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2003 Graves Yamaha R1 Test Ride

Monday, October 13, 2003
Damon Buckmaster aboard the Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
Damon's Formula Xtreme-spec Yamaha R1 is worth 80 large—if you could find someone to build it for you.
Graves Yamaha R1

When I got the call from Yamaha Public Relations Manager Brad Banister, I thought, "This should be fun." I mean, what motorcyclist in his right mind wouldn't want a shot at hammering Damon Buckmaster's monstrously powerful Formula Xtreme #6 YZF-R1 around the banking and infield corners of the California Motor Speedway?

But as the event date approached, I began to feel gut butterflies akin to those felt as I approached a race weekend way back when I was a mediocre club-level competitor. Of course, that was on machines several orders of magnitude less capable than I expected the Gravesport/Yamaha bike to be.

My two main self-directed messages heading toward the day were: 1) Don't be a jerk and crash the thing, and; 2) Don't be so tweezed up about getting to do this that you forget the point of the whole deal, which is learning about the bike in order to be able to communicate what it's like to MCUSA's savvy readership.

So after several hundred deep breaths and a long crummy drive across the L.A. basin, there I was pulling into the paddock of the California Motor Speedway in Fontana, CA. The fancy Yamahauler was there, with lots of busy looking people in blue getting things ready.

The small group of motojournalists was then herded into the meeting room for the morning briefing, which included a bit of tech talk (focused mostly on Yamaha's proprietary GYT-R line of performance parts), some marketing info (sportbike sales are up; the R1 is basically tied with the GSX-R1000 for top seller in class) and plenty of thinly veiled messages about being careful with their $80,000 race bike.

That's right—they estimate Damon's bike at being worth 80 large-that's if you could find someone to build it for you. Frankly, I have no idea how they arrived at that number, given that there is so much one-off work done to this bike. I doubt Chuck Graves and his people punched a time clock every time they started fiddling, machining, welding and bolting. Let's call it a ballpark number, just like the 175 hp at the rear wheel they were willing to offer as an estimate. When I pressed them for the actual hp/torque numbers, they admitted that they use a rear wheel dyno for tuning, but refused to cough up the truth for the usual "keep things from the competition" reasons. (It's known GSX-R FX bikes have at least 180 hp, so the Graves R1 probably has comparable numbers - Ed.)

Damon Buckmaster aboard the Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
"Can you put a throttle stop on this thing so they don't destroy it?" asks Buckmaster. "Sorry man," says his mechanic, "these are paid professionals...what are you worried about?"
Whatever the numbers, I think there have been a lot of surprised race fans who've seen the R1 more than hold its own this season at fast tracks like Brainerd and Road America. When you compare that to the "second banana" results of all the head-to-head tests between the showroom stock R1 vs. the GSX-R1000, well, let's just say it appears there's a surprising amount of potential in the R1 motor.

The Machine

Before we get to the riding impression, let's take a virtual walk around the machine and get familiar with it. It may look like an R1 with a Graves pipe and slicks, but it's a whole lot more. The key ideas behind this machine seem to be adjustability and stiffness. Check out the massive Graves-designed, handmade frame gussets (bear in mind that no one I can recall has ever accused a stock R1 of being too "flexible.") Up front there's a fully adjustable steering head allowing them to change rake and trail based on the demands of each particular rider and track.

Other bits of coolness include the motocross style chain guides/rollers that keep the 520 aligned with front and rear sprockets, and help maintain consistent tension around the relatively long swingarm through the rear shock's 140mm of travel. The swingarm itself is a custom-made banana-shaped device. It's beautifully welded and is adjustable 12mm up/down and 8mm fore/aft in 2mm increments. An Ohlins shock holds up the rear end, and like the Ohlins 43mm front forks, it has been re-built to Gravesport's specs by their own in-house guys. The whole thing rolls on 16.5" Marchesini magnesium rims and Dunlop slicks.

Brembo provides Graves with their latest monobloc radial calipers and matching rotors - Damon feels that 305mm is the right rotor diameter, while teammates Jamie Hacking and Aaron Gobert prefer the additional stopping power from their dual 320mm rotors. Each rider has his own pad preference-Damon picked his early in the season and has pretty much stuck with that compound.

Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
The engine is built up to run efficiently at its 13.5:1 compression ratio by Graves engineers, with their own guys doing the porting, polishing and valve work in the heads. They also fitted new camshafts, as well as tougher valve springs and connecting rods to withstand the abuse of Formula Xtreme racing. Throughout the season, they've been chasing the ephemeral "perfect driveability" by working with both EFI and carburetion induction. Their EFI kit uses 40mm throttle bodies, but their current favorite system is a set of four Keihin 41mm flat-slides.

Team boss Chuck Graves himself developed the mechanical-type slipper clutch that keeps rear wheel hop to a minimum by using back-torque on deceleration to allow the clutch to slip. There is a delicate balance to be found here, as too much slippage means that engine braking can be cut down to near two-stroke levels, and riders familiar with the value of engine braking will miss that.

The first thing one notices when the blue bodywork is peeled is the huge radiator. Apparently the motor makes so much power that they are chasing heat all the time, regardless of ambient temperature.

The Ride

Each journalist was granted a meager five laps on the FX bike, which even at very careful speeds amounts to less than 10 minutes seat time. It's not anywhere near enough time to learn the capabilities and limitations of the machine, but it is certainly sufficient to get a sense of just how far it is from stock or near stock machinery. I guess the question is: The thing is exponentially more expensive than an off-the-rack bike, so is it exponentially better?

The first thing one notices upon climbing aboard is that the seat is very high—like almost dirt-bike high. The bike has an "ass in the air, nose down" kind of attitude, no doubt a result of trying to keep the front wheel weighted and perhaps aid aerodynamics a bit. I'm a bit taller than Damon and have a 31" inseam, but I could only touch the tips of my boots to the floor while seated. Of course, this machine isn't designed for people to be paddling around at intersections, but it does feel a bit tippy when stopped.

Rolling away in first gear from the pits, it feels like a motorcycle. Seriously, if you're a good sportbike rider you could hop on and motor away on this thing. Pin a license plate to it and screw in a couple lights and you could ride the thing to work. It's almost docile at low speeds. Just be sure you keep in mind the shifter is set to GP mode, where up is down and down is up. This was actually my greatest concern that I'd relax in a later lap, be boiling into some corner, revert to the normal shift pattern firmly imprinted on my subconscious by a half-million miles of riding, then backshift the thing and lock the rear end.

Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
I asked Graves if the slipper clutch would slip enough to save my bacon if I did that. He said it would depend on speed and rpm, but it is still definitely possible to lock the rear end. He looked and me and said, "It's probably best if you don't do that." So on top of everything else: new track (to me), big, powerful, expensive/exotic motorcycle, the cruel scrutiny of my motojournalist peers, I had to think about every shift before I made it. "What do I want to do here and which way to I move my foot to get it?"

So the first lap was spent pussy-footing along, warming the slicks, finding where the bike started to carburet cleanly (about 5000 rpm), feeling the brakes' initial bite and power curve (just-right, then phenomenal) and training myself with the gearbox. In the morning I had a bit of an episode on a stock R1 while exiting a decreasing radius right-hander. A bit too much throttle whacked on a bit too early caused the tail to step out and I had to Mamola the thing back on line. This was not something I wanted to experience with an extra 50 hp at the rear wheel, so I was gentle, almost fearful with my initial throttling.

One additional feature is that this bike is fitted with an electronic shutoff tied to the shift lever. Each time you row through the gearbox, the engine is "cut" for an instant, which takes the strain off the clutch/gearbox and allows the shift to click through without rolling out of the throttle or using the clutch. Heading off the last turn to the front banking's semi-straight for the first time, I was able to just hold the throttle wide open through three gears and hit 400 miles an hour, or so it felt.

At that point of the track, you come out of a sweeping left across mixed pavement, then ease through a right chicane marked by cones and up over a big bump onto the banking to your left. Stock bikes without steering dampers shake their heads in violent protest over being accelerated at full tilt over this - nearly leaping over the bump onto the banking. The first time I came through here on the #6 the steering damper-equipped racebike hopped the bump but kept its composure. The instant I crossed it, twist went the throttle and zoom went the bike. It shrieked instantly and mightily up to the indicated redline of 12,500, with a high-end burst of turbo-like power hitting at about 11,000; it felt so strong I wondered if I'd accidentally hit the nitrous button. It wasn't an uncontrollably nasty, two-stroke type powerband hit, rather it was more like having another 25 hp and at least as much torque right there on top. The bike seems to overrev happily to nearly 14k or so.

Steve Natt aboard the Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
Steve may not boast the lean angle that Damon does when he rides the Formula Xtreme R1 - but at least he brought the bike back in one piece.
On the stock R1s I rode in preparation for #6, the length of banking felt like a straightaway, but now it felt like a short, sweeping curve with nary enough room to get the machine stopped before the chicane. In fact, a couple of riders that day were so surprised by the depth and power of the #6's powerband that they actually blew the chicane entrance and rolled straight down the NASCAR track instead of trying to brake from such a quickly elevated speed. I was able to wheeze in a breath, put my trust in Dunlop and Brembo, and bend it in. In my helmet, I was smiling like an idiot. As I snicked up (!) to go down a couple of gears and flicked the willing machine left-right-left through the fast chicane, I remember wondering if this was the fastest motorcycle I had ever ridden in my life.

California Motor Speedway features what a fellow motojournalist says is a "whole lot of corners." With all this motor on tap, you've gotta be able to get the bike slowed with controlled accuracy. One gently-applied forefinger on the brake lever was all it took to do the job. So while I was still musing about whether this machine gets my number-one plate for fastest bike I ever rode, I had no doubt about the brakes. The radial Brembo monoblocs fitted to the Ohlins forks are without question the best brakes I've ever had the pleasure of using. I never even got close to finding where the quality limit was on this system, regardless of how late or fast I got into a corner.

As I saw the waved white flag indicating I'd have to bring their baby back, I decided to fly into the chicane off the front straight as fast as I could. I knew that if the front started to feel squirrelly, I could just bail out and ride straight through safely, but I was determined to hold the throttle longer and brake later than I had—just to see what it could do. As I saw my previous marker (gained through about 40 laps of prior riding on stockers that day) fly by at something well north of 160 mph, I was able to get in a "One Mississippi" before the "uh oh!" set in.

I squeezed the tank with my knees, squeezed the front brake with as much skillful power as two-fingers of my ham-type fist allowed and the bike slowed so quickly that I actually hit the turn in point way slower than I had before. That's how good these brakes are-transposing the experience from "too fast/I'm gonna die" to "too slow/I'm a clod" in about 2 seconds time. They are simply amazing. I simply cannot imagine going quickly enough to find the need for larger diameter rotors as Damon's teammates do.

There's a tricky, flat, 90-degree left as you leave the banking for the infield section where you have to force yourself to slow down as your sensation of speed has just been messed up by the elevated velocity along the banking. Once at the proper entrance speed, I was surprised that it seemed harder to initiate turn-in on this corner than I expected it to be. After all, I was used to riding around on 17" rubber, with more moderate steering geometry than the race machine, so I figured it would want to almost dive into corners, perhaps requiring some countersteering to hold the line and stop the fall. Damon later sat on the bike and told me they had moved the handlebars down and in a bit from the near motocross width he likes when riding, so certainly we had a bit less leverage to work with than he likes. Plus the fat stickiness of the front slick likely contributed to this sense of slower response at lower speeds/tighter corners. In fact, the stock or GYT-R equipped R-1 models with sport rubber seemed a tad more flickable in first gear corners than the racebike.

Steve Natt aboard the Graves Yamaha Formula Xtreme R1
Steve looks like he's ready to put the R1 on the front row at Cal Speedway later this season.
Once turns are initiated, the bike is simply brilliant. Pick any lean angle at any speed (at least speeds of which I was capable) and the words "unflappable," "planted," "predictable," and "perfect" come to mind.

Over the next couple of laps, the track magically shortened, with all the straight sections apparently being removed by elves when I wasn't looking. Once I became (relatively) comfortable with the shifting pattern, I was able to pull the trigger between corners and let the big motor do its job. The wide swath of torquey power that is strong and useable from about 6000-10,000 rpm means that it's always easy to be in the "right" gear in any corner (until such time as one tries to start shaving tenths, which is when they start messing with different configurations of the Y.E.C.-sourced transmission). I'm sure I could have fed in more gas a lot earlier in corner exits than I did, but the fear of snapping the tail and having this tiger bite me never left my awareness. In retrospect I'm sure the chassis and tires could have handled whatever paltry demands I would have made, but at the time I couldn't bring myself to really wring its neck until I had the tires up and centered.

So there you have it, and I bet you're not terribly surprised. Today's high-end street sportbikes are amazing in their own right—able to stomp all over the kind of stuff that won at Daytona 15 years ago the instant you sign the paperwork and roll 'em off the showroom floor. But that's just an indication of how far (commensurately) today's racing machines have come as well. It's the combination of engine performance, braking, chassis/suspension and tires that gives this bike so much rideability, and makes going so fast (with surprisingly little effort) so much fun.

I guess the comparison would have been running around that same day on an old TZ750 like Kenny Roberts used to race. That bike was about as fast as this one, but there sure wasn't anything easy about it. My point is that Damon may be an excellent roadracer, but a machine that accelerates, handles and stops like this makes finding and pushing the envelope a whole lot easier. So the next time you see him crediting the bike and thanking his crew in a post-race interview, notice how he doesn't look like he just finished the Paris-Dakar or 10 rounds with Lennox Lewis. It's because he's lucky enough to have this particularly user-friendly motorcycle as his weapon of choice.

All I was left hoping for is that Yamaha ponies up for a Superbike entrant in the '04 season, and that someone over there is stupid enough to let me ride that bike too.

Steve Natt is a freelance journalist and the field correspondent for Speed TV's "American Thunder."
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