A good look at Aaron Gobert’s Superstock R1. There are strict limitations on modifications in the Superstock class, with the frame, swingarm, fork, brakes and throttle bodies having to remain stock.
There’s at least one rider in every racetrack paddock in America – almost always a novice – who likes to beef about the advantages the factory-supported riders have, what with their billet this, carbon-fiber that, or titanium whatzits.
“If only I had the factory Yamasuzisaki,” he says to anyone who’d listen, “I’d be able to run at the front.”
Experienced riders and racers understand the fanciful theory above just isn’t true, and this much I proved in vivid detail during my recent ride on Aaron Gobert’s championship-winning Yamaha R1.
That said, it’s comforting for a racer to have a team semi-trailer loaded with bikes, parts, and other trackside accoutrements, staffed by a knowledgeable and experienced crew. One perhaps like the gleaming Graves Motorsports squad that I encountered when MCUSA was invited to Willow Springs International Raceway.
The nucleus of this workshop/shelter/hospitality area is a flashy new semi-truck trailer, stuffed with parts and equipped with everything a mechanic would need to tear a bike apart and put it back together. It must be a reassuring feeling for a racer like 2004 AMA Superstock champion Aaron Gobert to come out a pit set-up like this one.
Yes, it was Gobert’s R1, with the formidable looking #1 on its nose, on which I would receive my edumacation about how much difference a factory-supported racebike would have on a mediocre talent such as myself.
Championships are nothing new to Chuck Graves, the team boss whose name adorns the big blue trailer. A fearsome competitor in his own right, Graves has won hundreds of races and dozens of championships, including the Formula USA national championship back when it was a hotly contested series.
But in 1998, when Yamaha debuted its first R1, Graves and his crew were one of the first to develop it as a racebike, contesting the unlimited AMA Formula Xtreme class back when it really was extreme. It was in the following years that Graves became the foremost R1 tuner in the country, and the ties to Yamaha became tighter.
2004 AMA Superstock Champion Aaron Gobert was smiling in this picture, but would he after we took his bike around the track a couple times?
Today, the Graves Motorsports team prepares, develops and maintains the YZF-R1s that Yamaha’s riders have been using to become perhaps the top team in the AMA Superstock class. It’s a unique arrangement in which the same four riders (Gobert, Jamie Hacking, Jason DiSalvo and Damon Buckmaster) ride YZF-R6s prepared by the factory Yamaha Motor Corps staff in the 600cc Supersport class.
But forget the 600s; I was there to ride a fire-breathing literbike! Just one small step below the omnipotent Superbikes, Graves coyly claimed his bikes can crank out 180 horsepower on the dyno, but his accompanying grin tells us that its peak number can likely be a fair bit higher. The Graves R1 the journos would ride on this day were in a 175-horse state of tune.
The Superstock class has strict limitations on the modifications that can be made to a stock bike, as components such as the frame, swingarm, fork, brakes and throttle bodies must remain stock. Predictable mods to the engine include a Dynojet Power Commander to fine-tune fueling and a gorgeous Graves titanium exhaust system. Internal tweaks include altering cam timing and compression-ratio juggling via different deck heights and head milling.
The location of the occasion is the big track at Willow Springs, a daunting ribbon of asphalt rolling through the Mojave desert. I must admit, Willow’s infamous Turn 8 – a ridiculously fast right-hander that will see your knee on the deck at over 140 mph – inspires feline behavior in me. Willow is one of the closest tracks to my home but, because of my distaste for it, it’s one of my least visited, so I never seem to be up to speed when I finally make it back. And if you can’t go fast through 8, you can’t go fast at Willow.
With that in mind, I was happy that Yamaha brought along some stock R1s that I could warm up on before getting a knee down on the ultra-serious, slick-shod factory machine. Still, the R1 stocker is not exactly a pussycat. Cranking out something between 145-155 rear-wheel ponies, its power can be darnright scary, especially over the crest of the hill at Turn 6 where it wants to loft its front wheel while still leaned over. And, despite the R1’s stable chassis, the unholy Turn 8 continued to laugh at my feeble attempts of aggression.
It probably would’ve taken three months of Sundays to even approach getting fast through 8, so I resigned myself to riding Gobert’s R1 well within its lofty limits.
I threw my leg over the meticulously prepped R1 and nearly kicked its tailsection off. Sure, it was still on its wheel stands, but even after the tire warmers were stripped off and the bike was set onto its Dunlop slicks, Gobert’s machine still had a seat height not too far removed from a GS BMW.
Several laps on a stock R1 did little to prepare Duke for the Graves Motorsports-prepared Superstock bike.
A rider’s weight and where it is positioned is critical in the ultimate performance of a racebike, and this is what works best for Gobert. The seat is way higher than the stock bike, putting me on my toes both literally and figuratively. Interestingly, the R1 of teammate Jamie Hacking had a much lower seat height, though I regrettably didn’t ride it.
It didn’t ease my mind much when I nearly tipped over when maneuvering through the pits at low speed. Its Ohlins steering damper was set just to the left of “immovable.” Oh well, at least the stiff stabilizer promised the steadiness of a pyramid.
Ironically, with my timid hands at the controls, Gobert’s bike delivered all the solidity of a house of cards. Its ultra-stiff suspension was topping out everywhere under my diminutive weight, causing the bike to squirm around beneath me at several points on the track. And, believe it when I tell you, crashing a test bike – especially a factory racebike – is far more embarrassing and lasts much longer than any humiliation caused by a slow lap time.
With my confidence in tatters, it didn’t help that the Graves R1 pulls like a missile when revved out. With about 25 extra ponies chomping at the bit, every straightaway became a whole lot shorter. While the stock bike required just a roll out of its throttle for Turn 2, Gobert’s bike demanded a decent squeeze of its trick lever that is adjustable on-the-fly from the left clip-on. Ferodo brake pads and braided-steel lines help the stock rotors and calipers be all they can be, though Willow’s not the best place to test brakes. Most racers don’t use the rear brake much or at all, and the spring on Gobert’s is as stiff as a Greg White interview (sorry, G-Dub!).
But what was amazing about this race-bred mill was just how tractable it can be with a gentle wrist. It provides a wonderfully linear pull that out-stomps the stock engine from bottom to top, culminating in a hang-on! level of thrust as it nears its 13,750-rpm redline. Notably, the abrupt throttle reapplication of the stock bike is nowhere to be found. If I had an R1, I would take it to Graves and tell them to build me a motor just like this one.
With just four laps a session to get up to speed, my pink skirt was definitely flapping in Willow’s 165-mph breeze. The onboard lap timer told a pathetic story. My laps in the low-1:38 range might be competitive with someone like Valentino Rossi – if he were on a tricycle!
Well, it turned out the bike was actually set up with suspension settings that were tested without success during at a recent test at California Speedway, so the Graves crew dialed in the Ohlins shock and Ohlins fork internals back to Gobert’s preferred set-up in time for my next session.
Superstock rules limit modifications but the Graves R1 includes a Dynojet Power Commander to fine-tune fueling and a gorgeous Graves titanium exhaust system.
Unfortunately, adding front compression and taking out rear rebound did little to combat the stiff springs I was learning to hate, as the suspension continued to top out everywhere. The revised set-up was better, but it still was way out of whack for my weight and speed. The bike continued to move around under me distressingly, especially in the high-speed Turn 7/8 section.
I’m not sure if my rapidly clenching sphincter had anything to do with it, but I was unable to locate my balls on this day. I ran mid-1:36s this time, which still wouldn’t beat Rossi on a trike. In fact, I ran quicker around Willow on the stock R1, as it didn’t feel like it was going to spit me off into the unforgiving desert like Gobert’s mount did.
In a misery-loves-company way, I was happy to hear I wasn’t the only journalist who struggled to come to grips with the set-up of the Graves R1s. Evans Brasfield, a former staffer at Sport Rider, has actually run quicker around Willow on his well-worn Kawasaki EX500 racebike (1:33.8) than he did on Hacking’s bike (mid-1:34s) on this day. He said its bar angle and seat position made him feel like he was more over the front than he’d like.
Brasfield, whose book 101 Sportbike Projects is now entering its second printing, didn’t go much quicker on Gobert’s bike, clicking off a best of a 1:33.6. He too wasn’t impressed with its stability. “It shook and shook and shook all the way to the start/finish line,” he said about one particular exit out of Willow’s Turn 9, but added he believed this was due to his 185-lb weight compared to Gobert’s 155.
As for me, I didn’t have a widely disparate rider weight to blame for running so slow on such a fast bike. My problems stemmed from just not riding it hard enough to use up the proper amount of wheel travel. The g loads piled on by a pro racer like Gobert running on sticky race slicks need stiff springs to counteract this force, and my cornering prowess was simply not up to task. Hacking’s bike was reportedly softer sprung, so I wish I had taken a spin on that one to compare the difference in feel.
You see, there really is no “right” way to set up a racebike, as it depends most on the preference and riding style of its pilot. I remember former factory Kawasaki crew chief Gary Medley telling me a few years back that there was practically nothing similar in the set-ups of the ZX-7RRs of riders Eric Bostrom and Doug Chandler. Bostrom needs his bike set quite stiff to handle his aggressive style. Conversely, Chandler, aka Mr. Smooth, preferred his suspension softer to better soak up the bumps.
So that explains it! I’m more like Doug Chandler than Eric Bostrom, and since Doug’s won more championships, I’m more “right.”
If I had one of Chandler’s bikes I’d be able to beat Rossi. On a bicycle. Maybe.
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