2005 – Chapter Four
September 10, 2005
After our three straight losses there was a dark mood permeating the AOD HQ. Turning to our history we tried to find solace in the idea that, at one point, two seconds and a mechanical failure would have been the apogee of our season.
In order to take the championship we would have to win the next three straight races. Faced with such a circumstance and, feeling betrayed by the metallurgical shortcomings of Suzuki, one temptation was to emotionally distance ourselves from the contest. If we cared less about the victory then it would not be so bad if we did not succeed. Additional physical and emotional effort to attempt to win the races would only invest us further into the season and, should we not come out on top, make the disappointment that much more bitter. Although the statistics did not seem to be on our side we figured we would try our best to win the races and love like we’d never been hurt.
Our strengths have always been preparation and strategy. The Nelson’s Ledges race was going to have two hours of night riding. From our past experience with 24-hour endurance races and mixed night/day races like this we knew that much of the race would come down to the headlights.
Tim worked for hours and hours on the bikes before this race. He spent most of the time modifying the bikes to accept headlights. That sounds pretty easy but it involves making lots of metal brackets and welding things and generally figuring out the relocation of catch bottles and steering dampers and, to be extra diligent, he did it on both our A and B bikes so he had to do it all twice.
Back in 1999 when we ran our second 24-hour race at Willow Springs Jim Williams had found these really fancy headlight bulbs on the Internet. They were extraordinarily bright but cost $350 each and we needed two of them; $700 worth of headlight bulbs. I remember thinking at the time that $700 was a lot of money for a pair of headlight bulbs but that I would probably not be regretting that expenditure when it was my ass trying to search through some dust cloud for the turn in point for turn nine at 3:42am. I was right. We had kept them in a box since 2000 but we pulled them out for this race. We had two sets, one for our A bike and one for Melissa's team.
Tim also had a fancy HID bicycle headlamp ($400) that we attached to the right side of the bike for Nelson’s many right hand turns.
The trick to headlights on an endurance race bike is that they need to be pointed up high and out to the sides so that when you lean the bike over the lights shine where you are going. This is really tricky to get correct. Due to the hours of time spent searching for proper headlight set up at past races we already knew where they should go and had set them up accordingly. We had them aimed almost perfect from the time we rolled the bike out of the trailer.
Tim spent the rest of the preparation time reinforcing anything that was going to fatigue and break over the course of the race from the beat down the bike was going to take over Nelson’s bumps, ruts, frost heaves and trenches.
Scott and Ben prepare for practice while Tim channel’s De Vinci’s spirit at dusk in Ohio.
On the practice day everything went according to plan. During the day we were as fast or faster than everyone else but we ruled the night and were much faster than most teams and, in particular, Red Star. Larry Denning, the man responsible for our defeat at Grattan, was at the track but was, inexplicably, not riding with Red Star. All of this was encouraging. Also encouraging was how truly awful the Yamaha headlight reflectors are for night racing.
The race started. Ben Walters ran with Ben Thompson for the first 80 minutes doing their usual nose to tail dance. Both teams pitted within a few laps of each other. We changed the rear tire and they did not so we lost a little time on them. Scott Fisher took the next stint for us and got mired in traffic while Red Star’s Prussiano sliced and diced his way through the bikes to eventually put us a lap down. Scott was getting stuck behind bikes that wer e fast on the straights but slow in the corners and, given strict instructions to not bump or get crashed out of the race, was being cautious in his passes. He got off the bike very frustrated.
The arbitrary and capricious deity of red flags decided to really screw us and the crimson was thrown around the track. The rounding nature of the red flag left us two laps down. Being two laps down with three hours of racing left was not bolstering our spirits.
But then it got dark. And we are, after all, the Army Of Darkness. The Army of Darkness whose genesis was a 24 hour race in 1993 where Red Star’s Lindsay and I were teammates and our race effort ended with our FZR transmission trying to engage two gears at one time.
I took the first night stint. I took a few laps to adjust to the traffic conditions, the front tire, the changing light from dusk to night and finding which track markers I could use. At first I thought that there must be dew or something on the track because many of the other bikes were going so slow. Strangely slow. Wet track slow. I then realized that they could not see, and I could. I concentrated on my lap timer (which Tim had thoughtfully lit with a tiny reading light), riding clean, passing five and six bikes at a time and not getting sloppy on my riding.
I could not believe my pit board when the minus board they were showing me started dropping at two and three seconds a lap. I was gaining on Prussiano and gaining fast.
I caught and passed Prussiano in the dark but he latched onto my rear wheel and I couldn't shake him. I was riding really well and making close passes on back markers to try to scrape him off my six but he stayed with me. I could get a +1 on my board but he would always close the gap back up to me. I knew he was using my headlights and if I could break contact he would not be able to maintain that pace but no matter how psycho and close my passes were, he was doing worse. I almost felt bad for what we were doing to the backmarkers out there. My pass did, however, get us one lap back on Red Star.
The night stuff is really an exercise in faith and confidence because, even with our lights, you really can't see that well. You have to trust yourself that you are on the track where you think you are when there is no clear differentiation between the color and texture of the pavement and the grass. There were some reflectors on the edges but they were few and far between so you kind of played connect-the-dots aiming from one to the next but there are periods of time when you can't see any of them. Yee-hah. And then there were clouds of mist on parts of the track. The headlights would cause the mist to light up so you couldn't see anything. And I was making passes on clumps of bikes that were all wandering around the track because they couldn’t see any lines at all. And Joe Prussiano, world endurance racer and former WERA national champion, is four feet off my rear wheel doing everything he can to rattle me, and barring that, stay with me.
I spent most of my mental effort trying to not question the whole activity. I felt that if I ever stopped to think "What the FUCK am I doing running into a turn at 145 mph at night when I can't see the turn in point, the exit point or the apex?" I would just pull in. I tried never to think about it all while thinking that as long as I could stay ahead of Prussiano (who is a much faster racer than I am) I was doing pretty well. I just couldn’t crack under his pressure. I don’t know if the fact that Prussiano and I are friends made it better or worse.
My fuel light came on but I had made up one lap on Red Star and we were now only one lap back. Ben Walters took over from me while, inexplicably, Lindsay took over from Prussiano. Lindsay, usually a pretty quick rider, was awful that night while Ben went a bit faster than me.
Ben lapped Lindsay in twenty minutes and we took the lead.
Nolan inexplicably holds up a glow stick while Scott consults the scoring system
on the notebook to determine how many more seconds Ben pulled on Lindsay on
the last lap. The reflectors on the AOD bike passing by can just be made out on
the left side of the photo. The comeback begins.
Red Star attempted their Talladega strategy again and pulled Lindsay off the bike after twenty minutes and tried to throw Joe Prussiano at us again but his bike was no match for our set up and Ben caught him and passed him as well. Standing by the wall counting down the laps to the checkered Tim and I shared the feeling that however this season ended we had done well this night.
And we were extra happy because we did not expect to win.
And Red Star was extra sad because they did expect to win.
And that made it all better.
September 24, 2005
Max McAllister and I have been associates for about ten years now. He has built most of our suspensions for a number of years and is, of course, always good for some interesting perspectives on the world. He had called me in July to tell me that he was working with a young Canadian rider named Chris Peris. This was the same rider who has ridden bikes for the editor-in-chief of this publication and had developed a bit of a reputation for getting through the equipment. He was also the same rider that had put in some stellar rides in some AMA races in 2005 and was also mentioned to me as Canada’s best hope of a MotoGP rider by one of the Canadian motorcycle pundits while relaxing together in Spain.
It turns out that in the depths of our 2000 24-hour race at Willow Springs Peris’ uncle and father visited our pits and were impressed by the demonstration of controlled fury as we rebuilt crashed bikes, replaced motors and performed forty some odd pit stops. Peris’ uncle, from that date forward, had always wanted Chris to ride a race with us.
Our rider roster had been pretty full for the season and I was reluctant to burn a spot for a one off ride so I had postponed his offer.
Two weeks after our victory at Nelson’s Ledges I found myself in exactly the kind of situation that I hate. Scott Fisher would not be able to make the race due to a work conflict. Scott Brown would not be able to substitute for Fisher due to a back injury (with which I could sympathize), which left Ben and I to ride the race.
We were too late to take up Peris on his offer for this weekend. We knew that we would not be able to win against Thompson and Champagne so we started making calls at the track and Michelin hooked us up with Robert Jensen from the Jennings round. He had some sponsor conflicts but with enough begging and pleading agreed to ride a single stint for us.
The plan was for Walters to cover Thompson and then have Jensen lap Champagne so going into the last hour Thompson would have to make back an entire lap to win. I figured (correctly) that Lindsay and I would both sit this one out.
What had been a socially uncomfortable situation in the pits had become out right hostile. Unknown individuals in shirts with red stars on them were glaring at Tim and me in the pits and out on the wall. Mild, soft-spoken Tim turned to me at one point to inquire, “Who the fuck are these people and why are they glaring at me? I don’t even know them.”
Walters covered Thompson, Jensen lapped Champagne, Thompson rode a defensive second stint knowing that he couldn’t make up the lap. That was all she wrote.
This tied the points so whichever team won the last race of the year at the GNF would win the championship. This nail biting dynamic was discussed at length at the podium ceremony but the commentary was one sided as Red Star, as was their custom, was skipping the opportunity to stand next to us on the second step.
Grand National Finals
October 14, 2005
This race was going to decide the fate of our last year contesting the championship. We would win this round and leave the circuit with seven consecutive national titles or we would lose it and forever carry that bitterness of defeat. Not that the stakes were high.
Relying on our strengths of preparation and tactics we pulled out the stops. Tim wanted to rebuild our engine despite that it had few miles on it. With only a couple weeks until the bikes had to go into the trailer we would have to buy many engine parts at retail prices instead of at our support prices from Loudoun Motorsports.
I told Tim to tell Melissa and Nolan to get whatever he needed as fast as he needed it to make sure that the motor made it through this last race.
I told Melissa and Nolan to get whatever Tim asked but not to show me a single receipt or to tell me how much we were spending. I didn’t want to know. This turned out to be a good call on Tim’s part as he found two valves that were on the verge of failure.
We have always avoided using expensive fuel but Nolan purchased a 55-gallon drum of mileage and horsepower for this last round. We also went over the bike with a fine-tooth comb and replaced any worn fasteners, shift linkages, worn footpegs and such to make sure that we were showing up with the best machine possible.
And I made some phone calls. We put out the call to the AOD family far and wide that we needed troops for the last race. The outpouring of support was overwhelming. We had people flying in from Nevada and DC. People who had provided back office fabrication support now were showing up to help in person. Many of these people had at one point in their past been friends with Lindsay so the enthusiasm and support they brought to the effort buoyed the spirits of everyone involved.
However, Jensen would not be able to ride with us at the last round due to the aforementioned sponsor conflict that he had graciously taken heat for the Barber round. We tapped Peris. This sparked a bit of controversy. Peris would be our sixth rider of the season. A team is only allowed five. A team is allowed to substitute riders for injured riders. Brown had only ridden one race with us this season and had missed Barber due to injury. We substituted Peris for Brown for the final round.
This was commented on in the press by Lindsay who basically accused us of being chicken shit for substituting a rider for the last round. He might have had a point but any moral high ground he was holding was abandoned when, after practicing for two days, reversed his publicly stated stand of “We will not be making any rider changes”, declared himself injured and substituted Ty Howard for himself on the rider roster. As it turned out Jensen crashed heavily in practice and we could have substituted Peris for Jensen after his accident as well.
Chris Peris was a bit of an unknown quantity. He was fast, talented, and confident but had a reputation for being a bit of a hot head on the track and crashing a lot of bikes. I don’t know if Max had adjusted his meds, if his uncle had threatened him with a woodshed beating if he didn’t do well for us or if WERA endurance was just slumming to the extent where he did not need to get flustered but he was the epitome of maturity and quiet contemplation.
He was respectful, team minded and very interested in our data acquisition and the manner in which we adjusted gearing according to the RPM and speed data we were collecting, observing, “That is much better than guessing”.
His first practice session on the bike was impressive. Not in the times he turned but in the times he did not turn. He didn’t take a lap and then drop to a fast time. He started at a slow pace and then dropped a second a lap feeling how the big tank and the bulky Suzuki was going to handle his style.
Each of his passes down the front straight was met with twenty nervous fingers on twenty stopwatches as allies and rivals alike studied the progress. On the last lap of the session he rolled through turn twelve and twenty fingers tensed ready to trigger the watches. Some watched in horror and some in delight as the bike twisted out from under him and then snapped violently. The attitudes of the observers quickly reversed when it became apparent that this move was intentional; the better to loft a fourth gear wheelie the length of the front straight. The shoulders clothed in Red Star T-shirts visibly slumped.
Peris’ only handling complaint was fixed when we tightened the front axle. These prima donnas and their tight axles.
The race was going to be AOD versus Red Star, Michelin vs. Pirelli, Suzuki vs. Yamaha and DC vs DC. An entire season of work and sweat and tears on both sides leading to less than a point separation going into the last round. Hours of preparation packed into every available moment for the last three weeks.
And the race day dawned. The tension in the air was palpable. Tim could barely speak at breakfast. He looked as nervous as I felt but since our lap times were faster than theirs in practice my guess was the nerves were as high or higher in the Red Star pits.
Dawn lifts on the final race of the season
We put everyone to work in the pits. Double checking tire pressures, double checking sprocket installations, checking temperatures of tire warmers, fuel levels in the generators, socket sizes on the air guns. We double-checked everything and, because we had the manpower, double-checked it again.
The most overqualified pit crew. Sam Fleming, Chris Peris (on bike) M________,
Tim Gooding, Melissa Berkoff, Nolan Ballew, Jim Williams, Eric Wallgren, Ben Walters
while Max McAllister observes.
And the green flag fell.
Peris started against Thompson. Peris pulled out a seven second lead but a red flag erased it and we restarted in the same positions. During the red flag break Walters suggested to Peris that instead of gapping Thompson, to try running with him to test him and push him and egg him on a bit. Find out where he is faster and slower and save that knowledge for later in the race.
Peris and Thompson testing each other early in the race. Photo: Vicky Sulpy
At the restart, that’s what went down. Peris ran a slightly slower pace than in the first stint and ran with Thompson. They continued to pass and repass each other. Our bike was faster off the turns but their bike was faster down the long back straight. The axle to axle racing was thrilling but nerve wracking to me and Timmy.
Then Chris came by in the lead.
Then Chris came by alone.
Several long laps later a stricken R6 came rolling over the hill and, powered by gravity, rolled into the pits with a destroyed engine; an engine that had not been rebuilt over the last two weeks for this last race. Red Star quickly scrambled and got their B bike up and running but they would lose all laps completed until that point in the race.
Thompson vents his frustration that this engine was
not rebuilt before this race. Photo: Eric Wallgren
Some quick calculations indicated that if our engine stayed together for the next hundred minutes and we did not crash that we would have our seventh championship.
With a +34L out on the pit board for Peris, Walters and I conferred about Ben’s last stint. We agreed to forget the style points on finishing on the overall podium but, instead, to run slower laps, short shift the bike and be careful in traffic. Bring it back in one piece and I would take the last seventy minutes of the race.
Ben Walters putting the power down. Photo: Brian J
Demonstrating the calculated riding that make Ben so good at this game he did just that. He turned the bike over to me with about a little more than an hour left in the race.
It would be the last stint in an AOD championship race for me and it was bittersweet to take the bars. Of course, with a 34 lap lead there was no point in putting it all on the line and I let bikes pass me that ordinarily I would be passing. My crew gave me the thumbs up when we had crossed the point of no return where even if we crashed or blew up we would still win the championship.
Sam runs out the clock to take the seventh championship for AOD.
I was robbed of taking the checkered for the last time for AOD by a red flag thrown with fifteen minutes left in the race but the cheers in my ears and the burn out in the pits felt just as good.
Jim flashes the “7th” sign at Sam at the final red flag amidst the AOD. Photo: YT Lechner
AOD 1999-2005 Championship Riders:
Notable Pit Crew and Fabricators:
Army Of Darkness 2005 Thanks:
Walt Schaeffer and Ron Wood at Michelin, Greg Voell with Loudoun Motorsports, WERA, Vesrah, GP Composites, Morse Racing Products, Traxxion Dynamics, Sprocket Specialist, Zero Gravity, Pit Bull, Tyr Sox.