lunacy \lu-nə -see\ n, pl -cies [lunatic]insanity or madness; properly, the kind of insanity which is broken by intervals of reason-formerly supposed to be influenced by the changes of the moon
For the second year in a row, WERA chose the weekend of September's full moon to run the 24-hour final round of its National Endurance Series at Willow Springs International Raceway. When Landers Sevier, owner of the EBSCO/Corona Suzuki informed us that he was sponsoring two 2000 Suzuki GSX-R 750s and invited us to join his "B" team-consisting solely of journalists-Sport Rider's editorial staff leapt at the opportunity.
Since Kent has four 24-Hour Races under his belt, while Andrew and I have one each, some may wonder why we'd volunteer for such a gruelling undertaking with full knowledge of its difficulty. First, we're gluttons for punishment. Second, riding for EBSCO/Corona Suzuki would provide us with the experience of participating with a top-notch superstock team. Finally, no matter how beat up we would be at the conclusion, most of the other people on the team would have completed the much more arduous and unsung task of running a team.
Friday Practice: Dialing-In
The first practice session comes and goes, and our bike has yet to turn a wheel on the track as last minute changes are made. When crew chief Carry Andrew says the bike is ready, Kento takes the first few laps. He comes in and says the bike is quite a handful, shaking its head through all the fast stuff. Carry decides to give each of the riders some track time and waits until the next break to make the ride height and spring changes necessary to tame the demons.
When my turn arrives, I discover I've never ridden a bike that required such exacting weight placement. The front end feels flighty through ultra-fast Turn Eight. Only jamming my helmet against the windscreen allows the Gixxer to track cleanly down the front straight. Shifting my weight even the slightest bit rearward causes the bike to wag its bars all the way to the brake marker for Turn One. I'm winded after just five laps and secretly concerned that I'll have trouble lasting through the 50-minute stints if the bike doesn't get easier to ride. British moto-scribes John "Sonic" Cantlie (editor of Superbike) and Jimi Miller (freelancer for Fast Bikes) return from the track with similar tales of the bike's behavior but are primarily focused on learning their way around the 2.5-mile track. By dusk, the bulk of the Suzuki's handling woes are sorted out.
Saturday Noon: Race Time
Our riders' meeting divides the team into two groups. The light, fast guys (Kent and Andrew) will rotate together while the less light, somewhat slower guys (Jimi, John and myself) will form the second shift. The theory is that by keeping the lighter guys together, the suspension will only have to be adjusted with each change of rider groups. Also, by giving riders several hours off between clusters of stints, grabbing a couple hours of sleep would be possible.
With the desert heat a scorching 105 degrees, Kent and Andrew take the first two rotations of 50 minutes on the bike, 50 minutes off and another 50 minutes on. Such short turnaround times make getting re-hydrated between stints difficult. Shortly before the end of Kent's second stint, an accident forces a red flag, halting the race for almost an hour and a half. At the restart, Kent goes out for one lap-and almost crashes. The rear Dunlop 207GP Star has a torn bead which allowed the air pressure to drop to 10 pounds during the red flag. (Dunlop representative Dennis Smith says that improper mounting had damaged the bead.) While Kent's moment was exciting, it was nothing compared to the two riders who suffered catastrophic rear tire delamination during the heat of the day in Turn Eight, sending the unlucky riders tumbling into the desert at triple-digit speeds.
The Three Stages of Exhaustion
Despite the grueling conditions, Kent runs consistent 1:27 and 1:28 lap times. Andrew's times are in the 1:30 to 1:31 range. By late afternoon, the pair retire to the motel to rest for the night shift.
_Kent's notes: The first two stints were pretty tough. It was hotter than hell, and doing back-to-back shifts with Andrew didn't give us a whole lot of time to cool off. Every time I popped up out of the bubble to brake, it felt like I was riding into a giant blow-dryer. Plus, since I weigh the least, the suspension settings weren't to my liking: a bit too stiff, especially when the tires got greasy and started sliding (which was maybe six laps into the stint). _
On his first session, John's times quickly drop-showing he's becoming comfortable with the Gixxer and the track. The heat and lack of track time combine to bring Jimi to the brink of collapse halfway through his stint, and he pits early to avoid crashing. The team doctor, Grant Foster, diagnoses Jimi with heat exhaustion and whisks him away for air-conditioning and IV-fluids.
Caught literally with my pants down, I struggle into my leathers, which promptly get stuck on my back protector. As one of the caterers helps pull the leathers into position on my shoulders, the other caterer steps out of the RV and, mistaking me for the sick rider, starts trying to pull my leathers off.
Barreling out onto the track, I caution myself that I've had a mere fifteen laps of practice on this bike. Fortunately, endurance racing provides a rider with ample seat time to become intimately acquainted with both a motorcycle and a track. The pit board displaying lap times helps immensely. Within 10 laps, I settle into a rhythm, dropping my times to my goal of 1:33s. Shortly thereafter, I begin to see 32s.
Throughout the hour, as I begin to get tired, I experiment with different methods of relaxing. Because of the shimmy through Turn Eight, I never get comfortable there. I focus on the long right-hand Turn Two, ultimately discovering that I don't need to hang off far. Instead, I stay more on the bike in a less upright position. By being lower and further forward, I effectively can hold myself in position with my left leg and elbow while relaxing my grip on the bars and saving precious bits of energy.
John and alternate rider Mark McDaniel (the professional racer/journalist ringer replacing Jimi) take the first two dark sessions. The EBSCO GSX-R's lighting system consists of 100W bulbs in the stock reflectors and one 55W right-side cornering lamp. The cornering light comes into play when leaned way over to the right-as in turns Two, Four, Six, Eight and Nine. Even then, the widely splayed headlight beams provide the primary forward lighting while the cornering light allows the rider to use peripheral vision to note the track edge. The only place on the track where the lighting has almost no effect is the left-hand Turn One. Flicking the Gixxer into One requires trust in reference points.
Racing at night can be either exhilarating or terrifying. The limited field of vision created by the headlights blocks out most off-track distractions, but can also increase a rider's perceived speed if he accidentally allows his focus to shift to the brightest lit area in front of the bike. Reference points must be noted and reacted to almost instantaneously. Although WERA, in a controversial move with many of the night riders, made the job of finding the corners a connect-the-dots proposition by lighting each flag station, getting caught off-line at night can be completely disorienting, as if someone has rearranged the constellations you were navigating by. This happens to me once in Turn Nine. For an instant, I lose my bearing and find myself at the edge of the track before I can get back on course.
Late in my stint, the just-past-full moon rises in the east. The short straight between Two and Three offers prime viewing. Every couple of laps over the course of a half-hour, I give myself the luxury of a half-second glance at the orange ball shrinking in size as it moves above the horizon. My legs and shoulders ache, but I'm not in pain...yet. My times hold steady in the 34s.
Andrew and the Creeping Death
When Kent and Andrew return from their motel naps, it's immediately apparent that Andrew is quite sick. He is nauseous, headachy, weak and has become progressively worse during his time off. The doctor diagnoses the problem as the delayed effects of heat exhaustion and immediately hooks him up to an IV.
Andrew's notes: I'm supposed to ride in an hour and I feel like crap. There's no way I can do it, and I feel twice as bad because I'm letting everyone down.
While the situation with Andrew develops, the "A" team's bike is hauled into the pits with a broken transmission. A 45-minute engine swap ensues.
I decide to stay at the track instead of going to the motel for some sleep. The decision isn't based on machismo-but fear. I'm so exhausted I'm worried I'll sleep through my wake-up call. I tell "B" team crew members that I'll be sleeping in my pickup.
Around 2:00 a.m., as I gear up, I realize how stiff I've become over the last few hours. Stretching only helps a little. I hope the track will loosen the kinks. Otherwise, I'll have a long 32 laps. Sitting by the pit wall, I talk with Curtis Adams as he waits for his stint on the "A" bike. At one point he says, "This time of night is for the hard-core. Look around, you won't see any posers in the pits."
Kent's notes: My night stints are far easier to deal with than the day rides; the air is cooler, and the tires work better. I'm able to do 28s/29s. I don't really like the floodlights that illuminate the turn worker stations; they force your eyes to adjust from light to dark.
By my second lap, I've almost forgotten my sore muscles. I slip into an easy rhythm between a half-second and a second off my previous pace. I try to drop my times down to their previous level, resulting in a couple of silly mistakes. I decide not to let vanity cause me to crash our team out of first in our class and fourth overall. Three-fourths of the way through my stint muscle fatigue becomes an issue. My legs begin to feel rubbery. Corner entries become less precise. I start playing mental games to maintain focus.
I experiment with how early in Turn One I can turn my head to look for the light on the Turn Two flag station. Within a few laps I'm turning in later, carrying more speed, exiting 300 rpm higher-and I've forgotten my exhaustion. I apply this technique to Turn Three. The pit signal surprises me.
In the pit, I can barely stand up straight. I don't even take off my leathers before I stumble to the hospitality area for a massage. I drink constantly to stay hydrated and try to force down some food. Later, with a little less than an hour left before I have to suit back up, I walk around the nearly deserted pits in an effort to stay awake. A police officer leans against his cruiser, watching the lights on the hill. When I ask him if he was assigned to patrol the event, he tells me that he's on break and stopped by to witness the craziness.
My fourth stint is a blur. All my faculties focus solely on riding the Suzuki. My times are up to 35s and 36s. I feel the weight of making a mistake and tossing the bike out of the class lead. Every few laps near the end of my stint, I struggle to transfer my weight far enough forward to keep the bike from shaking its head down the front straight. After an eternity, the pit board announces that I have three laps to go. Suddenly, I'm so exhausted I don't think I can survive three laps. I accidentally pit a lap early. As I meander to my pickup, I notice that the horizon is lightening to gold while, above, the stars fade into the black that is itself shifting to blue then lavender.
An indeterminate time later, I sit up in my sleeping bag to see Kent climbing out of his van wearing his leathers. I struggle into consciousness and ask Carry when my next stint is scheduled. When he tells me that Andrew is healthy enough to ride again and the three fast guys (Andrew, Kent and Mark) will be riding for the class win, I'm both relieved and disappointed.
Bringing it Home
I treat myself to a couple cups of coffee, sit back in the shade and watch the other children play while I ponder what drives us to choose this form of torment. Kent stoically approaches each stint. Only when he returns to the pit is the strain plainly visible, yet his smooth riding style allows him to maintain terrific lap times. Andrew looks excited to get back on the track, rolling out consistent 29s until the team's luck runs out.
Andrew pulls into the pits with a flat rear tire. A piece of debris pin-holed the carcass. The crew scrambles and swaps out the tire in about a minute. A lap later Andrew returns with transmission problems. Since the spare engine was used for the "A" bike earlier, if our engine can't be repaired, the journalist team is done. Shortly, Carry is up to his elbows in the engine-the clutch and clutch basket standing by-as he replaces the errant screw that had allowed the shift star to fall out. After 33 minutes, Andrew returns to the track. We're now running seventh overall, but we only drop to second place in the class.
Andrew's notes: Argh! First a flat and then the transmission. I can't believe it! The flat tire was scary enough, but barreling through Turn Eight catching random gears and neutrals is no fun at all.
The last three hours tick away. We're in survival mode, clinging to what we've got. The riders on the track recite the mantra, "Don't crash, don't crash, don't crash...." Despite our personal disappointment on the journalist team, the mood around the EBSCO/Corona camp is festive. Claiming first and second in class is a cause for celebration. The organization worked hard to bring the teams to this point. We rode the best we could for them. Fate just reversed the teams' order.
Kent's notes: I want to pull a wheelie across the finish line, but my hands are so sore from blisters that I decide against it.
Twenty-four hours is a long time. When the checkered flag flies, everyone screams and yells. People hug, slap each other on the back. The air fills with acrid smoke as riders roast their rear tires in celebration. Looking around at the exhausted, smiling people in the paddock, I realize that endurance racing takes a special breed-and I'm almost certain it has something to do with the full moon.
_Wave Rotors Trick Brakes
The EBSCO Suzuki journalist team was fortunate enough to race with raking's new StremX Wave Rotors. Besides looking trick, the rotors weigh in at 1.5 to 2.0 pounds lighter per set than conventional discs. According to Braking, the new shape allows the discs to use and shed heat more effectively, resulting in prolonged pad and rotor life-just what you want for 24 hours of constant running. The high-carbon-content stainless steel discs are heat treated, laser cut and stone ground for flatness and proper friction characteristics.
Our on-track experiences ranged from feeling there was essentially no difference in bite from Braking's conventional discs, to feeling that the Waves had slightly less initial bite.
Since Willow's big track isn't known for side-to-side transitions, we couldn't really test how the Wave's lessened rotational mass helped quicken steering. To explore these issues, we've decided to undertake a side-by-side comparo in a more controlled situation on a track, such as the Streets of Willow, with more linked turns to get a definitive result.
The StremX Wave Rotors are available directly from Braking U.S.A. for $320 per rotor. Contact the manufacturer, (800) Brake Hard, www.brakingusa.com.
This article originally appeared in the February, 2001, issue of Sport Rider.