Racing GNCC with Am-Pro Yamaha

July 29, 2009
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
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Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA's Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn't matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

One school isnt going to make you a pro rider  admits Raines. Its baby steps and you take your weaknesses and you build on them week after week.
Jason Raines (instructor) agreed to sacrifice his practice bike for us to ride in the Snowshoe GNCC.

MotoUSA was able to arrange a pseudo factory-racer-for-a-day experience with Am-Pro Yamaha at the notorious Snowshoe GNCC in West Virginia. Jason Raines agreed to let me borrow his practice bike to enter the Industry class and we were in business.

I’ve become fairly accustomed to riding Yamaha dirt bikes over the past years with plenty of time on models like the YZ450F, YZ250F, WR450F and WR250F, and I even have experience with the Am-Pro Yamaha crew after a quick ride on Thad DuVall’s championship-winning WR250F last year. But, Yamaha remains the sole Japanese provider of 2-strokes in America as well. I spent a little time aboard the YZ250 during our 2009 250F Motocross Comparison, but other than that it has been off the radar in favor of the more popular, widespread 4-strokes. Having seen the Am-Pro Yamaha squad in action at events like EnduroCross and GNCC racing, I was familiar with Raines and his WR450F. The five-time AMA National Hare Scrambles champion is switching this year from full-time GNCC racing to the National Enduro and EnduroCross series, both of which have proven to be very 2-stroke friendly.

I had visions of riding alongside Am-Pro’s XC1 studs, Thad DuVall and Barry Hawk, (not that it would ever happen since they weren’t in the same class and I’m not in the same league) bouncing across rocks and roots on our tricked-out WR450Fs. You can imagine the surprise when I showed up in West Virginia and found a shortage of thumpers. I first saw the bike prior to the race during the GNCC University where I witnessed the Am-Pro team and Yamaha ATV riders coaching students on techniques to better their racing. Coming into the event I hadn’t even thought to ask what bike I would be riding. I knew Raines had raced the big WR previously and fully expected to see that bike again, but it was a rude awakening to find out otherwise. Resplendent in my fresh set of MSR gear, I hitched a ride to the staging area and about lost my lower jaw when I saw Raines sitting astride a smoking YZ250.

Am-Pro Yamaha GNCC Racing
We didn’t get to use the 2-stroke
starting advantage with the paved,
live-engine start format.

Honestly, I have little interest in racing the YZ250 for motocross purposes, but I have been anxious to try one set up specifically for off-road, so once the shock wore off and I readjusted my attitude, the prospect of a two-hour race on this thing was more appealing. As the University wore on, I split time with Raines on the bike – him using it to demonstrate exercises and me botching them. Raines had thrown in some alternate jetting to accommodate for the 4000-plus feet of elevation at the resort. We found out right away that it still wasn’t right with a big rich spot through the middle. Jason went back into the carb that night and made adjustments but we didn’t get another chance to test it before the race. Unfortunately, Jason had to leave for a team obligation somewhere else which left me to fend for myself on race morning. There wasn’t much to it since the Am-Pro team had set me up and all that was really left to do was prep for a single pit stop if everything went right. A crew of MotoUSA guys held down the fort with spare goggles, gloves and fuel, and after seeing the muddy remains of the early morning race we were fully expecting to use them all.

GNCC races usually start with a dead-engine start, and it was the one aspect of riding a 2-stroke that I was really, really looking forward to. We had practiced them during the University and I had managed to either holeshot or round the first turn very near the front. But, Snowshoe isn’t like the rest of the GNCC races. Being that it is held at a ski resort, the start actually rides right down the paved road outside of the village. Riders are sent off in waves of five, or less in some cases, using 10-second intervals. In order to keep everyone close, riders are allowed to have their engine live and ready to rock-n-roll. Not wiping out in the first turn was my first goal and I accomplished that right in the middle of my group. Knowing it was a long race and not knowing exactly what to expect in terms of terrain was reason enough for me to settle in and get better acquainted with the YZ.

Am-Pro Yamaha GNCC Racing
Barry Hawk demonstrates the proper way to go fast in the mud.

The learning curve proved pretty steep for the first 12-mile loop. I definitely wasn’t prepared for the constant rocks and roots. They assure me that this isn’t typical of GNCC racing, though always present, there’s usually less of this nasty concoction. By the time the second lap rolled around I was starting to get the hang of that zippy motor to some degree. Running a gear high proved the best method for controlling wheelspin, especially as my tired arms became increasingly less dependable. Changing lines was one of the Am-Pro Yamaha’s strong points with such a light weight and small reciprocating mass in the engine, I could somewhat control my destiny as I bounced from one obstacle to the next. It was the first time that I had used Kenda tires, but the rubber performed well in the conditions.

Virtually all of the course, with the exception of a single downhill section and one other muddy strip, perhaps a half-mile combined, had been ridden by the ATV races the day prior. That meant that everything was pretty beat up – the mud holes were deep, roots were stripped and rocks polished. But for that small bit of single-track, especially the semi-dry descent, the Yamaha really shined. It was there that I started to appreciate the nimble handling and wish that I could ride the bike more in those environments. As for the rest of the course, I still feel that I would have had better success with the tractable power of a 4-stroke. There were plenty of instances where a bottleneck was starting to form and I was able to pick a way around without getting stuck. A few times I had to hop off the YZ250 and get it moving again, but I was happy to never be the cause of a blockage. I’m a foot-dragger by nature but in the times I managed to get my feet on the pegs, the high footpegs really helped keep my boots away from the never-ending stumps, roots and edges of deep ruts. It made for something of a cramped layout by the time three hours had passed, but I did notice the benefits out on the trail.

Am-Pro Yamaha GNCC Racing
The pit stop was just in time. The brief rest was just enough to get our rider through the final lap.

I was also plenty happy to reach my pit stop at the end of Lap 2. I had managed a much better lap the second time around but was still pretty close to the time cutoff. With a splash of premix and a single stab of the kickstarter (love that), it was back out onto the course. Not long after I hit the check, the leaders came through and they started waving off riders, but I was glad to have stayed on the lead lap, a feat most would not. From that point on it was pretty much survival and the YZ carried me through with little complaint. It was on the final loop that the course finally caught up to me. One hill in particular had caused me trouble every time around. Only about 15-20 feet high, the face was abrupt and super smooth. Spinning tires had greased the entire thing rather than create ruts, but there were plenty of those on the run up to the hill. A flat section about 35-yards long was filled with shin-deep goop – not the best introduction to such a nasty little knoll. I crashed at the top on my first two laps but hadn’t needed to make a second run in either instance. This time around it would take me three, and only with the help of some spectators did I avoid making several more. Having to lift a 4-stroke out of the mud and restart it (without e-start) would have killed me at that point. But, between my gasping and cursing, I did notice that riders I had been passing tractored right up it and on past me with their Thumpers.

The one performance advantage that I couldn’t discern until after the race was the fatigue factor. There’s no doubt that controlling and having to pick up such a light motorcycle was a key factor in the overall picture. Also, the simplicity of starting is huge in off-road races and I saved a ton of energy with the easy-to-light 2-stroke. These are the arguments we hear all the time about 2T vs. 4T, and I do think that the YZ250 is more effective, at least in my case, as an off-road conversion. Most don’t ride motocross for long enough stints to feel these benefits, but all day in the saddle really makes them apparent. The ride with Am-Pro Yamaha showed me what a well-adjusted 2-stroke can be, and I wish I could have ridden that bike on some of my local trails to really get a better impression. As it was, the Snowshoe GNCC is one that I won’t soon forget, and the next time I go looking for a team Yamaha ride I won’t be nearly as floored at the prospects of racing something with an expansion chamber. Am-Pro Yamaha clearly knows a thing or two about building these bikes.

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