The Missing Link

October 12, 2022

I cried in my helmet today. Not because I lost, or failed, or because I broke something painfully misunderstood. I cried because my greatest critic of all, the one person who doubts me more than anyone else on earth…. …me… …was wrong to. And on this day, and for every one that follows, I promise to remember.

I’ve never had the confidence to set or speak of one recent goal of mine, even quietly to myself. Because I am simply too old now to achieve it. Because my bike is too limited. Because my program is too compromised by my predisposition to show up unprepared, to frustrate those who help me, and to always approach simple challenges from complex perspectives. So when I lost the AFM Forumla 1 race last round, by just sixteen thousandths of a second, I knew the real reason was not my track position, my lack of power, or the draft. Regardless of the whispers subtly suggesting it might not be too late for me after all, and maybe I do have what it takes, winning is not born from vulnerability and doubt. Winning is something you possess prior to achieving it. And I didn’t. So I lost.

Twice this year I withdrew us from the Formula 1 race due to a mysterious electrical problem our bike suffered from. I did race other classes. We even did well, regardless, winning more often than not. But Formula 1 is different. It’s a younger, faster, more aggressively driven crowd on faster bikes. You put a foot wrong in other races, maybe you’ll get passed. You put a foot wrong in Formula 1, they’ll run it over. So unless I was 100%, or doing my best impersonation of it, I pulled us out. And that decision cost us, more than just points.

My first race win ever came at Loudon, somewhere back in 1991, in New Hampshire. I had stayed a novice for years, never asking to move up to Junior or Expert. I bet by now you know why. Once that first win came though, winning came to life in me. It became my goal. But only in the novice class. Then finally in the Junior class. But once I turned expert, winning went dormant in me. Not only did I not expect it, or strive for it, I think I was afraid of it. The expert level at Loudon back then also happened to be the pro level for many. There was this one top expert in particular named Marc Smith. He dominated the races, he dominated the pits, he dominated the press. Winning back at Loudon then meant beating Marc Smith. And I never did. But I did beat him to turn one once. I remember finally seeing clear track in front of me again was exciting. But knowing who was behind me was terrifying. He passed me by turn 3. I felt relieved. But I also felt empowered. That day was my turning point.

My missing link.

I was able to build on that one race-start win until it became a full lap. Until it became a win. Until it became a championship. And for decades now winning has stayed alive in me. Not always achieved, but often celebrated, and never taken for granted. But why at this age am I still so driven by it. How is this still alive in me.

Enter, and I am being so completely honest about this, the KTM Super Duke. The day I was introduced to this bike was the year after racing’s dream for me had just about ended – 2008. It wasn’t the fastest bike around. In fact it was the slowest. But it was different. Like me. And something about that bike, something about the added challenge of racing a machine not built to be raced, inspired me.

Fifteen years later I now race the third generation of KTM’s 1290 Super Duke R. To be honest the first and second-generation Super Duke Rs, we had that chassis dialed. The motor was a little shy up top, but that bike went anywhere I wanted around a racetrack. But the third generation Super Duke R has a new chassis. A new frame and rear suspension with a linkage system – a bold new step for Super Dukes. I was very excited going into this generation, specifically due to the linkage system. And the new motor. But once out on track I was slower. It was slower. Gone was our advantage. The new bike simply doesn’t turn as well as the old one. Doesn’t hold a line under acceleration, doesn’t have the rear grip, doesn’t achieve as high a roll speed at full lean.

So together with the help of my friend Gavin, and some hi-tech software, I began machining and testing new links with different shapes and designs. This process grew over time into more of a journey than a project. Gavin crunched numbers, I drew, I machined, and I tested the new designs. We would argue, our opinions often contradicting – it was always my feel vs his numbers. For a year we went on like that – rinse and repeating that process about twenty times at least. That journey finally ended with me bolting the new retail version of this race linkage to my Super Duke this past Friday at Laguna Seca.

(see more on these Super Duke R Gen-3 links for sale here).

I can’t even believe how different the bike is with the new link. How much better it turns and drives. How much faster my lap times are now with the new link, vs without. But most of all I can’t believe this new piece of hardware came from nothing more than inspiration, motivation, creativity and yes, that ever present winning spirit that still thrives inside of me. Yet as we all lined up on the grid for the Formula 1 race Saturday, all I could think about was doing my best, regardless of the competition. Because the competition was too much. Don’t over-rev on the start I kept saying, keep your shoulders forward, visualize your line through the field to the front, and most of all be patient.

It sounds weird talking about patience out there on track. It must look so intense – the speeds and the sounds. But it really is true, the best place to be out there is at peace. The best version of yourself in competition is calm. I nailed my launch and quickly moved forward through the leading pack. I made it to the rear of Steven Rue’s Yamaha in first place, going into turn 2. I worried about the pace. Could I match his or the ringers who showed up just for this event from other regions.. I know Steven, he represents my sixteen thousandths loss from the round before. He is fast and smooth, and he never makes a mistake. But as we charged through Laguna’s first lap I lost no ground on him. In fact my KTM could drive earlier and harder both through and out of turns – believe it or not due to the suspension link that I’d just spent a year developing. Also we were better on the brakes. We did lose ground on wide open runs between turns, but I could make up the difference in other places. Then coming onto the front straight to end the first lap Steven’s Yamaha hesitated on the exit. I had a fist full of throttle by then and didn’t want to lose ground on the swarm of bikes behind us, so I threaded the needle between Rue’s Yamaha and Laguna’s retaining wall as we ran toward the start of lap 2. I made the pass clean at full tuck and tipped the bike left as we shot under the bridge to take the lead near the top of 6th gear.

The KTM gets so light over the hill in turn 1. It’s odd they even call that a turn, it’s more the crest of a mountain that bends left just after the top. Honest to God there is only one turn I know of that is scarier – Bridgehampton’s infamous turn 1. I survived the Bridge’s turn 1 decades ago at full throttle, once. I survived Laguna’s turn 1 at full throttle every lap of that Formula 1 race. I drove down that same hill and broke so hard the bike would gently drift sideways, dragging the rear, the motor slowly revving down from far too high, helping me stop enough to throw the bike on its side and out toward turn 3.

Midway through the race I was still setting the pace. I still held clear track in front of me. The front felt so good diving into fast turns like 4 or 6, or Rainey Curve. I remembered Doug Chandler’s advice through turn 6, to load the suspension. I remembered Scotty Greenwood’s advice about turn 3 luring you to turn-in early, and Casey Stoner losing to Rossi braking for turn 11. I remembered it all, I stayed calm through it all, I held a protective line on the last braking zone and unbelievably-to-me we took KTM and Michelin and Mach1’s first AFM Formula 1 checkered flag.

That’s when I cried. And that’s why I cried. Not just because we won when I knew we couldn’t, which defies every rule in my spirit, but because of how it felt. How the bike felt. I wish I could bottle the feeling of diving through turn 4 as fast as I could muster the courage to, and still understand so calmly exactly what the bike was doing beneath me. I wish I could share how intense it felt to power through and out of turn 3 while spinning and driving the rear without going wide – all due to that one creation that would not exist otherwise.

The Missing Link

or, Links…

Stay safe and remember my friends, you can choose to be your own worst enemy or your greatest source of inspiration, the choice is yours.