From the Battlefield of Marathon
AFM round - 4, 2010
From the battlefield of Marathon, four hundred ninety years before the birth of Christ, a legendary messenger named Pheidippides was sent to give word that the Persians had been defeated, some twenty six miles away. It is said he ran the entire distance without ever stopping. No food, no water, no new rod-bearings, or even a set of rings. After bursting in to deliver his final message to the assembly in Athens, "We have won" he collapsed and died – forever etching in stone the true measure of man.
From the Battlefields of racetracks both near AND far from here, our legendary LC8 motor has been asked to endure a life of bludgeoned abuse. To carry us on our creative journey into waters charted neither for it, nor for the chassis KTM wrapped around it. It’s been since far too long ago that we started, to finally arrive where we did this Sunday. Far too much abuse – three seasons of a life above redline without changing more than a few quarts of oil. Most motors would have collapsed and died long ago. But not this LC8 of ours. Instead this legend endured our ruthless journey just long enough to deliver it’s final message, in a trail of gushing oil, to our canopy at 10:30am in Thunderhill, “We have won. …….fourth place in F-1 – and if your broke asses ever rebuilt me we might even have done better.” Then it collapsed and (almost) died.
My Dad, a marathon runner himself, used to spend his early mornings chasing the fabled “Runner’s high.” He was a man of little emotion with the exception of just a few things in his life, and running was one of them. I never knew what he was talking about til it happened one day on a run of my own. About mid way through, suddenly I could barely feel the floor beneath me. I wasn’t out of breath, and I’d stopped counting miles because for the first time – they just didn’t matter anymore. It felt more like gliding than it did running.
Since my first rides on our Superduke there has always existed one quiet constant – I don’t ride like me. I thought it was our high bars, my lack of confidence in our front end, or maybe I’d just lost something since our days in red. Either way, this bird’s had a broken wing for a while now.
But suddenly, after what’s ultimately evolved into a battle of the ages chasing setup on this bike, something’s finally clicked. The war is over, and we have won. My me is coming back. My shoulder is dropping, my ass is twice as far off the seat, and I have all the confidence in the world in our front end. I could feel it happening out there on track, the difference in us, but I thought I was the only one. Then Sonny brought up one final concern he had for Sunday, “Ummm, everything seems great out there – your corner speed, your drives, your lines are all good. Except I’m a little concerned about one thing.. Do you really have to lean the thing over so far?” All I could do was smile..
It’s the runner’s high of racing - and it’s finally back. Maybe it’s what the best refer to when they mention good “Rhythm”. Maybe it’s what chassis guys refer to when they mention good “Balance”. Either way, I know where it came from, and I know why it’s finally here. 3:00pm Saturday afternoon, after our last most successful practice, I sent a text out to every member of our now scattered team – to Bob Robbins from Laguna, to the ghost of Scott past (Tri Valley 09), to Derek Lafontaine (who now only shows up at races when his little dog lets him), to the two owners of Tri Valley Moto (Kari and Mike, who are both dug deep in the trenches of running a successful business in the challenging waters of a struggling economy), to Jon Nichols of Nichols Sportbike (who made our triple clamp and ride height adjuster), to Dannyboy (who’s custom fabricated swingarm handled T-Hill just like it was intended to), and finally to Tracy (who’s dog wouldn’t let her come either). I congratulated them for jobs well done, “We did it. This Superduke is now one of the best set-up motorcycles I have ever ridden. Congratulations to you all.”
I was shy to line up on the front row of F-1. Concrete wall to my right, three ravaging animals about to disappear into the sun to my left, and nine hundred hungry bikes dying to tear our bodywork off behind us. I remembered this same race last year. I think we were fifteenth into turn one. After that race Joy Higa came by our celebrating pit, apparently to crush our spirit – by saying “I just can’t belieeeeeeeve how SLOW your bike is!” That one left a mark… So once the flag finally dropped this Sunday I was surprised to find us still in the lead pack by turn three. By the Cyclone I had to back out of it. Of course then we lost ground going up the hill in the back, then running to the final turn on lap one. But oddly enough, even though the lead freaks had disappeared into the sun down the front straight, we were all reunited by the Cyclone again. Our Superduke was on rails out there. I could choose a line and nail it. I could pick a spot to turn, then hammer out hard. I could trail into three and still end tight for four. It was a beautiful thing, realizing that finally were not at a disadvantage. Things stayed tight like that for a few laps. I kept laughing in my helmet thinking of Jason and Sonny back in the pits. In fact I’m still laughing now. All that work, all those ideas, the long drives, the late nights with Dannyboy, the theories over pasta, and on and on and on. It all worked. We were now not only fast despite of our motorcycle, we were fast because of our motorcycle. But like I said earlier, it’s been a long road getting here – and plenty of damage has been done along the way. Each time we lost ground on the straights, we were able to make it back up in the turns. Except that one time I got a false neutral (again!) going into turn 14… (anyone remember the false neutral that lost us third place in Open Twins – round 3?)
Now I'm no mechanic, but I do have a good idea what our transmission looks like by now.
Most false neutrals I know are pretty predictable getting back into gear - but not these. I pulled the clutch and simply let her roll in there like a hang glider. Then I stood it up mid-turn and did my best to get it back in. Nothing doing, it wouldn’t go. Just sounded like marbles rattling in a coffee can. It wasn’t til I finally just accelerated again that it went back in. And of course by now any hopes I had of reaching the front again were lost. But it’s fine, inside ourselves we’d already begun our little victory dance. We had just, on our KTM Superduke, gone half a second faster around Thunderhill than I have ever gone on our Ducati 749R…
What the hell is THAT all about?
But then it happened – our fallen hero, KTM’s LC8 motor, just outside our pits, delivered our triumphant message from Marathon in a gushing pool of smoking synthetic oil. I thought to get my camera, but instead, like the vase slowly falling from the table before you, I just sat there in a trance and watched. We had one mission coming to Thunderhill this weekend – third place in Open Twins. To me nothing else mattered. And here I was watching all hope of that happening, ooze from our RedBull catch can.
Racing is surely a mind game, whether you realize it or not, whether you play it or not. Doesn’t matter, you’re a part of it. So while Sonny and Jason figured their way around yet another unsolvable problem, I set out for Steve “The Tiger” Metz’s pit (our greatest rival for third place in the OT championship). I walked straight up to him, never took my eyes off his, shook his hand and left. His hello and goodbye sounded the same, “Good luck to you too..” Only thing was, I never said good luck in the first place. What I actually said was, “Hold on to your ass brother, cause I’m about to give you every damn thing we’ve got.”
750 Superbike was the race up next. Open Twins would be our last of the day. We crushed our tire budget by mounting yet another new Michelin up front. That was my call – going into turn one with a tire bathed in oil was not my idea of Sunday fun. Sonny looked me in the eyes and desperately dug for my fallen confidence. “Don’t worry, the motor is fine. We put too much oil in it/the breather hose had a kink in it/the rings are a little warn….” I wasn’t buying any of it through, I’ve felt twin motors go in the past. First indication is a metallic vibration in and around your balls, which this LC8 motor was now developing. I told him I planned to forego our second row grid position and instead start from the back, to make sure everything was ok for Open Twins. He said he’d sick his dog Betty on me if I did. As I rolled toward the start, I saw him standing by the second row. He looked a lot like me – the guy who never lets off. They guy who will start with a cold virgin slick up front, with a questionable motor between his legs, and another nine hundred angry motorcycles just dying to rip his bodywork off. Then I thought of being “That guy”. You know, the one who takes out nine people because he didn’t avoid something he maybe could have? Yeah, you know the guy.. So I listened to a new voice I learned to use last year, and started dead last instead. We will never know if that was the right call or not. Things turned out fine. By the end of the race only trailing smoke was coming from our catch can – which also meant we were ON for Open Twins..
At this point I need to mention something I’ve never really focused on since writing about racing our Superduke – our Michelin tires. I made a bad call as it turns out – I opted out of another new rear. Not sure why really, other than no budget. The Michelins I used to know, back in the day, used to stick like glue. And then suddenly they’d launch you into oblivion. I ran them ten years back east, and that trait of theirs never ceased to scare the crap out of me. But these Michelins are very different. Today they go away predictably, with lots of warning. In fact going hand in hand with Sonny’s comment about lean angle this weekend, I experienced a side of these Michelins that I never have before. I believe we were actually riding around ON the edge of not only grip, but profile as well. And on this edge, like in turn two specifically, I could actually drift our way around the entire turn. I never got it perfect, but I could definitely steer the bike with the rear – something Jim Allen used to talk with me about like I knew what he was saying. But I didn’t, then.. Anyway that’s a pretty cool trait of this Michelin rear DOT we use that I thought I’d pass on. As for the front, we use a Michelin slick – which also is different from it’s ancestors of the nineties. It also pushes easier, sooner, but never suddenly lets go. When you get into that zone, these tires really come to life. They open doors for you, rather than slam them shut in your face. But where I blew it is I made the call NOT to replace the rear for Open Twins. This took a second out of our pace, but I have to admit, it really did make the ride a lot more fun J
Even though we got a good launch in Open Twins, with Siggy out front and us just behind, Tiger boy still got by us once the clutches were done burning. We couldn’t afford that, not with him on an 1198S. If anything we needed to lead him, to slow him down. Then maybe work back on our deficit lost on the straights. We had good grip at the start so I motored us up his outside out of turn one. Luckily before the turn was done we were already side-by-side again, so as we powered over the hill toward turn two I set my sites on putting him into the weeds if I had to. We were beating him to the apex, that’s all there was to it. I’m scared of my wide bars tangling with anyone’s bike so I put my shoulder and arm out by his body and held the throttle pinned til he shut off. It all worked out, and the handshake promise was kept. Tiger boy was getting all we had. Around turn three, parked on Siggy’s rear tire, I was reminded of myself a few years ago. When you ride a big Ducati, you only go as fast as you need. Those motors only spin so many revs in their life. I thought about showing him a wheel into 5, but that bike is just too pretty. Tiger boy showed up again on our motor up the hill to turn nine. I expected to see him there, but not like he came by. “Holy mother” I thought. Sonny was right, I really didn’t want to know how fast his bike is on the straight. He went a little wide at the apex of nine so we railed right back up his inside for another shoulder match up and over the hill toward turn ten. Too bad no one got any photos of those moments. I’m sure Steve would love them too. We held second through ten and the chicane, but now I knew what to expect for the rush under the bridge. We didn’t have a chance. I had hoped to lead him each lap onto the straight, but nothing doing – his bike is silly fast. As it turns out I kept my promise though, I gave Tiger boy my best. It just wasn’t good enough. And then to add insult to injury, we lost ANOTHER position to Nick Hayman on his 999. I could blame it on three races on one rear, or two more false neutrals from hell in turn fourteen, but really I think Nick had our pace anyway. Fourth again, was the best we could do. Congrats to Nickers, that man can ride a motorcycle. As for Tiger boy, turns out he’s catching on to the mind games of racing. Moments before the Open Twins race I discovered a plastic Tiger standing proud atop our Superduke gas tank. Too bad Steve doesn’t know about Sonny’s ritual race weekend beheadings. Stay tuned folks, this could get brutal.
I don’t know what the points are now. Looking will make me cry I think. Our 18 point lead on Metz is in the shitter I’m sure. I knew going into this, with three rounds at T-Hill this year, and our power deficit, we are up against a huge handicap. We all knew we need more horses, but none of us expected two new things – to leave round 4 with lap times like that, and to leave with no motor.
Jason says he learned a lot this weekend about setup. Sonny says I’m a punk for starting at the back. Tracy says she’s bummed she didn’t come, and Mike says “Grab the wrenches, it’s time to rock and roll..” ….I’ll see you tonight Dannyboy!