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The Island of Misfit Toys
Laguna Seca, California - July 4th 2009

When my buddy Bob Robbins mailed me about running our Superduke at Laguna this year, instantly I remembered the sound of Duhammel ripping up the front straight at Loudon the year he almost lost his leg. Regional bikes have a common drone to them as they circulate the track in the backdrop of your tire change, or as you adjust your clip-ons for next practice. There is a cadence they maintain that although loud as all hell, can almost put you to sleep.

Then once a year the pros show up... and suddenly that cadence gets re-defined. If you're a fan it's great. Sounds like that just beg for you to find a turn and watch in awe as these guys re-write your understanding of talent. But if you're a competitor, shit.. Sounds like that are all bad. They make your heart weigh heavy in your chest and they rob your knees of their will to stand.

Considering this, and the fact that for sure Bob meant we would run our KTM Superduke, a bike that's an underdog even at a club race, I figured what the hell and answered Bob in the very same way you would have yourself - "When do we leave.."

Bob Robbins
Image by Derek Lafontaine

It took a lot, and I mean a LOT of background work to set this weekend up. First off the AMA told us we fit the Daytona Sportbike class just fine, so long as our bike was an 08. Then two weeks before the flags dropped they told us it didn't. Then KTM stepped up and homologated it. Or at least that's what we were told..

As we parked our rig in the designated spot they gave us in Laguna's paddock, instantly an ama official scootered up to us and asked for the homologation bike. We all looked at each other like, "OK, I guess this is the final shoe we've been waiting for to drop." We had no homologation bike. In fact the manufacturer has to handle that directly with the AMA anyway. We all answered him with the WTF raised shoulders and palms to the sky. He quietly rode away while we wondered if we should even unload the truck. Two hours later, apparently, Aron Gobert pulled a brand new KTM Superduke out of his truck and dropped it off at tech. Turns out, much like one of the higher ups at KTM US, Aron is also Australian. And thanks to Australian brotherhood, we were officially homologated as of Thursday afternoon.

Tech was a trip. Took us about five runs through. The first few were just drive-bys. Then they told us to be there especially early Friday morning so Al Luddington could inspect our bike personally. Holy shit, that's like being called to the principles office on your first day of school. You can bet your ass I was no where near that inspection. Derek Lafontaine handled it like a champ. Apparently they parked both bikes, the shiny new one from the warehouse, and our race prepped version, and compared them side by side.

Anyone who reads the pages of BARF knows our Superduke is not stock. And stock is what they were looking for. Flags flew everywhere. "Why does it have black forks, the bellypan is carbon fiber, how come it has a different upper triple clamp and what's the trick looking shock mod all about," etc. etc. But when it comes down to it our bike really is stock - minus those parts, so they let us go. I guess they really wanted us to run with them, which was a really cool thing.

I know the AMA is mid way through a swing that's looking like it might be a strike this year, but on this day, and in this situation, they were all really cool to us. Friends almost. And they formalized our new bond by finally applying a sticker to our front plate which stated, right out there in plain sunshine, "AMA Daytona Sportbike"

AMA Daytona Sportbike
Image by Derek Lafontaine

Larry @ Lori
Image by Eric Gulbransen

One our pit was setup an amazing thing began happening which I have never experienced in my entire life of racing motorcycles. Fans came by, in all sizes shapes and colors. Women, men, boys, girls, MotoGP teams, AMA teams, corner workers, AMA officials, the local police, and on and on all weekend long. I'm not sure what it was, but I have a theory. We were the Island of Misfit Toys. A place for people to visit where instead of being roped off, they were welcomed with open arms. We were the team running the bike with square wheels. The guys who had no chance. The bike down on power, with the gorilla yanking on high bars with no fairings. We were the odd balls. The runts of the litter. And you know what, I wouldn't have changed that even if we could have. I think in a way, whether we admit it or not, we all wonder if we fit just right. Whether we are as good as the next guy, or whether we even deserve to apply. So on this weekend, and with this Superduke, we made a connection that we never could have on any other machine in the pits.

Eric GoGo Gulbransen
Image by Tracy Gulbransen

Tri Valley Racing team
Image by Tracy Gulbransen

I am beginning to acknowledge, after more than twenty years of doing it, that perhaps all this racing, risking, and spending of way more than just all our money perhaps doesn't make as much sense as we have always claimed it does. We can all justify it sixteen ways till Sunday. But honestly, when you really think about it, we all have waaaay more than just one screw loose to be doing this...

When you're sponsored by anyone who is actually a good businessman, well, you get asked to do fun little things like, um...., answer questions.

It's real easy to ignore our own questions which we hate answering. I'm an expert at it actually. I can avoid shit for years. But good businessmen like Mike and Kari (Tri Valley Owners) don't let you avoid anything. They make me pick goals. We all pick goals actually. And we do it together. Our Laguna weekend had three goals tagged to the top of its time sheets -

Get In............................Make the show............................Finish the race

 

By 10am Friday morning we were "In". The first of the three goals I had nothing to do with. Jason, Scott, Phil and Derek did everything. But my job was nearing.

After the first race I ever won someone close to me told me "It" would never be this good again. I think he meant that over time I would get desensitized by it all. Wins would get hum drum, the excitement would fade, and the passion would eventually rust up like the limbs of a Tin Man frozen in a lonely forest. Well I am here to tell you, that guy was an idiot.

In our first practice, and I know this is so lame to admit, I was star struck. It was all simply too much for me to take in while trying to concentrate on riding. The crowd, Laguna, that bridge, Bostrom sliding by, all the orange shirts on pit lane, the bike being homologated just for us, and on and on. My body wasn't comfortable, the bike felt strange, my shift points were off and every time I went through turn three I thought more about the crowd than the damned turn. Total amateur. I think we were at 39s.

Later that night I passed Rich Oliver in the pits. He laughed out loud when he saw me...

Why do I bring this out in people? It happened all weekend long. I think it was The Island of Misfit Toys.

I told Rich straight out, "I'm shot out there. I can't focus. Usually I'm taking notes on markers, moving turning points around, paying attention to shift points so I know when we're rolling faster or slower out of a turn. But here? Today? I'm totally distracted."

He said one very impressionable thing in response, "Use the energy."

I think I like Rich Oliver. Saturday morning we took four seconds off our pace.

But 35s were our limit the way the bike was geared. It was just too short. 15 teeth up front got us in the neighborhood, but 39 rear made the bike a tug boat going over the hill in turn one. Also up the hill in the back, we'd do the whole thing in one gear. Not good. Problem is no one makes a 42 tooth rear sprocket for our Superduke in 520. We thought of going to a 14 up front but it would rub over the top of the swingarm. We needed a 42 rear, and a 42 rear did not exist.

This is where, for the sixth time in less than two months, Jon Nichols of Nichols Manufacturing came to our rescue AGAIN!!!!

I used to race against Jordan Suzuki's Richard Alexander. He remembers it well I've been told. Especially, apparently, he remembers the day I ran up on his inside at Bridgehampton, in the pouring rain, and passed him rather handily while I went on to lead the race for the next nine inches. Then of course I took us both out. It was a remarkable moment in my career, which saw the two of us square up only half an hour later - both on borrowed 600s. Richie won by like 29 seconds (I let him).

Anyway, Richie and his boys hooked us up with a 42 tooth rear sprocket and a new 520 chain. As for what we planned to do with a 42 tooth Suzuki sprocket? None of us had a clue. The rest was up to Jon Nichols. And after about fifteen minutes of eying up our sprocket, over the Suzuki sprocket, Jon simply said, "Give me an hour at my shop. You'll have your sprocket." And then he disappeared into the night.

Jon Nichols
Image by Eric Gulbransen

Nichols Manufacturing
Image by Eric Gulbransen

We went into qualifying with plan #2 taped to the bubble. .....Wait a minute. We have no bubble. OK then, the next highest thing - the gauges. "Qualify" was all I could see no matter where I looked.

On pre-grid I saw Al Luddington up ahead. He's a tall, tan, dark haired, good looking guy. One of those people who when you see them, you just know they're somebody. Al really helped us a lot getting the Superduke homologated in time for Laguna. I'd say he was one of the most instrumental elements. So I walked toward him fully suited up with my helmet on - like I knew him. Truth is though, we had never met. "Thank you Al, for all your help getting us here." He leaned toward me while looking at the floor by my feet, just like a pitching coach would at the bottom of the ninth, and slapped me in the ass "Now go put her in the show!"

Before qualifying, Bob looked into the tire situation via the underground contacts he'd developed by running his Triumph team last year in the AMA FX class. James Lickwar, Aron Gobert, even Shawn at Dunlop - they all said the same thing "Soft front, @31lbs. Hard rear, @ 21lbs" But since we already knew what the rear was like, we figured we would gamble on the soft for qualifying. Bob was confident we could make the cut, so he decided on our experimenting with this soft rear before the race. In the past, twins have had a habit of being kind with softs. So we rolled the dice. The deal was I had to stay out, no matter what, for the full 30 minutes. This way we could see if it would last the race. Or at least get close to it.

By our third lap we were at 34:1s. I only knew we had gone faster. No pit board. Just hand signals. Each lap I watched for Mike's extended arm. Straight out meant we'd maintained pace. Anything upwards of that meant we had gone faster. No signal at all meant we were shit slow. By lap five, just like we were told, the rear was burnt up. Worthless. I felt it sideways everywhere and figured "Shit. We've got twenty minutes to go..."

If you've ever met me in person one of the first things you might have noticed is I will be the first one to put myself down. I am my worst critic. it's pretty typical for me to disrespect my noodle. I do it all the time. But really, that's not all right. Sure I still think Herbert Hoover made vacuum cleaners, but I'm not an idiot every day of the year. And on Saturday, in qualifying, I was smart as a whip. After lap five our times went into the dumpster. Each lap I'd look for Mike's arm, and each lap he'd let me down by just standing there in a trance. I was trying every trick I knew out there. Move forward, move back, go in hard, come out easy, draft anything out there, hell I even considered tucking one arm behind my back on the straights. Nothing worked. ....Until five laps from the end. That's when it hit me.

The control tires are dual compound. Soft all the way outside, hard as balls when you're straight up and down. But the transition between compounds is in a very strange place if you ask me. It's right were you do all your driving. Or, maybe I should say, it's right where I do all MY driving. So once the soft compound was used up, there was basically a rut in the tires shape just before the hard compound started. So I started moving my shoulder and torso up and out of the turns so I could drive out on the fat part of the tire rather than the edge. That's when the bike started to wheelie out of eleven and onto the front straight. Three laps from the end I looked over at Mike and his arm was up again. I could feel my heart chugging like a freight train right then. I kept my head down and gave it our best until the checker. As we went through start finish, to end the session, I looked trackside and saw two AMA officials jumping and clapping for us as we went by. I knew right then, we made it.

Mike Meissner
Image by Derek Lafontaine

 

I had dinner last night with a new friend of mine. Mark Erickson. He's a flat tracker from Colorado Springs. Guy's won like four Pikes Peak races in his career. He wore a baseball cap, a backpack, stood with his arms folded, and introduced himself after qualifying with the biggest shit eating grin I've ever seen. I was intrigued by his expression. You ever have someone look at you in way that suggests they know something about you that you don't? Well Saturday that guy was Mark Erickson. At first I mistook him for a general admission Rossi fan who got lost on his way to the bathroom. But then he said something which almost stopped my pulse, "I bet your third to last lap was your fastest." I looked up at him with just my eyes at first, as if I had just learned he was possessed. After all, he wore no stop watch. I said, "Yeah it was. But how the hell did you know that?" He answered back, "I watched your torso and shoulders. You were a roadracer for the first five laps, you were lost for the next ten, and then you were a flat tracker.."

Mark Erickson
Image by Derek Lafontaine

GoGo Gulbransen
Image by Tim Huntington (webnectar.com)

Turns out Mark's buddy sponsors none other than the same guy who used to race the very bike that put us on our head four times last month - Chris Fillmore. It's a small world isn't it..

For Sunday's race we had one last goal taped to the dash - "FINISH". After the last two AFM rounds we have run, believe it or not I was a little shy of confidence about reaching this last goal. So I made a deal with myself - "If you have to drag this bike across the line, on it's side, by the handlebar, you are going to finish this race."

I hate the rolling start and pace car deal. It makes no sense to me. It takes the competition straight out of the competition. Whatever. We gained like one position by turn two. I was hoping for eight. In one lap the guys who qualified close to us had formed a small group of five or so. We were fourth in that pack until I went into turn three like I was on holiday. Instantly we had an inline slamming up under us. One thing I will say though, this Superduke runs around a bend like a feline on catnip. I parked us on his outside through that turn in the hopes that we could come right back in four. Nothing doing. He let his bike run wide and aimed us at Casey's gravel trap. I bailed us out of that by letting off and then regrouping about nine bike lengths behind him. As I tucked back in I hung a nice over our dash as we all rushed for turn four. Out of five I felt real small, they were gapping us already. I was bummed about that so I did my best to keep us after that group. Slowly, and I mean slowly, we inched back to them. We were far better on the brakes to the Corkscrew, into Two, into eleven, and on the gas around Rainey corner. But just about everywhere else, especially the front and back straights, we lost almost all that we would make up - lap after lap. Then, naturally, just as we got close enough to tap my friend on his shoulder and say hello again - the red flag flew.

Daytona Sportbike Laguna Seca 2009
Image by David Mandell

The second restart was far worse than the first. And the first one sucked pretty bad. But at least we were still with the pack.. Like I said, this Superduke runs pretty good through a turn, so as we went through turn four I actually had to avoid hitting the dude just ahead. I went to his outside, then he drifted to the paint - which effectively put us off the track and into the dirt out of four. Not one of Barbie's happy places. Again we lost eight bike lengths to the same pack. But this time we made up time a little quicker.

Maybe it's the cycling I've been doing with Jason Hahns after work, maybe it's the gym. I don't have a clue. But somehow, even late in that race, my body was steady cool and comfortable. Maybe they were fading, maybe it was their tires. Whatever. We were getting closer, we were getting faster, and for the first time since coming up with this crazy idea to run Daytona Sportbike at Laguna this year, a top 20 finish was transforming from ridiculous - to a very real possibility. We moved from 25th to 24th on the brakes and the pack we'd chased all afternoon was now right off our bow. We couldn't hang with them on the straight, up the hill in back, out of four or five, or into Rainey curve. But everywhere else we were gaining. Where exactly is everywhere else? On the brakes into two, on the brakes into the Corkscrew, on the brakes into eleven, and rolling through turn ten. In a late braking move from 24th to 23rd, going into turn eleven, I was surprised to see how much faster we were set to roll through there than the pack we were now in the middle of.

At one point during the weekend Larry Pegram's crew came by for a visit. They were all Italians, but they spoke English very well. The eldest member of them asked me straight-up, "What advantages do you have out there?" I looked downward, thought about it for a few seconds, then looked back up and confidently answered, "None?"

Eric Gulbransen Laguna Seca
Image by Tim Huntington (webnectar.com)

Although their entire crew laughed out loud, I was actually wrong in saying that. We did have advantages - corner speed and braking. Only problem was coupling those advantages with our biggest disadvantage - acceleration. This meant the one and only meeting place we would ever get, all race long, would be going into a turn, or once in the turn itself.. And here is where the only bump in our weekend occurred. We were inside the rider just in front, going into eleven, but we were not front wheel to front wheel. I did not own the turn. Our front wheel was about at his motor, but we were fine on our line. I planned to run through there and come out on his inside, let him pull us out of eleven while I tucked in for the draft, then outbreak him into two. But he had other plans. Not only did he dive for the inside of the turn, he actually crossed over the paint. In an instant we had no more Laguna Seca for our front wheel. I did all I could to clear his rear tire but we were on our head in a highside one second later.

It's funny, you'd think I was pissed. Disappointed. Hurt, or planning my revenge. None of those thoughts even occurred to me. Instead I went for the handlebar, and started dragging.

GoGo crash Laguna
Image by Tim Huntington (webnectar.com)

As it turns out though, that KTM Superduke wanted to finish the race just as much as we did. It fired right up, and off we went to finish. The AMA meatball flagged us in the next lap, which sucked, but they let us continue once they checked our bike in the pits. The right bar was bent, the front wheel was bent, there was no rear brake lever and my body was hurt. We went out and set some of our fastest laps of the race in those final few go-arounds.

In the end we finished the race right about where we started - the bike with square wheels, a green team disguised in bright orange, and the rider with far more yesterdays than tomorrows - all from the Island of Misfit Toys.

....Only now we weren't alone anymore.

Cody Mandell
Image by Tracy Gulbransen

GoGo Gulbransen

Tracy Gulbransen
Image by Derek Lafontaine


 
Link to Vanson Leathers website, www.vansonleathers.com
Link to Urban Moto Website
Mr. BiB logo link to AfMotorsports.com

Suomy helmts website link

Nichols Manufacturing Logo, circle with
Leo Vince exhaust systems website link
link to yoyodyne performance motorcycle parts