Racing Daytona On a Cafe Racer

March 6, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Back in 2000 our British correspondant got the chance to race Daytona aboard a custom Suzuki T500 Production racer.
Back in the olden days of the year 2000 our man Melling  raced the high banks at Daytona aboard a Suzuki T500.

As I am sure that you will know from the current political feeding frenzy, America is in election year – and I have a strong tip for either the incumbent Mr. Obama or the brides-to-be in the Republican Party. It is this: if you want to become the President of the United States of America then hire Mr. Eric Kalamaja of Virginia as your running mate.

Eric Kalamaja is not a name which might immediately spring to mind in terms of Presidential elections – but it ought to be, for Mr. Kalamaja has one enormous advantage over every other person in the 50 States: quite simply, he is the nicest person – male or female – in America. Just as important, he represents all that is good about America. Eric, for I am so privileged to be able to call him by his given name, is scrupulously honest, incredibly hard-working, utterly reliable, smilingly enthusiastic and has the kindness of a top quality saint.

In short, he represents all those virtues which made America great. If Eric were to share a platform with any of the Presidential candidates they would be immediately assured of victory because every American would vote for Mr. Kalamaja – regardless of who he stood alongside.
Eric is also a very, very fine motorcycle tuner.

This is the story of how Eric provided me with a bike good enough to win my class at Daytona – and how I failed to deliver the top step of the podium for him.

In 2000, I was racing a Suzuki T500 Production racer in Britain with a considerable degree of success. Our daughter was seven years old, and champing at the bit to visit America, see “Snow White” in real life and max out on pit barbecued spare ribs: actually, that was the bit I was

Eric Kalamaja of Sundial Motor Sports made minor modifications to prepare the T500 for Daytona. These adjustments included new exhaust  a new fuel tank and clip-on bars.
Eric Kalamaja of Sundial Motor Sports made minor modifications to prepare the T500 for Daytona. They included new exhaust, a new fuel tank and clip-on bars.

fantasizing about!

I was keen to make the trip for a wide range of reasons. I love America, and Americans, and feel very much at home wherever I am in the US. Long before our daughter Elizabeth arrived I had taken my brand new – and barely unwrapped – wife on a 5000-mile road trip right through the heart of America from Dallas Forth Worth almost to the Canadian border and then back down the western side of the Rocky Mountains. In short, I am very much at home in the US and in 2000 was missing the country for which I had, and have, so much affection.

Eric was building an international reputation as a tuner of classic Suzukis through his company Sundial Motor Sports and so it wasn’t a huge intellectual leap to contact him with a view to racing one of his bikes at the AHRMA races at Roebling Road in Georgia. The weekend went wonderfully well. Georgia was sublime. The state is one of the great unsung pearls of America. Roebling Road was a fantastic track and I won my class in both production races. Best of all, Eric was wonderful company and his bikes were rocket ships.

We returned home having made Disney World considerably richer, increased our waist sizes – and with a very nice AHRMA trophy in my wife Carol’s hand luggage.

The speed of Eric’s road going T500 got me thinking. How quick could a street legal bike go at a really fast track – and against full blown race machines? There was only one place in the world to find out: Daytona. Would Eric be up for the plan? One phone call later and Eric was in his workshop!

The plan was both extremely simple – and very bold. Eric would take a T500 Suzuki street bike; tune it very mildly and then ride the Suz from his home in the mountains of West Virginia to Daytona – something in the region of 700 miles.

As capable as the T500 is  it was primarily a road bike at heart.
As capable as the T500 is, it was primarily a road bike at heart and required some special touches for a safe Daytona.

As Buje Week kicked off we would bolt on three race plates and I would cruise round at the back of the field. Then we would all retire to the “Red Lobster” for an American-sized, seafood meal.

In order to be safe at Daytona, the standard T500 road bike did need some modifications – but surprisingly few. With the angle of lean it is possible to achieve with modern racing tires, the standard exhausts are lethally low, and drag on the floor, so these were replaced by Suzuki TR750 pattern expansion chambers. For my comfort, Eric fitted a long, narrow, racing fuel tank and clip-on ‘bars. The T500 would be flat out at Daytona and hanging on to road ‘bars would be hard work.

Stopping a big, heavy bike like the T500 at the end of Daytona’s west straight was always going to be marginal with the standard, tiny 8-inch drum brake – dangerously so in fact. The cure was a GT500 disc – the model immediately after the T500 – which fitted perfectly. Eric also used the GT500’s front forks.

We ran standard T500 carburetors and barrels which had only been mildly ported because Eric was going to have a long ride down from Virginia and needed a user-friendly road bike: Daytona here we come.

Eric and I stayed in touch throughout the winter and, as the weeks went by, the bike took shape and started to look really tasty in the style of a classic café racer. The yellow, red and white color scheme was taken, more or less, from the legendary Barry Sheene, Texaco Suzuki factory bikes and the bike looked every inch the super sports road bike it actually was.

AHMRA tech inspectors were left scratching their heads when it came time to enter the T500.
AHMRA inspectors were left scratching their heads when it came time to enter the T500.

The day before I left for Florida I phoned Eric to discover that we faced a serious problem. Eric lives on top of a full blown Virginian mountain with his wife, Julie, and his extended family of Malamute dogs. Malamutes are best known for their ability to pull sleds through Alaskan wilderness so they were fine in the hurricane which was blowing as Eric prepared to head south. Eric wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic and so the T.500 went in the back of his truck as he slid down to drier and warmer climes.

As things turned out, this was a smart move because the rain was torrential as Eric crawled along the I-95 towards Daytona. Despite what the Floridian Tourist Board will tell you, Florida can be a miserable place in early March. Forget the bikini clad babes: you need serious winter gear.

We met for breakfast in Wendy’s and 5000 calories later things were looking better. AHMRA do a truly wonderful job for American classic motorcycle racing, in all its many forms, and their tech crew couldn’t have been more helpful.

Yes, we both needed sympathetic psychiatric medical care for even thinking that we could race a road bike at Daytona but Eric had done a wonderful job in terms of machine preparation so the tech inspection stickers went on without a problem and we were ready for action.

The bike was truly surprising – almost to the point of disbelief. We took it out in the countryside round Tomoka Springs for a shakedown session and it was as docile as a 50cc scooter. However, when it hit the power band at 5500rpm everything became really frisky. Beneath its road bike skin, I was beginning to think that Eric’s T500 had some hidden secrets.

After the standard struggle with Daytona security staff – uniforms do have a seriously negative effect on the personality of otherwise pleasant people – I smiled and groveled my way into the access tunnel which runs beneath the north banking. Coming out of the tunnel at Daytona and into the circuit is always an awe inspiring experience. The word vast is accurate but does not do justice to the sheer immensity of the speed bowl. It stretches out on to the far horizon like some alien planet and and trucks, bikes and people are simply swallowed up by the size.

British classic racer Les Trotter allowed Melling to follow him around the circuit to learn the ropes.
British classic racer Les Trotter allowed Melling to follow him around the circuit so he could learn the layout of Daytona.

Eric had brought his own race bike but, as always, was more concerned about my needs than his. Despite not being in the VIP part of the paddock, I couldn’t have had better treatment if Casey Stoner’s Repsol team had been working for me.

Another wholly positive factor was that parked quite near to us was top, British classic racer Les Trotter. Les is vastly experienced at Daytona and won the 1976 Manx Grand Prix as well as being a top TT racer. Trotts kindly agreed to let me follow him round the Daytona circuit for a few laps.

There is no doubt that racing at Daytona is a unique experience and the most overwhelming factor is the size. Being designed to take 43 Nascar racers, the bikes are dwarfed by the scale of the venue. Inside the Speed bowl, the site covers over 180 acres with seating for 147,000 spectators and a home straight almost 3/4-mile long.

But, more than anything else, it is the 31 degree banking which dominates the Daytona racer’s mind. This is steep – as in a hard climb if you were hiking in the hills.

There is also a ghoulish fascination with the thick, steel guard ropes. Everyone who races Daytona has to ride alongside the ropes just to go face to face with the steel which will kill you, should you ever come into contact with it. Dull, grey, weather-beaten and half a wrist thick no-one is any doubt of the consequences of touching them while on a race bike.

Les was a good tutor and I came back to our truck with a big smile. The bike was sweet and fast and the track wasn’t hard to learn. Things were looking good.

The second practice was even better – much better in fact. It was one of those wonderful racing days where everything is perfect. Not 99% good, but absolutely perfect. Eric had built an absolute rocketship and I had never ridden better in my life.

Gliding around Daytona at more than 130 mph  the T500 was performing much better than expected.
Gliding around Daytona at more than 130
mph, the T500 was performing much better
than expected – until the engine seized due
to a grape-sized hole in one of the pistons.
A grape-sized hole in the left-hand piston could have brought a swift ending to Mellings Daytona glory. Lucky for him Eric Kalamaja and Les Trotter were on hand to avert the near disaster.

Everything was easy – almost too easy – and that should have been the warning. Towards the end of the session, I truly eased off and things were still going sublimely well. Eric had got the handling absolutely on the money and the big bike stopped well too.

The motor, tuned for torque, was a dream. Pulling stupendously high gearing, the T500 was cruising round the banking at over 130mph – with speed still in reserve. Now, touring round at the back of the field was forgotten. Those AHRMA trophies looked good!

Coming off the north banking, the big Twin was ambling along at 7000 rpm in top and I was line perfect – and catching everyone. Then, in a fraction of a second, came the dreaded chirp from the back tire that said one thing: seizure. I had the clutch in with a reaction time honed by years of racing two-strokes and so stayed on the bike.

Back at the truck, we all knew that there were big problems. Eric had the cylinder head off the bike in seconds and there was a grape sized hole in the left-hand piston. The absolute despair which a rider and team feel when they meet a situation like this is impossible to describe: it is crushing. We simply sat drained and useless. Then, Trotts wandered across to see why we were looking suicidal.

Trotts, being an old school racer, and a fine tuner in his own right, had a very different view of our predicament. It wasn’t so much a disaster as a nuisance and in a flash, Eric and Trotts attacked the T.500. GP mechanics eat your hearts out: we had the “A” team!

The barrel was hammered off the piston and the crankcases filled with fuel for what was going to be the first of many pints of neat race fuel draining out of the bottom of the crankcase and taking with them the lumps of alloy from the melted piston. Let’s just say that I’m quite sure that the patch of Florida grass underneath the Suzuki wasn’t very verdant in the following months!

Trotts’ sponsor donated a brand-new piston to the cause while my job, as the mechanical moron in the team, was to clean the aluminum smeared cylinder liner with coarse emery paper.

Meanwhile, Eric had found the cause of all our troubles. A tiny fleck of grass had been pulled up against the main jet and with the engine consuming the amount of fuel it does at Daytona (around 12 mpg) that was enough to instantly melt a piston.

Meanwhile, the seconds ticked away…

Eric Kalamaja was hard at work trying to get Melling back out on the track.
Eric Kalamaja scrambled to get Melling back out on the track after Les Trotter donated a new piston.

How the dynamic duo achieved what they did is still a thing of wonder to me but as they called my race to the grid, Eric cracked the T500 up, and off I went to the start line. This, I thought, was going to be an interesting experience – with a break in period of about 200 yards and three minutes.

With a brand new piston, there is always a strong chance of seizure but Eric and Trotts had worked so hard that I was happy to take that chance, or any other, rather than let them down by not riding.

I have always been a fast starter and this time was no exception. In the first three yards, I was right on the pace with the leading bunch. Then came the realization that instead of having 8000 rpm to play with, there were only 5000 revs in the engine. The new piston was just too tight in the bore and was acting as a huge brake on the motor. Heaven alone knows what temperature it was running at, as the good side of the motor tried to drag the newcomer into action.

The first three laps were frustration after frustration. I would make suicidal passing maneuvers on the brakes through the infield only to be passed on the straights. If only, if only, if only… The mantra of frustrated racers world-wide.

Then coming off the north banking, where the bike had originally seized, the big Twin gave an enormous cough and suddenly 7000 rpm was available. By the south banking, a further 1000 revs appeared.

Now, bikes in front simply disappeared as Eric’s flying machine gobbled them up. The north banking was particularly memorable. Daytona has since been re-surfaced but in 2000 the track was very uneven. The T.500 was pulling 8000 rpm which equated to something around 135 mph. At this speed, with no fairing, it was a question of just hanging on as the combination of speed, rough track and g-force tried to part me from the bike. Daytona truly is a special place to race a motorcycle.

Once the T500 was back up and running our correspondent encountered noticeably less power. But the new piston was just warming up...
Once the T500 was back up and running our correspondent encountered noticeably less power. The new piston was just warming up, however…

On the last lap, I was in eighth-place as we entered the east straight. The next four riders were bunched in a group and I was catching them at a rate which would have seen me comfortably past in the next lap – and fourth-place would have been a good result on a road bike.

But there was an even worse sight. Another 100 yards further on were the leading three riders battling it out for the outright win – and I was catching them fast too.

If only the bike hadn’t seized. If only we had the chance to break in the piston. If only the race had been two laps longer. But “ifs” count for nothing in racing.

What I did win was the privilege of riding for Eric Kalamaja – the sort of person who, if aliens ever visit our planet, will get the human race an AAA reputation. Would I have traded a Daytona win for the chance to ride with Eric? Not for a second. We came, we saw, we raced, we surprised a lot of hardened racers with the speed of our road bike – and we had a great post-race meal.

Now pride of place on my trophy shelf is a battered T500 piston with a large hole in its crown – and a great story to tell.