2015 Monster Energy/Graves Yamaha Superbike
New Jersey Motorsports Park
September 14, 2015
by Sam Q. Fleming
My Monday was to be the physical manifestation of the Venn diagram of “Tracks where I most recently crashed”, “Motorcycle Racers who have both won four Superbike championships and slept on my floor” “Best race bike in the country”.
September 13th saw the culmination of the inaugural Moto-America Superbike Championship. Monster Energy / Graves Yamaha had fielded, apparently, the only competitive bikes in the series and, therefore, had won every single round. If the season had been a Paul Neuman movie, Beaubier would have played the part of the cocky upstart kid while Hayes the part of the crafty veteran. Except, in this case, Beaubier is not cocky, he is actually a little shy. And Hayes is very proud of his teammate’s accomplishment.
An R1, with more brakes, more suspension, more grip, more power, more electronics, and less weight.
(Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
Yamaha, however, could do no wrong as they were guaranteed that one of their riders would be crowned champion on this weekend. To celebrate their victory they invited three journalist to partake in a small media event organized around their team and race bikes on the Monday after the bike race (Hayes won both races, but lost the championship to his teammate by four points).
As I drove across the Delaware Bridge on the road from DC to Millville my post-traumatic stress syndrome started flaring up with visions of smoking front tires, dirt filled visors and knee bruising guard rails dancing in my head. For New Jersey Motorsports Park has two race courses: Thunderbolt, a halfway decent road race track, and Lightning, which is a pretty crappy track for motorcycles as it is lined with close guard rails. I had the misfortune of attending a test day at Lightning earlier in the season, pitching the bike away (first crash in thirteen years) and then taking my last steps for three weeks as my knee swelled to size of a Musk Melon after hitting one of the aforementioned un- protected guard rails. So, you know, there was that.
Josh Hayes and your correspondent reminisce on the pit wall. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
Secondly, Hayes came up in the 90s through the WERA national series riding endurance and sprints for Team Hammer. I was racing WERA endurance as well with our overly documented Army Of Darkness team. Hayes was in a different dimension of understanding of bike control and speed. He was riding a shiny bike that was pulled out of a big truck by professional mechanics when the rest of us were racing out of vans. And yet, Hayes went out of his way to be friendly and personable. This meant that, on occasion, Hayes ended up staying at our house, or we’d end up trail riding, and, for one memorable weekend, he did a guest stint on an AOD bike. But that was before the AMA ride, and the four championships, and I hadn’t seen him for a decade or so. So, you know, there was that.
Lastly, Yamaha has dominated the US superbike series for years. Now, the unkind might point out that they have had scant competition but, of course, that is not their fault. This year is notable because Yamaha released a totally redesigned R1. This bike provided the basis for the Grave’s superbike. It, or its brother, won every superbike race this year. It is, by definition, the best race bike in the country. And I was going to get to ride it, for seven laps, during lunch, at a track day, with all the Yamaha crew members, technical staff and championship riders watching. So, you know, there was that.
To paraphrase Warhol, riding Superbikes with Josh Hayes is so fantastic everyone should get to do it for
fifteen minutes. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
On Monday morning Hayes rolled into the track and greeted us with a cheerful “Fucking Journos!” out the window of his rental crossover utility vehicle. For a guy who had just lost a fifth championship by 1% of points due to one third place finish, he was incredibly complimentary of his youthful teammate. Hayes, at 40, has somehow managed to avoid the bitterness that traps so many racers. He is clearly proud of Cameron and enjoys the rivalry which pushes them both to use their full talents. “I just want him to go on to win a world championship so I can point to him and say ‘See. That is the guy that was my teammate’”.
I asked him what I had gotten myself into riding his bike.
“It’s just a motorcycle. It’s just a really good motorcycle. It has more brakes, more grip and it has a lot more throttle response. But it steers really easily. MotoGP bikes, they don’t turn, this bike turns. We’ve really worked to make the bike work mechanically and then, if we can’t fix something, we might use the electronics but basically, I turn them off. Wheelie control, traction control, that all just slows down the bike. If the bike is wheelieing too much I try to fix it with the set up or my riding. That’s not to say we never use the electronics, it’s just what we do last. I think the throttle response will be the thing. It picks up revs immeadiately, in any gear, at any speed. But the inside of my legs are all bruised up because I hold the tank with my knees so I am not relying on the handlebars. It allows me to be smoother with the throttle.”
Hayes says “One button is launch control, one is pit lane speed limit, and the green one and red ones
change traction control settings. I only use launch and pit lane. I’d probably get confused on the track
and hit it the opposite way I meant to and, seriously, you rode it, when are you going to have time to
mess with buttons?” (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
After a bit more small talk he departed to sign autographs at the Yamaha Champion’s School while I cadged some laps on a borrowed R6 to reacquaint myself with the flat layout of Thunderbolt.
A couple hours later the countdown to the moment of reckoning had begun. I was going to have twenty minutes on Josh’s bike. He would be riding with me.
Yamaha had set up the hot pits in full race mode. There were canopies, tool boxes, Superbikes, 600s, factory riders, and about thirty guys in polyester race uniforms milling around. Jim Roach, Hayes’s long time crew chief, was looking over the bike I was going to ride. I intruded on his reverie and asked him how he built the bike.
“Well, we started with last year’s bike, measured it thoroughly, and used that as a basis for developing this one. Last year’s bike was the culmination of four years of racing so it was pretty good. We tried to pick up where we left off with that one. The engine is pretty stock because of the rule book. Pistons, crank, rods are all stock. We did some port work and put cams in it so it’s a bit more responsive than stock but it’s nothing crazy. The electronics are all Magnetti-Marelli and Vito did them (Vittorio Bolognesi) but Josh prefers to not band-aid bike problems with electronics so we do a lot of work to make the bike just work really well. Josh crashed a couple of times this year but we carry a lot of parts in the truck. He crashed one early this year that ruined every part on the motorcycle. It wasn’t too bad though because we built an entirely new bike out of the truck in about four hours. The funny thing was we had a new guy on the crew and that was, literally, his first day. Welcome to Moto-America!”
Part of the search for mechanical solution led to the development, fabrication and installation of this
suspension link. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
I was faintly comforted by the fact that if I tossed this one it would barely cause anyone any inconvenience at all. And so, with about five minutes to go, Josh walked over to confer with me.
“Hey man, how do you want this to go down? Do you want to ride the bike by yourself and just get to know it? Do you want to follow me or do you want me to follow you? Any way you want to do it is cool with me.”
At that moment I realized that I had been pretty nervous about this ride and, for one golden moment, the audience, the replacement cost of the bike, the media outlet representative and the sponsored rider all melted away and it was Josh and I, about to go ride some motorcycle together. It could have been WR250s in the backwoods of Alabama a dozen years ago.
“We only have a few laps so try 2nd through the tight right left, 3rd everywhere else, 6th on the straight. There is no traction control but the bike has a lot of grip so don’t worry about it. Just don’t stall it in the pits because it can be touchy.”
So I threw a leg over the bike while Jim unwrapped the tire warmers.
R1s in general, and this R1 in particular, felt small, dense and compact. (Photo by AOD Ministry of
The riding position is exaggeratedly forward. There is a short tank, and wide far forward bars. The seat has a pronounced bump which tilts my torso so I feel like my helmet is out over the instrument cluster. All my weight would be up on the bars, but I remembered what Josh had said early so I sucked it up and squeezed the tank with my knees ala hair scrambles.
There is barely any rear brake between the cut down disk and the spring installed around the master cylinder shaft but I am not a big rear brake proponent so I never thought about reaching for it.
There was a toggle switch on the far left and the beautiful Magnetti dashboard lit up. A thumb of the starter and the virtually straight piped cross planed engine burbled to life. Jim dropped the stand but I had a moment’s disorientation because the bike’s suspension barely settled as it too my weight. The bike sat very high with both high suspension and a built up seat. This allowed for easy weight transfer between the pegs as my knees were not at a very acute angle. The bike felt small and dense, but totally natural for a race bike.
And with that orientation I followed Josh down hot pit.
This is just a wiring connector plate that allows for easy organization of connectors but it looks
impressive so here it is. The four inputs on the far left are the four exhaust gas sensors (one for
each cylinder). (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
The bike felt unlike any other bike I have ridden, and faithful readers of this periodical will recall that I’ve sampled more than a few. The ergonomics were so aggressively onto the front wheel that braking, initially, gave me the impression that I would cross over the balance point. However, clenching the tank for the hard braking zones and straightening my arms made the bike work. Anything outside of the turn one (sixth to second) only required the faintest pressure from one finger. Turn one required two fingers but the crushing Gs on my arms were a funny contrast to the scant effort I was putting into pulling on the lever. The autoblip electronics meant I could do clutchless downshifts. I’ve only ridden a few bike with this feature and this bike, by far, was the cleanest and had the most positive and intuitive feel. No matter how fast I went through the box and how late I left the braking I could tell the bike wanted to do it all faster.
It’s as loud as it looks. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
I think it has been a while since I rode on sprint compound slicks. They felt so so good with unbelievable grip both front and rear. The limitation on the rear, for me, at this slow pace, was not grip but that accelerating out of the turns simply launched me towards the next corner at such a rapid rate that I felt I was constantly running out of track. Forget traction control, I just needed to turn much later to open up the exits for all the acceleration and grip that the bike could deliver.
Of course turning late on a liter bike is always a bit of an exercise in faith. Faith that big ass crankshaft wouldn’t resist, with all its gyroscopic might, my puny efforts to change trajectories. Even with the stock crank, this R1 changed directions much faster than I ever needed it to. A combination of light wheels and perfected geometry meant that I felt, more often than not, that I was lifting the bike off the apex curbing in the fast fourth gear turn onto the front straight, not pulling the bike down to it.
Maximizing grip means keeping the wheel base as long as possible, the vestigial brake rotor and caliper
are further impeded by a stout spring resisting brake pressure at the master cylinder. (Photo by AOD
Ministry of Information)
Josh has a progressive throttle fitted which meant a smooth wrist was rewarded with smooth power delivery, and, when the time came, only a small rotation further was all it took to ask the butterflies to go to WFO. The engine delivered flat electric torque, but electric powered from a nuclear power plant.
I had been warned about bumps on the track but, having just raced at Cresson Texas (see: ‘lunar surface’) I never felt any hits which disturbed the balance and composure of the chassis.
I relaxed into the ergonomics, concentrated on using that front end grip and enjoyed the perfect fueling, clutchless upshifts and downshifts with the perfect transmission and the perfect steering.
The Magneti-Marelli system is a comprehensive replacement for the entire electronics package of the
motorcycle. However, with MotoAmerica race rules, they are not allowed to use some of the more
expensive components. Getting one of these systems up and running, much less improving the
performance of the motorcycle, is a laborious artisanal task. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
Josh led me for three laps then dropped behind me for one more. He came back by and signaled for me to try to compress my braking into a smaller zone and rip the downshifts with conviction. We got our “IN” board, or at least Josh did because, despite the twenty odd years of endurance racing, I was way too preoccupied to notice anything down that straight other than the tarmac rapidly disappearing under the bike.
Following Josh on that last lap I had the presence of mind to notice that, in between his wheelies, he was not dragging his knee around turns when I was more than a few degrees into my slider. It dawned on me that he, like the MotoGP guys, don’t really hang off the bikes much because, at 60 degrees of lean angle, there is no room for the leg or knee. He was used to going around these turns with significantly more lean angle and, therefore, his knee wasn’t anywhere near the curbs.
Vittorio Bolognesi is a native Italian with twenty five years in power sports and engine control. He
started with the Yamahas in 2007 and used his contacts (and language skills) to get Magneti base
maps for the system and developed technology sharing between Yamaha Japan, Europe and USA.
With close collaboration between the different teams they have been able to advance the development
of the engine control systems. The system controls everything from fueling to suspension data logging
to dashboard display as well as downshift behavior, traction control and wheelie control. This race was
Vito’s last as he is leaving the team to take a position with Magneti Marelli proper. (Photo by AOD
Ministry of Information)
After we got our helmets off Josh we talked about the ride. “I thought you did pretty well” he opened charitably. I was staring at the travel marker on the front fork. There was still 60mm between the marker and the bottom of the fork.
“Josh, I wasn’t loading the front wheel at all.”
“Actually, I don’t use much more travel than that either. We’re running 11.5 fork springs and its tall in the back. The high set up allows it to switch directions quickly. I mean, I didn’t set out to run such stiff springs but thats were we ended up after trying different set up. You probably felt like you were forward on the bike. I like to sit as far forward as possible to keep my weight from wagging around behind the steering stem.”
I thought back to those bumps that the bike was absorbing. It seemed like some sort of physics defying trick to be able to run 11.5 fork springs, with limited travel, and still be able to float over track imperfections. I think in this case the trick is named “Ohlins”.
And then it was over. And I was really wishing it wasn’t. I desperately wanted one more session to, after the first dance, begin to explore the depths of the bike’s capabilities. Of course, more personal instruction from Josh would be welcome as well.
So much beauty bolt together into such a small area. Carbon fender, sculpted Brembo calipers, Oz wheel,
a linear potentiometer to tell the Magneti brain what the Ohlins fork is doing, a front wheel speed sensor
for engine management. (Photo by AOD Ministry of Information)
“The bike wants everything compressed so you’ll want to bang the downshift all as once.” Hayes explained.
I’ll remember that for next time!