Thursday, June 30, 2011

A note from the Dept. of You've Got To Be Kidding...

Progressive Insurance just released it's list of the ten best states for motorcycle riding, and placed Florida in the #1 position.

I just got back from a week down there, and while there are plenty of bikes on the road (and obviously some solid motorcycle racing heritage in the state) I would not rate it #1 or even in the upper half. Sure it's warm enough to ride year 'round, but it's actually uncomfortably hot for several months of the year.

I guess I could dig taking a slow cruise down to Key West on some funky bagger - if I was in the right mood and could find a Jimmy Buffett station on Sirius. But most Florida roads are long, flat, straight concrete slabs cutting through miles of decaying exurban blight. No wonder stretched Hayabusas are about the most common bike on the road; it's just terrain you want to get through as fast as possible.

I remember riding from Dallas to Daytona one year for Bike Week, and the Florida panhandle was one of the most boring transects in motorcycledom. (Hey, don't complain to me; Floridians call it the 'panhandle' even though it's obvious that the whole state is a panhandle.)

In fact, helmet use is so rare down there that I assume most Florida bikers are dying to leave.Note to Progressive: Did you even look at Colorado? Are you sure you weren't listing states from the bottom up? Something's fishy here, but I did note that Progressive does a lot of motorcycle insurance advertising in Florida on local TV. Is it possible that they've got great market penetration down there, and they're just stroking Florida bikers?..

Next month's the 40th anniversary of On Any Sunday. So here's my unscientific list of the best (and worst) bike films of all time...

It’s not surprising that the list of the best motorcycle movies of all time includes clusters of films made between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and again from 1995 to 2005. Those were the two periods in which postwar motorcycle sales – and interest in the sport of motorcycling – peaked.

1. On Any Sunday (1971) Documentary filmmaker Bruce Brown was a surfer who made the classic ‘60s surf-doc “Endless Summer”. Commercial success is rare in documentary films, but revenues from that one hit allowed Brown to retire young. He spent much of his time riding dirt bikes in California. Eventually he realized that bike racing was a perfect subject for another film. With investment from Steve McQueen, Brown’s camera crews followed AMA Grand National contender Mert Lawwill and versatile dirt racer Malcolm Smith, with cameos from McQueen himself. Flat out the best documentary film ever on the subject of motorcycle racing. July 28 marks the 40th anniversary of On Any Sunday's release, so get it in your Netflix queue now and plan a '70s theme party with lots of LSD and unprotected sex.

2. Easy Rider (1969) This film was written and produced by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, who also starred in it. They play a pair of hippies who ride their choppers from L.A. to New Orleans. Along the way, they meet a cast of characters that includes an ACLU lawyer played by an unheralded Jack Nicholson.
The film was a true road movie, as the crew followed Fonda and Hopper (both avid riders in real life) as they crossed the American west picking film locations on the spur of the moment. The narrative brilliantly captured the country’s Vietnam-era malaise, and Hopper was acclaimed as the best new director at the Cannes Film Festival. Fonda’s “Captain America” chopper became an American icon. Interestingly, the bike disappeared after the film was completed.

3. Electra Glide in Blue (1973) Half road film, half film noir, this cult classic tells the story of a vertically-challenged motorcycle cop (played by Robert Blake, whose real life was also plenty ‘noir’). Blake’s character, “Big John”, wants to get off his bike and become a detective so he can work with his brain and not “sit on my ass getting calluses.” This was the only film James Guercio ever directed; he’s better known as a Grammy Award-winning producer, composer, and performer who worked with the jazz-fusion bands Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Chicago.


4. Dust to Glory (2005) If the name Dana Brown rings a bell, it’s because he’s Bruce “On Any Sunday” Brown’s son. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Dana made this documentary about the Baja 1000 desert race in Mexico. The race is for cars and trucks as well as motorcycles but in the best family tradition, the emphasis is on motorcycle racer “Mouse” McCoy. Unlike his dad, Dana had access to 55(!) cameras and four helicopters, allowing him to capture the best footage ever of this epic race. Warning: Don’t watch this film unless you have been inoculated against the racing bug. The Baja 1000 is one of the last races that’s open to anyone and has classes allowing almost any vehicle to compete, so you won’t have the “I don’t have a racing license,” or the “My bike’s not legal for the event” excuses!

5. Continental Circus (1969) Continental Circus documents a season in Grand Prix racing. This classic bit of cinema-verite is hard to find but well worth looking for. It was originally made in French by producer-director Jerome Laperrousaz, but it can also be found with English voice-over narration.
Laperrousaz follows a charismatic Australian privateer named Jack Findlay. The film brilliantly captures the end of an era – the last time when an independent racer with a couple of bikes slung in the back of his van could mix it up with world champions like Giacomo Agostini. Jack travels from country to country, sleeping in a tent at the track, and living from prize check to prize check. A trippy rock score reinforces the oh-so-‘60s vibe. This is Woodstock, with gasoline instead of acid and plaster casts instead of long hair.

6. World’s Fastest Indian (2005) This film was written and directed by Roger Donaldson. It is based on a true story about Bert Munro, an eccentric New Zealander who traveled to the Bonneville Salt Flats in order to prove that he had the world’s fastest Indian motorcycle. Along the way Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) meets a cast of characters nearly as charming and offbeat as he is.

7. Crusty Demons of Dirt (1995) In the early ‘90s the aptly named Fleshwound Films company – which had already made a couple of successful extreme snowboarding videos – turned its cameras on motorcyclists in the deserts of SoCal and Nevada. Fleshwound spent two years filming established Supercross stars like Jeremy McGrath and Jeff Emig, as well as then-unknown freeriders like Brian Deegan , Mike Metzger and long-jump lunatic Seth Enslow. They set their footage to an indie-thrashmetal soundtrack and created a video that launched the whole “freeride” FMX phenomenon.

8. The Long Way ‘Round (2004)
This was filmed for a BBC “reality television” series. Real motorcycle globetrotters (who ride without a support truck and helicopter assistance) rolled their eyes at the thought of two actors riding across Eurasia and America for the cameras. However, once they got underway, Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Trainspotting) and his sidekick Charlie Boorman quickly charmed their way past even the most cynical viewers. It’s great, escapist fun.

9. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Based on Che Guevara’s own account of his journey through Latin America on an old Norton. If you’re watching it as a motorcyclist and not a budding communist, you’ll probably find the second half of the film, after Che abandons his bike, to be less entertaining than the first half. However, intelligent direction by Brazilian director Walter Salles and a typically fine performance by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal made this film a darling of awards juries everywhere. It even won an Oscar for Best Original Song, “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” by composer Jorge Drexler.

10. One Man's Island (2003)
Call me self-serving but I stand by this film and story it tells. If documentaries like On Any Sunday or Dust to Glory are sweeping, One Man’s Island is intimate and intensely personal. Canadian independent director Peter Riddihough spent the better part of a year following an ordinary rider (yes, me) who quit his job and sold all his possessions in order to move to the Isle of Man and race in the famous TT. It’s a film about motorcycle racing that non-racers can also appreciate since, at its heart, it’s a story about the pursuit of dreams.

What about the worst motorcycle movies of all time?

On one hand it’s easy to compile a list of terrible bike flicks – after all, the list of bad motorcycle movies is almost identical to the list of all motorcycle movies. The good ones are the exceptions.
On the other hand, with so many real stinkers to choose from, narrowing the field to the ten worst is tricky. Some of them are so bad they’re almost amusing. (Note that I said “almost”– watching them is still downright painful.) The following ten is a strictly personal list including films that are about motorcycling, as well as a few films in which bikes play notably lame supporting roles.

1. The Wild One (1953) This film was almost certainly the most influential motorcycle movie of all time – unfortunately it influenced America to hate and fear motorcyclists! Laszlo Benedek directed a star-studded cast including Lee Marvin and, of course, Marlon Brando.
Thanks to Brando, this movie’s still in every Blockbuster store but don’t kid yourself – it’s as dated as stale cheese. The outlaw bikers come across more like disaffected artists from the Left Bank in Paris and as for Brando’s performance… let’s just say that it’s no “On the Waterfront.” Benedek made the film shortly after emigrating from Europe. Once he was more settled in California, he was a solid Emmy contender as a TV director, but this movie stinks!

2. No Limit (1936) This movie was a huge hit in prewar Britain and definitely consolidated the TT’s status as the world’s most important motorcycle race. It starred George Formby, who was a ukelele-playing vaudeville star and enormously popular as a live performer. He plays a speed demon determined to win the TT on a motorcycle of his own design. How this movie managed to become a box office success and survive to this day on video is a complete mystery. The race action is almost comically bloodthirsty, Formby’s off-key singing grates on your ears, and as an actor he made Stan Laurel look like Sir Laurence Olivier.

3. The Wild Angels (1966) Saying that this film is about a couple of Hells Angels facing off against the cops is misleading, as there’s practically no plot. That was one of its many flaws, which prompted film critic Christopher Null to call it “truly one of the most awful films ever made.” It’s perhaps even more tragic in that many of the people involved had real talent and/or Hollywood Boulevard street cred. The movie was directed by B-movie “auteur” Roger Corman. His (massive) oeuvre is now being reappraised by serious film critics. Peter Bogdanovich worked on the screenplay. Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra starred in it. The film opened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Don’t kid yourself: none of that comes close to saving it.


4. The Hellcats (1967) “Motorcycle mamas on a highway to Hell!” “Leather on the outside... All woman on the inside!” This movie was luridly promoted as the story of a bike gang run by women. It’s notable mainly for its comically bad post-production; in some shots motorcycles approach in utter silence, while other scenes with no bikes have loud motor sound effects. Director Robert Slatzer had a thankfully brief career as a cheap, exploitive sensationalist. Sadly it didn’t end soon enough to protect the world from “Hellcats.”

5. Biker BoyZ (2003) For the last decade at least, the whole urban/African-American/outlaw street-racing scene has been rich fodder for a great action film… too bad no one has made it. Real street racers will marvel at the scene in which a couple of turbo- and nitrous-modified Hayabusas stage a drag race on a gravel road.

6. Torque (2004) Another take on the street-racing scene, this time complicated by the tired old framed-for-murder plot device. Curiously, director Joseph Kahn came to this project having done almost nothing but Britney Spears videos.

7. Supercross (2005) The colorful world of professional Supercross racing forms the backdrop for this limping story in which two brothers have a falling out. They become bitter rivals before hardship brings them back together. Cue: audience rolls eyes.
         This movie is the only directorial effort by Steve Boyum, an established Hollywood stunt coordinator. It has quite possibly the least-talented cast and crew in the history of cinema, but it’s Boyum himself who’s most to blame for its box office failure. Real supercross is so spectacular that it doesn’t need stunts at all – let alone a stunt coordinator as director. Someone capable of telling a compelling story could probably make a great movie about this sport but, the way Hollywood works, Supercross’s flop will make it impossible to pitch another SX script for at least a decade.

8. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990)
By day it’s a Norton sitting quietly in a garage. But by night it is possessed by a demon and emerges to drink the blood of anyone foolish enough to act in this film, er, wait a minute, I meant to write “walk around Birmingham after dark”. Plenty of splattered gore and – I’m not making this up – a talking turd. Even stranger than that last tidbit is the fact that director Dirk Campbell was previously known as the writer-director of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Surely those are the two most divergent films ever made by a single person.

9. Special industry award: American Chopper (c. 2005) No one was more surprised than the Discovery Channel when the Teutels’ dysfunctional family schtick became the network’s most-watched show. In short order it spawned a host of imitators. The real problem is that millions of Americans watch them and actually think, “This is real.” In fact, Hollywood screenwriters gotup in arms because the writers who work on such “reality” shows are paid far less than those who write for shows like “Lost” or even “Joey”.
Why, you might wonder, would reality TV even need writers? That’s a good question. In 2005, at least 1,200 members of the Writer’s Guild of America worked in the reality genre. Clearly they weren’t all writing hosts’ introductions and voice-over narration. You don’t suppose the Teutels’ tantrums are scripted?

10. Dopey-stunt award (tie):
Matrix Reloaded (2003) Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
The breathless advance promotion of both of these films emphasized the ludicrous claim that Carrie-Ann Moss and Tom Cruise both did their own stunts. If only that were true! Both would’ve been killed early in production and we would have been spared these tiresome sequels.
In fact, the Wachowski brothers’ signature “stunting” is mostly done in computerized post-production. That explains why real motorcyclists find Trinity’s Ducati ride through oncoming traffic to be visually spectacular but fundamentally unconvincing. At least Mission: Impossible’s old-school action film director John Woo still arranges for most of his stunts to be done in front of the camera. Real riders will note that Ethan’s tires change from knobbies (when he’s riding on dirt or gravel) to slicks (when he’s riding on pavement) in the same chase sequence. If the villain could simply patent those tires, he wouldn’t have to threaten the release of a deadly virus in order to hold the world for ransom.

Slant artists

The AMA sanctions a professional hillclimb championship. This is not a 'Pikes Peak' style hillclimb, it's a short, brutal drag race up an ungroomed mountainside so steep you can barely climb it on foot. 

The championship dates back to the Great Depression, when factory support for flat track racing nearly dried up, and promoters couldn't draw enough paying customers to justify renting tracks. Putting on a hillclimb was cheap. All you needed was a steep hill, and since the races only lasted a few seconds, wear and tear on equipment was minimal. During the sport's heyday (from 1930 until WWII) Harley-Davidson and Indian entered stars like Joe Petrali in events across the country. Nowadays, it's shrunk back to the point where, this year, five of nine events will be held in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania.

Still, it's a national championship, and in 2008 I was surprised to see that a guy named Phil Libhart had won the title on a bike with a '70s Bonneville motor. Libhart's Triumph twin was racing against bikes powered by Yamaha R1 motors and GSX-R1000s. I figured he was a special kind of lunatic, and put him on my list of stories to track down.

Phil and his brother Todd ride for a team run by an old Pennsylvania hillclimber named Ralph Kreeger. Although it's staunch Harley country - there's a big assembly plant in nearby York, PA - Kreeger was always a Triumph man. Years ago, Ralph was a member of York's White Rose Motorcycle Club. He met a local hillclimber named Bees Wendt at the club, and Bees gave him an introduction to the world of 'slant artists.' Ralph took to it, fitting an extended swingarm to his Trackmaster Triumph. Later, he made his own frame, taking cues from the Trackmaster design, but leaving more room around the engine, so he could pull the heads without taking the motor out.

Todd Libhart, on the smaller of three Triumphs built to Ralph Kreeger's original pattern. Ralph wanted me to point out that Phil is the machinist wizard that keeps these bikes running.
Ralph finally hung up his helmet after one too many hard crashes. "I can handle broken arms and legs," he told me, "but when you start knocking your brain around, it's time to stop." He'd met Phil Libhart at a local flat track race, and he offered Phil a ride on his bike. Ralph passed along the knowledge that Bees Wendt had given to him, plus interest. They built a couple more frames, and the team currently has three bikes; Phil runs a stock-displacement Bonneville in the 'Extreme' class (basically anything displacing under 750cc) and a Bonnie punched-out to 788cc in the Unlimited class. His little brother Todd races the bike Ralph originally gave to Phil. It's got a 1970 Daytona engine bored to 540cc.

All the motors drink nitromethane from Hillborn fuel injectors. The bikes are fitted with Nourish cranks and eight-valve heads, Carillo rods, and CP pistons made to the team's own spec. Hillclimb bikes use only one speed, so they modify the gearboxes to run top gear only; that leaves empty space in the box, allowing it to double as an oil tank. Although it's hard to get reliable dyno figures using nitro, the little bike makes about 150 horsepower. Phil's bikes put out around 200.

The typical competition hill's only about 500 feet, and runs last from four to eight seconds. There's no practice; riders eyeball the hill and try to choose a line, then they make two timed runs. In the last few years, to control increasing speeds, organizers have started throwing in a couple of turns, but over the course of the championship, bikes are wide open for less than five minutes. I was surprised that a 40 year-old Bonneville motor could produce 200 horsepower even that long.

"There's about thirty hours of machining in each set of cases," Phil told me. "You'd be surprised how far out of parallel the axis of the cam and crank are. We get them all squared up; we fit steel inserts for the main bearings, and we cut improved oilways." Even at that, last year was the first time they got a whole season out of a set of cases. They've blown the cylinders off the top and cranks out the bottom.

"I think I'm driving the price of vintage Triumphs up around here," Phil laughed, "I buy so many old bikes just to get the cases."

Despite racing against modern motors, Phil's finished near the top of the standings in one or both of his classes for over ten years. According to Ralph, it's because their Triumph twins have a better punch right off the bottom.

"We gain an advantage in the first 100 feet," he told me, "before the four-cylinder bikes really make their power. Then, the question is, 'Can we hold on 'til the top?'"

Yeah, can they hold on, and will it hold together? I'm not sure I'd want to straddle one, myself, at least not without one of those Kevlar 'diapers' they wrap over drag race motors to catch shrapnel. But the old twins don't put Phil at much of a disadvantage, because hillclimb bikes are limited by traction, not power. The bikes have wheelbases of around 96", with nearly a foot of adjustment. The essential tuning skill is choosing the right wheelbase for conditions. If you go too long, it will just spin the rear tire. (Phil uses chains, but some competitors run paddle tires.) If you go too short, you'll get traction at the rear but the bike will loop out.

"If I get it just right," Phil said, "I can make the entire run without the front wheel ever touching the ground. When you wheelie a ten foot-long motorcycle, you're a long way up. It's not always the fastest way, but it's the most fun."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Cycle World saga continues...

Superbike Planet recently noted that Hearst has put Cycle World on the block. Regular readers will note that I thought Hachette wanted to unload CW a couple of years ago, when they sold off a few other 'enthusiast' publications. Instead Hachette moved CW into its Bay Area-based Jumpstart Group, which effectively positioned CW magazine to become a subsidiary of CycleWorld.com.

After Andy Leisner took over the publisher's duties, Cycle World's sales guys pitched their advertisers on a grandiose plan to use Jumpstart's tech and new media skills as the foundation for a much more modern business model, across print, web, events, social media and what-have-you. But all bets were off when Hearst purchased Hachette's magazine titles en-masse a few months ago. Then, I wondered if Hearst was really casting a vote of confidence in the magazine category as a whole, acquiring all Hachette's American pubs, or whether Hearst was really pulling a sort of leveraged buyout - picking up (literally and figuratively) a few glamour titles like Elle, while planning to spin off scores of niche pubs like Cycle World.

Well, the second shoe's dropped if CW is for sale. This is almost certainly not good news for the venerable bike mag and its staff. A big media umbrella like Hachette or Hearst would certainly play a role in attracting non-endemic advertisers. I never got the feeling that CW had really committed to the changes that would have been required for that 'new, improved' business model to work out. Nor do I know what's been going on there behind the scenes. But a big company with a strong new media bench - and the deep pockets needed to invest in a new model and prove it before selling a bunch of ads - would make it easier to avoid extinction in a very fast-evolving media environment.

I've been around a few magazines as they were sold off. I was writing for Motorcyclist around the time it changed hands. That whole business has been picked up and dropped almost as frequently as the magazine; in the last decade or so it was sold by Petersen to EMAP, sold by EMAP to Primedia, and sold by Primedia to Source Interlink. I also wrote for Bike, Classic Bike, and Performance Bike when they were sold by EMAP to the Bauer conglomerate. It's pretty much always a bean-counter's deal, with all new buyers arriving with the same mindset -- "I can cut costs and increase profitability." No bean counter thinks of editors, writers, and photographers as content creators; they think of the editorial department as a cost center only.

As Brian Catterson; he jumped from CW to Motorcyclist, going from a magazine with stable ownership and a large staff, to a title that had the fat, then the muscle, and finally the bone trimmed by successive new owners. Cat actually does a good job without much help. Cycle World's probably spending triple the editorial salaries to produce a marginally superior publication.

If CW is incredibly lucky, it will be purchased by a real angel investor who wants to underwrite the migration of the CW brand to new media platforms. (The way audiences consume information is changing, and publishers need to change their relationship with readers to keep pace, even if right now, it's hard to even write a coherent business plan which even offers an avenue to profit.) If things go as they usually do, the news that CW is for sale bodes ill for the staff and for American motorcyclists. Love it or hate it, it's been the motorcycle magazine of record for years.

But that could all change soon.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Track's cool. Track schools, not so much...

I get emails from the Yamaha Champions Riding School every now and then.

YCRS is a track school set up by Nick Ienatsch (who founded then sold Sport Rider magazine at the right time, and developed the curriculum and was lead instructor at the old Freddie Spencer school in Vegas.) After Freddie's deal fell apart, Ienatsch reestablished himself up at Miller Motorsports Park, aligned with Yamaha instead of Honda. I recently got an email from Chainsnatch's school offering a 10% discount if I booked a session with a friend, and I just got another telling me that Scott Russell and Melissa Paris would be guest instructing at an upcoming 'all girls' school.

Now, although I ride like a girl, I'm definitely not eligible for that session, because I can't afford it. It's $2,200 for a two-day school. If you're flying in and staying at a hotel, call it three grand. Recession? What recession?

As someone who makes a living (such as it is) by riding motorcycles and writing about them, I'm often asked for advice on learning to ride. The executive summary of my advice is, avoid schools charging over $1,000 per day. There are ways to have more fun, and learn more, for less.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I've never attended the Yamaha Champions Riding School. But, I've seen Ienatsch in action on several occasions; I attended the Spencer school on no less than three different magazine assignments. For good measure I've also attended the original version of Kevin Schwantz' school, at Road Atlanta, and Reg Pridmore's school at Infineon on assignment too. So I've got the celebrity/champions angle covered. By way of comparison, I've sat in on Keith Code's California Superbike School (the ur-track school), the short-lived KTM school at Laguna Seca, Michel Mercier's race school in Canada (which, at the time, was kind of the 'default' Canadian track school) and came through the old Calgary Motorcycle Roadracing Association 'new racer' school.

There's a huge range in cost represented by those experiences. People pay thousands of bucks for high-end track schools. And I'll give Ienatsch his due; he's a smart guy who created a solid curriculum for the Spencer school, which was then carefully wrapped in Spencer's brand and presented as stuff only Freddie knew or did. At one point, Ienatsch told the students that the reason the specific techniques they taught were the best techniques for use on modern sport bikes was the Freddie had developed the modern sport bike at Honda. This news will come as a shock to the people who did develop the modern sport bike.

One thing that always baffled me at Pridmore's school, Code's school, and Freddie's place was that a lot of the students just keep coming back over and over. The bread and butter in the track school business is a core clientele of middle-aged repeat customers. (Typical profile: high tech exec, or maybe an orthodontist who started riding eight years ago; owns a Ducati Desmodsedici, a professionally restored BSA Gold Star, and a professionally set up GSX-R1000 for track days; bought a Sprinter van just to transport his bike to six track days a year; if he lives in the northern tier, he keeps a bike in California for winter riding. He doesn't really ride on the street, except to take the Desmosedici to the occasional bike night or up to  the Rock Store. His daily driver is a Porsche Cayenne. Yes, they have it all, and blowing two or three grand on a track school, two or three times a year, is pocket change.) What they don't have is anywhere near they speed they should have, considering the mid-six-figures they've sunk into equipment and training. Some of these guys have yet to get the knee down. They're not learning to ride; they're attending a motorcycle fantasy camp where they can fawn over a few 'real' racers who are titular instructors. I noticed a real evolution of the years of Freddie's school, in which track sessions got shorter and more chopped up, and bench-racing sessions got longer. Over the years, I've felt a little guilty about the softball publicity I've ginned up for the schools which, I must admit, make for a pretty fun writing assignment.

Five or six years ago, when I worked at Motorcyclist, I wanted to run a monthly feature called Riding School Report Card, where we'd evaluate track schools and objectively rate them. That was just before they fired me.

But it's finally time to get something off my chest -- something I've wanted to say for years now: Those repeat customers are just a bunch of posers, so I guess that since they keep re-upping, they're getting their money's worth. After all, they are the final authorities on what they themselves value in an experience. But anyone who spends over a grand a day in the hopes of actually getting fast is wasting most of that money. 

For the cost of attending a couple of those track schools, you could buy five year-old 650cc twin, race prep it; join your local racing club and attend their new-racer school where you'll hear all the same theory as you'll get in a more expensive school. Then, you can do a year or two of novice racing.

Trust me, you'll learn far more and get way faster actually racing with a bunch of rank novices than you ever will by just listening to and lapping with anyone - I don't care how fast he is or was. For good measure you can probably spend some of the money you save on a ratty old dirt bike from Craigslist, and convince a friend with place in the country to let you work out there in between races. Don't worry; the worse your tires, the better the practice. And for the record there are a lot of guys who are (or were) hellaciously fast world-championship level riders who actually have no idea how or why they were fast. It may come as a shock to you, but motorcycle racing is not actually a selective filter for introspective self-knowledge or intellectual rigor.

I'm not saying that such well-known track schools have nothing to offer. All of them have something to offer, and several have their own little unique takes on training. A few years ago, someone told me that Jason Pridmore's Star School had a cool system that allowed you to compare data traces from one of your laps, to an instructor's data trace. Keith Code's got that elaborate 'skid bike' with outriggers, which might help you get a feel for braking grip at the limit. I know that I really got my money's worth out of a two-day American Supercamp school where grip is explored almost every session on little dirt bikes. Ironically, Pridmore's Star School and American Supercamp are among the more affordable schools. Supercamp, in fact, is a real bargain.

What you won't get, in a season or two of novice racing, is the chance to impress your friends by saying things like, "Well, Freddie Spencer told me..." or "When I was riding with Josh Hayes..." But I can guarantee you'll have even better stories, even if none of them involve people who are famous motorcycle racers.

So hmm... $2,200 for two days of lapping and class talk? Or a whole season of racing some crapped out twin in the novice class. I guarantee you'll learn more, be faster, get more seat time and have way, way more fun actually racing. It is, after all, how all the guys teaching those expensive track schools learned to ride.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A note from the Dept. of Wish You Were There...

I see that my friends at TheFastAndDirty.com have posted a new gallery of great shots from the Hartford 1/2-mile.

These are definitely worth a look. I've picked my favorite already, a beautiful and meditative shot of Jimmy Wood, pre-race, that says more about racing from the inside than any action shot ever could.

Kill a few minutes reflecting on these images...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MotoGP stakes a claim

I'm not sure that they've finalized the wording yet, but it seems that MotoGP is staking a big part of it's future on 'Claiming Rule Teams.'

This is a move calculated to control costs and thus add a few new -- desperately needed -- teams to the grid. The hope is that independent chassis suppliers (like Eskil Suter's outfit) will supply race-ready frames that can be fit with production-based 1,000cc engines, creating a nearly plug-and-play MotoGP-eligible racing platform. Costs will be controlled, because any team choosing to compete as a CRT will be able to claim any other CRT's motor for a fixed price.
I reckon this lot knew how to deal with ornery claim jumpers. Whether or not the new CRT rules will trigger a gold rush of new teams to the MotoGP grid remains to be seen. It could work as hoped, but only if the rules makers learn the lessons of history.
The idea's an extension of a venerable tradition. In the 'Continental Circus' era, Manx Norton production racers, and Matchless G50 motors in Seeley frames were the foundation of the 500GP class, even though it's now remembered for the exotic Italian multis that won almost all the races. Twenty-five or thirty years later, in what's now fondly recalled as the heyday of 500cc two-strokes, if a team couldn't get (or afford) full-factory support the alternative was leasing a Yamaha V-4 motor and putting it in a French-made ROC chassis. Honda even briefly made and sold an 'affordable' 500cc twin in small quantities, which was pretty much a direct admission that they'd priced lease costs of the NSR500 v-4 motors out of reach of even well-sponsored privateers.

So, production-based machines in racing's premier class; that's not been a problem historically. Except for one thing, that I'll get to in a minute.

Claiming rules have a slightly more checkered history in motorcycle racing. I'm not sure if or when Grand Prix racing's had claiming rules, but there's been claiming rules on the AMA's books for most of the AMA Pro Racing period (they may go further back, I'm not sure; I'm in Florida for a funeral and far from my reference library.) The thing was, while there was a written rule enabling any entrant to claim specified components from any other competitors' bike for fixed prices, there was an unwritten rule in the paddock that ensured anyone making such a claim was forever ostracized.

I can't remember the details of the last AMA claiming 'scandal', so I might be getting the facts wrong, but I'll give you the right impression -- maybe some Backmarker reader can track down the details and make a comment at the bottom of this post. Anyway, I want to say that it was about ten years ago, that a privateer at Daytona claimed a factory superbike team's Ohlins fork. The claiming rule, at the time, specified a price of something like fifteen grand for it. The team went apeshit, and various people muttered things like, "He may get that fork, but he'll never be able to buy so much as a brake pad ever again..."

When cooler heads prevailed, the team said, "Look, we'll supply a brand-new Ohlins unit of the same type," but as I recall, the privateer stuck to his guns and got the fork. Even though his claim was clearly within the rules, there was a general sense of affront that he'd gone through with it, and doing so made him a pariah in the AMA Pro Racing paddock. His story was that he'd repeatedly asked Ohlins to sell him a full superbike-spec fork, offering to pay the list price for it, and they'd consistently come up with reasons why they couldn't do so.

Steve Atlas recently predicted that the MotoGP claiming rule "will be a cluster[-fuck]." I think he was anticipating more problems like the one described above, where the rule's application is fraught with internecine politics.

So will the Claiming Rule Team idea work?

As a hack historian, my first thought on this is that affordable, serially produced equipment has almost never been fully competitive in the top Grand Prix class. That's the catch I referred to earlier. Those fondly remembered production-based Manx Nortons and Seeley G50s got their asses handed to them by unobtainable Gileras and MV Agustas. Ditto the ROC-Yamahas and Honda twins, which couldn't touch the factory fours.

That wasn't a huge issue in the '60s. The guys with Manx Nortons could still earn decent start money from organizers who needed big grids to satisfy crowds at their tracks; a large field of bikes, including some that were a lot slower than the factory 'multis,' ensured that the crowd always had something to look at. That's not much of a factor in an era when most of the MotoGP audience watches on TV. You don't need a big field as much, because the cameras are going to follow the leaders around the track and ignore the backmarkers anyway; television fans always have something to watch and never stare listlessly at an empty track. And the guys with Manx Nortons could also make good money racing for start money and purses at non-championship races every weekend. There won't be anywhere else to race your CRT-spec MotoGP bike.

Nowadays, there's not a business case to be made for a team, if they're condemned to bikes that can't even dream of finishing above mid-pack. So the 'production' aspect of the new rules will work only if the balance being struck (extra fuel capacity, less-strict durability rules, and claiming price) will allow CRTs to field competitive bikes.

An extra challenge here is that in an era of traction control and other sophisticated electronic rider aids, even defining 'engine' is tricky. The hard parts; cases, cylinders, heads and reciprocating components are still pretty easy to specify, but those play less and less of a role in the bike's performance with each passing year. Having the engine without the ECU and software that controls it might not do a claiming team much good. It's as if, back in the '60s, a privateer could have claimed Agostini's crankshaft after the Senior TT. It would be interesting to see it, and it would certainly piss off the Count, but it wouldn't do anyone any good without everything that surrounded it and made it work.

And, for the claiming rules to even have a chance of working, teams have to be able to apply them without fear of reprisal.

It should be possible to make the rules work. Although they haven't worked in American motorcycle racing, claiming rules work fine in other sports. For example, horses change hands after almost every 'claimer stakes' horse race, and no one holds a grudge.

We'll see if the proposed claiming rule works to add some much needed depth to MotoGP grids. (Although I've argued that television reduces the incentive for big grids, no one thinks a race with 12 finishers is a good thing; especially when Moto2 races are barn-burners that make the premier class seem boring by comparison.)

The claiming rule is part of a complex set of issues that will reshape MotoGP over the next few years. The relationship of MotoGP to Superbikes is germane, as is the news that MotoGP's owners may in fact end up being stakeholders in SBK. Those are topics for future posts...

Monday, June 13, 2011

I bet this left some dark streaks...

...in his underpants!

From the Isle of Man this year, courtesy of my friend Steve Hodgson, comes the wildest save of the fortnight. Manx local hero Dan Kneen keeps it screwed WFO on one of the many 'leaps' along the course. Of course, 'WFO' could also stand for Will Fly Off.

Although the cameraman didn't have the nerve to keep shooting, Kneen somehow gathered this up and kept going. Not for the faint of heart...

Friday, June 10, 2011

A single-lap TT event that will change the course of the event happened yesterday...

...but it wasn't the TT Zero race for electric motorcycles. For MotoCzysz, the failure to put up a 100 mph lap made a 1-2 finish a hollow victory. And the 10 mph gap between Rutter/Miller and the third-place team shows that the field's actually gotten spottier since the first electric TT, two-and-a-bit years ago.

The message here, for electric motorcycle builders, is two-fold...

  • The vaunted £10,000 prize for the first 100 mph lap of the TT course is still 'available'. That's if the TT organizers don't just kill the Zero class. (Who could blame them? It provided zero excitement this year. I recall the summary execution of the 'Singles' class after the 2000 event, where the dominance of the lavishly produced BMW/Chrysalis machine was nowhere near as lopsided as Czysz' dominance this year.)
  • The lap distance; the long, aerodynamically challenging and battery draining straightaway; the climb up the mountain... these things are too much for electric race bikes in their current state. The TTXGP/FIM e-Power organizers should, for their part, shorten events to five or six laps on typical short circuits, allowing builders to cut battery weight and have a chance of infringing on ICE sport bike performance.

The message for TT organizers is simple: There is neither the field nor the technology, yet, to support a TT Zero race. There can still be a role for electric bikes on the Island, and in the TT program, but it should be structured like this year's Subaru demo lap. The organizers should accept applications for a handful of serious, professionally built and presented electric bikes. One by one, they can be given a single demonstration lap, just before races. It's not a race, it's just a chance to go after the prize.

The TT Zero race was a historic flop. Now, the car demonstration laps were history in the making. TT classes for cars? Yes, it's going to happen. You read it here first.



Few now remember that the very first "Tourist Trophy" races on the Isle of Man, in 1904, were for cars...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

More on Harley-Davidson's XRllent Adventure: Half-right

The way the schedule's worked out so far this year, we're seven races into the Championship, but we've only had one twins race, at the Springfield Mile. In the early sessions at Springfield, it looked as if -- as many people expected -- the 'metric' bikes would be a real threat to Harley-Davidson's dominance. But, at the end of the day, it was XR-750 powered bikes 1-2-3-4.

If that was how the XRs fared at a track they were expected to be relatively weak at, I can't wait to see how they do next weekend at the Hartford half-mile. After all, popular consensus is that while the import motors' horsepower advantage serves them well on long straightaways, the XR's traction gives them an advantage on the half-miles where bikes are spinning and sliding the whole lap.

Obviously, Grand National Championship mechanics change gearing for the half-miles, but I was curious to know if there were other differences in the 'baseline' setup of an XR-750, between the mile and half-mile tracks. During a lull in the action at the Springfield TT, I cornered one of the very best XR-750 tuners, Kenny Tobert. He's the mastermind behind Chris Carr's machine prep. I asked him about getting ready for the next race, the season's first half-mile.

"The chassis is pretty much the same, but the engine setup is different," Kenny told me. ""On my mile motors, that's where you need a heavy hitter. Something that will pull high gearing all day. But on the half-mile you need something that doesn't hit as hard; you don't need a lot of power, you need something that works. We use a milder engine with less compression and a different cam setting. It's probably not the best of the best, but it's what works."

Taming that power hit is obviously one key to a bike that drives forward as much as possible, instead of uselessly spinning and kicking the bike out too far. So, I asked whether Kenny set Chris' bikes up with heavier cranks for the half-miles.

"I have different weight cranks. Nowadays, with the smaller restrictor plates we're having to run lighter cranks in them most of the time. I got mine trimmed down pretty light," he said. When Kenny and Chris arrive at the track, he's got two different crank weights in Chris' bikes. Chris can try them both and pick the one he likes best. Kenny added, "Most of the time today it's the light flywheel."

I was curious about the differences between the various half-mile tracks. "The half-miles where the setup of the bike is closest to the miles might be the pea-gravel tracks, because they're spinning all the time." he told me. "There, you can run your mile motors, because you want to spin 'em up, like a little tractor pull. You get to Middletown NY in the day time, and you need the slowest of the slow, because it's like riding on a wet bar of soap. It's so slippery you can't get ahold of nothin', so you need a slow one there." [Author's note: Victory Speedway in Middletown is not on this year's schedule, but the red clay track bills itself as the oldest continuously operating dirt track in the country.]

I also wanted to learn whether there were, generally speaking, differences in key chassis setup factors -- such as wheelbase -- between miles and half-miles. Kenny told me that from his perspective, it was track conditions, not track length, that determined chassis setup.

"If it's smooth," he said, "we'll shorten them up to get more bite. But if it's rough, the way it was yesterday [n the pre-soaked and rutted Springfield Mile] we lengthen them out a bit to make it more rider-friendly."

Finally, I asked Kenny what he expected to see in the ongoing battle between the XR-750s and the metric bikes as the season develops. "The metric bikes are strong, but you've got a lot of young riders that are taking time to gel with them. I guess we're lucky that Brian Smith wasn't on that Kawasaki yesterday, because he'd have been tough," he told me, adding, "You get to the half-miles, you're in Harley territory; the Harleys will be dominant. And there's so many young guys going really well; they're hard to pass, so the start's the key. You're going to need to get off line."

I wonder whether any GNC riders have been doing any cross-training at their local dragstrips?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Once more with the 200 horsepower E1PC

My friend Harry 'Brammofan' Mallin alerted me to a sort of rebuttal, by Michael Czysz, of Guy Procter's story claiming that Czysz' claim of 200 horsepower was rubbish. Holy crap, that's a tortured sentence. Czysz' case was made earlier today in H4L. (Subscription required now that it's more than 12 hours old, sorry.)

It made/makes interesting reading; but it's about how I thought Czysz would spin it. I still think Guy Procter was more right than wrong; Czysz' rebuttal, that he could extract more power, briefly, but that his team has to limit Rutter to 'half throttle' is equivocating. You could also extract more power, briefly, from the ICE bikes racing in the TT. Throw a nitrous injection system and turbo on them, or run them on nitromethane (with just a soupcon of hydrazine, mon cher) and they will make far more power too, for at least as long as it takes a Frenchman to grope a chambermaid.

A modern superbike is, in fact, at or near full throttle for some good long stretches at the TT, and the rider of such a machine has full power available (whenever he's crazy enough to dial it on) for two laps before refueling. An ICE superbike is making at least 1.5x Czysz' bike's power when it hits 190 on Sulby Straight, if his, as he claims, hits 150. (The math's simple; it takes at least that much more to do 190, assuming similar aeros.)

So the fact remains that bikes running on a few kilos of dinosaur juice can make far more power, for far longer, than bikes running on energy painstakingly harvested and converted from the wind made by the wings of butterflies (or, for that matter, electrons energized by a flood-prone nuclear power plant.)

It might seem that MCN took a cheap shot, but Procter's point in punking the 200 horsepower claim is valid: the electric motorcycle scene does not do itself any service by floating claims that are qualified at best, and gross exaggerations for most practical purposes. This category would be better served by under-promising and over-delivering; look at the lessons already learned in claiming ranges of 40 miles and more in commercially-available bikes.

By the way, Zizz' (sorry, I just got tired of checking the spelling) claim to the effect that no ICE bike could lap as fast as his E1PC, if the ICE bike was restricted to one gallon of gas, is not true, either. It would be easy to build and tune an ICE bike that weighed less than 100kg, had 2/3 the frontal area of the (ahem) 'Sedgeway' race bike. A fast small(ish) rider could handily lap at 100+ on such a machine. It could likely be done with with a nearly stock Honda NSF250R.

My guess is that unless there were some big tuning breakthroughs in the Sedgeway paddock today, they'll have their work cut out for them going from low 90s to 100+. I'd be surprised to learn that Rutter has that much more to offer on the riding side of the equation. Right now, Michael Czysz is probably actually hoping for rain. It won't really slow Rutter much, so rain would be a PR win-win. If Rutter went over the ton on a less-than-ideal course, the story would be, "And we could have gone so much faster!" If Rutter came up short, they could blame the weather.

If I sound churlish in this assessment it's because I agree with Procter. It would be wiser to arrive on the IoM, impress expert observers with your preparation (which certainly would include having completed the bike in plenty of time for extensive testing) and let lap times do the talking. A ton-up lap will be a historic achievement.

The lack of rivalry at the sharp end of the field doesn't bode well for the TT Zero race going forward, but that's a topic for the future. If the 100 mile an hour prize is awarded this year, it can only go to Czysz; the other teams aren't even in the same race. If it doesn't come this year, it will set the cause back at least a little. There's not long to wait now; the race is scheduled for Thursday at 1715h local time.

More from my Springfield notebook...


Early in the day, I ran into Bill Werner, who called me over to say that he'd seen a 'Blue Groove' post about the early evolution of the XR-750 motor. He pointed out one factual error in my account and clarified a possibly mistaken impression that post may have left.

Bill worked in the Harley-Davidson race shop during that KR-to-XR transition, around 1970, so he knows of what he speaks. I had cited Dick O'Brien as the principal architect of the XR, which was accurate, but I also credited 'an engineer' at Harley-Davidson named Peter Zylstra. Bill told me that Zylstra was a draftsman, not an engineer; he was involved, but didn't have significant design input.

The larger error, perhaps, in my story was that according to Bill, Harley-Davidson was not really taken by surprise by the failure of the first iron-head XRs. "We knew all along," he told me, "that they were just a stop-gap measure."

One of Bill's jobs in the race shop at that time was converting Sportster-based rear cylinder head castings, so that the exhaust valve was in the front. This was an unbelievably finicky operation involving a huge amount of welding up and reshaping, filling in the old spark plug hole and drilling and tapping a new one, and on and on. He told me that it was nothing to have dozens of hours of work in a head, and then it would just be sitting there cooling and 'ping!' a crack would form between a valve and spark plug. There was so much hand-work in a set of iron heads that the shop only managed to produce something like 18 sets in a year.

In the end, they devised a system where the heads, after all the welding up, were slowly cooled in -- brace yourself -- 45-gallon drums of asbestos dust! Back then, of course, asbestos was still a major component of clutchs and brake pads. It was also used by Harley-Davidson's maintenance department to insulate hot water pipes, etc. So they had lots of it around. Bill remembers going to the maintenance department and just picking up a drum of it.

He told me that they'd work on a head, then put it into the drum full of asbestos dust to let it slowly cool off, then days later they'd just blow it off with compressed air.

"My doctor asked me if I'd ever smoked," he recalled. "I told him no and he said that was a good thing because if I had smoked, I'd have about 800 times the likelihood of getting lung cancer."

As he mentioned the old asbestos clutches, he also told me something I'd forgotten, which is that the early XRs were intended to run with dry clutches. Those had problems with heat buildup, and soon they converted to wet ones.

While Harley was making do with the iron-head XRs, they were busy developing the next-generation aluminum head version. It even had a different bore and stroke. Some of that work was farmed out to well-known hot rodders; Jerry Branch worked on the aluminum head design, for example. Bill remembers that work beginning as early as 1970.

Carr's disappointmenTT...

After being rained right out on Saturday afternoon, the TT race was run under hot, sunny, and breezy conditions on the holiday Monday. There were quite a few times that, as the water-truck circulated the track, I had to fight the urge to strip off my shirt and run through the spray like a kid playing in a lawn sprinkler. I have to admit that some time in the middle of the program I forgot about being a journalist and moved up into the shade of a big old tree on the grassy slope across from the grandstand, where the shade and breeze made the heat just tolerable. Up there, I watched the racing from a fan's perspective.

Early in the day, though, the story I was writing in my head was about Chris Carr, looking like a favorite to win his final appearance at the Springfield TT. (Henry Wiles was sidelined after surgery to repair a knee injured in a freak accident at Du Quoin. That left the TT field a little more open than it might usually be.) Carr was seriously quick in practice and blitzed the first qualifying session with a lap of 24.516 seconds. No one touched that lap time all day, as despite officials' best efforts, the track slicked up and slowed down with each passing session.

The slick track (and perhaps, fatigue after a tiring day at the mile, along with heat and hydration issues) caught out veterans and rookies alike, over and over again as the day wore on. One of the first victims was Carr, who started his heat from pole and opened up a gap right away before committing an unforced error in the right hander after the jump.

Carr rode like a maniac - aided by a restart - but came up just short of a transfer spot, which relegated him to a semi. In that race, he crashed hard in Turn 2, and spent a long minute lying winded on side of the jump. Watching from up on the hill, I wondered if Carr's day was going to end in the ambulance. But he got up, shook it off, and got back on his bike - which didn't seem to have sustained much damage. Again, he worked his way from last to sixth place, which was a lot of work for no reward.

Both Carr and Bryan Smith, who had also had a luckless heat and semi, wanted to use their provisional start to get into the Main. Carr got the referee's nod, because the rule gives it to the rider with the highest points total.

That put Chris in the Main, though he was starting from the next county over. To my eye, Chris came out swinging. Maybe he was remembering the Pro race, which had about five restarts, and thinking that if he could pass a few guys between red flags, he could work his way up in stages.

That strategy could have worked, and indeed there was an early red flag in the Expert Main, but as the laps wore down and Jake, Jared Mees and J.R. Schnabel strung together a long run, Carr found himself in an unusual position - looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn't going to be in the way as the leaders came through to lap him. At the end of the day, four points was a pretty disappointing haul in exchange for his provisional start and after such a promising morning.

Chris' Farewell To Flat Track Tour is bringing a lot of fans down to his autograph table in the pits, and the crowds are really pulling for him. A win would be hugely popular, and it would have been deserved on Memorial Day, when he was the fastest man on the track.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Punking" Czysz' 200 horsepower claims at the TT"

Poor Michael Czysz.

When he uncrated his bike on the Isle of Man, the motorcycle-newspaper-of-record, MCN, mercilessly took the p1ss - as they say over there - for the 'd1g1tal' mix of letters and numbers in the nomenclature he uses for his drivetrain.That was funny but kind of a cheap shot; Czysz who seems to be rich, clever, handsome, and a pretty quick rider in his own right obviously has a knack for getting under Brits' skins, too.

Yesterday, the team got a breathless press release out of the TT Press Office in which its sponsor was repeatedly identified as 'Sedgeway', not Segway. Which is funny in itself because when you consider that the owner of the Segway company died when he accidentally rode (drove? strode?) one of his ridiculous vehicles down an embankment into a river. It's likely the last plants he crushed were sedges.

Now, MCN's Guy Procter has taken aim at Czysz's claim that his bike produces 200 horsepower:

MotoCzysz's '200bhp' E1pc will undoubtedly win the 2011 TT Zero race barring mishap, but its 142.8mph top speed tells a different story to its press bumf, its practice performance reveals. The speed, recorded along Sulby Straight, reveals a motor putting out a peak of around 80bhp, rather than the 200bhp regularly mentioned in connection with its D1-11 VDR D1g1tal Dr1ve. 80bhp is all you need to hit 142-ish on a sportsbike like the E1pc.

Depending on how much juice was left at lap's end MotoCzysz will no doubt be able to turn up the wick a bit, but whether it can discharge 200bhp's-worth of juice for more than a moment, controllers handle it without melting and battery capacity render its theoretical power useable in a race rather than a dyno run is the far side of doubtful. If it really did have 200bhp it could actually play with it should be clocking 180mph+ easy. Perhaps more worrying for the spectacle is the fact the second-fastest electric TT competitor appears to be boasting around 30bhp, as revealed by Kingston University's 96.1mph Sulby Straight peak.

Based on the TT's official numbers from yesterday's practice, Czysz' new bike averaged a speed quite a higher than 100mph for much of it's lap. But Michael Rutter completed the lap in the low 90s. Having gotten close to the target ton-up lap last year, nothing less than that will constitute a moral victory this year. As MCN's already noted, simply winning the race is a foregone conclusion.

I am sure that in the 'Sedgeway' pits, they're desperately trying to parse their batteries' life over the course distance to average 100+. Can they do it? Sure. Can they do it in the limited time/testing they have available? That's the drama...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Does the 'NSF' in Honda's NSF250R production racer refer to 'not suitable for' Americans?

Honda recently unveiled its NSF250R production racer. This all-new bike will form the basis of Honda's entries in next season's Moto3 races. But what's really cool about it is, it's a true production racer that will be sold  through Honda's distribution channel. At least, it will be sold in Europe, where Honda Motor Europe has announced that 450 units will be made available.

The new Honda has an MSRP of 23,600 Euros. In U.S. dollars, that's about 34k and change. If we get it....
When I read that, I emailed American Honda to ask whether the NSF250R would also be sold in the U.S. and, if so, how many units would AHM get?

The response I got was, "[N]o info to release as of now.  Don't know about Honda Motor Europe's
plan."

Really, American Honda knows less about Honda Motor Europe's plans than Backmarker does? I'm better informed than I thought.

The current MotoGP grid is sparse. (The absence of CE2 at Catalunya guarantees that everyone who finishes the race will finish in the points.) The 250GP and 125GP feeder classes have been lame ducks for several years, as the writing's been on the wall for the two-strokes. The arrival of the NSF250R, and the announcement that it will be made available in reasonable numbers in Europe, is good news. The top of the pyramid depends on a solid, wide base. The availability of a solid 'baseline' race bike is one key to ensuring that the best young riders can get noticed.

But seriously, what gives? Will the U.S. get the NSF250R, or won't we? I assume that, eventually we will get it. But frankly I'm not surprised that in Europe, they already know prices and quantities, but American Honda gives no evidence of having given this model any thought. It suggests that American Honda figures that -- in spite of the early and enthusiastic adoption of the Moriwaki 250 in U.S. racing series like the USGPRU -- that Americans don't 'get' road racing.

One thing that would change that would be allowing us to buy the NSF250R. So...

Dear American Honda,
We are going to get the NSF250R, aren't we?
When? How many? And how much will it cost?
Your friend,
Backmarker

Friday, June 3, 2011

Seen and heard at Springfield

After a long weekend that really felt long, it's taken me a couple of days to recover and compile a few notes on 'Springfield 1'.

The racing was supposed to start Saturday afternoon, with the TT. The paddock was pretty much fully installed when I made the mistake of looking at the leaden sky and saying, "Maybe it won't rain." Within moments, a hellacious rain- and lightning-storm washed out Saturday's program. Teams rushed to pack up again, and there was gridlock as vehicles trying to get down into the paddock to load up blocked the path of vehicles trying to leave.
Check out that sky. That was at about 1630h -- broad daylight!
 I didn't bother setting my alarm for Sunday morning, because I knew there would be delays while the Mile track dried out. As it was, the bigger teams' semi-trucks and motorhomes couldn't even cross the track to set up in the infield until after noon. AMA Pro officials had to make a tricky decision, whether or not to break up the track surface. Running the harrow over it would speed drying, but if it rained again, the rough surface would absorb even more water and put the whole event at risk. Eventually they did roughen it, then began rolling it again.

That left the riders with lots of time to stand around and wonder exactly what conditions would be like when the track was finally opened. We had a really wet track here in 2009, and veterans of that race remembered that while the track surface dried fairly quickly (and to a fast, tacky finish) the Springfield dirt has a 'spongy' base that tends to form ruts.

It seems that almost all flat track racers have an eternal optimism in their own riding abilities. All morning, I asked riders what conditions they expected. No matter what they answered, I asked them whether that would favor them, or hurt their chances. Everyone said told me the overnight soaking gave them an advantage. They almost all added that the gnarlier the conditions, the better, as far as they were concerned.

Kirkness, Baker, and Jake. Three of the heroes of the morning, feeling pretty good about their chances in the Main.
I wandered way down to Turn 4, and watched the track dry as, in ones and twos and small groups, riders came down to take a look. Because the turns are banked up a few degrees, the area along the rail was a bog, but from about a third of the way up the track, where the cushion would normally start, it looked a bit dryer.

When the track finally opened, most of the riders stayed off that wet-looking rail, although the handful of riders who did venture down there found that it was tacky and very fast. The whole track was pretty fast, and as you'd expect, abundant grip enabled the 'imports' - Ducatis, Kawasakis, Suzukis, and a few KTMs, Triumphs (I think I even saw a BMW) - to exploit their horsepower advantages.

Readers of an earlier Blue Groove post on Nichole Cheza will know that she ran well at the last 'wet' Springfield race, and that one of her goals was to run better in the fast draft on the Mile tracks. She looked hooked up and quick all day, and put herself solidly into the Main event. She seemed more confident than I've ever seen her in the draft.

The GNC's two Aussies, Mick Kirkness and Luke Gough, both started out the day in style. Kirkness was riding a yellow Suzuki with a conspicuous lack of sponsor stickers. He was right at the sharp end of things, an impressive third overall in the first qualifying session. Gough rode a beautiful Kawasaki courtesy of his sponsor Skip Eaken and metal fabrication guru Ricky Howarton. This is an interesting bike with an even better back-story, so I'll save it for some future Blue Groove column.

The big story in qualifying and the heats, though, was Brad Baker. Last year, the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports team fielded a Ducati for Joe Kopp. That bike became the first non-XR-750 to win a big-track National in decades. Kopp's since retired from flat trac. (He's now road racing in the Vance & Hines-sponsored spec series for Harley-Davidson XR1200X Sportsters, and was racing out at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah last weekend.)

Kopp encouraged Lloyd Bros. to give Brad Baker a shot. He's a kid (just 18, still in high school) from Kopp's home state of Washington. Baker justified Kopp's faith by totally dominating the first part of the day. I watched Baker's heat race from down in Turn 4, where the Lloyd Brothers' HurtbyAccident.com bike looked planted and seriously fast. What I wasn't seeing was that as the kid rocketed down the straightaway, the Duc was shaking like a trophy salmon in a fisherman's net.

AMA Pro shortened the schedule by taking six riders out of each heat and foregoing the semis altogether. Am I the only person who didn't mind this variation? I think it's easier for the fans to understand, and it keeps the day short and sharp. They also flipped the order, with Pros riding after Experts. That was all done to ensure that the Expert Main came off before darkness fell, or rain cut the day short. But, as the day wore on, it was warm and breezy and eventually the sun broke through. The track did (as Werner had predicted) begin to dry out. Down on the rail, it was rutted and bumpy, but still offered some grip. Just off the rail it started to get almost dry-slick. Most riders got slower, not faster, with each passing session. One exception was Chris Carr who put the #4 Harley-Davidson on the front row by winning his heat. It's clear that he really, really wants to end his riding career on a high note and although the results weren't what he wanted, he just plain outworked almost everyone all weekend long. 

By the time the Dash for Cash finally came off, at the end of the afternoon, both Carr and Smith had had long days that started out promising but ended in relative disappointment.

On the Pro side, I noticed that my fellow Canadian, Mike Labelle, looked strong through practice and qualifying. (He caught my eye at the final Mile of 2010 when he pulled off the gnarliest pass I've seen in ages.) Nicky Hayden's cousin, Hayden Gillim, who's normally billed as a short track and TT specialist, also looked fast and comfortable in the draft. Both Labelle and Gillim are a tad bigger than the average flat tracker, and if they're fast on the singles, they'll be even faster on twins. Meanwhile Shayna Texter, all 95 pounds of her, was finding the bumps and ruts to be a real handful. (When I saw her the next day, she told me, "My neck's still sore!" from trying to hold her head steady as her bike bucked underneath her.)

As I walked through the pits later in the day, I caught this snippet of conversation coming from under one Pro pit awning: "You're doing everything OK. You just need to open the throttle a bit more." Ouch.

The Expert race, which was shaping up as a battle between youth/metric horsepower and experience/Harley-Davidson traction, didn't quite materialize that way. Brad Baker bogged down on the start line, and although he put in a really spirited ride to get back to the leaders, the Ducati's handling wasn't quite up to its power production.

Team owner Dave Zanotti spent the race literally chain-smoking, lighting one cigarette off the other, as his rider - XR-mounted Jake Johnson - was in the thick of the lead draft with Sammy Halbert and Jared Mees (also both on Harleys.)

In classic Springfield fashion, the win went to the rider who timed the final draft-and-pass on the run to the stripe. Last Sunday, that was Jared Mees - a well-earned win that's been a long time coming for the 2009 Champ. Once again, despite the presence of more and more potent metric bikes on the grid, it was an all-Harley podium that, I'm sure, was popular with the crowd. The parking area over on the paying-customer side of the Grandstand was almost all hogs (perhaps appropriate at a state fairground, there is an entire building right nearby that's devoted to the exhibition of swine, after all!)

The next morning, as I was checking out of my motel, the people in front of me took care to reserve their rooms for the fall races, so I'd say that in spite of the rain and delays, some epic races left the fans satisfied. I have much more to write, including notes on the TT and a lengthy correction to my history-of-the-XR-750 post, which was sternly delivered by Bill Werner. People have warned me that Bill doesn't take kindly to journalists getting things wrong, and now I know that's true! A correction will be forthcoming...