I'm sitting on the plane on my way back from Salt Lake City trying to get my hands around what was more impressive, the bike or the track. The bike is the factory Honda CBR600RR Formula Xtreme
racer and the track is the brand new Miller Motorsports Park
in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Heading out to SLC, I honestly hadn't given the track much thought. Yeah, I knew it was a recently constructed complex that would host a Superbike doubleheader in June, but that was about it. U.S. road course racetracks, in my experience, were pretty easy to predict. I'd have to learn a new configuration, get a feel for the asphalt and check for sections of the course that seemed ridiculously dangerous. Then I'd put in some laps concentrating on the bike beneath me so I could give our readers some coherent analysis of how it might perform at a similar racetrack in your neck of the woods while taking it easy in the aforementioned sketchy spots. That presumption went out the window with my exposure to Miler Motorsports Park, because there aren't many race facilities in the world comparable to MMP.
The bike I knew more about. The factory Honda CBR600RR
has dominated the Formula Xtreme class for the past two years in the hands of Jake Zemke and Miguel Duhamel, and Zemke's bike had won the 2006 Daytona 200 in March. Honda didn't have much competition in the class during '04 and '05, racing against themselves as Team Manager Ron Heben put it. But Daytona 2006 was a different story with the factory Yamaha team showing up in full force to give Big Red a run for their money.
Nestled in a valley surrounded by snow-capped Utah mountains, Miller Motorsports Park was the ideal setting to test Honda's retired fleet of Formula Xtreme machine.
As soon as I told my coworkers that Honda had invited us to give the FX bikes a spin (yes, I overruled them, wouldn't you?), the talk started flying. The FX bike had open-bike power, weighed next to nothing, would spin the rear wheel in every corner, was worth over $100K, and if I crashed it Honda would never give us another test bike. Did it worry me? Are you kidding? I couldn't have cared less, I was getting a chance ride Miguel's factory FX600 and I'd take my chances.
There was a collection of eight journalists that would take part in riding both Formula Xtreme Hondas. Most of the group arrived Wednesday evening and had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with Miller Motorsports Park bigwigs Alan Wilson, the track designer and CEO of MMP, and Dan Solomon, the Director of Motorcycle Programs. Wilson gave us an inkling of what was awaiting us in the morning.
Miller Motorsports Park is named for Larry H. Miller, a prominent Utah businessman who also owns the Utah Jazz basketball team among other sports interests in and around Salt Lake City. Miller is obviously a huge motorsports enthusiast who is successful and passionate enough to build his own racing complex. Originally the project started at a shoestring budget of $5 million, which would have gotten the asphalt down but not much else. Larry Miller soon blew that conservative number out the window by adding on features he found at racetracks around the world.
Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller is also the financial backer of Miller Motorsports Park. A motorsports enthusiast, he weeps at the mere mention of the phrase "Stockton to Malone."
You see, Larry is a car buff (he also owns nearly 50 auto dealerships) and he spent last summer traveling with a few buddies in Europe with their Ford Cobras and GTs. He made notes about what he liked and didn't like and decided to expand his project to fit what was now going to be a world-class racing facility.
Suddenly Wilson and the rest of the MMP staff were in charge of much more than a barebones racetrack. With additions like a kart track, kart pro shop, grand prix garages, day garages, a massive structure called the clubhouse, a museum, multiple grandstands and loads of parking, you can quickly understand how the budget grew exponentially. In fact, the dollars spent so far has surpassed 75 million, and Larry claims he won't stop until he's satisfied, which doesn't sound easy to accomplish. The track itself has four different configurations, the outer course (which the AMA Superbike series will run) at 3.06 miles, the east course at 2.24 miles, the west course at 2.2 miles and the main course which is an astounding 4.5 miles.
So as I went to sleep Wednesday night, thoughts of factory Hondas and a virgin road course filled my dreams. Thursday morning washed those dreams away as the Utah skies opened up with rain and snow. Nonetheless, the MMP crew was eager to show off the facility so we loaded up in a couple of minivans and headed out to the track. The track and facilities sit on a 511-acre site near Tooele, Utah, located about 30 miles west of Salt Lake City. There we found the pristine factory Honda CBR600RR
racebikes sitting in one of 21 grand prix garages which open directly onto pit lane. In the adjoining garage sat two Honda VFR800s and two CBR600F4is to help us get familiar with the track layout. While some of the assembled scribes were willing to hit the soaked track on Dunlop rain tires, there's no way the Honda guys would be foolish enough to let that happen.
Miller Motorsports Park has four configurations that run from 2.2 miles up to 4.5 miles. The 3.06-mile outer course will be utilized by the AMA Superbike series when the new facility plays host to Round 6 this June.
Since the rain was coming down in buckets, MMP made two minivans available to tour the track. Once out on track two things became readily apparent; first, the track has abundance of gravel runoff room and, second, even the 3.06-mile outer course is very long. We ran every configuration of the circuit until everybody in the van (except our SCCA champion driver) was ready to test the stain-resistant qualities of the minivan floormats. Then under the auspices of showing us the track at speed, but more likely just to keep us busy, Solomon and another MMP official took us for a few laps at speed in two of the race-prepped Ford Mustangs that just happened to be sitting around. Cars seem pretty docile when used as daily commuting devices, but I was amazed at the level of traction that the 'Stangs had in the wet, that is until Solomon sent us fishtailing out of control into a double spin. The padded rollcage kept my noggin intact and somehow Dan kept the car out of the mud so we went happily on our way...back to the pits.
During lunch, held in the media center directly above the garages, we had the opportunity to hear from the factory Honda team about the bikes we would ride, on what was now to be Friday. Ron Heben, the Road Racing Team Manager, and Ray Plumb, the Team Coordinator, headed the roundtable discussion regarding the FX bikes. Jake Zemke sat in to give some input from the pilot's perspective. Heben explained that Zemke's bike was the actual motorcycle that he used to win the Daytona 200 only one month prior. Miguel's bike was actually his spare because of the crash he suffered during the 200. In that crash, Miguel highsided while leading, breaking his windscreen and dislodging his helmet faceshield. Interestingly enough, when I asked the Honda guys about what it was like riding the bike without a windscreen on the high banks, they said Miguel's only comment was that the bike transitioned better with the windscreen blown out. Hmmm, if a big, nasty crash is suddenly a good thing, I now know exactly why I'm not a highly-paid factory rider...
Daytona 200 winner Jake Zemke was on hand to lend advice on piloting the Formula Xtreme bike. He also pulled double duty as a fill-in cameraman for SPEED TV. On top of it all, since the FX test at Miller the Honda Superbike rider has gotten married.
Heben handed out a Honda roadracing press kit that included rider bios, cool photos of Mig and Jake, statistics and some sanitary ad copy describing the team head to toe. The single-page fact sheet on the Formula Xtreme bikes was slightly more illuminating but still it only listed the manufacturers of specific components on the bikes. I gleaned a bit more insight talking to the factory wrenches back in the garage.
In 2005, American Honda Racing took on development of the Superbike program. In years prior, Honda Japan (HGA) and Honda Racing Corp. (HRC) had a big part in the AMA racing program by essentially building the bikes as kits and shipping them to the states. The mechanics were in charge of maintaining the kit, tweaking settings here and there but little else. To stave off the boredom, the American Honda boys got the opportunity to cut their race development teeth on the CBR600RR in the Formula Xtreme class.
The AMA's Formula Xtreme rules essentially allow the creation of 600cc Superbikes. The engine case, frame, swingarm and other associated items must remain stock, but modifications are pretty much "run whatcha brung." The American Honda racing team did such a good job at building the FX bikes in-house (and winning the 2004 championship) that HGA gave them the green light to do the same with the Superbikes in 2005. This was a learning year that didn't produce Honda-like results, but Heben, Plumb and Zemke seem confident that 2006 will be the year they can challenge the undisputed kings, Mat Mladin and the Yoshimura Suzuki Superbike team.
Flying around the country, riding factory racers... Yeah, it's good to be the boss. MCUSA Prez Don Becklin got to ride Miguel Duhamel's FX spare, because the veteran rider smashed up his first-stringer about halfway through this year's 68-lap Daytona 200.
The 2006 factory Honda FX racebike would only be raced one time, in the Daytona 200. These bikes are now retired and heading for life at the Honda museum or on the road as a display piece for the next motorcycle event you attend. Instead of starting from scratch, American Honda decided to use the 2005 FX bikes as the starting point for their assault on the Daytona 200-miler. The two most significant changes to this year's bike were necessitated from the entry of Yamaha into the Formula Xtreme class. No longer was Honda allowed the luxury of racing only themselves; now Jason DiSalvo, Eric Bostrom and the entire Yamaha team would be putting the red Hondas directly in their crosshairs.
Heben admitted that in the 2005 Daytona 200 and for most of the season, Honda was essentially detuning the motorcycles to ensure reliability and the championship. With little outside competition, who could blame them? With Yamaha in the game, the 2006 engine package had to be pushed to the limit while still being able to complete 200 miles at race pace. Plumb noted that there were a few different engine packages to choose from and their choice went right down to the wire. Naturally the AHM Racing team wasn't too anxious to spell out exactly what they did to the motors, but it is interesting to see what actually remains is at least somewhat close to the CBR600RR sitting in your garage.
Looking at the bike, it's evident that this really is a CBR at heart. Sure there are trick bits all over the thing but it doesn't look like they shoehorned a RC211V motor into the frame. HGA supplied the camshafts, JE Pistons chipped in the slugs, and Jardine made the header and silencer to AHM specs. The cylinder head is a place where there is plenty of power to be found. You might expect it to come directly from Japan via HRC or HGA, but American Honda claims it is a stock piece modified to AHM specifications. Rick Boyles, Zemke's chassis technician, claimed that approximately 3 weeks of total prep time went into this bike but that preparing the chassis only takes 2-3 days. The rest of that time is devoted to getting every last bit of power out of the stock engine components and that most likely involves many long nights with a die grinder, mill and dyno.
Formula Xtreme rules require a stock engine case, frame, swingarm, and a few other assorted components, allowing wide latitude for other adjustments. Although some would argue the latitude widens depending on what country your company headquarters are located.
The chassis' major change was American Honda Racing's switch from Showa suspension to Ohlins. The Swedish suspenders grace both the front and rear end of the Formula Xtreme (and Superbike) Hondas. Considering the fact that Showa is owned by Honda, the switch to Ohlins reaffirms the decision making autonomy that AHM Racing now enjoys. Rumor has it that Zemke made the Ohlins decision early during off-season testing while Miguel found both brands comparable. Ultimately the team chose Ohlins, and judging from the trick-looking reservoirs and machined grooves in the forks, these aren't something you can special order through Parts Unlimited. The Nissin brakes are also a factory unit with the oversized rotors mounting to custom Japanese Bito wheels. Bito isn't a household name but they are manufactured by an ex-Honda employee to AHM Racing specs.
Erion Honda will fly the Honda banner with Aaron Gobert and Josh Hayes running the FX class in 2006 but make no mistake; those bikes are not full factory equipment. Information is shared between the teams but I got the distinct impression that Erion equipment is not quite the same as what Big Red rolls onto the tarmac. We were being allowed to ride the cream of the crop in 600cc roadracing motorcycles and I didn't have a bit of doubt even before swinging a leg over a bike.
The weather didn't let up for the remainder of the day, with a little snow mixed in just for fun. Thankfully MMP and Honda had a back-up plan for Friday. Miller had scheduled a fire drill of sorts with medical personnel scheduled to practice emergency procedures that may be required at the four major racing events scheduled for 2006. Wilson made arrangements to move the medical teams to the east course while we occupied the west course. He was Xtremely apologetic about "only" getting to use the smaller course but, at 2.2 miles, it's as big as most road courses that we ride at anyhow. East, west, whatever - it all looked good to me.
In '05 Honda didn't have much reason to wrench the last drop of performance out of their Formula Xtreme entries, given the competition wasn't as fierce. This year with Yamaha throwing their weight around, Honda engineers were working overtime to get the best package possible out for the 2006 Daytona 200.
The next day would be a complete reversal of weather fortunes. The sun was out and we were on for our "Factory Guy" experience. We arrived at the track and got our briefing. The riders would be split into four two-rider groups, one guy on Miguel's bike and the other on Zemke's bike. We would get three 5-lap sessions and we'd spaced out on the track to avoid the dreaded Journalist GP. I was teamed with Arthur Coldwells of Robb Report Motorcycles
and his story revolved around Miguel so I took Jake's bike for two of the three sessions. We got a few laps around the track on the stock CBR600F4i and VFR800 to get somewhat acquainted, but once that was done we'd wait in the garage for our number to be called.
Plumb and Boyles had both bikes sitting on front and rear stands with tire warmers keeping the Dunlop slicks nice and toasty. There was a small glitch when Jake's bike fired to life, as it was running on only three cylinders. A short amount of factory technician knuckle busting took place to replace a deviant spark plug and the two beasts were ready to go. I was third in line so thankfully it would be up to the other journos to scuff in the tires on a chilly Utah morning and on an especially green and dirty new racetrack.
After popping the clutch in the pits, DB got acquainted with the 1-up 5-down racing shift pattern and started turning some laps on Jake Zemke's Daytona 200-winning mount. Remember boss, that beauty's museum bound so don't scratch it!
When my turn arrived it was a surprisingly uneventful affair. The bike was back on the stands with the tire warmers cooking as the team dumped in a measured amount of VP race gas. I hopped on board when Plumb gave me a nod and asked for confirmation that the bike was using race shift pattern (1-up, 5 down). I didn't want to look like an idiot by killing the motor by shifting into second gear. So I clicked the shift lever up into first, let the clutch out and.proceeded to stall it. Plumb was nice enough to comment about the tall gearing loud enough that maybe somebody heard it and didn't wonder if I had just recently flunked out of an MSF course. Proceeding out of the garage gives you an inkling of what was to come. The engine growls menacingly and the full floating brake rotors rattle at low speed.
The Miller pit lane stretches up the main front stretch so you have plenty of room to accelerate towards Turn 1. And one thing this Honda 600 will do is accelerate. Applying the Xtremely responsive quarter-turn throttle gets things underway in a hurry. Suddenly that engine growl turns into a screaming howl and that first turn that seemed so far away just a moment ago is being pushed into your cerebral cortex like an IMAX movie on fast forward. The engine doesn't pull like a modern 1000cc sportbike (I'd guess it makes about 130 rear-wheel horsepower) but it will certainly blow damn near anything else away.
The very first time I arrived at Turn 1, my racetrack perception got turned on its head. After years of club racing and lots of track days and sport riding, I have a general sense of when to apply the brakes heading into a corner. It's something I've relied on and it's treated me quite well; here comes the corner, hit the brakes now, throw it into the turn with what feels like the right amount of speed.