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Buttonwillow, Ca.
October 21, 2007
Zero 7 "Morning Song"

A year ago Friday Matt and I set out for the AFM’s final round of 06 together – man to man.  We spent the long drive south searching for something special that we once shared, but which had somehow fallen from our grip.  He was a new teenager then, and change had gotten the better of us.  Somehow our racing as a team that weekend helped bring us back.  It wasn’t that we won or lost out there.  It was simply that we tried our best, together.  And if there’s only one lesson that my buddy absorbs these days, I hope that’s the one.

As I felt my way past his door at 3:30am this Saturday morning, I could hear he was already awake.  A smile came to my face as I stepped into the shower that he and I built this summer - while everyone else was out there racing.  Matt’s had a tough time out-shining his classmates in this new school.  He seems to think everyone is smarter, faster, and stronger than he is.  I get a sense that he liked when we used to win a lot.   Maybe part of him was proud about it.  But he’s no dummy.  I’m sure somewhere deep inside he wishes he could win for Tracy and I sometimes too.  He does get the ‘try your best’ thing, but still I know he struggles under the unavoidable pressure of our leading examples.

matthew Pilla wrestling

You can find good in just about anything, if you look hard enough.  And when I look at our program falling apart this year, I see loads of good in two places.  Oddly enough, one of the places that I find the good is in Matt.  I think it was great for Matt to see me fall this year.  It was great for him to see that I am human too.  That I fail just as bad as anyone.  Sometimes even worse..  So when he saw the desperate look on my face after only our second practice on the new Suzuki, he came at me the same way I come at him when I see him struggle – head on.  It was great to watch him test his confidence on me.  He told me I was slow going into Riverside compared to everyone else.  I felt like telling him I knew he had Barry Mannilo’s greatest hits on his new ipod – but I didn’t.

The second place I find good in my falling this year is in the opportunity it created, to start all over.  I thought of this as dawn’s golden sunlight re-introduced us to the original scene of the crime, Buttonwillow Raceway.

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gsxr1000 against a sunrise

I got a call from Brad Hakala about five months ago, shortly after the round one disaster, asking if I would consider changing brands.  Brad is an old friend of ours from the Ducati days, who just so happens to work for Suzuki now.  I thanked him graciously, but declined the offer so I could take the time to do what I felt was right.  I didn’t want to start any new relationships before our existing ones were given a proper chance to define themselves.  They never really did, so when Brad called again, some four months later, my response was much simpler this time – “Yes I would, and yes I will.” 

We got our GSXR1000 about two weeks ago, right smack in the middle of a new kitchen job I just started.  New jobs are good.  New bikes are too.  But the two of them happening simultaneously, in such a last minute panic to make the final round, meant we needed some serious help.  That’s where Derek Lafontaine really showed his colors.  While I saw no clear way to get the race-prep work done in time, he solved all our problems in three simple words – “GoGo, call Bud.”  I must be a moron that this didn’t occur to me earlier.  Bud runs a race prep business - Bud Anderson's Race Prep - from his shop in San Ramon, Ca. Bud answered my desperate call like a friend I’ve had for ten years already – “Bring it over brother, let’s get you goin!”  As I hung up I noticed my irregular pulse subsiding so I immediately called Brad to tell him the news.   “I know Brad, I know.  Fifteen minutes ago we had no plan.  But I’m telling you – now we do...  Trust me.  I’ve seen Bud Anderson resurrect an RC51 from the dead in one night, and then race it to victory the very next day.  We’ll be fine..”

It took until the Wednesday night before the race, for the mule with all our Yoyodyne race parts strapped to its ass to show up from Jersey - with one day to spare!  The next morning I picked up our trick titanium LeoVince dual exhaust system and headed to Bud’s.  He took the parts from my hands and pushed me out the door and back to work.  “I’ve got it under control.  If it takes all night, I’ll stay up.  But you’re goin’ racing..”

Bud ANderson

About fifty miles down I-5, in the wee hours of the next morning, I found Bud’s white Ford van in our headlights - headed south at about 80mph with our new steer all race-prepped, and strapped down in the back.  Calling Bud took a stroke of genius that I can’t take credit for – but I sure felt smart at that moment.

The GSXR1000 feels much wider than the Ducs.  It’s lighter too, and the starter motor cranks over like the engine is a toy inside.  It feels very smooth under you, and its power threatens to yank the bars from your grip with every upshift.  I had a real hard time riding it fast right off the bat.  I’d forgotten my way around turn 2 apparently, I turned in too early everywhere, and my roll speed was just a click over what I can do in my Ford van.  By the end of our second run Bud somberly reported we were ten seconds off the pace.

If there’s one thing that I completely hate in racing, it’s when you come in not understanding how it could be humanly possible to go any faster – yet you’re currently ten seconds off the pace!  While I knew I had made it inherently clear to everyone, that we were only there that weekend to learn the bike a bit, and to have fun – I also know the nature of racing, and sponsorships, and how much farther a winter full of enthusiasm would get us all, compared to a winter full of disappointment.  No two ways about it, we had to get closer before Sunday.  All I could do was turn to Bud.  After all it had been nine years since I last ran a GSXR.  I knew nothing other than which direction to point the thing.

Bud Anderson works out problems with GoGo

I didn’t even have good feedback to reference by the end of our second run.  The only point I could recall was that we were at the end of our suspension’s range.  The nose plowed under the brakes and it’s head shook me like a rag-doll each pass into Riverside.  The three of us, Brad, Bud and myself, sat down about where to go next.  Bud knew what to do.  I knew what we couldn’t do.  And Brad was ready to see this effort past its first crisis – suspension.

Among the box of tricks that Yoyodyne sent west was an Ohlins shock and steering damper, a Brembo master, a slipper clutch, and some Performance Friction brake pads.  Bud yanked the shock and forks and Brad and I set out for a table that Bud had quietly prearranged for us at Dan Kyle’s truck.  All the while I could hear practice continue on without us but for the first time in forever it didn’t bother me.  I knew we’d make a hundred times more progress in Dan’s truck than we would out on the track the way it was. 

Brad Haksla and GoGo carry suspension

I can’t tell you what Dan did, other than create a night and day difference in about an hour’s worth of time.  Something about a 25mil Ohlins cartridge kit, springs front and rear, and a lot of technical mumbo jumbo that went through my head about as fast as the one and only day I ever took physics in college.

25 mil Ohlins Cartrige kit

Dan Kyle works on GoGo's forks

Ohlins rear shock

Bud got us all sewed up in time to make the last two sessions of the day on Saturday.  In our first shot out on the new suspension things felt completely different.  The bike was much stiffer everywhere.  For the first time it actually felt like it was ready to gently dance over the ripples in the pavement, rather than to plow through each bump like a sea sick fishing boat fighting a rolling surf.  But we weren’t out of the storm yet.  Now we were off the pace by seven seconds.  Progress, yes, but we were still getting beat up on the entrance to Riverside.  Also when I backed off on the throttle to adjust our line the nose would dive too suddenly, and it felt like we were still bottoming.  Back at Kyle’s truck I explained whatever I could, as best I could.  I got back a very strange look that almost suggested I had no idea what I was talking about.  I swear it almost seemed like Dan had just ridden the bike, and I instead was just guessing what the bike was doing.  I said, “Dan, I know you’ve been through this a million times, and I know you don’t know me.  But believe me, I’ve been in this game a while too and I know how to ride a motorcycle by now.  Something’s not right.”  I apologized for not having better feedback.  Surely I was still all over the road out there.  Then a light went on, and Dan came back around.  He took two turns of rebound out of the forks because he suspected that my bottoming impression might actually have been accurate.  “It could be packing,” he said.  Sure enough in our last session Saturday, Riverside eased it’s grip on my pride.  We only ran four laps, but four decent laps were enough to go into the evening feeling better about tomorrow than I have in a very long time.

Sunday morning’s enthusiasm got a little doused after we lost a second in practice, putting us now a grand total of six seconds off the pace.  I couldn’t get the bike through the esses.  Every time through there we were behind the rhythm.  Nothing I tried worked, either.  That’s where David Bell came in.  We’ve probably said thirteen words to each other, ever, but there he was in the Dunlop tent giving me GSXR pointers.  I was fascinated by both his tips, and by the fact that he was offering them up.  Once I understood what he meant by shims and spacers and higher ride heights, I set off to make it all happen with Bud.  We got it all done with about ten minutes to spare till race time…

Open Superbike: 
We started Open Superbike from 27th on the grid.  I had no idea what to expect because I never really paid attention to these classes when we were on the twins.  I believe there were a few guys behind us so even going backwards was a possibility.

GoGo checks out competition

In the only test I gave the clutch it felt pretty normal as far as launching.  When I reached my foot back for the swingarm spool as the 2 board showed, my foot found the exhaust instead.  We got a decent launch anyway, and in an instant our view of the front of the pack was smeared in the transparent heat-waves of a thousand fire breathing 1000cc mufflers.  We saw our way past half the field before the exit of turn one because there was a bit of commotion on the middle to outside line through there.  Luckily we were on the inside.  I was surprised to see what looked like the front pack just up ahead as we went into the esses, but I was far more surprised at how well our bike handled those transitions now.  Where it was a slug before, now it was a cat.  I could accelerate in places now where previously I had to roll off to make the next mark.  I was very curiously tempted by the sight of this pack of five drawing nearer as we went through the bus stop and beyond.  We’d lose a bit of ground on the straights each pass, but a plan was forming to solve that soon enough. 

There’s an old trick I learned a long time ago about fast tracks and drafting faster bikes than the one you happen to be wrapped around at the moment.  You don’t follow the guy onto the straight for the draft because no sixty mile per hour draft is gonna’ help you – instead you run up next to him, out-driving him, so that when he eventually passes you back you’re at a speed where the draft actually can help you run faster.  This was my plan for exiting the last left before the back straight, because all of that pack kept yarding us with each run to Riverside.  In order to out-drive Grant Riggs though, we had to give something up somewhere else in the turn – which my greedy ass didn’t want to do.  So I tucked our Suzuki in underneath his tail and as my left elbow reached for the painted teeth of the apex, I tried my best to both out-turn him, and out-drive him. 

Are you reading between the lines yet?  Do you see what’s coming?  Grant’s a great rider and I don’t know this GSXR1000 well enough to pull crap like that off yet.  Twenty feet clear of the apex and suddenly I’m hearing our motor rev up extraordinarily quick.  As the left footpeg headed for the floor, I yanked in the clutch and turned the bars outside.  Next maneuver saw my feet fly off the pegs as I checked on our front number plate.  “Yep, HATE THE EIGHT! I instantly thought.”  We were about to eject when suddenly this Suzuki came back up under me and before I had my feet back on the pegs we were at full throttle again.  As I fought my way back into riding position I had to turn my head from looking forward, so I listened for the next shift point instead.  As I hit the lever I glanced back up ahead, only to see Grant’s distant silhouette growing farther away, against the image of our front wheel still refusing to land.
We never made it back to that pack, but we did make progress out there.  David Bell’s generous tips helped us to find our way past a few more seconds.  Now we were four seconds off the pace.

Dunlops new NT tire

It seems that while I’ve been away, Dunlop raised the bar on tire construction again.  Everyone talks about NT this or NT that now.  I’m thinking “NT who?”  But you know how technology is.  Sometimes things improve with it, other times they just go sideways.  I was game to try something new though, and I wanted to play the NT game like everyone else.  Only problem is all the big boys took the medium compound tires before we even got to the track - and mediums work best at Buttonwillow.  I rolled the dice on whether we could get two races out of one set of softs – with FP as the second race..

Formula Pacific

I love lining up for FP.  It’s like being a teenager again - I’m afraid of everyone.  In a way I guess it’s like being Matt.  And let me tell you, if Matt’s new schoolmates are anything like the AFM’s FP field, I feel for the kid more now than ever.

GoGo looks back at Formula Pacific field

I blew our launch in FP.  Maybe it was nerves, but I know we can do better.  Maybe we picked up five spots going into turn one.  We all dragged ass through the esses like it was a parade lap.  Bikes were everywhere and they were angry, but no one could go anywhere.  Then we hit the back straight.  In the superbike race we couldn’t hang with six bikes on the back straight.  In this race we couldn’t hang with fifteen.  But there’s only one back straight at Buttonwillow, so we busted ass through every other section there was to make back the deficit.  Although we did the best we could out there this weekend, I wasn’t ever really me.  It’s my style to throw a bike on it’s side like a stack of 2x4s at the lumber yard.  On the Ducati I knew just how hard to throw it.  If there was an opening, we went there – invitation or not.  On this Suzuki we were still learning.  I hesitated and as a result we followed guys when I really didn’t wan to.  I'd set people up for passes that we'd never make, often. We definitely did begin to gel, but we’ve still got a lot of room to grow.  It’s funny, our weakest point on the track became one of our strongest by the last lap – Riverside.  What a beautiful feeling that turn gives you when the heat rises up through your left knee puck as you hang an elbow over the grass while going way too fast to ever want to stop.  And this Suzuki?  At that Motorcyclist Magazine test I chose this bike as last on my list.  It’s amazing what a little suspension tweeking can do for a bike.  Now I simply can’t wait to ride it again.

After running a grand total of only 39 laps on our GSXR1000 this entire weekend, we scored a seventh in superbike, a thirteenth in FP, and got our times to within two seconds of the fastest lap run by anyone.  If nothing else, that shows promise, and that shows hope. We are definitely back…!

Special thanks go to a few key people this weekend -

Tracy Gulbransen, Matthew Pilla, Brad Hakala, Derek Lafontaine, and Bud Anderson

Brad Hakala and GoGo hug after trimuph

Bud Anderson and GoGo Hug

Tracy Gulbransen and Matthew Pilla loving each other

To view a gallery of pics from the weekend, CLICK HERE

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