I knew two young brothers once, separated only by three years. One dove head first into water, the other was terrified of sand. One gently handed you his teddy bear, the other threw it to you from the top of the stairs. Although they were both my blood, and both my buddies, I had a special connection with the younger one. We shared something no one else in my family understood. If born into an American Indian tribe, neither of us would be chosen as Chief. Nor would we become the wise old feathered man chanting words of wisdom from the dark corner of a smoke filled tepee. The two of us shared the curious look of adventure. Not only the want to climb from the safety of our crib into the darkness of night, but the need to. Not only the will to run, but the desire to sprint. We shared the blood of warriors. And choice had little to do with it.
In the truest sense of a warrior though, this little guy would have crushed me. I remember being scared just watching him. The kid was fearless. I am perhaps more a mix of he and his brother than purely him. While I typically sprint over sand a dive into water like he surely would have, I do give fear its due respect. I do remember pain. And I do work diligently to avoid them both. Perhaps this is why I woke Sunday morning to the deep thumping pulse of my own heart beating…
We knew some things about the setup of our new bike were very right. I had felt things briefly come to life out there the day before. That rhythm you feel, the cadence, G-forces suddenly pushing your chest closer to the tank than laps before, and time growing shorter from apex to apex. But then after our mysterious crash in turn three on Saturday, mid rhythm, we also knew something was still wrong. We just didn’t know what.
We left Round-1 not quite on top of the world, but perhaps next to it. We also left with a curious goal – to get our hands on a Superduke R before round 2. I say curious because we really didn’t know what to expect from a Superduke R. For sure the extra 18hp would be a welcome kick in the pants, but an R also comes with different forks, a different shock, triple clamps, rear sets, heads, and a host of other trick parts. For sure we knew it would be better. But we also knew it would be different. We did find relative comfort in knowing that at the core, it was still the same bike – a KTM Superduke. And if nothing else, the Superduke we ran in round-1 was one hell of a fun, predictable, manageable bike to race. I knew if we could push the front tire through Riverside as predictably as we could in March, we would be aces through Infineon’s Carousel. If we could rip around Buttonwillow’s Mazda turn, we could nail Infineon’s turn 7. If we could get the R set up just like our Standard model now is – we would be styling. But come the beginning of just last week, all those “Ifs” were only still “ifs” because we had no new Superduke R yet.
It was Tuesday race week when the boys finally got the bike. Scott immediately relocated the battery and electrics from down front in the chin piece, to up back under the seat. Phil got into the forks and shock. Derek rounded up parts and choreographed a symphony of flying wrenches while Danny and Alex sacrificed their bloody knuckles to massage this new beast to life.
But our first ride Friday was a disappointment. Sure the bike looked and sounded great, but it was oddly slower than its little brother was. And it was completely upside down on setup. When I dragged the front brake going over the hill into the Carousel the rear tire would come off the ground, land sideways, then we’d do the hucklebuck all the way to the apex. Each run into nine I would miss the turn. The bike simply wouldn’t slow down with the rear in the air. And it went wide everywhere, like the exit of turn 4 where each lap we’d jump the ditch at the end of the paint – not on purpose.
I’ve had some rough days at racetracks over the years. Sometimes no matter how hard you work at something it just refuses to get better. We worked all day Friday. While we did solve some things by day’s end, like the rear tire hanging itself an inch in the air. We did not solve the hucklebuck to the apex syndrome, nor did we find more power – even though we added a few teeth to the rear sprocket.
We all scattered Friday night like squirrels staring down the barrel of a pellet gun. Everyone deep in thought, no one with a solution. I stood solo that night, second in line at the desk of a hotel in Novado, behind a frail old woman who spoke in a barely audible whisper. Thoughts of setup problems faded from my mind as I noticed that while her hair was disheveled, you could tell recently it had been nicely cut. Her clothes were wrinkled, but clean, and not worn. As she turned from the desk in utter defeat she clung to her empty purse like the ashes of an old friend who always got her back in the past. She moved real stiff, like her clothes were soaked in ice water. I made out only two words as she reached for the door, “Thank you,” which was her response to the clerk offering her a parking spot for the night.
I stepped up to the clerk and simply stared at her, not saying a word. She stared right back at me, with a tear in her eye. They were twenty years apart, she and that frail old woman. They were both mothers, both from a better place than now, both doing their best to survive. Suddenly I had no problems anymore. “You’re about to hand me a key with a three hundred stamped on it” I finally said, “and there’s seventeen cars in your parking lot. You know how cold it is out there. Let’s work something out.”
I stood in the shadows when they went to invite the woman back in. I was curious when her late model Lincoln pulled up and a forty-year-old skinny shmuck in sweats got out instead. Turns out it was her son. Guy wore the look of a real champion. Then suddenly it all made sense. He’d sucked his poor mother completely dry.
Sometimes you’re the bat in life.
Other times, hard as you try, you are the ball.
Saturday started with a newfound momentum. Derek disconnected the Powercommander that they installed during the week. Turns out it really doesn’t work on the R. He had run the bike through some computer diagnostic witchcraft the night before with Chris Siglin, who knows KTMs real well. But now that the bike had some snap to it though, the gearing was all wrong again. Holy shit it’s amazing how one change here, can completely change three things there. Apply that thinking anywhere you want.
…..Like maybe in our third practice Saturday.
Alex had us try the new Michelin Pilot rear on Saturday. It’s a DOT. I haven’t run a DOT since 97. It’s the same size as the slick we took off, a 190, but its got a totally different shape. And whatever shape it has, they aught to name it “Superduke” because suddenly our bike didn’t run wide anymore. And man could you put the power down early. Not since chasing Bobby Fong in 06 have we come out of turn 4 so early or so hard. I’m telling you that tire got my heart pounding again. Now we had three problems solved – the rear was planted, we didn’t run wide, and the motor ran strong. Last up was the hucklebuck in the Carousel, which I figured was related to the chatter in 8.
With so few laps at speed yet, and so much progress made by now, all I saw were green lights on the heads up display of our Suomy. We were real good out of 2, turning tight over the crest of 3a, and jamming over the wheelie bump heading for 9. Life was getting good again, but then we hit the deck in a perplexing way in turn 3. I wasn’t on the brakes, I hadn’t just turned in, we were perfectly on line, and we were PAST the apex. Suddenly, and with no warning, our front end washed out and the bike lay down on my left leg while we slid up the hill into the gravel just under the flag station? WTF is that about? Once back at our pit we all decided that our favorite front tire may have finally had enough. After all it saw us through each of our Buttonwillow races, two full days at Laguna, all day Friday, and now some of Saturday. OK my bad, time to pony up. We never made the afternoon practice.
Sunday practice was pretty much a wash. It always takes me a session to get my bearings again following a crash. I never got us to that rhythm but I could tell the bike was just where it had been pre-crash. So that’s how we entered 750 Superbike.
We got a decent start. Green got balked by someone in 2 so we snuck under him. Green is an animal now though. I knew it wouldn’t last. We ended up swapping spots with Carmen and Sullivan in a very kind hearted elbow jamming session which ended far too soon – with a red flag. We finished fifth I think? But when they stopped us out there in turn 7 my arms were pumped. Not a good sign. So we checked the bike over, turned in some compression, and decided to run a new rear. Problem was Open Twins was one race away – which meant we’d be starting the race on a stone cold tire…
Open Twins races for me use to feel like home. I didn’t fit anywhere on this planet as well as I fit between those two flags. But now life is different isn’t it. The tides have turned. And while I like this very much, don’t kid yourself. I do remember. So when I saw a window open as we all entered turn two, I stuffed our Superduke straight through it. Finally, after over two years and a lifetime filled with drama, we were back home. I could feel our rear tire painting a “slippery when cold” sign as we lead all the way to the exit of the Carousel, where I knew Green was about to spin us in circles as we climbed horsepower hill. But I didn’t care. Whatever gap he pulled on us up that hill I planned to close back up on the brakes to 7. Only problem was the shifter I kept stepping on to shift, wasn’t the shifter after all – which was our fifth mysterious challenge of the weekend. Turns out the shifter linkage we used to replace Saturday’s crash parts had this gnarly knuckle of a heim joint, which my boot consistently mistook for the lever. This meant I shifted into fourth gear about twelve times while chasing Green to turn 7. Not very impressive, because I finally found fourth about a hundred yards too late.. A huge gap followed, which put third place Craig Smith to breathing down our neck. I don’t know Craig yet, but I have a feeling we will be friends soon. The two of us traded spots in a tangled match of lines VS power VS aggression for a couple of laps actually. But then it happened again… Without a whisper of warning the front tucked and put us on the floor in a heartbeat just past turn-in for 9a. Nothing new here. No new lines, no trail braking, spot on with our line like we’ve gone through there seven thousand times before. Bam. On the floor. Go sit down your race is over. WTF crash # 2?
Once back at our pits it was pow-wow time . “OK guys, it’s not the tire. At least I don’t think it’s the tire…?” Phil checked every setting. Derek went over every bolt. Alex talked tires. I talked feedback. How could it be we had such GREAT front feel at Buttonwillow, and at Laguna, but now we get zero warning..?
Here’s where I owe Alex huge thanks. He found me in our pit, staring at our footpeg, pondering Barb’s kind words of reprimand because we had just crashed twice in one weekend. “We’re concerned about you GoGo, that’s all.” My response to her was “Well how in the hell do you think I feel?” Then we laughed, hugged, and off I went – climbing straight out of the crib and back into the curious darkness, again. Alex listened to every word I can’t even remember speaking. Then he just sat there with me, both of us now staring at the same footpeg. I dug deeper for Phil, explained my inside shoulder dropping mid turns repeatedly. I told him about the chatter in 8. I told him how the front end came all the way up and back down from 9 to 9a. Phil did his best with what I gave him. Alex asked me if I wanted to try the DOT front. At this point I refused no new ideas.
We went into our last race, F-1, with a very cautious attitude. That we even ran the race at all, without definitely knowing the answer, reminded me of the connection I used to share with my long lost warrior buddy. But that the words “CAUTION” kept flashing across my visor, reminded me of the one I still share with his older brother. So when that same window opened up heading for turn-2, I refused to take it. And when I felt a devilish poke to block-pass Sullivan into turn-4, I refused to stay in it. I followed instead, staying in third at a very comfortable – done it a million times before pace.
The Superduke R is even more potent than any of us had hoped. If you asked me a month ago what’s the best we could do with it, I might have said bottom of the box. But if you asked me that question today, I’d tell you we will win with it. But I knew it was too early for that this past Sunday. I rode in that safety zone we all have instead. I stayed in the crib. Yet again, suddenly, like I’d like to chew on sandpaper for an hour while I write this, there we went again – lost the front. Not on the brakes, not going in, not even at the apex. But AFTER IT. Bam. On the deck again.
What, the, hell…
This is where I owe just about the entire F-1 field great thanks for doing such a great job avoiding my tumbling, crawling ass on the deck of turn-9a. Sincerely, thanks guys. You rode like pros..
Even though I had lots of time to cool down out there on the tire wall, once back to our pit I was actually pretty pissed. We all were. First head I found was Phil’s. As I threw my gloves into the chair I said, “It’s not the tires, I know that now. And it’s not me. I know that now too. It’s the bike. Something is wrong with that front end. It’s not a setting, it’s not a turn of spring, it’s not a pound or two of air. It’s something much bigger than that. Something is completely wrong. No f-ing way we just crashed at THAT speed..”
Just then I looked up at Mike Meisner, the very likeable owner of the new Tri Valley Moto. This disaster of a weekend was Mike’s first racing experience. Mike is the core of our whole program. He pulls the plug we all go home, so as you can imagine – I was running a temperature all day. Of all the weekends… Yet somehow, despite all the struggling, Mike wore a huge smile on his face. Then he handed me a beer.
I think it’s impossible to count how many times I’ve been offered a beer after a race. But I don’t drink. Ever.
I grabbed the beer without hesitation and we all sat in a circle to talk it out, again, like a pow-wow. Just then our old friend Nick Hayman came by for a squat. I would love to have a map showing the racing history that spanned across that circle. Or even better, the knowledge. Everyone spoke their mind but it was Nick, who actually looked for a moment like a wise old Indian chanting advice from the back of a dark smoke-filled tepee, who really commanded our focus up front. As a result, for the following moments everyone’s focus centered on one thing – the ever-important, front end traction producing combination of rake, trial, triple clamps, fork angles, and ride heights.
About half way through our talk, unnoticed, Phil had disappeared. And just as we had set our plan to have new triples made for the Superduke next week, Phil’s voice spoke out in an alarming tone…
We all looked up as if each of us knew the answer we’d all been seeking since Friday was just one sentence away. As Phil held his tape measure like he had just seen a ghost, he finally spoke, “The triple clamps on this R are SIX MILIMETERS higher than the ones on the other bike…”
Turns out while they look virtually the same, they are actually very different. A higher triple clamp means that while you may set the forks dead flush with the top of both, the higher triple clamp will actually set the front of the bike lower, which may help you turn quicker, but it makes your bike real unstable and also completely robs you of front traction. And when it comes to front ride heights, two millimeters is a lot. Four is huge. And six is just shy of a country mile.. So we had basically been racing around all weekend on a motorcycle with its front tire under the radiator. No wonder the chatter in the esses, no wonder the shoulder dropping in the Carousel, and no wonder the crashes in turns three and nine.
Sometimes you’re the bat in life.
Other times, hard as you try, you are the ball.
dedicated to Cameron Gulbransen
Special thanks to the 4theRiders crew for capturing moments like only they can. Great job guys !!!
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