2002 – Part Two
North Florida Motorsports Park.
April 19, 2002
Two weeks after the initial round at NPR we appraised our equipment, found it lacking in nothing, changed the oil, wiped down the windshield and drove to NFMP.
NFMP was built by Borge Larsen, a professional pilot and motorcycle enthusiast who decided it would be fun to have his own racetrack. He bought the land, raised the capital and built a nice flowing track. Knowing the damage that cars can do to racetrack pavement Borge has tried to structure a business plan that can support the debt payments on the track solely off the revenue from bike events. They have a rider’s club to cater to the burgeoning track day market, host races and rent the track for testing and development. Unfortunately for us one of the teams that had rented NFMP for off-season testing was Vesrah.
NFMP is a great track but its newness meant the facilities are still lacking in some amenities. Many of the teams, ourselves included, were pitted in sand. Sand always makes Tim very nervous.
In the egalitarian pits of Army Of Darkness and Neighbor of the Beast racing teams,
the men believe in allowing women to do all of the work while the men sit around
and drink coffee. Photo courtesy of Army Of Darkness/Ministry of Information.
We spend the practice day sorting out the data, the gearing, lines and tires. Michelin tire guru Walt Schaefer had suggested we test two different rears so that we could figure out which one would give us an advantage over the Pirellis. One tire was a WSB tire which we had loved in the past, the other was a commercial slick. We opted for the commercial tire as we could not seem to get enough heat into the WSB tire on the smooth NFMP pavement.
Initially the pavement was very smooth but the paving compound they used was no match for the awesome grip offered by modern race tires. Each team began its own collection of gravel pulled from the track and deposited in the lowers of the racebikes. The track has a welcome amount of run-off around its entire length. The grass had not grown in on the sandy soil so the vortexes following the bikes around the track would send miniature sand dust devils spinning across the black top, depositing silica off line. This made venturing off line a little treacherous.
At dinner most of the team members were philosophical about our chances of beating the factory efforts of Vesrah and 14K. I had often thought it was Sisyphean to race against factory teams on the same equipment because, even if we could match their riders, they would beat us solely on equipment. The sole dissenter at dinner that night was Mark Crozier. "We’re going to beat them tomorrow. It is only a question of by how much." I chalked his confidence up to ignorance and asked him for some of whatever he was smoking.
Vesrah’s Mark Junge, once again, told us he wasn’t going to ride the Vesrah II GSX-R600, just the Vesrah GSX-R1000. We didn’t really believe him and, of course, at the start it was Mark versus Mark, yellow versus black, Pirellis versus Michelin.
As we expected, Mark Junge jumped out in front of Mark Crozier trailing the duel between Mike Smith and Tray Batey (Batey won) on Heavyweight-class bikes. None of us expected, after about 20 minutes, for Junge to slow down slightly. The AOD Michelins were still feeling sassy and Crozier started to actually close on Junge. Crozier then sped up a little bit and, 30 minutes or so into the race, hell froze over in Florida, our pits breathed a collective gasp, and Crozier passed Junge and started to pull away.
Shortly thereafter Junge tangled with a backmarker, ran off the track briefly, and lost 20 seconds or so. Crozier, not to be outdone, got off line on the sandy part of the track and ran off the course as well, giving back about 15 of the 20 windfall seconds. Vesrah pitted first. They changed both the front and rear tires on the bike and deployed David Yaakov to try to run down Crozier.
Mark experiments with alternate lines. Photo by Vicky Sulpy.
Crozier, already on the bike for a long time, maintained a fast pace and actually increased the lead over Yaakov despite the fact that Crozier was on worn Michelins and Yaakov was on new Pirellis. Both of the Heavyweight bikes in front of us pulled into the pits for scheduled pits stops and, for a brief and shining moment, we were actually leading the overall race…on a 600.
The holy grail of endurance racing is being able to reduce the pit stops to as few as possible. This leads to such tactics as lean jetting and huge gas tanks. In a 6-hour race the perfect set-up is to be able to run 90-minute stints. That is the perfect set-up from the Crew Chief’s point of view; from the rider’s point of view, 30-minute stints is the optimum. Tim had been cautiously optimistic that we would be able to make 80 minutes but our gas mileage was unexpectedly better than Tim’s estimate and, exactly 90 minutes into the race, Crozier hit the pits with a one-lap lead and a solid orange fuel light.
We didn’t change the tires because we:
A. Are on a budget.
B. Wanted to keep the pit stop as short as possible.
We all, including Jim, thought that David Yaakov, whom we have known for years as a very fast rider from DC, would erode our lead. David was able to slowly pull a little time on Jim but it was in the range of a couple of tenths of a second per lap. Not enough to do any real damage as we had about a one-lap lead at that point.
Vesrah II was switching both front and rear tires at each pit stop. We planned to only switch tires once in the middle of the race, counting on the Michelin longevity to be able to keep pace with the more frequently replaced Pirellis. It seemed to be working.
A red flag interrupted Jim’s stint but we were a lap ahead of Vesrah II at the time so, at the restart, we were a full lap ahead of them. Our tires cooled down at the red flag. This is a problem because thin (ie, worn) tires are more difficult to get back up to operating temperature and Yaakov steadily pulled away from Jim at the restart.
We left Jim out until the tank was almost dry, pulled him into the pits, swapped both front and rear tires, and put Crozier back on the bike. He was lapping about two or three seconds a lap faster than Yaakov and quickly repassed him on the track for position. After Vesrah’s next pit stop, we were a full lap ahead once again.
I was then faced with a very difficult decision as the team capt ain and as a rider. My lap times at NFMP were about 1.5 seconds a lap slower than Jim’s and about 3.0 seconds a lap slower than Mark Crozier’s. Although traditionally I have dropped another 0.5 to 1.0 second in the race from practice, I could not be certain, standing in the pits, that I would be able to do that.
The last stint on our bike was going to be 80 minutes long. If I was not able to consistently match my best practice times (unlikely, but it could happen) and Mark Junge got back on the 600 and consistently did his best race times (unlikely, but it is never a good idea to underestimate the competition, especially when he is named Mark) he could catch me and they would win the race. If, however, I threw Jim back on the bike for the end of the race, we were almost certain to finish second overall and first in class, extending our points lead over Vesrah II to 21 points.
So I thought like a Team Captain, not as a racer, and I put Jim back on the bike.
As it was, Brian Stokes got back on the bike for Vesrah, and with the late-race pace slowing down, and another unscheduled, albeit brief, pit stop by Vesrah, there was no way he would have been able to catch me in the time left. Fate rubbed it in with a red flag which ended the race prematurely.
I was disappointed as a racer that I didn’t ride during the race but it was deeply rewarding as a Captain to pit my little resourceful crew of volunteers head-to-head with the biggest team in the pits…and come out on top.
Score one for the privateers. Photo by Melissa Berkoff.
As we took our spot on the overall podium Mark Crozier taunted the rest of our team with a hearty "I told you so." In the final scoring the privateers had beat the two Suzuki-sponsored teams, Vesrah and 14k the Movie, by 1 lap and 10 laps, respectively.
Mt. Meridian, Indiana
May 4, 2002
Since everything seemed to work satisfactorily at NFMP and we were all pretty busy with our day jobs, we left everything alone on the bike except for an oil change and emptying three pounds of NFMP pavement out of the lower.
Although they run a beautiful and safe race facility, Putnam Park officials insist on running their own pre-National practice day. They managed to defy the laws of the universe by collapsing time such that, despite using a five group practice scheme for track time (similar to WERA’s) no one seemed to get any laps in during the day.
We changed nothing on the bike from North Florida in the way of gearing, suspension, geometry or fuel maps.
Putnam Park posed particular problems:
A. Putnam is unpredictable on tires.
B. Mark Junge has the lap record at the track.
Once again we, as a team, were resigned to losing to Vesrah II with the only hold-out being Mark "We’ll Win" Crozier. However, the resignation to loss served not to demoralize the team, but as a liberating philosophical device. If we thought there was a chance we could beat Vesrah we would have to struggle and strive to achieve that end. Instead, we focused internally on putting together the best race that we could using the resources at our disposal. If our best race wasn’t good enough, congratulations to the winners. The net result was that, instead of being jittery, we were relaxed and focused.
On the morning of the race Mark Junge again told us that he would not be riding the GSX-R600. We, again, did not believe him.
Jim, Mark and I all took a few laps in the morning practice, but, since we all hit the times we wanted within a few laps, we used most of the endurance practice to let Tim get a head start on swapping tires, refueling and installing a new set of Vesrah brake pads. Despite a rather intense rivalry developing on the track, we are all friends with the riders for Vesrah and Vesrah II and, actually, Vesrah sponsors AOD with brake pads, oil filters and clutch plates.
AOD would be starting on the front row of the 43-bike field. At the green flag Crozier came off the line so quickly that he actually beat the initiation of the timing and scoring system. He crossed the start/finish line before the WERA official at the computer could click on the "Start" button on the computer and WERA scoring had to manually add our first lap back to our scoring.
Mark beating the scoring computer. Photo courtesy of Army Of Darkness/Ministry of Information.
On the track Junge passed Crozier in turn one with both tires sliding and set a devastatingly fast pace through traffic (they started lapping traffic in five laps) that Crozier was not able to match. They each did the fastest lap for their respective team within the first 15 laps of the race. Crozier’s fastest lap was a couple tenths faster than Junge’s but Junge was doing more consistent fast laps and slowly built up a 30-second gap. At about the 30-minute point, the gap had ceased to grow and Crozier started to narrow the lead. We started showing Crozier a minus board to show him that he was beginning to narrow the gap to Junge. About 10 minutes later Junge came into the pits with a pair of absolutely shredded and blistered Pirellis. He had gambled on using a softer compound for the first stint and the tires had only lasted 45 minutes.
Even with a big gas tank there are few bikes on the grid that can eek out 90-minute stints and almost none that that will reach 100 minutes. The early pit stop meant that Vesrah II still had two pit stops remaining, unless the race, like the previous two, was shortened by red flags. We had two scheduled pit stops in the race as well, only now, instead of being 30 seconds behind, we were 30 seconds ahead and our Michelins were doing just fine. After finishing the math I turned to Tim and said "We just won. Nothing could go wrong now." Tim is not a particularly superstitious guy but I thought he was going to kill me for murmuring such sentiments aloud with over three hours of race left in front of us.
The Michelins were holding up so well that Crozier was able to actually increase the gap on Vesrah’s David Yaakov from an initial 30 seconds to 55 seconds despite the fact that Yaakov had new Pirellis.
Army Of Darkness (99) leads Jeff Wyler Cycle (618) and MB Motorsports (55).
Photo by Larry Lawrence.
We pitted Crozier, running on fumes, at 80 minutes, replaced the rear tire only to save time (and money) in the pits, and sent Jim back out into the fray with a 20-second lead. That held steady until Yaakov pitted for another set (front and rear) of Pirellis and Brian Stokes. Jim passed Brian Stokes on Brian’s out lap, putting Vesrah one lap down with one pit stop to go for each team. Brian came back by Jim a few laps later and pulled about a 12-second track gap (he was still behind by 60 seconds). We started showing Jim a board indicating how the lead was expanding and contracting. Jim rode his ass off and slowly fed a few 10ths back here and there to Brian Stokes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jim ride better than that day to hold that lead.
We were leading, but it was going to be close. Although we were at least a couple laps up on every other team in the race, we had only a 40-second lead on the only team we needed to beat. By my best calculation, we were going to go into the last 50 minutes of the race with about a 30-second lead. Although Vesrah II did not use Mark Junge for the fourth stint at North Florida, he had declined to ride the 1000 completely at Putnam to, presumably, focus his efforts on defeating AOD in the Middleweights. He was going to be riding hard and fast in that last 50 minutes and I was pretty sure that I would not be able to hold him off. I was also pretty sure that Mark Crozier could. I told Mark to put his leathers back on as he was going to be taking the last stint.
A welcome site after three and a half hours. Photo
courtesy of Army Of Darkness/Ministry of Information.
|We put on a fresh rear tire for him and sent him out with about a 10-second lead. That grew to 50 seconds after Vesrah II took their last pit stop. Junge decided to forgo new tires to keep the pit stop short and went out on the track to try to run down Crozier. We displayed a + 50 to Crozier while Vesrah II displayed a -49 to Junge for about 10 laps in a row. Crozier was running times within a couple tenths of his fastest times for the whole race and Junge was unable to make any dents in the lead.
Scourge. Photo courtesy of Army Of Darkness/Ministry of Information.
With 15 minutes left in the race, Crozier began celebrating our third consecutive victory over Vesrah II with long wheelies on the two stretches of track visible from the pits. We started signaling to him to cut it out with the showboating but he just shook his head at us from the bike and, on the next lap, we watched him (with a mixture of horror and delight) proceed to pass a few backmarkers on the rear wheel instead. He brought it home intact for another second overall and first in class. The other Suzuki sponsored team, 14k the Movie, finish seven laps behind Army Of Darkness and Vesrah.
PS: I ran into Borge Larsen of NFMP late in the season. He says the pavement is fixed up and better than ever at NFMP and he is looking forward to having everyone come back soon.