There is no “I” in racing. When you’re out there at full lean, the bike screaming at eleven thousand rpm, your elbow grazing the other guys foot peg as you run around the outside of him in a fast sweeper, you’re much better off keeping your team in mind. You’re much better off recognizing the fact that it’s not just you out there on the bike. The eleven thousand rpm is the brand’s, the tech’s, the guys who came up with the budget affording you the titanium connecting rods that hold up to such abuse. Once your shoulder makes it’s way up to the guy’s front wheel, you now own the turn, which is great. But you better keep your suspension guys in mind now because you’re about to run through the exit of that sweeper way off your line of choice, in the bumps and marbles, and you’re about to do this flat out, to make the pass stick. When the guy you passed out there comes to you later in the pits and asks how in the hell you can lean a bike over so far, well, now you give your tires the nod. It’s a process, racing. It’s a combined effort the likes of which defines the true essence of the word “team” – Together Everyone Achieves More.
Of course the flip side of being able to make that pass, is being the guys out there who get passed. Being the guys out there whose rods don’t last. The whole togetherness element of a team can work against you just as well as it can work for you. So if you are smart, and we all know you are smart, you’ll choose your team very carefully.
Two seasons ago, on a bright sunny day in Buttonwillow California, my racing career came to a screeching halt. Together, Everyone, etc. etc. And since that day I have sat on the sidelines, vowing never to race again unless it all was right. Unless the many pieces necessary to race successfully, safely, and as one healthy team, were all in place. That was two, long, seasons ago.
This afternoon I’ve got a KTM LC8 motor in the back of my truck. There’s a half eaten chocolate power bar, the only flavor that keeps me awake driving through the night, on my dashboard. Therer’s a bulldog chasing a duck across the back of our new Tri Valley Moto leathers, which are folded neatly on my passenger seat. And I don’t want to unload any of it. Finally all the pieces that make up a healthy team worthy of great successes, has formed around us. It is time, my friends, to go racing.
WELCOME BACK, FRUITCAKE
A good friend of mine brought up a dead elephant that used to sit on every table I ate at, used to hang on every wall I stared at. He reminded me on Saturday that no matter what we'd accomplished in racing over however long we managed to, it had all been eclipsed by the huge ball of flames we went out in almost two years ago. I faced him in awe of his perspective as he described the bus we not only got thrown under, "but which also had it's tires shot out and then was set ablaze." I looked down at the floor as he put his hand on my shoulder, apologizing for even going there, and I barely heard his next question, "So, how's your weekend going so far?"
Some say you can never go home again. That no win is like your first. Hell I bet some of those same people say you can't race a KTM Superduke, or maybe they'd even call a guy once named GoGo, "NoGo."
When I left racing I set out on a quest to become a photographer instead. Somewhere along that journey I learned the most vital part of an image is actually not it's focus, or it's color. It's the story it tells. We had a friend of mine, Brian Luce, come up from Santa Barbara to shoot video for us at Buttonwillow. He called me from the road, "Hey, so what's the story we're after anyway?" I told him "Just get yourself past the gate. You'll have more stories than you can handle."
Once I finally got myself past the gate, I found more than just stories. I found home again. I found old friends, long since faded from contact, who actually hadn't left after all. I found that while some trivial things had definitely changed, other things, the best things, never could. I was greeted with a very warm and genuine...
Well OK maybe it wasn't so warm, but it was definitely genuine.
If a picture says a thousand words, this one says a million. The subjects are four AFM racers and the setting Buttonwillow sun. The guy on the right is a man of his word. He's the fastest of the bunch, an old arch rival of ours who is capable of annihilating just about anyone in his path, but he didn't race one lap on Sunday. The guy on the left could own half of California if he wanted, but come Sunday afternoon - not the one championship he has longed for most. Not this year at least. But he'll be back, most likely stronger. If the guy left of center looks confused here, you should have seen him in turn one on in the next day’s race. He almost got impregnated by our KTM 990 Superduke after his 1098 died mid corner. And finally, the guy drying his finger in the setting sun? Well he must have ESP. Seventeen hours after this photo was taken he fell under the unorthodox attack of our KTM Superduke, in one of the last turns of the Open Twins race.
We showed up for Friday practice with a whole world of questions facing not only us as a team, and the KTM 990 Superduke as a race bike, but very quietly I had a few personal questions of my own. To begin with, I knew I could still ride, but I didn't know if I could still really ride. And I knew this bike was gonna need some motivated coaxing to set a decent pace around a track I haven't really ridden since April of 06. Derek Lafontaine pretty much runs the whole Tri Valley Moto race program. He beat me to the track, with the Superduke, which meant he'd choose our pit spot. I'm a bashful one. It's pretty typical for me to sit in the back of just about any room I enter. Derek is my polar opposite though, which actually turned out to be a great part of this weekend. I guess everyone can use a little coaxing at times.
I was shocked to see the Superduke when I first pulled up. The Leo Vince system looked high and tight, Reza Gohary's hand made custom Pro Fiberglass belly pan looked like a factory piece, and the graphics were incredible. Instead of layers of vinyl all set on top of each other, Derek had Chris Conley from Rub it Enterprises actually print out all our sponsor logos, and a virtual paint job, all on ONE sheet of vinyl. In just an hour he completely brought that bike to life.
In our first runs on Friday I thought we showed promise. This Superduke is hysterical to ride fast. I don't have enough security clearance to own the data on exactly what weird science Phil has performed to this bike's suspension. Comparing my first street rides a month ago, to now, it's obvious he's got days invested into this project. Phil's Aftershocks co-pilot, Jason Hahn, helped us at Buttonwillow by interpreting my feedback to Phil over the phone, then tweeking our suspension accordingly. Every answer Phil gave us was counter intuitive. Every click he had us make went against all reason. Yet somehow we incrementally clicked our way to a front end that held up to hard breaking, and a rear end that gave us better traction. You simply can't doubt a man who's held your shim stack between his fingers.. Curiously though, Derek never mentioned lap times to me. I know Derek. He times his morning toast. I knew that meant we were off the pace, which was expected, but things felt positive enough for a Friday.
It's interesting, developing a bike so few are actually racing. Very challenging. You have no one, and no thing, to turn to for answers. It reminded me of testing Michelin tires for a sponsor of mine back in the day. "There's the bike, there's the stack of tires, there's the pad of pages. Go fill them with data. And by the way, we'll be bouncing your feedback off the french when we're over there next week." At first I used to say, "OK let's go" but inside I'd be thinking, "Are you KIDDING ME??? I can't tell my ass from my elbow out there. What the hell am I gonna' tell you about seven different sets of tires?" Eventually though, those times became the most valuable to my career. I was forced to learn how to, well, to learn how to learn.
I'm used to the slider on a fork leg hovering somewhere near a quarter inch from bottomed out. On this 990 Superduke we had 1.5 inches Phil never planned on using. As odd as that seemed, he's the pro. I never said a word. We were down on power but eventually that bike began jumping through hoops in the turns. Proper KTM rear-sets kept our pegs off the ground and those wide bars really gave us a lot of control through Riverside. But as is typical of development, each time we solved a wallowing challenge, or a hop through Cotton Corners, we'd go out faster and create another set of problems. It was an exciting process to be a part of, and our young Tri Valley Moto team handily solved every task Buttonwillow threw at them that Friday. But you know racing. And you know Buttonwillow. For sure all the cards had yet to be dealt..
In what would be our last practice Friday we suddenly lost all power coming onto the front straight. With no noises, and no warning, came our first real challenge. All the diagnostic tools were back at Tri Valley Moto, earning a living, so with no easy fixes on the horizon we welcomed the very generous assistance of our friendly twisted neighbor from Mr. Roger's neighborhood - Zip Showket.
Keep in mind I said our friendly "Twisted" neighbor...
Zip used raw safety wire to bridge the gap between his KTM adventure fuel pump, and our Superduke wiring harness. With one turn of the key the verdict was in. Fuel pump, DOA. This discovery set Tri Valley tech Keith Rodrigues heading south on I-5 to Buttonwillow, to save the day. By Saturday morning we were back at full tilt.
It was somewhere near the AFM turn on our last lap of Saturday practice though, that I began noticing the motor show signs of wanting to end practice a little early. I've been on big twins for a decade now. Mostly at redline. I've learned respect. With all the laps we still faced I made the call to error on the side of caution. We pulled off on the exit of turn two.
Once back at our pit we all pondered the ever defining statement born among the battlegrounds of victory and defeat, "Go big, or go home.." It wasn't twenty minutes later that Tri Valley Moto Service manager - suddenly turned weekend race tuner - Danny Boyd, had headquarters on the phone. True to Tri Valley form, Michael Meissner gave the nod to Tri Valley's master tech Scott Roberts. Within an hour and a half Scott had an LC8 motor strapped to the bed of his truck, and well on it's way to a entering the world of racing.
I don't know what to say other than these guys are the real deal.
Scott was gone just as quickly as he appeared, and what once was wrong, now suddenly had been righted.
We practiced Friday and Saturday in our old gear, knowing full well that the great people at Vanson had been burning the midnight oil creating our new KTM suit. We'd only given them two weeks to get the job done, which was a little disrespectful, but they stepped up to the task like champions. Fedex dropped the box from New England at the track on Saturday afternoon. Now finally we could run our shiny new Suomy helmet as well. Donnie Schmidt's US deal with Suomy is a perfect match. He is one together dude.
Just in case we didn't have enough on our plate already, the red battery wire in our transponder had come loose. That killed any chance of our qualifying for the KFG rule during practice, which started us in the back of the pack, dead last, for both our races - Open Twins, and Formula One. Starting from the last row is like following a speeding truck filled with caged chickens down a bumpy twisting dirt road. You can't see a damn thing, you have no idea where the corner is, and all you hear is screaming. Somehow we were lucky enough to find our way to the ass end of a pack of healthy Ducatis all pulling some hefty numbers on the dyno. They'd smoke us on the straights, but I'm telling you this Superduke loves being the underdog. It would fight it's way back any place it could. On one of the early laps in Open Twins we actually nosed our way under Sherwick Min’s 1098R mid way through the AFM turn. I have to admit my cheeks hurt I was smiling so hard. I could see Bud Anderson on the gas just a couple of tires ahead, there was Scott Schwanbeck, Sherwick shot back by down the front straight, and Steve Metz was in there too. It was the old crew again. The guys I've missed the most. The guys I've only been able to read about for two years now.
Twins are special bikes. They've got unique character. Their riders share a special bond. I'll tell you Eddie (the guy with the crooked hat in the opening photo) and I almost shared an even more special bond when his motor died at the apex of turn one. We couldn't out-break anyone for a pass. We just couldn't stay close enough on the straights. But we'd carry huge corner speed. I had Eddie lined up for an inside exit pass through one. I planned to cross over his line just behind his rear tire, from outside to inside - but just one instant before it was too late I saw his shoulders drop forward as he suddenly lost power. Instantly I pushed outside and we never touched. The lost time extended our gap to Schwanbeck who was just up ahead. Dam I really wanted Schwannie. That drying finger in the sun... Man I really wanted to stick that thing in his ear with our Superduke.
With only two laps to go Scott Schwanbeck and his Ducati superbike were the only distant chance we had to move up a spot in the order. But I didn't care about the order at this point. I just wanted that Scott. We both pushed through the lapped traffic, which was horrendous actually, and half way through the white flag lap we'd pressed close enough to smell the unburned fuel in his exhaust. I knew a pass into Lost Hills wouldn't stick. He had too much power after that section for us to make it stick. I knew a pass into the AFM turn wouldn't stick either. He'd just follow us through the esses and bar-b-que us on the exit. So I asked Phil for a special favor mid way through that long bending right hander. We stuck quietly just inside his rear tire all the way around, one gear higher than usual so he wouldn't pick up on the sound, then just as his composure changed to square off his exit - we shot up under him and headed for the curbs. I really don't understand how it's possible but I think this Superduke might turn more confidently than any bike I have ever raced.
I'm sorry Scotty, but we needed to check you up if we had any chance of holding you off on the exit. Hey, it was your finger...
I gave it all we had going into the last turn before the checker and i can't say we nailed it. We need more time out there to get those special moments down. We did well enough I thought to hold the storming Ducati off at the line, but the d-bcoms said differently. We ended in ninth, two places better than our goal. I feared I might fall off the bike with happiness.
In Formula One we started 36th. Feathers, everywhere. We got a few spots off the line. I kept us on the inside of one, just in case all hell broke loose, but it didn't. We moved up a spot on the exit of one, then a couple more on the outside of two. Man it was tight through there. From that point forward it seemed, apparently, that collectively we had two major goals not yet achieved. One, to make it into the top 15 in F-1, the other, to get Derek to soil his draws as he watched us cut, and be cut, through traffic.
I think the Superduke's strongest spots might be Cotton Corners and the AFM turn. Maybe they're where this bike's special skills get to shine. Two times I followed guys into Cotton Corners while thinking I wished I could call them on the cell. Maybe give them a heads up that something bad was about to happen. I'm sorry if we spooked anyone but this bike's got a different tool set than most. I think if we ran the "R" model things might really get interesting. Perhaps we could do more. The best we had Sunday earned us 13th place. Again, quite a bit better than any of us had hoped.
What a fun bike the KTM 990 Superduke is. What a great bunch of guys they are that make Tri Valley Moto the special place it is. And HOW flipping great is it to be back out there racing!
I have to give special thanks to Ken Casey, of Raceready Motorsports, for all his help and support, Pat Blackburn for his cute little master link, Harley Barnes for helping us with Bridgestones to practice with at Infineon, and anyone we passed out there for not reporting us to Barbara. I think this is the first weekend I haven't been in trouble since we raced back east.