Here’s the script: Our movie hero rider is leaving the pits, pulling on to the track with the best motorcycle racers on the fastest motorcycles in the world. He’s never competed at the world championship level before. He has no experience with the spec tires that are standard in this series, or the high-tech carbon brakes, both of which perform very differently depending if they are hot or cold. He's nervous, not sure what to expect.
Wait, let’s make it more difficult for him. New series, new tires, new brakes, but we’ll also say that he’s actually never ridden the bike before. At any speed. Surely there has been some pre-race testing done at another track, by another rider? No, the bike has never run at speed, anywhere, and now it’s entering the track in a MotoGP race. Hardly believable, but you can get away with unbelievable stuff in movies, right?
But it’s not a movie story, it’s a true story. I caught up with the not-a-movie hero rider on the Monday after the 2012 Laguna Seca MotoGP round to talk about his (almost) unbelievable weekend.
Steve Rapp, at 40, has been racing professionally in the various AMA series for a decade and a half, and is a Daytona 200 winner. Though he’s a veteran racer, serious physical conditioning gives him the build of an Olympic athlete. I’d met Steve during the testing and racing of the Mission R electric superbike in 2011, and Steve’s technical experience and relaxed style were important contributions to making that project a success.
In early 2012, I heard that Richard Stanboli at Attack Performance was going to build a Claiming Rules Team (CRT) MotoGP bike to run as a wild-card entry at the MotoGP rounds at Laguna and Indy. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Richard had chosen Steve to ride the bike. Stanboli and his crew at Attack had only about four months to design and build the bike. CRT rules specify a stock-based engine and prototype chassis, so Attack chose the Kawasaki ZX-10R engine, familiar ground for the team. Stanboli designed the very trim twin-spar chassis, beautifully built up from billet- aluminum, CNC-machined outer sections and aluminum sheet inner walls.
The bike was on schedule for completion with time for track testing before Laguna Seca. But the delayed arrival of a trick through-shaft MotoGP-style rear shock suddenly sent some rear suspension parts back to the drawing board. A superbike-spec damper was hastily substituted, but extra machining and fabrication burned up the testing time. Rapp was in the hot seat.
First practice was not comfortable. Without time to test, Rapp didn’t know that the tank was too short, the seat too low and the pegs too high. Steve felt like a monkey on a football, and so he couldn’t get much feel for the bike. That meant plenty of work to do before the second practice a few hours later, yet the Attack Performance guys completed Rapp’s checklist.
In the second free practice things started to gel, and though Steve was 7 seconds behind the leaders, he was really impressed with the progress of a bike that even now had less than an hour’s testing.
Misty, cold weather put a damper on the third practice session. Next up was qualifying, with sunny and warm conditions. Steve picked up the pace, but now found with lower lap times that the bike was under-geared, and that the electric shifter occasionally acted up. And with only one bike and no spares, he wasn’t going to toss it.
In MotoGP all riders must qualify within 107% of the pole time. Lorenzo’s pole time of 1:20.554 plus 107% totaled 1:26.193. Rapp turned a best lap of 1:26.887, which left him out of the field by 0.694 seconds. He figures that the difference was the lost pre-event testing opportunity, and he knows the bike has a lot more in it. The Attack bike was only four seconds outside the best CRT time by Randy DePuniet on the Aprilia ART bike, and the bike is after all a CRT entry.
When we talked, Steve was looking forward to more testing in advance of the Indianapolis round, where he figures he’ll qualify solidly. No, the Attack Performance/Steve Rapp story isn’t a Hollywood script. If it were, you wouldn’t believe it.