Buttonwillow California, 3/22/09
An old deep-sea fishing friend of mine owns a T-shirt factory back in Queens NY. I actually built the screening rooms inside one of his four buildings. I remember walking by those hundred foot long machines in amazement as they churned out WWF, Disney, and even Superman shirts by the thousands. One calm sunny day while trolling for giant Bluefin Tuna about eighty miles off shore in the Atlantic, I asked Mike why he named his T-shirt business “Changes.” From the flying bridge he turned back and looked down at me, surrounded by guts and splattered in blood with my hands deep inside the chest of 120lb tuna, and said “Because that’s business. Because that’s life. You want to survive in either, change is your key.” As he turned forward again I looked down into the eye of this slaughtered tuna three quarters my size and thought two things, “Good god I’m a caveman” and “What a stupid f-ing name for a T-shirt business..”
We left Buttonwillow last October with high hopes. We were jazzed we’d done better than expected on a standard KTM Superduke, but our sights were set on bigger things for 09. Our standard Superduke was to morph into a Superduke R, with 15 more hp. It would then meander around the stable as a backup bike. KTM’s RC8 was to be our “A” bike. But as the economy dove deeper and deeper into a state of nerve-racking shambles this winter, it took with it our plans to have an RC8 by March. In fact it not only took the RC8 plans, but also the Superduke R’s. As months to go till round one, turned to weeks to go, and after KTM pulled out of the Rookie’s Cup, I didn’t answer the phone unless I was holding at least one wall firmly. After all, this KTM effort with Tri Valley Moto is not our first, or second attempt to return to racing since March 07. I was sure the other shoe would drop before Buttonwillow 09. ….But remarkably, thanks to forward thinking, fancy footwork, and one simple handshake given to me over seven months ago, it never did.
What’s it like to ride a KTM Superduke? I’m laughing as I type this. It’s a lot of fun. But don’t take my word for it. Take one for a rip yourself at a local dealer. What’s it like to race a Superduke? Well that’s a whole nother question. Best part for me is after twenty years racing I looked forward to this weekend more than any other before. Not to chase a win, and not to beat a personal best, in fact not necessarily to be better than a single soul out there. Just to have out-loud-laughing fun. It starts when you throw a leg over this lively thumping Mad Max looking streetfighter. The bars reach out for you, instead of the opposite. The pegs are a natural step up, and as you roll through the pits people look at you like you forgot your pants. But once out there on the track, I don’t know, I kind of forget this bike isn’t bread to be a racer. I won’t suggest you run up into a 140mph sweeper topped out in forth gear on your first go around. Our Superduke IS a little different than they come stock. The boys at Tri Valley re-located all the electrics, the battery – put it all up under the seat, shaved off about 30lbs, mounted a Leo Vince exhaust, and Phil Douglas performed triple bypass surgery on the suspension. Phil’s whole Aftershocks business now runs straight out of Tri Valley Moto, in Livermore. And to be honest, Phil is the key element to our Superduke’s transformation.
I stepped into Phil’s motorhome in Mountainview at 3:30am Saturday. With the long dark road ahead he looked back at me from the driver’s seat and held his hand out to calm me, “Now listen, there’s no sway bar in this thing. I took it out. And I built all the shocks from scratch. But don’t worry, this thing corners like a go-cart.” Right then I knew even three minutes of sleep was completely out of the question.
As we climbed the I-85 on-ramp and headed for the bend I felt the tranny drop a gear and watched the speedo as I climbed into the front seat. We only gained mph. “Holy shit” I thought, “This is either gonna be a really long, or a really short, drive..” I grasped the door handle and pondered my escape from a small building-sized vehicle tumbling six stories off the overpass and onto the roof of a local Starbucks. Just then Phil casually asked me, “So what made you decide to run Michelins this weekend?”
I’ll tell you the same thing I told Phil. I was honest with Dunlop about our plans this year. I told them what we had, what we had hoped for, and then I told them what we got. Their response, understandably, turned generic after that. I saw the fork in the road after the second sentence. So what path now? I saw four options, but only one with an oversized fruitcake at the end of it. Since I love fruilcake, I called Alex Florea of AFMotorsports and made him an offer – “You put us on Michelins that get us on last October’s pace, or faster, and I’ll buy tires from you for the whole season.” Same bike, same track, same motor, same rider. In a stroke of genius Derek Lafontaine, who manages our Tri Valley Moto race effort, demanded that we get tires from Alex last week so that Phil could set the bike up around the Michelin profile BEFORE we got to the track. Problem was Alex only had new rears. The fronts were being shipped to the track. So Alex set aside a scuff from last year for us “Just to mount and measure.” I picked them up Friday and ran them to the shop.
Image by Derek Lafontaine
Image by Derek Lafontaine
Fast forward to Saturday’s first practice and I’m on eggshells out there. After all we’ve been on Dunlops now for a decade. BUT… we ran Michelin exclusively for eight years before that, so in a way this was like coming home again. It just took a few laps to fit our old key in the door. Right away our setup was off. Front felt great, good feedback, predictable, no issues at all. The rear stuck well but was wearing all wrong. So Phil went to work, dialing it closer with each run.
Alex came by periodically during the day to ask if we wanted a new front. I looked at anyone who asked me that question Saturday with a death stare – “DO NOT take that front tire off the bike. It’s the best front I’ve used in years.” Alex simply walked away each time scratching his head. It wasn’t until Saturday practice was over that he told us where that front tire came from. Apparently it was replaced by a Michelin racer last October, and had spent the winter at the bottom of a tire pile, filled with water, in the back of his pickup truck. “You guys said you only planned to mount it to measure the bike! You weren’t supposed to actually USE IT!!”
By this time we had already equaled our fastest times from last October, so with Alex’s remarkable news came a healthy sprinkling of pride for both Alex’s Michelins, and for Phil’s exceptional suspension work.
Image by Derek Lafontaine
Image by Derek Lafontaine
And with that news I turned to Alex and shook his hand. “We’re in for the season.”
We started Open Twins, which is theoretically the most appropriate class for a 990 Superduke, a few rows off the front. Please realize the magnitude of this challenge - the AFM Open Twins field is populated by some fast guys on even faster bikes. Sherwick Min for instance runs a 1098R (165hp at least?), as does Pat Blackburn (#31). Bud Anderson (#37) runs a 1098S. His exhaust system is so fat you could reach your arm down his tailpipe. These guys GO! I remember last October like it was yesterday. We fought tooth and nail for a top ten finish – ended up 7th just behind Scott Schwanbeck on his big bore 749R. Thankfully I learned a while back to assume any and everyone lined up in front of you will stall at the start. Six feet into our launch we dodged a bullet shaped just like Sherwick and his 1098R - stalled on the line. We got into turn one toward the inside and picked up a few spots as a few broke earlier than us, then dragged a few more places toward two. Got another spot entering two, then one going out – also on the inside. That speaks volumes about tire and setup. Fast going in, and coming out, both inside means your bike is working and your tires are railing. I think our wide bars give us an advantage in the rough bumps of turn three and four because we got through there pretty good all weekend.
It was tight in the beginning. Focus was simply who is next, and where’s it gonna happen. But by a lap or two in I only saw three bikes up ahead. “Can’t be” I thought. Then Bud shot by us down the front straight. A good rule of thumb in Open Twins is if you’re close to Bud, you’re close to the front. So with that news I settled in and began planning to stick around a while. Bud stalked Pat Blackburn on his 1098R as we all charged into the white flag lap. They gapped the hell out of us on the front straight. Left us for dead in fifth, which cleared my view of a very heart-warming sight on pit lane. It was Tracy again, my long lost wife, giving a hysterical signal the likes of which I have never seen before.
Our old code was no signals if we were in a heated battle – I can see what needs to be done. But if we were out front, she managed our pace – hands wide slow down, hands close go like hell. I never looked back, and I never raced without her there. But this weekend was very different. 3:30am Saturday I was solo. It’s been a tough two years for us. A lot is my fault. To be honest I’ve spent a good amount of time while not racing, realizing I need to be a better man. Yet still, Saturday afternoon just after practice, there she pulled up all on her own – car covered in bugs, staring at me through the windshield saying with just her eyes, “Well what did you think, moron. Of course I’m here..”
Image by Venhap.com
Image by Venhap.com
Image by Venhap.com
Her hands clenched into fists and she struck through the air as if to say “It’s all good moron. GO LIKE HELL !!!” Seeing that sign was the highlight of this and many weekends past. I rode the rear tire out of one, cracked the throttle earlier then I ever have out of two, and floated over the bumps from three to four until we were basically painted on Bud’s tail section. He started his run to the bus stop (a sharp, bumpy, second gear double-left kink) from a wide right hand sweeper. We hung tight through that right hander and crossed over the back of his line at full tilt through the first of the two lefts setting up for an inside pass going into the second left - the Bus Stop. Luckily that pass cost us no momentum and in a blink we were on Pat’s tail headed for Riverside. Riverside is a very high speed sweeping right hander. There are three things you need to go through Riverside good I think - tires, suspension, and iron balls. Two out of those three allowed us to sneak around the outside of Pat before the final apex, and iron had little to do with it. We held third position through lost hills but he showed us a wheel going into the never-ending Mazda right hand turn-around. “Hell no, not here” I thought. I let go of the brakes and set out on a journey to re-define my understanding of what a Michelin front tire can actually handle. I then learned apparently I’d been a coward all weekend. That tire never budged. Since we all know what a 1098R has under the hood, I figured I needed a hasty run through the esses toward the last turn if we stood a chance of holding third to the line. I hit every curb I think, threw dirt up at Pat, and even dropped a leg off one footpeg things got so out of hand through there. Pat didn’t pass us going into eleven but I got us through that last turn like Barry Manilow delivering daisys on a beach cruiser in Key West. What a horror. Pat passed us so strong before the line he almost took our bodywork with him. We ended up forth, which is about six places higher than any of us hoped for. I wish I had a camera as I pulled up to our crew after the cool down lap.
We ran Formula One and 750 Superbike as well as Open Twins. Both those classes are littered with Gixer 750s and the number of entrants is astonishing (sometimes as many as 60). I don’t really know where we finished. Maybe 7th and 9th? We tried a different setting for F1 on the rear shock, which was not good. I was forced to act as a human steering dampener for the whole race and couldn’t feel the bars by the third lap. I think we were fifth at one point, but I faded. We went the other way for 750 Superbike, which was better and we made good progress forward. But with two tricks left in our bag for the white flag lap I broke the shift linkage. We did the last lap stuck in fifth gear, luckily holding position. Thank god for big twin torque..
So getting back to Bluefin Tuna, I need to put a call in to my old friend Mike. I think I’ll tell him I’m catching on to the whole “Changes” thing. Life is certainly in motion. We never really “own” anything. Not a tire deal, not being in shape, not a stock portfolio, and definitely not a relationship. At best we maintain these things, if we’re lucky.
But I still think it’s a stupid f-ing name for a T-shirt company… :-)
See you all next round, maybe with more ponies