Eight weeks ago I sat slumped over in a hospital bed, keeled over in pain with an eight-inch incision in my abdomen. Life sucked. Not only was I in agony from having two feet of my intestines removed due to an obscure digestive tract infection, I was also utterly depressed because racing the Laguna Seca round of AMA Superbike on our project MotoUSA Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 – something we had planned for months – was now surely out of the question. There was no way I could go from laid up after a major surgery to racing Superbike with the best riders in the county in less than six weeks time. Or could I?
Road to Recovery…
The finished product, our MotoUSA project Yoshimura Suzuki ready to hit the track and go after professional racing glory for a very affordable price.
The realistic chances of it happening were slim to none, at
best, but at least I had a goal and reason to try and get well quickly. I’m pretty sure I heard my surgeon say that I “should theoretically be healed by then,” in regards to the AMA race, so down the hammer went.
For the next month I pushed with every bit of strength I had, and some I didn’t even know existed. The first two weeks were really rough, but once I was able to get up and start moving around my relatively-youthful (28 years old isn’t a kid but I’m not ‘old’ yet either) healing capabilities kicked into overdrive and almost overnight I was back to a somewhat normal life. But I was very weak; dropping down to under 120 lbs. Thankfully my girlfriend put the kitchen at our place on overdrive in an effort to fatten me up in as healthy of a way as possible. And it worked…
Now it was time to see if I could ride. A mere four weeks post surgery we headed out to Willow Springs for a hot day of testing with the Yosh team in the high desert. The final verdict: I could go fast, but only for three laps. This meant I had a week and a half to build my endurance from three laps to 23 laps. Talk about under the gun!
Another day of riding on a Suzuki 600 at Buttonwillow in the heat helped to up my endurance quite a bit and before I knew it we were driving up to Laguna Seca, ready to give this major undertaking a go. Even though I had no clue how I was going to do it, so many people had put so much time and effort into this that I had to at least give it a shot. What’s
Some of the updates for the third and final stage of the project Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 included an Ohlins 30mm cartridge fork kit and TTX rear shock.
the worst that can happen, right? Okay, let’s not go there. Anyhow, fingers crossed.
Since our last installment (Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 Stage 2) Yoshimura’s David Tsai and crew hopped up the ride with full Ohlins suspension – 30mm fork cartridge kit and TTX rear shock – as well as customized the wiring harness to allow the use of new switch assemblies on each clip-on. These made controlling both fuel and traction control maps on the fly much easier and eliminates any unnecessary street functions (headlights, turn signals, etc). An adjustable, shorter-turn Motion Pro throttle assembly was put in place to try and force me to open the gas quicker, while we also reprogrammed the EM-Pro ECU’s traction control settings. We had found the ‘B’ mode to be the best in Stage 2, so we calibrated ‘A’ and ‘C’ to be much closer to that, making for smaller adjustments between the three, aiming to find an ideal setting for Laguna.
New rear-sets were installed, which featured larger heal guards as well as flat pegs with a bit more grip to them. These allowed for more feel and control. I’ve always been a very picky rider when it comes to hand and feet controls (just ask my crew…). If things aren’t just right I tend to focus a lot of my mental effort on it while riding, when I shouldn’t be. This is why it’s always paramount for me to get things just right. These new rear-sets allowed that to happen. Nothing was gained in terms of weight or performance with them; it was 100% rider preference. But in a game that is at least 80% mental, rider preference is paramount.
Brakes have continually been an issue for us on the GSX-R and after testing several set-ups at Willow we ended up reverting back to the stock rotors with Vesrah pads. This proved to be the best solution when it came to power and initial bite, though we weren’t able to do long runs due to my health so we really weren’t sure how they would last. A remote adjuster for the front lever was installed in case I did experience fade, which would come in extremely handy later on. Galfer pads and wave rotor were left in place out back, though we got rid of the steel-braided line we had put on in Stage 2 in favor of going back to the stock rubber unit. This was to reduce stopping power some as the steel-braided set-up was too powerful for my personal preference. I like to be able to stand on the pedal with some force and not worry about the back tire locking up too quickly.
The engine was freshened up to make sure everything was within spec and running in proper order, and in the process Yosh revitalized an additional two ponies from it – always a nice surprise – which put us approaching the 185 hp mark at the rear wheel; only a few down on the factory bikes of Tommy Hayden and Blake Young. Power wise I would have no
I also shaved some weight and received a couple new ‘upgrades’ so to speak for this final installment, though mine weren’t the kinds that enhance performance – quite the opposite actually.
excuses. So with a freshened-up engine and all-new suspension and what we hoped was a better brake set-up, it was time to go racing!
Makin’ it Happen…
Due to the MotoGP schedule playing first string and the AMA being the B-team, everything has to be done on the FIM and Dorna’s schedule. For this reason we had to wait until 4:10 p.m. on Friday before ever seeing the track. That meant sitting around for hours, then a manic 50 minutes of practice at the very end of the day. This would be followed by first qualifying Saturday morning, with second qualifying taking place later Saturday afternoon. A short warm-up was given to us Sunday morning and then we would end the event as the final race of the weekend. One practice, two qualifying sessions, a Sunday-morning warm-up and then the race – that was all the time on track that we got. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Without question the most limited professional race weekend I’ve even taken part in. Needless to say, we didn’t have much time to get things dialed in.
Friday practice was rough – to say the least. With the bike still set-up for Willow Springs – low in the back, high in the front and soft all around – we basically used the first practice to realize that Laguna is: A, tight and technical and B, not a thing like Willow! Problem was that I wasn’t aware of the Willow set-up still being on the bike, so I spent the entire session fighting this pig of a motorcycle, thinking it was my own physical weakness following surgery that was the limiting factor. I had assumed they put in a baseline Laguna set-up using some of the loads of data from one of their
Muscling a liter-bike around Laguna Seca isn’t an easy task – especially a Superbike. Even more so a Superbike with a bit of a set-up issue. I found this out very quickly in first practice.
other riders from years past – something to get us in the ballpark. But you know what they say about assuming; I should have asked. After the session my arms were trembling and I seriously doubted that doing five laps was even possible, let alone 23. I could barely open a bottle of water and it took me 30 minutes to get out of my gear.
Thankfully after a meeting with David and a few of the other Yosh crew members we realized that the Willow setting was still in place and we immediately knew there was a major problem. Adding a large amount of rear pre-load and jacking up the ride height were the name of the game for Saturday, as well as turning fork pre-load in two turns to keep it from bottoming under braking with the additional weight we would be putting on the front end. Despite the radical changes I still went to bed very unsure. Was it really the bike or was I just that weak? Would a simple set-up change make that big of a difference? First qualifying on Saturday morning would quickly give us an answer.
A rough and tumble night in bed (not in a good way, either) set things up for what could have been a terrible Saturday. Was I going to be able to ride 23 laps? Was I going to go fast enough to make the grid? The 107% cut-off for Superbike is far tougher than most think and quite a bit harder than the 110% used in the support races. With the front runners doing 1:24s, to qualify a sub-1:30 would be needed. To put that in perspective, the front runners in the Daytona SportBike race only do 1:28s. On a track like Laguna where the big bikes don’t gain much of an advantage on the 600s, doing a 1:29 isn’t easy. Trust me!
First session on Friday I felt like I was giving it 110% and my best was a 1:32-something. Yikes. I knew I had more in the tank, though, as I’ve been around Laguna on a 600 in the past doing low 29s and even a few high 28s. I had originally set my sights on some 27s, or even a couple 26s, coming into the weekend, but with the limited set-up time and our rough start, just getting into the field and running some consistent 28s would make the weekend a success at this point.
Saturday’s first qualifying was the real moment of truth. My first laps out of the pits quickly showed us how far off the previous set-up had been: 1:30.5, 1:30.1, 1:29.6… Nearly three seconds disappeared right away, all with a great deal more ease. I proceeded to stay out for an additional five laps, all in the 1:29s, barely breaking a sweat. The changes were night and day different – all of the sudden this was starting to look possible. We made a couple more suspension changes, dropping another tenth without pushing very hard. Little did I know it, but I was actually starting to have fun. And typically with fun comes speed.
The pace really picked up the next stint out when Ben Bostrom gave me a great tow. As I exited Turn 2 on my second lap I saw Ben coming out of the pits. I had already messed that lap up going over the crest of Turn 1, so instead of possibly getting in his way I slowed down and let him past. He wasn’t quite up to speed yet so I tucked in behind, actually closing back up on his rear tire. After a couple corners of him glancing back at me glued to his Pat Clark Yamaha’s exhaust, he took a long look over his shoulder and motioned with his head to tuck in and follow. And when Ben Bostrom offers you a lap at speed to follow, in qualifying nonetheless, you damn well better take it. Not sure how many people he’d do that for, though it doesn’t hurt he’s a close friend and wasn’t exactly worried about me knocking him off of pole position.
For the rest of his warm-up lap I stayed glued to his rear Dunlop slick as he was just getting up to speed. But coming out of the final corner I could visually see his body position get more aggressive and his head tuck tightly under the windscreen. I did the same. Time to see how we stacked up to one of the world’s best around his home track; this should be no sweat.
He gapped me ever so slightly over the top of Turn 1, though the gap then surprisingly stayed almost exactly the same though the infield and up to Turn 5. In fact, by the halfway point of the lap he had only gained a three or four bike-length advantage. But this was the best lap I had done all weekend – by a long margin – and I wasn’t letting up.
This was shaping up to be a blistering lap; by my standards especially. My brain and body were on the ragged edged, yet the bike was still very composed and in-line, which made things much easier. He did pull me by a few tenths going through Turn 6 and on the run up to the Corkscrew. I followed that up by making a small mistake coming down Rainey Curve, running a bit wide mid-corner due to my heightened pace, losing a couple additional bike-lengths. But coming out of Turn 10 and into the final corner I realized that he had only pulled me by roughly two seconds over the course of the entire lap, maybe even less. I stayed far closer to him than I had expected. Now all I had to do was nail the last corner and get a good drive onto the front straight and a promising grid position was right there for the taking.
Much of our practice and qualifying time was spent fixing shifting gremlins, which kept us from really getting the bike’s set-up dialed in. Thankfully after our major change Friday evening it was relatively close.
Too bad entering the final corner, while trying to downshift into first gear, the Suzuki slipped into a false neutral! Quickly pulling the clutch in and hammering on both brakes, it was everything I could do to keep it on track. Scary – oh yeah. Dangerous – a bit. Pissed off – like you wouldn’t believe! Angrily I continued on, trying to ride away the rage. Problem was, it happened the next two laps in succession, causing real reason of concern. I pulled in and we parked it for the session. We had another round of qualifying in the afternoon, giving us a few hours to try and fix it. Oh yeah, my combined best time from the session, using the first three splits from that lap and my best final split from an earlier lap – 1:27.94! Son of a… Luckily another session in the afternoon gave us time to work on a cure.
We continued to struggle a bit with brake fade as well, so in between sessions they re-bled the front lines and changed one of the inner shift mechanism bolts, which they thought could be causing the false neutral problem. Some additional suspension changes — adding pre-load in the front to combat bottoming under hard braking and giving it a couple millimeters of additional ride height to quicken the steering up further — were also implemented for the afternoon qualifying session, which would be our final shot at improving our grid position.
Final qualifying started off well. We went out and by the end of the first six-lap run were at a 1:29.2, without a tow of any kind. The suspension changes helped so we bolted on a new rear slick and set out for a quick time. After a couple warm-up laps in the low 29s, Jason Pridmore came by, passing me going up the hill over Turn 1. Perfect for a tow. So I tucked in and away we went. He gained slightly in the back section where I continued to struggle a bit, but I stayed right on him. It was shaping up to be a good one when it dropped into another false neutral going into Turn 11. Not again!
I stayed out to see what would happen and it continued, this time off and on, for the rest of my stint. I did eight or nine laps and of those it dropped into neutral going into the final corner four more times. Not conducive to doing a fast lap. At that point I knew using first gear was out of the question, so I tired running second out of the final corner for a handful of laps, though it would bog heavily and the drive onto the straight was sacrificed enough that I wasn’t able to improve my time. Not to mention it hit another neutral going into second gear for Turn 5, so we knew it was getting worse. A 1:29.2 ended up being our best lap of the day; not what we were hoping for. At least we were in the field by a healthy margin, ending up 20th on the grid – outside of row five.
But our big problem remained the transmission. If it were to keep falling into false neutrals the bike wouldn’t only be hard to ride, it could be quite dangerous. Last thing we wanted turn this project into was a rolling cannonball, which is what it effectively would be if we were to hit a false neutral in the opening couple laps when the pack was still closely knit. So the boys went back to work trying to find a cure, while I tried to get some rest. At least we had a morning warm-up to find out if we had the problem fixed and it was safe enough to race. Wait, never mind…
We thought we had everything fixed Saturday night and were ready to test it out Sunday morning; until fog caused the session to be cancelled, leaving us with only a very short 10-minute warm-up immediately before the race. Not only did it have us guessing going into the race, but it was very taxing, both mentally and physically.
Dense fog pushed the schedule back and as we approached MotoGP’s practice it was announced our warm-up would be scrapped. They said they would try and give us a couple minutes right before the race, but not to hold our breaths and to plan on just lining up at 3:45 p.m. to race. One of Hayden’s crew members came over to lend a hand and noticed our shift linkage was at a bit of a strange angle, so he gave them an updated upper arm linkage assembly, to give it a more positive angle. I had been fighting against the grain to a degree to get it to shift, something they had issues with last year, which can be hard on the transmission. Our solution no doubt fixed the sifting action, but had any permanent internal transmission damage been done? We no longer had a morning warm-up to find out.
As it turns out they were able to give us a quick 10-minute warm-up right before our race. We literally went out for a practice, rolled onto pit lane for five minutes to change the rear tire, then right back out to line up for the race. The bike definitely shifted better during the warm-up, but I could still feel quite a bit of play in the lever when shifting. And I only got three laps, so making a definitive decision was tough. To race or not to race? ‘We’re here and it worked for those three laps, so let’s give it a shot!’ I thought to myself as they make the two-minute call to grid. I figured if it started acting up I would call it a day. But we had come this far and worked so hard and to not even start due to what may or may not go wrong would have been heartbreaking. Off to the starting grid we went. No time to think, just race!
It was then that I realized just how many people were there. They said something like 50,000 that day, but it looked like triple that as I rolled around on the parade lap. Up until this point I had been so focused on track that I hadn’t taken a
Eight weeks ago, laid up in a hospital bed, I never would have thought our Laguna Seca project bike race could have happened. As it turns out we were able to pull it off, just barely, and what an amazing experience it was!
second to look around. Utterly unreal! But as quick as that thought entered my mind it was gone. Down snapped the helmet visor. I didn’t have time to lollygag around. It was time to go racing.
I had told myself to take it easy on the first lap and feel out the transmission. That idea lasted about half the warm-up lap before it was relegated to the sensible half of my brain, the half that I then shut off. Don’t worry; I turned it back on – just not for another 50 minutes or so. Let’s be honest, it’s just not very conducive to 23 laps of bar-to-bar racing.
We all lined up, the marshals walked off and the red starting-light lit up. In roughly eight to 10 seconds the light would go out and a wild pack of 26 Superbikes, making over 5000 horsepower, would jockey for the same 40-foot-wide piece of asphalt in Turn 2 (Turn 1 is basically a wide open kink over the crest of the hill on the front straight – not much of a corner). The start of a Superbike race, especially when the grid is full, is closest thing to controlled explosion on two wheels one could ever experience. But as the engine revs built up and I hunkered down, ready to attack the split-second that light went out, everything got strangely silent. This weird sense of calm came over me, almost as if everything was in slow-motion. So slow, in fact, I thought I botched the start. That was until I realized I had just motored past my entire row and half of the one in front of me. And I hadn’t even shifted into second gear.
Everything then came rushing back into real-time speed as we accelerated over the hill, now stuck directly in the middle of the nearly 30-rider grid, jostling for position with guys on either bar-end. I’ve got to admit, the rush was so intense that I broke sooner than I should have into Turn 2 and dropped back a couple spots as the field bent around the corner in a single-file line – well, for the most part. Eric Bostrom had run wide and nearly gone off track, slotting back in directly in front of me. That was a close call! Everyone thankfully made it though unscathed – if only just. But then that’s what racing is all about. He who rides closes to the ragged edged for the longest typically finishes the highest up the order. If they have competitive equipment, that is.
And competitive equipment is exactly what we had. While we struggled some with outright brake power and fading in practice, they held solid for the race. Could have still used a bit more power, but considering it was stock calipers and rotors, they did well. As for the engine, we were right on point. When following Bostrom his Yamaha maybe had a bit of bottom-end on us, but up top I would actually pull some of the gap back. Same was true for other factory and factory-supported Suzukis I got behind. If there was one area I definitely didn’t need improvement it was power – and to say that in a class like Superbike is pretty impressive. Especially considering you can lease that same engine for $1500 a weekend. That’s a steal for any privateer looking to make a showing in Superbike.
Chassis-wise the Ohlins suspension and Dunlop slick tire combination made for some of the biggest lean-angles I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploiting from a 1000cc production-based motorcycle. Considering the suspension outers have to remain OE and the frames are totally stock, to be able to achieve those levels of corner speed was enough that it took awhile to get my head around. Don’t get me wrong – 1000s are still all about slamming on the binders, throwing it on its side, and then picking it up as fast as possible to try and get the throttle open quickly as you can. Easier said than done, though, especially on a 185-horsepower literbike.
That was exactly what I was attempting to do better than those around me as we engaged in wheel-to-wheel battle at the tail end of the top-15. Brian Parriott on an Aprilia RSV4R and Suzuki-mounted riders Chris Siebenhaar and Skip Salenius and myself were quickly part of our own fast-paced, tire-spinning race within a race. I had a feeling this would be the case before we even started as we all had qualified within a couple tenths of each other. And that’s exactly how things panned out from Lap 3 onward as we got into the meat of the race. And it was a blast.
Big thanks to the MotoUSA Yoshimura Suzuki team (from left): Voice of reason/girlfriend/umbrella girl Angela Guerrero; mechanic Kenny Ito; rider/author Atlas; mechanic/truck driver Kory Ellis; and team leader/mechanic/do-it-all guy David Tsai.
For one of the first times in my racing career I actually found myself smiling instead of riding in anger. I knew we had 23 laps of this and if I didn’t make it fun then it would drag on forever. This went on for a handful laps, a massive smile plastered across my face around every corner and down each straight. That is until Parriott passed me back. The red mist came flooding back and the typical racing anger returned. Rather quickly. Brian then got around Skip as well and set off after Chris at the front of our tightly-knit pack. I was now at the back of the group and started to formulate a plan. No one was getting away and I realized that I could easily sit at the back without pounding on my tires very hard.
It was actually quite easy to keep the consistent pace of 28s and 29s that we were doing. This when I told myself that as long as no one at the front of the pack started to get away, that I would hang tight until the last five laps. Brain and Chris were swapping position and making some small mistakes and I could tell they were pushing hard. I had a perfect plan of attack. The problem with perfect plans is that they never turn out perfectly. Most of the time, in fact, they don’t really turn out at all. And this was exactly what happened on Lap 14.
The shifting gremlins returned. I hit a few more false neutrals going into the final corner, causing me to lose touch with the pack. I eventually had to just stop using first gear again to bring it home. At that point it became a game of survival. Go fast enough to maintain my top-20 position but don’t push too hard and risk crashing. Besides a small moment in Turn 5 when I about Pedrosa-ed it, that plan worked out and we brought it home 19th.
Do I think a top-15 would have been possible had things gone a bit smoother? Sure. But that’s all part of the game. We had pulled it off. We put it in the show and finished in a respectable position in my first career Superbike race on a very affordable, production-based Suzuki, all six weeks-and-one-day after major surgery. And to do it in front of 55,000 fans was an experience I will never forget. In fact, it’s an experience I’m already trying to find a way to replicate again next year. Only this time I might skip the whole having my intestines removed part. Despite the weight advantage, I wouldn’t recommend it.