Aaron Yates' 2001 season ended when he ran out of fuel the year before.
On December 6, 2000, the Yoshimura Suzuki rider was racing motocross in Macon, not far from his home in Milledgeville, Georgia, when his bike suddenly ran out of gas. Running out of gas is a minor nuisance; having it occur on the face of a double jump can be lethal. Yates knew he was in for a rough landing when the bike bogged as soon it left the jump. He instinctively jumped off, landing on his feet and breaking his right ankle. When he saw the X-rays, his future became both clearer and cloudier, all at once.
Instead of preparing for the imminent December Daytona Dunlop tire tests, Yates was laid up, his chance of starting the season healthy shattered. Yates recovered enough to race at Daytona, but ended up being one of several riders to get tangled in the horrific pace car fiasco on the back straight during the 200 (the lead pack never knew the pace car was coming out until it was too late, and several riders collided at 160 mph trying to avoid it). Physically, he was fine, but he'd be starting his AMA Superbike campaign at a deficit that he could never make up. Not that he didn't try.
Encouraging results followed here and there, but there were setbacks. Then came Laguna Seca in July, where a spectacular high-side crash in turn 10, while leading, broke the same wrist that he'd had plated back in '98.
Fast forward a year later, and Aaron Yates is a completely different rider for the simple reason that he's healthy. The injuries of the 2001 season did as much damage to his mind as his body. With insufficient testing, he spun his team in circles while trying to develop the machines-the GSX-R750 has a notoriously sensitive front end-usually during the limited practice sessions. When he got it close, he would override the bike and lose the front end, a malady that continued to haunt his teammate Jamie Hacking, and even bedeviled the normally consistent Mat Mladin last year. With a winter of good health and preparation, Yates came out of the blocks strong at Daytona, snookering Honda's army of high-priced temps-Nicky Hayden, Miguel DuHamel and Kurtis Roberts-in the 600cc Supersport race for the win. The Superbike race wasn't as successful, but he still managed a fourth. More importantly, he left Florida in one piece, in good spirits, and with a different approach to racing.
"Sometimes when things don't go so good you get a little unfocused and stuff like that, and you get kind of down and all," Yates said on the verge of winning the 600cc Supersport title. "It's just all been good this year so that's helped a lot."
Vic Fasola is Aaron Yates' crew chief. Like Yates, Fasola is a Georgian, relocated to Southern California to work out of the Yoshimura Suzuki race shop. Fasola brought Scott Russell along in his early years and knows something about what a rider goes through. After the Laguna Seca crash last year, he saw a depressed Yates. "Then you're thinking about confidence. 'Every time I get on this thing, I'm going to fall down.' Finally the  season was over, and [after] riding every day, [he showed] up at California and he was on top of it."
Yates didn't win at Fontana, but he was competitive, and has been ever since-at least on the 600. The superbike has been more trouble. Engine problems took him out of two races and on a swelteringly hot weekend at Brainerd, the Yosh squad went through four GSX-R750 engines, one each by Hacking and Yates, and two by Mladin. Essentially, the problem was that the oil overheated and didn't cool. The end result for Yates was a broken valve train.When the big bike runs, it runs well, and Yates has been by far the most consistent of the Yoshimura Suzuki team. Hacking continued to fall off-though not at the pace he did in '01-and Mladin suffered through his worst year ever in AMA racing. Aside from Eric Bostrom, no one was able to challenge the dominant Hondas like Yates. The inline fours have a decided disadvantage to the Honda RC-51s off the corners, which means that Yates has to get through the corners and out of them better than most. Fasola thinks he's the man for the job.
"Corner speed, that's his big thing, corner speed and getting on the throttle early," Fasola says. "He'll get on the gas way earlier than Mat or Jamie, it's amazing the difference. Mat, especially, he'll wait and wait and wait and then he'll pull the trigger. Aaron, he eases it on a lot earlier."
Luckey Yates was a dirt tracker, which may explain where son Aaron got his throttle technique. Luckey always had road bikes and loved roadracing, but the demands of family and work kept him from pursuing a roadracing career. Still, he'd put Aaron on the back of his sportbike and they'd go off to Roebling Road and Savannah to watch club races. Aaron began riding when he was five, and racing motocross when he was 11. He entered a few supercross events, but "I hauled ass for a couple of laps and that was about it," he recalls. Motocross racing lost its appeal when he tore some knee ligaments.
Luckey said his son's roadracing interest didn't happen immediately. "He never showed a lot of interest [at first]. He was 19 and he was working in a Suzuki shop. [Then] he started riding (a Yamaha RZ350 with a seized top end, bought for $500) back and forth to the shop. 'This is kind of neat, I might like to try this.'" From the start, Aaron was outrunning everybody at WERA and CCS club races around the south. "When he was a novice, he won [his first two races] on [the same] old RZ350 Yamaha in 1992," Luckey remembers. "That was kind of an enlightening experience because we went over there just kind of goofing around."
Yates started going to AMA nationals in 1993. He showed up at Mid-Ohio on a 1991 Honda 600. Miguel DuHamel was on the Muzzy Kawasaki 600. After Yates qualified second to DuHamel (and ahead of a number of factory stars), Bill Syfan, then running the Suzuki Sport program, took notice, and Yates soon had a new home. Back then he had his long brown hair in a ponytail, and a goatee framing his smile; Suzuki suggested that he cut his hair. By the time he had signed Suzuki for the 1996 season, he was just another mop-topped rider. The difference was that he was fast, winning five races en route to the AMA 750cc Supersport title. He also won his first AMA Superbike race, at Sears Point.
Becoming a factory rider was something of an adjustment for Yates. More than capable of working on his own machinery, now he had someone else to do it. The process was different, and it took until this year for him to become comfortable with the working set-up.
Major chassis changes that riders might make once a year, Yates would do two or three times a day. "To me, once you get a pretty basic set-up you can use that nearly everywhere," Fasola says. "You might change a little bit here and a little bit there, but nothing to what he was changing. Changing offsets, head angle, all kinds of weird shit, two or three times a day." Part of that was his unfamiliarity with the new machinery in 2001 and the lack of confidence triggered by injury.
"Once we kind of found some stuff that [felt] good for me, we haven't changed it too much," Yates says. "Whereas before, we were usually struggling and trying to make the bike do something that it wasn't doing. I've got a lot of that out of me now because we've explored everything. I've got a good idea of what does what."
"Normally, your average rider really doesn't have that much knowledge really, to say 'Look it's doing this, this, and this, we need to give a little more compression or rebound,'" Fasola explains. "He tuned all his own stuff for years, and he has a good background in what works and what doesn't, what the changes do. Makes my job a lot easier. For a while there I didn't want to do that because he was going to spin me into the ground. He'd start clicking here and clicking there, and sometimes it got out of hand. We were getting out of the realm of how things work. All in all, he's real good at that [now]. Stuff that you would think maybe wouldn't work. I don't know if it's just because he wants it that way. He makes it work."
"I explain to them what the bike's doing and make a suggestion of what to try, and Vic will kind of have a little input and suggestion," says Yates. "In the past that's how it was. Now it's kind of like they're waiting for me to tell them what I want to do. All I do at home, when I'm riding my stuff, I play with my stuff. I'm trying to make my shit better. It doesn't matter what it is. If it's my jet ski or my dirt bike or my drag cars it's just what motivates me to do things, to change the stuff. Just learning what different changes do. I got a pretty good idea now. I can tell on the bike pretty much if we need to raise the front 2mm."
Yates is probably the only rider who actually enjoys riding the 600, along with the superbike. This year Dunlop introduced a wider World Superbike-spec rear tire for the 750, and some riders have had a hard time adjusting. "I think riding both bikes in the past kind of hurt me because I've tried to ride the superbike like I ride the 600, more corner speed and stuff like that," Yates began, "and I think the new tires actually work better for that type of style for me, riding the superbike like that."
No matter how well he can get the GSX-R750 to work, he knows it's not competitive with the RC-51s and he sometimes has to ride beyond the limits of discretion. With the increased speed of the field, it means taking risks at tracks where the margin of safety is negligible. Changes to Sears Point Raceway this year caused Yates to comment that the AMA shouldn't race there. While not overtly militant, Yates believes the riders need to have more of a say in issues that directly affect them. "It's getting kind of old, some of these tracks we go to. It's just always the same," he says. "If they want us to go out there and put on a good show, we shouldn't have to think about [safety]. We should just be able to go out there and do what we do, just ride hard. For me being able to be up there and in the front with the guys we're running with, with those big twins, I've got to ride real hard and there's a good chance of going down somewhere."
Given the problems of securing sponsorship for Americans overseas, it's likely that Yates will finish his racing career in America. That said, Yates has greater ambitions. There's an option in his contract that says Suzuki America will release him if another member of the Suzuki family wanted him. No domestic series is more financially rewarding than the AMA series, so the options are World Superbike and MotoGP. "There hasn't been any talk about anything really," Yates admits.
Even so, he's told Suzuki that he'd like to ride the GSV-R, and if he's going to ride it, he might as well race it. "I've told them I would like to ride the GSV-R, if nothing else for additional development for those guys, just for extra little feedback," he says, aware of their travails. "I enjoy doing the testing and stuff. I feel like I give pretty good feedback and all and we seem to get somewhere when we're testing. I've talked to a couple of the Japanese engineers when they were over here and told them I'd like to go over and ride the thing. I want to ride it in a race. We'll see. I've kind of been looking at their schedule. There's a bunch of races after our series is over. Hopefully I'll be able to talk them into something." And when Aaron Yates does the talking, people usually listen.
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Sport Rider.