Trading Places

As certified velocity junkies, most of us would probably donate a kidney to dance with Nicky Hayden's AMA Superbike Champion Honda RC51, or bounce Michael Andretti's 900-horsepower, 245-mph Champ Car over a few curbs.

Photography by Dan R. Boyd, Kevin Wing

Of course, civilians don't get to do that. We'd enjoy it way too much. But for Andretti and Hayden, who are already on top of the world, it's just another day in high-performance heaven. (As if we needed another reason to envy these guys.)

Mike the Bike?

Michael Andretti is the winningest driver racing in the CART Champ Car Series. Only two other drivers have won more Champ Car races in their lifetime: Andretti's dad, a guy named Mario, and A.J. Foyt. If you're a long-time formula-car fan, it's a little hard to imagine Andretti, who came on the scene a brash, mop-topped kid banging wheels with his legendary dad, as an elder statesman of anything. But that's just what he is; at 39 years old, he's been racing at the top level of American racing for an amazing 18 years. He is also the only American driver to race in Formula 1 in the last decade, as the legendary Ayrton Senna's McLaren teammate. In 2003 he'll lead the Honda charge in CART's rival series, the Indy Racing League, as both team owner and driver, trying to capture his--and Honda's--first Indy 500 win.

Like his dad, Andretti is an experienced and enthusiastic motorcyclist, with a CBR954RR, among other toys, in his well-stocked garage. And he owns a string of motorcycle dealerships in Pennsylvania, where the Andretti family is headquartered.

Don't Cry For Me, Valentino

Nicky Hayden is a lot of things: He's Honda's newest MotoGP rider, signed to ride its championship-winning V-five for 2003. He's the '02 AMA Superbike Champion--he clinched the title just four days after we did this story, in fact. He's our Motorcyclist of the Year and the repository of more raw, wheel-spinning motorcycling talent than you can shake a checkered flag at.

Chris Carr, the dirt-track legend who wins the Peoria TT every time Hayden doesn't, had this to say after Hayden came from nowhere to slide by him on the last lap, "Every 15 years or so, a rider comes on the scene who's different, who's just head and shoulders above the rest. The last time it happened, that rider was Kenny Roberts. Now, it's Nicky Hayden." Not bad for a slow-talking, big-grinning Kentucky kid who just turned 21 years old.

You Meet The Nicest People

A few months ago, Motorcyclist (actually it was Editor in Chief Boehm's wife) came up with the idea of having Hayden and Andretti share rides. The honchos at American Honda liked the idea, and after a few months of heavy-duty logistical gymnastics, the deal came together. Hayden and Andretti, of course, signed right up. They didn't get to be the racing studs they are without a serious appreciation for things loud, fast and expensive--especially when those things belong to other people. And so it would come to pass, one partly cloudy day at Mid-Ohio, that they would swap leather for Nomex, four wheels for two and drive/ride a few miles in each others' shoes.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The first thing you--and Hayden--learn about car racing is that it takes a whole lot of people to make a big-time racing car go. Hayden's bike sat in its garage, with its two Honda technicians ready whenever we were. Andretti's car, on the other hand, was surrounded by a phalanx of Team Kool Green/Motorola guys, and two or three Honda Performance Development folks to baby-sit the engine. Computer cables ran from the row of black boxes on its side pod, and a row of laptops in the portable pit command center told its keepers just how it was feeling. Carbon-fiber body panels were flying on and off, with mechanics rushing around like scrub nurses on ER. Wheels were constantly being air-wrenched; the car moves around the pits on rain tires, but those get switched for slicks every time it goes out--even for one lap.

Andretti climbed into his Nomex and slithered down into his office. A crewman cinched him in and another spun the Honda V-eight to life, sticking the stinger of a hand-held starter unit into the back of the Lola's transaxle. Even with the sound muffled by the turbocharger, a CART car makes a gut-shaking, ear-killing racket close up. This, and the pervasive, explosive scent of its methanol fuel burning, makes being near a running CART Honda an exercise in controlled panic, at least for the first time. Somewhere, deep in your subconscious, there's a vague sense that this thing is alive, we've pissed it off, and if we don't hold still it's going to tear us apart.

Andretti blasted out of the pits, rear tires smoking, engine shrieking, popping upshifts onto the front straight. Hayden stood in the pits, listening to Andretti's lap. As it blasted into sight up the front straight we were hit by a wave of sound and concussion. Andretti dove into Turn One at a hideous rate of speed, all noise and fury. All eyes turned to Hayden--who responded with a wide-eyed, "Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into" grin.

Fit to be Tied

After three laps Andretti pulled in and killed the engine. The crew swarmed over the car like a rugby scrum. This was a fresh engine, and Andretti had gone out to check the setup for Hayden, also checking for leaks and other problems. The pole position for the race coming this weekend would be in the low 1:06 range; on a green, dirty track, in warm-up mode, Andretti had turned a laid-back 1:12.

Every CART car is custom-tailored to its driver, with a special form-fitting seat, carefully adjusted pedals and ergonomics. Andretti shrugged out, and Hayden climbed in for his fitting. Hayden and Andretti, it turns out, are almost exactly the same size and shape. At least at this stage of his learning curve, Hayden liked Andretti's setup just fine.

The cockpit of a CART car is constricting; when you're pulling three-plus Gs in a 225-mph corner you don't want to be sliding around. Also, to protect the driver from crash impact and flying debris, CART cars have a form-fitting, energy-absorbing cowling around the sides and rear of the driver's helmet after he's belted in. For a long-time bike racer such as Hayden, accustomed to crawling all over a speeding machine, this was a whole new experience.

Paradigm Shift

The shifting of a CART car is, ironically, much more like Hayden's RC51 than the the Formula Ford Hayden trained in at the Derek Daly Academy (see sidebar, page 56). It's a sequential seven-speed that operates just like a six-speed's: yank the stubby lever back to upshift, and pop it forward to downshift. And, as on Hayden's RC, the ignition hiccups momentarily when you hit the lever, allowing you to keep the throttle wide open for upshifts. For downshifts, just as on the bike, you use the throttle to match revs. "Going into a corner, you make quick little stabs at the throttle, blip, blip, blip, for each gear," Andretti said. "You have to keep track of how many gears you've come down, to make sure you're in the right one when you get there."

As Hayden finished getting installed in the car, Team Honda Crew Chief Ray Plumb rolled out the RC51 for Andretti's first stint. Andretti came out in squeaky new leathers and a pair of boots white enough to cause navigational confusion for low-flying aircraft. "I've never been on a track on a bike," Andretti said, trying vainly to hide the boots behind the pit wall. "I do some road riding--I used to ride a lot when I was younger. But I haven't done as much in the last, oh, 15 years, because I've been so busy. So it's going to be all new. I think the hardest part is going to be the reverse shifting, because I'm so used to roadbikes. And slicks--I've never been on slicks before. Do they come right in?" he asked Hayden.

"Yeah, [they're] real good. They take a little bit of getting used to. But after that, they're really awesome."

"Well, I'm not going to be gassing it that hard. I'll probably be two gears taller in each corner, just so I don't kill myself. When I shift, is it like the car, [or do I] have to lift?"

"Yeah, you can leave it wide open. Use the clutch a little bit when backshifting," Hayden said. "It's got a slipper clutch, so it won't slide the back when you let out the clutch."

As Andretti rolled out for his first two-wheeled sighting laps, Plumb talked about the setup of Hayden's bike. With Honda's considerable investment in Andretti, one might have expected the RC51 to be detuned for this exercise. Nope. "This is exactly the way Hayden had it set up when we raced here, the shock, the fork, the same gearing, everything. We can soften up the power, say, for a rain race, by changing the fuel-injection mapping. But we didn't do that for Andretti--he's in total control. It's his game."

After the CART car, the sound of the RC51 seemed almost mellow. Andretti seemed cool as he left the pits, but the phalanx of managers, team officials and public-relations types huddled behind didn't seem quite so sure about this whole thing. Not to worry. Andretti is an old pro. He was taking his time, trying to get used to a lot of things at once: riding a world-class racebike for the first time, trying to train his left foot to shift backward and trying not to break himself.

The shifting thing was obviously causing him some discomfort; we could hear the engine note wavering up and down as he bent the RC51 into the fast left after the pits, and see his foot dancing around the stubby shifter.

He came in, pleased with the bike, but frustrated with the shifting problem. "The bike's great, but I can't feel the shifter" he said. "It's a bummer, trying to feel what the shifter's doing--I can't downshift here, into Turn One. You could hear [that] I upshifted when I was trying to downshift that time."

"Matt Mladin runs his bike with a street shift pattern," Hayden offered in commiseration.

"I can see why a racebike is set up that way" Andretti said. "Because your foot is already coming up when you're braking, and coming down when you're accelerating." He thought for a moment. "Wonder why streetbikes are the other way?"

While Plumb adjusted the shifter, Hayden tried to help out Andretti with his new footwear. "Maybe if you squat down in 'em, they'll loosen up."

Kind of a Drag

In his next stint Andretti was much more comfortable. His times were coming down steadily, from the low 1:50 range and into the 1:40s, with a best of 1:44. Considering that Hayden's pole time in this year's race was a 1:27.130, it was clear that unlike Hayden, Andretti was not quite ready for MotoGP after this, his first time on a racetrack, but he certainly wasn't slow.

"I'm dragging my boots on the ground in a few places," he said after he pulled in. "But no knees," he added, with mock sadness. "The power is great--the front end feels like it's coming up the whole time, coming down the back straight. Does it do the same thing for you?" he asked Hayden.

"Oh, yeah," Hayden replied, in his molasses drawl. "It sure does."

Hammer Time

It was time for Hayden to strap on the Lola and hit the track. But first he would have to get out of the pits. "The clutches on these things are incredibly grabby," Andretti told Hayden. "Don't worry if you stall it--we stall 'em all the time. Just get the revs way up and break the tires loose--just spin and go."

As Hayden's big moment approached, there was quiet speculation up and down pit lane: Will he or won't he?

The crew fired up the car, its high, anxious idle bouncing in waves off the garages. Hayden revved it and revved it. Revved it, eased out the clutch...and stalled. Mercifully, the crew was quick with the starter to close Hayden's shame window. This time, he was serious. He revved it to the moon, side-stepped the clutch and lit up the tires like Las Vegas at midnight. He was gone, leaving only a cloud of toasted methanol and charred Bridgestone in his wake.

Spin City

We could hear Hayden's progress around the track as he warmed up the tires, the car and his brain. The first time by, he tiptoed into Turn One, coasting where Andretti had blasted. The second lap was faster, more authoritative. The third, more aggressive still. We saw him disappear under the bridge and roar down toward the keyhole. We faintly heard him blast down the back straight--and then, silence.

After a minute, the track corner workers radioed that Hayden had spun at Turn Five, a slow left that's seriously uphill going in and downhill coming out. Andretti's crew calmly climbed into a pickup and went out to collect their car--and Honda's star roadracer, who would be fighting to clinch the AMA Superbike championship the coming weekend.

No harm done, but Hayden had come close to sliding into the tire barrier, and that could have gotten expensive. As it was, the team figures that running a CART car costs in the neighborhood of $350 per mile--and that's if it comes back in the same shape it went out. The team methodically checked the car, pulling clumps of grass from the radiators.

"It was neat. Really cool," Hayden bubbled, his enthusiasm none the worse for his off-track detour. "Every lap I'd get a little more comfortable. It was kinda hard being tied in, it took me a couple laps to get used to that. I'd get to a corner and try to tilt my head in, but it wasn't helpin' none. That, and over those rises, where I spun, the car gets unweighted and it loses a lot of grip. A motorcycle doesn't lose as much grip there, but this thing, when it gets unweighted, feels like it has no grip at all. And you sit so low, it's hard to see; down the back straight, on a motorcycle, you can pretty much see the whole thing. In the car, you sit so far was almost like I was trying to sit up to see the track. But it was awesome. When I came around that corner, I was gassing it--and it got away from me real quick. When the car stopped spinning I said 'Dang, that didn't even hurt.' So that was kinda good."

"Over those rises, you've got to be smooth with the throttle," Andretti counseled. "When you go up you've got to lift, and then you really have to feel the traction with the tires, and get back in it very smoothly."

"It feels awesome," Hayden continued. "I can't believe how nimble it is."

"As you think, it should react with you." Andretti said. "The car's not real good now--this track is so slippery when you first go out. This weekend, at the race, we'll probably sit out the first practice session for the first 45 minutes to let other guys rubber it in. If we go out before then, we're just wasting our time and our tires--and we only get seven sets for the weekend, for everything, practice, qualifying and the race itself."

Hayden's spin might have pegged his manager's pulse rate, but nobody else seemed all that worried. The crew simply pulled the car apart, put it back together, and got it ready for Hayden's next run. It's good to be a factory rider.

A Wing and a Prayer

Hayden now had the launch routine down--he smoked out of the pits like a Saturn 5 booster, leaving the spectators holding their ears. As Andretti watched from the pit wall, I asked him if he had told Hayden about how a winged race car's grip level changes with increasing speed; that is, that downforce, and thus traction, goes up drastically at higher speeds, making the car relatively easy to drive in the faster corners--and relatively tricky in the slower ones.

"No, I forgot to tell him about that," he said, stroking his goatee. "Hmmm. Well, too late now," he said, to a ripple of laughter from the assembled gawkers. As Hayden blasted around the track, his times came down steadily: from the 1:39 range, down into 1:34s, then 1:32s, and finally, on his last lap, a 1:30.52. This was still three seconds slower than his best bike times, and on a faster track configuration: The CART cars go straight into the Turn Two keyhole, but the AMA Superbikes go through a fast chicane on the way in, costing them about five more seconds a lap.

Red-Light District

Hayden pulled in, his trademark grin spilling out of his helmet.

"Did you see the shift lights this time?" Andretti asked. The dash has a series of red LEDs that light up as the revs near redline, signaling the driver to upshift.

"Yeah, I started waitin' on the lights," Hayden replied. "Here on the front straightaway--it seemed like they all came on at once. The first few laps I took, I thought maybe the shift light wasn't working."

"It's hard to believe you can rev 'em that hard," Andretti said. "You think it's just going to scream apart, it's revving so high."

"How high is that?" Hayden asked.

"Well..." said Michael, "we're not allowed to say. Higher than what you were revving it to, we can say that."

Making a Pass

"It must be hard to pass on a track like this," Hayden said.

"It's real hard." Andretti replied. "The problem is that we're all so close, and that makes it harder. If a guy's slower than you, he's only a couple 10ths slower. To make a pass, he'd have to be a second slower. It's frustrating. The problem is, well, there are two problems. One, the competition is better. And, two, the tires are too good, they don't go off in a race. In the old days, they used to go off real bad, so the guy who sets his car up better is going to shine at the end of a stint. Now, even if you're off in your setup, the tires still hang in there. Actually, Bridgestone is doing too good a job. On the bikes, if you can save your tires for the end of the race, you're going to be looking a lot better."

"Everybody runs the same compound?" Hayden asked.

"Yup, it's the same tire for everybody." Andretti replied. "Where you guys get to pick a softer compound, or a harder one."

Yeah, like here at the last race," Hayden added, "Before the red flag I was getting away from Eric [Bostrom]. But after the red flag there were only 15 laps left, so he gambled and went with a pretty soft tire, and at the beginning he was going real good."

Back to Golf Land

Our track time was over, the Honda road race guys were packing the RC51 back into its wooden crate, and the Team Kool Green folk were wheeling the car away, wet towels draped over the carbon fiber of the engine cover to help it cool without blistering the paint. Other CART teams were setting up for the race weekend, their semis quickly filling the Mid-Ohio paddock. Hayden went off to change out of his Nomex suit. Andretti stopped to talk about his first motorcycle track day.

"I had a great time," Andretti said. "I just wish I could have had my equipment fitting better. And getting used to the shifting pattern was a little difficult. I just wish I had more time, so I could get down and have a little more fun. The power was really good, the feeling of acceleration is great. And the thing really sticks. I obviously wasn't able to take full advantage of that, but you could feel that it really sticks. It was fun, really fun."

Hayden sauntered back, now wearing his trademark baggy shorts and loose T-shirt, suddenly looking more like a carefree, footloose Kentucky kid than an international racing star.

"I wanted to thank Andretti, the crew and everybody on the team for being so nice to me, helping me out the way they did." Hayden said. "I learned a lot about car racing and what Andretti does for a living--it was a great experience. I wanted to see what it's like to go fast in one of those things, but I wanted to be careful, too. I know I've got a big weekend ahead of me--we've got a championship to win. And I'm sure Andretti probably needs the car in one piece. After I spun, I thought, well, maybe I'd better chill out a little.

"That car is awesome. It's going to be hard going to drive little go-karts now, when my buddies want to go down to Golf Land. In my contract next year, I might have to tell Honda I need one, you know, maybe get that as a bonus."

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