6/17-18/06, AFM round 4
Willows, California

"Blood Sweat and Triumph"

"Blood Sweat and Triumph" should be the real title of our round-4 report. Ultimately, we did achieve all three this weekend...

Thunderhill raceway is a high-speed, flowing, bumpy race track which is set among the golden straw covered hills of Willows, California (basically no-where). Getting there takes a three hour drive for us, so we left Friday night. It must have been the darkness, then, that camouflaged the mobile shadow of bad luck that followed us all the way there. Racing can be overwhelmingly difficult sometimes. You've got to be prepared for it. Sometimes it's all you can do to not knock yourself out on the corner of the door as you enter the medical center to put a band-aid on the finger you cut as you wrote the check to pay for the tire you just blew-out. No kidding, things can be that tough sometimes.

We showed up prepared for battle on Saturday, feeling very good about the progress we had made in our last round at Infineon. Our first practice went very, very well. There is a section of track at Thunderhill where you come out of a third gear left hander that opens up to a fast stretch with a dog-leg in it. If you get this dog-leg right, you go through it wide open while leaned on your side as you upshift two more gears at full throttle. Then, while you're really honkin' and the motor is absolutely singing, you face a much tighter kink that leads up a long hill (turn 8 - the "Thunder" of Thunderhill). almost everyone brakes for this kink. A lot of riders downshift for it as well. We had it to the pont where we would simply roll off for one instant, from about 13,000rpm, then we'd get right back in it - full throttle, full lean, toes scraping on the ground, front end dancing. It was definitely wild to experience this next level of what our Ducati 749R is capable of.

photos by Mike Chervenak

As you can imagine, at this hell-raising pace, with the front wheel lofting itself over the crest of hills that it never wheelied over before, I was a little distracted from our dashboard.


Turn three is a blind right hander that you enter while cresting the top of a small downward hill. It's an off-camber,180 degree turn that requires one downshift from fourth, and a good bit of braking as you crest the hill and begin to turn in. On our sixth pass we went in there pretty good but the instant I cracked off the gas and hit that downshift, the rear tire began to come around. I have to say, when this happens on purpose it's a pretty cool feeling. Sliding your Ducati into a turn is a good indication that you're making things happen out there. Only problem here was the rear tire would not stop sliding! It came around so far that I decided to abort the turn. I pulled in the clutch and twisted the bars to full lock position in a desperate attempt to gather the bike back up underneath me and then head for the grass. Nothing doing. It just kept sliding farther and farther. Turns out the motor had over-heated and dumped water on the rear tire. The next instant, as we now faced almost entirely backwards while doing about seventy mph, I thought to myself "You know, I'm not getting the feeling this is the hot line through here.." Just then the rear tire grabbed pavement and flicked us off to Disneyland. I didn't black out when I hit the pavement, so I can remember everything I heard myself shout as we tumbled our way to a stop. It didn't sound very manly at all...

The corner workers took good care of me as we wallowed our way over to their safety station. My elbow hurt, my lower back, my ribs and my neck. Oh, and when we all sat down my left ass cheek let out a shout as well. The bike looked great from one side - horrible from the other. Once that practice session ended, I opted to walk back to our pits across the infield of what felt like a battle field in a war where I was the only survivor. I could hear the medics quietly following me, waiting for me to drop. They are a rare bunch of people that none of us could do without.

Scotty Rumple's face was flush when I got back. This was his first experience with a racing crash. He could see the pain on my face, and while Tracy pulled our Vanson leathers from my arms, he could also see the swelling of my elbow. As the injuries went on ice, so did the mood in our pit. A broken bike and a broken rider does not make for a winning Sunday combination. But the other thing Scotty had never experienced before is what the heart of a racer is capable of. By mid-way through lunch I had my sites set on riding the big bike. Tracy took me to the medical center where they checked us for broken elbows or ribs. Turns out I've been right all along about Vanson leathers. It's not just the quality of leather that sets them apart from other manufacturers, or the way they are constructed, but in this case it was especially their armor. Surely I spiked my elbow on the pavement from a height not less than that of a low flying airplane. Still, all the medics could say I broke were some blood vessels. Nothing was chipped, nothing was broken... Remarkable.

This meant the races were ON for Sunday!

Photos by Mike Chervenak

Jason and the crew from MotoItaliano made an all-night drive to meet Scotty at the track late Saturday night. The guys worked all night long, and into the morning. They had discovered a problem with our cooling system on the 749R, thanks to the help of Scott Jenkins. Thankfully most Ducati racers/mechanics/riders and fans all stick together when the going gets tough. And the "going" had definitely just gotten tough. When we called Scott Jenkins from the racetrack on Saturday night, he answered his cell phone from a restaurant half an hour away from us, but about three hundred feet from his hotel room. Even though we were set to grid up against his rider the very next day, Scott immedietly offered to drive all the way back to the track to try and help us out. What he figured out was that during last year the thermostat was removed from this bike in an attempt to get it to run cooler. But in fact, on these particular Ducatis, simply removing the thermostat actually makes the bike run hotter! What happens is once the thermostat is gone from it's housing it leaves a gaping hole in one of the channels of the coolant flow, which keeps 50% of the coolant from ever reaching the radiator. 50% less cooling capacity in 103 degree heat, spells overheating - plain and simple. So after some serious noodling, Scotty Rumple came up with the bizarre idea to patch up that very coolant channel with some JB weld, and of all things, an average every day 25 piece. That's right, Scotty Rumple fixed our bike with a quarter.

Come Sunday morning we were able to run at 12,000 rpm in the sweltering heat without boiling our water again.

But then that dark cloud reared it's head again by sending our front tire right through the bottom of our radiator in the first practice on Sunday. More water all over the place again - only this time it wasn't the heat that did us in, and this time there was no crashing. This problem was my fault really. I like to run our forks pretty high up the triple clamps, which helps the bike to turn better, but doing this can get the tire pretty close to the radiator if you really bottom the forks under the brakes. On Sunday we did just that. Thankfully Jason brought a spare so we were good to go for the races.

First up was Formula One. We started ninth on the grid. By turn three we had made it to fourth position. When we tried a move up the inside of Brian Campbell, while heading into our old friend "Turn 3" he came across our front tire pretty aggressively. We were on the inside line, and couldn't exactly grab a handful of brake to avoid him, so sure enough our front tire made contact with his rear. Upon contact we both got out of shape, and both lost a few spots. But we battled back pretty quickly, taking advantage of the 999R's ability to corner, and to drive out of a turn real hard. By about mid race we had made it to the lead. After two more laps in the lead we finally got the pit signals from Tracy and Jason that said "Easy now, brother. Just bring er' home safe." And that's exactly what we did. After all the challenges, and a good bit of pain, we actually pulled off the win.

photo by: 4theriders.com
eric gulbransen

With a sigh of relief we all kind of hoped the dark cloud was gone.
Sorry... No dice.. For 600 Superbike, a race we've been looking forward to all month long, we were gridded tenth. Our long time arch nemesis, Ken Hill ( a seasoned veteran, and northern California roadrace legend ) started from the front row. It was exactly him that we had our sites set on, and believe me there was good reason..

We were introduced to Ken Hill in one of our first races here in California, back in 2004, It was an Open Twins race, and we were on our old 998 superbike. Ken dominated the race in typical fashion until we shocked the local racing scene by taking the lead from him with two laps to go. We even gapped him on that last lap but while coming out of the last turn, with the checkered flag in sight, our 998 simply ran out of power and died (a wire connection had broken). As we rolled powerlessly toward the line, Ken shot by us and took the win. Then in 2005 we met up with Ken again, this time on our new 999R. With another great battle heating up, my big foot broke our chain guard in a near high side, which jammed it between the swingarm and the tire. Smoke billowed out of everywhere, and finally we got black flagged. Ken got away again...

As we all lined up on the grid, with us being one of the few Ducatis in the field, I already had my route to the front worked out. Things were feelig very good for this race, but the instant the flag dropped I suddenly knew we had major problems. We came out of the hole pretty well, but as we hit second gear I noticed out of the corner of my eye that our right side fairing was coming loose. I tried to hold it in with my right knee as we shifted through the gears, but in an instant it flew off and was gone. End of story, end of race. Turns out it was a Dzus fastner that backed out. We were left on the sidelines, "all dressed up and no where to go", with another great view of Ken winning a race that was just out of our reach.

photo by: 4theriders.com

eric gulbransen

For Open Twins we shook off that dark cloud for good. With the 749R parked with bodywork problems, we instead used our the 999R. That bike is just unbeatable in the twins races. Especially at Thunderhill where this machine can really stretch its legs. Once the flag dropped we made our way through to the lead and soldiered on in a dominating fashion that always makes Ducati happy. We won it in style. By now we've been lucky enough to win all four Open Twins races this year! Thanks to Ducati contingency, these wins will help our effort a lot.

Finally on to the biggest race of the weekend for everyone - Formula Pacific. The "Run what you brung, Go fast or go home. Fastest racers on the fastest bikes in northern California" race to end all races... We've been having terrible luck in this class so far this year. Such bad luck that Jason, and a few others I'm sure, even suggested our not running FP anymore. But the thing about racing is, sometimes you've got to get beat to get better. Getting beat helps build character. And building character makes you come back stronger.

Give up on Formula Pacific....? "Not happening.."

We started from eleventh on the grid. It was a tough battle in the beginning, but we managed our way up through the ranks, one aggressive pass at a time, until we reached the fight for fifth. James Randolph and Chuck Sorenson were going at it pretty hard. Both these guys are exceptional riders. I actually have never met James face to face, and I barely know Chuck Sorenson, but we sure got to know each other better this Sunday...

photos by Mike Chervanek

By mid race we were parked about a tire's distance off Sorenson's rear tire. We charged out of the fast sweeper in eight and rode up along his inside to set-up for a late braking move on him going into turn nine. Chuck's not scared of late braking, so OUTbraking him is definitely a challenge. But the thing about Formula Pacific is, if you're gunna do something - you've really got to do it THEN. Wait one moment longer and your chance is gone. We drifted up the inside of Chuck and made the pass stick. Then we went to work on Randolph. Go ahead and imagine the fastest bike you've ever seen, and then you might appreciate how fast his bike was. But our Ducti doesn't mind doing a little extra work in the technical stuff, so what we gave up on the straights, we more than made back in the rough stuff. And "Rough stuff" is apparently what James is all about. That guy doesn't mind you being next to him, he doesn't mind you being on him, and he especially doesn't seem to mind being on you. We went by him on the brakes, but he came back. We did it again, he came back again. We went into - through - and then out of turn ten comletely side by side. He never backed off. We beat him to a very tight section of esses (turns 11/12/13), but he motored by us down the following back straight.

Photo by: Gary Rather of GaryRatherPhoto.com
Eric GoGo Gulbransen & James Randolph

Randolph is one tough customer. So on the last lap I sat back and waited. Strategized. After all I didn't want Sorenson capitalizing on a battle between us and Randolph. So I waited for the last two turns on the white flag lap, to make our final pass - 14 and 15. We out-broke Randolph by coming up his inside and simply not letting off the gas until he did. This got us in there real deep, but our Vesrah pads handled the task very well, and our front Dunlop stuck real well under the added pressure of both leaning AND braking. We jammed ourselves in there to take the spot and exploded out of 15 with all the steam we could muster. I could see our entire team on the pit wall as they burst out in excitement. After what we had endured this weekend, I don't think anyone expected we'd run this strong. I tucked in behind our windscreen, got as small as I could, and clicked off gears as clean and as fast as we could. As the two of us headed down the long stretch for the checkered flag, I knew we'd see Randolph's bike rocket by us at some point - I just didn't want that point to come BEFORE the finish line. Wouldn't you know it, we saw nothing but waving checkered flag in front of us until about twenty feet from the line. That's when Randolph came by like a bat out of hell that just got shot from a rocket launcher. He took fifth, we took sixth. But it was just about the most deserved sixth place Fomula Pacific has seen in some time.

photos by: 4theriders.com


What's the lesson we all took from this weekend?

"Never Surrender"

Stay safe and be healthy - GoGo

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,
special thanks to Desmoto Sport for going that extra mile to help a competitor ; )




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