THE FINAL HOURS – AFM round 1 & 2, 2021
April 29, 2021
How old are you in 6th grade, 11? I remember this like it’s still happening – my first date. Christina Hagicostas was coming over. She was the prettiest girl in class. Brilliant smile, bright eyes, feet barely touched ground when she walked. I cleaned my room – project style. Started days before. Organized my drawers, the closet, cleaned under the bed, hell I even vacuumed the rest of the house. I made sure everything was perfect. Then her Mom called my Mom and cancelled the whole thing with just an hour to spare. My Mom turned to me and said, “Well look at the bright side honey, your room has never looked so clean.” I emptied my drawers out onto the floor, messed up my bed, then turned to my eleven-year old’s answer for any and all sadness – my bike.
I am uniquely excited about racing this year. I began preparing months early this time, which I never do. New bike, new challenges, new racers in classes I am not used to. I am a little scared to be honest. Fear is always there for me, but this is more than usual. So I’ve been working really hard. I gave up sugar for 66 days, which has now lasted three months. I find my gym again every day of the week. And yes, I still turn to my old friend the bicycle, regularly. I have done the work. I have cleaned my room and organized my everything. Yet there I found myself again, just an hour before AFM round 2, staring at a call I could not believe – cancelling.
Our new bike, the latest KTM 1290 Superduke R, has more potential than its older brothers did. Gone are the multiple handicaps that we’ve had to struggle our way beyond in the past – a rear suspension with no link, a compromised ram-air system, a chassis poised to handle the street more than the track, and a motor whose marketing campaign was far more poweful than itself. This new KTM is different. Very different.
It made its greatest impression on me the first runs up Buttonwillow’s front straight. I couldn’t hold the throttle wide open – its front wheel climbed for the sun. To turn I’d push the bars and it would, easily. It felt lighter, and bumps that used to wreak havoc on me riding previous Superdukes disappeared. Unlike Valentino Rossi said after his first ride on the Ducati, “We are fucked”, I said “This bike, goes!”
But just like any new bike, there are still problems. There are still challenges. And for round 1 those challenges were compounded by Covid. Most of the aftermarket parts made for this 1290 come from Europe, and most of those companies were still locked down in February and March. So rather than simply ordering aftermarket parts and bolting them on, and I mean really basic necessary race parts like a front number plate, like rearsets, like bodywork or exhaust systems – we simply couldn’t. So, I had to make them.
Thankfully I have exceptional friends – some at KTM, some at Mach1 Motorsports, and believe it or not some at NASA and Lockheed Martin. Gavin Botha is my rocket scientist racing and bicycling buddy, who thankfully also has a passion for fabricating. He stepped in to help make our front number plate, with a wider opening at the center to force-feed the ram-air system. I did the typical race build stuff, while also fabricating a bellypan out of polyester foam and bondo. This hybrid creation ultimately led to a carbon fiber prototype that not only works but works without dragging on the pavement – something all bellypans before this one have done. The tail section fabrication and design would have to wait, so for round 1 it was white duct tape over spray foam back there. A perfectly acceptable racers-race solution.
I struggled with the stock seat. I much prefer a hard superbike tail-section type seat, over a stock soft foam couch of a seat. I haven’t used a stock seat in ages, so the differences I felt were not only monstrous, but they had a surprising impact on how the bike handled. When I accelerated, the seat mushed down, which let my weight sink backward, which threw the center of gravity off. This not only happened on straights, but also fast exits of turns. I hated it, so I pulled the staples holding the vinyl seat cover at the seat back, and slid a hard foam insert in there. This not only firmed the seat a bit, but it also raised the seat height, which helped keep my weight toward the front in turns. Remarkable learning experience. Never before have I ridden the same bike, the same day, with my body in such different positions. I felt advantages and disadvantages throughout round 1 that shocked me. I will surely use these lessons going forward.
Next was the suspension – which is always a constant evolution of changes I admit. But for round 1 we were so far off it was comical. Somehow the rear spring that our WP Race shock was delivered with, was actually appropriate for me, but not since I graduated high school. And the front springs that I asked GP Suspension to build our fork cartridges with, which is completely my mistake, were too stiff. I don’t understand how or why, but the spring rate necessary to hold me up last year was far more than the spring rate necessary to hold me up this year. It can’t be just three months without sugar made that big a difference. Can it?
So our AFM Round 1 race setup, which we had only three practice sessions to figure out, was: Back the front springs OUT all the way to the stop. Turn the rear spring IN all the way up to the stop. Stuff foam rubber in the seat. Go racing.
Somehow, and I mean this quite authentically, with a brand-new bike, a compromised setup, just three practices and two and a half hours of sleep – we led the F-40 race until the penultimate lap. I missed a downshift going into the bus-stop, which oddly put our transmission two gears HIGHER on the exit, and Corey Sarros glided by on an R1. Boy, does he have a great line through Riverside. We finished a surprising second and moved on to the F-50 race. From pole position I looked right, lots of angry men wanting to kill me. I looked left to the pit wall, which looked surprisingly soft and inviting – perfect for an hour nap in the afternoon sun I thought. And then the flag dropped! Somehow, we won that race, after a great battle through lapped traffic on the last lap. I don’t know most of the guys in F-50, but they all make growing older look better than it ever has before to me. I feel proud to race among them.
We changed nothing for Sunday’s races, Open Twins and Formula 1, because there was nothing we could change. Nobody at the track had springs we could use, GP Suspension had no support vehicle there, and unlike we were promised our rear shock did not come with spare springs. So all we could do is the best we could do with what we had at the time. But that’s a very special thing about motorcycles that I am still learning today – they are influenceable. Like I learned about the seat, a motorcycle can and will change characteristics quite profoundly in reaction to the body wrapped around it. Moving forward, moving rearward, pushing down on the bars or pushing forward, using your knee on the ground for support, for feel, for comfort or for confidence, going in deep or coming out hard – there are so many variables that you as a rider can influence on track, that even when your setup is compromised it doesn’t always mean you are doomed.
We took the holeshot in Open Twins and ran like hell for the checker. I’ve learned a few things racing twins for so long. The greatest lesson is you push them only has hard as you have to, when you have to. And when you don’t have to, you short shift – you keep the revs down, you conserve your motor for later races in the day, like Formula One…
We started the Formula One race from mid-pack. I have not qualified well for an F1 race yet. Single laps are not my strong point it seems. But I nailed the start. We passed quite a few into turn 1, I think we landed in 5th. They’re a hot bunch, the F1 crew. Their motors howl at such a high pitch. And they dart all over the place. It’s different than open class bikes. Bigger bikes move slower, more predictable and less erratic. The difference in bikes is exciting actually. And the riders up near the front of this class, holy shit they’re all so talented. I did my best to chase them, but slowly lost touch as the laps ticked on. Our KTM felt low in the rear through Riverside, and tall in the front – it was hard to finish that turn in the best place or on the best trajectory. At the speed necessary to keep the pace I would enter that turn on the bike’s nose, but once past the entry I couldn’t keep the energy focused. Lap after lap I would lose it, and each pass it seemed to get worse. The weight kept shifting rearward. In the bus-stop I’d throw the bike down and in, it would land and start to turn, but soon as the cornering force took over I would lose the bike’s attitude, and lose the turn. Here I would run wide on the exit, there I would struggle to flick the bike one side to the other, when I adjusted my weight on the seat the bike would set itself off bucking like a wild horse. Somehow suddenly the bike beneath me was changing. Falling. It was all I could do to keep it mostly on track at that speed. My laps at this pace became more and more dependent on my tires alone. Like my tires were making up the difference for a now ill-handling motorcycle – and they were maintaining this mad pace I have never before lapped at on a 1290 Superduke R. I never thought I’d see 1:50s on a KTM with straight bars and no fairings. But there we were.
Just then I heard Jesus. No not that Jesus, a different one, this one is a racer. At first I heard him, then I felt him. It’s different, feeling somebody behind you. Half of you sees the opening you can’t close up, the other feels it being taken. Jesus never touched me, in fact he never came close. He passed me so beautifully I was honestly inspired. If I was riding both his bike and mine, I would have put his bike exactly where he did, exactly how, and exactly when. I chased him with a smile, bouncing off curbs and touching dirt at times until the next lap – the last lap – in fact the last turn of the last lap. It’s a hard braking 90 degree left hand turn onto the front straight – the last turn at Buttonwillow. The perfect place to steal a race from a leader, or in this case to have a place stolen from you. I was in 6th place now, struggling with the bike but still physically strong, when the challenge for position appeared. We entered the braking zone side by side, him now with the inside advantage. Somehow, I felt calm with the fuel of adversity powering my thoughts. Rather than letting go of my brake, to match or to repass him, I broke even harder. I stopped even shorter. I braked and I waited, I waited and I braked, straight up and down until his rear tire finally cleared my front. And then I spoke my clearest thoughts of the entire weekend; “Get it turned and GO BABY GO!”
I wouldn’t learn this until my phone rang just one hour before AFM Round 2, but the reason our KTM was so hard to manage in that race was among other things, the shock. Apparently due to the intense heat coming from the rear header, which is unfortunately positioned perilously close to the shock on this new bike, the shock overheated and blew a seal – dumping all its 175lbs of nitrogen, and oil, all over itself.
So, a millisecond after I said “GO”, regardless of the fact that we had no shock anymore – our rear Michelin spun sideways, hooked back up, lurched my right foot off the peg and onto the exhaust, spun sideways again, hooked back up again – and drove me back up the inside to take the position back. I leveraged my right foot on the pipe rather than the peg, leaned as far forward as I could while trying desperately to keep the front wheel down, and powered through the gears to bring it home in 6th.
One of many great racing experiences in my life. I am forever thankful to everyone who helped create this: Jeff Leggitt – Mach1 Motorsports, Patrick Garrahan – KTM, Oscar Fernandez -, RacePace Motorsports, Vanson Leathers, Fuzzy – GP Suspension, Austin Racing Exhaust- Richard Austin, Kenny & Lisa Norman, Gavin & Janet Botha, Tracy Gulbransen, Lee Simmons, Oxymoron Photography, Alex Hernandes, Derek Lafontaine,
I spent the following weeks after AFM Round 1, preparing for Round 2. Still no bodywork to order, Gavin and I set out on the very great and very trying adventure of designing and building an “only-one-in-the-world” tail section, and a very special superbike seat for just this KTM 1290 Superduke R. The process took forever of course. I am the worst predictor of time to finish on projects like this. What I expected to take two days took three weeks. Three solid weeks. But even though these projects took forever, we did finish in time to make Round 2. The only other points I needed to address were spring rates, front and rear. I already ordered springs from GP Suspension so all I needed to do was install them. I left that task for last. And that, as it turned out, was a grave mistake..
I spent what should have been Friday practice in Buttonwilow, driving to San Francisco instead to get our shock repaired. Not good missing Friday practice, but Saturday practice was still doable. I dropped it off @11am with a promise it would be done in 40 minutes. Somehow that 40 minutes promise morphed into a series of others, none of which ended the shock back in my hands, or repaired. It’s a rare bike, this KTM, so buying a replacement shock is not an option with a one day solution. My only hope remained in SF, with the fate of our entire race weekend hanging on one final text of a promise. “Find the Ford Fairlane, open the gate behind it, your shock will be there on the floor.”
So there I was, fully loaded, cleaned bedroom, organized drawers and all, when my phone shined through the darkness with a text saying, “You are correct. The shock is not there. I never made it home…”
So there you have it. Round 1 was a huge and surprising success. Round 2 was a huge and surprising failure. Regardless of the effort.
We live to fight another day,