Lean Angle Firebolt's Revenge

Longtime readers will understand when I say we've had a somewhat rocky relationship with Buell motorcycles over the years. We're big fans of what Buell's been able to do with a Sportster-based engine, and the new-generation bikes are unique and technologically impressive. But because we tend to be both brutally honest and very opinionated in these pages about how a test bike actually functions, we've at times been reasonably critical of some Buells. This has rankled Buell owners and the company itself.

This criticism is not bias on our part, or anything personal or sinister. We figure readers want--and deserve--to know in a road-test write-up exactly how a particular bike behaves, and what we think about it. Honesty, and the credibility it brings, really is the best policy, regardless of advertising or political consequences.

All of which brings me to a certain Buell Firebolt I rode recently at Daytona during the Championship Cup Series races the week before the 200-miler.

There I was at the CCS riders' meeting, telling Harley-Davidson/Buell Press Manager Paul James my sad story about not yet having gotten any practice on the TZ750 Yamaha I was to ride that weekend. (The reasons for the big TZ's on-track absence up to that point are painful and numerous, so I'll save them for another issue.) James, knowing the value of extra laps this year due to the all-new track configuration, turned to me and said, "Hey, let's ride my Buell in the 200-mile Team Challenge event. We'll get lots of laps, and it'll be fun!"

Completely overlooking the possible editorial implications of the offer, I agreed in about two seconds flat. James is, after all, a good guy, and an even better rider. After a last-minute OK from CCS Race Director Kevin Elliott, we were signed up and ready to go. James would provide the bike. I'd secure a set of tires and enough fuel and bodies to help with pit stops.

Later that day, sitting on pit wall just minutes before the start discussing strategy (or the complete lack thereof), James hit me with this: "Why don't you start the race?" I looked at him like he was nuts. I mean, I'd only done one lap of the new circuit, and he wanted me to dive into Turn One surrounded by 30 or 40 club-racing crazies on a motorcycle I'd never even swung a leg over. "You're kidding, right?" I asked him. "I'm not," he said, half-laughing. "Look, we're not out here to win our class or anything."

I thought about it for a few seconds and decided he was right. Leaving the starting line with the pack wouldn't be any worse than leaving the pits and immediately mixing it up with already-up-to-speed machines. Either way I'd be in way over my head. Most important, I'd get to learn the new layout; nothing I could imagine would be worse than negotiating the revised track for the first time on a certain 130-horsepower two-stroke with a particularly evil reputation. So I bit. Again.

Minutes later I'm rolling onto the grid for the warm-up lap to scrub the Dunlops and get accustomed to the Firebolt. It feels fine; roomy, taut and reasonably fast. James had told me the engine was mildly massaged: A Buell Pro Series pipe, fuel-injection tweaks and some porting from Hal's Speed Shop gave it dyno numbers in the low- to mid-90s.

Two minutes after that I'm leaning over the 'Bolt's triple clamp trying to smother an inadvertent wheelie as I launch my not-insubstantial mass toward Turn One. I arrive there midpack, survive the weaving and stuffing that goes on right up to the apex of the International Horseshoe a quarter-mile later, and continue on my merry, I'm-just-learnin' sorta way.

Early on I worry about weird handling demons popping out of nowhere as I up my pace, but none do. I'm actually having a ball on the thing, and discovering the Firebolt is hugely predictable and easy to ride at race speeds. It's comfortable, stable on the banking, not finicky on the brakes and quick-steering.

I pit and James takes over, but a red flag (brought on by another rider's nasty crash) and fading daylight ends up limiting the race to only about 100 of its scheduled 200 miles. No matter; we've both gotten some decent laps, and I now have a reasonable feel for the new track. We end up fifth in the class, not bad for such a last-minute deal.

Later I asked James why his bike corners without the stand-up-on-the-brakes tendency of a stocker. "Correct setup is key," he said. "I use Buell's Pro Series suspension kit, which includes stiffer springs front and rear. It makes a big difference." James has the bike set up for a 205-pound rider, 20 pounds less than I weigh, so I can only guess it's the stiffer springs and near-correct sag settings that keep the bike's radical geometry--21 degrees of rake and just 52 inches between the axles--from going postal with heavier-than-average riders aboard. Would a streetbike with such chassis mods perform similarly? Not sure. Roadracing, unlike street riding, is more of an all-or-nothing situation in terms of cornering; you're either straight up and down or levered way over (or on your way there), and some of the subtleties of a bike's street handling are often hidden at the track.

Still, I came away with a fresh appreciation for what the Buell folks have done with their sportiest motorcycle. And what a good PR guy Buell has in Mr. James. Did he have a feeling I might come away with a positive experience, and that I might write about it? Possibly. But I'm glad he did. Now we're talking about doing a Firebolt project bike for the street with more engine tweaks and proper chassis setup.

And after my recent experience at Daytona, that could be a fun ride.

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