As AMA Pro Racing kicks off the 2012 season at Daytona, one of the most welcomed additions to the paddock is Jake Zemke. The 2006 Daytona 200 winner and 2008 Formula Xtreme champion returns to contest the 2012 Daytona SportBike series for Ducshop Racing. The 36-year old returns to AMA Pro Racing series after being unable to secure a full-time gig for the 2011 AMA season, despite placing third in the 2010 SuperBike series. Instead, after a one-off Daytona 200 ride for Project 1 Yamaha (where he claimed pole position and a third-place podium), Zemke kicked around until landing across the Atlantic in British Superbike. The American raced four rounds in BSB, campaigning a Honda in the EVO class to impressive results.
Now that he’s back, Motorcycle USA caught up with Zemke to ask about his return to the AMA, racing across the pond, and his expectations this week at Daytona and for the season beyond.
Jake Zemke claimed a third-place podium in the 2011 Daytona 200, but was unable to secure a full-time gig, forcing the Californian to cross the pond for BSB
Tell us a little about how the Ducshop Racing deal came about?
It sounded like a pretty good program. They wanted to go racing, and a lot of their goals and ambitions met with mine. For me to go out there and race, at this point in my career, it’s not worth it unless I got a team behind me that can go out there and win. And they’re definitely willing to put in the effort and dedication it’s going to take, so at that point it was a pretty mutual feeling to go out there and try and win some races.
The Ducshop racing squad has an AMA Superbike-winning lineage. Team owner Mark Sutton wrenched on the Fast by Ferracci and HMC Ducati teams. Ducshop also enjoyed success in the AMA Moto ST series. A former factory rider for American Honda, Zemke noted the different feel of his new, enthusiast-backed team.
It’s really a good group of guys on this team. It’s very different from the teams I’ve raced for in the past, teams that have had factory support and things like that. Where this team, it’s mostly enthusiasts. It’s people that love riding bikes, and they go out to trackdays and ride, and some of the guys on the team race. It’s a group of people that are passionate about our sport – definitely a neat group of guys. They’re a lot of fun to be around, and they all share the common theme of loving motorcycles. It’s a neat situation.
Excited to be back in the AMA?
Zemke claimed the Daytona 200 pole position, quipping at the time that he was going to hawk the celebratory Rolex to fund his 2011 racing plans.
Definitely. After spending the most of the past season not in the AMA, I did the 200 and that was it. We had some good results there and hoped that would roll over into finding some sponsors for the rest of the year, but that didn’t pan out. So I went across the pond to BSB and checked some stuff out over there. And we had some good results there as well. But it is really nice to be back home. I’ve got a lot of fans out there in the States, so it’s nice to come back and put on a good show for them.
How frustrating was it to do as well as you did at Daytona and not be able to line up a ride for the year? What was the low point?
The low point was probably before Daytona came about, in that September, October, all the way to January until I got the call asking me to do the 200 (with Project 1). It’s kind of the state of our sport right now, with the economy and everything, and reduced participation of the manufacturers. You can still see it. Teams are pulling back, and a lot of the good teams we had before in the past aren’t even on the grid anymore. It just makes things a lot more difficult.
It’s like I said, for myself, and for a guy like Tommy Hayden – it is just not worth it to go out there unless we have the right equipment and support behind us. We’re not out there to prove ourselves at this point, we’re trying to go out there and win races. Everybody knows our capabilities and what we can do on the track, so it’s just frustrating if you don’t have that kind of support behind you.
Were you looking at all for a SuperBike seat, or looking forward to getting into Daytona SportBike?
For myself, and I’ve said it for years, it doesn’t matter what I ride as long as I have a competitive team behind me. As long as I have the equipment and team, I don’t really care what class it is. It’s all about riding motorcycles, and I’ve ridden enough Superbikes in the past – it’s not like it’s my goal to go ride a Superbike. My goal is to go win races, in whatever class that may be. With that in mind I just try to align myself with the best ride possible. If a SuperBike came available that was a fifth-place ride, that’s not really worth my time. I’m not really interested in riding around in fifth place.
So it sounds like you’re expecting fight for a title this year?
Zemke claimed the 2008 AMA Formula Xtreme title in a stellar battle with Josh Hayes.
Yeah, for sure. I wouldn’t have agreed to jump on board with this program if I thought any different. My goal is to go out and win races, and be a contender in the championship.
You’ve had a lot of success at Daytona in the past. What is it about Daytona that is special for you?
It’s funny, because over the years it’s been really good or really bad [laughs]. I think about that a lot. I’ve got a pretty good collection of 200 trophies at the house, and the only times I’ve raced the 200 and not been on the podium we had mechanical issues in those races. It’s one of those things – either all or nothing at Daytona – it either goes really good and we turn up on the podium, or doesn’t turn out so well for us… So hopefully it’s the better end of the results this time around.
What is the key strategy to a Daytona 200 victory?
It’s definitely a long race and you got to be prepared for it. It’s hard to describe what goes into it, but there are definitely a lot of things that come into play. It’s the only race of the year we do pit stops, and it’s easy to lose a large amount of time in the pits. Even if it’s not a large amount of time, even five seconds, that’s huge on the racetrack – to try and make up five seconds. So pit stops are very critical. You usually see a large group for that first pit stop, and then after that everyone is usually fanned out after that first round of stops. It’s a lot of preparation, a lot of luck – if you can call it luck, whatever you want to call it… I can’t give away all my secrets though, with the kids reading these articles [laughs].
Zemke’s sojourn in British Superbike was brief, but the American made a big impact in the four rounds he contested. While his countryman John Hopkins was dicing for the BSB title aboard against essentially World SBK-spec Superbikes, Zemke was cracking the top-10 riding the lower-spec EVO Superbike. Many in the racing community are paying close attention to the BSB series and its EVO class (which ran on the same track alongside the full-spec
Superbikes, but kept its own separate points championship). The EVO bikes run a spec ECU, seen by many as the critical component to reigning in the high costs of racing. The EVO spec also curtails electronic aids like traction control. Having campaigned in AMA Superbike back when the mere rumor of traction control was a hot-button issue, Zemke is in a unique position to comment on the EVO spec and its possible ramifications for racing here in the States.
Zemke has a slew of Daytona trophies, but took the top step of the Daytona 200 back in 2006 with Honda.
Tell us a little about British Superbike. Seems like you did pretty well. You didn’t race the full series, but you got a couple top-10 finishes and were one of the top-finishing EVO riders. What was that like?
It was good to see what other series have to offer. I was riding on an EVO bike, so we were at a disadvantage to the full-blown Superbikes. Last year the rules allowed basically World Superbike-spec Superbikes. They’ve cut that back this year and gone a lot closer to what EVO spec bikes were last year, just having one class this year. But they’ve completely taken away all the electronics off the bikes. So there’s no traction control, no wheelie control, and running a spec ECU.
It’s an interesting series. The fans over there, they have great fan turnout. In four rounds over there we were able to come away with a win and podium, and some other good results as well in the EVO class. It was a lot of fun.
Talk a little about the EVO class, spec ECU, and having the electronics regulated. Is that something you think would work in the AMA?
Yeah, it could work. It could work anywhere – it’s just a matter of implementing it and making it happen. I’m sure not all the teams over there were on board with it, having to throw away their electronics systems after they’ve invested so much into them. But at the same time, you look at the grid size over there and they’re going to have a 33-rider field, which is where they’re going to cap their Superbike grid at. And those are season-long entries, not week-to-week entries. To be accepted you have to field a two rider team to be in the series… I think it allows more teams to have the ability to go out there and won’t have quite as much pressure, so they can pursue being a player in the game now. It will be interesting to see what the results turn out. I think you’ll see the same thing – the top teams, top riders, top crews will end up on top again. That’s just the way it is, no matter what you do to regulate the rules. The cream is going to rise to the top.
When the AMA made their rule changes, you came out the next year when Mat Mladin was gone and took the first two wins on the Jordan Suzuki SuperBike at the Daytona opener. Do you think the parity of AMA Superbike and the series in general is getting better and improving?
Zemke nabbed both SuperBike wins at the 2010 Daytona opener, riding then for the Jordan Suzuki squad.
Well, I think all you need to do is look at the results and you can answer the question for yourself. Look at what teams are winning races, and what teams are out there. I think that kind of tells the story. Any time you make pretty large rule changes, it might take teams a little while to get their bike developed, but you look last year I think that Graves and Yosh won all the races, except the one that Martin won in the rain at Barber... So that kind of tells the story right there. Yes, we were able to win races, and Pegram won races on the Ducati, but as teams move forward and bikes get developed around the rules more and more, the factory still has an advantage. They still have more budget, they still are the teams to beat.
I don’t know, obviously SportBike seems to be working quite well. You see a good mix of riders and a good mix of wins out there – from different teams and different brands. So Daytona seems to be working quite well in SportBike. SuperBike, maybe they still need a little bit of tweaking for the parity to be that equal for all the teams.
Did you feel racing in that EVO class that your skill as a rider was more showcased, that it was less about the bike and more about throttle control and things like that?
A little bit, but it was difficult because there was only a handful of guys out there on EVO spec bikes in the front. Hanging it out mixed in with the guys on full Superbikes it was a little bit harder. Their bikes are quicker down the straightaways, and so you try and make it up in the corners – and you get propped up behind them in the middle of the corners because they’re not quite up to the same corner speed.
If you allow electronics to get out of control… I mean the rider’s still got to ride the bike, but it comes to a certain point where it’s who’s got the best electronics engineer. But you take that stuff away, and you do see more of the skill of the rider come into play for sure.