AMA Pro SuperSport – March 10th-12th, 2011
Like most card-carrying speed junkies, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to ride the high banked turns at America’s colosseum of speed: the Daytona International Speedway.
I’ve been to the Daytona races a few times, working as a mechanic for various racer friends and teams – but standing at the hot pit wall watching the bikes streak across that Start/Finish line is a world apart from actually doing it myself.
I started club racing, again, with the AFM here in NorCal in the summer of 2007. I had an earlier career, riding malevolent, clapped-out British and Italian machinery in the eighties when I was an junior dealership mechanic. This time around has been different: I started with a 2003 Ducati 749S, which handled a lightyear better than anything I rode back when, and after I gave it a 999S engine heart-transplant in 2009, my laptimes got fast enough to qualify for the local AMA rounds at Infineon and Laguna Seca in the “Top Gun” SuperSport class.
So after a couple of track days to get acquainted with the 2008 Ducati 848 that I borrowed from my friend Pat Blackburn, I entered the May 2010 West Coast Moto Jam at Infineon and scored gratifying 10th & 11th place finishes, and two months later got 12th at the AMA/MotoGP weekend at Laguna Seca.
Along with my two AFM race brothers, Roi Holster and Jose Flores who had competed at those same AMA Supersport rounds, we decided that we should go race at Daytona in 2011.
On the Banking - photo by Brian J Nelson
The first thing I needed was my own Ducati 848, and when a crashed ‘08 model came through the doors at Munroe Motors in late October 2010, we bought the wreck and got started. Crew chief Todd Chamberlin and fellow Munroe Motors’ tech Tanit Heng set to stripping the carcass, and bolting on some race-spec bits and pieces we’d bought when we raced Pat’s 848. We went to a couple of track days mid-November to check her out: the engine ran smooth and strong, the chassis tracked true, and we felt we’d gotten lucky.
So, like most racers, we did absolutely nothing to the bike until early January when we finally remembered we ought to strip the engine to check the main and rod bearings. You can’t take a motorcycle to Daytona with a unproven engine – the concrete apron below the banking is figuratively littered with blown engine detritus of under-prepared teams. So while the crank was out getting checked and balanced by Ben Fox, we ordered new bearings, gaskets and everything else we needed … Speedymoto frame & axle sliders and beefy clutch cover, Zero Gravity windscreens, HotBodies bodywork, Slingshot footpegs, Microtech race ecu, LeoVince exhaust system, Ducati Performance slipper clutch, Ohlins NIX fork inserts, TTX shock and steering damper, Yoyodyne QC rear carrier & sprockets – plus brake pads, chains, stomp pads, quickshifter – the list goes on for a while more.
Todd, Tanit and I finally got the bike back together and running on Sunday February 13th, just in time to miss the February 12th and 13th weekend we’d planned to test down at California Speedway. Roi went down there with his new-to-him 2008 Yamaha R6 he’d bought from fellow AFM’er Joy Higa, and had two perfect days testing on the banked Fontana track. Good for him, but I was in a panic to test my bike because my back-up track day on Monday Feb 14th at Infineon was rained out, and I didn’t want to take an untested bike across country to Daytona, the toughest race on the AMA calendar.
Finally I found a LetsRideTrackDays.com date the following Monday 21st at bumpy Buttonwillow, and we ran a few tentative sessions on the 848 to prove the engine, slipper clutch and gearbox all worked OK.
The next panic I got into was that the mapping in the Microtech programmable ecu I’d bought from the Ducshop produced a strong midrange but had a bit of a flat spot at the top of the power curve – exactly what you don’t want at a high-speed track like Daytona. So on Monday Feb 28th, the day before our trailer of gear was due to leave for Daytona, Todd drove half-way across California at 7am to buy a 5-gallon ”pail” of AMA-spec Sunoco 260 GTX race gas, and Scott Jenkins and Lucy at Desmoto Sport then fine-tuned the mapping on their Superflow dyno.
Meanwhile, in preparation for the 7,000 mile round-trip, Jose’s crew chief, the mad Chinaman with the red mohawk Jeff Lee, had fitted new wheel bearings and tires to our borrowed 16ft Wells Cargo trailer at his workshop, Simon’s Auto Werks in Pacifica, CA. So that afternoon, Roi, Jose and I packed the trailer with our bikes and gear – Jose sporting a new 2011 Ducati 848 Evo race-prepped by Desmoto Sport – and delivered it to Marin County’s Topshelf Motorcycles in San Rafael, where Tommy Turbo, Morgan Murphy and Ted Cabral were frantically race-prepping two new 2011 Ducati 848 Evo’s for brothers Dave Jr. and Matt Sadowski to race in Daytona SportBike. Matt, Davey and cousin Josh were driving the TopShelf boxvan across to Florida with our trailer in tow, splitting the not-inconsiderable transport costs across the five racers, planning to arrive at the track early on Wednesday March 9th.
After a week of catching up on sleep and clearing our desks of long-neglected work, Todd, Roi, Jeff, Jose and I flew into Orlando and drove our rented mini-van up to the Holiday Inn Express on Speedway Boulevard, a mile from the track. During bike week, all the hotels are expensive – our Holiday Inn was over $200 per night – so we were sleeping 3 in our room: Todd on a rollaway, with Roi and I getting dibs on the beds. It’s important to stay near the track, because the BikeWeek traffic is so thick it takes ages to get anywhere, and you don’t want to sit in traffic for 45 minutes after a long day at the races, dying for a shower and an adult beverage.
Morning of Wednesday March 9th, the Sadowski boys arrived safely at the track with our trailer in tow, and we started setting up our pit in one of the open sided garage spaces. We pulled out our spare rims – lent to me by Craig Mclean, famous for almost winning the 1998 Isle of Man Singles TT on his Ducati Supermono (that I worked on) – and dropped them off at the Dunlop garage to get the Daytona-only, U.K.-made, D211 GP spec tires mounted up. We rolled the bike over for Tech inspection at 3pm, bought some spec Sunoco gas, and spent the afternoon checking over details and getting ready for the first practice session at noon on Thursday.
We left the track, took a quick shower and met up with the Topshelf crew for a memorable dinner at Gene’s steak house, a few miles out to the west of town.
Thursday morning dawned rainy and overcast – just as my iphone had predicted. We arrived in time to attend the 9am AMA-mandated rider and crew chief meeting, held each AMA race weekend, where everyone gets updated with news and detail changes. I was mentally prepared to go out in the rain, but was relieved to hear that the AMA doesn’t ride in the rain at Daytona. If it rains when we get to Road America in June I guess I’ll get my chance. Noon came and went, and finally it stopped raining and the track dried, leaving enough time for a 40 minute combined Practice/Qualifying 1 session for each class, ours at about 4pm. We put our bikes on the tire warmers under our e-z-ups on the hot pit lane, and I rolled out onto the track at 4pm, feeling a strong sense of anticipation to see what the fuss was all about…
Jose and Nick stand ready in the hot pit...
Turns 1 thru 6 are normal corners in the infield inside the banked tri-oval Nascar racetrack, but as you roll out of 6 on the left side of the tire you go up onto the West Banking and your world view changes… What you see is a wall-of-death of asphalt in front of you, curving up and over your head at 11 o’clock, framed on the right by a wall topped with a chainlink fence, and on the left by the concrete apron that, from your point of view leaned over on 31degree banking is angled sharply upward to your left. The G-force flattens your shoulders to your gas tank and your neck strains to hold your head up so you can look forward not downward. You go round that bank for a while, and then the track slowly flattens off and you’re shooting down a normal straightaway at 160mph trying to spot obscure braking markers high up on the chainlink fence to your right. At or around marker “2” you shift down two gears, and carefully pitch the bike left into the “bus stop” chicane, roll her onto her right side, pick up the throttle, wheelie over the yellow-chevron’d corner at the exit and drive back up onto the banking with your throttle WFO – and you know what the F stands for. Again you roll around the banking for a while, come down onto another flat straight, and as you come into the 15degree banked Start/Finish corner at your absolute top speed, you push the left bar down to get the bike turned and shot safely across the start-finish line. And then you sit up and brake hard into turn 1.
It’s simply said – but difficult to see anything clearly through the windscreen with your head shaking and wobbling from the windblast, and finding good braking markers to get the bike slowed down to 45 mph at the right moment was a continual challenge.
Halfway through the session, I came in to decompress, having completed 9 laps. One thing was going well for me: the guesses we’d made at the geometry and suspension settings for my 848 were working nicely, and I could concentrate on learning the track. I went back out after a splash of gas, but within a few laps I found my neck had gotten sore, I was getting doublevision and fishbowl-vision, and realising I wasn’t going any faster, I came back in.
Unfortunately the time sheets showed I ran a best lap of 2:12, with Jose at 2:08 and Roi at 2:07. We figured out that with the fastest SuperSport rider turning a 1:54, the +10% qualifying cut-off meant we all had to get a lap in at 2:05 or better in our second and final qualifying session, due the following morning at 8am.
I lay awake thinking much of that night… I hate trying to go fast at 8am because the track surface is still cold and it’s easy to crash. But I reasoned that I’d come a long way and spent a ton of money to get here, and that if I failed to qualify, I’d spend the weekend watching regretfully from the sidelines. So I decided that I had to raise my risk tolerance to have any hope of shaving 7 seconds off my lap time, and that I’d sooner crash trying, than not try hard enough and go home with a perfect bike. So I visualized each corner of the track in turn, imagining where I could get on the gas harder or brake later. And when negative thoughts surfaced, I practiced the Jorge Lorenzo trick of focusing on my breathing in order to release the negative thought and let its positive counterpart in.
Up Friday morning at 6am, we grabbed coffee and snacks at the lavish Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar, and entered the fabled amphitheater of speed through the West Banking tunnel. We quickly set the bike up on the tire warmers at the hot pit, and, at 8am on the dot, rolled out onto the track in the early morning sunshine.
Right from the start, I was going for it – pushing the bike, getting on the gas, believing there was traction. I went out in front of the group so I could focus on what I had to do myself rather than worry about anyone else around me. I got my head down on the banking and pulled the throttle to the stop. Todd said he knew I was riding harder than before because I was visibly faster across Start/Finish. After a few laps, I caught up to a guy going round the West Banking, and as we came down onto the flat straight before the chicane, I dove up his inside on the brakes, let off and turned her in. Now my angle of attack was a little off as I flipped the bike over onto the right side through the center of the chicane, so I touched the brake with my index finger to slow a hair, and my front wheel immediately tucked, and I was down off the bike, sliding in a limp foetal position through the wet morning grass at the side of the track. I came safely to a stop a few feet from the tire wall, jumped up, and a corner worker helped me wheel my bike over to the wall where another SuperSport racer was standing where he’d just crashed. Few minutes later, teammate Jose comes sliding on his side into the grass just behind us, due to what he later decided was a slippery paint line on the track surface delineating the edges of the corners of the chicane. Riding in the crash truck on the way back to the pits, I was thinking that at least I’d been going for it, even though I was annoyed at myself for missing the rest of the session and the chance of qualifying. The crash truck dropped me off at AMA tech, and back at the hot pit Todd was jumping up and down, yelling “you turned a 2:04!”, and I suddenly realised that my dream had come true: I’d put in the one good lap I needed, right before I crashed! Jose and Roi had also upped their game, and the three amigos from San Francisco had qualified together at the back of the grid. We found out later that eight entrants had failed to meet the 2:05.6 cut-off laptime and were relegated to spectator status.
Invigorated with our good fortune – because qualifying for the show is always the first main goal of an AMA race weekend – Todd and I spent the few hours before the 2:15pm start in a whirl of tools, replacing bent parts with the spares we’d brought along. The frame tabs that the right footrest mounts to were bent and cracked, and our friend Inspector Frank Drebben, I mean Brian Drebber, rustled up a local welder for us to take care of that problem. At about 1:10pm, with some fresh Hotbodies bodywork gleaming in the sun, we rolled the bike back to the pit wall and onto the warmers.
Nick (L) and Jose poised to launch
The start of the Supersport Race One, Friday at 2:15pm, was like being in the ‘Saving Private Ryan’ D-Day beach landing… The start lights went out, I got a great launch and passed through the row in front of me. As we trail-braked into turn 1, there were bikes, bodies and parts skittering off to my right, so I looked left, found an opening and slipped past a couple guys distracted by the melee. Out of turn 2, I saw more bikes and riders scattering to my right, so I jinked past them, braked and pitched right into the Horseshoe turn 3. As I accelerated off the exit, riders in front of me parted as a dude spun across the track on his back, so I dodged around him to the left (turns out he’d been hit by a riderless bike that ran across the grass from the turn 2 crash). Then hard on the throttle through the kink turn 4 and… no one crashed! On the way out of turn 5, a racer highsided in front of me and his bike took out the guy next to him – my personal nightmare in a 30-rider grid of wanna-be Rossi’s. But I dodged to the right and was clean past them along the short chute to turn 6, thinking I might be in the top 20. Unfortunately the red flag came out because of the multiple carnage, so we cruised around the banking and gridded up again for a full restart.
I got another ripping launch, the kids kept their cool this time, and by the end of the first lap I was ahead of 6 or 8 guys. But, I massively overcooked my braking into turn 1, nearly losing the front end, ran wide and about five riders shot past. Cursing my lack of talent and track knowledge, I tried to catch up, chasing them round the banking, and promptly did the same thing in turn 1 again. Now I was dead last, right behind Jose, and watching Roi in the distance in front of us, having a good battle with two other racers. I tried to set Jose up for a last lap draft pass, but came up about 3 feet short at the checkered flag, mainly because I was afraid of drafting too close and running into him. Still, we all finished in one piece, I was 25th, Jose 24th and Roi got 21st out of 32 starters, and we had another chance to do better in race two the following day.
Fresh new bodywork! Photo by Brian J Nelson
Saturday morning dawned clear once more, and we set the bike up ready for a short 8:50am practice with the race scheduled for 10am. Roi sat out the warm-up session, while Jose and I turned in a few laps to kickstart the old brainbox. Race 2 started without incident and I got another good launch, this time making no mistake braking in turn 1. Over the next few laps, the racers I’d passed on the start, including Roi, slowly got by me one by one, but I was starting to get the groove of the place, actually enjoying blasting down the banking at 165mph, asphalt, wall and chainlink fence blurrily visible through my windscreen. I was aware that Jose was still behind me somewhere, but I got to the checkered flag without seeing him, pleased with my improved, not-last finishing position. In fact Roi finished 18th, I was 19th and Jose 20th, the last three points paying positions in the class (the AMA used to award points down to 15th place, now it’s down to 20th). I also found I’d dropped 2 seconds a lap and improved my overall race time by 20 seconds, proving that when you relax and start having fun is when you go fast.
On Sunday we relaxed at the beach drinking cocktails, agreeing that it had been a fantastic weekend because we met all our goals – we got there, we qualified, we finished both races in one piece, and we even got a top-20 finish with points.
Some thoughts I brought away from Daytona… (i) surprisingly the banking is quite easy, its racing through the infield on bowlingball tires is what’s difficult – it’s like you’re trying to corner on polished concrete, and (ii) I’m really glad we came this year because the repaved surface is obviously way smoother and nicer, and finally (iii) our team of Daytona neophytes turned up at an unfamiliar and notoriously challenging race track, and qualified for an AMA National in only our second on-track session – and that makes me proud.
My story made possible with the help of:
Munroe Motors of San Francisco,
Ducati North America,
Super Plush Suspension,
Simon’s Auto Werks
my team Todd Chamberlin, Tanit Heng and Linda Jung,
and Daytona teammates Roi Holster, Dave McCandless, Jose Flores and Jeff Lee.