THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
AFM round 4, 2013
Dave Stanton’s devastating round-3 injuries rendered me a mess going into this race. Sure of nothing at the time, if you asked for my race plans midway between rounds I can’t guarantee I had any. Something about risking all (or just part) of who you are, in a desperate quest to actually BE all (or just part) of who you are, didn’t make sense to me anymore. Perhaps it never has or will again. We had suspension plans, chassis measuring ideas, theories to exorcise – all of which were cast off, left to drift into the next chapter of this epilog or die-off altogether.
Well, they never died off.
The biggest problem we had last round was in transitions. In hard switchbacks, one side to the other, as the bike landed in a turn I could feel a mass of energy settling forward, then swaying to the back, then again forward, and again back. It was hard to ride through, the chassis dynamics changing that many times felt like riding four different bikes in each turn, but with the clutch problems costing us all of our practice time our job was simple that Sunday – shut up and ride, fast as you can. We weren’t bottoming, there was no chatter up front and the bike was relatively stable in a straight line. But dropping hard into a turn, or powering out hard on the gas, this bike was doing some strange shit. Think about our FP crash – how do you lose the front as far past the apex as we did? What causes that? I’ve said this a thousand times before – I can tell you what a problem is doing but I am lost when it comes to solving it. Lucky for me I have smart friends. Gerry Piazza had ideas, Alex Florea considered it, Matt Connerton had suspicions, and even Mike Meissner himself brought it up. They all zeroed in on us having too much spring, and not enough dampening. This explained a few things I felt happening out there, I thought, so we went into Friday practice with a plan.
Far be it from me sum up our work by simply saying “we made adjustments”. My job here is to bore the life out of you. We measured our sag with my fat ass on the bike: 29mm front, 30mm back. We took three turns out of both fork springs, which is a lot. This freaked me out because of the over-steering the bike was doing. Lowering the front would make that worse not better. But that wasn’t all we did. We turned two clicks into our front compression, both sides. This would keep the front from falling into the floor. We added two into the rear as well, to help keep the bike balanced, but we left that spring alone. We adjusted the rear ride height lower, to help the overstearing, then we pushed the forks 3mm down into the top triple clamps. This, finally, promised to help our overstearing most of all.
As we made adjustments Friday our trusty RC8R slowly came to life, along with my confidence. Strangely though I never lost my Dave Stanton mindset. If you handed me a calm moment, or a minute with a racing buddy, there I went. But put me on the bike and my head was clear like Alaskan ice.
It’s amazing I find, the great differences out there – how you feel on the bike, how you lean more toward the ground sometimes, yet other times shy away from it, how you get stuck behind traffic endlessly one day, yet other days make passes like your peers are painted on the asphalt. All of these differences, in you as a rider actually, seem vitally, even critically related to how well your bike is setup for you. Same passions, skills, same rider even – yet a few clicks here and there and you feel completely lost, or more mighty than superman himself. Rossi came to mind a lot this weekend. He’s been lost so long, it’s great to see him happy again. I almost feel I can relate.
Friday night found Keith and I pondering more changes back at the hotel. We’d done 1:52s in just three rounds of practice earlier that day, which is fast but it’s still 2 seconds from our dream. Our KTM’s dash flashes a red light 500 rpm before redline. Oddly I told Keith, I hadn’t seen that light on Thunderhill’s front straight. Must mean we were geared too tall. Keith had a perfect solution, a 16 tooth front sprocket “right in my toolbox”. That would be one tooth less than the 17 that’s on the bike. Perfect. “Yea right,” I thought out loud, “When are we so lucky.” I told him he was mistaken. He called me a jerk. I bet him money. We both ran for the door. Yes a 16 tooth front sprocket would put us right where we wanted. I knew this. Problem was the other thing I knew – the sprocket Keith had in his box was not the small 520 size that we run on our bike. It was a larger 525, the size this bike came with from KTM. Keith pulled it from his box smiling like the Cookie Monster pulling a bag of Chips Ahoy from a pile of groceries. “See it even has a ’16′ stamped on it..” Before he sprayed champagne all over the trailer I suggested he first try to fit it in the links of the chain on our bike. Didn’t take long for that shit eating grin to turn sour. ….Poor Keith.
Here is the thing about racing an exotic twin cylinder motorcycle from Austria that no one else in the paddock runs – NO ONE HAS PARTS! You either have the part you need because you brought it with you, or it may as well be on Jupiter. There is no in-between. We were doomed.
But here is the thing about being a carpenter. There is always a way. In less than ten minutes we had our generator pumping amps into my 4″ hand grinder while Keith clamped that poor 525 sprocket in the gnarly jaws of two Channel Lock pliers pinned to the concrete base of our hotel parking lot’s only lamp post. My idea was to grind, by hand, our 525 sprocket down far enough to make it fit a 520 chain. Sound ridiculous? Ugly even? Well we had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. So we tried. After about twenty minutes of grinding, turning, measuring and then grinding again, I grew suspicious we were suddenly being watched. I glanced up and found Brendan Walsh staring from a short distance away with a doubtfully curious look on his “I can’t believe what I am seeing” face. I smiled and shouted “525 conversion baby!” Brendan shook his head in disbelief and walked away uttering his final words, “That is the most ghetto looking shit I have seen in my entire racing career.”
For reference, it IS possible to successfully, and rather cleanly, grind by hand a 525 countershaft sprocket down to fit a 520 chain. This very sprocket, once nicely finished, pulled us up the front straight like we’ve never been pulled before – all day Saturday and Sunday.
I consider TigerBoy a friend; even though we are competitors, even though quite honestly we both wish the other one would blow up in practice. Whatever, racing is weird. “Friends” are much friendly come 6pm Sunday. 11am is different. It’s a safe bet me and the fickle feline always know where the other one is – be it at a rider’s meeting, a restaurant, or in the pits. That’s fine, I’ve dealt with anxiety like this over two decades now. But this weekend that anxiety was peaked by one beautiful thing – the ever loving, never matched, sexier than hell sound of a healthy stroked metal spitting Ducati superbike rumbling to life in the pits. TigerBoy’s bike is like E. F. Hutton – when it starts, people listen. And no one has a choice. Being that we were both pitted under the same huge steel Thunderhill awning, I got to be haunted by Mr. Hutton rather regularly..
We started in third position. Finally, back on the front row – man being docked a lap for that pass I apparently made on a yellow in round 2 really destroyed us this year. Tiger was two bikes from our left, David Raff was on our left, and Brendan Walsh was on our right. It was an Italian hero – a superbike sandwich, ala Ducati, and we were the Austrian spice. We came off the line well, but not as hard as our Yoyodyne slipper clutch used to launch us. I miss that clutch. Our bike gained momentum quickly, rolling us past Raff and TigerBoy before the end of first gear. Brendan comes off the line hard, he had us by a wheel there at the start but our front wheel won the “inches off the pavement” race so I never had to back off the throttle. By the end of second gear we’d rolled by Brendan as well, and set our sights on turn one.
This RC8R is a joy to ride when it’s setup well. And while we aren’t perfect on our setup yet, we are getting close. I put my axe to the grinding stone and pulled us up a gap from TigerBoy in second. The AFM started our Open Twins race behind the Open Production race this weekend. Their wave started 22 seconds before ours. I knew this would get us into traffic quick, which would be an advantage. TigerBoy’s Ducati ate us up on the straights, multiple times last round. But this round was different. Our trusty 525 sprocket conversion is why. Keith said they would only gain a few bike lengths on us on the straights now, rather than the 10 or so they did before. I was surprised not to see, or even hear that Ducati on our first few runs by start finish. Then we hit the traffic. Like I said before, when the bike is setup well you can go through traffic like a warm knife through butter, which is exactly what we did. Our only problem at this point was massive front tire chatter through turns.
I don’t understand chatter. So many riders complain about it but honestly, in my entire racing career I have never struggled with it. On any bike. Ever. Until this weekend. With all the changes that we made, which all produced positives for us, chatter was the only negative to appear. I rolled us carefully through those areas where the bike wanted to fall to the pavement, and kept the throttle pinned everywhere else that I could. We reached the 50s for the first time this year – a 1:50:07 on the second lap all by ourselves, and a 1:50:08 all by ourselves on the last lap. Good to be that consistent. Our Michelins did us proud, great grip and not an ounce of fade. We took the checkered flag in style, winning by more than the entire front straight.
Enjoy the ride
With the heat wave we experienced out here in the weeks before this round, Michelin only sent Alex harder compound tires for us Sunday. We’d tried a set in practice Saturday afternoon. They felt great but we were still only running in the 52s out there. Plus we had no direct comparison to use, other than the softer “B” compound tires we’d been running for days now, from the previous round’s races (we are getting great life from these tires). I was hesitant to use harder tires so for Open Twins we used our last “B” which was fast as hell. But Alex wanted to use the harder compounds for FP. It took me a few laps to learn not only how to ride with them, but more importantly how to race with them. They drive different, they turn different. The track feels sharper, reactions happen quicker. Rather than collapsing a bit under power or braking, offering you more of a footprint on the pavement, the harder tires keep their shape it seems. There are advantages to this, and disadvantages. I think in extreme heat these will be the tires of choice.
We started 15th on the grid. That’s pretty far back. Off the start we gained a few spots, I think we made it to 8th, but after just a lap we started losing positions. I was struggling. 52s were all I could manage. Greg McCullough passed us, the feline from hell came by, Matin Szwarc as well. I hate going backwards. After four laps though my confidence started to build. I got us back up to TigerBoy’s fight with Greg McCullough. Those two were tight. Going into turn 8, the fastest turn on the circuit, I jammed our bike under TigerBoy and made the pass. I hope he had kitty litter back at his pit, that’s a scary place to get passed. Then as we drove over the hill out of turn 9 I wedged our bike under McCullough. We had a drag-race all the way to the entrance to turn 10, which our KTM surprisingly won. How about that sparks in the parking lot sprocket job bringing our bike to life out there – turns out that night was pretty key after all.
We finished 6th in Formula Pacific. While that sounds decent it’s far less than we could have done. Our pace was off – we ran 1:52s all race, compared to 50s in Open Twins. And that chatter, holy crap it’s a huge problem now. …and then something hit Keith like a tractor trailer – the reason for our mysterious chatter. Apparently when we pushed the forks down into the top triple clamp, we rotated one of the legs. Normally this wouldn’t matter at all, but on these particular Ohlins forks “Direction” does matter. These forks are designed to flex, laterally, but not forward or rearward. Where most forks are round in shape, these forks are oval. So with one fork now rotated, and the other straight, our two fork legs were flexing in conflicting directions while we were at full lean in turns. Not a great situation, but at least we understand the source now. It was tough racing like that.
With the harder tires still mounted, and the chatter source not understood yet, we opted out of the Open GP race. As we packed up our pit though, I kept an eye on the race going on in the background. The leaders were running mid 1:51s. ….We’ll get em next time
Thanks for reading,