All Is Vanity
The following is part of a series of articles authored by Melissa Berkoff (certified motorcycle mechanic and endurance mechanic and rider), Tim Gooding (crew chief) and Sam Fleming (rider and team captain) of the Army Of Darkness endurance team. Army Of Darkness has won seven national WERA Middleweight Endurance titles and has been racing motorbikes since 1989. These articles explain the what, where, how and why of building a competitive race bike from a stock street bike. There are many ways of performing most of these tasks and the authors are conveying their personal methods and practices without purporting these to be the only proper methods and practices. Similar articles were published in 2003. All photos are supplied by the Army Of Darkness-Ministry of Information unless otherwise noted.
Garage and Tools
Racing without the right tools is a baffling ordeal. The collection of tools belonging to a racer or a team can be an ace in anybody’s hand and be the difference between winning and losing. Whether it’s slamming a bike back together under a green flag in an endurance race, or bodging together some devious modification while there is still snow on the ground, the right tool and some humble place to work is the beginning of it all.
In the first few years of the proto-Army of Darkness we were decked out with a single three-drawer Craftsman toolbox, a milk crate full of spare parts, and a wee garden shed that was free of cars, birdseed, and weed-whackers. The shed didn’t have lights, windows, or electricity, so we resorted to building up that first engine on the picnic table outside, hoping for dry weather.
Ten years later, we have an imposing toolbox, ruefully known as "The Hindenbox" and our headquarters is a relatively palatial two-car garage adorned with as many junked fluorescent lights as we could hang from the rafters and a roll-up door. The joint is a sea of chaos, packed with shelves of parts from different epochs of our checkered history, scrap metal, workbenches, tools, souvenirs (mostly hideously broken or worn parts), several layers of nasty wall-to-wall carpet on the floor, and a computer with a vast collection of MP3s and a wireless link for Internet radio. Heat is provided by one of those kerosene jet heaters for those mid-winter mid-Atlantic late nights.
Working on motorcycles in 40-degree weather under a streetlight once inspired a vision of a spotless workspace, lit up like an operating room, with heat, black-and-white checkered tile floors, neatly stored parts and raw materials, and an orderly layout of tools in a fleet of rolling Craftsman toolboxes. Something like the Griot’s catalog without the Shelby Cobra. The reality of racing on a budget, with a day job for the last 10 years, has resulted in a set-up quite different from the typical motorhead fever-dream.
Strangely, the denizens of the AOD garage can be quite efficient both at the track and in the garage. Especially since we threw out fully one half of the contents of the garage after last season. Sometimes as many as eight people have been working in there, scrambling to get four stone-stock streetbikes turned into racing motorcycles, with a surprising level of productivity. While we can’t say that our set-up is the best one, and certainly not the only one, it does seem to work for us, despite the shock and horror registering on the faces of some visitors.
The evolution of our garage and toolbox reflected the need for the right tool for the job, on a budget, and needing to pull off whatever fabrication, maintenance, or repair as quickly and efficiently as possible. Two thirds of the way through a race season, completely burned out on travel, late nights and grease, asking yourself over and over "Are you in, or are you out?", the Martha Stewart Bridal Edition Workshop and Toolbox were always the last things we could accomplish. We still get all weepy looking at pictures of big NASCAR workshops, or visiting the expansive Valvoline EMGO Suzuki shop (at the last visit we were glad to see that the exhaust duct for the dyno was bungeed to the flowbench, out of necessity), but we’ve managed to accomplish a fair amount from our humble work space. As long as someone decides to take out the trash once in a while.
In the garage proper are a few things we couldn’t bear to be without. To start, for any involved work on the bike we hang the chassis from the rafters by chains, after winching it up with a pair of cheap come-alongs. An afternoon of bending and stooping over a motorcycle will just about cripple a person so getting it all up to where we can comfortably work on things makes it all better. A lift would be nice, but we don’t have the space, and they used to cost several thousand dollars. The chains store up out of the way, freeing up floor space for other projects. On the floor is about 1-inch of some really foul carpeting. We added another layer each time our friends had occasion to throw out their Brady Bunch brown, teal, or bright blue shag carpets. As long as a person is not too particular what they are lying on, a few inches of skanky carpet is way more pleasant than a cold, dirty concrete floor, for when it’s not worth hanging the bike.
We also have the biggest bench vise we could carry home from the Costco. The type with swiveling jaws and a pipe clamp is best for getting pieces arranged for welding, just so. Ideally, we would mount it on 25 feet of well casing anchored in concrete (give me a big enough lever, and I’ll move the world by prying on my bench vise...), but that hasn’t happened.
Next is the oxy-acetylene torch. Years ago, it was all we could afford, and it has proved its usefulness, time and again. Heating the snot out of stuck bolts, brazing, welding up stands, carts for the toolbox and all the crap we carry to the track, a 4-inch exhaust for the turbo-diesel van, bodging a stock Suzuki exhaust onto our generator, the litany goes on. We’ve even welded aluminum with the old Alcoa flux method (visit www.tinmantech.com for more on this). A mig or tig welder would be nice, but so far we’ve been able to get away with the gas torch. It’s good to know when to stand down and farm out the things that have to be done the right way the first time, when the arc methods are clearly superior (frame repairs, our gas tank). We don’t bring the torch to the track because it seems too dangerous to transport it, but many times it would have been a nice thing to have.
The first things we did when we moved into AOD HQ was to build acres of shelves bolted to the floor and rafters, and shoehorn several workbenches into the remaining corners. It’s hard to say whether the benches and shelves function as useful work/storage areas, or highly efficient crap accumulators (what’s that giant sucking sound?). We manage to hack out space as needed, so maybe the more junk that’s around to work with, the better.
We have a long-suffering air compressor with air-line quick-connect fittings (so we can remove the hose for transport) that does double duty at the track for wheel changes, topping off tires in the morning, and running the air die-grinder every now and again. In the garage it seems to be running continuously for air tools and porting ("Let’s get in trouble, baby."), pumping up the van’s trailer suspension, and tires. A tee fitting that allows use of two hoses, both in the garage and at the track, is a must-have, so nobody is waiting or having to take turns with the tools.
Changing tires by yourself is a miserable task, especially when you think about that tire machine that the Michelin guys have at the track, but we have a bead-breaker, balancing stand, the tape-weights, and the dreaded tire-iron "spoons." When the tires showed up by UPS, swapping them onto the bike before getting to the track always made morning practice at some far-flung track in the middle of East Rat’s Ass a little easier. Not to mention that the cash saved by doing it ourselves always helped.
The last ‘must have’ item in the garage is the scabby old $25 bench grinder, good for sharpening drill bits (forget buying new ones when they just get dull again), grinding welds, beveling brake pads, and throwing lots of sparks and making noise.
And then there’s the Hindenbox. We decided we needed one of those fancy big-ass boxes. We were bringing more and more tools to the track as items proved their usefulness, and it all needed to go somewhere. We got the current behemoth used, with wheels, and gleefully packed it full of as much stuff as we could, and threw our six-drawer Craftsman box on top. Lifting that combination into the trailer was almost the excuse we needed to quit racing (it’s pushing 1000 pounds at this point), but it was not to be. We finally figured out that we could use some sort of ramp contrivance to push the thing into and out of the trailer. When it first arrived the box was on a cart with hard rubber wheels. We replaced the wheels with inflatable tires, which makes all the difference pushing the thing around on rough ground (those forsaken sand-filled pit areas at tracks down South), and in our gravel driveway.
The idea was that we needed to be able to do most of what we do in the garage, at the track, so it all had to come with us. As for what goes in the box, some of it we carry around as superstition requires, like the battered film can of BMW K100RS valve adjustment shims, handfuls of dull screwdrivers, and old Trak Auto sockets but most of it seems to be useful at some point in time. The top drawer has several packages of zip ties and duct tape. We realized we were in it for the long haul when the winter parts order included shopping bags full of Wurth zip ties and a dozen rolls of red and black duct tape.
Next is a drawer dubbed "the machine shop." Two or three metal files and a couple of hacksaws, with plenty of spare blades in coarse and fine tooth count. A few pieces of that aluminum strap in 1 x 1/4-inch, 1 x 1/16-inch, some steel flat, steel pop rivets and a riveter. Just in case. We used to think that pop-rivets had no place on a racing motorcycle, but the steel ones are actually pretty handy.
The air tools. We have a 3-inch cutoff wheel for speedily chopping things up, making lots of noise, throwing long plumes of sparks across the garage, and doubling as a bench grinder at the track. There is a 3/8-inch-chuck air drill, and a motley collection of bits. I usually just sharpen bits with the bench grinder, but it doesn’t pay with 1/16-inch safety wire bits. We buy six-dozen titanium-nitride coated 135-degree split-point high-speed-steel bits every year from the nice ladies at McMaster-Carr (www.mcmaster.com). Lumped in the air tool drawer are an air chisel and sheet metal nibbler. We used to use these to cut holes in the sheet metal of whatever decrepit old van we were driving around in to install windows and vents, which made the whole process of going to the races much nicer. We’re eyeing the hood of Van Diesel, our current luxurious ride (no joke, it is a rolling four-star hotel in comparison) to put in a ram-air scoop (with sheet metal and pop-rivets, of course). We also carry a 1/8-inch and a ¼-inch die grinder for porting. Carbide cutters are the only way to go, for metal removal, and sandpaper "points" or cones for finishing. FZR400 and FZR600 ports were so small that the 1/8-inch grinder was the only tool that would fit, for porting. Suzuki GSX-R600 ports in later years are big enough to read a newspaper through, so the ¼-inch grinder made its way into the box.
Banging around with the air tools is a wheel bearing press made of ¾-inch all-thread and various arbors turned to the right size, for pressing in bearings. Bashing bearings into a wheel with a socket and a big ol’ hammer is the road to despair. It’s worth it to have made, or make, a set of parts for installing wheel bearings, and a fork seal driver of the proper size. Even if those suspension guys are lurking at most tracks, sooner or later you might find yourself wrapping the fork leg in a paper towel and duct tape to keep the fork oil off the brake pads. It pays to have the adjustable fork oil syringe to set the level as well, if it comes down to changing a fork seal ourselves. For a while there, we were swapping out blown fork seals on the GSX-Rs almost every weekend.
The next drawer down has measurement tools. First is a Peacock metric dial caliper and a cheap micrometer. The caliper is useful at the track for making sure that the fork legs are at the proper, equal height in the triple clamps, the rear wheel is in proper alignment in the swingarm, ride height settings, etc. The whole deal for checking cam timing is in there (degree wheel, dial indicator, piston-stop made from an old sparkplug) mostly due to superstition as we’ve never have had to use it at the track, fortunately. The degree wheel proved its usefulness when Arclight Racing needed it one day and we swapped it for some set-up advice that changed our whole concept of bike set-up.
Thread-cutting taps, dies, and Helicoil inserts for 4, 6, 8, and 10mm bolts. Some high-use bolts such as the 6mm bolts holding on bodywork get a Helicoil to start with, effectively making them 8mm bolts and less likely to strip out after being assembled countless times. While it is not good form to be fabricating things at the track, it is good to be able to repair most threaded assemblies, clean out the old Loctite in the shift drum on a GSX-R600, and fabricate something at the track without relying exclusively on duct tape and zip-ties.
Chain tools. We carry a chain rivet press for shortening chains to the proper length, and a rivet expander. We are ready to change chains at the track so we can get every last minute out of the DID X-ring chains we use as they aren’t cheap. Never use a clip-type master link on a racing motorcycle.
Next is 3.0 cubic feet of nuts, bolts, washers, funny old brackets, and small scraps of metal. It all goes into the big bottom drawer of the box. Some attempt at categorizing has happened, but mostly it comes down to scrabbling through the tubs of fasteners looking for the right one. That drawer almost never disappoints. We just keep throwing stuff in there. It might not be the most efficient, and finally someone might get the idea that there really isn’t a 10mm locknut in there and buy a bag, but the biggest collection of fasteners we can carry is a real ace.
We keep some spare parts like levers, special nuts and bolts that would make us sad to be without (sprocket nuts, clutch nuts), clutch plates, super-secret repair brackets, wheel bearings, wheel valve stems, gaskets, and so on, in another drawer.
JB Weld, gasket adhesive, putty, epoxy. JB Weld is one of those things where if all you have is a hammer, the world suddenly starts to look like a nail. One of its main advantages is that it is absolutely fuel proof, so it can be used in strange places to plug up fuel leaks in a pinch. In the same category is Permatex epoxy putty. Say someone wadded up the bike and gas was hosing out around the no-longer sealed dry-break fitting 10 minutes before the green flag—the Permatex would be hard as stone by the first pit stop.
Another drawer has the dreaded tire spoons should we need to change a tire ourselves. The ones we have now are the longest we could find, and far superior to the stubby ones that came in a BMW toolkit. The tire gauge we have is rubber covered, and filled with some strange liquid. It has held up for years bouncing around in the toolbox, and has never varied more than a pound from Walt Schaeffer’s gauge (which looks like it came from the Titanic). It may have come from the Pegasus Racing catalog way back when after we got tired of taping the bezel back on to the gauges we use to have.
The collection of T-handle sockets seemed like trouble, but actually they are used all the time. Particularly the 10 and 12mm size. Different colored duct tape on the handles makes grabbing the right one easy.
We have a drawer full of cheap locking pliers instead of Vise-Grip brand locking pliers, because they are cheap, and it seems that the fate of locking pliers is to be savaged over and over by abusive welders and during attempts to replace the kingpin bushings on a few old Ford Econolines. In the same drawer is a set of Craftsman circlip pliers, the grooviest, stiffest, most positive pair of circlip pliers a person could ever aspire to use.
Our torque wrenches have their own drawer. There is endless debate about whether to use the beam-type, or the clicky-type. Sending the clicky-type out to get calibrated every time an engine went together was not an option, so we ended up with the Craftsman beam type. You can’t calibrate them (well, you could test them, but there are only so many hours in the day…) so what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Well, mostly. Fortunately, critical bolts these days, such as connecting rod bolts, specify an angle-torque combination, or a stretch specification, which reduces the uncertainty of conventional torque wrenches. The issue was laid to rest for us when Bill Coleman of Coleman Machine (a shop that held the small-block Chevy quarter-mile record for a few years back in the day) said "You don’t want that click-type." He uses a Sturdevant beam-type that can be calibrated by selectively grinding at the sides of the beam. Nifty.
Our electrical drawer has a multi-meter, although it is used less and less as (knock on wood) electrical systems seem more reliable, and fuel-injection systems have error displays. Also in the drawer is a collection of butt connectors of various sizes that seem to be used a fair amount for fixing up the wiring on the trailer in some scary truck stop in the middle of the night. We’ve all been to that truck stop.
The big drawer has a collection of big hammers and welding gloves (useful for grabbing onto terribly hot motorcycle parts while in a hurry), and our home-made valve spring compressor, which is just a giant c-clamp with a bit of tubing brazed on the end. Often the ignominious beginnings of an endurance team involve bashing on the motorcycle with a big hammer during a pit stop while yelling incoherently at one’s teammates. This could be one of the major attractions for people who are considering jumping into the endurance pond. We still have the big hammer, but things have to be bad (i.e. bashing out the inside of a gas tank, hoping, first, that it doesn’t explode, and, second, that it might be fixed enough to hold gas) for it to come out of the drawer.
The Top Box
The top box is a six-drawer Craftsman rig. At one time it seemed like there weren’t enough tools in the world to fill it but there’s always more. Mr. Snap-On has a whole truck full to sell you, after all. We couldn’t afford him, even though he visited the BMW shops we had the pleasure to work for. So we have a box full of Craftsman wrenches. And it never gets old taking a box full of dull diagonal cutters and sharpened screwdrivers back to Sears during the winter, for free replacement.
The top of the box has the Suzuki Manual, a calculator, lots of ballpoint pens, sunscreen, and two cans of 0.032-inch stainless steel safety wire (one of AOD’s checkered accomplishments is having consumed a dozen or so cans of safety wire, representing two-thirds the distance to the moon). At one time or another missing any one of these items would have been a snafu of biblical proportions.
The drawers have wooden dividers jammed in, to separate t hings into categories. Of course there is the full set of combination wrenches, adjustable wrenches in both metric and imperial sizes, and pliers. These are thrown in loosely, because life is too short to keep sorting those damn wrenches into those little racks.
Max Traxxion decided one day that we needed some of those wee tape measures for measuring suspension sag, and the Penske spring pre-load wrench, in case we might want to oh, say, adjust our suspension. A good thing, too, because once we actually started checking things on a regular basis with those tools, we often surprised ourselves with how far off a bike could be. Lumped in that drawer are an exhaust spring tool (Sort of a T with a hook at the end), and a piston-stop (made by blobbing some brazing rod onto an old spark plug’s ground electrode). This tool is for stopping the upward travel of the piston to install a degree wheel onto the crank, to check cam timing. The piston will hit the modified plug the same distance on either side of top dead center. Knowing ours stops the piston at about 34º makes installing the degree wheel pretty quick.
Next is a drawer with various flavors of Loctite. We use red (271), blue (242), and green (6-something) all over the bike. Always tap out a hole and clean it with brake-cleaning solvent or it won’t work. The little tubes aren’t as messy as the big economy-sized tubes. Also we have some tiny wee bent feeler gauges for checking valve clearances. The big car-sized flat gauges don’t fit in modern four-valve heads. And last of all is the collection of dull, broken drill bits. Like a pencil, just keep sharpening until they are all gone.
One drawer has three pairs of safety wire pliers (two of the cheap ones from Aircraft Spruce, and a coveted set of Mil-bar pliers that mysteriously found a home in our box). The Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has the finest examples of meticulous, proper safety wiring. Exhibit after exhibit of aircraft engines, all wired up by some poor sap who actually went to school to learn how to safety wire things correctly, such that bolts are actually systematically prevented from loosening. And at the other end of town is the AOD garage, where bolts are wired on mostly so that we knows it was tightened, by looking at it.
The same drawer has a more humble collection of diagonal cutters, for chopping off all that safety wire, and needle-nose pliers. And our Bondhus ball-end allen wrenches. Nothing brought more joy than finding out about those things after struggling with the 3mm Allen-bolt on the carb boots of an FZR 400 for several years. Also a fabulous thing is our set of Wurth T-handle Allen wrenches. T-handles are a little nerve-wracking sometimes as you wind them an eighth of a turn around before the bolt snaps loose. But they are faster than the L-shaped ones, and the Wurth ones are 10 years old and haven’t worn out with constant use.
The next drawer down has 500 screwdrivers ranging from very wee, to the big scabby looking one we use for prying big things that need to be pried. The regular duty ones are Craftsman, and they do the job. An important revelation that anytime one picked up a screwdriver to do something besides turn a screw (i.e., scraping, chiseling, prying) the pointy end of the screwdriver would invariably end up stuck in the palm of one’s hand has encouraged us to endeavor to cut down on screwdriver abuse.
Next is a set of ½-inch-drive sockets, and an impact driver. Again, it’s pretty bad when the hammer comes out, and if the hammer comes out to hit the impact driver, it’s a bad day. But sometimes nothing else will do. The ½-inch-drive sockets are pretty expensive so we tend to pick and choose the ones we carry.
Last, is the drawer with the 3/8-inch sockets. Sockets with Allen keys in them are really great and take away the drama of getting a bolt out with a T-handle Allen. We have deep-well, six-point, and 12-point sets as well. And some ¼-inch drive sockets that come in handy as well. The six-point sockets are less likely to round off the frozen bolt attaching the brakes on an old Ford Econoline when trying to replace the kingpin bushings before heading to the track. The 12-point sockets are better in tight spots. Modern motorcycles are getting denser and denser, so clearance can be an issue now and again. There’s nothing much worse than a cheap set of sockets, and since they are one of the most used items in the box, we have Craftsman and Husky (from the Home Depot). Every winter or two we traipse up to the Sears and swap out a bunch of worn tools, a really satisfying experience. One interesting aspect of human behavior is our response to intermittent positive reinforcement of negative behavior. The so-called slot machine theory. We continue to shovel quarters into the machines, go endurance racing, bash our heads against the wall, pay good money for old rope, and so on, because every once in awhile we get that payoff. Winning is like that, unfortunately. The rush of endorphins from trading in the worn out tools for new ones, definitely. Bearing in mind a negative behavior (racing) that is never positively reinforced is eventually discarded, we come to appreciate the little things.
After the first few weekends, the adrenaline-soaked traction yahoo seems to steer away from the more visceral aspects of racing to the cerebral. People who have been racing for a while tend to have that squinty-eyed Josey Wales look, or the thousand-yard stare. So thinking about what has to happen to minimize the negative reinforcement of racing, a racer will come up with a few rules of living beyond "stab it and steer." So it’s not just about what tools you have but how you use them, including the one between the ears.
Which brings us to a few rules we observe about working on the bikes.
Don’t safety wire a bolt, without checking to see if it is properly tightened.
Don’t stop halfway through a procedure with the idea that you’ll remember to come back to it regardless of the distraction.
If there’s a step you can’t complete before you do something else, leave a piece of duct tape with a reminder to "tighten the starter clutch nut" or "add oil" before you start things up.
Eventually a situation will arise where a person hasn’t thrown out the needle-nose pliers that have one nostril busted off, or the dull screwdriver, and the frustration level rises to the point where wrenches are thrown, and the person will have hives break out all over their body because of the unbearable frustration of working on the bike or the van or the trailer with a worn-out or broken tool. So we throw away the broken, bad tools.
And eventually, a person has to know when they have reached their limit. If you are ready to jam the screwdriver through the valve cover because you forgot to put the front cam-chain tensioner rail in, and there’s nobody in the garage to say "step away from the table, doctor," there’s only you keeping yourself in check. This applies to driving around in the middle of the night propping your eyes open after the eighth No-Doz. Pull over. Swap drivers.
Which brings us to the big rule. Remembering that everything you do affects the safety of the riders, other racers, all those folks on the highways, and so on, the big rule is that it all has to be done right. JB Weld won’t fix a radiator. A chain like a guitar string will pull the countershaft out of the cases. The wee wrench left on the brake bleeder nut can cause problems. But if you think about everything that can go wrong, the crushing psychic weight will keep a person from getting out of bed in the morning. Don’t think about what can go wrong, but think about how to do things properly. Don’t hurry, and get it right the first time. As best you can, anyway.