Why I love all things Italian.
Returning from Summit Point with a sausage for a foot I kept hearing the famous line from Jaws repeating in my head - ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ My first races at NJMP were wet and on a track that doesn’t emphasize top speed. Summit Point, with it’s long straight, made my 750 obsolete against the 1000s I was racing against. I would do all this work under braking and through the corners only to watch the literbikes just walk away from me down the front straight.
The 750 is arguably the best track bike on earth. It is inarguably not the best bike for racing against a BMW S1000RR
. My main competitor was on a Bimmer. I wasn’t going to jump on that bandwagon. I thought about one of the Big Four Japanese bikes but, having never raced a bike that made over 130 hp at the rear wheel, I thought that a TC system of some kind was in my best interest. The Kawi had just come out and I didn’t know anyone who had campaigned it yet. Seemed risky.
My first sportbike was an Aprilia Mille. I rode it from Brooklyn all the way to Pocono Raceway for my first ever track day in 2001. I was so exhausted after riding all day that I got pulled over on the return ride home going over 100 mph on Route 80 with my taillights still taped up. First and last time I ever rode a bike to the track. I learned to push on that bike. I crashed on that bike. I still have that bike. Aprilia holds a special place in my heart as a result. It gave me my appreciation for all things Italian. It taught me that form and function could not only be bed-mates but also be really good in bed.
Roland Sands called Aprilia on my behalf and told them I wanted to campaign the rest of the season on the new RSV4
. Michael Lee over at Piaggio liked the idea of me going racing and with the help of Rick Panitieri, sold me the bike at a modest discount. It was the APRC model which had the full electronics suite - traction control (TC), wheelie control, quick-shift and launch control - a supermodel with a degree from MIT.
Luckily, there was one sitting on the floor of New Haven Powersports up in CT. Chris Green is the proprietor there and he was excited about going racing.
I picked up the bike on a Saturday. It’s a stunning machine. This one had the Biaggi replica bodywork. Nothing as garrish as the old Fila Ducatis. It’s slick. The TIG welds on the frame alone made me sit down on the pavement and stare. I put the bike in my pick-up and drove straight to my buddy Alan Wilzig’s home in upstate NY. This maniac decided to build a private racetrack in his backyard. It took him eight years and a legal battle that went all the way to the State Supreme Court; but he did the damn thing. My plan was to put as many miles as I could on the bike so I could reach the first service interval of 600 miles and literally unlock the full power potential of the big V-Four - it runs at reduced power during the break-in period and only a dealer can unlock it.
We're supposed to be promoting responsible riding. Let's pretend this never happened.
Between my riding gear and the large, heavy road equipment it was an exercise in caution. Like I said, not the coolest thing I ever did.
I rode the beast all afternoon on the newly-paved track. Being on a private racetrack by yourself gets filed under teenage-boy dream. Scratch that. Just dream. Period. The bike sounded amazing, felt tighter than a drum and was remarkably small underneath me. R6 small. Keeping it under the allowed 6000 revs I could still feel the immense torque the motor makes. It took everything not to twist that throttle to the stop. I purposefully didn’t bring a race suit to help keep me somewhat subdued. I rode all afternoon. We bonded.
That week I did an Absolute trackday at T-Bolt, coaching every session. It was enough to put me at the magic 600 mile mark. It also allowed me to push the chassis for the first time. Riding at Alan’s track was a subdued experience as a result of my “boots only” attire. At T-Bolt I finally got to see what I had purchased. Let me say that this bike is unlike anything I’ve ever ridden, let alone owned. It handles like a dream, but it’s stiffer than anything I’d ever thrown a leg over. It’s intense. You feel everything. It’s like a 250 GP bike and in essence that’s what it is - only one with 170 hp. Not being able to properly accelerate kept me from exploring the upper limits of the bike, but I was excited. You could tell it was going to be some package.
Thinking ahead, I still needed the Gixxer repaired so that I could continue racing in the 750 classes I was contesting. She was a mess as you can see from the photos in the last article. No. More than a mess. She was dead. A man named Mark Rozema brought her back from the abyss. Mark is Markbilt, a race shop next door to NJMP. His accomplishments as a race mechanic are too numerous to list. He and his mechanic Jimmy put that bike together in record time. The list of what was needed to repair the bike was so long that I imagine a list of what we didn’t need would have been a better choice. Mark would become an integral part of my race season from this point forward. As racers, we do a lot of the work on the bikes ourselves. This is a good thing. However, there are certain tasks where a real wrench earns his weight in gold. The 750 rebuild was one of them. Setting up the Prilla was another. More on that later. On the downside, when you ask a mechanic to do the impossible for little to no money, you create an open-season atmosphere where quips about your racing ability, IQ, manhood and even your mother become quite the norm. Yay.
The Bowl. Entering this corner the G-load was so intense that the suspension bottomed out every time. Awesome.
Chris offered to pick up the bike from Markbilt a few days later when he would be doing a trackday himself at NJMP. It would have saved me about seven hours in driving so I jumped at the offer. I was leaving for LA to pitch a TV show (my day job) for two weeks. Chris was to do the initial service, install some parts, and meet me back down at NJMP for the next round of racing. At least that was the plan...
Chris called me while I was in LA to tell me he wouldn’t be able to bring the bike down after all. The man has a business to run. My racing is not exactly on the top of his list. I get it. I was planning on driving straight from JFK to NJMP. I asked him if I sent someone to pick up the bike, would they be able to use his trailer to bring the bikes down (plural because I also paid Chris to do a service on the Mille which we were going to run in the endurance race on Friday). He said that would be fine.
Thursday afternoon I was sitting in the offices of the cable network FX, pitching four executives when I felt my phone buzz in my pants. Then again. And again. It did so for 20 straight minutes. By the time I walked out my phone showed 17 missed calls. Ilya (ER doctor and racing buddy) drove all the way up to CT to pick up the bikes. Upon arriving Chris told him “there’s no way you’re taking my trailer.” He claims he never told me I could use his trailer. I believe him. He honestly didn’t recall. He probably had 250 different things on his plate that day. But I only had one. Luckily, the resourceful Ruskie scrambled and found a U-Haul rental with minutes to spare to find a trailer to rent before closing time.
Functionality first. Not as pretty but a lot lighter and quite a bit cheaper to replace.
Absolute day at T-Bolt. Still holding back on gas but starting to push in the corners.
My flight got in that night at 1 a.m. and I drove straight down to the track. Ilya managed to get the bikes down there and had already set up our pit area. I slept a couple of hours and then we started up the ole Mille for the endurance race on Friday afternoon. Both Ilya and Ogan (I know. Sounds like I ride for Team Borat) did a stint and then I got on and binned it going into Turn 1 at over 100 mph. Transmission locked up on entry. Still haven’t cracked the cases to have a peek. Saving that one for a rainy day. I walked away having hit my head pretty good. Thank you, Shoei. Brand new helmet straight into the garbage. Literally. Opened the container and dropped it in as pained faces watched. Worth every penny.
Amazingly, Mark got the Suzuki rebuilt in time. A few days earlier, when I emailed him about a set of N-Tecs I had left at the shop to be mounted on the Zook, he replied: “Sorry I traded those N-Tecs to some guy who washed and waxed my car... but I have some decent GP-A take-offs with only about 185 laps on them. We also had to cut a big piece out of the swing arm to make the shock fit. I put some JB weld on it to stick it back in there so its hardly noticeable.. I think the added flex will help with traction.”
At least he’s funny.
Putting the Mille crash aside I was excited to get on the RSV4 and be able to turn the throttle in anger. Saturday morning I spooned a set of new N-Tec slicks on the bike. Besides the Austin Racing rearsets and exhaust, the bike was bone stock. The Aprilia is the first “electronic” bike I’ve owned. I’ve had some great success with the Bazzaz line of TC for my 750 but this was a whole new level of integration. For starters, the bike has the ability to reconfigure itself for whatever tire diameter you have - of which all brands differ slightly. Different sized tires allow for the possibility of a miscalculation in the TC’s algorithms. The Aprilia takes this out of the equation. You put the bike in second gear, accelerate to 26 mph and hold it there for 15 seconds. Finding a long enough stretch of road was the hardest part. The bike did the rest. Trick.
Night before. Everything in its right place. Italians and Japanese all getting along.
Finally. Got to turn the throttle to the stop. Ride one of these if you can. The sound, feeling and experience are truly unique.
New Haven Powersports had one other rider they were supporting. Chris wrote me an email describing him as “...a very fast guy on the track. His bike is very trick, lots of time in the saddle at the track and money well spent for the right parts.” I was very excited to meet this rider as he had a huge head start on setting up the bike I would now be riding. I found him in one of the garages and introduced myself. His pit area could have doubled as a NASA lab. The racer himself was a very serious guy. Henry Kissinger serious. He answered all my questions but that was it. He wasn’t interested in “teaming up” so to speak. He wasn’t interested in sharing data. He certainly wasn’t coming to Bennigans with me and sharing a Sundae after the race weekend. All good. Still, he surprised me when I suggested we go out together during a practice session and play. He responded in utter sincerity, “I don’t play.” Okay, Mr. Kissinger...
Morning practice started and I finally got to ride the thing in anger. New Haven had “unlocked” the motor and I was now making full power. Let me just say that you can’t be over-dramatic in describing this motor. Name your accolade or your expletive. It’s that and more. The bike is a monster. Wheelie control sounded funny to me at first. After one session - not funny at all. The bike pulls so hard that I was expending most of my energy just holding onto the bars as I accelerated out of each corner. Brutal. The APRC comes with Ohlins front and rear and was fairly good right out of the box. Changes would need to be made later on to really make the bike sing but it was fine for me on this day as I came to grips with the sheer, wrenching force of the V-Four motor. I’ve heard literbikes referred as cheater bikes. I get why. You make a mistake on this thing and you just correct it down the next straight. The sound is amazing as well. I always liked the old VFR’s and this bike sounds like that on steroids. High-end, quality, Lance Armstrong steroids.
After morning practice I had all day to sit and play with the electronics as my only race was late that afternoon - GTO. I like the longer format of the GT races as it allows you to settle in and rewards the well-conditioned rider. I’m also the worst starter in CCS history so having some extra time to play catch up is good for me. Those electronics, however, offered a solution even to that. The Aprilia has a launch control system. You simply pull up Launch from the menu on the dash, put the bike into first, turn the throttle to the stop and the computer takes over. Even though you have it pinned the motor sits at 10,000 rpm and waits for you there. You keep the throttle WFO and just focus on clutch engagement. The computer, through the ride-by-wire throttle, decides how much stink to give you. Based on the morning practice I decided on a wheelie control setting (the most intervention) and a TC setting (the next to lowest intervention). The bike wheelies everywhere. Third gear, fourth gear, honey badger do what it want. The TC, however, was much too intrusive. I’m okay with a little movement coming out of corners but even on a mid-level setting the TC would spoil the party so early as to make getting a real drive impossible. Unlike the other manufacturers which require you to make TC settings either at rest or off throttle, the Aprilia will let you make the change at full throttle which is actually the easiest time to do so on the racetrack - tucked in on a straightway. Speaking of straightaways, the factory quickshifter is flawless. Never misses. Brakes are monobloc Brembos so stopping is not an issue either. It’s a nice package. One thing about having all this power/technology at your disposal is that you’re fresh out of excuses for why you’’e not performing. I got so used to crying 750 that it had become a built in pacifier. Time to see what’s what.
Crossing that line in first is maybe the greatest feeling I have ever experienced. Insane, right? For what? A silly wooden trophy and some bragging rights? The sum is far greater than the parts.
Finally got the call for my race. Warm-up lap then lined up on the grid. Nervous as hell. I decided not to use the launch control as I had not tried it during practice and was frankly a bit reticent about all this new technology. One thing at a time was my feeling. Wrong call. Terrible start as usual. Ended up mid-pack by the end of the first lap. Twenty minutes is a long time, though. I put my head down and started pushing.
Good news was the lowest TC setting was dead on. Another interesting thing about the RSV4’s TC is that it’s a two-stage system. Once you cross the first threshold the electronics step in only enough to keep things from getting out of hand, but still allow you to continue to spin the rear. If you get too greedy with your right hand and you cross the second threshold then it will cut in more severely to keep you from hurting yourself. But there is this sweet spot where you can feel the rear spinning and rotating the bike. So long as you keep steady on the throttle you can actually slide the rear through the corner. It’s an amazing feeling.
On the negative side, the front was chattering on me as I upped my entry speeds into Turn 1. I rode around it and kept pushing forward. I made pass after pass until I found myself in the lead. The feeling of being out front is amazing. You settle in and just focus on your lines. It’s meditative. White flag came out - last lap. Spent all of it thinking about crashing. Didn’t. Then the checkered. Then you blink for the first time in 20 minutes and realize your contacts are bone dry and glued to your eyeballs. I have to say, my main competitor on the BMW was not at full health and this definitely played prominently in the win. Still, I won my first race on a brand new bike. Oh, and I lapped Kissinger with about two minutes left to the race. I came into much back slapping and cheering. Definitely one of the high points of the season. I texted Chris that I had won as well as all of my other sponsors. High spirits all around.
The re-telling is almost as enjoyable as the racing. Unless...
...you were just told that you forfeited the win for not going to tech afterwards. Here, John Matthews lends a sympathetic ear.
The next day, Sunday, was a complete shit-show. I was racing two bikes in different classes and had double the work to do. Quite literally. Two sets of tire warmers, two bikes to change tires on, two gas tanks to keep full, two suspension settings to keep in order. My brother and my nephew showed up that morning as well as some friends, so it was not exactly a normal working environment to begin with. It was a lot, and some things slipped through the cracks - like a second and a third place finish that were both stripped from me. Yay.
The first race was just me getting eaten alive. By everyone. Sprint races are different than the 20 minute GT’s. Eight laps means you have to go from the flag. I just wasn’t in that mode. It’s amazing how heady this racing thing can be. Racing is a mental game. You’ve heard it before. But watching yourself lose out to your own inability to focus, to be on point, is a strange feeling. I finished in sixth.
Then, in the next race I hopped on the Gixxer and got a second in Supersport but but forgot to go to tech afterwards. Goodbye second. Third race required a move back to the Prilla. My BMW rival lined up next to me on the grid and pointed in a concerned manner to the underside of my fender. “Head games, huh?” Not quite. I looked down and saw the empty transponder pouch he was pointing at. Sonofabitch! I got a third without pushing very hard knowing it might be taken from me. It was. Stripped again. John Matthews, a CCS tech, tried in vain to help me reinstate the finish but it wasn’t to be. I think it was a fair call at the end of the day. No dispute that I finished third, but if you make an exception for me then you’re opening up the organization to future conflict if a more questionable case were to come up. This way precedent is set. That being said.....Yay.
You could just see it in his face: "One day I'm going to race. One day I'm going to win. One day I really hope my uncle Ben puts his shirt back on. He smells."
By the time my last race came up it had started to rain. I was so annoyed by the day up until that point that I did something I have never done nor can imagine doing again. I turned to everyone in my pit area and announced that I was going to win the last race. I didn’t say it in a boastful or arrogant way. It was just that mental space cleared of everything except desire. I simply decided that was what was going to happen. And it did. I won by a country mile. Now, if I can only just stay in that space. If I could just build a condo there.
Packed up the trailer and collected my trophy. A four hour drive gave me time to go over the day and think about the mistakes I was never going to repeat again. The front end chatter was something I had never felt on a bike before. It would prove to be the one element holding me back. Time to make some changes before the next round...