5/29/2006, AFM round 3
Sonoma, California

"Ducati Fever"

photo by Dennis Harmon,
Raceimage.net


We won a great middleweight GP race a bunch of years ago, back in 99, on a Ducati 748 that was so stock it still had a horn mounted to its triple clamps. In that race we were under-powered, out-gunned, had to come from behind, and knew all bets were against us. Somehow, though, that little 748 clung to the tail end of the lead pack all race long, and on the very last lap we made it all the way from fifth, to first, and stole the checkered flag by one half of one wheel...

Until this past Sunday I have held that moment as what must have been the high-light of my racing career..... That is, of course, until this past Sunday.

I left our last AFM weekend in dire straights. After working harder than I ever thought I could on a bike, to go faster, our end results last month were lap-times well off the pace we needed to be at. I think I took this personally because from the Monday after that race I've been eating half portions, running every day, working out, and thinking, "Where in the hell are we going to find four seconds?!" Thankfully I wasn't the only one doing their homework during our off-time. Scotty Rumple, Bazil Josselyn, and Jason Putris, of MotoItaliano really took their time creating a difference with our bikes. After all, up until this weekend we have only had one machine to run. But this weekend, thanks in great part to the return of Dennis Harmon - who lent us a few key parts from his 999R, we showed up with two machines - a Ducati 749R, and a 999R, affectively arriving our MotoItaliano race effort at yet another of our goals for 2006.



We've been fortunate enough to show our open classed twins competition just how great the Ducati 749R is by dominating Open Twins with it so far this year, and for most of last. But what we haven't done yet is run this 749R against the 600 superbike field. The 600 superbike field is so intensely contested that it's actually one of the hardest races in the AFM to get in-to. If your pre-entry isn't one of the first they get their hands on, you're probably not going to make the field. Luckily we did get in, so the race was on against the middleweight inlines. In addition to this added class for us, we also entered our new 999R in Formula one... F1 is a class based on what "Heavyweight Superbike, and AMA Superbike" displacement rules used to be a couple of years ago - only added to the run of the mill superbikes, 500cc two strokes are also allowed, as are factory "race only" built machines (basically, if you showed up with Doohan's NSR500, or Troy Bayliss's F06, this is the class you would run it in).

We missed quite a bit of practice on Saturday, putting the finishing touches on our 999R, but we did finally get to run both bikes before the day was out. The 749R felt like home again, right off the bat. But ripping around on the 999R in what would be it's maiden voyage, might just as well have been like entering the Queen Mary in a go-kart race. Scotty had handed me the bike in high hopes, after spending just about all week building it. I was pretty jazzed as well, but our excitement about the voyage only got us half way around the track until I decided to abort the mission. Somehow this bike just felt totally foreign. Nothing was right, nothing was comfortable, and it didn't steer well at all. I pulled off just as soon as I had pulled on, and headed back to our pits. After a little CSI research we discovered the adjustable seat (which as you can see from this example, is a HUGE option to have), was in the middle setting, instead of the rear setting (about five millimeters difference). Then the rear-sets were a few millimeters off compared to our 749R, and one bar was two mil farther in than the other. Once we re-adjusted these things we sent the bike over to Dave Moss, at Catalyst Reaction Suspension Tuning. Dave wound up the rear spring, giving us 30 ml of sag, raised our rear ride height, and clicked himself silly until he was happy with how the bike reacted to his feel as he pushed on it.

We had one more practice session for Saturday and luckily for us, everything was a "Go". The bike was immediately comfortable, very quickly we got up to speed, and after only eight laps it was ready to be considered as an official addition to our racing stable.

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Photos by Gary Rather, of GaryRatherPhoto.com

We went into Sunday a little shy about the new workload we had taken on. Four races on two different bikes is a helluva challenge. First up was Open Twins. We started on pole, which at Infineon means you're lined up next to a wall which is on your left, and then you have four other bikes to your right which are all aimed at the end of that very same wall. Since turn one is a left hander you've either got to beat them all to the end of that wall, or you're getting shut down and sent back to somewhere around tenth. In each of the THREE starts this Open Twins race took to complete (two red flags caused the re-starts), our 749R made it to the end of the wall first. But just because we took the hole shot, this didn't mean we were suddenly on easy street - apparently - because Craig McClean on another 749R came under us going into turn two on the first two starts, and then Bud Anderson threw it up underneath us on the last re-start. I guess I need to work on that section.....?

With the 749R suspension dialed in so well, you can really throw that bike on it's side in a turn and make quick business of a turn. We used the bikes nimble turning ability to square off our turn mid-way through the carousel, and then out-drive Anderson heading up the straight toward turn seven. Once we got by we tucked in and hit our marks, never coming under challenge again. So far this year we've been fortunate enough to win all three Open Twins races on our 749R!

Images by, Michael Chervenak
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Next up was Formula One. Much like 600 superbike, F1 is a very popular class. Last round the field was 55 riders deep. To put that into perspective, AMA superbike grids only go up to about 40. Add to that the fact that the AFM grids you based on points scored in the previous rounds (of which we had none because we have never run F1 before), and what you've got is one HELL of a challenging race on your hands. Luckily the AFM looks at your profile before they produce the final grids. If your practice times are within two seconds of the fastest times in that class they grid you at the back of final point scorers of that class, instead of simply putting you behind the entire field. This put our starting spot at 25th, which is definitely back there but not nearly as far back as 56th!

Dennis and Matthew, two of the wisest crackers on our team, set forth a challenge that we crack into the top ten by the end of the first lap.... "Pass 14 riders by the end of lap ONE?" I asked in disbelief... Their response, from sitting back in their plastic lawn chairs, was cool and simple....
"Top ten. No negotiating."





With a fresh clutch pack in your Yoyodyne slipper clutch, spectacular starts are very much a possibility. And on this Sunday afternoon packed with some of the most critical launches we've ever needed from Yoyodyne, the best I can say is "They delivered." Once lined up on the fifth row, with 24 bikes in front of us, I aimed our 999R perfectly toward needle-holes that I imagined could thread us through to the front, and set my sights on the back of an inline four about thirty feet up ahead. WIth the "One board" falling slowly sideways, the green flag still bunched up in the starters hand, and our 999R droning at a high and angry testastretta pitch, I remember feeling the seat rise up against my legs as I held the front brake and slowly let the clutch plates burn together. It wasn't a second after that flag flinched, that we had already shot through the first row in front of us. By the next second we had matched the following row, then we came upon the rear tire of our once distant friend on the inline.

Turn one is a flowing right hander that leads up a hill. Turn two is a tight right hander that requires a bit of braking - and one to two downshifts. As you can imagine, off a start this turn can get a little "Busy?" We went in there about five bikes wide like a hungry pack of wolves - bikes darting side to side, smoke coming off tires, and everyone changing their lines by the second. I have to say, these guys in the AFM are top shelf. Among all that madness not one rider showed disrespect, or rode out of control.

photos by, Michael Chervenak
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We kept pretty composed and went to work on the rest of the field through the following sections, taking advantage of our 999R's excellent drive out of turns, and unique ability to run itself right around most others in a turn. By the end of the first lap, while going through start finish for the first time, I actually thought of Dennis and Matthew. Without counting out loud, or using my fingers, I could tell we had made it even a bit beyond our goal of reaching the top ten. In fact we we had made it to eighth by the end of lap one. In the following laps we passed others mostly on the brakes, or with better drives out of the particularly difficult turns on this track. We were definitely jamming in what turns out to be the very first race for this 999R. With two laps to go I set us up in the draft of the second place bike, Robert Campbell. As we headed up the long hill to turn seven we managed to sneak up his inside and make the pass for second - leaving only one more bike between us and the checker. On that same lap we dove under Garry Combs into turn eleven, and lead the field through the last lap of seven - to the checker!!!

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--------------------------------------------------------------------------------photo by Tim Huntington
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Having never been involved in racing before, during our first weekend racing together Jason watched a victory celebration for what turned out to be his first time. He was in awe of the moment. Cheers, the laughter, celebration, and the feel of accomplishment saturate the air around a moment like that. At celebrations end he turned to me and said "Wow.... I want that to be us. I want us to be the team spraying champagne... I know it's too soon, and I know we have a lot of work to do... But I still want that to be us."

And now here it was, only our third weekend racing together, and now we were the team... Honestly, everything we do, we do as a team. But there was still a small part of me that took pride in knowing I helped get the guys there, and Ducati there- like we all sincerely belong.
I made sure not to spray all the champagne, instead leaving a little for all the team to taste as well..

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Formula Pacific would be the next race-up in our marathon Ducati weekend. One thing I never considered before entering four races was the amount of tires it would take to do it right. By Formula Pacific our rear Dunlop tire already had two practice sessions, and two hard races on it. That's how much tire we had BEFORE the race started. As it turns out, if you ever plan to conserve on tires, do not pick Formula Pacific as the race to do it in. We started strong, making it from the fifth row to somewhere near fifth position by mid way through the race. The ever impressively talented Jeff Tigert and I went at it for a few laps, swapping spots back and forth a few times. Jeff powered by once going into the brakes for turn seven, but hung it out wide as a result. And like I already said about these Ducatis, they can turn. So we came right back by underneath him. It was actually a lot of fun out there, running with the fastest bikes in California, but by lap five our tire had had enough. The great drives we had been getting became a little less explosive as the tire wore, and as a result we ended up losing two of the spots we had previously worked so hard to get. We ended up ninth, and the tire ended up shreaded. No worries, though. It's a long season, and we're not even up to speed on the big bike yet. Better things still to come... I promise

Last race of the day was 600 superbike. Like F1, this was our first time ever running this class so we were gridded 22. 600 SB is a daunting class to watch line up on a grid. Bikes are simply everwhere. From our starting position on the grid I couldn't even make out who was who on the front row. Jeff Tigert, who is actually backed by Honda, was in this race as well as the rising star Bobby Fong, to mention only a couple of the front runners. No one on our team was calling out any top ten goals for the first lap this time. Instead everyone was a bit quiet, having no idea what to expect.

We have been having some problems with oil leaking from the clutch area on our 749R, which we got some help with this weekend from another of California's successful Ducati superbike team owners, Balz Renggli (yes, that's his real name). Balz helped Kenny Kopecky achieve 72 successful races last year down at Willow Springs raceway, on both his Ducati superbikes. Having Balz at Infineon to help us out was a genuine blessing, because as it turns out he has run across this very problem in the past. What he ended up discovering was that our clutch push-rod, and outer seal, were both worn from more than a season of abuse. He simply stole the parts from our 999R and did a quick exchange for us.

Knowing we had a real "Dry clutch" now, we went into the race with good confidence. It's amazing how different the 600's sound on the line as they await the drop of the green flag. It's almost deafening being surrounded by these high pitched howling bikes, as just about all of their motors stand there bouncing off their rev limiters. We kept our composure, and stuck to our typical launch routine - one foot on the rear stand spool, chest over the tank, finger on the brake, and clutch lifting the seat as it burns. In what felt like an instant in time our 749R came to life with an attitude I've never experienced before. Surely this was one of the best launches we have ever gotten. We went from 22nd place to fifth place by turn two (which is about 300 yards). From there, and before the end of lap two we had made it to third. With the leaders still in sight and our new DynoJet Quickshifter installed, all we had to do was keep it pinned and click up-shifts. Boy does this save loads of time and energy. It definitely made us faster, and by lap three we were right on the leaders - Jeff Tigert and Bobby Fong. We got a real good drives out of our brand new 205 Dunlop slick, which on one lap put us right in the middle of a shoulder to shoulder 600 superbike sandwich on our way up the hill toward seven. No kidding, the three of us were elbow to elbow, throttles pinned wide open, banging through the gears.... And so the challenge was on. "Who's gunna be the last one to brake...?" Surprisingly I think it was us who got into the brakes last, as we nosed our way toward the tight right hander - still in the middle and just barely in the lead. But Tigert was still homing in on our inside as we headed for the apex. I like Jeff, so we gave him a few feet off the apex (to be extra safe), and sure enough he took it like a dog takes to a hefty beef dinner bone. But everything was cool as I knew where we were strong, and the race was still young. An instant later the red flag came out and we were instructed to stop on the track. We all let-up, and slowly I rolled to a stop next to Jeff, with Fong on the opposite side. In a moment the rest of the 600 field rolled up and everyone shut their motors down. As Jeff and I celebrated the shoulder to shoulder battles, I could hear voices coming from behind us from the rest of the field. It wasn't hard to make out comments like, "Who the $%*(@ is that guy on the Ducati?!"
Or "Where in the <#@*% did he come from?!!!"

photos by, Michael Chervenak
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At that moment I smiled inside my helmet as I remembered a conversation we all had at Ducati this winter. Among the discussions, somebody brought up the point that we should run a 749R is 600 superbike this year. The point being that this class might represent a generation of motorcyclists, and fans, that quite mistakenly don't even recognize Ducati supebikes as viable competition. After all, we've been winning races on Ducatis in this very club for years, yet still it seemed somehow that people were suddenly shocked in the 749R's abilities.

It was really great to see our vision finally realized, but my elation of that moment didn't last long. In the next moment I realized that the once in a life-time launch that put us so close to the front in this race, was about to be deleted from the record books. After all, on a re-start in the AFM you begin again - just where you began - in the beginning.

Somehow on the re-start, we did it again - 22 to 5th by turn two. But this time the battle was different. By the time we got clear of the field and began to chase Fong and Tigert again, they were spread apart from each other. We out-drove Fong out of the carousel and motored up his inside for turn seven with a plan to outbrake him again, only this time it was just the two of us. We had the right line going in, (the inside) and even had a nose on him, but that fire-plug didn't want to back off one inch. He leaned in on us as we crossed the apex which got me real concerned about our front tire getting under his bodywork. But after all, I am from NY, and I have survived various attacks from quite an array of differernt cab drivers over the years. So the last option in a long line of ones I was considering, was backing off. I was leaned real far over to the right, about mid turn, and glanced over the corner of our fuel tank at him on our outside while I thought to myself, "There's a lot of ways to skin a cat.... But brutha, that aint one of em'."

Fong ended up running wide, and we put the hammer down and headed after Tigert, never coming under attack from Fong again. But by this time Tigert had a good cushion, and there were only a couple of laps left. I think we may actually have gotten closer to him, but in the end he won it in style. And in the end, we finished our first race in 600 SB a world ahead of where we anticipated we would. Second place, from 22nd, in six laps.

Anyone else catching the Ducati fever yet?!

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Please stay safe out there, and big thanks for all who helped us achieve this great weekend's successes:

Ducati North America, MotoItaliano, Dunlop, Kneeriders.com, Vanson, Leo Vince Exhaust, Suomy, Yoyodyne, R-Tech race ruel, Aftershocks, DynoJet power commander/Quickshifter, Raceimage.net, Sidi, MotionPro, BCM Motorsports, Speedymoto, Rock Oil, Asphalt & Gas

 

 

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Eric "GoGo" Gulbransen, Tracy Gulbransen, Matthew Pilla, Motorcycle racing, AFM, Ducati 749R, 999R, race story, MotoItaliano