A Day With Josh Hayes and His Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 | Thor’s Hammer

By Zack Courts, Photography by Brian J. Nelson

Hayes’ story itself is equally inspiring: he dipped his toes into the world of motorcycling at the ripe old age of 19 and didn’t turn pro until 24—unthinkable in this day of teenaged world champs. He showed promise and enjoyed success on various teams for ten years until settling at Yamaha where he has blossomed into a truly dominant competitor.

As much as Hayes has benefitted from the R1, the bike has benefitted from him and the work of the Graves team. Historically, this is when racing motorcycles become exceptional. The same bike, the same rider, and the same team all working toward one goal, year after year, eyes fixed on the prize.

Even with all of the success Hayes has enjoyed, he refuses to forget how long the road has been and how unclear it all was in 2009. “I definitely struggled from the beginning,” he admits, “but we decided at some point, about three races in, whoa, stop, we’re going to start from scratch and build our way into it.” That pragmatism and work ethic has grown to define Hayes and the Graves team, who are incessant in their desire to make the bike better.

Now, four years later, the rider, team, and bike are truly firing on all cylinders, something Hayes points to as a marker for success. “I feel pretty lucky,” he explains, “I’d won two championships by the end of 2011 and the team still decides they’re going to spend money to develop this bike and make it better and easier to ride.”

Refining the bike to make it easier to ride is a large part of the team’s mission, too. The Graves R1 is more than just big power, big brakes, and stiff suspension. The bike is dripping with details that set it apart from any other R1. For example, there are huge gussets welded to the sides of the twin-spar frame just behind the steering head. Hobbs explained that the Graves team pays a small penalty for adding weight, but reap large benefits by allowing less frame flex and fewer variables in suspension tuning.

A giant Magnetti-Marelli dash is reminiscent of Yamaha’s M1 MotoGP bike, and displays more information than I was capable of taking in. Flawless billet rearsets are machined to tuck in behind the frame spar, keeping the rider’s feet and lower legs out of the wind. The seat foam is tiered so when the rider slides back and tucks in his butt goes up, improving airflow over the fairing and across the rider. The Graves team has optimized aerodynamics further by shaving a full inch off the top of the gas tank to leave more room to get behind the bubble.

As the day wore on I acclimated—at least somewhat—to the vicious power and ever-willing handling, and while I was approximately 10 seconds shy of the bike’s proven capability, I at least felt as though I had scratched the surface. At the end of my last session on the R1 I was beat, but had just enough energy to come up with one last feeble idea: a wheelie. Make that an intentional wheelie.

The most frantically fast bike I’ve ridden is BMW’s S1000RR, which put out 178 horsepower on our dyno, and as hard as that bike pulls, this R1 is miles ahead. Yamaha claims “180+”, but if it’s less than 200 bhp I’ll eat my hat. It feels like it has enough power to wheelie forever, and I simply couldn’t resist the desire to try.

Accelerating onto NOLA Motorsports Park’s 3360-foot front straight in second gear, the R1’s front end clawed for the sky just like every other lap, but this time I sat upright and waited to see how far “180-plus” rear-wheel horsepower would take me. Third gear. Fourth gear. Fifth gear. The start/finish line came and went with a blur and the braking zone for Turn 1 was fast approaching. Utterly bewildered I gave up and eased the front end down to the ground. I felt the wheel take a couple of rotations to catch up as it touched down; last time it had been on the ground was at maybe 50 mph, and by the end of the straight I was well into don’t-tell-mom speeds. The bike had accelerated for the better part of a half-mile with the front wheel in the air, and I never even twisted the grip wide open.

As aggressive as this bike looks and as monstrous as it sounds, nothing could prepare me for the experience of unleashing it on a racetrack. It is positively super in every way, and capable enough to outclass nearly any rider. Turning it loose was truly educational, awe-inspiring, and humbling, but certainly best left to Men with a capital “M.”

As for the Man who rides it, now that he’s wrapped up his third championship in a row what does he do in his free time? Ten minutes after I met Josh Hayes he told me excitedly he was hoping to ride one of the Graves team’s Yamaha YZF-R6 race bikes later in the day. When I asked what he learns from riding a relatively tame 600cc machine, he replied through a smile, “Just fun. I still like riding 600s. They’re a blast.”

Just fun. That’s what motorcycling is all about, after all.

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