Aprilia Cup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bikes Are the Right Color

Army of Darkness at the Aprilia Cup
Road Atlanta
June 4, 1999

All action photos by Brian J.

After a red flag, a shortened session, and a last lap flyer, the qualifying grid for my row read Yates, Gobert, Fleming.

It might have been the second row, and it might have been Ann Yates and Alex Gobert, and they might have spelled my last name wrong, but it is not likely I will ever seen those three families referenced in similar fashion again.

We were at Road Atlanta and the event was the inaugural US Aprilia Cup Challenge race. A week prior I received a call from Senior Ulrich. It appears that Zero Gravity, in a combined attempt to fill the grid and generate publicity, had organized a grudge match of a variety of moto-media and Ulrich, having run out of fast RW writers, had gradually worked his way down the call list to me. Esteemed Editor had planned on riding himself but an off track excursion from his beloved Willow Springs had bruised more than his ego on the previous weekend.

A week is short notice to round up a pit crew but I was able to bribe a few AOD regulars with promises of a track ride on Thursday. Like all things involving 3000 miles and relayed phone calls the event was almost over before it began when I received a call from the delightful Rachael from Zero Gravity on Friday informing me that I was not entered in the race nor would I be unless I got appropriate forms to her by Monday.

As this was the first I had heard of such requirements I was a little panicked but eventually all signed releases and such were arranged. I had some trepidation that this confusion might be a harbinger for the weekend but such doubts proved to be unfounded.

Road Atlanta used to be one of my favorite circuits in the country. Tricky, flowing and fast and, best of all, it is in Georgia near the wonderful metropolises of Atlanta and Athens. The "used to be" references the deletion of the gravity cavity but mainly, the new people working there. Georgians, in my experience, are helpful, courteous, pleasant and easy going. The new help at Road A were, by in large, a real bunch of ignorant assholes who were throwing their copious weight around. It could be that the AMA, for whatever reasons, had turned over substantial control of the pits to a TV company, or it could be that all the idiots fired from Daytona moved up to Road A, but to deny access to the pits to competitors is about as stupid a situation as could be imagined. The only way to get a pit parking permit for one's transporter was to spend a few hours tracking down some greasy looking guy in a corvette. This is race organization? It's just weird.

Once we were in the gate I ditched my crew to unload the trailer and let them start their fretting about riding on the track while I searched around the pits to find the Aprilia with my name on it. Melissa quickly pointed out that my assigned bike did not have any wheels on it. More helpfully she pointed out that it didn't have a steering damper. A kind older woman with an Australian accent standing near by suggested that her son had ridden one of these and that he didn't think it needed a steering damper. She continued "Tony said it would be fine if one is an experienced racer. Are you experienced at racing?" I am desperately trying to figure out in my mind what exactly is going on here. I look at the bike behind her. The youthful lad is applying stickers to an Aprilia. One of the on the stickers on the windshield says "Gobert".

Tony. Gobert. Oh.

"Although I trust your sons opinion on all things relating to motorcycle I am pretty sure that what he considers out of control and what I consider out of control are wildly disparate." Anthony Gobert's mother concurred and her youngest son Alex reached into his briefcase full of stickers and pulled out an Ohlin's steering damper. He flashed me a smile and said, "Here you go. I'll need it back after the meet though."

Now these Goberts had never heard of Army Of Darkness, had no idea I was writing for a magazine and had no idea who I was except for some bald guy fretting around an Aprilia with no wheels. He didn’t even know where I was pitted or what my name was and handed me a $300 part. We can learn from this that:

     1. The Goberts are really nice people.
     2. There is no crime in Australia.
     3. Teenagers are truly insane.
     4. His mother never taught him not to talk to strangers.
     5. All of the above.



This is Alex Gobert. He lent AOD a steering damper. He had never been to
Road Atlanta before. He qualified in 7th and finished in 5th. He is fifteen.
His brother won both superbike races. Watch out. Photo: AOD Ministry
of Information

The lack of wheels was due to the concurrent mounting of some new rubber. This was the first inkling of the coming debate over my role at this event. I have had a few negative experiences with Dunlops in the past. These include backwards mounting, rapid wear and catastrophic tire failure. After such experiences our team has elected to purchase Michelin tires. I am not sure when buying tires became referred to as sponsorship but apparently the word at Road A was that I was a Michelin sponsored rider and therefore the Dunlop folks were pretty sure I wasn't going to be permitted to ride on their tires. I assured them that free tires were much better than bought tires and I would be happy to wear out a set without incurring any penalty from my usual vendor.

While I was picking up the bike I ducked my head into the Aprilia registration trailer to see if there were any other forms I needed to sign. Rachael asked for my sponsor list. I replied "Army Of Darkness". She laughed in polite disbelief.



Does this bike make my ass look big?

Due to time constraints I didn't get a chance to look over the bike, mount the damper or adjust the levers or suspension before going out for my first practice. First impressions were all about the red light blinking on the dash, lightweight, underpowered, decent brakes, decent suspension, decent tires, lacking power, nice shifting poorly spaced gear box, pretty good ergonomics, and no power. Despite being slow it was very abrupt on and off the throttle. A couple times almost pitching me through the windshield trying to pin it out of slow turns. The gear ratios were also too wide for the power band although the tall Road A gearing might have exacerbated this.

To my surprise many of the other rider's did not seem to know the bikes or the track. I found myself rolling pretty good through traffic when a set of yellow and orange leathers stood me up in turn ten on the brakes. I immediately recognized the offender to be Bill Himmelsbach. Old guard 250 racer and father to 125 champ Mike Himmelsbach. Although I wasn't surprised when he passed me, I was astonished when I was able to stay with him, and, actually, pass him back up the hill in turn one.

Tim, my usual wrench, was going to be totally useless to me on Thursday since me was busy trying to figure out a better line through ten for the Team Hammer track ride in which he was participating. I dragged the bike over to Max McAllister and had him turn all the knobs on the bike. I mounted the steering damper to get rid of the under the bridge shakes, reset the tire pressures from the mounter's 40 / 40lbs to a more realistic 30 / 28 and got ready to go out for the second practice.



Fleming tries to put 150 pounds where only 120
will fit.


This is Stewart Goddard. He was paralyzed in a street bike
crash then started road racing motorcycles. He velcroes his
feet to the pegs and uses an electric thumb shifter. He qualified
in 27th out of 38 (ahead of two of the journalists) but a loose
plug wire DNFed him from the race. Sam ran out of gas on
the back straight in one practice session and had to push the
bike off the track. Stewart is one courageous man. Never say
never. Photo: AOD- Ministry of Information

Two months prior in the 600 practice at Daytona, while topped out on the banking, Melissa had Aaron Yates reach over and push her. As in reach off the bar, reach out and push her leg, at 150 mph. Now I have never met Aaron but that action seems to be the kind of thing that only a real dick would do. This was what I was considering when I realized that the rider I was practicing my turn 12 inside pass on was none other than Aaron's sister Ann. She was riding at roughly the same speed as I was around most of the track (which is to say slow since Mike Himmelsbach was going at least three seconds a lap faster) but I was faster through turn 12. Wanting to preserve any advantage I could for the race I would ease off the throttle (and sit up) on the back straight to let her lead through the nineties. I would then repass her through 12. Four times I wondered if Aaron had contemplated that there might be familial payback for pushing Melissa. But Ann wasn't Aaron, and, as it turns out, I am not a real dick.

On Friday we were to have no practice and only a fifteen-minute qualifying session at 5:00pm in which to determine the grid positions for the race. I had never received any of the briefing materials on this event (Ulrich doesn't like to prejudice his writers with advance notice or information) but I had heard that regardless of where the writers qualified we would all have to start the race behind the rest of the field. This was to encourage some sort of journalist dicing. We had the entire day to mess with the bike but whatever set up changes we made were for keeps since there would not be any opportunity to test or change them once qualifying started. Tim, Melissa and the one AOD elf (that had hid under the van seat until it was too late to turn around) said "What do you want us to do to it?"

Good question.

Tim aligned the rear wheel. He found that the wheel was 2mm out of alignment in stock trim. Others who checked confirmed that their bikes were in a similar state. While he did that I went over to the Himmelsbach pit to beg, borrow or steal tips. Mike gave me the low down on everything they had done but pointed out that his dad's bike was set up in a different manner. Based on their information I had Melissa drop the forks two lines in the trees. Ricky (from Zero Gravity) showed up with smaller main jets, some numbers for the bare plates on the bike and vanity tags for the windshield.

While Tim had the carbs apart he discovered an errant power jet that had fallen out of the float bowl. This explained the abrupt power delivery. He replaced the fouled looking plug on that cylinder as a precaution.

While the crew tweaked and twisted the bike, I sat and very carefully ran over what I had been doing on the track and decided on a few places where I thought I could make minor improvements and a couple places where I thought I could make major improvements. Mike Himmelsbach had assured me that getting the details right on a slow bike were crucial to cutting tenth of seconds. This involves things like shifting at just the right moment, both related to the powerband as well as track elevation, staying tucked in and of course, not braking.

The worst part of all the prep and waiting was that we didn't know if the changes were going to hurt or help me and we were only going to get fifteen minutes to find out. I had been talking a bit of trash to some of the other writers entered into this thing so it was of manifest importance that I out-qualify them. Since all the other 38 riders were on spec machinery this was also a bit of a litmus test to see, after ten years, just how crap a rider I really am.

It was very hot at Road Atlanta and I carefully hydrated and relaxed in the hour before the session. All of my careful physiological planning was for naught when a red flag curtailed the session after a single lap. The field was brought in and we all got to sit in the sun for a few minutes before being sent back out. Apparently the five minute warning was given after we had completed a single lap of the restart.



Sam planning out the plot, themes, characters, motifs, foreshadowing while racking his brain for a synonym for "gutless".

The bike did feel better than the prior day but it was still pretty slow. I tried to make up time by letting the bike get a bit out of shape through some of the turns and ground the peg, the rear brake lever and the bodywork. I got balked on one or two of the laps but did get one clean one right at the end. Tim said all of my laps were faster than the previous day's practice.

The bad news is that my worst fears about my riding ability were confirmed. Mike Himmelsbach qualified three seconds a lap faster than me. The good news is that in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. I qualified eighth, on the same row with the aforementioned Ann Yates and Alex Gobert, out of the 38 bikes that took to the track. The next closest of my journo cup competitors was in 22nd.

Mrs. Gobert looked at the qualifying sheet and jokingly asked for the steering damper back. True to Army Of Darkness controversial fashion, my qualifying position did 'cause a bit of a stir in the pits because, you see, I wasn't supposed to be up there in the front rows. The other magazine guys started griping that I was not a real writer, I should still be gridded in the back, that they wanted to race John Ulrich not me.

It may have been the heat. It may have been lack of water. It may have been lack of sleep. But these comments eroded my usual good nature and I actually got a little annoyed by the situation. The topic of discussion at dinner amongst Melissa, Tim and John Godfrey (who works for a DC daily newspaper) was all about the politics and dynamics of the situation.

I had made a tactical error early on by professing my belief that I would smoke the other writers. Although this could understandably be construed as arrogance, I think it was just accuracy. I had then turned my attention to attempting a good finish in the race, which, since the money paid to tenth, was defined as a top ten finish. Since the lap times were undeniable, the criticism turned to writing credentials. These remarks served their purpose to annoy me but I didn’t think the definitions were useful. The suggestion that I spend more of my time racing than writing was not accurate, or even relevant. If the writers for these other publication felt that it was important for them to have an experiential skill set in their chosen field of expertise they could have invest the time and resources it takes to learn to go faster. Complaining that it wasn't a level playing field because I was too good a rider, and therefore was not a writer, sounded an awful lot like sour grapes. The level playing field was the bikes (and at one point I offered to trade bikes with another editor); experience, desire and aptitude are the variables. I can also list off many well known journalists who would have smoked me in that race. Unfortunately they were either unemployed, un-invited or worked for Roadracing World.

The evening concluded with a riding plan for the first two laps of the race in an attempt to get from 30th place to 10th. We are more comfortable as underdogs anyway.

I think my irritability was due to fatigue because the next morning I was in considerably better spirits. My conciliatory mood lasted right up until I ran into John Ulrich at the track. Upon hearing that his rider was going to be gridded in the back not where his rider had qualified Ulrich succintly pointed out "It's called Roadracing World not fuck around in the back with a bunch of hacks world". At last, some insight into the development of his son's vocabulary. Ulrich suggested the following compromise, he would pay the otherwise comped entrance fee if they let us keep the second row starting position. This was not about beating the other writers, that was a foregone conclusion, it was about beating as many other riders as possible. I approached Glenn Cook at Zero Gravity about that theory and he immediately replied "No need, the speed difference is so great that we are starting you up where you qualified. It's a safety issue isn’t it?" I thought to myself, "Am I really hearing someone at an AMA race talking about safety concerns?" And Cook added "We didn't realize Roadracing World was going to send a real racer." Although it was probably the first time anyone had ever referred to me as a real racer I pointed out that the masthead at RW consists of John Ulrich (who can turn 1:29 on a 125 at Willow, races regularly and is twenty pounds lighter than me), Chris Ulrich who is a national 250 rider, and then me. That leaves me as close to a dilettante rider as they are going to find. The other regular columnists include Matt Wait, a plethora of Hayden's and some Sands guy. Of those choices, which one did they think the hacks had the best shot at? Truthfully, I think Ulrich sent the slowest rider with the best language skills (no offence Roland).

With the dark clouds of politics lifted, we took to the experience, the race and the bike with renewed enthusiasm. To prevent any more untoward chassis grounding Tim raised the rear ride height, Melissa cut the footpegs shorter and John added a little more compression damping to the forks for the turn 12 bumps.


AOD initiates operation Ground Clearance. Archive Photo: AOD-Ministry Of Information

I had tried two practice starts. One was great, the other was terrible. Those odds are only favorable if you are in Vegas. Unfortunately I bet black and the start came up red. I got my second worst start of the year (worst being at Daytona) but others had similar difficulty. A few folks passed me and I passed a few folks, I figure I was about 9th into one. I had counted on tire warmers and an aggressive first lap to stay out front but others had the same idea. I spent the first third of the lap going backwards but by turn four I had gotten the red mist and passed a few folks back. Either being passed back was an unpleasant experience or I picked up the pace a little but I never saw any of those leathers again.

Bill Himmelsbach came by me and that was the last straw. I have never race against Bill but have known him for ten years. He has a long standing good natured rivalry with my AOD teammate Jim and I knew I would have to stick close or pay the price in future abuse. I passed him back. I thought I was safely on the side of age and treachery versus youth and skill but Bill was pulling all sorts of 250 racing tricks that I had never seen before. I would pull alongside him up on the straight leading into turn one and he would sweep across my front wheel chopping my drive up the hill. I'd draft him back on the back straight and take a mid track, late breaking, screwed up line through the nineties in an attempt to block him. He'd pass me back up the inside in six. This went on, back and forth, for ten laps. Needless to say our lap times were suffering but I was having a great time. We were slowing catching the solitary bike in front of us but not as fast as if either of us had been alone.

On the tenth lap Yates came around both of us into the nineties. Apparently she had gotten a bad start as well. As in practice I was able to gain on her through twelve but not enough to get by. We caught up to the bike in front dramatically in one and she passed him in three only to crash in five. I was getting pelted with gravel, dirt and Aprilia parts but the leading rider of our group glanced over at Yates crashing. Bill and I were by in a flash and had opened fifty yards by the time we exited seven.


One of the rare laps that Sam led Bill.

The next rider was pretty far ahead but we closed on him slowly. However, I am slowing us down through the nineties and Bill is slowing us down through turn one so we can't catch him. Bill beat me by two bike lengths at the line which is as it should be.

We pull off the track and hesitate to watch his son ascend to the podium for his second place finish. Bill had taken eight leaving me in ninth with Alex Gobert in fifth.

 

I open my visor to rehash the race with Bill who immediately starts with a friendly "You dumb shit superbike rider! You don’t know anything about racing 250s. We could have drafted each other and caught that guy up there!"

Oh.

"Actually you were riding pretty good for a 600 guy."

 

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