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2006 Honda AMA FX CBR600RR

Friday, April 21, 2006
One word - AVALANCHE!
Riding the lightning quick Formula Xtreme bike at a higher speed and grabbing the powerful brakes is a memorable experience. DB had to readjust his braking markers about 50 feet back just to negotiate the turns.
This time, it went more like: here comes the corner, hit the brakes - BAM! - Mike Tyson just gut-punched me as hard as he could and I almost put the bike on its nose as the bike decelerates with violent force. Let's just say these are the strongest brakes I have ever had the pleasure to try. One of the other journalists asked me if they felt grabby and I commented that they weren't grabby, just incredibly powerful. So as I'm riding an incredibly expensive motorcycle on a brand new track, I have to shove my braking markers back about 50 feet just to carry a respectable amount of velocity through the turns. Not exactly the best thought to have running through your head just one lap into your one and possibly only ride on a factory roadrace machine.

After getting through the first turn it was time to get a general feel for the Miller Motorsports West Course. The 45-degree Turn 1 is named Sunset Bend because the sun sets directly behind the turn, and it requires prodigious use of those fabulous front brakes and a couple of flicks up (to actually go down two gears) on the shift lever. Accelerating out puts you into a right-left combination of flowing fast turns that requires neither braking nor downshifting.

Alan Wilson calls MMP his masterpiece
Miller Motorsports Park's Alan Wilson considers the track design his masterpiece. It includes a 180-degree hairpin and a 45-degree Turn 1 called Sunset Bend, because the sun sets right behind the turn.
Wilson wanted finesse to play a preeminent role at MMP and he got his wish. Turn 2 is a fast right-hander with a slight rise at the apex. Turns 3 and 4 are basically a single double-apex corner that requires an upshift mid-corner and points you onto a short-chute heading towards the 180-degree turn five named Black Rock Hairpin. Black Rock is also a double apex that sends you into the infield where two turns later you run into the left-hand Turn 7 named Three-D's (Demon, Devil and Diablo). It's actually a triple-apex corner with an elevation drop about midway through. From there it's a couple more bends until you reach West Ten, which sends you back onto the front straight.

The track was quite dirty from the previous day's storms with standing water on the inside of a few turns. But the surface looked scarier than it actually was, and while the AMA Superbike guys would run into grip issues at their elevated pace during the next two day's test sessions, the Dunlop K106 front and K108 rear slicks did a great job holding the road while I was onboard.

One of the most noticeable parts of this track is the 40-foot track width which seems awfully wide until you approach turns where it widens out to an astounding 50-foot width. It's a bit like the parting of the red sea as you come off the backstretch into Turn Five and the track fans out in front of you. Picking a racing line gets a lot harder when you have so much track surface to work with. But I'll take that problem over the alternative any day of the week.

The Factory Honda CBR600RR at work
The ergos on the FX bike weren't all that different from a stock bike, except the riding position was a bit more aggressive. The performance of the bike is definitely not stock, however, courtesy of the impressive array of top-quality components.
My goal riding Zemke's bike in the first session was to just get a handle on the motorcycle and learn the track as best I could in five laps. And even with those modest goals, the factory Honda CBR600RR immediately impressed me with its capabilities. Jake's bike felt a bit racier than a stock CBR thanks to its more aggressive riding position but the bike's overall ergonomic feel wasn't far off what you'll find in your local Honda dealership. However, the sum of this bike's parts results in a package like nothing I've ever ridden before.

The motor pulls hard in just about every part of the rpm range, but it really likes the upper revs. In fact, the Honda techs said there was a shift light living somewhere up there but I never saw it because by the time the bike was revving that high, I was going much too fast to be looking down at the tachometer.

Gobbling up pavement at a rapid pace is all well and good, but everybody who's ever done any roadracing knows that you make your time in the corners. And confidence comes from getting solid feedback from the chassis and suspension components. Well, let me tell you, the feedback I was getting from the FX Honda went something like this, "Is that all you've got, punk?" The Ohlins suspension is so good I don't know how to describe it except to say that it made MMP's few bumps and track imperfections disappear and invited you to push the bike harder into corners than you ever thought possible. I can certainly see how it becomes a knife-edge weapon in the right hands (read Miguel, Jake and company).

Slow turns - fast turns  it don t matter
After a session on Zemke's steed, it was time to take Duhamel's ride out for a spin. Comparing the two, Duhamel's riding position felt more relaxed due to a higher seat pad and bars.
Those first five laps went by quickly and upon returning to the garage, it was lunchtime. The order changed after lunch and Arthur and I were up first - this time I'd be on Miguel's bike. And while it elevated my blood pressure to be first out with a full stomach, it actually turned into a good thing because I would get a back-to-back chance to compare the differences between the two machines. Immediately evident is the modest increase in legroom thanks to Miguel's preference for a taller seat pad. His bars are also higher which helps give the overall ergos a more relaxed feel. All this is interesting considering that Miguel is actually a smidgen shorter than Jake but Ray Plumb indicated that it was Miguel's early days on the old CBR600F series sportbikes that set his preferences in stone.

I've always adapted quickly to different motorcycles and their ergonomic differences, and this time was no different. Out on the track, I quickly became accustomed to Miguel's bike and set about trying to decipher any performance differences between the two bikes. Honestly, I couldn't find much. Maybe at the pace of top-level professional motorcycle racers like Duhamel and Zemke, there could be observable differences in setup, but both these bikes seemed so similar and so capable that my perception made them indistinguishable. I heard some comments floating around the garage about Miguel's bike being stronger because it was fresh and hadn't done 200 race miles like Jake's bike, but if there was a difference it was miniscule in my mind. And if there's more performance in a fresh factory Honda, I'd assume there is more performance in a fresh primary factory Honda, which means that we probably weren't riding the absolute best piece of equipment the Red Riders could put on the track. Scary.

Do whatever it takes to put your knee on the ground for the photographer
Flicking the number 1 plate around Miller Motorsports Park, DB was hard-pressed to find any substantial difference in the way the two handled.
Another round of riders went out on the bikes and then it was my final turn, this time back on Jake's bike. Heading out on the track I made the decision that I preferred Jake's setup over Miguel's as the more aggressive riding position put me on the front wheel a bit more. And that was a good because now with 10 laps under my belt, it was time to push the limits to see what this bike was capable of. And let me tell you what, this bike is capable of plenty more than I can deliver.

Throwing the factory Honda on its side with what I thought was good speed evoked, well, it evoked nothing. The bike just sat beneath me solid as a rock never even reacting. It was as if it was mocking me, knowing it could take whatever I could muster and then some. The motor ripped mercilessly towards redline (wherever that was), the brakes sucked the air out of my lungs at every opportunity, and the chassis and suspension just soaked up whatever got thrown its way. There were no missed shifts, no worrisome tire slides, no chatter issues, no brake fade, nothing.

So as I got to the end of my session I started to wonder what I was actually going to talk about in this article. Typically, you can find a point or two where compromises were made to a motorcycle which affected performance in one way or another. Not here, this bike was made for the racetrack and Team Honda simply took whatever steps, financial or otherwise, necessary to build the best bike on the grid. With a powerhouse like Honda taking that standpoint toward their racing, you can bet you'll get a winner. They did and they did.

You can feel mighty small in the Salt Lake Valley
On his flight back home, DB couldn't decide what was more impressive, the Honda Formula Xtreme bikes or the new Miller Motorsports Park. One thing is for sure, the scenery wasn't half-bad.
I'd be lying to you if I said that 15 laps are enough to fully evaluate the performance threshold of a racing motorcycle this competent. Unfortunately I just started getting comfortable with the bike and the track as my time ended. But that's the way it goes, knowing Honda they planned it that way so that guys like me would have just enough time to get a feel for the bikes but not enough time to get so comfortable that crashing became a realistic possibility. And my overwhelming feeling at the end of my stint was relief that I wasn't "the guy" that destroyed Jake Zemke's Daytona-200-winning bike. Now it can go rest peacefully in the Honda museum without fear of some incompetent fool like me taking it out for another joyride.

And what of the question that started this whole story? What was better, Miller Motorsports Park or the factory Honda CBR600RR Formula Xtreme bike? That's got to be one of those conundrums wrapped in an enigma. There is no right answer.


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