Since the introduction of the first GSX-R750, Suzuki has aggressively partnered its flagship sportbike line with a high-paying contingency program for club racers. Many are familiar with the story: The aspiring racer travels the country with a GSX-R in the back of his van, hitting all the events that offer contingency, and making a decent buck as well as gaining notoriety along the way.
The highlight of Suzuki's contingency program, or, if you will, the Mecca, is the Suzuki Cup finals held every year at Road Atlanta in Georgia. Riders must qualify to attend by gaining points in their local series; with enough points, they are invited to compete in a winner-take-all battle in the final. The program started with the GSX-R750, spread to the 600 and 1100/1000, and now includes the three GSX-Rs as well as the SV1000 and SV650.
Our plan here (cue the Mission Impossible soundtrack) was to qualify for the SV650 Cup final by attending a handful of WSMC (Willow Springs Motorcycle Club) rounds at Willow Springs, then race the final at Road Atlanta. And this would be no show-up-and-ride deal--the SV shown here is our own long-suffering test mule. In addition to learning more about the Suzuki Cup series and WERA Grand National Finals (which the Cup races are held in conjunction with each year), this would give us a chance to further explore the SV650 and its cultlike following.
Simple enough, right? Riiiiight
The first order of business was to prepare the SV for battle. A quick peek at the Cup rules showed a mix of Superbike and Superstock regulations, with horsepower and weight restrictions thrown in for good measure. Because the finals are run under WERA's umbrella, the basic guidelines follow that series' Superbike rules for lightweight twins. However, to keep expenses in check, stock wheels, brakes and forks are required. To further level the playing field, maximum horsepower and minimum weight rules are also in effect. That's a lot of rules to keep in mind when building a bike, but you can see the point--Suzuki keeps the horsepower and weight numbers realistic, so it's fair for everyone and major modifications are allowed but not required.
Of course there's always a fly in the ointment, and in this case it was WSMC's qualifying class for the Cup, which is Middleweight Twins. That class runs under the club's liberal superbike rules, which meant I would be running against not only fully built SV650s, but also Ducati 748s and some fast Buells. Luckily, the number of points required to qualify is not that great, and I kept the SV mostly stock for the qualifying rounds. That way, I would get more experience riding it in the form it would be at Road Atlanta, instead of going wild on modifications for the WSMC rounds and then reverting back to the more supersport-like specs for the Cup race itself.
With the 650 stock but for tires, suspension and brakes, I attended the first qualifier and finished eighth (see Full Pin, Oct. 2003). That first race was certainly an eye-opener, as even with the class structure at Willow, an SV650 won the race. It's incredible how much some of these little Suzukis get modified--GSX-R600 front ends (I even saw one with an hlins setup), aftermarket swingarms with wider rear wheels and slicks, overbored engines pumping out close to 90 horsepower--just because the SV is a budget bike does not mean you have to go budget racing. Not that those faster bikes are an excuse; I would definitely have to pull my thumb out, both in my riding and in some more steam for the poor little SV, if I was going to be competitive for the Cup final. For the next Willow race, I had a few more ponies (76.4, against the stock 72) in the form of a Yoshimura pipe, Dynojet Power Commander and K&N; air filter. I went a bit quicker, finishing sixth in the Middleweight Twins race and getting within a second of my goal of a 1:30 lap time.
For the last qualifying round, with the bike just as I would ride it at the final but with stock bodywork, I again finished sixth in the race and garnered a few valuable points (grids for the Cup heat races are determined by points from each region) and more seat time. Perhaps more indicative of my progress with the bike are the results in the 550 Superbike races that I also entered at Willow. My first weekend I finished a dismal 12th, but improved in the next two rounds to finish fifth and second, respectively, in the other class.
To this point, the little SV had been performing amazingly well, with no reliability problems--and the throttle is wide open for most of a lap at Willow. I can see how the SV650 is a great bike to learn on; even the tiniest miscue can cost huge amounts of time, as the bike just doesn't have the power to make up for mistakes. The only snag I encountered at Willow was with the Traxxion Dynamics-modified front fork, which was sensitive to temperature and required constant attention to fork oil weight. When the oil and temperature were matched, the front end worked extremely well, especially when you consider that it's a damping-rod fork. But stray more than 10 or 15 degrees from that ideal temperature (and it's common to see double that swing over the course of a summer day at Willow) and the front end would be rock solid or a pogo stick.
With some time left before the big race at Road Atlanta, I mapped out the last tweaks for the SV and waited anxiously for the minimum weight and maximum horsepower numbers to be released so I could prepare accordingly. There was one last surprise in store for the project, however. With the bike's ride out to Georgia being in the back of the Suzuki demo truck, I had but a few days to weigh the bike (390 pounds with a half-tank of fuel) and dash to the dyno to experiment with a couple of things before the bike had to be off across the country. Sure enough, a couple of days after the SV left, Suzuki released the final rules of 79 horsepower and 365 pounds.
The big race
It's always important to have a decent crew at a major event, and I managed to trick one of my former Suzuki Canada buddies, Jamie Barkley, into helping out at Road Atlanta. With lots of experience dealing with horsepower- and weight-constrained classes (Canadian national races have been run that way for some time now), Barkley would hopefully make up for any deficiencies in my riding and the still mostly stock SV.
The Suzuki Cup finals are run the same weekend as WERA's Grand National Final, and WERA crowns its champions based on this single event. As you can imagine, that makes for a huge turnout (more than 500 riders this year), as the GNF is a big deal in its own right. To fit all the classes in (five Suzuki Cup races and 35 national finals, as well as a four-hour endurance race) requires spreading the races and practice out over a five-day period, and things kick off with a practice day on Wednesday.Barkley and I arrived Tuesday evening, and by the time we rescued the SV and its related paraphernalia from the Suzuki truck on Wednesday morning, the paddock was so packed we had to pit on the outskirts, seemingly miles away from everything. We spent part of the morning mounting the bike's freshly painted Sharkskinz bodywork and Zero Gravity windscreen, and then I had my first practice. I'm no stranger to Road Atlanta, as I have raced there many times on my 250, and earlier in the year I had been a guest instructor at the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School, logging 600 track miles in three days. However, I had never ridden the new chicane added for this year, and it took me most of the day to find my way through the blind, four-apex bus stop.
The first couple of practices went well, with the 650 working fine with settings straight from the last Willow race. At the cooler East Coast temperatures, we had to switch to a much thinner fork oil and, unbelievably, the bike had to be geared taller than at super-fast Willow as the last part of the back straight is downhill and arcs to the right a bit, effectively shortening the gearing as you lean over on the side of the tire. It was apparent right away that my racecraft had deteriorated from being unused for so long--while the grids at Willow were not all that full, I was intimidated and had difficulty dealing with other riders in the packed sessions.
At the end of the day, I was disappointed with my 1:40.3 lap time, which was quite a bit off my goal of getting into the 1:35s--that's what won the race last year and surely what would be required to get on the box this time around. While Barkley swapped fork oil and gearing (the third time for both changes that day) and slipped a new set of Pirellis on, we discussed a strategy to make the most out of the crowded practices and get my racecraft up to speed. We decided that in the remaining practices I would get on the track first, which would have two advantages: I'd get a clear track for at least a couple of laps, and I'd get towed along by the faster riders that came by, forcing myself up to speed quicker.
For Thursday's practice, the strategy worked and I picked up a bit of speed. I wasn't making friends with the faster riders who had to work their way by me, but, well...they probably weren't there to make friends either. Following practice, we put the Suzuki on the official dyno, and found it was making only 72 horsepower--quite a bit less than the 76 I read on our dyno, and significantly under the maximum allowed of 79. Our Superflow dyno may be optimistic, or the official dyno may have been pessimistic, but most likely the difference was a combination of both. In any event, we'd have to find some steam, and quick. We were limited to five runs over the course of the weekend, so there was little time for experimentation or trial and error.
Switching from petroleum-based oil to synthetic and replacing the 100-octane track fuel with some of VP's Ultimate 4 (average retail price of $9 per gallon) boosted the dyno reading to 75.0. Barkley used one of his tricks from home and hogged out the stock air filter for another 0.7 ponies. While Barkley whittled away at boosting the SV's power, I thought about what I'd have to do to get into the 1:39s--and then drop four seconds more--over the next couple of days. Barkley was trying to help by constantly reminding me how much I sucked, but I was thinking more along the lines of hunting down a rocket pack and strapping it to my butt. It wasn't all that bad; times in general seemed to be down from last year with the cool temperatures and the added chicane, and I was losing less ground in each practice to what looked to be the fast group of SVs.
The changes to the bike made a big difference for Friday's practice, as it felt decidedly peppier, and I dipped into the '39s for the first time. Top-end speed felt about the same, but Barkley had a remedy for that--his Factory Pro Teka unit. I had been using a Dynojet Power Commander with good results, both on the dyno and at the track. But I didn't have a Windows 98 laptop with a USB port to remap the Power Commander at the track and account for the VP fuel. As well as giving us the ability to tune the fuel injection, Barkley claimed that the Teka, which reprograms the stock ECU rather than being an add-on unit that modifies the stock injection signal, would improve on-track performance without making a big difference on the dyno reading.
Barkley disconnected the Power Commander, used his Teka to remap the stock Suzuki injection unit with what he figured would be good settings, and we went back to the dyno. I was not totally convinced after the dyno run: It read exactly the same as before. The proof, though, was in the on-track pudding, and Saturday morning the bike felt way faster, and I knocked a whole two seconds off my previous best in one shot--though I was helped by a good tow. The bike felt a bit flatter in the midrange now, and Barkley tweaked the fuel map with his Teka and slipped the secondary butterflies out of the throttle bodies. Evidently they can lag behind what your wrist requires at times, and that was possibly contributing to the flat spot. In the afternoon session, the SV ran better again, and I posted the same lap times, but without any tow. Things were looking up.
After a final check on the dyno before the heat race (74.8 hp), we put the little SV on the scales only to find it a few pounds below the 365-pound weight limit. I was shocked, because when I had weighed the bike at the shop it was well safe. We loaded up with fuel for ballast, swapped the Pirelli Supercorsas for a fresh set, and I gridded up for the heat.
Because of my lackluster performance in the qualifying rounds, I was gridded on the fifth row, and to add to my workload, I got a poor start. Twelfth after the first lap, I worked my way up to seventh at the end of the six-lap heat. I was still intimidated in traffic, and not at all ready for the level of aggression that was obviously required. Last year's SV Cup winner, Bradley Champion, easily won the heat race, while the top riders were turning '35s. I had dropped well into the '36s, though--if I could get a clean start and stay with the front group, I would be all right in the final. Anxious for every advantage, a phone call to our VP rep resulted in a can of MR9 ($20 per gallon average retail), the top VP rocket fuel, and one last trip to the dyno showed that was good for another horsepower.Sunday--race day--the butterflies were especially busy in my stomach, but I was determined to use as much aggression as the other riders. From the third row, I got a good start, and while Champion eased away from the field, I hung with the group battling for second. I really wasn't making any friends this time, as whenever someone showed me a wheel I would slam the door on them, and I was not giving up anything without a fight. Barkley's work--and the MR9--had paid off, as my bike seemed to be the fastest of the group of four I was with, and for a moment of glory I was in second place. It would all come undone midway through the race, however, as I missed a downshift barreling into the uphill Turn Five after being shuffled to the back of the quartet, ran up on the curbing, and lost touch with the group. Try as I might, I couldn't gain back the ground lost, and I ended the race in fifth. There was drama after, however, as Champion was disqualified on the post-race dyno run (he actually ran out of gas and couldn't make the required runs, but then went over when the best-available race gas--MR9--was put in). That bumped me up to fourth in the final standings, meeting one of my goals for the project--a top-five finish--but I just missed out on my other goal: My best lap time in the final was a 1:36.068.
While I had a boatload of help with the project, it says a lot about the fairness of the Cup finals that someone can take a lightly modified SV--and I hadn't been anywhere near the engine's internals--and post a decent result. The phone is not exactly ringing off the hook with factory offers after my fourth-place finish, but a good result for a, um...younger rider could well be the stepping stone to bigger things. There is definitely more attention paid to the GSX-R finals--run under similar rules--and placing well in one of those races would surely garner some attention, as a list of past winners shows.
I can't say enough about how much fun racing the little SV has been. For a bargain bike, it works really well, was stone reliable for more than 800 miles of racetrack punishment, and is arguably a better learning tool than a bigger bike. With the growing popularity and aftermarket availability of hop-up parts, there is a huge potential for modifications and a number of classes in any given organization that the 650 could fit into. Let's see...a couple Hayabusa pistons, a GSX-R front end and some mag wheels...those 748s better watch out!
Building The 2004 Suzuki SV650 Motorcycle: The Little Bike That Could
While our local WSMC rules allow for practically unrestricted modifications for the SV Cup qualifying class, Middleweight Twins, the Cup rules themselves are somewhat stricter. Modifications are unlimited, with the exception of wheels, brakes and forks, and bikes must pass postrace dyno and weight limits. While we had some ambitious plans for our little SV, the end result was surprisingly close to stock and easily duplicated.