Posted By Sam Fleming,
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Knee down, surging through Turn 10 at Summit Point raceway. We are at the top of third gear and Brunhilde is impatient and fidgety. My vision is fixed as we cross the patchy asphalt down to the apex. Far from her native testing grounds on the smooth tracks of Europe, what passes for race track pavement in the US is clearly upsetting her rigid, aristocratic sensibilities. The lady’s frustration is communicated through muscle twitches and small tosses of her neck. She can see the straight coming into view, past the striped curbing, and works her jaw to get the bit up into her teeth. Still navigating the turn, she fearlessly starts to pull for the straight. As she continues to attack, the rear Michelin searches desperately for grip and the electronics fight to rein her back in. Feeling her tense up for a big lunge I stomp the shift lever down attempting to hit fourth, but not today. She rears back and now I can only steer with body English. I shift right to keep her pointed away from the grass and stab for the lever again. Fifth gear brings the front tire back to the pavement, but Hilde will not be denied. As pit out flashes past on the right, she’s back into her top end and at over 140 mph, and on power alone, lifts her front end off the ground again. “That’s a first,” I muse, while pulling her hard right to avoid another bike, which suddenly appears stationary.
My Introduction to Motorcycling
My story began some 30 years ago when I bought my first motorcycle. It was a 1970 BMW R75/5 basket case, and with the confidence of the young and the ignorant, I set about to rebuild it in my parents’ unheated Washington, DC, garage. It was a brutal experience, compounded by a total lack of mechanical empathy or experience. However, after putting it back together about five times, I finally succeeded at getting it up and running. Now roadworthy, at least from my youthful viewpoint, and with the usual road mishaps and aided by the MOA Anonymous Book, I was able to ride my “basket case” to all of the lower 48 states and a fair number of Canadian provinces by the time I was 20.
To bag Alaska, I thought a different bike might be in order, so I bought an R80GS. After riding it 80 miles from point of purchase back to my house, I promptly sold the squiggly wobbly thing.
It was now 1990 and Alaska was still on my mind. The K100RS had been out for a few years and I was able to pick up a low mileage unit with hard bags for $3,200. I promptly spray painted it matte black, and with three friends headed off for Alaska and the “haul road,” a.k.a the Dalton Highway. With the exception of periodically having to hammer the butter soft front rim straight, and that one time when the tip of the water pump exploded out the front cover as the ’85s were prone to do (it was fixed on the spot in British Columbia by a roadside welder who welded the impeller to the shaft and welded the cover hole closed), that K bike was my soulless but competent and constant companion for more than 100,000 miles.
After racking up a quarter million miles of blue highways, I couldn't resist the siren call of new and exciting motorcycle experiences. I wanted to find my way to the race track. I didn’t know much about racing, but I knew I needed a van as a mobile garage and something fast to ride. It was 1989, and I spent the last month of my senior year of college rebuilding the bottom end of a $50 Ford E100 and the cylinders and carburetors of a $350 Yamaha RD350LC. Now “suitably” equipped, I headed out to my first race with WERA, with no greater understanding as to the magnitude of my endeavor other than the challenges I had overcome that fateful winter in my parents’ garage rebuilding my first R bike.
Let’s go Racing
Racing in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a simpler affair than it is today. The bias ply tires were terrible and, as such, could last weekend after weekend as long you kept their operating temperatures in check by running them at 50 psi. Carburetors always needed adjustment, which meant there was never time to mess with suspension. The good news is it didn't matter. Back then no one knew very much about how suspensions impacted racing performance and few, if any, suspensions were adjustable anyway. There were also no track days, which meant if you wanted to ride fast, it was straight into racing. It is easy to get nostalgic for when the Yen was weak and America had a middle class. In those early days, most of the racers were bike shop mechanics or other moderate income blue collar types, and the grids were full of a rag-tag collection of street bikes souped up for racing. Race teams were usually composed of a few good friends gathered around a common mission which, for many, was winning a weekend race at a local track.
After floundering around at the back of the pack for a year or two, we bought a used FZR 400 for $1,800 and won some regional championships. We switched to WERA National Endurance Racing in 1993 under the banner of Army Of Darkness. We dove straight into the deep end and entered a 24-hour race. Twenty-four hours is a lot of swimming. We drowned when we inevitably lost the transmission on the Yamaha after 15 hours. Just as the dawn sun peeked above the horizon, it was lights out for Army Of Darkness, but just for the moment.
The irresistible allure of destroying engines pulled us further into the WERA National Endurance Series. “Us” includes some variations from year-to-year, but at the top of the list of “most years of service” you will find Tim Gooding and me with Melissa Berkoff a close second. Tim is a master fabricator, machinist, mechanic and scientist whose claim-to-BMW-fame, prior to 2013 that is, was closing one loop of the DC beltway by pitching an R100S up the road one rainy evening. Melissa is a certified BMW mechanic who used to strafe California canyon roads on an unbelievably thrashed K75C. She captained her own “Neighbor of the Beast” endurance team, and is a very fast racer and excellent mechanic. But the team, in any given year, was much bigger than just the three of us.
Depending on the season and the world economy, WERA National Endurance races are 4, 6, 8 or 24 hours long. The series is national, which again, depending on the season, requires driving a van and trailer from DC to Oregon, California, Michigan, Texas, Nevada, Ohio, Georgia, West Virginia, Virginia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and one ill-fated trip to Canada.
The races are, in effect, relay races with the bike as the baton. You can replace anything on the bike except the frame. Each rider usually rides until they are out of fuel, which typically means they have long since run out of tire. We would also build in oversized gas tanks which means, in some cruel years, each rider would have to take a 90-minute shift before a pit stop. For comparision, a typical MotoGP race lasts 45 minutes with no pit stops. At each stop we would refuel using fancy “dry breaks,” which would enable us to completely fill the tank in just a few seconds, and also replace at least the rear tire. A fast stop is typically less than 30 seconds, but when you add the slowing down and speeding up to get into and out of the pits, it takes about a minute. The way to win is simple: ride faster than everyone else on the track, have quick pit stops, and don’t have any critical mechanical issues.
Racing is the ultimate abuse of machinery. When you are racing, you just flog the bike mercilessly in order to shave another tenth of a second off a lap time. This means long hours of preparation and maintenance before each event to ensure the entire bike is up for the beating. Since all the team members have regular lives and full time jobs, the expeditions to the far flung tracks mostly happen the day and night before the event, which means maintaining the transporter and trailer as well. The logistics are daunting.
Technology Changes Everything, Sort of
Meanwhile, my long suffering K100RS was retired and BMW had moved well away from me as a customer. Rather than keeping their basic KRS philosophy and modernizing it, BMW had started down a baffling path of heavier and heavier bikes with quirky overly engineered rider's aids and overly sophisticated suspension setups. Really, what is the point of saving eight pounds with an aluminum gas tank if you follow that up by bolting on 50 pounds of ABS pumps which shouldn't ever be used?
On the racing front, we eventually graduated from the hard knocks master class, and in 1999 won our first national 600cc middleweight class championship. We proceeded to win six more championships, including our perfect year of 2003, where we won every single race of the 10-event series.
The societal changes of the hourglass economy that were occurring throughout the country were also filtering into racing. The switch to radial tires vastly reduced lap times, but at the price of increased tire consumption. Bike engines made more and more horsepower with increasingly sophisticated fuel injection. Other systems like clutches, transmissions and brakes, and the resultant overall weight reductions, made for faster lap times, but at the price of decreased component life and skyrocketing maintenance costs. By 2005 the paddock was filled with huge transporters and the guys racing out of pickup trucks and the backs of vans had largely been forced out of the sport by the relentless and expensive march of technology. Our team was fortunate in that we received enough sponsorship and support to offset most of the expenses. We won the 2005 championship with a last race victory, which required superbly detailed preparation, fast riding from Ben Walters, myself, and for the first time with our team, 16-year-old Chris Peris, and perfect pit stop team work. The wear and tear of racing are always balanced by the sweet savor of victory, and while it was a great day, after 350,000 miles on the van and untold race engine rebuilds, we finally decided to step back from the sport a bit.
However, Ben Walters kept flying the flag and built a few Yamaha R1 endurance racers for a few years, then in 2009 left them in my care when he moved out West for a few years. Tim, Melissa and I could not leave the R1s sitting alone in the garage, so we would prepare them and race them periodically. Although we were far from series regulars, we could still podium, or at least be in a podium position when another transmission would invariably eat itself.
It was during this transitional time that I noticed BMW motorcycle design was coming back from the wilderness. BMW customers are typically older guys with solid credit and back in the ‘80s these guys would have grown up on Triumphs or CB500s. By comparison, an R100 would seem like a viable alternative. In the ‘90s, however, those 40-year-olds had cut their teeth on Ninja 900s, Interceptors and GSX-Rs, and the BMW offerings looked pretty pedestrian by comparison. Then, change came to the marque and the brain trust at Motorrad realizing the need to rev up the image of their motorcycles in the same manner the automotive division had haloed their cars with the M versions. Their first attempts appeared recalcitrant and petulant, as they released HP (high performance) versions of normal road bikes. Carbon fiber valve covers didn't feel that sporty when they were still levering the rear wheel off the track surface. But BMW was walking a fine line. They were trying to attract a performance-oriented customer base, or at least haloing the brand, without alienating their core customers. Having heavily promoted their enclosed driveshaft as the best way to transmit power to the rear wheeel, they gradually began to reconfigure their public relations, and now had to convince their loyal base that sometimes it was acceptable to have chain final drives and inline, four-cylinder engines.
After years of carefully avoiding direct comparisons to anything Japanese, the powers that be in Munich finally saw the light and created a real sportbike. In 2010 BMW dropped the S1000RR hammer. It crushed its rivals on specifications and components and, due to the escalating Yen, BMW could even price it aggressively against the Japanese competition.
Chris Peris was recruited to race an S1000RR in AMA Superbike and was often the top privateer. He also has a racing school, which sometimes does international events, and our good friend Ben Walters ended up as a guest instructor at Chris’s school in Qatar. Ben was deeply impressed by the power and balanced nature of the S1000RR and called me when he got back to the States. His goal was to convince me that we needed to jump back into the national circuit with both feet. Hence, an incredibly unlikely Venn diagram arose in January 2013. Riding long distances, Army of Destruction teammates from 2005, really fast motorcycles, and a single point of intersection—BMW.
Chris had been racing one of the first S1000s. The 2010 and 2011 models had a geometry that was more aimed at road riding than track riding and, therefore, had some high speed limitations. One was the offset of the triple trees. Triple tree offset governs trail and trail is one of the pieces of the high speed steering puzzle. Less trail feels great right up until the moment when you lose the front in a high speed sweeper and destroy the bike. The other weak spot was the shock linkage. The early ones had a rising rate linkage, soft initially then firmer; but on the track we usually want a linear linkage that is not soft anywhere.
Fortunately, BMW had incorporated these race-track tricks into the stock 2012 model, so we would not have to mess with them. In another fortuitous twist, due to an assembly line error where someone failed to properly assemble the connecting rods on the crank of the 2012 engines, we were able to get two S1000s for a song. How? Even after BMW had warranteed the connecting rods, some owners didn't want the bikes back, so there were some low-mileage factory buy backs sitting around. We bought two of these through our long time sponsor and local BMW dealer, Battley Cycles.
Because nothing is simple, particularly when you’re trying to do things on a budget, we took possession of the bikes with only three weeks remaining before we were supposed to be on track. That is, quite simply, not a lot of time to build up new and unfamiliar race bikes. The good news is, we had done this before.
We knew the engines were strong and we also knew that they were tuned to their potential. Chris's team had blown up a number of hopped up engines while the bikes were still on the dyno, so we were not looking to make any engine modifications.
The stock ECU and the traction control settings are sophisticated and powerful, but tuning them for individual tracks was going to require special cables, unlock codes and software. Unfortunately, we were not able to locate anyone who had any real-time experience tuning the stock electronics with the race kit. We also realized that we would not have a lot of time to experiment, so we locked the bikes in “Slick” mode and then removed the stock traction control, ABS and quick shifters. We then installed a “Bazzaz” system that we knew intimately from the R1s we set up back in 2009, for which we already had mature air-fuel ratio and traction control maps set.
Building our BMW Race Bike
Today, suspension is really the biggest variable with race bikes. We redid the forks with Traxxion Dynamics internal cartridges and JRI built our rear shocks. We also swapped the stock steering damper for a racing unit. As we were ditching the ABS, we fitted a forged Brembo master cylinder, plumbed it with Hel brake lines, and fitted Vesrah RJL pads to the excellent stock calipers. We deep sixed the stock exhaust with all the valves for a lightweight titanium and carbon pipe from Leo Vince, installing the Bazazz sensor to be able to remap the ECU for smoother throttle response.
We lost some more weight with Speedcell Lithium Ion batteries and by replacing the stock bodywork with race bodywork. Then we had to start making the bike heavier.
First we installed bigger, but still aluminum, 24-liter fuel tanks. We had to cut the tops off of them and weld in double dry break receivers: one for fuel to flow in, the other to let air out. The tanks are of World Superbike design, so they also replace the seat and fill the entire area that we opened up by removing the ABS control unit. We installed various sliders to protect the outside edges of the engine and bike in case of a mild crash. We also swapped out the stock clipons and foot pegs for racing units. There are a number of reasons to do this. The race clipons are faster to repair in a crash.
The aftermarket rear sets allow for more positions for the foot pegs, are tougher and invert the shift pattern. Like the old British bikes, down is up and up is down. There are a few reasons to do this, but basically, it is easier to miss an upshift than a down shift and pushing down on the lever is more positive than pulling up on it.
Another crucial aspect of endurance racing is quick-change axles and wheels. Traditionally, Tim fabricates these items, but since he was busy drilling 1/16" holes in many bolts to safety wire them, a requirement of most racing bodies and good practice for endurance bikes anyway, we bought modified axles and chain adjusters from Fast by Frank, and combined these with captive wheel spacers and spring-loaded front fender hardware. We also shaved off as much of the brake calipers as we dared, and when we were done with the mods we could get both wheels changed in under 30 seconds. That was our target time.
Then we swapped the stock tires for Michelin slicks. The slick tires have no tread, which maximizes the amount of rubber on the track. The lack of tread also gives the tire much improved characteristics with regards to heat transfer. We run a 200 width rear tire to put as much rubber on the track as possible.
In the choreographed chaos of reconstruction, the two bikes began to shed their old “retail showroom” personalities and take on a much harder demeanor. In race parlance people often speak of the “A” bike and the “B” bike. This is not pejorative, but rather just a way of differentiating them. A and B, in our case, became “Eva” and “Brunhilde.”
With five days to go we were finally able to fire up the bikes and were greeted with a cheerful Christmas tree of warning lights and error messages preventing the bikes from running correctly. We plugged in all the stock sensors and boxes again, removed them in a prescribed order, said “Rumpelstiltskin” three times while clicking our heels, and were ecstatic when we got the bikes locked into “Slick” mode with full power available. We were ready to race.
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