Saturday, January 30, 2016

Off-Season Racing

Normally, in Northern California, the race season ends in October and doesn’t start again until sometime in March of the following year. That downtime is used to refresh the race bike, perform maintenance that can be extensive and risky mid-season and try and stay in shape for the beginning of the next season.

As the new year ramps up it is common to see racers flood the pre-season track days and test their race bikes to make sure that everything works, the maintenance was completed successfully and start to get back into shape (having usually failed over the off-season to maintain race fitness). The only way to determine if a race bike is fit (and if the racer is fit) is to get back on the track.

For me, there is a significant difference to a track day and a race day. I find most track days to be almost too relaxing. The first lap (or two) are leisurely, almost languid. I won’t push for that last inch, I will give up the pass — there is no aggression. On a track day, my best lap is usually when no one is in front of me.

A race day, however, is different. The first lap to the last is at maximum. I am nearly always the first one out on the track for the warm up lap so that I can run the warm up lap at 100%. When the green flag drops I am pushing with no quarter, if you want to pass me you need to earn it. During a race, my fast lap is always when I am chasing someone down. Pushing the limits, exploiting the weaknesses of the racer in front of me.

I do not find track days as useful for testing me or my bike.

Twisting the throttle in anger is the one true test.

January CVMA @ Chuckwalla Valley Raceway


My first off-season test was at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in early January. The goal of this test was to confirm my primary race bike was running properly and that it was better than it was at the end of the 2015 AFM Season.

Towards the end of the 2015 season, I had a motor fail on me in my primary race bike. I was fortunate in that I caught the failure early enough to avoid permanent damage to the motor but it did require a full rebuild. Eric Dorn of EDR completed the rebuild and delivered the bike back to me in December. While he is a fantastic engine builder, the only way to be certain that a bike is put together right is to test.

Friday


Practice on Friday went well enough, which means it did not go as well as I had liked but went well enough to race on Saturday. There was a hesitation at 11,500 RPM that was offputting and hurt my drive out of corners. After speaking with Eric (one of the things I truly enjoy about Eric is being able to reach him at nearly any time and get an answer back) he told me the bike is setup for a powerband starting at 12,000 and that while the hesitation didn’t show up on the dyno, I needed to adjust my riding and/or gearing to stay above 12,000.

The change in the rev range helped but the bike still seemed to lag a bit and despite my best efforts, I was not able to match my lap times from the previous year. Perhaps the temperatures at the track (being in the 50Fs instead of over 100F) were causing the difference in my pace. Perhaps it is the bike. Perhaps it is a track day and not a race.

Saturday


Saturday opened with 2 practice sessions and a qualifying session. The qualifying session would determine my grid positions for the entire weekend. While I felt great on the bike, I was not able to improve on my lap times from Friday. Weather, Bike or still not Racing?

All three of my races on Saturday showed no improvement to my lap times. However, my bike continued to feel “off” with the quick-shifter failing 2/5ths of the time and an occasional hesitation appearing at 12,500 RPMs. I had a few good races but I would not say I was in my rhythm and there were no podiums to be had.

Sunday


The problems escalated on Sunday morning. While doing the second practice session, the bike went into its safety mode (also known as limp mode) and the failure warning light illuminated on the dash. Fearing that the engine failed I immediately shut the bike down and coasted back into the pits to try and determine the issue.

Investigating the issue, the error code reported an open circuit on a secondary injector. Either the injector failed, the alterations to the wiring harness were wrong or the ECU failed. I had about two hours to fix the problem or race my backup bike.

I made the decision to run the backup bike and to switch my tires and bodywork. During this switch, I consulted with Eric and we concluded that the issue was most likely the ECU itself. I decided not to risk it failing in the race and ran with my backup bike.

The challenge at this point was to be competitive on a bike I had not ridden all weekend. To ride a bike with a different power band and different suspension.

My first race went better than I expected and I was able to settle into a decent pace fairly quickly. While I did not place well in the race I used the laps well, re-learning my backup bike and picking up my pace. I set my best lap time of the weekend so far.

My second and third races continued to improve. However, I spent both races fighting to get around a 250 two stroke that frustrated me. They are frustrating as their strengths line up perfectly with the weaknesses in my bike. A constant catching and losing around the track. Two races spent wonder if my primary bike would have made it easier to get past this smoker.

My final race of the day was Formula 40, a race only for racers who are over the age of 40. Fortunately, the rider of the smoker was not over 40 so my primary battle was with a new model FZ–07. A battle of torque vs top end.

Two laps into the race I knew I had the pace on him but needed an opportunity. I held onto his rear tire looking for that opportunity. Halfway through the third lap, he missed a shift going onto the back straight and I was able to pull alongside him. I had the inside line approaching “crash corner” and simply needed to wait him out. If he broke first I had the line.

He held off for a bit but finally gave it up and hit the brakes. I waited for another 10th of a second just to cement my line. As soon as I got past crash corner I dialed up the pace to try and break away from him and secure third place in the race.

For three more laps, I poured on as much as possible. I had to assume he was right on my tail the entire race since I didn’t have anyone flagging for me.

I crossed the finish line in third place, 0.02 seconds ahead of the FZ–07.

January WERA @ Auto Club Speedway


After the issues, I had at Chuckwalla I sent the ECU back to EDR to have it tested. His tests showed that the ECU was working fine. He sent it back to me and I reinstalled it but brought a spare ECU and spare injectors with me to Fontana.

Fontana was WERA’s opening round for 2016 and was a single day event. I had two goals for this event:

  • Gain points to defend my 2015 D Superbike WERA West Championship
  • Confirm that my bike was functioning properly

My working theory was that an injector had failed at Chuckwalla.

I replaced the injectors and kept the ECU in place.

Since this was a one-day event I only had practice sessions in the morning and then racing in the afternoon. All through practice, the bike was running well enough. She still had the hesitation but there were no error codes and I was able to get within a couple of seconds of my personal best. Time to see what I can do in a race.

The first race of the day was the race I cared about the most, D Superbike. I was gridded on pole position and had a 450 Supermoto next to me. Knowing how well those bikes launch I expected to be in second place going into the first corner and to attack him on the straights. Supermoto bikes rarely have as much top end speed as my bike does.

Green flag drops and off we go. The supermoto leaped ahead and to my surprise a KTM 390 also got ahead of me on the launch. Into the first corner, I was third. Normally I do not attack the first lap unless someone makes a mistake. Far too many crashes happen on the first lap by people being over eager. Best to keep them in sight, stay close, let the race settle then go after openings.

At the end of the first lap is the banked front straight up on the Nascar track. As I hit the embankment and the bike stalled. I look down and see the engine error light on again. I have no choice but to kill the engine and coast down off the embankment.

This time, the error reports an open circuit on the primary injector. A completely separate error from what happened at Chuckwalla and I earned a DNF for my efforts.

Moving forward


My primary bike now needs to go back to EDR so that we can solve this issue once and for all. My next opportunity to test the bike is at the end of February; at a track day. The next real test is at the end of March at AFM Round 1.

Sponsors


Nearly all of the sponsors I raced with in 2015 have come forward with me to 2016. As I have said many times before, I trust my life to these sponsors every time I go out on the track. They are that good.

If you are looking for race parts, an engine builder or someone to set up your suspension, please go to the sponsor page on this site and take a look. They will give you fantastic products and services.

A new sponsor is joining me this year. I am very happy to add Zero Gravity to my sponsor list. I have been running their windshields for years and they simply cannot be beaten for fitment, clarity, and consistency. Replacing the OEM windshield with a Zero Gravity windshield is one of the first things I do to a bike to make it race ready.