In this day and age of electronic rider aids invading motorcycle roadracing, AMA American SuperBike Champion Josh Hayes' words rang in my ears as I was getting ready to take my first laps on the same Yamaha R1 superbike that took him to the 2010 title. "We pretty much turned most everything off," revealed Hayes about which systems at his disposal on the Graves Yamaha superbike he used during last season. "This year even more so."
With racing pundits decrying the domination of traction control and other rider aid systems in racing, it's interesting to note that the motorcycle that took the AMA Superbike title was essentially electronic assistance-free. That's right; no traction control, no launch control - the only rider aid was the skill of the pilot aboard the bike. Hayes' consistent winning speed over the course of the AMA season demonstrated that there's something to be said for going back to basics.
Far More Than A Glorified Superstock Bike
The tightened regulations for AMA Pro Racing's American SuperBike class have given many the impression that the category is now nothing more than a glorified Superstock class. With the rules requiring stock crank, rods, and pistons in the engine, in addition to the stock basic frame, swingarm, 17-inch wheels and stock fork externals, it's easy to think that there's not a whole lot more performance to be had in the American SuperBike class. But a closer look at the Graves Motorsports Yamaha R1 superbike reveals there's quite a few more modifications than meets the eye.
Although the stock cylinder head must be used, porting and combustion chamber work is allowed, and while the camshaft lift must be the same as stock, duration and timing can be changed. All of these areas are where a good portion of the additional power ("Everyone [in AMA superbike] is around the 200-horsepower window," said Jim Roach, Hayes' Graves Motorsports Yamaha crew chief) is made. The EFI throttle bodies and airbox are stock units as per the AMA rules.
The short and stubby-looking...
The short and stubby-looking mufflers on the Graves titanium race exhaust system aren't some sort of trick power-enhancing feature. They were basically done to cut weight, as the R1 began the 2010 season "significantly" over the class minimum weight limit.
Although Hayes doesn't bother...
Although Hayes doesn't bother with all the electronic aids yet, they're there if he needs them. The buttons can be configured for any task, but currently the red and green buttons select a different engine braking program, the grey switch toggles between two spark maps, the blue button is to engage the pitlane speed limiter, and the yellow button turns off all the systems in case of failure. The knob above the switchgear is for front brake lever freeplay.
The Öhlins TTX25 rear shock...
The Öhlins TTX25 rear shock works through this trick adjustable linkage that can be selected for 0/10/15 percent rising rate, in addition to ride height adjustment.
The Graves Motorsports titanium full exhaust system sports carbon/titanium muffler cans that are much shorter than the standard units; is this some sort of special design for power? "We did it to cut weight," revealed Tom Halverson, Yamaha Road Racing Team manager. "Last year (2009), we were significantly over the weight limit, so this year we tried to cut as much weight as possible." Showing just how important cutting even small amounts of weight is in the competitive arena of AMA racing, Halverson revealed that "it was a ton of little things added up, including a smaller battery," that resulted in a 14-pound weight loss by the end of the 2010 season. And the 2011 version that Hayes was testing during my ride on his 2010 superbike is "already quite a bit lighter," said Halverson. "We'll start out the 2011 season right at the [370-pound] weight limit, which will be a huge advantage this time around."
AMA rules specify that only the internals of the stock fork can be modified, so Hayes' R1 utilizes Öhlins TTX398 damping cartridges up front, with an Öhlins TTX25 shock out back. The fork is held by a set of Graves rake/trail-adjustable triple clamps and steering stem, while the shock works through an adjustable shock linkage that allows 0/10/15 percent rising rate settings, as well as ride height.
Subtle modifications abound on Hayes' R1 superbike. One addition that came about during the course of the 2010 season was bracing welded to the top of the steering head area on the main frame spars. "We did that because Josh wanted a little more stability when trail-braking," said Halverson; "It definitely helped out a bit, made the bike just a bit more precise," concurred Hayes. Another clever modification is the reshaped fuel tank by Gmeiner Racing Parts in Germany that provides better comfort for the rider's stomach area and arms when hanging off.
Bleeding off speed is ably handled by Brembo monobloc calipers - specially made for the R1 due to its unique radial-mount pitch - biting on 310mm Braking steel rotors. "Josh has usually stuck with the 310s," recalls Halverson. "He hasn't raced with the 320s at all, and only tried them once during a practice session this year at Road America, I think."
Wheels are O•Z forged magnesium units, which the Graves Yamaha team found had some significant advantages over their previous rims. "They're substantially lighter than the wheels we've used in the past, with the front ending up about 0.3 pounds lighter, and the rear 1.9 pounds lighter" said Halverson, adding that "Not only were they lighter overall, but they also have less rotational mass out by the rim, which helped acceleration." Crew chief Roach also noted that, "We used to have problems with tire spin on the rims (causing tire imbalance), but the O•Z wheels are specially treated to prevent that. After switching to the O•Z wheels, that was never a problem."
The rules specifying standardized 3.5 x 17-inch front and 6.0 x 17-inch rear wheels (versus the varying-width 16.5-inch wheels preferred by both MotoGP and World Superbike that provide a bigger footprint and better bump absorption at max lean angles) have resulted in a drastic reduction in costs, according to Halverson. "Now we only have to carry six wheels instead of the 28 or so we used to carry. In the past, you had to make sure you had something like six of every size wheel to accommodate all the different tires in trying to make the rider happy."
Another component that greatly expanded the R1 superbike's potential is the Magneti Marelli SRT-EDL engine control unit. While the more popular Marvel 4 ECU found on the Yamaha World Superbike R1 and YZR-M1 MotoGP machine boasts vast computational and operational capabilities, the Graves Yamaha team found the smaller and lighter SRT-EDL unit to provide all the performance they needed at a fraction of the Marvel 4's price.
No simple seat pad on top...
No simple seat pad on top of the Sharkskinz tailpiece here. A lot of work went into shaping the seat pad in order to suit Hayes' preference for staying in one spot on the seat. The subtle reshaping of the fuel tank by Gmeiner Racing in Gerrmany is also visible.
Note the bracing welded to...
Note the bracing welded to the top of the steering head section of the frame. This was done to provide slightly better stability during ultra-aggressive trail-braking maneuvers by Hayes.
Trick racing radiator made...
Trick racing radiator made by MTS of Italy has the necessary surface area to shed the heat generated by the Graves R1 engine. The YEC kit racing rotor/stator and cover is one of the few Yamaha kit parts still used by the Graves Yamaha team.
Back To Basics
"Ben (Bostrom) liked all the rider aid systems," recalled Hayes about his Yamaha teammate in 2009. "In fact, the more the better, it seemed. Myself, I felt they were more of a hindrance than a help, because we simply didn't have the budget to do enough testing to dial it in enough where I felt it was beneficial to my lap times. So I just told them to shut everything off and start from scratch. And that's how I rode the bike for the whole season." As I threw my leg over the warmed-up R1 in the chilly 50 degree F weather at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's 10-turn, 1.8-mile Classic Course, Roach told me, "The bike is exactly the same as it came off the track at Barber (Motorsports Park, the last round of the 2010 season). Same suspension settings, gearing, everything. So there's no traction control. You want us to turn it on?" I shook my head no. "OK then. Have fun!"
When you're dealing with horsepower levels that are approaching 200, it's difficult to keep fueling coming off a closed throttle smooth and crisp without being abrupt. All too often, the aggressive power levels mean that throttle response follows suit, and many riders want that belligerent character to help them break the rear tire loose to help steer the bike. Hayes' R1 had no such problems, and actually combined the best of both worlds; it was smooth enough that you didn't need a brain surgeon's care getting on the throttle in a corner, yet strong and responsive enough to break the tire loose at will under power at nearly any point in the powerband.
There's plenty of serious acceleration on tap from as low as 6000 rpm, and just as with the stock R1, midrange power is abundant, with a slight jump at 11,000 rpm. From that point, the Yamaha gobbles up the rest of its rev range (as well as time and space) at a ferocious rate, making power all the way until the soft rev limiter kicked in at 14,500 rpm (with the shift lights on top of the Marelli dash beginning to flash at 14,250 rpm). It was surprising how smooth the R1 superbike's power was overall, with no monstrous midrange or top-end hit despite its wide powerband. "That's one of things we worked on during the year, to smooth out the power," said Roach, "and we're focusing even more on that for 2011."
One issue that did make me wish for some electronic assistance was the R1's propensity for wheelying in the lower gears, especially off the slower corners at the Las Vegas Classic Course layout. Using the rear brake kept it from getting out of hand in most cases, but I was lucky that these were mostly left-hand turns, where it was easier to work the brake pedal. And yes, I probably wouldn't have had this problem if I'd been spinning the tire more like the bike's regular pilot, but the cold ambient/pavement temperatures coupled with my unfamiliarity with the Las Vegas course made me hesitant at pushing the envelope and risking the possibility of wadding up the team's hard work into a little aluminum and rubber ball.
The Brembo caliper/Braking rotor combination did an astounding job of slowing all the velocity generated by the R1 superbike's engine. Powerful enough to reign in monster speeds with little effort yet offering superb feel and feedback, the brakes on Hayes' Yamaha border on the sublime. They were simply the best steel brakes I've experienced bar none.
The stock R1 isn't the quickest-steering literbike around, but Hayes' bike amazed me with its incredibly lithe handling, and it was much more than just the sharp and accurate characteristics of the Dunlop slicks. Flicking the Yamaha from max lean on one side to the other was surprisingly low-effort, yet there were no stability problems whatsoever. "One breakthrough we had during testing was significantly raising the ride height," revealed Roach; "It just made the bike so much easier to turn quickly," concurred Hayes. A close look at the Graves top triple clamp shows an offset "gullwing" construction that allows the fork tubes to be dropped much more than stock to raise the ride height. Astute MotoGP fans will also note that Rossi's M1 sported fork tube extensions at the beginning of the 2009 season that allowed the same setup.
Any fears of rock-hard suspension settings dissipated after my first session on Hayes' R1. In fact, despite offers from Roach and crew, I never touched the suspension settings all day; the Yamaha seemed to have the perfect combination of compliance over the minor pavement imperfections and firmness to control chassis pitch, even at my reduced pace. And to top it all off, I found Hayes' chassis setup almost perfectly balanced for my tastes. I've ridden bikes that either felt too low in the rear (dirt-trackers like Ben Bostrom and Chris Carr come to mind) or too high in the rear (making the bike too twitchy), but Hayes' R1 seemed to strike that elusive Goldilocks-like middle ground. "I like for my bikes to be balanced because I have a run-it-in-deep-and-fire-it-out superbike riding style," confesses Hayes.
Keep It Simple
The Graves Motorsports Yamaha...
The Graves Motorsports Yamaha team that makes it all happen (left to right): engine builder Jeff Myers, transportation facilitator/cook Pat Muras, Yamaha USA Road Racing Manager Tom Halverson, Josh Hayes, lead mechanic Steve Rounds, crew chief Jim Roach, and data technician Vittorio Bolognesi. Special props go out to machining/fabrication men Bob Walker and Bob Oliver, and machinist Curtis Jablonski back at the Graves Motorsports shop.
"When I first got on the Yamaha, it had all these electronic systems going on in every direction, and because they weren't dialed in just right, when you got one working OK, another would cause problems - it just confused the issue more than solving anything," recalls Hayes. "So I told the guys, 'look, let's turn all that stuff off for now, let's concentrate on the basics.' I want a bike that I know will do what I tell it do, a bike that will let me ride my best." In an age of ever-advancing technology that some feel threatens to remove rider skill from the speed equation, it's refreshing to see one combination rise to the top without any electronic assistance. And it's even more refreshing to find that particular unassisted motorcycle achieves the type of performance that many seek through the use of those electronics.
Chewin' the fat with 2010 AMA SuperBike Champion Josh Hayes
It seemed that things finally gelled with the Graves team, and that you were one of the only riders to be able to go toe-to-toe with Mladin and win.
You know, that was a huge deal for me. I pined for the opportunity to race against Mat and Ben when they were over here dominating. I wanted to learn what they had figured out, and the only way to do that was to go out there and race against them. From being in the undercard classes for so many years, it was just a matter of watching and trying to figure out by watching, and I didn't actually get to go out there and compete against them and see it. I was very thankful to Yamaha, Chuck and all those guys for the opportunity in 2009 to go out and race with them.
How was racing with Mladin compared to the others?
Mat rode a lot based on intimidation. I figured that out real quick; if he had the opportunity to pass you in practice, he didn't just pass you, he stuffed you and made it as rude and nasty as he could, and made sure you knew he was top dog. He wasn't going to roll over for anybody. My first kind of interaction with that was at Road America; Mat and I got into this little battle. I kept on getting the opportunity to kind of draft up to him, and getting into a braking duel, and Mat actually took us both off the racetrack three times in two laps. Put us off in Turn One, then did it in Turn Five, and a couple of other times around the racetrack. Finally at one point I'd gotten by him, then when we got to Turn Three, he came barreling up the inside and ran wide, so I cut it back underneath, and he just kind of gave up and came in the pit. You know, I was thinking I'd seen him treat other guys that way, and guys would get spun out and say, "Aw, I'll just ride behind him and learn from him," and he'd love that. But honestly, I came in and had the biggest smile on my face I'd ever had that year, I was having so much fun. It gave me the confidence that I could get back out there and do it again.
I didn't get too many opportunities to go toe-to-toe with Mat, we didn't see each other out on the racetrack a whole lot, just a couple of races. New Jersey was where I really felt like - it didn't really matter if he said that, "Oh, I wasn't into it, or it wasn't this or that" - you know the guy was riding. No one's ever taken two seconds back from Mat; once that guy got a two-second lead, you didn't run him down and get into a battle with him and go back and forth over a few laps. It was just a lot of fun. That's how racing is supposed to be. I wish he were still around to keep pushing racing to that level. He was the standard for many, many years by which racers measured themselves.
You signed a two-year contract with YMC USA; why not look overseas?
You know, I looked over there in 2008 before Yamaha came to me with this Superbike opportunity. Did the Parkalgar thing in World Supersport. Really, really liked that series. I would love to be a part of the World Superbike/World Supersport series again; the paddock was an excellent group of people to be around. The racing is phenomenal. But unfortunately I'm not in the position like a lot of guys like Ben Spies are at; I'm 35 years old, married, I have a couple of mortgages, you know I'm not in a position where I can sacrifice a lot and go do that, and know that I'm going to be OK in, say, 10 years and 45 years old...I don't want to be driving a tractor. I want nothing more than to be able to say I'm a world champion, it's the next step and I'd love to be able to do that. If the right opportunity came along, I'd be all over it. But it'd take the right opportunity.
Honestly, from what I've seen, my experience when I went over there, there really is not much interest in Americans being over there. There is, but not to the point where they're willing to do what it takes to have an American there, it's not that important to them. Ben Spies, they wanted him over there real bad, he'd proven himself, and they needed the next step and they needed a hot rodder like Ben. And Ben did a fantastic job, he made us Americans look really, really good. It would just take the right opportunity to go there; I want to go there. Yamaha wanted to make sure I was taken care of here in the U.S., so it was hard to walk away from that. They've been really good to me.
How do you view the current state of roadracing in the United States?
It's different...they're not comparable. You know, everyone was just unhappy in 2009. It was just a series where everybody was just conflicted, everybody was fighting against everybody and never made any sense. It's one thing to say "back in the days of old," but now everybody's just enjoying racing motorcycles. That year 2009, let it just die and be gone. Unfortunately it got such a bad rap with so many people that we so often get these questions, people wanna know "what was the state of racing with all those guys, DMG and all that." It hasn't been the case for a year now, everybody's just been enjoying racing. All the teams and riders I believe feel that they're being treated fairly, which is one of the most important things. They (AMA Pro Racing) don't get everything correct and right all of the time, but they treat us all fairly.
How would you compare your current R1 superbike to bikes you've ridden in the past?
That's a tough question. You know, it has proven to be a really good motorcycle. Personally, on a personal level, it's been a very difficult motorcycle for me to get my head around. Yamaha's engineering is a pretty far cry from everything else I'd ever ridden. More in the chassis than the engine; the engine I got along with right away. The chassis I felt I struggled with quite a bit, and I still to this day have to focus on how to meld my riding style with what this bike does well and how it works. It doesn't like to point and shoot, as much as I like to point and shoot. It's a very refined machine, it likes to roll around the racetrack, very pretty lines, very beautiful riding style. I don't have a pretty riding style. I'm more of a manhandle it, get it stopped, turn it, pin it and get out, so it's been a lot of work for me and the crew to come up with the right combinations of both to exploit the strengths of this motorcycle. But also, I've had to learn to ride a motorcycle all over again, just to figure out how to get the most out of this from time to time. So it's a work in progress all the time. We talked a little bit earlier today about how to keep it simple, how to give me a motorcycle that I can ride my best. And as long as I do that, I feel that I can be competitive.
What's your feeling on traction control and other rider aids in racing?
The big thing to me is the big misconception that traction control turns crappy tires into good tires, you know, I think people have the wrong idea. It'd be a good editorial for you to write. It's a safety net is what it is, but it only slows bikes down, it takes power away when you're spinning the tire and it can't give you grip back, it keeps you from flying over the handlebars.
Racing seems to be headed toward a Superstock-style format with fewer and fewer modifications. How do you feel about that?
It's a double-edged sword. It's hard to explain, but as a racer I want to race the biggest, baddest, most gnarly machines out there, I want to see the coolest equipment at the racetrack. In World Superbike, I love it, I want to ride those bikes, I want to see those bikes. For racing in general, I think that our series has proven that a more production-based class has allowed more people into the field, and allowed more people to get up to the front and customer teams to be able to win races. And that's something that our sport needs to help grow. I think it's good, quality racing. So it's hard for me to fault it. I know people want to see the cool bikes too, and I want to ride them, there's no question about it. But I definitely think between the economy and just, the U.S. doesn't seem to have a strong enough group that if it were World Superbike-based machines that we would have enough bikes in the field to be worth it. It would be a very sad show.
So what about 2011? How's your racing effort shaping up now?
Yeah, 2011 is going to be interesting for me. You know, I feel like I rode a little too safe and a little too careful. You know, I broke a record this year; I fell down one time in a test in 2010, it was a hard front tire in a test at Barber. I'm usually good for five or six crashes a year! So it tells me I was probably riding a little bit too safe. And now that I have the AMA Superbike championship - I have that, they can't take that away, it's mine - now I don't have that monkey on my back, I don't have to make that an accomplishment. I can focus a little bit more on just individual races and working on just being a little bit better rider and setting a pace that those guys just can't catch. If I do that job well, then I think I'll end up with another Superbike championship.