So I had planned on doing regular reports after each and every AFM round during the 2013 season. But after missing the first three rounds due to mechanical problems and then a constant struggle to not just develop a new bike, but make it reliable enough so I could just concentrate on my riding, I ended up having a really hard time talking about the project in the kind of positive manner that I wanted to.
Not to say I figured this year would be easy- building a one-off custom race bike is of course going to be fraught with lots of challenges, but frankly, the problems I ended up having left me exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was share them with the world.
In the end though, I wanted to make sure to have a record of 2013 and take the time to thank my sponsors and everyone who helped me if for no other reason so that when things go better next year we’ll be able to look just how far things have improved.
So, long story short, back in October 2012 we started off with this poor 2008 Ducati 1098S with less then 1,000 miles:
And ended up with this:
Wait whut? Why did we hack the exhaust like that? That motor doesn’t look right either and there seems to be a lot of empty space under the gas tank. Shouldn’t the radiator be bigger? And what happened to the oil cooler?
So yeah, KC @ BRG Racing and I put a Suzuki SV650 motor in a Ducati 1098S frame with the intent of racing Formula 650Twins and Formula IV in the AFM. Of course, we had some help too: Gerry Piazza of GP Frame & Wheel was instrumental in helping us kick off this project by providing his expertise and Ed Lloyd deserves a special shout out for lending me his 848 so we could take some measurements.
So back in February, things seemed to be looking pretty good. After countless hours over four months, we had the motor installed in the frame using a custom bracket that KC designed and made on his CNC, a custom exhaust and many other custom parts to make the bike real. But then things took a turn for the worse when the motor blew up on the dyno just a few days before the first round at Buttonwillow. With no motor for the bike, I ended up staying home the first round.
The motor problems continued for a few more months (two more motor failures on the dyno) and I end up missing Round 2 as well. We finally decide to put in an old, almost completely stock, but known good, motor that KC had laying in a corner of his shop and ran that for a while so I can get the bike out on track. My first time riding the bike is the Friday trackday before Round 3 at Thunderhill.
The first thing I noticed was that the Brembo monoblock calipers and radial master were a massive improvement over the stock Suzuki SV650 parts I was used to. With the old bike, the brakes started feeling soft after about a lap and after 3 laps they became random number generators- never knowing just how much brakes I’d have going into a corner. Obviously, this made it very difficult to improve my braking and move my brake markers deeper. The new brakes had me doing one finger stoppies out on track without even trying and the brake fade was gone too. It definitely took me a while to adjust to the brakes, but I quickly realized that with the correct technique I could brake later and harder then I could possibly imagine on the old SV650.
The other big difference was the chassis. The steel trellis chassis of the 1098 is well known for providing a lot of feel and confidence in the corners. I definitely could tell the chassis was much stiffer and overall the bike felt like it was just easier to turn in- no doubt to being over 20 pounds lighter and having less unsprung weight then my old bike.
I also switched from Pirelli DOT’s to Bridgestone slicks. The Bridgestone slicks are really nice- the front gives a lot of confidence and the rear has plenty of grip and slides in a really predictable manner. One really nice thing about them vs. the Pirelli was they seemed to be a lot less pressure sensitive and lasted longer. Big thanks to Dave Moss who shared his tire pressure settings with me and helped make the transition smoother.
Unfortunately, I end up missing almost all of Friday due to a clutch failure. KC brought the necessary parts to fix it that evening and I was able to practice on Saturday. Having not ridden on a race track in about 8 months, I was trying to find my grove and build confidence. Unfortunately, we were still fighting gremlins and the bike literally turned off while out on track- leaving me stranded in Turn 4 just before lunch. This ended up happening again in Turn 6 just after lunch and I ended up losing a lot of practice time. In the end I just wasn’t willing to race with a bike that I couldn’t trust and put myself and fellow competitors at risk. So after a nice dinner with friends at Casa Ramos and a big margarita I went to bed and drove home early Sunday morning tired and in broken spirits.
Back at the shop, Warren strikes gold when he notices we’ve mounted the tip-over sensor at a slight angle and that’s causing the bike to die randomly out on track. A new bracket and we’re good to go.
Finally, by Round 4 (about 8 months from the start of the project) we had the bike running and I was excited to finally be able to see what the bike could do.
But Round 4 had it’s challenges as well. Friday started with the motor running horrible (I described it as having the hiccups) and I lost all of Friday morning trying to diagnose the problem. Finally, thanks to some conversations I had with Gregg Spears I was able to figure out that I had a broken quick shifter and disabling that fixed the problem. After that, I’m finally able to concentrate on my lines and push the pace, but the bike doesn’t feel right. I’m getting a lot of chatter from the front end mid-corner in Turn 2- the fast long left hand double apex sweeper which usually is one of my strongest corners. A number of people who watched me out on track commented that I didn’t look comfortable at all on the bike which was true. To make things more interesting, the engine had a chronic over heating problem and at the end of every session the bike was spewing water out of the overflow bottle.
Unfortunately, I’m wasn’t able to make any real progress Saturday during practice, but I was still excited to finally be able to race after 8 months of trying. I finished my first race on Sunday (650Twins), but I wasn’t happy with my lap times or finishing last. I knew I could do better and I realized the direction we were going with the suspension wasn’t working and I decided to talk to Jim and Nickie at Catalyst Reaction and see what they could do. I had worked with them in the past with my old bike and I wanted to see if they could work their magic again.
Jim looked at the bike and quickly determined that the front and rear suspension weren’t balanced and basically changed everything suspension-wise. Jim also took a look at the geometry numbers I had gotten from GP Frame & Wheel and made some ride height adjustments to help the bike turn in even better. I ended up having time for just one lap on track before my next race (Formula IV) to try out the new settings and it didn’t take more then a couple of turns to realize the bike felt a lot better. I not only ended up finishing much better overall in the second race, but dropped two seconds and ran much more consistent times! I still was about 4 seconds off where I wanted to be, but finally my lap times were beginning to get respectable.
Between rounds 4 and 5, BRG did more work on the bike to fix some small things that still weren’t quite right. I also did a couple of track days to get more seat time and start to come to terms with the bike, brakes, suspension and tires.
Unfortunately, just before Round 5, I ended up having to part ways with my longest running and best sponsor: BRG Racing. This was an especially difficult decision because of all the hard work and dedication to this project I got from KC and all the guys at BRG, but unfortunately I didn’t feel I really had a choice. I wish all the best for everyone at BRG: KC, Freddie, Shawn and Chad.
I honestly don’t remember much about Round 5 other then wrenching on the bike at the track trying to fix a couple of small oil leaks, my front fairing stay which snapped in half and the chronic problem with the bike over heating. I was pretty sure the radiator was too small and all I could do was keep topping it off between sessions and hope for cooler weather. I fixed the fairing stay by using some zip-ties. I wasn’t exactly sure what was causing the oil leak, but I could see there’s a bolt missing from the engine cases. Unfortunately, the only way to replace the bolt is to drop the motor out of the frame, and so I did the best that I could. Luckily, it was a small leak and isn’t a safety issue, so I just kept a close eye on it and hoped for the best. In the end, I was able to run both races and dropped another second a lap, but more importantly I also dramatically improved my pace for the first lap which is so important in a 6 lap sprint race. All things considered, it was a successful weekend even though I didn’t reach my lap time goals.
Sears Point. I mean, Infineon… err Sonoma Raceway.
Wasn’t sure I was going to make this round. I installed a new fairing stay and subframe, fabricated a new bracket for my XT Racing GPX Pro dash and ECU decoder module and mounted a bigger radiator to fix the overheating problem. The weekend before the races, my buddy Eric and I dropped the motor out of the frame to fix that oil leak. But in the process of pulling the motor we found a crack in the engine cases on the main motor mount! It went all the way through and is almost two inches long. Eric and I were able to figure out the crack was caused by the spacer design, which is good since that’s easy to fix.
What’s not so easy to fix is the motor. I don’t have a spare motor so my first thought is that this weekend and probably my year was over. Eric and I start talking and decide “it’s not that bad” and if only we could find someone who can weld cast aluminum I’d be good to go. Lucky for me, it turns out my neighbor across the street runs a fabrication shop (Pega Precision in Morgan Hill) and is happy to take the motor into work on Monday and have it welded up and bring it back that evening:
In the mean time, all day Sunday, Eric and I are doing some of our own fabrication: building a new exhaust hanger to fit the subframe I had just installed to fix the problems mounting the gas tank. After work on Monday, Eric comes by again to help me get the motor back in the frame and then again on Tuesday night to help with putting the bike back together. Wednesday evening is shot due to previous plans and I finished the final touches late Thursday night. I load everything up into the truck, shower and fall into bed at midnight, sleep for 5 hours and drive to Sonoma for the ZoomZoom track day- my first time at Sears in a year.
For Friday’s trackday I pitted with Mickey Fimbres and planned on re-learning the track and making sure that in my haste I have the bike in proper working order. Well so much for learning the track… I ended up spending all morning fixing stupid problems because I was too rushed/tired to put the bike together properly and it’s stressing me out. Finally after lunch the bike seemed to be fixed and I started focusing on the track. But between the lack of sleep, all the wrenching, the heat and the physicality of riding Sears Point I’m exhausted after a couple of sessions and call it a day.
Saturday morning I was ready to go and couldn’t wait for practice. I start to warm up the bike, but because it’s cold outside it took forever to warm up. Finally they called my group and I went down to the hot pits to head out on track. But there’s a delay in letting us out on track, so I figure I’ll turn off the motor… no point over heating the bike or burning gas just sitting there. BIG MISTAKE. Turns out all that idling had depleted the little battery my bike has and when they finally start the session my bike won’t re-start. Takes me a little while to realize what has happened and I started pushing my bike back to my pits. Lucky for me, Berto (the AFM President) sees me pushing my bike and tells me to jump on and pushes me all the way back to my garage. Thanks Berto!
I put the battery on the charger and waited for next session. I went out and as soon as I’m out on track I realize I only have 1st gear and neutral. WTF? I ended up riding the entire track with my hand up and get back to the pits. I’m able to diagnose that the shift linkage is loose and so I safety wire, lock-tite and Goop it and lose yet another session on track.
Honestly, I don’t really remember much else from the three practice sessions I was able to ride. I know I brought the bike to Jim at Catalyst Reaction and he twiddled a few knobs and adjusted tire pressures while I focused on my lines and brake markers.
That evening Mickey starts serving up margaritas and I decide I can have two if I don’t drink at dinner. Happiness ensues. My wife Wendy shows up, grabs a margarita for herself and we head on over to the Catching compound for dinner. We had a great time talking with my fellow racers and their significant others, but by the time I was done with dinner I was ready for a shower and bed so we headed back to the hotel room and crashed.
As usual, I can’t sleep worth a damn before race day and toss and turn most of the night. I’m almost happy when the alarm went off so I could get out of bed and start being productive. We grabbed our preferred caffeinated hot beverage from Peet’s and headed to the track so I could get the warmers turned on for morning practice. Practice went pretty well and I’m races #3 (650Twins) and #8 (Formula IV). Since I didn’t do the first half of the season I’m gridded pretty far back in both races which is unfortunate, but expected. I’m pretty excited though, my “Auntie Anna”, a long time family friend is coming up to the track and will be able to watch me race for the first time.
I’m gridded towards the inside of the track, which is really isn’t that great due to the tight turns 1 & 2 and how all the riders jockey for position. For the first time this year, I get a great start and pass at least 4 bikes by Turn 1. I set up for Turn 2, the up-hill off camber right turn knowing that it’s easy for a lot of things to go wrong here and so I want to take a tight, defensive line but due being shuffled through Turn 1, I’m not really where I want to be. As I’m tipping the bike in for the turn, the rider to the inside and just in front of me loses the front end, washes out and he and the bike slide right where I am going. Having no other option, I stand the bike up and get on the brakes and let at least 8 bikes pass under me. Crap!
At this point I’m sure I’m in last place and figure it’s time to go to work and start picking off people as fast as I can if I want to salvage a decent finish. I push as hard as I can, but before the lap is even half over I realize I have a transmission problem as the bike jumps up a gear while hard on the gas. This happens twice more (once in Turn 10 which nearly sends me off track and into the air fence) and I’m wondering if I’ll even be able to finish the race. On lap 5, I swear I scraped my foot peg on the ground as I’m going through Turn 7. Amazingly I don’t crash, but I do lose a place as I stand the bike up a little to save it. In the end though, I got my best finish of the year (7th) and my lap times are only about 1-1/2 seconds off my previous best so even though I’m really tired, I’m feeling pretty good overall. When I get back to the pits, I realize that it wasn’t the foot peg, but rather my rear brake pedal is now bent backwards:
After the race is over, I start working on the bike to make it ready for the next race. I decide to leave the brake pedal bent- at least this way it’s out of the way and start trying to figure out what is wrong with the transmission. I figure I’ve got one of two problems- either the dogs are worn out and I need another transmission (not going to happen today) or I need to adjust the clutch. I go in search of enlightenment and find Zoran who agrees to come over and look at my clutch cable adjustment. I forget exactly what Zoran says but basically it’s all wrong and he shows me how to fix it. Thanks Z!
This is a bigger grid and I’m gridded farther back (13th) and get a pretty decent start… not as great as last time, but pretty sure I pick up a spot or two. This time things go well. After a couple of laps, I realize that all the adjustments Zoran did solved my transmission problems and I start feeling a lot more confidence and push harder in the corners. Other then the amazing Brembo monoblock brakes, one of the other big differences between this and my old SV650 is the chassis of the 1098 is noticeably stiffer and provides a lot better feedback. Even though I still feel rusty from not having done many laps at Sears, the bike is just giving me tons of confidence in the corners and even though my lines suck I’m able to get on the gas a lot earlier then I remember on the old bike. The result is I’m able to make a number of good passes (including two bikes at once on the exit of Turn 6) and work my way up to 7th place for a photo finish. In the end, I dropped another second in my lap times; now less then half a second off my all time personal best at Sears!
Considering how hard I had to work just to show up at this round and all the problems I had and so little track time I had, I have to say this was the high point of the year. Massive thanks to Eric who spent nearly 30 hours at my house helping me work on the bike and Jim at Catalyst Reaction for getting the suspension dialed in so quickly.
While Round 6 seemed really stressful, I figured having two strong results and riding so well that the last AFM weekend at Thunderhill would go a lot more smoothly. I did a few things like change the oil and gearing based on what I had learned from previous rounds and figured I’d be good to go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
Due to work obligations, I didn’t practice on Friday and showed up Friday evening to unload the bike and get my pit ready. I got plenty of sleep and woke up refreshed Saturday morning. Saturday practice started off pretty well. I worked a lot with Jim at Catalyst on tire pressures and the rear ride height to give me more confidence through the fast Turn 7 & 8 section of the track where I know I was giving up a lot of time. My lap times start to come down as my confidence builds. But after the 4th practice session, as I put the bike on the rear stand I look at my right boot and I can see it’s covered in oil. I pull the belly pan and realize that it’s game over- the oil leak is coming from the engine cases themselves and the only way to fix it is to pull the motor from the frame and split the cases open.
I end up spending the rest of the weekend at the track hanging out with my friends and watching them race. Wasn’t at all what I wanted, but ended up being a lot of fun nevertheless.
The Wrap Up
Ok, so 2013 didn’t go at all like I had hoped. But at the same time, it’s good to know that with all the problems I had in 2013 there literally aren’t that many new things that can go wrong next year. Sure there are a few things I still need to work out for next year (most notably a new motor and a rear thumb brake), but I was able to prove that the general platform works and can be competitive. I can’t wait for next year and and see what happens next!
A shout out to all my sponsors and everyone who made this year possible, even if it didn’t quite work out like I had hoped:
- KC and the gang @ BRG Racing for pretty much single handedly making this whole thing possible.
- Jim and Nickie @ Catalyst Reaction for making the bike feel great!
- Linda and Helmut @ Helimot for the new leathers that make me look like a superstar!
- Jeff @ Viets Performance for all the emotional support, helping me track down various parts and mounting of tires.
- Nick and Eric @ Woodcraft for all the kickass parts, support and willingness to answer all my random questions about their products and then some.
- Bridgestone for the great tires & support. Sorry I didn’t buy more but they last too long!
- Armour Bodies for the excellent quality bodywork. I know your stuff crashes well, but I’m glad I didn’t have to test that this year!
- Jerry Piazza @ GP Frame & Wheel for helping with the initial design & brainstorming and advice throughout the year.
- Max at Oxymoron Photography for all the great photos of me out on track!
- Chris Van Andel and crew at Motion Pro for all my custom cables.
- My good buddy Eric Markham for introducing me to the AFM, all your advice and willingness to help me out wrenching and more.
- Aaron Fast of Pega Precision for welding up my cracked motor.
- Gerald Osuna of Artistry in Light Photography for taking the time to take studio quality shots of me and the bike.
- Tim Scarrott for doing such a great job painting my bodywork and making the bike look so good!
- Steve Metz for answering all my stupid questions about racing Ducati’s.
- And last, but not least, my wife Wendy for all her support, patience, willingness to put up with all the time I spend with my “other girlfriend” and deciding not to kill me after learning how much this damned bike cost to build. :)