Photo: Robert Kennedy, 995, in action. Photo by Gary Rather
By Robert Kennedy, Team Iguana Racing, AFM #995
SONOMA, CA, JULY 12
My entire motorcycling career has been centered around the belief that the rider makes all the difference in how smoothly and how fast just about any bike is ridden. From day one, this principle was drilled into my head by my riding mentors, without exception. My experiences in learning to ride my Nighthawk 650 on the street backed it up, too.
Racing has been one big (and growing) lesson in the notion that in some situations, the bike matters too. Sometimes it matters a lot, it seems. The first chapters in my apprenticeship to this new idea came in the form of two crashes in the '95 season that were related to (though I definitely won't say "caused by") front suspension demons that I subsequently exorcised (or so I thought until now -- read on). Those crashes where I lost the front over bumps on the gas were the ones that led me to start the infamous "Why does Robert keep crashing?" thread on the race list.
True to my philosophy that the rider, not the bike, is what makes the go-fast difference, I kept my race bike's motor stock except for an overbore that was required to get it running when it was graciously given to me, but given in sorry shape indeed. Lately, though, I had been thinking of investing a few bucks here and there to bring my motor up to the standard of several of my competitors. Steve Chan (#888), sitting out the 250 superbike race a few weekends back, had observed that everyone seemed to pull distance on me coming down the front straight at Sears Point. So I mulled over the thought of getting some motor work done . . .
As I was thinking about motor work, though, Stan Malyshev (#861) proposed that maybe I should buy his old Ninja 250 race bike, which already had motor work done to it. He offered me an excellent no-haggling-required price and I snapped it up, relieved that I wouldn't have to send motor pieces out to machine shops for unknown results, or hand over untold wads of cash for who knows how much time on someone's dyno. Now I was (am) in possession of three EX250's: My old A and B bikes, and this "new" one, which I call the "W" bike in deference to Those Who Came Before and dubbed it "Wanda."
So I spent the couple of weekends (and several weeknights) before this Sears Point race date fitting bodywork and bracketry to the W bike, stealing parts from my A bike to replace the leaky fuel tank, the missing fairing bracket, the fairing, etc., and fashioning a way to mount the instrument cluster, whose mounting tabs were all gone (the usual case for pre-crashed Ninja 250's). This last task afforded my first real chance to use the router my dad had given me a few years back, and it worked like a charm. Thanks, Daddy! The W bike's shock was also leaking, and I decided to take the gamble of sending it off to Fox for a rebuild rather than swap my other Fox shock from A to W. I won the gamble because Fox turned the job around very quickly and I had the shock back in plenty of time. I doubly won the gamble because after this weekend's racing I'm not near as certain that the Fox shocks on A and W are valved identically as I once thought (read on).
Saturday morning, July 12th, at Sears I traded in the W bike's take-off Tires of Unknown Lineage for new 591's and a slightly more negative net worth, courtesy of Sport Tire Services. The first practice session I chased Chris McGrail (#886) around a little and tried to get used to the bizarre feeling of the unfamiliar W bike. It felt OK but the handling seemed vague, like I wasn't getting the feedback I was accustomed to. It just felt completely strange, and I was able to draw no conclusions yet about whether this bike was a step in the right direction for me. I could tell that the motor was nice, and that there was more midrange power and maybe slightly better pull out of corners, but I couldn't tell overall whether that would make a difference in the end.
In the second session I just rode around comfortably, looking for more communication with the bike. When my toe slider first touched down unexpectedly I thought I must have set the suspension sag wrong because on all the other Ninja 250's I've ridden, by the time I'm going fast enough to touch toe and knee both, the front end is usually complaining a little, in the form of chattering and similar carrying on. It didn't occur to me yet that I just might be cornering faster with the bike still begging for more. I was starting to understand the bike's messages a little, though, and the handling no longer felt so vague and weird. I started pushing the button regularly on my bar-mounted stopwatch to see how things were going. Midway through the session I felt more or less awake and in tune with the bike, so I decided to click off a few medium-speed laps and see what the watch would say about them. These were laps that I expected were about 2:12's, judging from the effort I was putting in. After I pulled in from the session, the watch told me its story: 2:08's. I knew this was real. I can usually estimate my lap times within a second by feel, and I knew I had put in effort nowhere near what it takes me to get a 2:08 on the A bike.
After the second session I was beginning to suspect that this W bike might have Handling Magic of a kind I have never experienced on a Ninja 250, and the third session confirmed it. The bike knocked a clean 1.4 seconds off my best Sears Point lap times that I set over a year ago (and had never equalled this year), and I still wasn't feeling at all consistent with my riding. I was down to high 2:06's with clear areas for improvement, and a huge oil mess calling for slowing down and weird lines in turn 3. Now there was no question about it. This bike handles like a dream and gracefully keeps up steady traction in situations where the A bike's front would have engaged in the most violent sort of protest. I'm sure the fancy motor wasn't hurting either, but the Handling Magic was surely the biggest part of the difference. Amazing! I was beginning to understand how some of my competitors could walk away from me, doing the unimaginable on machines that were ostensibly comparable to the one I had been racing!
Aside from some rash remarks made by my competitors ("I'm not gonna have anything for you tomorrow, man"; "You could be looking at a podium finish"; blah blah blah -- I reminded everyone that there was no singing fat lady even in attendance on practice day), the afternoon's only event worth noting was that my friend and competitor Bruce Gutman (#957) unfortunately fell in turn 8A, the one truly nasty place left at Sears Point. Preliminary indications are that he stands a good chance of being fine in the end, but he has some healing ahead of him, as he hurt one of the vertebrae in his lower back. We're all hoping for a good report from the neurologist(s) he's supposed to see today.
I went home Saturday night feeling very good about my decision to purchase this Flying W bike -- absolutely thrilled to get a huge bonus of Handling Magic on top of the Motor Not to Sneeze At.
Sunday morning practice went fine and uneventfully. Just sort of rode around trying to wake up and see if the dream was real. Relaxed and did 2:09's. In the hot pits, I did a couple of practice starts alongside Adam Klinger (#919), and noticed that the Flying W seemed much easier to launch than the A bike, too. My starts have always sucked, and my finishes have suffered as a result. I figured if I could get better starts on top of everything else, this could only be good. I was smilin' bigger and bigger.
Around lunch time, my SO Lois showed up with some friends in tow. In the past when I had an audience I've done exciting things like crash in turn 10, so I was concerned that Carmel and Greg might get a show they didn't bargain for. But I was also very happy the three of them were there, and I just hoped for the best.
In the 250 production race I got a decent start, probably still better than 90% of my previous starts, but not as miraculous as my start in the superbike race. Oh well. A couple of seasons of bad starts have gotten me used to having to pass people, so I started in on the job. I must have been in about eighth or ninth going into turn 2, and I think I passed a couple of people there, following Mike Lowenstein (#152) around the outside. He was holding me up from the exit of 2 through 3 and 3a on the first lap, and I really wanted to get back in touch with the lead group while I could, so I decided to get aggressive in turn 4. It paid off, but I didn't get past Mike there. I cleanly got by at least Chris McGrail, and maybe some others (maybe John Prelock (#357)), but Mike motored pretty hard through turn 4 and wound up out on the exit curbing. He didn't let off, but I followed him closely through turn 5 and got past on the entrance to the Carousel (turn 6).
Now I was in sixth position behind Darren Slawecki (#678), Nick Tenbrink (#809), and Kevin Scott (#680). I don't remember which of Darren and Nick was ahead, but I think it was Darren at first, with Kevin in third spot. Sometime in the first lap, Nick passed Darren for fourth and then Kevin for third, I think. The group rode that way for several corners, watching Frank Mazur (#80) and Brian Bartlow (#29) walk easily away. When we got to turn 11, Nick and Kevin entered very close together, and for some reason later in the turn, Kevin steered his front wheel right into Nick's rear. Miraculously Kevin didn't fall; as Kevin's steering was slamming from lock to lock Darren and I rode under him and I didn't see him again for the rest of the race. So it was Nick, Darren, and me in third, fourth, and fifth, with no hope of any of us catching Frank or Brian.
Guessing based on practice, I felt it should be possible for the Flying W to beat both Nick and Darren, but they were both riding well. Also, both Darren and Nick tend to go faster in races than in practice, whereas I have a tendency to slow down a little in the races, so it's hard to judge. I didn't see a lot of opportunities to pass, but still, opportunities presented themselves. I'm a little hazy on the details of who passed whom where, but I think I rode around the outside of Darren in the Carousel. I seem to remember that Darren got back by me on the brakes into turn 7, and then I passed him again somewhere on the next lap (turn 4?) and set off after Nick who had opened up a small gap. Again I'm unclear on the order of things, but I think I passed Nick for third spot just after the exit of the Carousel on the next lap.
Coming through the chicane at the end of that lap, I was badly balked by two vintage monuments (thanks to Darren, again, this time for teaching me how to use the word "monument"), and I was sure Nick and Darren would fly past me on the straight. They didn't, and I'm not sure why. Maybe I had separated well enough from them.
The next noteworthy event was that as we came into turn 11, we saw that Brian Bartlow had crashed out of second place, handing that spot to me! Bad news for Brian, and it didn't make me feel like I deserved the position; I don't like to beat people by having them crash ahead of me. Still, I was pretty excited, never having run higher than fifth or so in the past. Nick says he was hoping I would be distracted by Brian's crash and let up a little so he could get by. In his words, it "didn't work." I slowed enough to make sure I wasn't going to run any risk of falling, but I got on the gas early and hard to drive out of the corner for the chicane.
Coming into turn 4 on the next lap, I saw a white bike out in the runoff, a guy in red leathers standing near it, and red swirls and metal scrape marks on the asphalt. All the evidence suggested that Darren had crashed behind me and Nick, but I had such trouble believing it that I nearly joined him out there. Darren simply never crashes, and seeing him out there got me so distracted I missed my turn-in and ended up going way too deep and taking the corner sort of Aaron Yates style. If I could do that on purpose I would think it was cool, but it just felt stupid and scary at the time. Still, I made the corner and miraculously Nick stayed behind me.
Sometime after that, Nick flew underneath me on the entrance to the Carousel and sped up there consistently for the rest of the race. I was no longer able to pass him on the exit there; I could pull alongside, but too many parts would drag and too many tires would skip for me to be comfortable with more. I had to get him somewhere else.
We had a few laps left, so I figured I had a little time for watching and waiting. I just wanted to play everything safe. I seemed to be in line for a podium finish even if I didn't get around Nick, and that alone was beyond what I had dreamed possible. I would much rather bring home third place than crash or take someone out trying for second. These ideas were my mantras as I took the white flag right on Nick's tail. We rounded the whole course, and Nick rode very well, leaving me none of the passing opportunities he had shown in practice. As we exited turn 10 and neared turn 11, though, I smiled as I thought of the lesson Darren had taught me there during the superbike race. And sure enough, there in turn 11 was a gaggle of lappers, just like there had been for Darren and me. Some of the same bikes were even there, right on cue! Just as I had done in the superbike race, Nick lined up for a mid-course entry to the turn. Just as Darren had done, I lined up on the inside. I braked late and stuffed up under Nick and under as many lappers as I could. I got past the lappers easily, but it took much of the distance to the apex before I had passed Nick all the way. Just in case, I left room at the exit for Nick's bike between myself and the wall, but he didn't seem to need it; apparently the pass had worked perfectly! I passed one more lapper between 11 and the chicane, and at this point I was beginning to feel I might have succeeded in putting Darren's teachings to work for me. I drove as hard as I dared through the chicane given the slower bikes all around me, and I just hoped Nick wouldn't come by before the line. And he didn't!
The Flying W had taken me to a second-place finish -- my first trophy ever, and a far cry from the ninth and tenth I had battled for on the A bike. Brian Bartlow rarely falls down, and he goes much faster than I do, so I can't help but feel he handed me second place. But I feel pretty good about saying I deserved third, which is plenty to make me happy! Or rather, the Flying W deserved third, thanks mostly to its Handling Magic and somewhat to its Motor Not to Sneeze At. A number of people commented after the race that Nick's dice with me had been the main show on the PA, and I was happy to hear that because it meant my friends watching could share some of my excitement while the race was unfolding.
And so ends my latest course in the principle that the bike matters. I had no idea that my riding was up to finishing on the podium on any legal 250 production bike, but there it was. I've been grinning ever since. I feel happy to have joined the ranks of the contributors to Team Iguana's collection of Race Wood.
To try to maximize the amount I learn from this experience, I want to use the Flying W as a baseline to figure out what's up with the A bike's handling. It will be interesting to see if I can figure it out.
Thanks to my SO Lois and our friends Carmel and Greg for being there in my little moment of glory. Thanks to my 250 production competitors for their camaraderie, and especially to Nick for running such a clean race with me. Thanks to Redwood City Honda/Kawasaki/KTM/Suzuki and especially Larry and Dave in parts for going out of their way for me on a regular basis.
Finally, I'd like to express my happiness that Darren and Brian weren't seriously hurt in their crashes, and offer my best wishes to Bruce Gutman for a thorough and speedy recovery.
I'm looking forward to next time! STN
AFM Sprint Races at Sears Point Raceway, July 12, 1998 - Results: 250 Prod. (Round 5) 1. Frank Mazur (K); 2. Robert Kennedy (K); 3. Nick Tenbrink (K); Kevin Scott (K); 4. John Prelock (K); 5. Jim 'Hawkeye' Davis; 6. Kevin Scott (K); 7. Mike Lowenstein (K); 8. Chris McGrail (K); 9. Adam Klinger (K);Steve Chan (K); 10. John Rabasa (H); 11. Brett Nelson; 12. Michael Hickey (K); Steve Demopoulos (K); 13. Kelly Winkelbauer (K); 14. Michael Lohmeyer (K); 15. Juan Vera (K); 16. Paul Somerville (K); 17. Jeffrey Bertany (K); 18. Ginny Cuttler; 19. Alex Benn, (K); 20. Emil Gallant (K); 21. Carl Bettag (K); 22. Antonio Rocha (K); 23. Jessica Arai (K). STN