Ben Younger Makes Friends with the Track

July 8, 2010
Ben Younger
Ben Younger
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Ben Younger is a writer/director (Boiler Room, Prime) in film and has written for the New Yorker magazine. He has had a lifelong love of motorcycles and is currently working on a feature film about the TT races on the Isle of Man. Ben splits his time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.

The Experiment

Steve Atlas
This is the last dude (Atlas) in the article you’re going to see with monogrammed leathers and a crew working on his bike. We’re going Han Solo from here.

You’re not Steve Atlas. Neither am I. Neither are most people. But don’t worry, there’s strength in numbers and I’m here representing the vast majority of us who didn’t grow up sucking a pacifier with NGK written on its side. This multi-part article/journey is meant for anyone who enjoys a trackday but doesn’t have their name stitched across the back of their leathers (generally, I’ve found this to be an accurate indicator that someone is faster than me). But let’s get specific.

This is for the rider who finds themselves in the intermediate/advanced group but who hasn’t done much racing, if any at all. To give you a frame of reference, I normally find myself in the bottom third of the advanced group. I’m not slow. I’m not fast. The good news is that as intermediates we get to experience the highest high of a given sport – the breakthrough. It’s nice to be in our position because as the pros bite and scratch for a tenth-of-a-second here and a tenth there we get to take off several seconds at a time. Big round, euphoric numbers – like the early weigh-ins on The Biggest Loser. Once you graduate to expert the rushes come fewer and farther between and frankly, you risk more to earn them.

The other issue I think we have as a group is articulating what exactly a motorcycle is doing underneath us. As a professional writer that is a strange experience. Hearing magazine testers (ringers) talk about the outer-edge handling characteristics of a modern sportbike is about as helpful as hearing Stephen Hawking explain quantum physics to me over Chinese takeout. It’s incredibly interesting but as it relates to my own experiences on a bike it’s largely a combination of wish fulfillment and science fiction. To hear these guys talk about how a tire breaks or slides “predictably” is hilarious. If a tire is breaking traction while I’m on it I call it a “moment.” By moment I mean something I would like to never occur again.

How do I describe tires? “They gripped.” “I didn’t crash.” Tire profiles? Compounds? I can talk the talk with the best of them. The taller and more triangular profile helps the bike fall into the corner faster. The dual compound puts softer rubber on the shoulder where I can best use it mid corner, blah,blah,blah. This may all be true and I may even be utilizing these qualities but the point is, when it’s quiet and I’m honest… I can’t always explain what’s happening on the bike. I can’t pull into the pits and say to my wrench-monkey, “We’re close; it just needs a half-turn of rebound in the rear.” It makes me think of a mother telling her toddler, “Use your words, honey.” I’m trying, but it’s a very new experience to finally be just fast enough to have a motorcycle begin to show its shortcomings.

Younger Takes to the Track
Here she is, pre-diet and personal trainer. I’m not putting all the effort on her though. Rider needs work, too.

So, lacking the ability to perfectly articulate what we need we have to rely on two things: One is how the bike feels. Even without the vocabulary at this point in our riding careers we can tell what we like and what we don’t. The other is the clock. Since feel is a subjective source of data, we’ll go with the quartz on this one.

The Premise

Take a bone-stock 2008 Suzuki GSXR-750 and ride it as fast as I can to get a baseline lap time. Then slowly add/change one element at a time and see what sticks. But don’t get me wrong, we’re not here to put together another “project bike.” We’re here to see what works. I could stare at a Gilles rear-set for a half hour and marvel at its lightness and build quality (and I have) but the truth is it isn’t making me demonstrably faster. So the question is: Where do we put those hard-earned dollars? No, really. Where exactly?

The law of diminishing returns suggests that as we approach the shallow end of our personal talent pools we fight for smaller and smaller increments in time improvement. So too, does this occur with our purchases. Aftermarket triple-clamps are simply not going to have a bigger impact than race tires. Pretty to look at? Sure, but we’re on a utilitarian mission here. If it doesn’t work toward our cause then it’s out. Let’s illuminate what we should be spending our money on in the relentless pursuit of lower lap times and more importantly, assign a numerical value to that savings in time with each step we take.

This quasi-scientific experiment shall take place at New Jersey Motosports Park’s Lightning Course. It’s a 1.9-mile, 10-turn circuit. It’s a fast course with control riders doing laps in the 1:09/1:10 range. It’s got a little bit of everything, except a true first-gear corner. There’s two blind, cresting rights, a hard-braking, flat second-gear left where you see quite a few low-sides, and a mini-Daytona banking that has you on your right knee slider for so long that I had time to wonder if I had any spare pucks in the trailer and where they would be. ‘They’re next to the tires. No, you moved them to the helmet shelf, dummy. Oh look, there’s the exit to this corner’ – 115 mph the whole way round. That shoots you out onto a straight away that, while not very long, allows you 150 mph-plus because you’ve been shot from orbit on the bowl exit. Fun.

Younger Takes to the Track
Note to self: never again waste three hours getting photos taken and setting up an Ebay auction for above pictured items. Cannot even give them away. Someone put in a bid of, “your mom,” which I thought was funny.

5/15/10 – Stock is Stock is Stock

Taped the lights, removed the mirrors. In doing so had to cut the wires going to the integrated turn signals as there was no obvious way to disconnect them – this from the Own the Racetrack company a.k.a. Suzuki? At least the headlights had quick-disconnects so no snipping there.

I set the stock Bridgestone Battlax BT-016 tires to the manufacturer’s pressure recommendations: 36 front and, gulp, 42 rear. Take your hand off the mouse. No need to write that email to the editor. I know you’re not supposed to go out on track with street pressures but I want to make the point of how important tire pressures really are (and I was kind of curious what it would feel like). I then did the same for the suspension – showroom-floor settings. The only thing I changed was the preload. And it still wasn’t enough. That will have to be addressed later with different springs to suit my size. I weigh 195 lbs and at 6’3” I’m no Pedrosa. In fact, I once had a dream where I was carrying him in a BabyBjorn. That’s another article though.

Session 1

NESBA is the trackday organization that is hosting this SAE-endorsed, double-blind, placebo present study of mine. Their attention to detail and safety precluded me from running in the advanced group the first day as I had not safety wired the oil drain bolt or drained the anti-freeze – both requirements for the fast group. Still, I managed to get some clean laps in and eventually soiled my pants when I spun up the rear (nothing predictable about it) coming out of Turn 1 and almost highsided myself into the nearby Atlantic. Street pressures! Tasty. Remember what I was saying about being curious? …not curious anymore.

First session’s best time – 1:24.01

Session 2
Came in, changed my knickers, and then adjusted the tire pressures to a more track-worthy 30psi front and rear. Back out and felt a big difference. One that even I can describe. The rear dug in on acceleration now that it could flex properly. Unfortunately, set-up happiness fades at a

Younger Takes to the Track
Looks like somebody likes going left. This is as about as good as I get right here. Take a moment…sit with it…enjoy this with me. Okay, thanks.

linear rate with progress. I went faster and quickly found the limits of this particular cocktail. Lost the front tire at the apex of Turn 4 – a quick 3rd-gear left. I would not describe this slide as predictable either because, well, I did not predict it. Fair enough? Still, huge drop in time just from appropriate tire pressures.

Cost – $0.00

Second session’s best time – 1:21.24

Session 3

Should have brought more underwear. Didn’t. Let’s move on. Now, I’m making an assumption that a well set-up bike is worth more than a poorly set-up one with more power. We’ll test these theories, but for now making the statement means we are going to start with the chassis and later, get to the engine. That meant getting the stock suspension to work its very best for me and my riding style.

Bob Blandford is the president of NESBA and one of the many knowledgeable guys you can find at any of their events. He and I set the sag for my weight prior to that first session and were now getting into the rebound and compression settings. I’m not like “twin shocks” old but I can clearly remember a time when stock suspension was barely adjustable. The Gixxer has rebound adjustments as well as both high- and low-speed compression for both the fork and the shock. And they weren’t bad. For years I’ve just tossed the ubiquitous Ohlins or Penske on without so much as a single track session to see how the bike felt on stock pogos. Things have come a long way.

Younger Takes to the Track
There’s the stiff, upright riding position we’ve all become so accustomed to seeing from the author. I look like a 2×4 nailed to a Suzuki.

But you have to get in there. I was always afraid of those little screws on top of the fork tubes and what they would do to me if moved without the appropriate permits. ‘So wait, high speed compression is for little bumps and low speed is for big ones? I’m confused.’ It seems like a black science at times. As it turns out, suspension tuning is actually fun. And you feel more connected by virtue of being the one making the changes. The difference in you turning a damper two clicks verses someone else doing it makes an unusually large difference in how you feel when you get on the bike for the next session. Try it. It’s like flying an airplane solo as opposed having your instructor next to you. You pay a lot more attention! If you’ve got the annoying know-it-all guy in your grill telling you what settings you should be running, cough loudly and tell him you have Avian flu.

More good news: Suspension tuning usually just takes a flat head screwdriver and a simple C-wrench. Conventional wisdom and owner’s manuals tell us to make the changes in small increments. I feel the exact opposite. Make big changes but ride carefully. This will give you a real sense of the effect you’ve made on the bike. Then you know which general direction feels better and you can start down the road toward set-up bliss.

After much fiddling we ended up with the rebound on the forks one full turn out from stop. High-speed compression was also one turn out with low-speed ending up at 1 1/2 turns out from stop. On the shock we settled on 1 1/4 turn out on rebound with 2 and 1/4 turns out on high- and low-speed compression, respectively. This was a process. We didn’t find those settings straight away. But as we fine tuned I both felt and saw the times drop.

Cost – $0.00 (Could make a “priceless” joke here but we’ve got work to do.)

Third session lap times – 1:20.60, 1:19.78, 1:17.35

Younger Takes to the Track
Ditto. Though, I think I had just terrified myself on the previous corner with a street pressure moment and should be forgiven for body positioning.

Side note: One well known trick of the trade is to put a zip-tie around the lower part of the fork tube right where it meets the outer tube. This allows you to see how much fork travel you’re using. My zip-tie was at the very bottom. The basement. And that’s with every bit of preload I could dial in. That’s not good and probably accounts for the aforementioned front end loss. Once the fork has used its useful travel any bumps you encounter are not dampened. They’re transmitted directly to the frame, followed closely by my brain’s fear center. Note to self: Figure this out ASAP!

I asked Bob to take the Gixxer out for a late afternoon session to see if he thought there was more time to be found with this stock set-up. He came in and said he liked the bike but thought we’d reached the practical limit of our set-up when he, too, lost the front in Turn 4. “It wasn’t predictable, was it?” I asked rhetorically, eager to prove him mere mortal like the rest of us. “Yeah, it was” he replied. Now that’s just annoying.

5/16/10 – Next Step for a New Day

Younger Takes to the Track
I am just out of frame in this photo, lying on the ground wrestling with three control riders for my safety wire pliers. I lost. Back-up set were hidden in the tool-chest and emerged minutes later. Fools.

A new day. Spent the morning flushing the anti-freeze (replaced with distilled water), safety wired the drain plug, oil filler cap, brake calipers, rear axle nut, gloves to my suit, my dog’s food bowl to… Someone stop me. Seriously. I-Love-Safety-Wire. Anyhow…

Then the big change: Spooned a set of Dunlop 211 GP-A tires on. They’re made in Buffalo at the only motorcycle tire plant in the U.S. Furthering the progress made on the N-Tec tires of last year the GP-A’s are the newest in new. Hey, if they’re good enough for the AMA guys…

I then broke out the Chicken Hawk tire warmers. We were aiming for hot pressures of 23 rear and 33 front. Besides giving us the consistency we need for this test and the obvious safety net hot tires provide on your out lap, the other reason to get warmers is that they will save you money in the long run. Heat-cycles kill tires and is more often the culprit for a shagged set than simply riding all the rubber off; 175 degrees got the tires up to the right hot pressures without me even throwing a leg over the bike.

Younger Takes to the Track
Warmers make me feel safe and warm on the out lap. They’re like a track day blanky.

First session. Whole new bike. Whole new world. I have a fair amount of experience with race tires. I’ve tried many. I’m simply not good enough to say I like one that much more than another. But that’s what was so great about starting with street tires. This was a difference I could feel. I could feel the front clawing its way along the asphalt. I could feel the bikes every movement. Everything was magnified. Except the lap times. They plummeted. By the afternoon I worked my way down to a fairly respectable 1:13.78

Then came the flyer. Penultimate session. No one out there but me. Put my head down. Actually laughing inside my helmet because it all felt so right. Those are the moments we live for.

Chicken Hawks – $650
Dunlop 211 GP-A’s – $360

Fastest lap time – 1:13.02

Younger Takes to the Track
This photo really illustrates how much work I have to do on the bike to get it set up right. Great tires, terrible set-up. And the journey continues…

As you can see, tires are worth every penny. But don’t forget that setting the suspension correctly gave me as much of a lap time drop (4 seconds) as the tires. You simply have to get involved in that process. And while the warmers are not directly attributed to the lap times they stay on my recommend list for their safety margin as well as their confidence building qualities. In general I would suggest purchasing any type of product that makes your day safer even if they don’t make you obviously faster.

Part 1 Final Note

Remember what I was saying about finally getting to a point where we can feel the bike’s shortcomings? Well, take a look at those new Dunlops after a day of riding. Don’t blame the tires. I’ve seen guys twice as fast as me come in after a day on GP-As that barely look used. My tires look like that because of my set-up. I’ve “run out” of suspension – both literally and figuratively. So for next time we’ll start by putting suspension parts on and sort this beast out. We made great strides to get where we are now but if we don’t change something the only fast place we’re going is nowhere. So stay tuned to for some major mods in Stage 2 next month.