It's been years since any other Superbike could consistently challenge the dominant Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000s. It's been even longer since another racer rattled the otherwise unflappable Mat Mladin. But Larry Pegram and his Foremost Insurance Ducati 1098R managed both in 2009. Not only did Pegram score three AMA American Superbike wins (two admittedly in Mladin's absence), he also inspired the normally no-excuses Australian to complain about Ducati's "unfair" power advantage.
We rode Pegram's 1098R at Putnam Park Road Course in Mount Meridian, Indiana, just a few weeks after his two Topeka victories. Mladin is right-this is a very fast motorcycle. We'd known that since the first practice session of the season at Daytona, when Pegram posted the top speed of 199.9 mph. But not only is this bike blindingly fast, it's also among the most user-friendly racebikes we've ridden.
Pegram can thank Ducati Corse for that. Pegram Racing is not a factory effort-Larry manages and finances the program himself, and prepares the bikes in-house. But thanks to Ducati's impressive commitment to supporting privateers, he was able to effectively build a factory racebike using catalog parts. "All the parts that aren't stock, anyone can buy right from the Ducati Performance catalog," Pegram says. "Except for the ECU, and you can buy that straight from Marelli. Anyone could build this bike for $100,000, including the $40,000 stock bike."
How closely does Pegram's kit-bike resemble Noriyuki Haga's World Superbike machine? Very closely, it turns out. "Motor-wise, our bike is so similar," Pegram explains. "The factory team runs different cases. They're basically the same, but have a different oil window. They use a crank that's pre-balanced for the kit pistons. We run the same pistons, but balance the crank ourselves. They have a different head that can fit an air restrictor; otherwise the head is the same. They use a kit close-ratio transmission; we have to use the stocker. That's it. Different parts, but very close in spec."
Contrary to what his competition claims, Larry Pegram's 1098R is not a true factory Superb
Pegram sets the rev limiter at 11,800 rpm, compared to 12,200 rpm for the factory bikes. "
Larry (left) is in it for the long haul: "After I'm done riding, I want to keep the team s
Electronically speaking, the two bikes are identical. Pegram uses the same Magneti Marelli Marvel 4 ECU, uploaded with the same software. More importantly, Pegram has a world-class team of number-crunchers. Crew chief Massimo Capanna has 30 years experience in Grand Prix, working with Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey among others. And Marco Urani, the team's computer tech, came directly from Mika Kallio's factory KTM 250cc GP squad. "Their experience, and their ability to decode the data, has been a huge help," Pegram confirms.
But while their engines are similar, Pegram's chassis is less like the SBK machine. AMA rules require stock fork externals, limiting brake choice. "The really good Brembos, with bigger-pistons, are 108mm spacing and the stock forks are 100mm spacing," Pegram says. The kit swingarm is the same as Haga's, but American Superbikes use 17-inch wheels (as opposed to 16.5s) and spec Dunlop slicks.
Still, the racebike's handling is markedly improved over the already-sublime stocker, especially in tight corners. The stock 1098R can be slow to turn-in and hard to steer at lean. So much torque and telepathic traction make the bike want to go straight. Pegram's racer snaps in like a 600 and is more responsive at lean, largely due to reduced fork offset (30mm, compared to the stock 36mm) that pulls in the front wheel and sharpens steering response.
Eight-level-adjustable traction control, plus wheelie control that constrains both the angle and duration of any airborne trajectory, enable ferocious forward motion. Even exiting Putnam's last turn in third gear, one higher than optimal, the Superbike claws for the clouds before you've got it anywhere near straight up-and-down. Chaos continues the length of Putnam's undulating front straight, wheelying hard over the first rise in fourth gear, then hard again in fifth over the second crest. Rushing toward Turn One carrying an extra 20 mph compared to a stock 1098R clarifies Pegram's comment about the brakes.
Pegram wouldn't give up a number, but we reckon this bike delivers around 205 rear-wheel horsepower, compared to a reported 220 bhp from a factory bike. Pegram's engine-builder, Dave Weaver, says the biggest difference between the AMA and SBK bikes is fuel. Stateside Superbikes use Sunoco 260 GTX spec fuel, which Weaver claims makes less power than pump gas. Weaver says tuning for this fuel costs six to eight percent-or around 15 bhp.
Even on "lite" gas, the 1098R Superbike is a potent package. Pegram just wishes he wasn't the only one in the AMA paddock waving the Ducati flag, if for no other reason than to silence the haters.
"I would love for someone else to put together a Ducati just like mine," Pegram says. "Some guys think my success all comes down to the bike, and having someone else out there would show that's just not true."