Lost in Translation: Hero EBR’s trying 2014 season
In April, Erik Buell’s EBR company declared bankruptcy. Thus ends a story that, otherwise, might have been a fairy-tale of death and resurrection.
Flashback to 2009: Buell’s marriage to Harley-Davidson had been sour for a long time, and most observers felt that a divorce was long overdue. But, we were surprised by the bitter way it finally ended. Bowed but not beaten, Erik promised to continue no matter how few bikes he could afford to build.
Then a new Hero emerged. Literally. Hero Motorcycles—a huge brand in India—invested in EBR in 2012 and 2013, giving Buell a new chance to make good on his promise of a truly competitive American sport bike.
Ever the racer, Erik struck a deal that also made Hero a race sponsor. We were all, like, “Yay, India!”
The collapse of the Hero/EBR partnership took me a little by surprise. Most American motorcycle journalists, unsurprisingly, have placed the blame on the Indians.
One of the casualties of EBR’s bankruptcy was Hero EBR’s demise as a World Superbike team. That was another ugly divorce. Claudio Quintarelli, who ran the Italian team base, accused Larry Pegram (rider/manager of this season’s effort) of stripping assets that belonged to him.
Sorry to jump around on you here, but let’s go back and look at how this came to pass…
The original plan was for Hero EBR to race in AMA in 2012, and move to the World Championship in 2013. (As a bonus, Hero was supposed to get a home race, because the SBK series scheduled a round of the 2013 SBK series at the new Buddh circuit in India, but that event was dropped from the calendar before the season even started.)
The team’s best AMA result in 2012 came when Geoff May finished third at Infineon, on the way to a fifth-place in the overall AMA standings. That was hardly embarrassing, but it wasn’t world class, either. EBR realized it needed more time before entering the World Championship.
Sometime late in the 2013 AMA season, I heard that Hero EBR would run May and Aaron Yates in the 2014 Superbike World Championship. The team would operate out of Bergamo, Italy. I took note of the fact that Evan Steel would be Yates’ crew chief. (He was also Yates’ chief for the ’13 AMA season; Yates finished in eighth overall.)
I’d met Steel a few times over the years, and came away impressed. His small Tucson-based performance shop built some of the fastest privateer bikes in the AMA. He was one of the first guys to field the BMW S1000RR, and got results good enough that BMW invited him to visit the factory in Munich. In short, he was a good choice for a team entering a David vs. Goliath scenario, and I made a note that I should interview him during that 2014 season.
The first few races quickly established that it was David vs. Goliath all right, and David had sling trouble. I emailed Evan, telling him that I’d wait until the team had some positive results to report. Like, maybe when they scored their first World Championship points.
That never happened. The only time an EBR finished in the points all season was when Larry Pegram rode his AMA-spec bike to 14th place at Laguna Seca as a wild card.
The longer I waited to contact Evan, the longer they went pointless, the more awkward things got. I killed the story. But when EBR went into receivership and the 2015 edition of the Hero EBR World Superbike team was disbanded, I thought, “Well, now there’s no reason not to talk.”
I got back in touch with Evan and he agreed to a long interview, covering his experiences and opinions about what went wrong. Throughout our conversation, he took pains to remind me that he only had one perspective, that everyone had been trying their hardest, and that he had a lot of respect for people involved, even when he disagreed with them. He was forthright, which I appreciate as a journalist because as they say, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”
The thing is, we learn more from failures, so it’s important to examine them.
I never expected the EBR to be immediately competitive in the World Superbike Championship. But I sure didn’t think the factory team would be shut out of the points, either. Evan’s insights led me to believe that no matter how daunting the racing and engineering challenges had been, Hero EBR’s real problems had come from the structure of the team and conflicting management styles between the factory in the U.S. and the team in Italy.
“We knew that we weren’t going to be competitive right away,” he recalled. “We hadn’t really been competitive in the AMA. We were never in danger of beating Josh Hayes; there were always three or four guys, gone, that we couldn’t reach. And we knew we were moving to a situation where there were going to be 12 or 15 of those guys who were out of reach.”
Besides Evan Steel, and the riders Yates & May, there were two other Americans—EBR employees—on the team. But most of the team structure was Italian. The team principal, Claudio Quintarelli, assembled a sharp, experienced crew. His mechanics and techs included the guy who had been Carlos Checa’s championship crew chief, as well as guys who’d won Superbike and Supersport championships with Ben Spies and Chaz Davies; one had worked in the Toyota F1 program.
At first, the Italians were sanguine about Hero EBR’s prospects. “They were realistic about where we were starting, and they were ok with it,” Evan told me. “A guy who had just won the World Championship walked out with me to the last row of the grid, and stood there while we prayed my bike would start. They weren’t assholes about it at all, they understood that we were coming from far back. But they also expected to make much more progress.”
Note the language: “A guy who had just won the World Championship”; if you’re a crew chief or a mechanic, and your rider wins the championship, then you won the championship for mechanics. Everyone on a competitive team is competitive, and everyone’s driven to win. So when Yates and May found themselves even further down than they’d expected to be, everyone wanted to develop the bikes as quickly as possible.
Hero EBR may have been a small team by the standards of the World Championship, but it was still hampered by its basic management structure. Too often, guys in the ‘States (for whom the motorcycle was, like, their baby and who were really sensitive to criticism) refused to accept the reports and requests coming from Italy.
“Throughout history, there have been many stories of a small band of guys doing something an army couldn’t achieve,” Evan told me. “But in all those stories, the small band succeeds because they can react quickly and because everyone shares the same objective.”
He didn’t see that happening as they tried to get the Hero EBR bikes up to speed.
“There’d be 10 guys, arguing eight different opinions, and there was never one guy saying, ‘Alright, this is what we’re going to do.’ Everyone’s got to work together and pull in the same direction, and that direction has to be close to right,” he told me. “We never got there. Everyone had their own idea of how things should be, and the guys in America thousands of miles away didn’t see what the guys at the track saw.”
Although the general shape of those disagreements was often ‘Italy vs. USA’, Evan—probably because he was one of those guys at the track—often found himself siding with the Italians.
The team argued for upgrades to things like the front fork and brake, which would allow Yates to exploit his demon braking skills. When they tested a front brake setup like everyone else’s, Yate’s braking distances shrank dramatically. But EBR was loathe to give up its own unique front brake. Hero EBR was also one of the few teams struggling with a stock swingarm; again, it was a part the engineers back home thought was beautiful.
The frustrating thing was, the team’s requests should never have been taken personally. “You can take a lot of insult out of it, just by testing it,” Evan said. “If I have an idea that I love, and some other guy doesn’t like it, the great thing about racing is, you try it, and if it’s faster it’s better and if it’s not faster, it’s worse.”
Maybe the problem was, the engineers back home never actually saw those results with their own eyes.
“When you get people who are thousands of miles away, the whole, ‘The stopwatch doesn’t lie’ thing is not that cut-and-dried,” Evan admitted. “It was always, ‘Try it again a little differently’, or ‘Your rider’s riding it wrong’, or ‘You’re putting the parts on wrong’. It should be straightforward: Test it. If it’s faster keep it, if it’s not, shitcan it. You can work through a lot of things that way.”
By late-season, frustration was high and testing and development had ground to a near halt. Evan half expected the team would even miss races. They did make every race, but when Yates crashed and broke a femur in Qatar it was an ugly end to a crap season.
Evan returned to Tucson older and wiser. “Obviously, I wanted the results to be much better,” he told me. “But I’m super-grateful for the experience I had.”
He learned a lot, both technical stuff and in the organization and approach that world-class teams take. After years fielding AMA privateer teams that typically spend the whole weekend reacting to whatever’s happening, he watched World Championship contenders arrive at the track with a structure, organization, and plan of attack in place. Winning at that level includes taking care of myriad management details, right down to making sure that you have a parts number system in place that allows you to track iterations.
Still, he didn’t try to renew his contract. So, he watched the 2015 Hero EBR team’s SBK season opener from afar. The first thing he noticed when Niccolo Canepa put up some better results was, Canepa was running the front end he’d developed and tested with Yates.
“At first I was angry that they never let us run those brakes,” he told me. “But then I thought it was cool they were finally willing to do what it took to get better.”
Besides his friends, I think I was the first journalist he’s opened up to, about the highs and lows of the 2014 SBK season.
“Even though [Erik Buell and I] disagreed on a lot of stuff, I respect him and what he’s achieved,” he said towards the end of our conversation. “It didn’t work out or even come close, but it was a great thing to try to do and, knowing Erik, he may do it again.”
As a last question, I asked him whether he’d do it all again, if another underdog team invited him back to the World Championship.
“Oh yes!” he told me. “That [underdog status] is what I like to do. If you’re drafted into a team that’s already won the championship 10 times, your job is to not screw it up. I like making things better.”
After talking to Evan, I think that the story we’ve largely been served—which is that Hero pulled the rug out from under EBR and the race team—is far from completely true. The bike was not destined to be competitive in 2014, but the dismal results weren’t due to any lack of talent or determination on the part of the riders or mechanics. Even the machine itself was probably better than the results suggest. Hero EBR was limited by the team structure and the way it was managed.
That’s why, in the myth, David slays Goliath. It’s not a committee of Davids that slays him.