Saturday, May 28, 2011

I should never have said, "Maybe it won't rain."

Springfield. It's a big deal, in Springfield (also the capital of Illinois, and home of Abe Lincoln, who is probably not the 'Abe' cited in the bottom image.)
It's been a hell of week for weather in the Midwest. Of course, there was the deadliest single tornado in decades in Joplin, and the following couple of days were seriously ominous in Kansas City, with tornado warning sirens going off for hours at a time.

Springfield's only a few hundred miles from KC, so it was with some trepidation that I checked the Springfield forecast last Wednesday, but it looked good for racing. As I packed my gear on Friday night I thought, Rain jacket? Nah...
Every kind of gear except rain gear.
That was mistake number one. You should always pack rain gear, so that it won't rain. At 0630 this morning, I collected photographer Phil Peterson and we headed east from Kansas City into unbroken heavy cloud cover. (Phil's never shot or even attended a flat track race but if you check out his portfolio, here, you'll understand why I'm eager to see the images he comes back with.) Phil mentioned that he'd checked the weather forecast just before going to bed and they'd changed the forecast to a 40% chance of rain. Still, we got all the way to the Illinois State Fairgrounds with just the finest smattering of droplets.

Then, as we were picking up credentials, I said, "Maybe it won't rain."

That was mistake number two. It started to rain. Then it started to pour. There was lightning. Toto, we're not in Hollywood any more. Oh, and then it hailed.

Nichole Cheza's team couldn't get their truck into the pits to remove their gear, so Nichole rode one of her bikes out to the road. Her dad(?) told her, "Try not to get it all muddy." Right.
Saturday's program - the Springfield TT - was canceled before it started, and rescheduled for Monday. With memories of recent tornados and flooding along the Mississippi in Illinois, the vibe wasn't, like, 'Let's go to the motel and watch TV,' as much as 'Let's get the heck out of here.'

The evacuation from the pit area of the multiuse stadium resembled the evacuation of Dunkirk (minus artillery and strafing runs, but you get the picture) with guys pulling trailers down from the parking lot to load all their gear creating gridlock for those trying to leave.

If anything it rained even harder later in the afternoon, and it remains to be seen what the Mile track will be like tomorrow.

So, I waited out the rain in a cafe downtown. To get online, I had to select a network. Judging from name of the top-listed network in this screen cap, there's at least one guy in Springfield who's less than enthused at the influx of Harleys...

Friday, May 27, 2011

The good news: Leno finally talks motorcycle racing on Tonight Show. The bad news: Leno's guest is Paris Hilton

Last summer, some friends at Yamaha asked me to pitch Jay Leno on the idea of Valentino Rossi as a guest for The Tonight Show. I've profiled Jay for a few magazines; I know he's a genuine gearhead, not some Hollywood twerp who bought a bike on his publicist's advice, because it would make him seem cool or macho. But, I also know that he's a bike guy, not really a racing guy.

Jay shut me down instantly when I suggested Rossi as a guest. He told me that The Tonight Show's producers knew from experience that racing doesn't hold the interest of mainstream American TV viewers. He cited one bad experience, which I think was Mario Andretti bombing on his show. And, he noted, "There's the accent thing." Apparently, Americans also don't like listening to guys with foreign accents. In fact, he'd learned over the decades that sports, period, didn't fly with Tonight Show viewers. "Maybe, if you can get the Superbowl-winning quarterback on the Monday after the game," Jay told me. "But even that..."
Leno mugs with Yamaha motorcycle division honcho Henio Arcangeli.
In the end, although Jay hosted the Yamaha MotoGP team at his garage, Rossi never showed. (He'd been injured by then, and had a great excuse.) After I'd told Jay it would be a small private party, Yamaha piled on about 150 guests. Jorge Lorenzo was a guest of the show, but not a guest on the show; he sat in the audience. If the camera panned across him during the broadcast, no special notice was taken of the MotoGP World Champion-in-waiting. Yamaha wanted to make Jay their guest at the Laguna Seca MotoGP round, but he had a scheduling conflict. (Jay and few garage employees later attended the Indy round.)

But now, World Championship motorcycle racing will place a guest on The Tonight Show - complete with a (mocked-up) bike appearance. The catch: Jay's guest will be Paris Hilton. Will she say anything intelligent about 'her' 125GP team? I desperately want Jay to ask her, "So Paris, tell us what you think about the upcoming transition from 125 two-strokes to Moto 3..."

Mission Motors: Motors yes, cycles no?

Last December, San Francisco's Mission Motors unveiled its striking, third-generation Mission R electric 'superbike' racing machine and told the world it would be contesting the U.S. TTXGP racing series. The company didn't mention the fact that the battery pack on the Mission R was, at that point, still a mock-up.

Two weeks before the first U.S. TTXGP race (May 15, at Infineon Raceway, just north of San Francisco) I heard that the bike had yet to turn a wheel on the track; Mission was cutting it fine. A week before the race, I was told that it might be displayed at the track, but that it certainly wouldn't be entered after problems were encountered on the dyno. Sure enough, last weekend the bike was displayed in the paddock, but it never left it's track-stand. (Lightning Motors was another prominent DNS at the event.)
You know you want one. There were a few commentators - me included - who felt that the Mission R was the bike that made electric sportbikes relevant. The question is: Will it ever see serial production? I think not.
This could be seen as business as usual for Mission which, like many startups, has a history of releasing impressive specs, then failing to deliver. In nearby Silicon Valley, where Mission recruits a lot of engineers, there's three main industries: companies produce computer software, hardware, and vaporware. But in Mission's case, the delay's not just a case of a company taking a little longer to fulfill promises. I believe it reflects a whole new, uh, corporate mission...

A history lesson

The company now known as Mission Motors was formed in 2007 as Hum Cycles. The founders were Forrest North (CEO), Edward West (President), and Mason Cabot (VP Engineering). Although most of the core group had worked on electric car projects in university, U.S. regulations make putting a new car on the road a lot more expensive than homologating a motocycle. (Crash testing a car costs several million dollars alone.)

Seeking a quick, easy, and affordable point of entry into the EV business, Hum Cycles' first project was to strip the motor and gas tank out of an old Ducati supersport bike, and pack it with batteries and an electric motor. That was shown at a Bay Area 'green technology' fair, to attract some initial investment.

In the winter of 2009, the company - by then renamed Mission Motors - released images of the Mission One, a sci-fi looking motorcycle designed by Yves Behar, best-known for styling personal computers. The company said that within the year, it would be selling bikes with a 150mph top speed and a 150-mile range. The rest of the fledgling electric motorcycle industry scoffed at those claims. No one laughed at the price, though. The Mission One was to sell for almost $70,000.
I didn't hate the Yves Behar-penned Mission 1 quite as much as some people, and I have to say that back when Mission still let me attend their tests, I got some pics of it that made it look as good as it could possibly look. Still, the rap on the second-gen Mission prototype was - lots of claims, no deliveries.
The Mission One put in an under-whelming appearance at the Isle of Man TT in 2009. Tom Montano finished fourth in the TTXGP 'Pro' class with an average speed of 74 mph. To make matters worse, the worst recession in memory had brought motorcycle sales to a screeching halt. It was the wrong time to be taking deposits on a motorcycle with strange styling, questionable performance, but the unmistakable price tag of a Desmosedici.

Mission went back to the drawing board in 2010, bringing in well known American motorcycle designer James Parker and stylist Tim Prentice to pen the all-new Mission R.

That was then, this is now...

As an outsider looking in, it seemed to me that the company was learning that investment capital buys seats on corporate boards, and that investors often take a far more sanguine view than engineers do, of passions like motorcycling in general, and racing in particular. Forrest North was moved out of the CEO's office in February, 2010. He remains on the company's Board of Directors, but isn't talking publicly about his change of status, or Mission's strategy going forward.
Development rider, and Bay Area TT stalwart Tom Montano poses with then-CEO Forrest North. The latter is still nominally on the Mission board, but with Mission's Silicon Valley-style secrecy cult, it's safe to say he won't be talking about the company's change in strategy.

Last winter, the normally-secretive company let slip that it had provided systems for a Honda Civic hybrid car that was racing in California. At that time, I wondered if we were seeing a shift in emphasis from Mission Motors as a freestanding motorcycle manufacturer, to Mission Motors as a designer or supplier of powertrain components for the auto industry.

The appearance of the Mission R at Infineon Raceway last weekend seems to suggest that Mission Motors still has two-wheeled aspirations, but appearances can be deceiving. Stylist Tim Prentice told me that while he has ideas about what a 'street' version of the race bike would look like, there hadn't been much interest at Mission. Really? Most motorcycle companies design a street bike then give thought to the version they'll race.

One employee told me, "I'd be fired if they heard me say this, but there are two factions inside Mission. One faction still loves bikes, and the other doesn't care about them at all. The group that love bikes are not the ones who are in positions of influence."

A couple of months ago, I got an email with an interesting attachment. It was a PowerPoint presentation that Mission had obviously prepared for potential investors. No contractor or freelancer would have access to such material, so the leak must have some from inside Mission, although by the time I got it, I had no way of knowing who, at Mission, wanted the presentation leaked. What was noteworthy about it was that in the first ten pages of the 25-slide presentation, there were over 20 photos of cars before the first photo of a bike appeared, and that was under the heading, 'Concept Vehicle.'

On one slide, under the heading 'Leadership,' seven employees and board members are listed, including David Moll, of the venture capital firm Infield Capital, but none of the original founders are mentioned.

Although the PowerPoint deck I received was intended as visual support for a presentation that Mission's management would have made in person, and is as such not a comprehensive expose of the firm's strategy, it's clear that motorcycles represent a negligible part of the company's plans, and that in fact the largest 'motorcycle' role envisioned is as a powertrain supplier for an unnamed 'Major Powersports Manufacturer.' The implication is that some frustrated member of the 'bike-loving' faction inside Mission wanted to leak the news that the company was not really in the motorcycle business any more.

At the end of the presentation, there's a slide which explains the "Purpose of [the] Mission Motorcycle" that almost reads as an excuse, to potential investors, for a vehicle that could seem frivolous. Mission cites four reasons for continuing the Mission R progam: That it provides a platform for development, demonstrates performance, builds the Mission brand, and helps to recruit top engineering talent. On the same slide, the company almost sheepishly promises to finance racing efforts through sponsorship, and sell the motorcycle ("at high margin") at the end of the year.

Neither Mission Motors, the company, nor Mission R, the motorcycle, 'demonstrate performance' by failing to make an appearance on the grid at Infineon. Since they've got a cooling system for their motor, and because the battery part of the equation seems well-understood, my guess is that the problems were encountered in the controller and software that regulate the power to make the bike rideable and manage battery life. This is a common teething problem with electric vehicles; I'm sure it would have been solved if Mission's engineers had been able to test the bike on a dyno a few weeks earlier.

As I write this, I assume the Mission R will race at the combined FIM ePower/TTXGP event at Laguna Seca later this summer. But that racing effort is intended to prove Mission's technological prowess - mostly to car manufacturers. They won't be racing to create demand for a Mission road bike.

Did Mission lose its ambition to manufacture high-performance electric sports bikes because it does not foresee the U.S. motorcycle market rebounding strongly enough to create a viable market for high-priced sport bikes? Did investors tell the company, "OK, you've had your fun with motorcycles. Now it's time to grow up and do cars"? Or did Mission learn, while working on that Honda hybrid car project, that Honda's motorcycle division had a bike in development that would crush the aspirations of any of the upstart, electric-only motorcycle companies?

It's not obvious to me why the company hasn't clarified its long-term strategy in the motorcycle press. Perhaps it feels that it would be perceived as dithering, or that it's cried 'wolf!' once too often by releasing photos of bikes to fanfare in the press, which later prove to be a disappointment on the tarmac.

Either way, you read it here first: No matter how well the gorgeous Mission R performs when it's eventually raced, it's unlikely that you'll ever be able to buy a road-going version. Mission's getting out of the motorcycle business.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Harley-Davidson's XRllent Adventure: Jared Mees

In Michigan, 'Buy American' is part patriotism and part a recognition that U.S. manufacturing is still vitally important to the state's economic survival. Admittedly, Harley-Davidson is a Wisconsin - not a Michigan - company, but the core group of AMA Pro flat trackers that hail from the wolverine state all grew up dreaming of racing all-American motorcycles on America's iconic dirt tracks.

One of those guys is Jared Mees. The 2009 GNC champion started racing XR-750s in the twins championship in the days of the 'twingles' and has stuck with them right through the current 32mm-restrictor-plate period. So he's been one of the fastest flat trackers through a period in which the venerable XR has adapted to tighter and tighter rules, all the while facing stiffer and stiffer competition from the likes of Ducati and Kawasaki. Last season was the first time in decades that Harley-Davidson's dominance at GNC twins races was even challenged, but Mees' faith in the Harley is not shaken. Of the XR riders I've chatted with over the last few weeks, he's been the most unabashed defender of Harley-Davidson's bike motor and the company's larger role in the sport of flat track.

As far as the bike's concerned, "The motor configuration for dirt rack is the key," he told me. "The torque and big, heavy flywheel that allow it to hook up 90 horsepower. There are motorcycles out there that make a boatload of horsepower but getting them hooked up is another story."

Traction is what it's all about. For a few years, the search for traction caused teams to 'twingle' their XRs. A twingled XR-750 fired both cylinders at almost the same time, so that it rode like a massive single. The widely-spaced power pulses allowed the rear tire maximum time to find traction. (Twingling was, from a traction point of view, exactly the same thing Grand Prix roadracing teams did when they adopted 'big bang' motors.)

"They sounded terrible," Mees told me. "But they were a lot easier to ride on the slipperier half-miles. They were banned because people said the twingles were wearing parts out too fast, but it depends on who you talk to." When they were banned, Mees' tuner, Johnny Goad, quickly came up with a permutation of crank weight, compression, cam timing, exhaust tuning - the usual mix of XR science, art, and alchemy - that gave Mees a pretty good edge. It helped that Mees had good throttle control even as an up-and-comer; he chased Kenny Coolbeth to second place in the GNC in the first post-Twingle season (which, if memory serves, was '07) and between the two of them they won almost all the half-mile events.

"The engine's been around for so long that you'd think everyone would know all the tricks," he told me. A small handful of guys - Mike Stauffer, Phil Darcy, Ron Hamp - do almost all the headwork, for example. "But," Mees added, "There are always a few tricks people keep on the down low."

Although he doesn't sugar-coat the issue of parts costs, or the life-expectancy of a built XR-750, Jared sees another side to those high costs, and that's Harley-Davidson't consistent investment in pro flat track. "Sure, you could build a Kawasaki like Bill Werner's for a lot less than a Harley," he told me, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he added, "But Kawasaki won't give you any help. I'm not knocking Kawasaki, it's a great company and they make great bikes, but they post contingency for WERA and CCS road races that are just club races, and they still won't put up money in our Singles championship - a national championship that Kawasaki riders have won for the last two years. I mean, what do we have to do?"

"So on paper, the 650 Kawasaki is cheaper to run. But you can't walk into a Kawasaki or Ducati dealership and get any support. Meanwhile, the top ten [GNC] guys all seem to be supported by a Harley-Davidson dealership. So the parts are expensive, but if you're getting some for free or at a discount through a sponsor - I get great support from Blue Springs Harley-Davidson - and if I finish in the top 10, I get contingency money from Harley," he told me. "For me, it's a no-brainer."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pikes Peak winner, stunt star Greg Tracy stars as self in Hot Wheels promo

One of my favorite people, Hollywood stunt star Greg Tracy, appears as himself in this brilliant Hot Wheels promo directed by Mouse McCoy, of 'Dust to Glory' fame. Yeah, baby!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ariel Warfare

When I interviewed Homer Knapp last winter, he mentioned a friend of his, Chuck Walton. Chuck, who is 81, is still the go-to guy when it comes to Ariel Square Fours here in the 'States. Homer casually told me that back when Chuck flew cargo planes for the U.S. Air Force, he frequently brought Square Fours back from the U.K. on military flights.

At that point in our chat, what I was thinking was, "Are you serious?!? If he'd been caught he'd've been court-martialed!" But I didn't blurt that out because I didn't want Homer to clam up, or call his friend and warn him that he'd been outed.

So instead I casually asked, "How many did he bring over?"

"Oh, hundreds." said Homer. Again, I played it cool, because I wanted to call and catch his friend unawares. I loved the idea of an avid motorcyclist bootlegging motorcycles in military aircraft; it was right out of Catch-22. I made a point of looking Chuck up; he was easy to reach through the Ariel Motorcycle Club of North America, where they've known him since the 1960s.

He grew up on a farm in Illinois, so being handy with equipment came with the territory. He was too young to serve in WWII, but his older brother was selected for pilot training. After the war, his brother (stationed at March Field in Riverside) invited Chuck out to California.

"That was it," he told me. "Mom and Dad lost the boys off the farm."
How ya' gonna' keep 'em on the farm when they've moved to California and taken up motorsickles?
Chuck got a job working for an oil company, and joined the Air National Guard because they promised to train him as an aircraft mechanic. So on weekends, he trained and worked on P-51s, which is pretty much starting at the top of the heap as far as being a mechanic goes. When the Korean War broke out, they needed him full-time; from then until he retired, he worked as a technician, then flight engineer on Boeing C97 Stratofreighters and Lockheed C-130s.

"The first time I ever heard a Square Four was in 1949. I was on the bus in L.A.," he told me, "and a guy rode past on a motorcycle that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. It sounded like an Offenhauser-engined sprint car. I saw the bike turn a corner a couple of blocks ahead, and I jumped off the bus. That was when I found Johnson Motors; they were the Ariel distributor on the west coast."

He finally bought a new Mk II - a four-piper - in '57. Before he'd put 3,000 miles on it, he realized it was going to take a bit of work to make it reliable. The alloy castings were crap; studs pulled out, valve seats and guides came loose, they had oiling problems, and cooling was marginal at best in that warm climate. Incidentally, he still owns his Mk II, along with one of each Ariel model.
Yes, that is an Ariel Square-4 with a sidecar carrying... an Ariel Square-4. Or should I say, 'Spare-4'?
Not long afterwards Ariel ceased production of the fours. The bikes had never been too common in the U.S., and parts got scarce - especially for guys like Chuck, who looked at every traffic light as an opportunity for a drag race. In the early '60s, a couple of Southern California guys started the Ariel club, and Chuck showed up for the second meeting.

"At first, they told me I would have to start out as an 'associate member'," he recalled. "But as soon as they realized I was flying to England every few weeks, they made me a full member."

As we talked, he got around to telling me that from 1960 to 1990, he made hundreds of flights back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K.

"Oh," I asked coyly, "did you bring any of your bikes back from England?"

"Some of 'em, yeah."

When I pressed him for details, he got a little cagey, claiming "I only brought parts. The customs guys gave you a lot of grief if they saw an entire motorcycle; you had to have the log book and there was a ton of paperwork."

Chuck claims it was all above board; everything was scrupulously listed on the manifest as 'motorcycle parts.' Of course, if you can rebuild a P-51, you can break down an Ariel Square Four and reassemble it in your sleep. Not that he was sleeping much. "I'd be awake for three days straight, running around buying stuff," he recalled. "In the '60s, in England, nobody wanted Ariel stuff. I'd see an ad, and go to find bikes rusting under the eaves."

By the 1980s, it was getting harder to bring disassembled motorcycles back in military cargo planes. This would be a better story if Homer's guess that his friend brought 'hundreds' of bikes back was true, but I'm sure that he didn't bring nearly that many. Still, by Chuck's own count he's rebuilt nearly a hundred Square Fours for club members, and it's safe to say that many of them are running thanks to parts airlifted in, courtesy of the unwitting United States Air Force.

Then, Chuck dropped an intriguing bombshell of his own. You see, while customs officials inspected returning cargo flights, they lacked the security clearance needed to inspect the bomb bays of the Strategic Air Command's B-52 nuclear bombers.

"It got to be more trouble than it was worth for me to bring stuff in," Chuck told me. "But the SAC guys used to tie stuff up in their bomb bays."

At the thought, I imagined war breaking out and a routine SAC flight being diverted to bomb Moscow. I pictured the Russkies being pelted with motorcycles.

"Vott iss ziss?" Ivan would wonder. "Iss itt aerial vorrfare, or Ariel vorrfare?"

Friday, May 20, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Historical background to Harley-Davidson's XRllent adventure...

The origins of the current Harley-Davidson XR-750 date back to the Great Depression. Until the early 1930s, the fastest, factory-backed motorcycles ridden by pro riders were single-cylinder 30.50 cu. in. Class A machines. Those bikes were too expensive to race in the Depression, however. Even the big factories like Harley-Davidson and Indian dramatically cut back support for Class A.

Faced with the need to either introduce new rules to control costs, or watch fields wither and die, the AMA Competition Committee published new Class C rules in 1933. Those rules allowed production-based 45 cu. in. side-valve twins to race against 30.50 cu. in. overhead-valve bikes, provided those machines had compression ratios of less than 7.5:1.

For the next 30 years, the governing body of American motorcycle racing pretty much unabashedly maintained rules that favored American-made motorcycles, or at least allowed U.S. manufacturers to field competitive machines with minimal research and development costs. By the 1960s, however, America's motorcycle landscape was changing while the rules stayed the same. Class C competition was by then a straight us-versus-all-the-rest-of-them fight in which 750cc, V-twin side-valve Harley-Davidson KRs raced against 500cc or smaller overhead-valve singles and twins imported from Britain, Europe and, increasingly, Japan.
This minimalist KR from the late '50s betrays some creative drillwork. Every ounce counts!
By 1967 (a boom year for U.S. motorcycle sales) Honda commanded a 50% market share, but there was still no Japanese representation on the MS&ATA (by then the 'Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association had somehow become the 'Motor Scooter and Allied Trades Association'. No matter what name it went by, it was the industry's main voice in the AMA.

The major Japanese importers formed their own trade association, the Southern California Motorcycle Safety Council. The name was innocuous, but when it attracted the interest of the British importers, too, the AMA realized that if it didn't level the playing field by changing the eligibility rules for Class C, the SCMSC would probably start sanctioning its own races.

The AMA Competition Congress met in the fall of 1968, to propose new Class C rules for the upcoming season. The 'import' bloc initially proposed raising the displacement limit for OHV motors to 650cc. Walter Davidson then countered with a motion proposing a limit of 750cc. This would seem to have been against Harley-Davidson's interests, but his thinking was that it would be easier for Harley-Davidson to develop a 750cc OHV race motor based on the existing KR design than create a new 650cc twin from scratch. That was put to a vote, and I can picture the 'import' delegates scratching their heads as they agreed to it. Then, Davidson immediately moved to delay the implementation of the rules until 1970 in order to give The Motor Company time to field a new bike. That was voted down. Those revised Class C rules still form the basis of the rules which now define racing motors in the GNC Twins class.

Walter Davidson might have envisioned a new OHV version of the KR (a production racer that had been made in both a flat track and KRTT road-racing versions for almost 20 years at that point.) But in fact, Harley's OHV racing twin was based on the 883cc Sportster street bike. Dick O'Brien, who ran the Harley race shop as a sort of personal fiefdom, and Pieter Zylstra (a H-D engineer) destroked a Sportster motor, producing an 'iron-head' XR for the 1970 season.

It was not, by any means, an overnight success. The top end couldn't dissipate the heat produced in racing. But Harley-Davidson cast alloy heads and made cylinders with a larger finned area. The alloy XR was a potent weapon on flat tracks, and the XRTT road-racing version was good enough for Mark Brelsford to win the (then combined) AMA Grand National Championship in 1972.

Harley-Davidson produced complete XR race bikes in limited quantities until 1980. By then, independent frame-builders were producing better chassis, and the factory saw no point in making and selling frames that weren't being used. In the late '80s, Harley stopped assembling XR motors, since by that time when teams took delivery of a new motor, they took it apart and tweaked it anyway.
By the mid-'70s, the modern XR-750 had (twin shock) rear suspension and a rear brake, to go with those newfangled overhead valves. Its teething problems over, it would go on to dominate the GNC for 30+ years.
 Except for the few years in which Honda created its own version of the XR - and an even-shorter period in which a few Japanese manufacturers fielded flat track bikes powered by two-stroke road racing motors - the XR has dominated GNC flat track racing ever since. It's pretty much accepted wisdom that the same uneven firing order that gives the Harley its characteristic 'potato-potato' sound at idle gives it a natural 'big bang' firing order that helps it to hook up on a dirt track.

In future Blue Groove installments, I'm going to check in with some respected XR tuners to find out what other advantages the XR offers, and what has to be done to minimize some of its disadvantages - not the least of which is the rule specifying 32mm restrictor plates.

Notes from the Blue Groove: Harley-Davidson's XRllent adventure, continued...

The Mile tracks are still dominated by Harley-Davidson XR-750s, and the half-miles are utterly dominated by them. So how is it that a motor designed over 40 years ago stays competitive against far more modern engines? The question's even more interesting when you consider that XRs compete under rules that are literally more restricted - AMA Pro Racing's technical rules insist that as purpose-built racing motors (as opposed to motors pulled from production street bikes) the Harleys' intakes include a 32mm restrictor plate.

One team that clearly hasn't been too hampered by their bike's ancient two-valve, pushrod architecture and those restrictor plates is Zanotti Racing. Their XR-750s were fast enough to win Jake Johnson the championship last year.

Motion Pro is one of Zanotti's sponsors. Motion Pro's Chris Van Andel, who has a keen eye for trick parts, recently told me, "If you take a good close look at Zanotti's XRs, you'll see they're full of unique components they make themselves." Van Andel raved about the amount of high-tech effort the team's put into extracting as much power out of the Harley twin, while building in as much reliability as possible.

I didn't expect Dave Zanotti to tell me all (or really any) of his secrets, but I still thought he'd be a good place to start, in terms of learning what it takes to win a championship with a motor that's decades older than the guy riding the bike. Read to the bottom to get a hilarious perspective how Dave, as a team owner, thinks of his rider as a stray dog...

"In past years, we had to run 33mm restrictor plates on the miles, and we could run wide open on the half-miles," Dave told me. " Now, we have to run 32mm restrictor plates - that's to allow other bikes to be competitive with the XR-750. We lost about 5 horsepower going from 33mm to 32mm, but you have to keep in mind that the carb is a 38mm, so in total, the restrictor plate probably costs us 15 horsepower."

In order to get some of that horsepower back, Zanotti is pushing his XR-750s to higher and higher redlines. The bikes he's building for Jake Johnson rev at least 1,500 rpm higher than the XR-750s Dave's dad fielded for Steve Eklund back in the '70s.

Dave pays a price to rev those old pushrod motors so hard. The cases crack around the main bearing journals, and rod bearings - which, brace yourself, cost $1,000 a piece - heat up and fail. Whereas motors used to last a few races between major rebuilds, Zanotti Racing now has to inspect them thoroughly after every race.

As Dave bemoaned the amount of work - and the parts budget - needed to keep an XR-750 competitive, I asked him if he ever considered switching to a rival brand. "Oh, every day!" he replied. "We could buy a Japanese motor in a crate for a tenth of what we pay for a XR motor. And when you take delivery of an XR motor, it comes in a 5' x 5' x 2' crate. Every part is in an envelope. You have to send the heads out for work and the cylinders out to get nikasil-treated, and you have to assemble it from scratch."

There's subtle differences in tuning philosophies among top builders. It seems that the smaller restrictor plates have caused oversized valves to fall out of vogue a little. Compression ratios vary. Dave told me that although they like to stay in the 10:1-11:1 range, he's heard of people running as high as 14:1. While no one wants to share the intimate details of their XR builds, he described Zanotti Racing's approach in general terms. Basically, his goal is to lighten internals a bit to allow the motor to spin to higher rpm without shaking itself apart. The team never stops looking for any tiny advantage.

"I have an environmental company," Dave told me. "But every day, I'll be driving out to a work site or sitting in a meeting with clients, thinking about tweaking a PVL ignition to get a hotter spark, or trying different exhaust cones.

Mostly though, Zanotti's preparation philosophy recognizes that to finish first, you have to first finish. "My mechanic is just so finicky," he told me. "If other teams realized how much attention to detail we put into preparing for every race... I don't think they'd do it; I think they'd all change brands."

What keeps Zanotti in the Harley-Davidson camp - at least for the foreseeable future - is that after all the expense and hassle in the engine room, XR-powered bikes still out-handle all their rivals on the track. Dave thinks it's down to the heavy old crankshaft being located so close to the front wheel that bikes can keep weight on the front and steer better through the turns. And the Harley's been so dominant for so long that the people who prepare tracks basically define a good track as one that's good for Harleys.

"Other motors probably have 20 more horsepower, but if you can't put it to the ground, it's not going to do you any good," Dave told me. "Jake said, when he got to the Kawasaki at Springfield he couldn't stay in the draft. When Henry was on the Aprilia, you couldn't draft it, either." But while he'd love to deliver that kind of power to Jake, he knows they'd spend the next two or three years struggling to put any other brand of motor into a package that would handle, especially on the slippery half-miles.

So instead of spending pennies on the dollar, and buying more power and reliability, Zanotti Racing will spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing Jake's XR-750 for Springfield, where it will run just about wide open, non-stop, for 25 miles... if they're lucky.

"We put so much time into this," Dave told me as our conversation was coming to a close. "None of us get paid, and maybe that's part of our success. We don't have to do it, we want to do it."

Then he mixed a funny metaphor, making a statement that both made me smile and think, 'This is why I'm a journalist.'

"When you have a rider that steps up, it's like a dog that steps up on your porch," Dave told me. "Once you feed it, you have to keep feeding it, because he's going to come back. When someone starts depending on you, you have to follow through. We feel that we have to work to our full potential, because our rider's giving us his full potential."

Finally - and I think he was talking about a race team, but it also applies to that big crate of parts you get from Harley-Davidson when you order a new XR-750 motor - Dave said, "When it all comes together, it's a beautiful thing."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Parsing the weekend's TTXGP lap times

A regular Backmarker reader/intel source emailed me this morning, to ruminate on the times that the Brammo Empulse RR put in around Infineon this weekend. "I was interested to read about the TTXGP at Infineon this weekend," my friend wrote. " I wonder how fast Tommy Hayden or Steve Rapp would have gone on the top bike?"

For the record, Steve Atlas lapped in the 1:55 range in the under-subscribed TTXGP races. That was fast enough to win by a wide margin, and to knock a little less than two seconds off the course record for EV motorcycles. To put that in perspective, Steve would probably not have finished last in the slowest ICE race of the weekend, for Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200s. He would have finished second-last.

But all else being equal, I doubt that anyone else would have gone faster. Steve's finished well inside the top 10 in the Daytona 200. He's got genuine AMA Pro-level speed and it's safe to say that he's quite a bit faster than that bike.

His 1:55 time might have come down a tad if there had been another bike on the track to push him, although having been on track with him a lot over the years, I think he's pretty much got one speed, which is as-fast-as-possible. It's more likely that limiting factors were 1.) lack of quality seat time on the bike - I think they tested at a couple of track days, and that's it; and, 2.) fears that the motor problems that showed up in testing would resurface in the race, if they pushed any more power through the Parker unit.

Where does that leave me feeling about the Empulse RR's performance? I admit to being a little surprised that the very tidy-looking machine was 'only' a couple of seconds faster than the Lightning and ZeroAgni ridden by Michael Barnes and Scott Higbee last year. Two seconds a lap is a big improvement in relative terms, but in absolute terms the gap between the fastest current (no pun intended) EV motorcycles and fast ICE bikes is still about 20%. An eternity, in racing terms. My friend Chris Van Andel dug into recent AFM records and wrote to tell me that Steve, on the Brammo, would only have been able to finish 32nd (out of 36 finishers) in the AFM's most recent 600 Superbike club race.

And those are over short race distances that avoid the EV's current (argh) weakness. The winners of the 2009 Bol d'Or rode a Suzuki GSX-R1000 2,233 miles in 24 hours. I doubt that any EV motorcycle could get half as far.

So on the battery's-half-drained side, it seems that dreams the TTXGP/FIM e-Power/TT Zero field would soon close the gap to ICE lap times have been dashed. Even extrapolating current rates of improvement in a straight line, it will be over a decade before EV bikes are competitive with ICE bikes -- and anyone who has ever developed a race bike knows that the first seconds come easy, but that the last tenths come very, very hard. The sparse Infineon TTXGP grid, too, speaks to the fact that some investor enthusiasm's been drained.

From the battery's-half-charged point of view, the Empulse RR would not have been completely embarrassed in the Sportster 1200 race. I rode that Sportster at Road America when it was launched, and I had a blast on it. If an EV motorcycle is already capable of providing that much entertainment, it's a good first step.

Let's see if Brammo stays focused on developing the Empulse RR for the rest of the season, and if they reach a point where they're confident they can drain the battery over the race distance, without blowing up the motor. Let's see whether Mission, Lightning, and some of the other next-gen, lighter EV race bikes like the Amarok can walk the walk as well as they talk the talk.

I guess the lesson here is, EV race teams release these sexy photos and sketches, and it's hard not to get excited. But the pace of EVolution demands patience.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Bryan Smith returns to Harley, after a season on the Dark Side

There was a lot of buzz, last year, as Ducati and Kawasaki-powered bikes carried Joe Kopp and Bryan Smith to wins on Mile tracks - the first non-Harleys to score Grand National Championship wins, on big tracks, in decades.


At the end of the year, the top four riders in the GNC twins class were all guys who'd spent the season on XR-750s - a motorcycle that entered production long before any of them were born. If the venerable XR could talk, it would probably quote Mark Twain and drily note, "Rumors of my demise have been exaggerated."

Over the next few Blue Groove installments, I'll seek an explanation for the XR's long dominance over the GNC, cover some of the motor's history, and try to look into its future.

The best place to begin this education is in Michigan, in Bryan Smith's shop. After years of being a top GNC contender on Harley-Davidsons (Smith came within one out-of-spec fuel sample of winning the championship in 2009) Bryan switched to Kawasaki, riding for Bill Werner, in 2010. He was the most consistent 'non-Harley' threat last year. He won two races while riding Werner's 'Ninja'.

Actually, maybe instead of just saying "riding" I should say "riding the wheels off" the Kawasaki twin.
Watching him from trackside, it was clear that Bryan was taking the Kawasaki right to the ragged edge. It rewarded him with those two 'Mile' wins, but remained intractable on the half-miles. Joe Kopp, who used the Lloyd Bros.' Ducati on the Miles didn't even attempt to ride the Duc on half-miles tracks; he rode his Latus Harley-Davidson on those ones. So despite all the attention paid to 'new brands' in the sport last year, the XR was still dominant on most of the Miles, and utterly dominant on the half-miles.

When I called him up to chat the other day, he wasn't exactly praying to the gods of fast hogs, but he was on his knees in his shop, bolting up XR750 motor mounts. While he worked, be talked about the strengths and weaknesses of both the XR and newer, production-based bikes like the Kawasaki that compete under much freer rules...
Despite his promising season on the Kawasaki last year, Smith's back on Harley-Davidson XR-750s this year, on bikes supplied by Moroney's /1-800-FASTHOG with additional support from American Harley-Davidson of North Tonawanda NY. 

Bryan knows that the 'imports' are going to make life difficult on the fastest tracks. "It's not going to be easy [to win on the Miles] because the Kawasaki is really fast, and Brad Baker's taken over Joe Kopp's Ducati ride at Lloyd Brothers and he's a hell of rider too, so between him and Schnabel [the imports] will be in the hunt."

But, he explained, without a lot of development, the imports will still be a real handful on the half-mile tracks. "The tracks I see all them bikes struggling on are the slicker tracks," he said, "where it comes more to handling than horsepower. That's what the Harley does - it gets every last drop of horsepower to the ground and going forward."

I kept a close eye on Smith, and the Kawasaki, last year. Everyone in a GNC main event is riding fast, but I told Bryan that from my perspective, standing at trackside, he seemed to be pushing harder than anyone else. It looked pretty hairy.

"You should have seen the view from over the handlebar," he laughed. "Yeah, there were more 'moments' and more big moments on the Kawasaki. There were a lot of times last year when if I was a little smarter, I probably would have let off a little, but thank God and knock on wood, I never crashed it real big." 
One thing I was curious about was the difference between shift the Kawi and the XR-750. "Yeah!" Bryan told me, "There is a huge difference. First off, the XR shifts on the right side, and the Kawi shifts on the left like most all modern bikes. The Harley is obviously an old design, which means it shifts like an old engine! There is kinda a whole technique to getting the XR off the starting line without missing shifts or stomping the shift lever right off!  It has a 4 speed tranny, and comes stock with 1 down and 3 up, however basically everyone on the circuit flips the shift plate so it will shift 1 up, and 3 down. I call it a 'stomp-o-matic'. We always run high gear on the XR and never shift during races. Even if you could actually physically do it lap after lap, I doubt the tranny would hold up.

Bryan added, "The Kawi shifts really good, just line any modern Japanese engine. It's a 6 speed, but we never used high gear; we always ran the bike in 5th. I never had the need to shift the way Kopp did, on the Ducati a few times, but that option is definitely available with the Kawasaki engine.
"On the Kawasaki," he continued, "everything happens twice as fast. If it pushes the front, it pushes it quick; if it snaps sideways, it snaps sideways quick. There were a couple of times last year that I crashed the Kawasaki; I'd be lap after lap, right on that fine line pushing the limit. Then I messed up, pushed the front and 'Bam!' I was down. I'm not good enough to ride that fine line for 25 laps, I guess!"

By comparison, the Harley gives its riders a little more feedback as it reaches its limits. "For as old as it is, it's a darn good engine for what we do with it," Brian told me. "You can ask Bill Werner, or Kenny Tolbert; there's a million reasons why it shouldn't work. Compared to seeing the parts of a Kawasaki, and seeing the dyno runs on those bikes, you'd think it would be no problem to beat these old Harleys, but then the thing gets on the track and it just goes forward."

In Smith's case, "these old Harleys" is not just a figure of speech, his bikes are literally old. They're built on C&J frames - the advantage of that is, they're one of the most proven and best-understood chassis in the sport. But Mike Hacker, Jake Johnson, and Smith have all won on those very frames in past years, and even good steel can only take so much pounding before metal fatigue sets in.

Keeping the bikes together and running is sort of a family affair. Bryan's helped out at the track by his dad Barry. "This year, with the XRs being restricted more than ever, on the faster tracks you're going to have to tweak them with everything you've got to beat the Kawasakis and the Ducati," said Smith. "But, I'm not doing a whole lot different than I've done before. I had one of the fastest Harleys in the last couple of years before I rode the Kawasaki. Basically, you have to do your homework. It's hard to explain; the Harley world's so tight; there's only a handful of guys that can build a competitive Harley. [A lot of Bryan's motor work is done by Dave Schopieray; Ron Hamp ports his heads.] I was fortunate enough to have one of the fastest Harleys out there over the last few seasons. I'm confident that I'll have a good one again this year."

After a season spent trying to develop the Kawasaki at race days - that are frantic at the best of times - where riders have a couple of minutes to form an impression of how their bikes are handling, and then mechanics have only have a few minutes to work on bikes between sessions, Bryan's looking forward to a season in which reliability is his only concern. "Riding a proven bike, you've already got one piece of the puzzle in place," he said. "I'm pretty confident that I could take one of these bikes to Springfield and, without even practicing, be in the lead draft in the race just because I'm so comfortable with the bike and I've ridden it so much."

That sentiment pretty much sets up the story as we enter the 'Twins' phase of the Grand National Championship. The storyline on the Mile tracks is, how much more ground will the 'imports' make up on the XR-750s? Will the production-based machines actually find a consistent advantage, or will wins by non-Harleys go back to being the exceptions that prove the rule? The storyline on the half-miles is, will any of the imports find traction?

The handling of the XRs is predictable. And for years it's been predictable that they'd win all the races, too. At this point, I think most people would bet that over the course of the 2011 season, Harley-Davidson XR-750s will prevail again. But for how much longer? That's hard to predict...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wise guy: The knuckleheaded memoir of a kid growing up in the '50s

The first Friday of every month is a big deal in the Crossroads district of Kansas City, which is home to dozens of art galleries and artists' studios. I don't know how many people come down for it, but on a nice spring evening, it can seem as if they've emptied the suburbs.

Last Friday, I dropped in at the Hilliard Gallery, drawn in by a collection of witty sculptures, made out of repurposed tools and scrap metal.
I was drawn into the Hilliard Gallery by gearhead art -- and I don't just mean art for gearheads, it was literally gearheaded; anthropomorphized robots actually had gears in their heads.
When a mutual friend (architect and motorcyclist Jim van Eman) introduced me to the artist, Guinotte Wise, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that he, too, was a motorcyclist.

Guinotte reminisced about his first motorcycle, a Harley Knucklehead. He kept it at a neighbor's house so his parents wouldn't see it, and rode it to school despite being too young for a driver's license. He actually got a cardboard 'souvenir' license plate from a box of Wheaties, and dangled that off the saddle of the bike. Either it was realistic enough to fool the Kansas City cops, or he was lucky enough that they never noticed it, or maybe they just cut the kid some slack; it was, after all, a different time.

When he told me, "I sat in school all day just waiting to be reunited with it. I used to start that bike, and I became a different person," I said, Wait a minute, and pulled out a voice recorder thinking, If he was going to say stuff like that, I want to capture it for a future Backmarker.
Guns are another recurring theme in artist Guinotte Wise' work. I guess that's not surprising in a town that mythologizes the shooting of 'Pretty Boy' Floyd at Union Station, and where neighboring Clay County MO has a festival celebrating Jesse James (the real outlaw, not the outlaw biker.)
As it turned out, we had even more in common. Guinotte had also spent a career in the ad business. In fact, he'd moved from Kansas City to Milwaukee specifically to work for Hoffman York, the ad agency that handled the Harley-Davidson account at the time. He started out as the art director assigned to fleet advertising, and ended up running all the creative for The Motor Company. "I don't even know if Hoffman York is still in business," Guinotte said. (They are, though they're now known as HY Connect. They don't do any motorcycle business, but they do handle the Yamaha outboard motor account.)

Guinotte, by then on another Harley, had seen Easy Rider and ordered a pair of 8"-over fork legs to get that cool chopper look. After the supplier misinterpreted his letter and sent 18"-over tubes, he figured that he'd use them at that length rather than cut 'em. He and his buddies raked out his frame by heating the frame tubes and bending 'em that much. At the time, Harley-Davidson was careful to distance itself from the outlaw biker image, and Harley employees who rode choppers weren't allowed into the parking lots; they had to park them off the factory property. Needless to say, H-D management was aghast at the bike that guy from the ad agency rode, with those ridiculous forks.
Guinotte described this as a kid's version of a Gatling gun. Really, what kid shouldn't have a Gatling gun? I bet it handles better than his chopper with five-foot long forks did.
Then, Harley-Davidson was acquired by AMF, and Hoffman York lost the ad account. That was just as well, because while the first year or so of the AMF period was rosy, dark days were to follow. After the famous Vaughn Beals-led management buyout of Harley-Davidson from AMF, the ad account moved again, to Carmichael-Lynch Advertising, also based in Milwaukee.

Guinotte ended up returning to Kansas City. (He still stays in touch with Willie G. Davidson, and still works in the ad business, at VML, which is the agency that created the stunning motorcycle 'face' graphic for the 2011 HoAME Vintage Motorcycle Rally.)

As an ad pro, he doesn't begrudge Carmichael-Lynch -- far from it. We agreed that Carmichael's work on the Harley brand has, overall, been brilliant. Their genius was in realizing that rather than being in denial about biker culture, H-D should embrace it. Guinotte told me that, back then, only Willie G. really 'got' the importance of the custom/outlaw scene, and understood that H-D could co-opt that imagery and create a vehicle that suburbanites could use to channel their inner badass. However you feel about posers on ear-splitting Harleys and the way that imagery was subsequently co-opted by Tea Party morons, Carmichael-Lynch's insight was a stroke of advertising genius. Guinotte was shocked when I told him that Harley-Davidson recently fired Carmichael-Lynch.

Anyway, all of that's a long preamble, leading up to this: I was going to write up Guinotte's funny motorcycle life story, which in a way would have allowed me to take credit for it. But I went to his web site, and realized that he'd written it up himself and -- this is not something you'll hear from me very often -- he'd done as good a job on the essay as I could ever do. If you have 15 minutes to kill today, read it here. I'd be willing to bet that even if you're not a Harley guy (and let's face it, most Backmarker readers are not Harley guys) you'll see a little of yourself in this kid...

Notes from the Blue Groove: Nichole Cheza

Nichole Cheza isn't the first woman with a National number in flat track; Diane Cox and Tammy Kirk come to mind as women who were seriously fast 20 or 30 years ago. But for now, Nichole's the only female Grand National Championship 'E' ticket rider. When I talked to her, it's pretty clear that - since she's been flat-tracking since she was eight years old, growing up in Michigan and racing against guys like Jared Mees her whole life - she pretty much thinks of herself as one of the guys.

I suppose you'd have to call her a post-feminist. The other day, I called her up and asked her about the unique challenges of being a female in an almost all-male sport. She was quick to point out that Shayna Texter is coming up through the Pro ranks, but the only point of difference she could think of between her and Shayna, and their male competitors, were the setup differences required because they were smaller and lighter, not because they were women.

Nichole's dad was a motocross racer, and her first taste of motorcycle racing was mini-MX. But when Tom Cummings convinced Mark Cheza to bring his kid and her 60cc minibike to a flat track race, she took to it pretty quickly. As she grew, and progressed through the ranks, she raced both motocross and flat track, often on the same weekend. At that point, they already had girls' classes at those MX races, and she was a regular winner there, and usually raced a few boys' classes, too.

"Once I'd moved up to 125s, my dad said, 'OK we have to pick one.'" She told me. "By then, I'd won some flat track amateur championships, and in flat track they didn't separate the girls from the guys. I liked the speed of dirt tracking, and it suited my style a little better."
I guess the pink accents are a way of acknowledging that Nichole Cheza's the only chick with a GNC 'E' ticket. You would not know it from the way she rides.
 In 2003, Nichole was the AMA Pro's female athlete of the year, and the next year she moved up to the Expert class, and Harley-Davidson XR-750s.

"Miles are tough. People think they're easy, but it's a big drafting game, and you have to have that figured out," she told me.

Given her history, that was a massive understatement. In her first Expert season, at the Syracuse Mile, she was battling for a transfer spot in a heat race. In the thick of it, she let her herself get sucked in, literally, drafting too deep into a corner. Crash. Broken back.

Three years later she had another hard crash at Monticello, breaking her back again and puncturing a lung. It was when she told me about the long comeback from those crashes that I noted a difference between female racers and most of the male pro racers I've known. If you're going to be a professional motorcycle racer, at some point in your career you're going to get hurt. You're going to crash so hard that you're forced to come to terms with the fact that what you're doing is dangerous; people get killed in this game, and you're not immune.

When you realize that fact, it's going to spook you. If it didn't spook you, you'd be an idiot (and frankly a danger to yourself and others on the track.) But, you have to put it behind you, and move on. You have to get even faster because while you were out, recovering, your competition was racing and honing their skills. If you can't come to terms with it, control your fears, and move on, you have to find a different sport.

The difference between Nichole and most of the male pro racers I've talked with over the years is, she brought that up in conversation. The guys are, mostly, afraid to admit it. "I had a year when I really struggled. I'd just feel like I was getting going and getting some confidence back and the bike would break or something stupid would happen, and I really thought maybe this isn't for me," she recalled. "But everyone's going to have a bad year every now and then, and it was just one of those years." So after a season or two in which she was a little hesitant to mix it up in high speed drafting packs, she's back.

In between races, most of her time in Clio (near Flint, MI) is spent training. She still rides a motocross bike a couple of times a week, works out in the gym several days a week, and tries to include a cardio workout every day. She often rides and works out with Jared Mees. "We're not just competitors on the weekend," she told me, "We're competitors all week long. It's good to have someone like that pushing you."

On occasional days 'off', the ex-gymnast sometimes goes back to coach or just play around at her old gymnastics gym, too. Training hard is one part of her plan. "I want to be the first female Grand National Champion," she told me. The other part of the plan is, as she says, 'putting it all together.'

Taking the next step up means being fast and consistent at every single track, no matter what length, surface, or shape. Hagerstown, for example, bedevilled her for years. "It's slick, and banked, and I couldn't get the wheels in line there," she told me. But last year her team played around with tire pressures, and got her a set of tire warmers, and she finally got her Global Products-backed Harley-Davidson to hook up. In a two-steps-forward, one-step-back way that's familiar to any racer, once she got the handling sorted her bike developed a misfire. She wrote on her blog, "Although I had a tough night as far as bike problems go, it was the best I ever felt at Hagerstown. I am finally getting these car tracks figured out. I learned a lot and I'm ready for the Miles that are coming up."

The first Mile of the 2011 season's coming up at Springfield. The Illinois State Fairground's held some pretty good memories for her the last few years. She's won the Dash for Cash there, and seemed particularly comfortable on a wet surface that most of the rest of the field hated in 2009. Maybe she'll do a little rain dance this year, but either way the smooth, fast Springfield clay suits her and turns her small small size and light weight into a potential advantage. I kept an eye on her there last year, and while she didn't get Main event results, she looked smooth and fast, and was in the mix most of the day.

It's almost always a sneaky-strategic place. There have been many races there where a rider could be in sixth place going into Turn 3 on Lap 25, and be in first place at the Finish. "I'm finally more confident in the draft," she told me, and she's obviously looking forward to getting back on the big XR.

"I think I'm more accepted in dirt track than other females are in other areas, like road racing or NASCAR," she told me towards the end of our chat. "I've grown up with these guys; they know that I'm as serious as they are. If they're going for a last lap pass, they'll stuff me out of the way just like they would their male competitors."

I hope this may is the year she returns a lot of those favors.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Luke Gough

The 2011 Grand National Championships began with a little flurry of short track and TT events. Now that the dust has settled in Salinas, the AMA Pro flat trackers have a month off until the first of two Springfield double-headers.

The GNC riders are already looking forward to a historic venue that always packs in good crowds for both the Saturday TT and Sunday's epic Mile. But a month's a long break, so everyone has time to go home and work on their bikes, work out, and maybe do a little moonlighting to pick up a few extra bucks. The guy who'll travel the furthest to get home, for sure, is Luke Gough. He's flying back to Australia. 

Luke's also probably the guy who is most eager for Springfield to roll around. You'd never know it from the final results in Salinas, but he really stepped up at the rodeo ground. On Saturday, he qualified just well enough to get on the front row of his heat race. That was already a good start to the weekend for the Aussie, who has been one of the hardest-working journeymen in the GNC for a few years now. Then, when he got the holeshot in his heat, he found himself in a position he'd never been in before - leading a GNC Expert race.

Since he's won scores of races (and several national championships) down under, he knew that one key to maintaining that lead was keeping his rhythm and concentration up. "I've led races before, and you can be out front and think too much," he told me. "You need to focus on being as smooth as you can be."

Luke heard Jared Mees behind him a couple of times early in the race, but he concentrated on the technical Salinas TT layout. The jump was tricky, not because of its size but because the bikes were still spinning off the previous turn when they cleared the lip. The Salinas cushion, which was drying out fast, was similar to a lot of the slick dirt he'd raced on in the Australian championship, and in the end Mees was not even able to show him a wheel. His first-ever win at a GNC weekend was a perfect, flag-to-flag run.

From there, things went downhill.

He got tangled up with first-year Expert Brad Baker in the Dash For Cash, and - perhaps because of that crash - a loose spark plug lead caused his bike to misfire in the Main, where he was DNF.

Dave Zanotti came to Gough's rescue, loaning him one of his team's Hondas for the next day's short track, and again he had good news-bad news day. He won his Semi in pretty convincing fashion over Mees - again - and Bryan Smith. But starting from deep on the grid, the best he could do was 14th.

Some people would be bummed by disappointing results in the weekend's Mains, but Gough's loving the idea that he's finally won a couple of races on a GNC weekend. He's given up a lot, just to get to the U.S. and race against the world's best flat trackers. Right now those sacrifices seem worthwhile.

But, he's headed back to Australia. Because of U.S. visa requirements, he can only spend six months of the year in this country. It would be an understatement to say that he's handy; in 2009, he built a Suzuki SV650-based twins racer from scratch by himself. He welded up the frame, made his own swingarm, machined his own hubs from billet and even hand-formed his own alloy fuel tank! With those skills, his employer in Australia, Arex Engineering, is always ready to put him to work. He'll work as much overtime as he can, saving money to put into his racing back here. After a month at the bottom of the world, he hopes to come back and stand on the top step at the Springfield TT.

"I plan to come to Springfield and pick up right where I left off with my Salinas TT heat race," he said. "Sometimes it takes winning a race to prove to yourself that you deserve to be there. Now that I've done it, I want to do it again."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Steve Bonsey comes home

It's a long drive out to Salinas for most AMA Pro Racing Flat Track riders, who are typically based in the midwest. But one guy with a real short commute will be national number 80, Steve Bonsey. This weekend's TT and short track races are almost taking place in his back yard.

"Yeah," he told me, "I'll be able to go home for lunch between qualifying and the heats."

Even though he's still young, and will have the shortest commute in the history of flat track this weekend, he's already taken a long and winding road to the Grand National Championship. The path from the GNC to MotoGP has been well worn by riders from Kenny Roberts to Nicky Hayden. Bonsey's come back in the other direction, from racing 125 and 250 GP bikes in Europe to the world's premiere flat track series.

"I started when I was about four years old," Bonsey told me. "My dad raced dirt track, and Doug Chandler and Ricky Graham were from Salinas. There's a real community that we have here; Doug helps out the Bowmans, and Doug's brother helped me quite a bit coming up through the amateur ranks. Ricky Graham's brother Billy helped me out, too."

One of Bonsey's early sponsors, Ray Abrams at A&A Racing, drew Bonsey to the attention of Kenny Roberts. 'The King' came out to watch Steve racing at Lodi, in the fall of 2006. He was impressed, and asked Steve what he wanted to achieve as a motorcycle racer.

"I didn't really know much about MotoGP," Bonsey admitted. "But I really looked up to Nicky. I liked the way he rode dirt track and I saw him transition into road racing. So I told Kenny that I wanted to be like Nicky and race in the World Championship."

Within three weeks of that conversation, Roberts had arranged for him to test a KTM 125 Grand Prix bike in Spain, where he crashed and hurt himself. Despite that shaky start, Steve raced two full World Championship seasons in the 125cc class, silencing some of the skeptics by scoring points in his second World Championship event, despite the fact that it was only his fourth road race of any kind. (He did three club races on an SV650, almost certainly making him the least-experienced road racer ever to compete at the world level.)

"A lot people say that dirt track helps you out in road racing," Bonsey told me. "But on the 125s, there was nothing in common. I had to start over, learning a whole different riding style, keeping the wheels in line. I threw myself on the ground a bunch of times trying things that I wasn't sure of. I just had to go out there with guys that had been doing it for five years. I'd go into the corner as fast as they did and grab a handful of brake and tuck the front. It was tough, but I caught on."

The highlight of his World Championship career (so far!) came in Portugal in 2008, where he qualified second. After a terrible start, he fought his way back from 15th to fourth. "I really think," he said, "that if I'd had a decent start I could have finished on top of the box that time."

A move up to the 250 class in 2009 was disappointing when sponsorship evaporated and his team could only field a bike for two races. That led to a return to full-time GNC racing last year.

Like most young California riders, he came up racing on short tracks like Lodi, and didn't have much experience on the Miles and 1/2-miles. In fact, almost the only times he'd raced the bigger tracks were at the Amateur Nationals in 2003 and '04. Luckily he found that while there may not have been much flat track knowledge that applied to racing 125 GP bikes, he had learned things in Europe that he could apply in the GNC.

"I think the 125 experience benefits me on the Miles, not getting sideways and losing time. And on the 125s, you have to use every bit of the track, and that also helps," he said, adding, "In that class, with the times so close in qualifying, every little bit counts; pulling your elbows in, getting in the draft. That helps me in dirt track during qualifying. You have to think of every little thing that can make your lap faster."

Even though he lives a few minutes from the Salinas track, Steve's only raced there once."It's nice," he said. "There's big grandstands and the dirt's awesome. Compared to what we usually race, which has a lot of clay, here there's a lot of sand, so it dries out fast. They'll have to stay on top of it, but when it's good it's really good."

"Last week in Du Quoin, you had to get a good start and ride your own line, hope that you could block the other guys." he recalled. "Salinas is going to be a real wide, wide-open kind of race, you could win there coming from last. It's going to be fast and exciting; you're going to need a big motor and the strength to hold on for 25 laps because that track's going to be tough."

He loved living in Europe, but the racing was tough learning experience. This time, it will be nice to have a home-field advantage.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Gas prices, car pooling

With oil hovering over $107 a barrel and gas already above $4 in several states - and it's it's not even the summer travel season yet - everyone's feeling pinched at the pump. But if you're an AMA Pro Racing flat tracker, high fuel prices aren't just an inconvenience, they can throw a wrench into your business plan.

Guys like Bryan Smith, Kenny Coolbeth, and Jared Mees are stars at a Grand National flat track race, but after the checkered flag flies they're independent entrepreneurs, trying to turn a profit in one of the toughest small businesses going. Win or lose, at the end of the night they load their own trailers and drive to the next race or, if there's a break, home to regroup and work on their bikes, always on the lookout for an outlaw race along the way where they can pick up an extra few hundred bucks. The reality of making a living this way is, for every minute you spend racing, there's an hour spent driving between races. A fifty-cent swing in fuel prices can take thousands of dollars off a racer's bottom line.

Last weekend, the Grand National Championship hit its second venue of the year, in Du Quoin IL, and this weekend, there's a TT and a short track on tap in Salinas CA, over 2,000 miles away. Since most pro flat trackers live in the heart of the country, it's a 4,000+ mile commute. So, like a lot of commuters faced with high fuel prices, they're car-pooling.

Coolbeth, Smith, and national number 26, Brandan Bergen, are sharing the drive with Jared Mees. After Du Quoin, the four went back to Bergan's sponsor (Reiman's Harley-Davidson out of Kewanee IL) and used his workshop to prepare their bikes for Salinas. Then they piled into the deluxe motorhome that Jared Mees' sponsor, Craig Rogers of Rogers-Lake Racing lets him use to drive to events. The Freightliner/Showhauler has a 12-foot garage area in the back, which is packed to the rafters with nine bikes, gear and spares. Up front, it's basically a rolling yacht. If ya' gotta' drive non-stop for a couple of days, race, then drive non-stop home again, it's the way to go, and splitting the diesel bill four ways saves everybody money.
Mees' sponsors don't mind if he gives his competitors a ride to distant races.
 "We don't have big teams that will get our bikes there, and we just fly to races," says Smith. "Obviously, it's good to split the driving, but the big thing is cutting the fuel costs."

I asked Bryan how much he spent last year on gas, and he told me, "I should know that, because I just did my taxes! You can deduct either gas or mileage, and it works out better for me to deduct the mileage. Last year I drove over 30,000 miles in my van, and I went to a few races with other people. I figured it out and this year, if I drove to all the races myself I'd be pushing 40,000 miles."

They plan to keep two guys up front the entire way, so the driver always has someone to talk to, but there's room for the others to sleep, so it wouldn't be a problem to drive virtually non-stop. Smith told me that the day before they left, Jared Mees cooked them a pretty good breakfast, so he'll be the one pulling chef duty in the onboard kitchen.

That much testosterone in one vehicle could spell trouble. "If it was the end of the season we might come back through Las Vegas and raise a little hell, but this early in the year, we'll be keeping it pretty clean," Smith promised. Then he added, "We're really good friends, and we'll have fun; there could be some fireworks flying out the windows along the way."