2001 – Part One
by Sam Fleming
Army of Darkness spent the early winter months of 2001 pupating, and in February, molted from beneath its thick carapace of 1997-2000 GSX-R600s to emerge, innocent and naive, into the world of 2001 GSX-R600s. This process is far more painful than many would assume, because:
However, in our traditional pre-season AOD private tests at Talladega, and with no adjustments to the baseline shock settings or adjustments to the fuel injection maps, both Jim and I were able to turn laps that bettered our performance from the race the year before. Which meant the new bike was definitely better, right out of the box.
The only problem we experienced was the tendency to leave long black lines of rear tire rubber exiting the turns. Although we noticed that at the recommended rear shock sag numbers, we did not have any static sag whatsoever, we attributed the slides to the cool track temperatures and confidently set off to Texas a month later.
Texas World Speedway
Part of the pageantry of the first race of the year is strolling around the pits and sizing up who is going to be the competition for the year, what equipment they have put together and who has dropped off the circuit. We had heard rumors during the off-season (mostly perpetrated on the wera.com BBS) about the intended participants but the presence of trailers speaks louder than bulletin board posts.
The grid at TWS suggested the serious teams were:
These were obviously not all the teams entered in the race, but they were the ones tha t looked like they had mustered the resources and talent to contest the whole series. History suggests that not all of them would actually be a factor by the end of the year as attrition from injury, personal bankruptcy and/or frustration tends to take a brutal toll on endurance teams.
A cursory glance at the list revealed a number of things. The fact that we were on pole indicated that Arclight Suzuki had tired of racing against themselves in the series last year and had moved onto other pastures. Arclight had been replaced by the Vesrah Suzuki team that was led by one of our teammates from 2000: Mark Junge. Although nothing is a foregone conclusion, many people (myself included) assumed that Vesrah would dominate the season in the overall and the Heavyweight Superbike points.
Conspicuous in its absence is Paramount Racing. This was the team with which AOD raced epic six-hour-long axle-to-axle races in 2000. Tim and I even got a little misty at the thought of how hard we had to work to beat Paramount in 2000 but that was quickly replaced with relief that we would not have to repeat the performance in 2001. Our only competition for the Middleweight Superbike crown for 2001 would be Leaning Lizards Racing. Although they are a very strong and dedicated team, I think both AOD and Lizards, in the back of our heads, assumed AOD would come out on top if for no other reason than our experienced crew. However, AOD has a pretty good track record of being able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as well and Lizards have improved their game every season.
Turning my attention from the grid positions to the actual process of running the race I was struck by one undeniable truth: The racing surface at Texas World Speedway has deteriorated worse than DC city streets. It was as bumpy as IRP with tire-cooling puddles of water formed from fresh artesian spring water seeping up through the cracks in the track. For additional thrills there are a number of turns with walls on the outside of them and sealant that offered a variety of different levels of traction. One turn sported all four of these: Bumps, water, sealant and a wall on the outside.
Indianapolis Raceway Park used to be the worst track on the schedule. Now that dubious honor goes to TWS. However, the rule of thumb at IRP was to resist the urge to change the set-up on the bike, but rather, ride through the suspension roughness caused by all the bumps, holes, ruts and seams. We decided that this axiom was not an IRP axiom, but a "worst track on the circuit" axiom and we did not change the suspension even though our bike was handling somewhat excitedly. That theory was further enforced when Brian Stokes test rode the bike and requested that we adjust the suspension on his bike to match ours.
Our bike was not inspiring confidence but it was very difficult, under the circumstances, to determine if we had a set-up problem or a track problem. I would have a big massive slide through a turn, but, after my heart started beating again to sufficiently oxygenate my brain, I wouldn’t be sure if I had drifted off line over a puddle, or a crack with water seeping into it or some sealant or, in fact, I had actually reached the limits of the tire/set-up.
We used the data logger to good effect to help us chose appropriate gearing. The whole gearing question is, like everything else in motorcycle racing, a compromise. The old school (which includes inner tubes and drum brakes) theory on gearing is for the engine to reach redline (or the peak power rpm) just before the brake-markers at the end of the longest straight. The tradeoff is that, while we all like nice, short, snappy gearing coming off the turn, we all hate it going into the turn and, if the gearing is too short to allow for full usage of, say, third gear, between two turns, it can cost the bike far more time than a few hundred rpm on the straight.
We looked at the lowest rpm that we were pulling through turns and compared it with the highest rpm we were reaching between turns to allow us to shorten the gearing safely without limiting the speed between any two turns or requiring extra shifts. Imagine the look of shock on our collective faces when the theory was successfully converted into practice and lower lap times. Smug in our gearing solution, we decided that the rest of the suspension, traction and steering head angle questions would have to wait for another track and another day.
In a strange coincidence AOD and NOTB were both starting on the front row and, as such, there was much speculation about the possibility of Melissa and Brian taking each other out going into turn one on the first lap. Brian was starting on pole. The last time we started on pole a valve spring retainer broke in our Suzuki’s motor and we did horribly. Tim, always superstitious when it comes to racing, was throwing salt over his shoulder and avoiding stepping on any cracks in the pavement as the bikes took to the pre-grid.
On the morning of race day Brian was visibly nervous about his first ride with us and confidentially told me that he wasn’t sure he was physically up to riding more than one stint. He was worried that he might get too tired.
Now, many racers have never ridden a race bike with a full tank of gas much less one with an extra couple gallons of capacity welded into it. It can be challenging to clip the apexes on the first few laps if you are not prepared for it. Brian took a few laps to acclimate himself to the hefty fuel load and then promptly mixed it up with the top 600s. We were getting atrocious fuel mileage at the full-throttle track and Brian Healea (from Lizards) was riding exceptionally well. Still, Stokes had built up a sufficient lead that after we had completed our first pit stop I pulled out of the pits 30 seconds ahead of Healea. He was still on his first tank of gas and he must have been tired but he was slowly catching me on the track. I still don’t know if I was adjusting to the full tank or I was waiting for Healea but I wasn’t doing the lap times that I had just done only two hours prior in practice.
I watched my pit board in a depressing countdown from +30, to +29, to +28. It got down to about +15 when I noticed a bright green bike off the side of the pavement on about the polar opposite end of the track from the pits. The next time around my board said + 1L. Healea had committed one of the five mortal sins of endurance racing—he had run out of gas.
It was about that time that Bill Gates entered the scene. A screen saver program started on the scoring system computer. That crashed Windows and wiped out the scoring system. Most of the aforementioned serious teams had bio-scorers to back up the computer, however, many of the local teams did not have resources to provide for a human scorer. Many of these teams lost laps but only one of the affected teams was ahead of us in the race, the local boys of Bent Racing.
Although it gave us a place in the race, the crashed scoring system completely confused us in terms of where we were in the standings overall. We decided we would push until the end of the race in case there was some chance of someone catching us from behind or moving up a position from our current fifth. The crashed scoring system was also going to take some of the fun out of a good finish since it isn’t as much fun to feel like you won on a technicality and we weren’t sure how many laps they really lost so we wouldn’t know if we beat Bent in reality, or just in scoring fiction.
The valve spring retainer didn’t break, the bolt didn’t back out of the shift drum*, and at the end of the race we were fifth overall and the first 600 team home. Lizards finished seven laps down, second in class, 13th overall. Neighbor of the Beast improved their race from the previous year but were struggling with set-up problems and fatigue and finished 11th overall, fifth in Mediumweight Superstock, which looks like the most competitive class this season. And, to cap it all off, we didn’t even get any flats on the trailer on the drive home.
*2000 and 2001 GSXR 600s and 750s have been having a problem with the special bolt which holds the shift drum assembly together backing out.