By the sixth consecutive defeat at the hands of teammate Ben Spies, the eulogy was being written on Mat Mladin's career. Yes, he was a great champion-six AMA Superbike Championships in seven years make that indisputable-but some pit-row pundits were now saying his time had come. A few speculated that family life had mellowed him (his daughter was born in 2003, and another child is on the way), while others thought that flying had become his new passion (he's a licensed pilot), at a cost to his motivation.
Then reality set in. When the AMA circus landed at Road America in Wisconsin, Mladin was back on his game. He won both doubleheader races, and suddenly the championship was revitalized. And Mladin, the aging pilot/family man, was back, as he was certain he would be.
"Anybody [who] thought the championship was over obviously hasn't been watching what's been going on for the last seven or eight years out there," the outspoken Australian said defiantly after his first sweep of the year. "If anyone thought that we were just going to roll over, it certainly wasn't the case."
Nonetheless, Mladin can't deny that Spies has emerged in '06 as a serious threat for the title. Spies spent the '05 season gamely hanging on to the tailpiece of Mladin's oft-disappearing GSX-R1000, but never quite getting close enough to make him honest. This year, however, the 22-year-old Texan has stepped up to the next level, beating the previously untouchable Mladin in numerous races this season. "It's a confidence thing, and we definitely have the bike working better than we did last year," Spies said during a break at the inaugural Superbike race at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park, midway through the championship season. "I don't feel like I'm riding any better than last year. I'm just more comfortable and able to ride it like I want to ride it, and not be nervous with the front of the bike. So we definitely got the bike working better, and the team did an awesome job this winter in doing that. I just worked on a couple of areas [where] I needed to improve in the off-season."
If he could pinpoint a single improvement in the bike, he says it would be the front fork. Spies began using a new-spec works Showa front fork at a California Speedway test last November, and the improvement was dramatic.
"As soon as we put them on there we made a couple of changes, and I could really feel the front end so I could actually tell them what I needed to change," he said. "Last year, when something was wrong, I just knew something was wrong, I didn't know what it was doing because I had no feel in it. Now with these new forks I've got pretty much all the feel I want. And now when we do have problems it's a lot easier to dissect that sort of stuff and make it work better."
Mladin had ankle surgery during the off-season and missed the Fontana test. He also missed the Daytona test, where Spies excelled. When he was fit, Mladin began his test season at tracks in Australia: Eastern Creek and Phillip Island. The Phillip Island test was the more telling. Joining a host of the World Superbike regulars, Mladin set fast time, despite a number of impediments: He didn't use a qualifying tire, the bike wasn't set up specifically for Phillip Island, the AMA spec engine isn't the equal of its WSB counterpart, and he destroyed his best bike in a violent crash on the first day of the three-day test.
At the final all-teams test at Fontana in February, Mladin was fastest-but looking for more. He found it at the season opener at Daytona. Mladin qualified half a second faster than Spies, then snookered him at the end of the race to win.
Spies had to wait six weeks to get his revenge. At Alabama's Barber Motorsports Park, the first of five consecutive double-header race weekends, Spies qualified on the pole, led early, fell back to second, then retook the lead with the help of a lapped rider. Mladin made a late race run, but was forced off the track by a another lapper. The following day Mladin crashed while leading, but got a major reprieve when a red flag forced a restart of the race. He worked his way up to a very lucky third at the finish of the restarted event.
"The first two races were a little bit circumstantial," a relaxed Mladin said in Utah. "The first race at Barber, I got caught up with a lapper when we were racing with five or six laps to go. Second race at Barber, I crashed out of the lead while a second and a half out front. So I don't think there was certainly any real cause for concern there or feeling that I had to change anything."
Suzuki team advisor (and former 500cc World Grand Prix champion) Kevin Schwantz disagreed. "[When] Mat made that mistake [at Barber], I think it helped [him] realize that he cannot take that chance. You can't risk crashing just because you want to beat him. If you don't have the set-up right that weekend, you've got to be there and get as many points as you can. You can't be laying on the ground."
Mladin then had to endure four more second-place finishes behind Spies, starting with two at the California Speedway doubleheader followed by two more at Infineon Raceway in Northern California. It did give Mladin an opportunity to see where he was losing time to his Yoshimura Suzuki teammate. "At Infineon, I was behind him for quite a bit," explained the current champ, "and I confirmed a couple of areas where I [thought] he was faster than me." The competition has forced Mladin to reinvent himself. "That's what it's all about," he said. "I'm only 34, but I've been doing things for 30 years one way and it's time to change a few things. And the things that I'm changing are places that I felt that I've always given up a little bit anyway, since I haven't been forced to change anything for a long time."
The Infineon race was something of a watershed. Spies led from the pole, his third in a row, and won both races flag to flag. After the second race win, he said he was riding at 85 percent. "At Infineon, I could jump out to my gap and slow down to what he was doing," Spies revealed. "If he tried to do anything, I'd counter it. And we could do that all day long and it was easy." Spies then added, "It hasn't been like that since then." That it had gotten that far, a record-tying run of six victories, all on the same bike as Mladin, was a revelation.
Schwantz credits the success to "all the testing that Ben's been doing. Nowadays he's testing six or eight laps at a time. He's not just going out trying to set a fast lap, and I think that's helped him with his consistency as far as racing goes." Added Dunlop Road Race Manager Jim Allen, "He's less focused on the mini-segments and more focused on the macro-segments. He would often go into races having no clue what the tire would do after a few laps. He just didn't do the laps."
Mladin's crew chief Peter Doyle pointed out that "Ben's a lot more on the job this year, as far as riding goes. Maybe he's learned to ride around a few problems that he wouldn't have done in the past, so he's a better rider. He actually said to me last year at a test, 'I'm going to be half a second quicker than I was everywhere.' He's right, he is. He's obviously working harder. Good on 'im."
Doyle continued, "[Mladin's] been on all year, but maybe the focus was not as good in the first part of the year. But then you don't have to be missing much." Doyle pointed at the racebikes of Yoshimura teammate Aaron Yates and notes, "He's got the same motorbike, and look how far back he is compared to Mat and Ben. You've got to have everything going for you. Ultimately, the rider's the one that's got to be on the job."
Some believe that Spies was finally adapting to the Mitsubishi engine-management system that was at the center of the traction-control controversy and that the Yoshimura Suzukis use to such good effect. In a nutshell, when the ECU senses what it interprets to be excessive rear wheelspin through calculations from various sensors, it cuts the spark to one cylinder for one power cycle, or two cylinders in extreme cases. "What's on my stuff is the same stuff we've run since I've been on a superbike," said Spies in response to both the traction-control and adaptation allegations. "Sometimes I come out of one corner and the bike really hits hard. It's too much, it makes the thing step out, and it upsets the front. And then we just go in-I don't know what they do exactly, as in taking more fuel, less fuel, timing, whatever-and just make the bike almost a 600 off the corner. Some corners you need that, sometimes you don't. That's no different from since I've been on a superbike. They've had that the last 10 years."
Traction control or no, Mladin put himself firmly back in the championship hunt at Road America. From a new record pole position, Mladin swept both races, including bettering his pole time in the first race. Then in the red-flag-interrupted second leg, Mladin significantly lowered his own lap record, to an unheard-of 2:11.208, and won by nearly six seconds. The championship lead Spies had worked so hard to balloon was down to 21 points. "At Road America, in the second race, he had us covered and we couldn't do anything," Spies said.
"We just tried a few things here," during a test at Miller in late May, Mladin said, "and then at Road America I really concentrated hard on putting it into work. And it's very, very difficult because I've been training myself to do things a particular way, and then to try to do things differently in certain parts of the racetrack is very difficult, but the results spoke for themselves up there."
The Miller Motorsports Park event was mixed bag for both Yoshimura Suzuki riders. Spies won the first race with Mladin second, but the second race saw a red flag on the eighth lap evaporate Spies' hard-earned 3.5-second lead, and he fared worse on the restart. American Honda's Jake Zemke broke both the 14-race Suzuki win streak and near-two-year win drought for Honda in the Superbike class with his victory in the second leg. Mladin finished second in front of Spies, leaving the young Texan with the same 21-point lead he entered the event with.
The next event, at the combined MotoGP/ AMA weekend at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, was a disaster for Mladin. He felt ill all weekend and never recovered from a dreadful start, finishing an eventual sixth. Meanwhile, Spies actually got to use a red-flag restart to his advantage for once; after running third on the first lap, the race was stopped due to a first-turn pileup at the back of the pack. Then Spies pulled the holeshot on the restart and quickly left the field in his wake to win by an eventual 3.11 seconds. The additional point for grabbing the pole position and another for leading the most laps padded his championship lead to 34 points.
It will surely get interesting from here. The next three events are a trio of doubleheaders, all at tracks where Mladin has had some success and which suit his strong-arm style. The season finale is scheduled to be a second Mid-Ohio date, with a yet-to-be-announced special format that could possibly play a major role in the championship.
Spies knows that the remaining races are increasingly important. His plan is to "ride a little bit harder. Try to make it better. You've got to always push yourself a little bit harder. And as soon as you do that the bike is going to do something a little bit different. You try to fix it where you can run that pace the whole time. It's tough. Every time we go out on these things, me and [Mladin] are giving 100 percent, and whoever wins is just a better rider. That's all it is."
Perhaps the years have mellowed Mladin, to a point. The old anger surfaced during a dust-up with Neil Hodgson that spilled over to the pit lane during qualifying at Barber. But nearing the end of a successful career, self-improvement appears to trump results.
"For me the results don't mean anything like they used to," Mladin said of a sentiment likely not shared by Suzuki. "I'm being completely honest with you, in the sense that I don't care if I win or come second. I care that I'm getting the most out of it. I really am not concerned about winning the championship in 2006. I'm more concerned about evolving as a racer, and if we can win the championship this year, that's good. It means that I've succeeded in doing a few things that I'm trying to do, but it really could help us into next year as well.I got to put to work what I know I have to do, and if I do that, we'll be OK."