10/22/06, AFM round 8
Buttonwillow, California
"Lost and... found"

Typically when I drive, I do it in silence. No radio, no cell phone, and usually I'm alone. My son Matthew is always on my mind. We are from different worlds, he and I, and for the past two years, no matter how much I've tried, we've been headed down different paths. As you can tell from almost any of my race reports, my Dad was pretty much a "hands on" type of father. He was very effective, and I rarely misunderstood his intent. I on the other hand, have struggled to be as effective with Matthew.

The other day his school called on the home line while I was talking on the cell with Jason, from MotoItaliano, about spun rod bearings, and rush ordering parts from Italy. As I juggled balancing cranks in one ear, and a kid with no focus in the other, I quietly wished I could better relate. I was a train wreck in school myself, but I was NOT without focus. I just wasn't focused where others wanted me to be.

I have hoped over time that Matthew's being around the race track would help him. Would teach him. Mostly I have hoped he would learn about drive,he would learn how to dream, and to never surrender. But hard as I look, I haven't seen that happen yet. So this weekend I took Matthew from school on Friday morning and we both headed out on a four hour drive to Buttonwillow. No radio. No cell phone. Racer-man, to man-to-be.

We got there mid day, with a plan. Matthew would be our crew chief for two days solid. He would time us, run the warmers, check pressures, and watch where others were faster - as we both searched for the momentum we would need to capture another championship. We hit our first bump in the road five minutes into the weekend, when he decided to lift the rear end of the truck off the ground before un-hitching the trailer...

The next bump in the road we hit was at somewhere near 170mph after coming out of the Mazda turn (a tight, second gear turn that leads you onto the very long back straight). This was only our second lap riding "The Bull" for the first time again since 2005. As this angry Ducati 999R lofted the front wheel from second gear to third I felt a gust of wind throw us sideways. Immediately I thought to myself, "Man I hope we don't get hit by a gust like that while going into Riverside!" (Riverside is a fifth gear, banked, flat out bending left hand turn that you go through fastest when you close your eyes and pray) Three gears and 7/10ths of a mile later we got hit by just that - a HUGE gust of wind that rushed by so hard I could hear the whistle through my face shield. Instantly the bike was almost impossible to turn. This was exactly NOT the place I wanted our bike struggling to turn. So I looked deep into the turn and leaned that bike over as hard as I could. But I was fighting a losing fight as the outside lip of Riverside's tallest banked peak drew us closer in, threatening to launch us all the way into the kitchen of a Mexican food joint located a few more miles down route 58. As the sound of this wind only grew more intense, and fear drew itself across my view of our leaning tank and gages, I thought I recognized a glimpse of hope we might actually make it out of this 150mph hell ride... Suddenly the bike, or the wind, began to respond to my desperate input by letting us almost wallow into a lean. Back and forth the bike warped it's way in. Then it hit me. This was not wind I was hearing, or feeling. This was our belly pan dragging, stuck under our bike, folded under itself. The more I leaned, the more it pushed back, almost like a spring. I managed to ride the outside rail of Riverside all the way around and then ditched us out onto the runoff. When I looked down I saw every dzus fastener still in place in the pan - even the duct tape was still on the upper that holds the Dzus's from backing out. As it turns out, the holes simply ripped open in the higher speeds. Matthew and I drilled new ones much further into the body of the upper and set out to do it all over again.. Only faster this time.

So wait a minute.. "The Bull, you ask?" That's right. The Bull. The very same bike that's actually never won a race yet in two years, that's mystified some of San Fran's best Ducati wrenches, and that has sat, still, abandoned, and rarely even started for almost a year. Dennis Harmon came to the rescue of our last round's spun rod bearing by lending us his 05 999R, which we all ran together last year, for this final AFM round. But there was just one requirement the boys at MotoItaliano had to satisfy before we could race it. They had to get it to run (a task that has stumped more than a few mechanics during almost all of 05, and even some of 06).

So we pondered last week, Jason, Bazil, Scotty and I, just what to do. Give the Bull another shot? Run the 749R in everything, again? Or come up with something totally different to run....?

I couldn't help but to think of Matthew again, as he had been on my mind all the way down to Santa Cruz that day. "We will run it. We will give it the chance it deserves. We will, never surrender."

By late Friday afternoon we were at speed again, and things were finally going better. I wouldn't say we'd found our "Rhythm" but we could at least hear music coming from up ahead. I was hungry. And the Bull was alive and well again. The boys had done it, and I was anxious to call back after just one more lap with the good news. Just then, while coming out of the second gear Mazda turn again, I heard the angry roar of this motor spin up way too quick. Instantly my feet were overhead, my chin hit the windscreen, and the Bull was checking out. But I didn't let go. Instead I tried to roll out of it only slightly while hovering overhead, and hoped we'd get a chance to make it out of another tough scenario. In the next moment the bike rose back upright, underneath me, and I landed back on her - sitting nicely in the middle of the fuel tank, and on the gas again.

I must have hit that tank pretty hard because we developed a tiny weep of a leak underneath the fuel pump area that we didn't notice till Saturday afternoon. Jason would bring a new tank for Sunday, but in the mean time that beautiful F1 paint scheme was slowly turning Disco ball on us. The 749R tank and belly pan got switched over, which was about to offer those silvery parts a new perspective on racing. 30 more hp!

By late Saturday afternoon we'd made it into the 1:55/56's. I knew this wouldn't cut it, and so did Matthew quite surprisingly. But finally we'd gotten ourselves past the gremlins, so now we could focus. I was confident that a new set of Dunlops would help get us over the hump and into the hunt. And very curiously, Matthew was in the chair right next to me pondering the same things.

We started 600sb from the third row. The last holeshot we got on our 749R was incredible, so I lined us up strategically pointed for a clean route to the front. But the instant the flag dropped I knew our goose was cooked. Our clutch had passed it's expiration date right along with the last dozen eggs we got at the local SafeWay. We headed for turn one right smack in the middle of the field. Pretty impressive field actually. I thought, "Holy mother! Is there anyone in the AFM that doesn't run 600sb?" Just then a rider shot up the inside of everyone on a line he looked to feel was some top secret line that no one's ever thought of before. And yes, it did work pretty well for him. But it sucked royally for just about everyone else in the race. He hit two bikes at least, like a wrecking ball, and was just to our inside on the exit. I felt like I was back on the Jersey shore driving bumper cars on the boardwalk with my younger brother, Juice. We made it out of there in a spot somewhere in the low teens. By the time we hit the bus stop, mid way through lap one, it was game over. The red flags flew and race control pulled us all over a few turns later. Apparently the madness we made it through got even worse behind us. Bikes were down on the track.. After we were all stopped on the other end of the track, bunched up in an angry pack, I thought about how the restart would go with even less of a clutch now than the first time. Inadvertently I suddenly uttered out loud the word, "Mommmmaaa?"

The next start I abandoned my usual "drag the lever before the flag" routine, so I didn't overheat the clutch, but it didn't help. I blew this start too - even worse this time. But with all the madness going into turn one again (33 bikes finished the race, many more started it), a door opened up on the inside of the exit and I aimed our 749R straight through it. Somehow, and I barely even understand how myself, we made it all the way up to fourth going into Riverside on the first lap - just behind my favorite mark, Ken Hill. I was pleasantly surprised to find our 749R cutting through the tight and technical turns so much easier than the bikes in front of us. We definitely had an advantage there, but when it came time to pull the pin on the straights, well, that was a different deal all together. We went around Mazda right on Ken's rear tire, and even wheelied our nose just under his tail, but once the bikes got straight up and down he began to pull us. I tucked our bike right behind him and instantly thought about drafting at Daytona.
(We really wanted to go there this year, but our round 7 mechanical said we couldn't afford the loss of AFM points)
I was sure Ken had no idea we were there that second lap, but still that crafty bastid drove his bike all the way up the dirty shoulder on the opposite side of that back stretch - to shake off any drafters. I didn't care. Where Ken went, we were going. I've been to Daytona enough, and had Adamo drive home drafting points to me more than once. "When you're down on hp, and you're in a fight, you can't afford to put a shoulder out of place. They go right, you go right. They weave, you weave. And don't pop out till it's just the right time." I swear if Ken headed for the dirt, I was breaking out the knobbies. And wouldn't you know it, he just about did.

As we shot down the left side of the straight, virgin dust that once covered the track surface billowed from either side of his bike as we both shot through the air just as fast as our machines would carry us. I just held my breath and kept it pinned. But still we couldn't quite match his pace down that back straight. Each lap we'd lose a few lengths, but then we'd rail through Riverside at a really good clip and make it all back up. Twice we came around his outside through there as we set up for what I knew would be a ground shaking pass into the bus stop (a bumpy third gear curb to curb flat out turn that bends it's way right in front of the stands). But I didn't show him our front tire. I was saving it for the white flag lap. And THAT was my mistake. I should have been more aggressive. I should have gone for it early enough to maybe rob some air off the second place rider, Grant Riggs, on the next lap. This could have helped us put a gap on Hill, which would have kept him out of OUR draft. Instead, on the fourth lap I noticed our dash flashing three big black numbers - 261. That was our temperature. Not a good number to see. And just then our champion of a 749R began to stumble and surge. Turns out drafting Ken, and not getting any fresh air for ourselves, got us to overheating. I knew we wouldn't suffer the same water on the rear tire fate that got us wrecked at T-hill this year (full story here), because the boys have rigged up a nice overflow system to avoid coolant going where you don't want it. I stayed in it and kept our nose in clean air to bring her home in a not so distant 4th. Not a bad showing at all for the last chance we'll ever get to ride this wonderful Ducati. But I would have loved another chance to play out a different plan. Good job Ken. And bye bye to my favorite race bike of all times - the "Giant Slayer" 2005 Ducati 749R

600 Superbike race VIDEO

Back in the pits I found Matthew all lit up and excited. More than usual, actually, and that was a welcome find. He was a real part of this now, instead of just being limited to ripping off our warmers before we'd go out. That was Matthew's old task. I never leave our pit without winking to Tracy. This weekend I found myself doing the same with Matthew.

Next up we had Formula One and Open Twins, back to back. And now it was time for the Bull to rise above it all.
We started from the outside of the front row - which should actually have been where pole was - but I was fine with the oversight since Garry Combs (winner of last round's Formula 1 race) seemed more confident than I remember him being in the past. We had done a track day together two weeks prior. I was WAY off his pace, and he knew it. So it was he who was on my mind most the night before. Especially since he said he was disappointed we weren't on our big bike in the last F1 race. That comment stuck with me pretty good.
As the two board displayed I ran out the clutch against the front brake, to get a feel for this launch. The moment the green flag burst open that Bull took off like a bat out of hell. Garry and the rest of the row disappeared from my sight almost instantly - giving Yoyodyne yet another notch in their headboard of remarkable slipper clutch starts.

In that race I discovered that this 999R COULD go into the esses wide open, it COULD wheelie over the 170mph hump on the back stretch, and it DID actually have what it takes to win, all along. It's just that all its parts weren't aligned just right. And the boys at MotoItaliano definitely got them aligned just right for these last two races of 2006. In fact they've done a remarkable job of keeping our parts aligned all year long. Having never raced before, and winning as much as they have in their first year, is nothing short of remarkable.

We won the F1 race by a strong margin. I believe it was the front straight. And then we won the Open Twins race as well, which secured us yet another championship for 2006. Among our crew, which had grown in size as the weekend drew out, was Matthew. He stood tall among everyone celebrating. He smiled from somewhere I've never seen him smile before. And then he hugged me.

We are champions again, regardless of our points. And for that I thank my wife Tracy, my son Matthew, and all of whom make MotoItaliano what it is. I thank Ducati, Dunlop, and all of our 2006 sponsors as well.

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