Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday Morning Crew Chief: Mission Accomplished, etc...

Mission Accomplished

I guess I've been a bit of a Mission Motors 'slammer' over the last few months. I basically called the company out, in MCN (the UK motorcycle weekly) when I wrote that the company had pretty much abandoned the idea of actually manufacturing motorcycles. 

Few people now remember that Bridgestone - the MotoGP tire supplier - once made whole motorcycles. In the 1960s, the company made tires and some really high-performance bikes. When it became obvious that other manufacturers like Honda would not specify Bridgestone tires as OEM fitment as long as Bridgestone was itself a competitor, the company had to choose whether it would pursue the tire business, or the motorcycle business. I think Mission is in the same sort of position; it can make motorcycles, or try to become a supplier of technology to Honda, et al. I think that they're positioning themselves as high-end suppliers to the car and motorcycle industry.

If I'm right about that, they made a pretty good impression at Laguna Seca last weekend. Steve Rapp obliterated the field in the TTXGP race. Rapp was several seconds a lap faster than Michael Czysz (though Czysz finished second, his MotoCzysz company was probably the one hurt most by being utterly outclassed.)

Based on his 8-lap race time, if Rapp and the Mission R had been entered in the AMA SuperSport race, he would probably have been solidly mid-pack until mid-distance. IE, Mission's taken the e-moto performance envelope and stretched it a good ways towards modern ICE sportbike performance.

For the record, with a full tank of gas, the ICE bikes in the field could have maintained their race pace for 80+ miles. If Rapp had to shepherd the energy in the Mission R's battery for 80 miles, his lap times would have been in the 2-minute range, not the 1:35s.

Still, my hat's off to Mission Motors, who have set a new benchmark for zero-emission motorcycle performance. If anyone, anywhere (Honda?) has a better handle on the challenges of managing the limited energy available in current batteries, they've not shown their hand.

It remains to be seen whether Rapp's impressive TTXGP win on the Mission R reinvigorates interest in Mission Motors as a limited-run motorcycle manufacturer -- or, will it bring in new consulting business from major OEMs who might decide to essentially outsource their R&D effort to Mission and jumpstart an e-moto program with Mission's package, which is clearly the best one that has broken cover.

Bostrom. Wrong choice?

There was a lot of skepticism when it was revealed that Ben Bostrom would get a wild card MotoGP ride at Laguna. At 37, he's probably still close to the fittest man in the AMA Superbike championship -- but he's obviously past his sell-by date as a top-level racer.

He qualified last, almost a second behind his LCR team-mate Tony Elias, and pulled in after an off-track excursion for a completely forgettable race. So the question is, did he suck, or not?

In his defense, Bostrom lapped in the 1:25.6 range in Superbike qualifying, while Tommy Hayden was the fast Suzuki rider in the AMA field, at 1:24.8 (Hayes, on a Yamaha, took pole with a 1:24.5) So if my math's right, BBoz gave up somewhere between 8/10ths of a second and a second to the fastest of the American riders in the U.S. series. Based on this, I'd say that no matter who else Lucio Cecchinello had picked among active AMA Superbike riders, his second bike would still have been the backmarker.

Stoner. Wrong choice.
The big race wiener (er, make that 'winner') was Stoner. After I ranted about MotoGP riders boycotting the rescheduled Motegi round, the FIM released a statement that could have been inspired by my post. And a number of riders, sensing fans' lack of sympathy for their cause, opted to restate their opposition to the race in terms that gave them some wiggle room.

Not Stoner, who told one reporter that his decision was not anti-Japanese at all. He said that if the tsunami and nuclear reactor damage had happened in his home country of Australia, he would not go to the Australian GP, either.

Way to endear himself to his homies, eh?

Monday, July 18, 2011

What does MotoGP stand for? (And what I'd do if I was one of the Japanese entrants...)

Motorcycling's Grumbling Primadonnas? Motorcycling's Greedy little Pr*cks? Motorcyclists who are Grossly Paranoid?..
Fifteen of seventeen MotoGP riders have, incredibly, said they'll boycott the Motegi MotoGP round for fear of nuclear radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. What the f*ck are those twits thinking? Can you imagine Guy Martin or John McGuinness refusing to go and support their teams and sponsors' home race? Or picture an AMA Pro flat track racer backing down like that? I don't care how fast these twits are; their 'boycott' is pure, unadulterated chickenshit.

A couple of weeks ago, someone emailed me to feel me out about a writing job in which I'd cover MotoGP . The position on offer, it seemed, would have been a dream assignment for me a few years ago; full accreditation and paid travel to races. It was just an exploratory email, and we never got to the negotiation stage, because basically... I'm not interested.

I'm still - at least in principle - interested in MotoGP races. But the World Championship really isn't that good a place for journalists these days. I mean, it's all managed press conferences where everyone hears your questions and the surly, robotic, or flippant responses they provoke. I'm not really interested in waiting two years for my chance to have a five-minute interview with Valentino Rossi, with a couple of PR minders hovering to ensure that I don't ask him any really interesting questions or that if I manage to blurt one out, that he doesn't answer. There may still be some 'Mark Gardiner' stories in the MotoGP paddock - in fact I'm sure there are lots of them - but the structure of the situation ensures they'll never be told.

And besides that, although there may be a couple of exceptions, most MotoGP riders are a bunch of fucking primadonnas.

This was driven home over the last few days, as virtually all of the active riders have said they'll boycott the Motegi round, on the grounds that attending the event may expose them to radiation from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear powerplant.

Really. I'm not making this up. A group of professional motorcycle racers are afraid of a radiation dose smaller than they'll get from an X-ray. I won't belabor the irony of this, because others, like Julian Ryder have already covered this subject. (Read the second paragraph of his excellent 'Ryder's Notes' column on Dean's World, here.) Suffice to say that this boycott, if it comes off, is a direct slap in the face to Honda (which owns the Motegi circuit) and adds insult to the injuries incurred by all the Japanese manufacturers and Japan as a whole.

I know what I'd do in response if I was Takanobu Ito. First, I'd contact Hiroyuki Yanagi and Osamu Suzuki, and convince them to boycott MotoGP. Then, collectively, we'd contact riders, teams, Dorna, IRTA and the FIM and transmit a six-word message: It's over. We're invoking force majeure.

Do the Japanese OEMs have contracts that oblige them to field MotoGP teams and pay riders? Sure. But there's plenty of quid pro quo written into those contracts. No judge anywhere would rule against the Japanese OEMs if, through no fault of their own, they were denied a home Grand Prix.

The Japanese OEMs should send this message loud and clear: Any rider who doesn't come to Motegi is dead to us. If MotoGP doesn't come, MotoGP is dead to us.

I worked in the ad business for years. Before I became addicted to motorcycle racing, I was the vice-president of marketing for a $200 million company. So although I don't have the statistics to prove what I'm going to say now, I'm not just talking out of my ass...

For all the hype within the motorcycle media about MotoGP; for all the endemic mags that cover it, websites, and television broadcasts; for all the hubbub and bullshit surrounding Rossi & Co., it's not that easy to make a business case for any manufacturer's participation in the sport. The motorcycle business is still weak globally and while the U.S. might've hit bottom already, Europe now looks increasingly shaky. The electronic-rider-aided 17-bike show's not that great and it's not at all certain that MotoGP inspires enough motorcycle purchasers to justify the investment. Outside sponsors aren't coming close to covering the gap. There's no indication Kawasaki's been hurt by it's recent decision to withdraw.

In short, Honda doesn't need MotoGP. Neither do Yamaha or Suzuki. Honda and those guys participate because they love racing. Not because they need racing. Forget about that 'Racing improves the breed' bullshit too; some pretty ordinary street bikes now incorporate too much technology for a good racing show.

No, Japan doesn't need it. But MotoGP sure as hell needs Japan.

MotoGP riders all stuck their 'sympathy for Japan' stickers on their bikes after the tsunami, but when the time came to actually show a little solidarity they showed their real colors - every shade of yellow.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sorry, Santa Claus, there's no such thing as Virginia

Over the last week we've seen a few press releases -- first from AMA Pro Racing and then from Virginia International Raceway -- presenting different versions of the news that the VIR Superbike round was canceled just weeks before it was scheduled to come off. Although I'm not privy to any inside information on this, the news has made interesting reading.

 In a press release dated July 11, AMA Pro wrote...

It is with deep regret that AMA Pro Racing is forced to announce VIR's cancellation of the Suzuki White Lightening Nationals, Round 8 on the AMA Pro Road Racing season calendar. Despite AMA Pro Racing's efforts to preserve the originally scheduled August 12-14 event, VIR staff notified AMA Pro Racing late Monday, July 11, of its final decision not to host or promote the race weekend.

"AMA Pro Racing has made VIR a part of its season calendar for the past decade," said AMA Pro Racing COO and Managing Member David Atlas, "and I am gravely disappointed by the impact this will have on our paddock, fans, and other series participants. I assure all of those involved parties that a significant effort was made to negotiate an arrangement that would have preserved the event."

At first blush, it seemed that AMA Pro Racing was taken aback by VIR's decision to cancel the event -- a cancellation that AMA Pro seemed to suggest was a unilateral decision made by VIR. Then yesterday, VIR released this missive...

"VIR has received a number of inquiries and expressions of disappointment regarding the lack of a 2011 AMA Pro Racing event at VIR. As with any disagreement, there are two sides to every story. We want to make it clear that the decision was not one-sided, as David Atlas' remarks have implied, and that VIR made numerous proposals to AMA Pro Racing to keep this event on schedule. Due to our 10 year history with this premiere event, we are as disappointed by this outcome as most of those we have heard from.

VIR has worked hard to bring the event to fruition for months. Despite requests by VIR beginning in December 2010, AMA Pro Racing did not deliver its proposed contract for the 2011 event to VIR until early June 2011. Resulting discussions made it apparent that insufficient time remained to negotiate the new terms in the proposed contract and, if agreement were reached, to plan, promote and conduct the event in a professional manner.

In an effort to preserve the date, VIR went to extraordinary lengths to reach an alternative agreement with AMA Pro Racing, which AMA Pro Racing chose to reject. Given these circumstances, we had no choice but to take the date off the calendar and notify the public promptly."

Meow. Hiss. Pffthtt!

I think I raced in the first or second year of that ten-year run of AMA road race nationals at Virginia International Raceway, back in the days of the late and unlamented Pro Thunder class. At the time, it struck me as a great track for motorcycle racing, with a beautiful flowing layout; safe enough -- but that it was situated in way too isolated a spot for a National. (Calling it 'International' was a real stretch, unless the locals regret that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, and thus wish the South was, in fact, a different country. In that case, Danville would have been fairly close to the border.)

Back around that time, a Denver-based company called M1 Entertainment took over the promotion of the Road Atlanta round, and called it The Big Kahuna Nationals or some such thing. There was no logical connection between Road Atlanta and that Hawaiian theme, but M1 seemed to do a pretty good job with the Atlanta event. After a few years of putting on the Big Kahuna in Braselton GA, M1 lost it's contract with Road Atlanta.

Without really skipping a beat, M1 announced that it would move the event to Danville. I don't really know how much harder it was to draw a crowd to VIR, but it had to be a heck of a lot harder than drawing a crowd to Road Atlanta. I figure if you draw a 500-mile circle around Danville VA, you encompass a very large population base including the Washington DC metro. That's a large catchment area from which you can draw a minuscule percentage of avid Superbike racing fans. But casual fans will only drive about 50 miles, and if you draw a 50-mile circle around Danville, the population's sparse; the 50-mile circle around Road Atlanta encloses pretty much all of Atlanta.

That aside, last year the VIR race was not The Big Kahuna, it was the White Lightning Nationals. The name change was prompted by the fact that the track (shades of Road Atlanta) had decided to stop doing business with M1 Entertainment. (I have no reason to think that this is because of anything M1 did to cheese them off. I suspect it was just a situation in which the track owners thought, 'OK, we've seen how they do this, now we can do it ourselves.') Some people who were there last year reported that attendance was sparse compared to the M1-promoted events, but let's face it, the last few years have sucked in the motorcycle business.

I think AMA Pro Racing wanted to have a 10-event national championship, and the cancellation of the VIR round will leave them with eight rounds in the 2011 series. When AMA came to VIR a decade ago, it had just 'lost' the Loudon NH race, and the lack of a Superbike race anywhere in the Northeast was conspicuous. How could the AMA really claim it even had a 'national' championship without rounds catering to fans from New York, Washington, or Boston? Although VIR was in the boonies, it was the only dot they could put anywhere near the upper-right-hand corner of the map. Now that New Jersey Motorsports Park hosts an AMA National and solves that problem for AMA Pro Racing.

I think a few racers will miss that gorgeous VIR layout; it was a great track to race a motorcycle around. But frankly,  every team contesting the series is going to lose money this year. I doubt that many team principals are losing sleep over the absence of a round at Virginia International Raceway.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ride to Work Day post. Not because it's that special day, but because I got a job

Over the last few days, I've spent a few hours working over the Triumph, since it's the only bike I've got that is simultaneously running; titled, insured and plated; and remotely safe at freeway speeds. It's been plagued by a kind of for-the-want-of-a-nail-my-kingdom's-lost problem. It's basically sound (I think) but somehow before I got it, the little fuel screens on the petcock, inside the tank, got broken. Since it also sat unused for several years, there's some rust inside the tank, and as a result there's a continuous stream of crap flowing into the fuel line and clogging the carbs.

The obvious solution was to replace the petcock. It's a Mikuni part -- one of the few components on the bike not proprietary to Triumph -- that costs over $120 to replace. Since that's 120 times what I paid for the bike, you can imagine I wasn't too eager to do that. Instead, I jerry-rigged a fuel pickup using the original petcock, but every time I was forced to go to the reserve setting, it gagged on rust particles. And there's a limit to what you can expect from a $1.99 inline fuel filter, which was my Plan B.

So, I finally bought a used petcock on eBay, that only cost me 35 times what I paid for the bike. Since the carbs have been taken apart too often, I also had to replace a few screws. 

Once I had wrestled the carbs back into place and confirmed that the replacement petcock actually did seem to work, it was time to take the bike for a test ride. So I put The Chick on the back of it, and we headed over to the gym. I stopped on the way to fill the fuel tank and when I attempted to restart the bike it made a 'sparking' sound beneath the seat and all the idiot lights went dark. I checked the fuses, which are pretty accessible; they were all good. Removing the seat to get access to the battery is an incredible fuss on that bike, but on an impulse I reached through to just shift the battery ever so slightly in the battery box.

That caused the lights to come back on, although it still just made a 'solenoid' sound when I tried to engage the starter. Embarrassingly, I had to ask The Chick to push me, but it bumped to life and I returned home to learn that when I was drawing a lot of power from the battery to run the starter motor, it was shorting -- from one or even both battery leads -- to the frame.

I insulated the frame rails near the battery with strips of bicycle inner tube. While I was at it, I rigged a better system for securing the Triumph's seat, so I'd have easier access to the battery in the future. Remind me to take my friend Tim Prentice to task, or at least as him if burying the allen bolts that hold the seat on w-a-y far in under the edge of the seat was a design decision he made. Who thinks it's a good idea to spec a seat that requires tools for removal? And as for running the battery leads right along the frame rails; wouldn't a little additional  insulation have been a good idea?

Making this thing reliable has been like training a persian cat to hunt for truffles. If I'm lucky though, that's all the Triumph needs to be a decent commuter. It won't be a really safe commuter, since it doesn't have mirrors. (Incredibly, mirrors aren't required on a street bike in Missouri.)

But, it should be decent. That's good, because I now have an actual job, working at [NAME OF EMPLOYER REDACTED]. Look out, motorcycle journalism...

Friday, July 1, 2011

Hell, hell, the gang's all here. Outlaw bikers in the news...

The L.A. Times reports that a judge has struck down a ruling that would have it illegal for anyone to wear the Mongols (outlaw biker gang) colors.

"They're not 'colors', said the judge. The Mongols' logo is black and white."

Actually, I made that up. For more on the ruling, read this.

The Mongols were the subject of the book Under and Alone, by William Queen. The author was an ATF agent who spent over two years undercover as a member of the Mongols. Warner Bros. apparently had a film of Queen's story in development, with Mel Gibson tipped to play the undercover agent. I've heard nothing of this for a few years, and I assume they've given up. Maybe because no audience would believe that Gibson - a drunk, wife-beating holocaust denier - would be accepted as a member.

The last time the Mongols were in the news was during the 2002 'Laughlin River Run'. A pitched gun and knife fight broke out between the Hells Angels and Mongols in the Laughlin Harrah’s casino. Presumably a Mongol was at some Angels’ favorite slot machine.

Three people were killed and dozens were injured. In a related incident, a Hells Angel was shot a few hours later in San Bernardino county. Incredibly, considering the extensive video surveillance in the casino, only one person, a Hells Angel from Arizona, was charged. Those charges were eventually dropped.

There will always be non-motorcyclists, your in-laws for example, who think anyone who rides – even a Vespa scooter or a Honda Gold Wing – is a Hells Angel bent on rape and pillage. If you’re to convince them otherwise, you’ll need a few facts on your side.

So what do you need to know about the Hells Angels? Well for starters, they do exist, and if you back over one of their choppers, you should immediately leave the scene. And the country.

Seriously, the odds of that happening are small because there are a fewer Hells Angels than you think. Here’s a factoid on their estimated worldwide membership and seven other things you’d rather learn from this blog than from personal experience.

1. A Hells Angels census

Recent police intelligence reports suggest that there are about 230 Hells Angels chapters in pretty much every state and dozens of countries around the world. Despite this global presence, the club has only about 3,000 full members. Part of their outsized reputation stems from the fact that most of their dirty work is done by a far larger number of bikers trying to curry favor.

2. Hells Angels, Inc.

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation Inc. was incorporated in the state of California in 1970. The company’s head office is in Oakland. The even have a web site,

3. About the name

The original Hells Angels club was founded in San Bernardino, CA in 1948. It took its name from a WWII B-17 bomber squadron. In the early years, it really was just a motorcycle club – it was even sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association.

4. A subsidiary of Hells Angels, Inc.

Like other global companies, the Angels have subsidiaries. The largest of these is a club called the Nomads, which itself has chapters scattered around the world. Over the years there have been a few legitimate motorcycle clubs with this name, so to avoid confusion the Angels’ subsidiaries have taken to calling themselves “Hells Angels Nomads” or “HAMC Nomads.” The other major Angels subsidiary is group called the Red Demons.

5. Hells Angels™

The club sued the Walt Disney Corporation over misuse of its name and winged death’s head logo. The alleged trademark infringement concerned a Disney film still in development. “Wild Hogs” is the story of a group of middle-aged suburban Harley riders (including Tim Allen) that runs afoul of a biker gang. The Hells Angels fighting with lawyers? What’s this world coming to?

6. Hells Angels(sic)

Yes, there seems to be a missing apostrophe. Hey, they’re outlaw bikers, not grammarians. A Hells Angel once hilariously 'explained' the error by saying, “There’s more than one Hell.”

7. They’re just a club. In the same way the mob exists mainly to play bocce

The Hells Angels and other motorcycle gangs are involved in the manufacture and distribution of drugs (notably methamphetamines,) illegal weapons sales, prostitution, protection rackets, vehicle theft (especially motorcycles,) etcetera.

One reason few full members of the Angels are convicted of such crimes is that, as with the Mafia, the dirty work is done by underlings with few direct connections to the gang.

8. "We're #2, we try harder"

The fastest growing bike gang in the U.S. may well be the Bandidos (aka Bandido Nation.) They were formed in 1966 in Texas and now have over 30 chapters and 500 members in the U.S. and Canada.

The Bandidos logo is a parody of the “Frito Bandito” advertising character. One presumes that Frito-Lay was too preoccupied with its 1965 merger to Pepsico to remember to file a lawsuit. The little bandit with the big sombrero and yard-long machete may be laughable, but the Bandidos are not funny – they’re conspicuously violent, even by the standards of outlaw bikers.