2005 – Chapter Three

Grattan
Michigan
July 15, 2006
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After winning the three consecutive races at VIR, Willow Springs and Las Vegas we had just about climbed our way out of the points hole that our engine failure had excavated in Joliet. I had figured that we really only needed to win two more races out of the next six and finish the remaining four in second to win the championship. An enthralling sense of optimism permeated our pits since, after winning 4 out of 5 races to date it did not seem that much of a stretch to win two more out of the next six. However, these are forward looking statements and past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

As we mustered our far-flung team in Grattan Michigan we took stock of men and machine and the first doubts began to materialize. Ben Walters, our hot shoe, was both mildly injured (from dirt bikes, of course) and showing signs consistent with the flu. Scott, as per usual, had not slept in about a week and I was suffering from a strained back. Each one of us showed up thinking that the other two would be able to carry the day. Tim’s efforts had gone to good effect and all our motorcycles were running strong.

Uncharacteristic for the northern clime it was also very hot. Although it was not the hottest race, the heat index seemed to combine with our various ailments to further sap motivation and riding talent. Compounding the gloom in the miasma under the canopies was the sight of Larry Denning practicing on the Red Star bike. Larry Denning is fast everywhere; he is particularly fast at Grattan. We knew that even on a good day it would be a stretch to beat the combined talents of Denning and Thompson, and given our current collective health, it would be a miracle. The Army Of Darkness does not deal in miracles.

We finished practice with a “let’s get second tomorrow” attitude with a few casual, and not at all superstitious, hopes for rain or other race confounding factors.

At the start of the race Ben rode his heart out but Denning was unstoppable. Denning slowly pulled out one to two seconds a lap and we could see Ben really start to struggle at about the 45 minute mark. Ben is the kind of straight shooting, hard working, mild mannered, pleasant team player that you want on an endurance team. He also takes the responsibility very seriously and never wants to feel like he let anyone down. It killed him to do it, but at 55 minutes he raised his hand signaling that he was in trouble and needed to come in.

I roused Scott from his nap and told him to suit up since Ben was coming in early. We were already down pretty far but Scott rode well and was able to hold our position stable. Ben wasn’t looking any better after an hour off the bike so I suited up to take the third stint. We have never had much issue with riders pitting early but at about the one hour mark (twenty minutes early) Scott signaled saying that he too was ready to get off the bike.

I was certainly not feeling my best when I got on the bike but the good thing was that since both Ben and Scott had short stinted, and we were two laps down already at that point, there didn’t seem to be any harm in me shortening up my stint as well.

I got in a couple good dices, Thompson came by me dropping us three laps down, and at about the hour mark I signaled for a rider change. We were pretty securely in second place right now with no chance of catching Red Star without a mishap on their part.

Scott rode even better in his second stint than his first. He wasn’t making any time on Red Star but he was not losing too much either. With about forty minutes left in the race it started to rain.

We had a moment of glee when we nailed a two wheel pit stop and tossed Scott back out there with rains. Red Star was much slower in the pits but there was no stripped axle or anything like that to delay them enough for us to get the time back.

At the end we were beat fair and square. No slow pit stops, no tire problems, Denning and Thompson flat out rode us.


Melissa consoles Sam and Scott on a dive boat off
the Amalfi Coast of Italy after the defeat at Grattan.


Endurance racing requires lots of equipment and that equipment needs to be carried from various parts of the country to various tracks and then from one part of the paddock to another. Carrying all that equipment around can be a time consuming task, particularly for a team that is trying to get on the road. At the end of each endurance race there are two podium celebrations: one for the overall finishers and another for the class positions. A phenomena we had noticed over the first five races was a positive correlation between finishing position and podium ceremony attendance. This correlation was that if we won, Red Star skipped the podium. Although we too had lots of gear to load we glumly went to pick up our second place trophy, suffer the gloating and congratulate Red Star on their win. The points situation was diminished but, at that point, we just needed to not have any crashes or mechanical problems and win two out of the last five races to secure the championship. That still seemed eminently possible but Scott and I were so devastated by the loss of our season’s momentum that Melissa took us scuba diving in Italy for a week in an attempt to raise our spirits with gelato and pasta puttanesca.


A curious dynamic occurs with memorial photography in that no one
seems 
to take pictures on bad race weekends. With three bad races
there 
is a dearth of any photos except action shots from Summit. Alas.

 

Summit Point
West Virginia
August 6, 2006
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Summit Point is the track closest to DC; the MSA for both Red Star and AOD. Since Lindsay (the Red Star captain and self proclaimed AOD rival) and I are have been on various sides of some of the same social circles at various times in our lives we have a fairly large collection of mutual friends. Many of these people come to the Summit Point race and, of course, it would be very satisfying for Lindsay to come out victorious in front of this group.

Although I would like to say that we have consistently taken the high ground in all past dealings with Mr. Lindsay that would be a slight exaggeration. There was one time a few years ago when his ex-girlfriend offered to get dolled up and perform services as an umbrella girl for Melissa’s then teammate Scott Fisher who was gridded just in front of Lindsay on the starting grid. That could be construed by some as unnecessary knife twisting but really I was only tangentially involved. I have long since put such antics behind me. Needless to say, there would be a great deal of pleasure in the Red Star pits with a victory at Summit Point. It was our responsibility to prevent that from happening.

For the past four years we have had to rebuild an engine in the pits at Summit before the race. This has been from seized bearings, blown valves, broken transmissions; quite the smattering of failures. This has always led to some tense times at the track and long days for Tim. As it turns out we should have spent the practice time rebuilding the motor but we didn’t know that on Friday morning.

As far as riding was concerned, Scott, Ben and I were all on pace and running almost identical times to our Red Star counterparts which indicated a hard fought and grueling axle to axle race.


Ben breaks free at Summit Point

And practice was not misleading. The race was tip to tail. They led us, then we led them but we were never separated by much. It was classic endurance racing. Both teams were nailing the pit stops and the riding was fast, hard and consistent. They had passed us and the gap was stable when we threw Ben Walters back on the bike with orders to win it or bin it. There was about fifty minute left in the race and Red Star was leading us by about half a lap.

In my capacity as the Wild Card editor for Roadracing World I have had the good fortune to fill up all the visa pages on my passport jetting around the world to exotic, and sometime beautiful, places to listen to new product briefings from seven of the world’s top motorcycle manufacturers. At the first couple launches I, with wet eared naivety, would ask the engineers various questions about why they made certain design decisions regarding the production of new bikes. Why 5mm rotors not 4.5mm? Why not USD forks over telescopic? Why a particular shock? No matter which engineer I approached and which country I was in the response was universally consistent: “Because it is better”. After reading books about the manufacturing process, studying statistics and economics and having the good fortune to visit a few factories first hand one learns about variances in production tolerances. These are not the dimensional variances that make up the fiction long supported by AMA factory supersport teams but variances of a much more coarse and basic nature.

Parts can be made with different degrees of quality. This quality can be established through better production techniques and higher grades of materials as well as such things as more frequent quality control testing. Each further increase in quality has a corresponding increase in price. At some point there is a decreasing return where greater expenditures for materials and testing produce parts of inconsequentially increased quality or the parts are too good for their application. For instance, there is no point in having wheel bearings that last a million miles if no bike is ever going to be ridden more than 25,000.

Henry Ford once commissioned a sweeping study of Model Ts in junkyards to determine the cause of the car’s retirement from service. The report came back that they died of all sorts of reasons: spun bearings, broken cranks, shattered pistons, cracked radiators, dropped valves, melted wiring harnesses. Ford reviewed the document searching for some piece of data to support a management decision. He finally grasped onto the fact that every car, no matter what condition, had perfect king pin bushings in the front suspension. “Make the king pin bushings cheaper” was his response. Guess which part wore out first on every 1970-1990 Ford van I have ever owned? King pin bushings.

Virtually all products, and certainly 600cc sportbikes, are built to a price point and yet, never once in any product launch I have attended has the rationale for a design decision been “because it’s cheaper” although, like adding “in bed” to the end of cookie fortunes, there are some of us that editorialize from the back of the room. “After extensive testing we did not put the USD forks on this bike because they were too stiff (replace stiff with ‘expensive’ and we didn’t think over-extended American consumers would pony up the extra $133 for them).

The price point design technique extends far beyond visible components. For instance, a wheel manufacturer might have five grades of wheel castings. Each grade improvement costs more money although they will all be of similar weight. The manufacturer can save money by specifying a lower grade of wheel just like a contractor can save money by using a lower grade of plywood.

Back in 1997 GSX-R 600s were built tough with bulletproof transmissions and valve trains. It was not uncommon to get multiple seasons of endurance racing out of the same engine. In 2000 Suzuki changed the valve spring retainers (an act of incompetence or avarice) and they started breaking after 14 hours of race use. This was the start of the downward spiral.

The 2001-2003 GSX-R were made of heat treated cheese whiz. The valve trains were garbage, the transmissions rounded off, the cam chain tensioners disintegrated and, in some cases, wheels failed catastrophically. It was also at about this time that Yamaha started taking many 600 sales away from Suzuki.

In 2004 we hoped that the quality problems had been addressed with the release of the new model with a revised transmission and the new titanium valves. I even asked one of the engineers at the press launch if the new valves would break like the old ones. He said “No, the new ones are 4.5mm valve stems, the old ones are 4mm.”

Ignorant or dishonest? You be the judge.

Trailing by thirty seconds at Summit Point the odds were favoring Red Star but it was still anybody’s race. And one of the new improved 4.5mm titanium valves stems breaks. A valve with less than 24 hours of time with the stock valve seat, the stock retainer, the stock springs and the stock cam. All stock. The valve breaks wiping out the whole top end of the engine and drops us from a second or first place finish to eighth.


Sam loving his aluminum tank and hating his titanium valves.

 

We were completely gutted. All of the season’s work thrown out the window because Suzuki either can’t or won’t get their act together.

The impact on the points standing was disastrous. Instead of needing to win two more races we now had to win three out of the next four and finish at least second in the fourth. Given the two straight losses and two mechanical failures (one our fault, one Suzuki’s) we were feeling pretty despondent while Red Star rolled their victorious Yamaha out onto the front straight to take group portraits commemorating the day.

 

Talladega
Alabama
August 20, 2006
•••••••••••••••••••••••

We dragged our sorry asses home from Summit and joylessly pulled the motor and removed the valve cover knowing full well what we were going to find: a broken valve stem on the outside, expensive destroyed engine parts on the inside. As I started into my favorite soliloquy from “Aliens” and began hysterically yelling “Great. Now what are we going to do? Game Over MAN!” Tim got all Sigourney Weaver on me by slapping me twice across the face and sending me into the house to get him some coffee.

Impossibly, a week and a half later Tim had a new motor built and we installed it into the frame, loaded it all in the trailer and drove off south to meet our doom. Scott Brown had ridden the entire 2004 season with us but had taken most of 2005 off for a variety of reasons. He had come up to Summit to ride and get back into the swing of things but there had not been an occasion for him to ride in the race. He had come to Talladega to get a little more seat time and knock off some of the rust.

Again we were all closely matched in practice.

At the start of the race Thompson put on an incredible display of riding. He was sliding the bike into every turn and looking like he was going to lose it everywhere but always gathered it back up. It seemed impossible that he would be able to slither around the track for eighty minutes without ever making a mistake but he was able to do just that. He had built up a lead on us but we caught a lucky break from a red flag and we were able to restart tied up on the same lap.

They were able to establish a small gap but it held consistent going into the last riding stint for both teams. Lindsay was out on the Red Star bike when we put out Fisher. For a while it looked like they would run the same pace but then Fisher started closing the gap to the point where both teams saw that we would be able to catch and pass them before the end of the race.


The infamous ex-girlfriend umbrella incident of 2001.
An unsuccessful 
psych out play by Neighbor Of
The Beast (667) against Lindsay on (145).


Displaying excellent tactics the Red Star crew pulled Lindsay off the bike early and put Thompson back on the track. We had taken the lead when they had pitted but we knew there was no way that Scott would be able to hold off Thompson. We watched the inevitable unfold and Thompson caught and passed Fisher and held the lead to the finish line.


Scott Fisher being hunted by Red Star’s Thompson,
Vesrah watches in amusement.

 

We had been flat out beat by faster riding. No mechanicals. No local ringers. Just flat out beat. We had just lost three races in a row and we were in a very deep point’s hole. The points situation was so dire that Tim and I both admitted later that we had individually considered suggesting that we close up shop at that point in the season but we decided, if this was to be our last season of contesting for the championship, we were going to go down swinging.


Ben displays the distressed patina of the 2005 AOD A bike.
This stylish look matches the distressed emotions of the team.

 

After losing the last three we had to win the next three to take our seventh championship. At that moment, such a winning streak seemed impossible.

On the other hand, the next race was a night race, and we are, after all, the Army Of Darkness.

 

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