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.

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