One quickly forgets the sheer exhilaration that comes with lining up on the grid next to 20 other racing junkies – red mist in their eyes, blood pressure sky rocketing – all bound to rip-roaring 1000cc Superbike steeds. The sound alone of 3000 horsepower revving as the ‘1’ board goes sideways is enough to make most mortals lose their lunch. And the mad rush that follows when the green flag drops, mist descending, as a group of big-bore bikes all charge and jostle for the same space into Turn 1… Well, there’s just plain nothing like it! I’ve skydived, flown in aerobatic planes, jumped dirt bikes 40-feet in the air, but nothing holds a candle to those first thousand or so feet of a Superbike race. It takes the term ‘adrenaline rush’ to a whole new realm.
Welcome to my world as I sit on the grid for my first Willow Springs Motorcycle Club (WSMC) race, visualizing just what I described to you aboard Stage 2 of the MotoUSA Yoshimura Rockstar Makita Suzuki GSX-R1000 Project Superbike. During the two years since competing in the 2008 Daytona 200, I haven’t raced anything with more than 50 horsepower. This would also my first time taking on Willow Springs Raceway aboard a liter-class bike. The end result was my stomach doing enough back flips to win Olympic gold in ski jumping. And what happened next was, well…
But before we get into the meat of the racing action, let’s back up and look at what went into getting our Suzuki Superbike to that point.
Building the Superbike
In Stage 1, which was fully detailed in our Modified Superbike Comparison, we focused on making the ultimate road-going liter-bike. And while it had a race-spec Yoshimura engine, the bike’s street bodywork, lights, mirrors, etc. were all retained. So, to go racing, these all hit the cutting room floor. Along with it so did more than 20 lbs, something that benefited the GSX-R greatly.
In its place we fitted Catalyst bodywork, including a race trail section with foam seat pad to eliminate the mushy stock saddle. They make top quality stuff and we figured if it’s good enough for the factory race team, then it’s good enough for us. Add to that a Yoshimura-designed paint scheme sprayed by San Diego’s MC Pro Design and the result is the best-looking racebike I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding. It came out absolutely amazing.
(From top down) Modifications for this stage included Yoshimura rearsets; Galfer wave rotors and carbon pads; Brembo radial master cylinder; Renthal gearing and RK chain.
Renthal stepped up with new final-drive gearing, mated to an RK chain, as well as a very trick set of clip-on handlebars and Kevlar-laced soft grips. In the braking department, we added a Brembo radial front master cylinder to get rid of the inconsistent stock unit, while Galfer’s latest wave rotors front and rear, as well as carbon pads and steel-braided lines, were installed.
Yoshimura left the American Superbike-spec engine, R-77 titanium/carbon fiber exhaust, EM-Pro tunable fueling system and BMC air filter in place, all of which we had nothing but praise for in the first stage, but wired in a quick-shifter and added fully-adjustable reverse-shift-pattern rearsets. F.Fabbri gave us a smaller and more race-oriented windscreen, while we continued with the same Showa Factory Kit shock and mildly massaged (i.e. added oil and preload set) stock fork set-up that we used in Part 1.
As for tires, Dunlop has come on board for the remainder of the project, allowing us to get the bike set up on its latest 17-inch AMA racing slicks. Sonoco AMA-spec fuel was poured in the tank, and combined with all new Motorex oils, that rounded out the Stage 2 updates. The only thing left to do was for me to put my money where my mouth is and go racing…
Racing the Superbike
As the Yoshimura box van pulled into the paddock for Saturday morning practice, I was already nervous. It’s been a long time since I’ve raced anything with a decent amount of power and even longer since I’ve raced a fire-breathing 1000. All this time turning laps on street bikes had turned me into a softy and I knew the weekend ahead wouldn’t be easy.
You see, Willow is usually ruled by the local fast guys. With people racing there a dozen times per year, some of them can get around that place extremely well. Home field advantage is big on the ‘Fastest Road in the West’ and I would be the visiting team. But who doesn’t love an underdog, right?
Practice started off with a couple sessions of merely acclimating myself with a 185-hp Superbike around the high-speed 2.5-mile circuit. I don’t care who you are, it takes time for anyone’s brain to grasp such high speeds and the reaction times needed to cope with them. No matter how many laps I’ve done it, draggin your knee through Turn 8 at 140 mph is still downright daunting. Fun as all get up, sure. But the scary consequences are forever etched in the back of my mind. It’s one of those hold-your-breath-and-pray type of corners.
And while the first session out wasn’t too bad, dipping into the 1:25s on only my third lap, from there things kind of went backwards. We struggled to get the bike to not headshake and stay planted mid-corner, while I also took awhile to get my brain up to race pace. But the reality of a ripping-quick Superbike is that spinning the tire and constantly dealing with some headshake are all part of the fun. You may lose a few fillings in the process, but it’s impossible to totally tame them down – at least while still going fast.
Saturday practice was spent trying to get the bike set-up to my liking as well as acclimating myself to the pace that is needed to be competitive. It didn’t quite go as easily as we would have liked, but when is racing ever easy?
Once I accepted that I wasn’t going to turn this beast into a docile 600, things started to get better. Combined with some softening of the compression on both the front and rear to get the bike further down in the stroke mid corner, we managed to get into the 24s by the end of the day, though just barely at a 1:24.9. Still, it wasn’t what we needed or what we were hoping for, as the front-runners can turn 1:22s and 1:21s. We definitely had some work ahead of us. Maybe a night’s rest would help…
For race day practice we mounted a new set of Dunlop slicks, opting for the medium compound front rather than the soft we had been on the day before. We came to find out from some of the local Willow fast guys that it works better and lasts longer at the same time. And, just like that, I was instantly into the high 1:23s in final morning practice and things were starting to look up.
We also experimented with the EM-Pro traction control modes. The Yoshimura fueling system replaces the three power modes with three different levels of traction control intervention. While it doesn’t use wheel speed sensors and just measures engine rpm rate-of-change, the A-B-C modes do differ in how much and how severely the TC intervenes. We ended up with B-mode as the optimum setting, the one of the three that we didn’t have time to try on Saturday. Go figure…
Open Modified Production
There’s no question there are a lot of little hidden lines that the locals know quite well and finding them is a big part of winning at Willow.
First up was Open Modified Production. Basically an anything-goes-as-long-as-its-production-based class, this would be the first of two races on the day for us. Due to the fact that I did not have any points and signed up at the beginning of the race weekend, our grid spot was somewhat toward the back. Sixteen bikes were on the line and we would be starting 11th. It was time to see if we could shave a couple seconds off the lap times and race with the big kids.
Starting to my right would be AMA regular and consistent top-10 Superbike finisher David Anthony. Aussie Dave, as most know him, would definitely be my biggest competition judging by practice lap times. Truth be told, I didn’t look to have much of a fighting chance as he was two seconds a lap faster in morning warm-up. But we never say die, as it’s the race that truly matters.
The ‘1’ board went up and then quickly sideways, followed almost instantaneously by the green flag. My motocross background kicked in I got off the line blisteringly quick, that Yoshimura engine taking me from the third row to nearly the lead into Turn 1, just barely rolling out as I slot into second spot. We couldn’t have asked for a better start. I knew getting out front quickly would be my best shot against Anthony and I didn’t waste any time, passing early leader Scott Tillery up the inside into the long Turn 2. Time to focus out front and not look back.
While Saturday practice was a struggle, once Sunday rolled around and racing got underway we were on pace right from the first lap, leading Open Mod Prod until it was red flagged on Lap 3.
Leading isn’t easy and though I didn’t look back in the literal sense of the term, I was riding tight and nervous, only just dipping into the 23s as Aussie Dave was quickly glued to my tail section. The fight was on. Or so we thought. A rider going down in Turn 2 brought a red flag halfway through Lap 3, which meant we would have to totally re-grid in our original positions for a shortened 6-lap race.
After an extended break to clean up the wreck, which my brain definitely didn’t need (think icing the kicker), we lined up for a second go at it. Thankfully once again I rocketed off the line, jumping up two rows, and in a nearly identical scenario to the first start I slotted into second through Turn 1 behind Tillery. Only difference was this time I tried the wide line to pass him into Turn 2, as he protected the inside, and I was unable to get around, having to follow him all the way through the long, uphill corner.
With a less-than-spectacular drive out of Turn 2, I still went for him up the inside of Turn 3, only to have Aussie Dave out-brake both of us. It was an impressive move and gave him the early lead. I remained in third and was unable to get around Tillery until our first trip down the front straight. Thank you Yoshimura for a rocket of an engine!
Now it was time to set off after Anthony, who had gained a couple seconds while I was held up behind Tillery. Though I initially thought he may clear off into the distance, I soon found myself reeling him in. The bike felt great and between a major gain in Turn 2 as well as in Turns 8 and 9, I was right on his back tire by Lap 2. Now that I knew I could run his pace, it was time to start putting my racecraft to good use, figuring out a plan to either get by or set him up for a last-lap drafting move.
Lap 3 saw me try the draft, which got me alongside but not in front by the line, so I knew I would have to get around him somewhere else. I also knew that passing him early in the race would be pointless, as there was no way I would be able to make a break away. To school I went, studying where he was strong and weak, using the next two laps to figure out my plan of attack for the final go-round.
An epic battle in Open Mod Prob between “Aussie Dave” Anthony (225) and I waged on like this the entire race.
I knew exactly where I was going to take him – coming out of the ultra-high-speed Turn 8 and up the inside into Turn 9, an area where I had been strong all weekend. But as we crossed the line and got the white flag a serious wrench was through into the equation as we started to encounter lapped traffic.
Both of us dove up the inside of one rider into Turn 1 and then did the same to another in Turn 2. These were fairly uneventful passes, but as we exited Turn 2 a massive group of five or six guys, engaged in their own battle, lay in front of us. This was going to get interesting.
Oh did it ever. Anthony went up the inside of two riders on the brakes for Turn 3 while I stayed glued to his back wheel. We then exited up the hill to Turn 4, him on the inside and me going wide, the two of us splitting another lapper. He nearly sent me off the track in what was a very close call.
Yet another hair-raising moment followed as we caught the leader of the group going down the hill into Turn 5. Aussie Dave rubbed elbows with the guy on his way past and created a gap up the inside just big enough for me to squeeze through, though I had lost a couple tenths in the process. Even so, I was still confident I could get him coming out of Turn 8.
And that’s exactly what I went for. I easily made up the time I had lost on the entrance of 8, only to lose a bit of drive as I got overly aggressive with the throttle exiting, spinning the rear Dunlop slick at well over 140mph while trying to get a run on him. We came into Turn 9 nearly side-by-side, but he still had a slight advantage and unless I wanted to try something really risky, the move just couldn’t happen. Anthony was able to stay in front.
This left a front straight drafting move as my last resort, so I hammered it as early as possible coming out of Turn 9 and tucked in nehind the windscreen as tight as possible. Although I nearly made it work, Aussie Dave held on to win by 0.101 seconds. Ever so close. But with lap times now in the 1:22s and an epic battle for the win, it was a satisfying second place. Not to mention Dave is a good, clean racer and it was a blast going wheel to wheel with him for six hard laps. Now it was time for Formula 1, which would be 12 even harder laps…
We nailed the start both times in Open Mod Prod but when it came to the money-paying Forumla-1 final we struggled to get off the line, finishing the first lap just inside the top-10.
Riding a wave of confidence from Open Mod Prod, I was much more optimistic for F-1. While I knew all of the fastest guys in the paddock would be lined up for this, as it’s the premiere race of the weekend and pays cash, I also figured I had a fighting change now that we were running competitive lap times. The key would be the start. I needed to be with the leaders right away.
And that’s exactly what I…didn’t do. While I nailed both starts in my first race, I let the GSX-R wheelie off the line this time around. I did move up from 13th on the grid to inside the top-10 heading into Turn 1, but I needed to be in the top three. This set the tone for the rest of the race.
It was hard to get into a good pace in the opening laps as I was getting held up by the riders in front of me. I was eventually able to work my way up to sixth, but by then the fifth and fourth place duo had over a 3-second gap on me. Not giving up, I put my head down and pushed, setting my fastest lap times of the weekend, consistently breaking into the low-to-mid 1:22s. It took me until the eighth lap but I was able to catch them. Problem was, in the process I had punished my rear Dunlop slick to the point where some serious sideways tire spinning-action ensued, which made getting around the pair through the infield extremely difficult.
Knowing that the lead trio had an insurmountable gap in front of us, I opted to try and salvage my tire life as much as possible from that point on and set the pair in front of me up for some kind of move at the end. This gave me a couple laps to catch my breath and develop a plan. And once again it all came down to Turns 8 and 9. I knew I was stronger than they were in the fast sections and since out-braking them in Turns 1 or 3 was out of the question due to some minor issues I was experiencing with braking performance, this would have to be the spot.
(Above) Chasing down the battle for fourth spot and doing my quickest lap times of the weekend in the process. (Below) We again came away thoroughly impressed by the Yoshimura Suzuki, which propelled us to a pair of solid results and gets better every time out.
The white flag flew and thankfully there were no lappers to deal with this time. I just needed to stay glued to fifth-place runner Chris Duran’s back tire and wait.
My drive off of Turn 7 was solid and going into 8, I was right there and even considered taking Duran up the inside. That didn’t work, but I did get him between 8 and 9, leaving me right on the rear wheel of fourth-place rider Reno Karimian. I ran out of room to get him going into the final corner, so I planned to go for it coming out. But for some reason Karimian heavily checked up just before we reached max-lean, right at the apex, forcing me to roll out to avoid taking us both out. As a result this allowed Duran back by on the outside! Son of a…
This put me in sixth coming onto the straight. Again I tucked in, this time aiming for a double-draft to the line. I slipstreamed the pair, waiting as long as possible to pull out of the draft. The three of us crossed the line side-by-side, the tow then pulling me past them both into Turn 1. But it was too little too late. We all crossed within 0.1 seconds of each other, but I was relegated to sixth spot.
Aussie Dave went on to nearly win the race, finishing second to Shawn Higbee on a Ducati 1198R Superbike by a fraction of a second on the way to setting the fastest lap of the race. This leads me to believe that I could have been right there with a better start, but sometimes that’s just how it goes. After all, this is racing.
In all it was a great weekend. The team and I came away with a near-win and a photo-finish for sixth in our first race outing on the new bike. Plus, I set a new Willow Springs personal best lap time for myself at a 1:22.3. And the Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 performed impeccably and was without a doubt capable of winning both races – I just got it in its way ever so slightly.
But this isn’t the end. Oh no. Ohlins suspension front and rear is on the way, along with a host of other American Superbike-legal parts. We’ve got two tests planned and then it’s off to Laguna Seca to race with the big boys! Yep, MotoUSA and Yoshimura will be taking on the AMA Superbike grid for the final stage in our project, so be sure to stay tuned…