Moto-ST Endurance Racing - Battle Of Twins

"F*ck!

Writers pride themselves on possessing an extensive, expansive vocabulary. I've worn out dictionaries and multiple thesauri in an attempt to cram my cranium with obscure and erudite verbiage so that I'd always have the perfect word for any situation. Fat lot of good that does now, sailing mug-first over the curbing of Road America's diabolical Bend, when the only word that jumbles from my parietal lobe is the crudest: "F*ck!"

It was the 13th lap (of course) of the SunTrust Moto-ST 500K at Road America and I was fighting for third in class when a racing incident/high-speed shoving match with a slower rider on a faster Ducati Sport Classic caused a momentary Buell/track inversion. I stood up, restarted the bike, tucked the torn-off upper fairing into my lap, and then noticed the blood everywhere. "Whose blood is that?" I wondered, and then looked at my hand perched over the clutch, pinkie finger poking from a peeled-back glove, fingernail sticking straight up at a 90-degree angle and spouting blood like a fire hose. "F*ck!"

Unfortunately I wasn't the only member of Team Motorcyclist cussing out loud. At the same time Brian Catterson was limping around the paddock on a badly blistered right foot, burned by the overheated exhaust on his lean-running Lloyd Brothers Racing Aprilia Tuono that suffered race-ending fuel-pump gremlins. Meanwhile, in the Factory Kawasaki/Pair-A-Nines pit, Angie Loy was staring at a pile of wreckage formerly known as her Ninja 650R racebike, totaled in another "racing incident" with her teammate Deb Barton aboard. Our dream story where the Motorcyclist staff earned podium positions in all three Moto-ST classes had turned into a nightmare, an abject lesson in all the things that can possibly go wrong in the unpredictable world of endurance racing.

For the unaware, Moto-ST is a new-ish racing series (the inaugural event was run at Daytona in October 2006), featuring races anywhere from three to eight hours in length, contested between two- or three-person teams riding four-stroke, twin-cylinder motorcycles. With a goal of providing competitive racing among a wide variety of machines, bikes are segregated into three classes determined by horsepower (verified at each event on a Dynojet dyno) and minimum weight: SuperSport Twins (SST) make 90-118 bhp and weigh at least 400 pounds at race end; GrandSport Twins (GST) make 75-90 bhp and weigh no more than 390 pounds; and Sport Twins (ST) make no more than 75 bhp and weigh at least 360 pounds.

This carefully considered rules package has resulted in an unprecedented diversity of racing machinery: Aprilia, BMW, Buell, Ducati, Honda, Hyosung, Kawasaki, MZ and Suzuki motorcycles have all been represented in competition, and Aprilia, BMW and Suzuki have taken overall wins so far. In stark contrast to the all-inline-four homogeneity of AMA roadracing, the typical Moto-ST grid intermingles air-cooled American V-twins, liquid-cooled Italian V-twins, oil-cooled German opposed-twins, liquid-cooled Japanese parallel- and V-twins, and more. Such carefully managed conditions have so far produced incredibly close and competitive racing, and thanks to the substantial purses (ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, depending on the length of the race-the RA 500K purse was $35,000), the talent is deep: The typical Moto-ST grid counts numerous Pro roadracers, "former" Pro racers and many top-tier WERA/CCS competitors.

Intrigued by the concept, we decided to experience Moto-ST firsthand. I begged a ride on the James Gang Racing "B" bike (codename: Scrappy), a Buell XB12R Firebolt competing in the GST class, teamed with stalwart Midwestern Buell racer Greg Avello. Brian bagged a ride on one of the dominant Lloyd Brothers Motorsports Aprilia Tuonos in the SST class, paired with West Coast fast guy John-Mark Arechiga, and Angie found a temporary home on the factory Kawasaki-supported Pair-A-Nines Racing Ninja 650R, paired with the aforementioned Deb.

The Moto-ST series certainly warrants investigation. Though it might look like a novelty, with riders competing in the obscure discipline of endurance racing aboard bikes that hover on the fringes of the motorcycle marketplace, there are powerful and influential forces backing the series. Moto-ST events are sanctioned by Professional Motorsports Productions (owner and operator of the Canadian Superbike Championship) and organized by the Grand American Road Racing Association (better known for its Rolex Sports Car Series). GARRA is a property of International Speedway Corporation (i.e., NASCAR, Daytona, et al.), arguably the most successful racing organization on earth. The group backing Moto-ST is definitely capable, and if they are satisfied with the series' performance as an entertainment product, don't be surprised to see them move into other, more mainstream aspects of motorcycle racing soon.

The Road America round piggybacked on a pre-existing CCS/ASRA race weekend, thus the schedule was crowded. But it was clear that Sunday afternoon's Moto-ST event was given top billing. Like NASCAR, Moto-ST treats its "athletes" like celebrities (deserving or not), and a prerequisite for the program was preparing autograph stock so we racers could take part in organized autograph sessions throughout the weekend-an ego boost for the riders, and an important opportunity for fans to interact with the racers directly, increasing their investment in the action on-track later. Race day showed more NASCAR influence in the form of a safety car. In an effort to reduce downtime due to red flags and keep the racing action tighter, Moto-ST deploys a safety car during on-track incidents to regroup the field and control the pace until cleanup is completed. The safety car also factors prominently in the rolling start. Bikes are gridded in position and then set out on a hot lap behind the safety car before the flying start-a safer and (slightly) more predictable method than the usual standing start. At least there's no possibility of stalling on the grid and getting hit from behind.

The first lap provided plenty of excitement, hurtling three- and four-wide around the notoriously fast Road America circuit mixed in such a diverse group of bikes. In practice, quite frankly, I was lost on the Buell, struggling to break the 2:45 lap-time mark on a track where I've turned high 2:30s on the less-powerful Team MS Racing Suzuki SV650 I'm accustomed to racing. Scrappy was set up for owner Paul James-Harley-Davidson/Buell Communication Manager and the 2006 CCS SuperTwins Regional Champion. I wasn't comfortable enough on the unfamiliar bike to match James' corner speeds, which made the bike seem over-geared and dreadfully slow out of corners.

The first lap of the race cleared that issue right up, however. Nestled into the fast-moving field, lap one was dispatched in 2:44-more than a second quicker than my best practice time-and suddenly everything clicked. Getting the corner speed up helped keep the revs in a range that worked better with James' gearing choice, so I could take full advantage of the XB12R's prodigious torque and get better drives out of each turn. Corner entry was greatly improved as well, thanks to a brand-new front brake rotor and pads that co-crew chiefs Mike Kirkpatrick and Matt King installed the night before.

The pair had done a fabulous job of preparing the bike. The chassis was set up perfectly, with exceptional mid-corner stability that was a great confidence-booster in RA's super-fast Turn 1, wide-open Turn 7 and especially the long Carousel. I manned up and rode Scrappy to a consistent and competitive 2:40 pace by the 10th lap, and three laps later was closing in on third in class when the "racing incident" happened.

Mangled finger or not, I managed to limp the bike back to the paddock where the crew scrambled to reattach the fairing and replace the broken levers, sending Avello back out less than 20 minutes later. The medical staff anesthetized my hand to remove the remnants of my fingernail so my day was over, but Avello and substitute rider Clint Brotz fought back to a very respectable fifth in class. James and teammate Jeff Johnson earned a podium spot, finishing second in class behind the Richie Morris Racing Buell XB12R of Shawn Higbee and Dan Bilansky. Had I kept my head on straight there was a good chance Avello and I could have made it an all-Buell podium, but "could have" doesn't count for anything in racing.

Meanwhile, the premier SST class delivered all the NASCAR-esque drama the fans-and the series organizers-could have asked for. On the last lap, just 2.13 seconds separated the first-place San Jose BMW R1200S and second-place Lloyd Brothers Aprilia Tuono. Because they were running so close, both teams took a calculated risk and skipped their late-race pit stop, gambling they'd have enough fuel to finish. Tipping into Turn 1 on that last lap, Aprilia rider Ty Howard felt his bike sputter and die. BMW rider Brian Parriott raced down the hill toward Turn 3 while Howard struggled (and eventually succeeded) to refire his bike. Parriott made it all the way to T14-the final corner-before his tank also ran dry, coasting to a halt on Road America's steep uphill front straight literally within sight of the finish line! Howard, still sputtering, managed to cross the finish line for the win. Drama! Heartbreak! Jubilation! F*ck! This is motorcycle racing as it should be.

Individual disasters aside, Team Motorcyclist limped away from Road America impressed with the racing experience that Moto-ST facilitates, and excited to see what the future holds for the series and the organizations behind it. The Moto-ST group is well-funded and supported, and attractive to sponsors (complete with a solid TV deal). GARRA President/Moto-ST head honcho Roger Edmondson and his advisory board (which includes roadracing power brokers Colin Fraser, Steve McLaughlin, Don Emde, John Ulrich and more) are openly entertaining the possibility of a full national roadrace series to rival the current AMA program. They're also considering other concepts that range from intriguing (reviving the old multi-discipline Grand National Championship concept, or a new breed of singles racing) to downright bizarre (a spec cruiser class that, according to Edmondson, would run bikes owned by the sanctioning body and ridden by two dozen contracted riders in a made-for-TV racing series).

As for me, there's talk that I might have a chance to redeem myself in the season-ending 8-hour at Daytona this fall. Better spend some quality time with my dictionary first, then, and chase down a more promising-and podium-appropriate-declarative than "F*ck!"

It takes a village to field an endurance team. The James Gang Racing bunch, supporting riders Paul James, Jeff Johnson, Greg Avello and Aaron Frank (left to right).
Talk about unusual racing machines: Frank goes around Dr. Jeffery Purk's Ducati Multistrada (yes, Multistrada) on the front straight.
Not a GSX-R in sight: Two Aprilias, two Suzuki SV650s, a Buell, a Ducati 749 and a Kawasaki Ninja 650R attest to the diversity of the Moto-ST grid.