, as well as a quick briefing from Ron to explain how close they are to stock CBR 600RRs. Sure they're stock, after all; they have stock frames and stock cases. However, there's that intergalactic Ohlins suspension with fluted fork legs and blingtastic gold everywhere you look, the quick shifter, the titanium bits, the exquisite Bito wheels, the STM clutch and innumerable man-hours mean these bikes feel and perform like they're from planet Yournotworthy.
Not only am I not worthy, I'm also about 70 lbs heavier and several inches taller than the heroes these fantastic machines were built for. Of course, the race bikes are exactly the same size as any other CBR 600RR street bike, so though I may indeed be too big, at least I'm already used to the fit. What I'm not used to however, is the reverse-pattern shifting. Even back in my racing days, all my bikes were street-pattern. This means my primary concern is to avoid moving the shift lever up when it's time for a higher gear. Anybody care to explain to a large and angry crew chief, how they damaged that uber-expensive race motor? Me neither.
"That intoxicating wail, those blindingly quick shifts and something like 140Hp probably make you think this is a real beast of an engine."That is what was on my mind, as I prepared for my first four-lap session. The exotic odor of oxygenated VP MR-10 race fuel cuts through my trance, when they fuel Miguel Duhamel's bike and spin it to life for my first session. I straddle the machine and pull my gloves on, as the mechanic removes the tire warmers. This is it. I disengage the clutch and snick the lever up into first gear, say a quick prayer, and here goes! I bring the revs up with the 1/5-turn throttle and am immediately pleased with the perfectly-tuned engine response and surprised with how tall first gear is when I ease the clutch out. The trick CBR rolls from the garage and burbles down pit lane, while I stretch and climb around
Once at the end of pit lane, I roll all the way to WFO and enjoy the perfectly-linear acceleration as the bike spins effortlessly to its 16,000 RPM redline. Time for an up-shift; I move my toe above the shift lever and breathe the throttle a little before snicking it down into second. The bike lurches then renews its headlong rush for turn one. I need to remind myself that these bikes shift better when you leave the throttle WFO and just let the quick shifter do its job. By the way, while all this is going through my head, I feel it's only right to let you know that the engine sound is simply glorious! I try the full-throttle trick for the two-three shift and sure enough, blink, the bike is now in third and the corner is approaching fast.
That intoxicating wail, those blindingly quick shifts and something like 140Hp probably make you think this is a real beast of an engine. However, the power delivery can best be described as "efficient", it's never more than you can use and the chassis is so well matched to the engine's power delivery that the most remarkable thing about the motor is how unremarkable it seems out on track. Sure, it revs quickly and has instant --almost telepathic-- response to the throttle, but it only delivers what you want and isn't intimidating at all... just perfectly effective.
At the end of the straight I roll the throttle closed and begin a measured squeeze of the front brake while my left toes lift the shifter from third back up through second and into first gear. These down shifts are quick and precise, while the factory-spec Nissin brakes bleed energy so effectively that I find myself braking too early and I'm actually able to re-accelerate a bit before I tip the bike in and head for what's beginning to look like a damp and muddy apex. Sure enough, I'm not even going to get close to putting a knee down on my first lap, since --as you can see in the onboard video-- the track appears to have muddy tire tracks crisscrossing its surface in some most-inconvenient places.
"This motorcycle makes the rider feel like they could win any race, if only they had another hour to practice on it. It really is that good."
Rolling back into the throttle at the apex of turn one I'm mindful of these muddy traps, but I can already tell that this is simply the finest machine I've ever ridden. Everything works exactly like you imagined the perfect motorcycle would. The brakes are fiercely powerful, yet ultra controllable. The fuel-injection is lightning quick but laser accurate.
The suspension... what suspension? It is so good you will never even notice it. Handling, it's what you want when you want it, with firm and precise steering that manages to feel light and flickable, yet stable at the same time.
This motorcycle makes the rider feel like they could win any race, if only they had another hour to practice on it. It really is that good. Before I know it, the checkered flag is waving and my first session ends. I cruise back to the pits where I'm greeted by Honda's PR guy Jon Seidel. He smiles, rests a hand on my shoulder and asks how I like it. I tell him it'd make a great birthday gift and promise to let him ride it, if he can just make it happen. Jon laughs and walks away as though I'm not 100 percent serious, I guess he just doesn't understand. Later in the day, I'm scheduled to ride Jake Zemke's Daytona 200 winner. In the meantime Jake is hanging around just like another one of the guys. A few years ago I tangled with him on track (yes, he's faster than me) and when I approached him in the pits back then, I was stunned by how gracious he acted towards this lowly privateer. That brief exchange was enough to make an instant Jake Zemke fan out of me. Today is no different. If success has gone to his head, Jake does a damned fine job of hiding it.
"Honda's well known reputation for quality and attention to detail is more than just marketing hype."
A few months ago, I rode Jamie Hacking and Aaron Gobert's R1 race bikes and I was shocked to find how different their setups were. Gobert's bike felt like most other superbikes, but Hacking's machine felt like it was from Mars! His riding position made it feel like you were sitting on top of the tank with your hands grabbing the front axle. Not so in this case. Indeed, Jake and Miguel use very similar setups, with Miguel's seat height slightly taller and Jake's clip-ons slightly lower.
Their suspension settings seem close, though Miguel's engine feels a bit more powerful, or at least a bit more aggressive in its throttle response. You really wouldn't notice the differences unless you were paying close attention. One other item of note is that both bikes have nearly unlimited ground clearance with their racer rear sets and tail-high stance. This means you have to make a conscious effort to lean the bike over far enough to drag a knee.
There's not much more to tell about my riding impressions, except that at the beginning of the day the accuracy and responsiveness of the fuel injection caused a few lurches as I picked-up the throttle mid corner, but once I re-calibrated my right wrist it ceased to be an issue. I never really pushed either bike hard, out of respect for their value, although I was able to go pretty darned fast and I earned a few scuffs on the knee pucks of my excellent new SHIFT leathers.
What does it all mean at the end of the day? I guess it means that Honda's well known reputation for quality and attention to detail is more than just marketing hype. It also means that the bikes you daydream about might really be as good as you imagine. I just re-calibrated my own definition of perfection and have redoubled my respect for the men who build and tune the bikes we love to watch on Sunday.
|Stock 2006 Honda CBR600RR|
** Specifications Courtesy of Honda **
|Engine Type||599cc liquid-cooled inline four-cylinder|
|Bore and Stroke||67.0mm x 42.5mm|
|Valve Train||DOHC; four valves per cylinder|
|Carburetion||Dual Stage Fuel Injection (DSFI)|
|Ignition||Computer-controlled digital transistorized with three-dimensional mapping|
|Final Drive||#525 O-ring-sealed chain|
|CHASSIS / SUSPENSION / BRAKES|
|Front Suspension||41.0mm inverted HMAS cartridge fork with spring-preload, rebound and compression-damping adjustability; 4.7-inch travel|
|Rear Suspension||Unit Pro-Link HMAS single shock with spring-preload, rebound and compression-damping adjustability; 5.1-inch travel|
|Front Brakes||Dual radial-mounted four-piston calipers with 310.0mm discs|
|Rear Brake||Single 220.0mm disc|
|Front Tire||120/70ZR-17 radial|
|Rear Tire||180/55ZR-17 radial|
|Trail||95.0mm (3.7 inches)|
|Seat Height||32.3 inches|
|Turning Radius||10.5 feet|
|*Claimed* Dry Weight||361 pounds|
|Fuel Capacity||4.8 gallons, including 0.9-gallon reserve|
|Available Colors||Black, Pearl Orange/Black Tribal, Light Silver Metallic, Red/Black|
|FACTORY WARRANTY INFORMATION|
|1 Year||Transferable, unlimited-mileage limited warranty; extended coverage available with a Honda Protection Plan.|