2000 - Part Five

The 24 hour race is primarily an exercise in logistics. It requires a massive scale-up from an ordinary endurance race including additional riders, different bodywork, the addition of lights, rebuilding and refurbishing most systems on the bike and making the difficult decision about engines.

The engine decision comes down to the age old trade off between reliability and power. Most tuners favor reliability in a 24 hour motor and last year we won the race with a stock motor. This year the only piece in the motor that was giving us concern was the valve spring retainers. For the 24 hour we installed a new set of retainers (actually one race before) in our high powered motor. NOTB considered various engine choices but ultimately decided to just run the motor they had been running for the whole season.

Required for 24-hour racing: About $30,000 worth of equipment and one guy who knows how it all
works. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)

We also needed additional riders. AOD season regular Mark Junge had a bum flipper from a crash at Pocono and had been asked by Vesrah to field a team intended to win the overall race. This left Jim Williams and myself. We visited the local nursing home to pull retired AOD rider John Donnelly out of the lunch line and, ignoring his pleas that he was going to miss ‘Oprah’ we sent him off to California. No one had recruited seasoned rider Paul Youngman for the race and we were able to lure him to ride with us. We had also had great experiences (although his experiences with us might have been less than ideal) with Ben Spies earlier in the season and we were desperate to have one rider on the team under the age of 30. We fed him lots of lies about the romance of racing at night and were delighted when he actually showed up at the track.

Being based in DC, getting all the equipment and people to California is a reasonably complex task in and of itself. Ultimately Melissa and I drove the van and trailer to California while the rest of the crew (Tim, Jim, Nolan, John, Paul) flew the 3,000 miles. We were also very fortunate to have a large number of people either in, or close to, California that we were able to lure to the track to perform pits stops and scoring tasks. Ultimately I think we had a total force of over thirty people to ride, fuel, tire and score NOTB and AOD.

Melissa trains in Vegas for the MSS championship
‘Plan B’. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)

Our Vegas annex had arranged for a large RV and covert California operatives had arranged for a Willow Springs garage, so Melissa, Trent and I arrived at the track, unloaded the trailer, met up with the Spies’, had dinner and then settled in for a long night of getting nervous while waiting for the rest of the troops to arrive.

At the 24 there is ample time for practice on Friday. It rapidly became obvious that the word of the weekend was going to be “HEAT”. Heat in the track, heat in the pits, heat in the tires and heat in the engines. Everything was hot. We had to turn up the suspension to adjust for the hotter oil, we swapped radiators between our bikes to put the one with the least crushed fins on the race bike and began worrying about tires. Despite Willow’s well-deserved fearsome reputation for shredding tires we had experienced none of that the year before. This year the temperatures were higher and we started cooking tires in practice, an auspicious harbinger.

Sausage, legislation and calendar photo shoots…three things that you never want to watch be
produced. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)

We had guessed at the high desert jetting back in Maryland and had, surprisingly, guessed correctly. We did have to gear the bike taller than we had anticipated to accommodate Tim’s powerful motor. That’s the kind of problems that we don’t mind having.

It was all going too smooth; everyone was even riding really well. Jim, John D and I were all faster than last year and Ben Spies and Paul Youngman were inspiring. There were even some light hearted moments when we revealed to John Ulrich (to his dismay) that our data logging on Ben Spies (to his dismay) revealed that he turned all those impressive lap times without holding the throttle open all the way.

Melissa knew that unless something bad happened soon we were going to have a repeat of Darryl Saylor’s terrible crash from last year. Performing the task of the bad luck proscribed burn, she fell down in turn four and comprehensively wrecked her bike.

Remember when you took rider’s school and they told you that you end up going where ever you look?
Ben is looking up the inside. (Photo by Brian J.)

John Ulrich volunteered an organ donating street bike and it was quickly and efficiently butchered for parts for Melissa’s bike. Unfortunately the repairs ate up most of the available time for Melissa to find a suspension compromise for her widely varied riders and they would enter the night practice still searching for damping settings which were soft enough for her 107 pounds and stout enough for her 190 pound teammate AND would suit everyone in between.

Although we had many veterans crewing or riding with us from the previous year/years we had a fair number of neophytes. As in the past, I tried to have an evening orientation meeting with all the crew and riders in an attempt to herd the cats into all pulling on the same rope in the same direction. The difference at this meeting was that John Ulrich was in attendance. John Ulrich, who has won more endurance races than any other team, whose team holds the lap record for 24 hour races, whom I write for, was in attendance.

Crewing for two teams meant, on average, changing a rear tire every thirty minutes for 24 hours.
(Photo by Brian J.)

Seeing that we were going to have a meeting after our track side cook out Mr. Ulrich sardonically asked me if I had prepared notes for the meeting. “uh, yeah” came my reluctant response. “Can I see them?” he asked, somewhat incredulously. “uh yeah” and I handed him my lazer printed speaking points and then studiously tried to ignore him while he read them.

To keep track of all the various events during the race I had brought a laptop computer and a printer so I could revise pit schedules, rider schedules, race maintenance, tires, etc as the race progressed. That way anyone could check on the last printed schedule and figure out were they needed to be at any given time. Although efficient, I was a little concerned that such technological overkill might appear a little candy assed to a grizzled endurance team captain such as Mr. Ulrich.

In a commendation that meant more than winning some races Ulrich handed my notes back to me and said “That's a fucking awesome speech. Those computer schedules are a great way to do it. When you are done with those notes I want to take them because I am supposed to deliver the same speech over at the Vesrah pits.”

The crew warms up with a little NOTB crash damage before the AOD motor swap. (Photo by Brian J.)

24 hour races have a fair amount of romance. The first manifestation of this festive spirit is the night practice when the realization that this race is actually going to involve racing at night permeates the pits. The sun set. The headlights were turned on, Everyone got giddy.

Scott Fisher had decided that, since AOD’s use of HID headlights in 1999 was going to be extensively emulated for 2000 (which it was) our pits needed something else to lend a little pizzazz. That something was the black light sensitive pits boards which glowed a brilliant green at the leading edge of the pits.

The pit board worked great, the headlights worked great. We traded off riding around until it the fatigue factor was greater than the excitement factor. We collectively went back to the hotel, and bed, around midnight. 7:30am arrived with depressing swiftness.

At night the pits were entertained with the ‘Annual AOD Strong Man’ competition. (Photo by Brian J.)

The day was already hot by 9:30 am and by 10 am it was obvious that the temperatures were going to cause serious tire wear problems. We practiced a little bit but mainly just worked on prepping the bikes until the high noon green flag.

Figuring that it would be nice to get out front early on, we started Ben Spies. He demonstrated his considerable talent when he quickly put a lead on the competition and demonstrated maturity when he gave it back as the rear tire dissolved in the heat. Although we never checked, the rumor in the pits was that the 110 degree air meant 180 track temperatures. Last year our rear tires were lasting three hours. This year, a reduction in estimated tire life to one hour meant it was going to be an expensive race.

Our dismay at the poor life of our Michelin slicks was nothing compared to the considerable ire of a few Dunlops shod riders whose tires catastrophically failed in turn eight with complete tread separation and resulting high speed crash in both cases.

Sam searching for the romance and pageantry of racing after a long night. (Photo by Brian J.)

Melissa has started the race for NOTB but had still not arrived at workable suspension settings. A combination of stiff damping settings and a rapidly decaying rear tire resulted in her second crash of the weekend and season. Unfortunately this crash proved the durability of the Graves rear set by breaking the mounting points off the frame instead. Her teammate for the weekend Kevin Perkins (from VCR) instantly volunteered the use of his ’97 GSXR 600 that we had toted to the track as a practice bike. Eight or so of us started pulling various parts off of Melissa’s destroyed motorcycles (light, fuel tank, etc) and bolting them onto Kevin. It was a slow tedious and painful process that, due to a couple of fitment and clearance difficulties, effectively removed NOTB from contention for the win.

AOD, however, was enjoying a pleasantly uneventful race. Through quick riding and flawless pit stops we had managed to work our way into 3rd place overall. I was out on the bike for my first night stint almost enjoying the ambiance. The moon was rising in the east, the sun setting in the west, the pit board showing consistent times and the temperature was beginning it’s decent into the night.

Demonstrating the Army of Darkness credo “safety first” the pit crew sports stylish and reflective
shirts. (Photo by Brian J.)

The fabled Willow wind was only gusting slightly. A couple of times I felt like the wind had caught the FAI ducts on the fairing with enough force to cause the engine to stumble. Then it seemed to happen more often. Then the engine stopped revving over 12,000.

It felt all too familiar. The dreaded broken Suzuki broken valve spring retainer.

Did you know that “Oh Fuck” has replaced “Oh Shit” as the most common words spoken at the end of crashing airplane black box recording?

It was ill advised but I kept completing laps. I knew the engine was going to fail possibly breaking the valve and piston but I also knew that as soon as I pulled into the pits out lead, and our chance for victory in the race, would evaporate into desert.

Three laps of steadily slower times persuaded me to pull into the pits. I yelled at Tim to prepare the spare motor and took off to complete two more laps while they got ready.

Melissa enters turn two with a broken heart. (Photo by Brian J.)

After five years of endurance racing we were finally going to have to change motors under a green flag. My predominant thought was of all the other team’s we have watched performed speedy motor swaps mid-race only to have the bike break shortly thereafter. It is very difficult to get right.

With about eight of us working on the project it takes us about forty minutes. Not fast, but, as it turns out, we got it right the first time and did not have to take additional pit stops to tweak, tune or tighten. The crowd that had gathered to watch our struggle cheered when we finally lit it up.

I was pretty tired from the stresses of the moment and sort of gutted that we were going to have the victory taken from us from a manufacturing/design problem on Suzuki’s part. I slunk off to the back of the van for some fitful rest and waited for the arrival of more bad news.

Apparently we had paid our dues early in the race as our only other error was the forced repetition of a pit stop when a neophyte crewmember didn’t quite get the rear axle tight the first time.

AOD & NOTB, in a burst of existentialist exuberation, gather in a self made winner’s circle to
reflect upon the day’s events. (Photo by Brian J.)

Dawn arrived and found us gaining on our chief rival Paramount but not at a rate that was going to be meaningful before the race would end. Seeing my despondent body posture Tim cheered me up by pointing out that Paramount uses the same valve spring retainers we do.

With two and half hours left in the race a crew member working the wall came over to announce that the Paramount GSXR 600 was losing power on the front straight and making a bad mechanical noise. If nothing else, Suzuki’s quality control is consistent.

The race was going to be won (actually a Yamaha was going to win it but since the team fielding the Yamaha was only running this race neither Paramount nor AOD particularly cared how the Yamaha did since it would not ultimately play any part in the contest for the 2000 championship) not on the track, but by whichever team could more effectively change the motor of the GSXR. Paramount performed the task faster than we did but by the time they had rejoined the fray we had put about ten laps on them on the track. And, in a manifestation of my fears, they had to pit a couple times to make adjustments before a wiring connector pulled apart on the far side of the track stranding both bike and rider.

As with last year, we secured the 2000 Middleweight Superbike Championship at the 24 hour. We celebrated with a burn out, a group photo, and dinner at a local Italian establishment.

In a contrast of the sublime to the ridiculous, I flew straight from the 24 hour to Chicago to deliver a talk about Medicare payment policy. I dodged the inevitable “Did you have a nice weekend?

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