Honda re-invented the Supersport class with its original CBR600 sportbike. This platform is remembered not only for its versatility, but for its race-winning performance. It was a motorcycle that fueled the passion for a fast-paced life on two wheels. Despite past success on the showroom floor, in recent years the CBR nameplate has been challenged by other offerings from Europe and even Japan. But does Honda’s winged warrior still have what it takes to mix it up more popular brands in club racing? We wanted to find out so we went racing…
In the first part of our 2012 Honda CBR600RR Project Bike 1 saga we outlined the process of converting the bike from a banged-up street bike to a legit-looking racer with the aid of former American Honda mechanic John Ethell, owner of Camarillo, California-based Jett Tuning. Initially we hoped to achieve a solid baseline set-up by spinning some laps at a trackday in preparation for the races but the eight-to-five grind of real life got in the way. So we showed up at Southern California’s Auto Club Speedway for Round 7 of the WERA West Coast series with plenty of work to do. Since the majority of WERA events are Sunday-only we arrived at the track bright and early Saturday morning to get a full day of practice and precious set-up time.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
In a race, where every second counts, being able to manipulate each control with the least amount of effort and/or movement is the name of the game. And that’s where all the money spent on control upgrades pays off. In fact, it’s one of the most critical yet simple aspects of dialing-in your racebike, and an area in which LighTech’s rear sets come in handy (get all the details in the LighTech Track System Rear Sets Review).
Since I’m a little taller than most (6’0”) and my knees don’t have the range of motion they did in my 20s, I prefer to have the footpegs mounted in a relatively low and slightly rearward position. While this compromises ground clearance at lean it allows for added comfort, especially in a tuck, reducing fatigue and allowing me to ride harder, longer.
Next up was the position of the handlebars. I prefer a wider bar stance as it increases steering leverage while also giving me a little more elbow room behind the windscreen. Thankfully, the Renthal-sourced clip-ons offer plenty of adjustment as easy as loosening/tightening a pair of Allen-key bolts. Only problem is that with the clip-ons angled so far outward it limits steering lock which makes it tricky to maneuver through the pits.
Although the stock levers function well we wanted finer adjustment so we sourced a set from CRG. Precision construction and more finite range of adjustment make these a must for both trackday riders and racers seeking the utmost adjustability. Since I’m over the motorcycle’s front end a lot on track, I prefer to have the levers angled downward, just below neutral making them easier to grasp entering corners. I also like the distance between the lever and bar at a middle-of-the-road setting as to make it friendlier to reach with two fingers.
As soon as I rolled onto the track for the first practice session the bike felt right—much like it does in street trim—only sharper like a precision, hand-crafted instrument—a testament to the versatility of Honda’s CBR platform and the initial set-up of Ethell. Perhaps the most notable difference compared to a stock CBR is how much taller the bike sits and the rigid but precise, feel-every-bump–in-the-road character of the chassis courtesy of the re-worked Traxxion Dynamics fork and JRi shock. Road feel is further enhanced through a seat-less, racing-style tail section topped with a thin pad of seat foam.
Our Honda steered into corners more sharply, yet retained that predictable trademark Honda handling feel. Stability was just as friendly. This, along with the tremendous grip from Pirelli’s latest Supercorsa race tires made it easier to get acclimated to our project bike’s improved cornering capability.
Since Ethell has spent time here racing during the AMA days, it was no surprise that final drive gearing was spot-on perfect with the addition of a 44-tooth Renthal 520 Ultralight Road Rear Sprocket (two teeth larger than stock) and the Dynojet Quick Shifter Expansion Module allowed for immediate, full-throttle upshifts. But since the CBR lacks a slipper clutch (only Japanese 600 not equipped with one), we experienced rear wheel hop (instability) during hard braking—especially in Turn 5 (a flat, 90-degree left taken in second gear after braking from the top of fourth gear). To compensate we exaggerated throttle blips and released the clutch lever more delicately in order to better match engine rpm to rear wheel speed before engine braking takes effect. It was a Band-Aid fix however rather than a true cure.
Power-wise the CBR’s engine felt snappier and was more eager to accelerate when the right grip was twisted despite power upgrades only consisting of a Yoshimura RS-5 Exhaust System paired with a Dynojet Power Commander V and VP Racing’s MR12 race gas. Throttle response was silky smooth which increased trust when applying throttle mid-corner. The result was a bike that had a stronger, meatier powerband from as low as 5000 rpm (see dyno chart). Power continued to ramp up through the mid-range and had a nice mellow hit around 13,000 revs. Only problem was top-end power flattened as the engine neared the rev-limiter. Normally that could be cured with an early upshift but considering the tighter, stop-and-go configuration of Fontana’s 21-turn road course, short shifting isn’t an option—especially on a 600.
As noted in Part 1, Ethell is a fuel-injection tuning master—having the know-how to modify fuel and ignition tables on his laptop PC, at the track. With the addition of the Power Commander the level of engine tune-ability is astounding offering adjustment in zero, two, five, 15, 20, 40, 60, and 100-degree throttle angle openings as well as every 250 rpm.
Each session, Ethell continued to refine the powerband in an attempt to maintain top-end power longer, without compromising precious corner exiting mid-range. Everything seemed to be going to plan until the afternoon. With the mercury hovering upwards of 105 degrees, he had warned me that the MR12 gas may vapor lock. I just shrugged it off as some mechanic’s hocus pocus…
Boy was I an idiot. So there I am—just beginning to pick up the throttle off a turn when the engine hesitates for a split second. It happens again, then again. I pull in the clutch thinking the worst… did I break it? Did it break? The engine goes straight to idle. I blip the throttle a couple times and the motor bogs and then cuts out completely. I hold down the starter button as I roll through the grass but the engine doesn’t fire. I wait a few moments before trying again. The engine eventually fires but won’t accelerate cleanly. I nurse it across the field and into the paddock… vapor lock.
Since MR12 has a lower vapor point it changes from liquid to gas at a lower temperature compared to other fuels. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but due to the extreme 100-plus degree air temperature, it happened to us. The solution? Blend it with another VP product, like U4.4 or get it ice cold and hope it stays cool enough during a race.
After peeling off the lower fairing and wheeling our CBR through mandatory tech inspection (in order to make sure the wheels and brakes don’t fall off, and no slippery engine fluids leak onto the pavement causing you or someone else to crash) race day begins with a quick rider’s meeting. There, WERA folks address any possible safety concerns and give a rundown of the day’s schedule. Afterwards each group (divvied up by engine displacement and/or lap times) gets two quick rotations of practice followed by an hour-long lunch break, then it’s time to go racing!
I had four races on tap including B/C Superbike (750/600), and B/C Superstock. After a full-day of practice under my belt I did one of my faster laps of the weekend in morning warm-up without even really trying (1’36.52) so I knew I could drop a couple more seconds come race time when the good ol’ red mist fills my visor.
In order to avoid the fuel overheating problems we had yesterday we quite literally kept the fuel on ice, in a cooler, in an effort to keep it cold as possible. Fortunately since WERA races are only six-lap sprints, Ethell had anticipated that the gas would remain cool enough to go the distance. Other preparations included mounting up a fresh pair of SC2 compound Pirelli DOTs front and rear (120/70-17 front, 180/60-17 rear) courtesy of the folks at CT Racing.
As usual my nerves were in full flutter mode as I slid on my suit and prepared for the race. Of all the sports and crazy adrenaline-filled activities you can participate in life, whether it’s leaping out of a perfectly good airplane, pinning it over a 90-foot triple on a dirt bike, or pitching it sideways in a car around your favorite freeway onramp, there is nothing like a motorcycle road race to put your mind in a quasi-panic.
For some, myself included it’s a nerves thing—like the feeling you get when you have to stand in front of a group of strangers and try to pitch them on something, or the sensation you get right before you know something really bad is going to happen. It’s a unique emotion—one that makes you feel alive, where all life’s drama, rules, bills, and whatever legitimate concerns no longer apply. It’s just you, your motorcycle and the desire to smoke anyone and everyone in front of you… It’s a beautiful thing.
Since I didn’t race with WERA this season I was obligated to start all the races from the back of the field (grids are based by points, and if you don’t race you don’t get any points). I didn’t care—as it’s always more fun to try to chase anyways.
Fourteen racers lined up for the C Superbike Expert race—our first 600 race of the day. When the green flag dropped the CBR proved to be really friendly to launch. Feeding out the clutch as quick as possible while keeping the tach needle above 11,000 revs is the name of the game here and this is another area where the Honda performs excellently. I got such a good jump that I scared myself going into Turn 2 as the pack started to bunch up (The Turn 1 chicane is skipped at the start of club races at Auto Club) so I let off the throttle early and lost a position or two.
Turn 3, which acts as Turn 1 at the start of the race is a slow speed left-right chicane and I heard from others that it was one area that typically sees a lot of carnage at the start of the race. Not wanting to splatter myself on the ground I played it safe. I was afraid of making passes unless I could do it cleanly as all that was running through my head was ‘what if I touch this guy on accident and we both crash, OMG.’ My lap times were equally unimpressive as I lapped even slower than I did in warm-up… What the heck? I ended up finishing 10th.
Next up was B Superbike & Novice. After getting a good start in the first race I figured I had starts totally dialed-in. But this time I didn’t hold the engine’s rpm high enough (remember, always keep it above 11,000 rpm) so it bogged slightly off the start. Having worked out some of my racing jitters I was more assertive which helped going into the first turn. The bike felt good and planted with the tires offering full and immediate traction allowing you to push right away.
There’s nothing like a race to help you understand parts of the track you couldn’t by yourself. And the dangling carrot technique was aiding me through the fast right-left Turn 10/11 chicane—an area that had puzzled me up until… well, now. With my confidence increasing I was giving it my all and running around sixth place. I felt good and I was excited to see a high 1’34 on my lap timer—my fastest lap thus far.
You wouldn’t think completing six laps around a 2.36-mile road course would wear you out—but do it in 100-plus degree heat when riding at 100% and this desk jockey got tired fast. By the fourth lap I was already starting to fade. It wasn’t so much my body as it was my mind. And that’s the crazy thing about road racing: it’s such a mental sport, one that tests a person’s focus and concentration with a fine line separating success and failure.
Speaking of concentration, mine was waning, and as I entered Turn 12, a quick right-hander taken in second-gear, I turned in too early and ran into the raised white curbing while leaned over. Oops. ‘I’m crashing’ I thought to myself as the front tire folded over. I had already given up—prepared for the inevitable, then in a split second the bike picked itself up, like nothing even happened. I was amazed, relieved and thankful, yet still cursing myself having used my “get out of jail free” card for something as silly as not paying attention and missing my mark.
After the race I told Ethell what happened. He looked over the bike and had noticed that the LighTech frame slider had scuffs on it meaning that it had slid against the curbing and actually lifted the bike up saving it after I had crashed. I now know to install frame sliders on every race bike I ever buy. Despite my near-miss I still finished better than my first race in eighth.
The LighTech frame sliders saved our bacon quite literally preventing a crash when Waheed ran a little too close on an inside curb.
With each race I was continuing to improve in terms of lap times and even netted a fifth-place in the C Superstock expert race. Still, considering some of the faster guys were lapping in the 1’31-range, more than anything I wanted to edge closer to those times. I’d have one more shot.
In the final race of the day I nailed the start and was in second place for the first half of the lap until I was overtaken by young gun Jason Aguilar. Although he was faster he was only a few bike lengths ahead. More than anything I tried to maintain focus and use the good ol’ carrot technique to keep him in sight. Now we were lapping in the low 1’34-range marking a new personal best. I went on to finish third, marking my best finish and lap time of the weekend.
At the end of the day I was all smiles. Amazingly LighTech’s frame slider saved me from looking like a complete squid (well, almost) and both bike and rider were still standing in one piece. Although I was a couple seconds off the front runners, I improved both my finishing result and lap time in each race. But perhaps most impressive is how friendly our CBR project bike was to race—a testament to both Jett Tuning and the engineers at Honda for creating a bike that is just as easy to ride in full race trim as it is with headlights and turn signals on the street.