Monday, May 22, 2017

Nicky Hayden

As a motorcycle journalist, I’ve written about other deaths – but few of them affected me as much as Nicky Hayden’s. Not that we were friends by any means, but way back in the late ’90s (it was the year he replaced an injured Miguel Duhamel on a U.S. Honda factory superbike) I interviewed him for the U.K. magazine ‘Bike’.

I got the editor to assign a story on Nicky by convincing him the kid was the Next Big Thing to come out of the ’States. He was so, so young; but he didn’t just grow in stature, he grew into it. I was vindicated when he went on to win the U.S. championship and then, in 2006, the World Championship.

I’m not going to sugar-coat this: as World Championships go, his was underwhelming. I suppose there were mitigating circumstances; he won while carrying a heavy development load on a bike that probably wasn't ready for prime time. Whatever; I had the occasion to interview him every few years and he was always gracious, patient, and forthright; and he was (much) more than usually available.

I included a chapter in my latest trivia book on the subject of the elite group of American riders who’ve made a ‘Grand Slam’ by winning at least one premier-class U.S. ‘National’ on a short track, a TT course, a half-mile, a mile, and in road racing. I ended that chapter with a note that if anyone was going to do that again, it would most likely be Nicky; he only needed a ‘mile’ win. I asked him about it once, and he admitted that the thought’d crossed his mind. But he was quick to tell me that he had no illusions about how easy it would be to return to the Grand National Championship and immediately win.

“You know,” he said, “Those tough old dogs have been racin’ for gas money every weekend.”

That was the kind of quote that made journalists love him.

I’ll leave the eulogizing to others who knew him far better. But I always felt the mark of the man was how he dealt with adversity, in the form of the intractable Ducati MotoGP bike.

Today, when I read that he’d died, I went back to the results of the 2011 & ’12 MotoGP seasons, when Hayden’s teammate at Ducati was Valentino Rossi; perhaps you’ve heard of him.

Over the two seasons they were teammates, there were 34 races in which both riders were entered. Nicky out-qualified Rossi 20 times. His average qualifying position was more than one full grid position ahead of the Italian.

Over those same two seasons, there were a total of 26 races in which both riders finished. Nicky finished ahead of Rossi nine times.

Let that sink in for a moment: On equal equipment at Ducati, Hayden out-qualified the greatest rider of his generation. And flat beat him more than a third of the time.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ghosts of crashes past

Last month, Revzilla tapped me to attend the U.S. launch of the 2017 GSX-R1000 at CoTA on behalf of the Common Tread blog. I said ‘Yes’ of course, but then I had a little crisis of confidence; it wasn’t just that I was rusty and not in track shape, or that I've been out of the loop long enough that I don't really have a baseline for the evaluation of a modern open-class sport bike, although those things were also true.

In spite of that, Common Tread stuck by me, and seemed happy with the story I delivered. I was OK with the story too, so all's well that ends well as far as I'm concerned.

But the experience has finally prompted me to write about a GSX-R1000 launch I attended 10 years ago, on behalf of Road Racer X magazine, at Phillip Island. That one was still on my mind as I suited up at CoTA, because it involved a scary crash that landed me in the hospital.

Phillip Island is a rider's circuit. There's really only about two slow places to crash there; all the rest range from pretty fast to fucking fast. But the fastest fucking place of all is Turn 3 (now known as ‘Stoner’.) That’s where I left the racing surface at 120+ mph. I think I scrubbed a bit of speed off, before crashing hard, but I still hit the ground and tumbled at well over 100. I was lucky to come to a stop with a smashed wrist, and a few other contusions and abrasions. It was a crash that, if you repeated it 10 times, once you’d die, once you’d be crippled for life, and four of five times you’d be disabled to one degree or another. In my case, I was left with about 50% mobility in my right wrist – a small price to pay.

The thing is, I still don’t really know how it happened. And those are the crashes that mess with my head.

The way I remember it, I’d been riding fairly well, but had room to improve in Turn 3, where I was missing the apex. That was forcing me to roll out of the gas a little as the bike drifted wide. So as I came off the Southern Loop every lap, I tried to countersteer a little harder each time, to work my way in towards the apex.

Then, one lap, I made what I thought was a 1%-5% increase in steering input, and the bike speared off the inside of the turn, triggering the crash. Cars crash by oversteering in mid-corner, then gripping, and leaving the track on the inside; you see it in Nascar all the time. Bikes almost never do that, and that wasn’t what it felt like. I was just, like, “What the fuck?..” and then flying across the Phillip Island infield with the bike in a full on tankslapper on the grass. For all I know, my wrist was broken before I even hit the ground.

Weird eh? But that’s not the really weird part of the story.

The really weird part is, a session or two earlier, a wheel track had appeared in the gravel on the inside of the Southern Loop. Someone else had run off the inside of the track a few minutes earlier.

“Who ran off the inside of the turn?” was, briefly, a topic of conversation amongst the assembled testers, but no one owned up to it. Who would? It seemed like an unforced error – not something anyone would admit to.

I’ve never mentioned this to anyone until now, but that was the first appearance of Suzuki's new electronically controlled speed-sensitive steering damper. According to Suzuki, it increased damping force as speed increased. I’ve always wondered if there was some kind of bug in the software that controlled it. Was there something about the sequence of turns – Gardner Straight leading into Doohan, to Southern Loop – that caused the steering damper to suddenly back off? That would explain an unexpectedly sudden increase in steering sensitivity.

To be clear: I’m not blaming Suzuki’s steering damper. And I never followed it up with Suzuki’s engineers, who came to ask how I was when I got out of the hospital in Melbourne.

I’ve made lots of mistakes on motorcycles. On my bad days I think the worst one was getting on a motorcycle for the first time, although most days I’m grateful for the positive experiences and motivation bikes havegiven me. I’ve crashed enough that I no longer need reminding of the consequences of an error in judgment – and to accept the responsibility for my mistakes. When I fuck up, I own it and move on.

But the handful of crashes that I can’t explain continue to haunt me. One of those was that fucking Gixxer. And not a day goes by that I don’t see the scars from it.

As you might imagine, I noticed last month when Suzuki’s press guys bragged up the good old speed-sensitive steering damper. I thought, “I’d rather have an old fashioned one, that I can set and forget.”

Luckily, the new GSX-R1000 changes direction much better than previous versions. Steering inputs are lighter, and I suppose the risk of over-countersteering – if that was what I did – is lower as a result. I’m not going to lie to you though; I left a little room at every apex. That’s not an excuse, it’s just an explanation.

Two hours later, I was in the hospital wondering what I'd done wrong and marveling at how much I loved morphine. Long after I'd experienced withdrawal, I started to wonder about that newfangled speed-sensitive steering damper and the other mysterious tracks on the inside of a Phillip Island corner.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

I got that all wrong

My beef with the way marijuana's treated as a banned substance in sports doesn't mean I think racing while stoned is OK. I don't. 

The problem is that almost all available tests for the presence of cannabinoids return positive results long after the effect of using marijuana has passed. In America in 2017, as far as rules-makers are concerned, pot should be treated like alcohol. The goal should be to ensure riders aren't under the influence. 

A test that bans a rider for using pot days before racing doesn't improve safety, it's just out of date moralizing.

I apologize for the error-riddled (but stimulating) opinion piece I wrote and posted earlier today, inspired by Dalton Gauthier's ban, which came after he tested positive for marijuana use after the Charlotte half-mile.

I wrote the original version of this post as if AMA Pro Racing/American Flat Track used the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA's) banned substance list. That would be the case if Gauthier'd been a Supercross rider, but AFT rules are, as Al Ludington graciously pointed out, based on Nascar's substance abuse rules.

I’ve written before about the flaws in borrowing, wholesale, a banned-substances list designed for sports like track and field or weightlifting. Some day I'll peruse the AFT banned list in detail, but the larger point of my initial post still stands: While tests for alcohol measure blood alcohol and correlate with impairment, most marijuana tests currently look for metabolites and can yield a positive result long after the effects of using the drug have passed.

More and more Americans in all sports are being tripped up by the inclusion of pot on banned substance lists. After all, recreational marijuana is legal in several states, and most states offer some kind of legal dispensation for pot use with (ahem) a doctor’s prescription. Even solidly conservative states like Missouri, where I live, are softening their stances on pot use; Kansas City recently voted to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot for personal use.

I don’t know whether Dalton Gauthier was actually racing under the influence at Charlotte (in which case a ban’s justified) or whether a random test merely detected use in the recent past, or during post-event celebrations.

Regardless, AMA Pro/AFT, MotoAmerica and other sanctioning bodies would be well advised to acknowledge the relatively harmless reality of marijuana use and to  specify that cannabinoid drugs are banned in competition. AFT rules specify that alcohol must not be consumed for at least 12 hours before competition. A similar rule would be fair where pot's concerned. Merely using marijuana in the days or weeks leading to a competition, which probably would yield a positive test and result in a ban, puts us behind the times.

PS... For what it's worth, when I make a big mistake like that, I dock my entire salary for the day.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Indian files 'Harley-killing' patent

Polaris Industries, maker of Indian motorcycles, has patented an ingenious means of circumventing DOT and EPA sound regulations, effectively legalizing exhausts that produce an ear-splitting 129 dB sound volume. Backmarker learned of this new exhaust technology when one of our contributors discovered Polaris’ patent application.

At first, Polaris refused to comment. But when we said we’d break the story anyway, Polaris’ spokesman admitted that Indian’s ‘Loophole™’ mufflers will be available this fall on 2018 model motorcycles.

Although Polaris wouldn’t tell us how the Loophole™ muffler works, the company’s patent application shows a system of in-muffler microphones, amplifiers, and speakers that will allow the rider to switch on the electronic amplification of the exhaust sound.

Polaris’ patent means its motorcycles can be vastly louder than competitors’ bikes, without violating the letter of federal regulations.

While federal regulations mandate a maximum noise level of 84 dB, that’s for total vehicle noise at 35 mph. Polaris designers realized, however, that those rules do not apply to stereo sound systems. Obviously, DOT’s sound tests take place with stereos off.

“We expect our Loophole™ optional muffler package to be the most profitable accessory in the Indian catalog, come 2018,” Polaris’ spokesman Luke Solicitano told me. “Our customer surveys have shown, over and over, that the one area where we’ve had trouble competing with Harley-Davidson is exhaust volume. People tell us, ‘Harley’s are just louder’. Well, that ends now.”

Off the record, one Polaris engineer told us that the increase is in sound volume only, not power—which is critical, because increasing power would impact the specification of everything from clutch to brakes.

A spokesman for ABATE North Dakota said, “If it’s true that the Loophole™ system produces nearly 130 decibels, this is the most important safety development since wrap-around sunglasses.”

Because the decibel system is based on a logarithmic scale, the Loophole™ exhaust’s 129 dB output is actually over 20 times as loud as DOT regulations specify, yet it’s perfectly legal because technically, it’s an unregulated stereo sound system.

“With the switch in the ‘off’ position,” Polaris’ Solicitano told Backmarker, “It’s not any louder than the stock exhaust, which we calibrate to be right on the DOT’s 84 dB limit. But when you hit the switch, it’s as loud as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during a catapult launch with full afterburners. We tested a prototype for a few seconds outside the Buffalo Chip last year and about ten guys jumped right out of the kuttes.”

Again, off the record, one Polaris engineer told us that Indians will get a slightly uprated generators with higher amp fuses to handle the electrical drain of the in-muffler amp. The speaker is believed to have been developed in concert with Bose.

Meanwhile Harley-Davidson executives, on learning of the Loophole™ patent have apparently scheduled another trip to the White House.

One Harley exec who wished to remain anonymous because the White House trip hasn’t been officially announced told me, “Polaris just wasted a bunch of money on patent lawyers. After our meeting, Trump’s going to eliminate the DOT anyway.”

Friday, March 17, 2017

The first TTwins race in ages

I watched the first AFT race of the season with extra interest, since it was also the first TT or short track race under the new 'all twins, all the time' rules for the Expert class.

I should say that I watched it on FansChoice, not from the 'stands. There were some signal dropouts, and resolution issues but on balance I don't feel the quality of the coverage detracted from my experience.
As much air as anyone got all night. The jump was just a few yards down the track from a gnarly little stop-n-go chicane. My guess is that track designers were told, "Don't turn the first TT race for twins into a tragedy". If so, they were successful, but it didn't look a real National, either. AMA Pro Racing photo.

Was that a Chris Carr track? Here's why I'm not going to hold it against him: I am pretty sure that the Speedway and AMA Pro ordered him to lay out a conservative TT track, in order to minimize the risk of a serious incident in the first 'return of the twins' race. (Memories of last year/California are still too fresh.) I understand that concern but maybe the erstwhile Prince of Peoria was a little too cautious. I read a few fan comments on Facebook to the effect of, "I thought there was supposed to be a jump". I don't think the racers were too keen it, either, although an Indian 1-2 finish in the Expert Main is an OK outcome from a marketing perspective.

I wondered whether, given the layout, the Experts were slower on twins than they would have been on singles. My first instinct was to think they would've gone faster on the old bikes, but since there's never been a previous race on this track, it was hard to quantify that feeling.

Still, I tried.

The top ten Expert finishers had fastest laps ranging from Mees' 29.7 to Shoemaker's 30.7. The average of the top ten finishers' fastest laps worked out to a hair under 30.3 seconds.

In the Pro class, the average of the top ten finishers' fastest laps worked out to a little under 30.7, for a difference of 0.4 seconds.

That does not sound like a big difference, but when you compare it to last years' singles-vs-singles Expert-vs-Pro times on short tracks and TTs, it suggests that the Experts were measurably but imperceptibly faster on twins.

I think it's pretty safe to say that we'll be able to see the difference in Peoria.

Shout out to Ferran Cardus, of Spain, for a hard-fought top ten result in the Pro final! One bright spot for Cardus' mentor, Brad Baker, who had an unlucky night for himself. Baker posted that he hoped he hadn't concussed himself -- I'm not sure if it's possible to be knocked out cold and wake up wondering how you got there and not be concussed too, but I believe AMA Pro Racing instituted baseline testing this year, for the purposes of determining when/if it's safe to put racers back on track after they've 'rung their bell'.