Out of Wonderland
AFM round-3 2010
Round 2 almost broke me. I spent the following month secretly depressed. My effortless patients with this struggling Superduke program, during a time in my career when I can’t afford to be patient, were running out. Why you might ask? After all we didn’t crash in round 2 (or 1), we finished respectfully, and we are not in trouble with the AFM. Hell that’s a stellar weekend for GoGo, right? Yeah… Bullshit. That’s not a stellar weekend for anyone.
Since the day Mike handed me the ball on this program last winter, I began dismantling everything we did last year like a kid swinging one of those mammoth red plastic golf clubs through his room full of toys. Every place we went right last year, this year we’ve gone left. Every place we had it jacked up, we now run it lower. You want to create a big difference in something, create a big change. And just about all of the changes we made this year have been my decisions. What are the differences in our results? Well we haven’t crashed, that’s a positive change. By this time last year we’d hit the deck three times already. I’m finally designing a new set of Vanson leathers for us (I vowed to use our old leathers this year until we solved our problems). And we’ve finished every race we entered in 2010. But after last weekend I was left feeling like something was missing. In my last story I called it heart.
People are fascinating to me. Every one of us is so dramatically different from the next. But racers are all the same. We’re like a clan of dysfunctional aliens lost inside the tiny windings of an ancient stopwatch, still hanging from the pocket of the first ever race steward’s ghost.
You ask a racer midway through any Sunday how they’re doing, they’ll quote the windings of that watch. Doesn’t matter if you meant work, or the last time they got laid. “Nineteen’s” will be your answer. If nineteens is fast for that track they’ll answer you with big teeth and bright eyes. They’ll offer you advice on lines, tell you who built their motor, they may even suggest some local restaurants. But if nineteens is slow, in a faintly distant gaze toward the floor they’ll barely stop to answer you. Sometimes as little as one tick of the steward’s watch can influence this radical difference in a racer. And I am no exception..
Last year our best Superduke lap at Infineon was a 43.6. Not a bad lap, everything considered. But look what it cost us to get there - two suspensions, five crashes, broken confidence, come to Jesus meetings, and far too many uneaten meals (by the way I consider ONE uneaten meal far too many, especially if there’s ice cream). Coming out of round 2, after a good deal of my grabbing the ball and steering our team toward creating huge change for this season, our best lap was a 45:1. We’d lost a second and a half. Sure we hadn’t crashed, a fact which supports my claims of not making nearly as many mistakes last year as I’d been accused of, but around a race circuit success is measured by none other than that cold, heartless watch. My gaze was distant, our bike wasn’t fun to ride, I wrote about an effort with no heart, and for the first time since my first KTM ride, suddenly I had begun asking myself the very same question people usually ask me – “Why run a Superduke?”
I referenced a pc playing tinny music from one incompetent plastic speaker in the background at Tri Valley Moto in my last report. That was my analogy; “If you’re gonna do something, like play music, or go racing, do it right - or don’t do it at all.” Turns out that line made a hell of an impact on us all. Shortly after it hit the net, Mike contacted KTM about fitting our bike with a proper race shock. I went on the hunt to find Ohlins forks for our bike, and Dannyboy set out on a super creative journey to find us some stability, more feedback from the chassis, and a way to get our bike turning better.
By Tuesday before round 3, everyone had found their path to success but me. I now had three days left to mount a set of Ohlins forks I had just gotten my hands on. We needed to fabricate spacers, find an axle, brakes, a wheel, different triples, etc. – all in three days. It was just too much. Wednesday am I called in to Dannyboy to report my defeat. He actually sounded happy about it. He has a great sense for the realistic. Me? Not so much.. Anyway two out of three aint bad. I need to thank KTM, turns out they do care about us after all. They do read. They do know. Their race shock looks real trick too. But before you wonder why we didn’t just mount an Ohlins TTX shock back there, remember, a Superduke does NOT use a rear link. We’re talking old school Steve Austin is the Six Million Dollar Man technology here – for sure Ohlins has nothing for a Suerduke. And the swingarm… It’s the same one that’s on a KTM Adventure?
So Danny took the floor on this one. He designed, bent, and built one of the coolest swingarm braces I have seen. He and his buddy John Starks, of Starks Engineering, did all the tig-welding. They left it raw for the first weekend, to keep an eye on it. By next round it’ll have a nice finish on it too.
So my answer to the ever-burning question, “Why run a Superduke” is exactly this: It’s the people behind this project. It’s the project itself. And it’s this project’s uncanny ability to draw from you your very best, and then some.
To counter the potential threat of Saturday showers deleting what would surely be a day of critical practice for us, we ran with Z-2 on Friday afternoon. To be honest I couldn’t feel the new swingarm. I couldn’t feel the new shock. All I could feel were our old forks, shouting in protest of every input I pushed for. This shock is more compliant, feels softer, but the spring it came with is unfortunately rated for a ballerina – which in a new and very different way, I really liked. But this put our setup completely out of balance, and out of balance on any motorcycle is utter hell out there at speed. So while we were there, surrounded by tarmac, against the backdrop of distant motors howling around Infineon, we were still lost, and I was still slow…
I remember a kid growing up a few neighborhoods away. We used to have apple wars against he and his boys. He was from a rough family, and he really struggled in school. In fact he almost didn’t graduate. Spelling was why. He was horrible. They got him a tutor, he stayed after school, he labored through his homework, the whole nine yards. Nothing helped. He failed constantly. Then one day our substitute teacher had him read in front of the class. It was painful listening to him butcher the English language. When he was done she asked him to stay after class. As the story goes she said one simple thing to him, which changed his life forever, “Son, until you learn to speak, you will never learn to spell.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to inspire a breakthrough - one person, one difference, one quick flash which fires your attention in a new direction. Today that kid is more successful than me, which is odd because as long as you’re from NY, I pronounce words just fine..
So it’s strange how it happened, I know. But what’s important is it happened. Our huge change in the rear was the flash which inspired huge changes up front. And that’s all I have to say about that right now.
We went into Saturday practice with newfound inspiration. That was our triumph. But we also went into Saturday with newfound expectations. That was our tragedy. Now I don’t know if it was the wind, the cold, or maybe just that ghostly steward screwing with my head again, but we were still slow. In fact with each new session, and each progressive change toward nailing this new setup – the bike felt better and better. I felt better and better. Finally our Superduke had begun to respond like motorcycles do, rather than something out of Alice In Wonderland. But by day’s end, again, we were still slow.
At this moment I would like to ask that we all join hands, in the spirit of this brotherhood of speed, and give a shout-out to perhaps the most haunting phenomenon we as racers must sometimes endure;
FEELING faster than shit, while BEING slower than shit!
We ended Saturday still stuck somewhere in an Alice In Wonderland movie, where dogs are big as houses, and rabbits talk. None of this made sense, I felt so much faster, but we were slower. My biggest complaints were simple – hard as I tried I simply could not get our bike to turn around a bend at a good enough clip - on a tight enough radius. And our problem wasn’t traction. I wasn’t pushing the front OR loosing the rear. The bike simply wouldn’t turn tighter. That, and I also had this nagging memory of Dannyboy’s voice ringing in my head. Something he had said months ago, when I demanded shorter gearing. “I don’t know GoGo, you sure you want to rev this thing out like that? Get away from all that torque?” Since we were basically reaching for straws late Saturday afternoon, I ate my pride and asked Sonny and Jason what they thought about going taller on the gearing. It figured, everyone unanimously agreed basically instantly that I was wrong to ever go shorter in the first place. ….whatEVER. At best though, this gearing change might help acceleration, but it wasn’t gonna do a dam thing about turning any tighter. We needed to get away from the ballerina spring our new shock came with. Only one problem. NO ONE has an eleven hundred pound, six inch long spring because EVERYONE these days has a modern suspension with a link in the rear, which basically divides spring rate in half. You don’t believe me? Go check your spairs..
So it’s late Saturday, there’s not a chance in hell we’ll ever have what we need, yet we are all determined to find it. You could sense in each of us, we knew by morning we would have the spring we needed – we just didn’t know how. So I called an unfamiliar number for me, Dan Kyle, of Kyle Racing. As I understood things, Dan has some association with Ohlins, and suspension, and Michael Earnest used to run for him. That’s about as basic as my brain files things. I introduced myself to Dan on the line with my full and proper name, which I typically reserve for courtrooms and such. For all I know he thought I was the cable guy calling, so I was shocked when he offered to stay late and wait for us, as long as we left “Now.”
I don’t know what it is about racing but after two decades I realize, for me at least, that there is always one constant regardless of coast, or bike, or team – NO SLEEP. Jason and I looked each other in the eyes for what turned out to be a rather endearing moment, dropped everything Superduke, and ran for the van. What better way to spend Saturday night than a nice moonlight drive to the beach in Monterey, with a dude…
Dan opened one of his two shop doors for us with a laugh, which formed an instant brotherhood of racing bond between the three of us. “That door is to our business, where we sell stuff all day long. It’s where we make money. This other door is to our shop, where we work on stuff for guys like you. It’s where we lose money.” We all laughed. But just three steps later that laughter turned to awe. I’m sorry, maybe you’ve already been to Kyle Racing. Neither Jason nor I ever had. Holy Wonderland. Shock dynos, spring testers, CNC machines, a lathe, lifts, and most importantly for our Saturday night trip to the beach in Monterey – SPRINGS GALORE !!!
It was a little complicated, working with our new shock. By nature, due to the height of it’s hydraulic preload adjuster, the White Power race shock uses a short spring. That’s fine, but when you consider the spring rate we need to hold up my non-ballerina ass, things get tricky because the diameter of the spring coils is very big (in this very rare case, bigger is not better). When you (Dan) do the math, considering swingarm angle/travel/shock length – you get a hard number, which represents the range in which your shock will travel. Ours was 67mm. The problem Dan discovered in our case (here we go with dogs as big as houses again..) was the answer to a question I never would have thought to ask – “Exactly how far can we compress this big six inch spring?” As it turns out, not far enough, so Dan decided to remove our hydraulic preload adjuster and mount the spring from our previous shock, which is both longer, and harder than what came on the race shock. It also took a little work on the lathe to create a collar that would hold it. In a quick hour and a half Jason and I were back on the road for Infineon. Thank you Dan Kyle, for opening both your doors for us!
Sunday was better right out of the box. We basically started, again, with a brand new bike. Only this time our brand new bike was a world closer than it’s ever been before. This got me thinking back to our last report. All the pms I got from those offering help. “Go in deeper, turn in later, get on it harder, earlier.” Like I said before I agree with it all, I just could get us there. But now suddenly I could. Our Superduke was fun again. The big dog fit, and the rabbit shut up.
With only one practice we went into race one kind of timid. We still had things to sort but we were making progress. And finally the old Steward stopped breaking my heart. We were faster again. More changes for Open Twins meant the bike was better still. James on his RC8R and Siggy on his 1198R checked out about nine feet from the green flag, and we settled in to third. I rode pretty consistent all on my own, watching Derek’s signals as we built a better and better lead on P-4 (Steve Metz on his 1198). As I’ve been told we had a four second gap, when I ran into trouble going into turn 9. Now I could blame it on the wind, I know. Or I could say it was our transmission. But the truth is I made a big mistake. I missed my second downshift under hard braking and wasn’t able to replace that engine braking with rear brake, in time. I blew the entrance to nine, bad. I know I could have run it through the hay bales and likely come out the other end still in P-3, but to me that’s cheap. The race is around the track, not the property. So I basically, finally, stopped it just short of the edge of the pavement on the outside of turn nine’s entrance, squared it off, and headed back to racing. Normally we would have been fine. I had Metz covered all the way up to lap 7, why not on lap 8. But I was tense out there - too many new things in too many new ways. I wasn’t riding comfortable. I wasn’t riding relaxed. In fact I could barely feel the bars, which again, was all me. Not the bike at all. Steve shot by us on the run to turn 7. At first I didn’t care, I knew where I could get him back. In fact I planned to return the favor in about thirty yards. I let him by our inside on the entrance and doubled back up underneath him to beat him to the final apex.
But Steve, and this is where you can thank me for not taking you out, I just didn’t feel I had the control to be that aggressive. While our bike was now turning better, on a tighter radius, it was still not what I know it will soon be. I had to back off. We finished in fourth. In a way I wanted to stab a spear through our gas tank. Maybe light the bike on fire in some type of sacrificial offering to the Gods who monitor people coming ever so close to something, yet not quite getting there…
For our third race of the day, F-1, we did make a move which would have helped us dearly in Open Twins. But it’s a process, setting up a motorcycle, you’ve got to do it one step at a time. We pushed our forks down farther into our Nichols triple clamp, in the hopes to find a tighter turning radius, and that’s exactly what we found. This let me relax a bit in the race, find a groove, and take some notes. What’s fascinating is how different our bike now handles the esses through turn 8. It’s got to be the swingarm bracing Dannyboy and John Starks did. Our bike stays on line now, instead of wallowing and drifting wide through there. Before the bracing I could never nail the last right leading to the wheelie bump. Also out of the Carousel, and up the hill under power. Our bike holds it’s line far better, and gives us worlds better feedback on wheel spin. Before it would snap it’s way through spinning the rear tire which was very unsettling, with a lot of movement. Now I get info much earlier, and when the rear breaks loose it does it very predictably. It’s actually a LOT more fun to ride now.
I don’t know where it says we finished, maybe somewhere around 6th? But that’s just where it says we finished. Where we really finished, is finally out of Wonderland…
Thanks for reading.
Special thanks this weekend go to James Lee, Dan Kyle, John Starks, Jeremy, Dannyboy, Jason Hauns, and Sonny P. These guys are all world-class individuals, who bleed racing passion. Also I would like to give a shout-out to my girl, Tracy Gulbransen. Seven years ago this past weekend we were married in Bermuda. Somewhat like my racing career, we have endured some trying times. But we as well, are coming out of Wonderland.