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10th-Dec-2005 12:48 pm

It’s been a busy past couple of days for me. On Wednesday, I drove out to Pole Position Raceway (a very cool new kart track in Corona, California) for a “Turn Down the Volume” summit on how to handle the rising and serious problem of motorcycle sound output. It was organized by the Off-Road Business Association and primarily focused on dirt bikes, but it’s an issue that also involves street bikes and even road racers. We’ll be addressing it regularly in the future.

Motorcycles will once again be on the track this weekend
at Daytona.

Andrew Northcott photo

After braving traffic back to Long Beach that night, I put on my leathers and hopped on a Honda CBR600RR, which I piloted north for two hours to Ojai (navigating by parking light thanks to a blown headlight fuse). The occasion was a press introduction for Metzeler’s new Sportec M3 tires, and after a good dinner and a night’s sleep, our group rode 115 miles to Buttonwillow Raceway. We put in a day of track riding there, then headed our separate ways.

Now it’s Friday, and I’m working out the kinds in my muscles while writing up Road Racerhead, hoping to get it finished in time for this afternoon’s Cycle World International Motorcycle Show here in Long Beach, as well as tonight’s accompanying round of the Boo Koo Arenacross Championship Series. (To get to the last motorcycle show/motorcycle race I attended, I flew across the Atlantic Ocean for the Valencia MotoGP in Spain and the EICMA show in Milan. To get to the this one, I’ll walk across the street.)

As I type, my cohort Laurel Allen is headed from Racer X headquarters in Morgantown, West Virginia, to Florida’s Daytona International Speedway for the annual Dunlop Tire Test. With the pre-season tests thus far all being off-limits to the media, this will be our first chance to see some of the riders on their new teams and bikes. Among them are Josh Hayes (not to be confused with Jake Zemke) and Aaron Gobert on Erion Honda, Damon Buckmaster on Attack Kawasaki, Ben Bostrom on Ducati Austin, Eric Bostrom on Yamaha, and Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden on their Kawasaki superbikes. It will also mean we’ll finally get to stop running those outdated file photos.

Details on all this stuff will have to wait, however, as I’m short on time and prefer to focus this column on last weekend’s opening round of the Amp’d Mobile World Supercross GP from Toronto, Canada. Yes, I realize that this is a dirt bike race, but I’ll be looking at it from a road race perspective (for analysis of the race from a motocross perspective, check out DC’s Racerhead over on www.racerxill.com).

Mat Mladin and Ricky Carmichael are Suzuki-mounted kings with young challengers in 2007.
Mladin photo by Andrew Northcott; Carmichael photo by Steve Bruhn

I TiVo’ed Speed’s coverage of the event (good job, guys, by the way), and the night’s main storyline was definitely James Stewart’s “new beginning,” with the 20-year-old riding with a newfound maturity while he stalked Ricky Carmichael and then overtook him at the end for a very convincing win. The haunt-and-late-pass tactic was reminiscent of Valentino Rossi’s modus operandi, as is Bubba’s charisma, but his three crashes in one evening were more along the lines of a typical Ruben Xaus performance. We’ll see if Stewart can put aside the mistakes (remember, he looked pretty impressive at the start of last season but injured himself early) and channel a bit more of road racing’s G.O.A.T. (Rossi) in order to consistently defeat motocross’ G.O.A.T. (Carmichael).

Until then, perhaps it’s more appropriate to draw parallels between Stewart and another young, Kawasaki-mounted challenger—or perhaps two of them. Just as Clear Channel Entertainment honchos are licking their lips at the prospect of someone finally, consistently confronting Carmichael, AMA officials are praying that someone will regularly test Mat Mladin—like RC, a Suzuki-mounted king whose dominance has been near-total of late—during the 2006 AMA Superbike season. Will that challenge come from Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden (like Stewart, Kawasaki-mounted challengers)? Possible, although it’s more realistic that it will come from a Honda or Ducati rider, and that the Kentucky brothers will be more competitive during the sophomore season of Kawasaki’s new effort in the premier class. Most riders (including Stewart, Carmichael, and Rossi) need at least a season to adapt, and if that holds true in AMA Superbike, 2007 actually looks to be our watershed year (especially with Yamaha also likely to finally join the class then).

Roger Lee Hayden and James Stewart are Kawasaki-mounted challengers in 2006.
Hayden photo by Andrew Northcott; Stewart photo by Steve Bruhn

The night’s other major plotline was the Supercross class’ nearly unanimous switching from 250cc two-stroke machinery to 450cc four-strokes. Bubba and Michael Byrne were on the new Kawasaki KX450F, RC and Ivan Tedesco were on the Suzuki RM-Z450F, Chad Reed and Heath Voss were on the Yamaha YZ450F—all in all, it looked to me like the bulk of the field in the main event was on thumpers. It reminded me of the 2003 MotoGP season, when the switch from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes was completed (with the temporary exception of Proton KR, who ran their two-stroke on occasion that season).

One difference is in how long it took the SX set to make the transition. Whereas two seasons were all that were needed for the an all-two-stroke field to become all-four-stroke in MotoGP, it has taken supercross … well, I’m honestly not exactly sure how long. Doug Henry was the first rider to win on a four-stroke, topping the Las Vegas supercross in 1997, but there were guys racing KTM thumpers—Lance Smail, for example—before that.

Why has supercross taken longer? A couple of reasons: One is that their switch has been voluntary, while that of MotoGP was stipulated by the rules. In other words, 250cc two-strokes are still allowed in supercross, whereas 500cc two-strokes are not legal in MotoGP. In supercross, the four-strokes have taken over on their merits alone, and it has taken them a while to prove they were the better choice for the Supercross class. (In the Lites class, the advantages of a 250cc four-stroke over a 125cc two-stroke were more immediately apparent, and the field’s complete switch was almost instantaneous.)

This season, supercross is following MotoGP into an all-four-stroke situation.
GP photo by Andrew Northcott; SX photo by Matt Ware

The other reason for the relatively gradual changeover from ring-dings to thumpers in supercross is that it’s a production-based series. It’s impossible to force a team to ride a bike that their manufacturer-sponsor doesn’t even make, and although Yamaha has been selling serious big-bore four-stroke motocrossers since ‘98 (Henry’s historic Vegas win came on a prototype, which each manufacturer is allowed to run for one season), 2006 is the first model year that Kawasaki has done so. Meanwhile, MotoGP takes place only on prototype machinery (rules actually stipulate such), so it didn’t take nearly as long to swap engine platforms.

Going back to that point about the instantaneous switch from two-stroke to four-stroke in the small-bore supercross class for a minute, it’s worth bringing up the smaller-displacement classes in Grand Prix racing. It’s strange that whereas the planet’s premier motorcycle road racing class (MotoGP) is currently racing the most advanced motorcycles in the world—the two-wheeled equivalent of Formula One cars—the Grand Prix support categories are on platforms (250cc and 125cc two-strokes) that have been deemed anachronistic by many national racing series. Whereas MotoGP is breaking trail in new technology that will one day be used in production machinery, the other Grand Prix classes are contested on motorcycles that are arguably obsolete. How long will it be before the small-displacement GP classes utilize four-stroke engines?

Now is probably a good time for me to say that I’m a big fan of 250 and 125cc two-stroke road racers, and I think they’re a great, relatively inexpensive way for young people and amateurs to learn the ropes of road racing; I just don’t think they have a place in the world’s top road racing series. Then again, I fully understand that it’s unrealistic to ask the manufacturers to come up with new small-bore four-stroke Grand Prix engines when we’ll be lucky if they can even afford the 800cc MotoGP machines planned for 2007. (There are some who would argue that 800cc is small displacement when it comes to four-stroke road racers). I guess that’s the downside of a prototype-only racing series. The downside of a production-based series like supercross is that it would be almost impossible for organizers to lower maximum allowed displacement in the near future, as they’re planning to do in MotoGP for 2007.

In Grand Prix road racing, the small-bore classes are still on two-stroke machinery, whereas supercross’ Lites class is now basically all-four-strokes.
Byrne photo by Andrew Northcott; Laninovich photo by Steve Bruhn

Speaking of MotoGP breaking trail in new technology, I wonder how much the bikes currently being raced by Stewart, Carmichael, Reed and Co. have benefited from MotoGP. I’m sure there’s been some trickle-down over to the dirt bike side, but I bet there will be even more in the near future. The factory motocross four-strokes are already close in overall weight to the 250cc two-strokes they’re replacing, but they’re still hurting when it comes to rotating mass and weight placement. It will be difficult to do much about the inertia issue (you can only make a piston so light), but expect to see things like slanted cylinders (common in road race machines) in the next generation of motocrossers, in order to bring the center of gravity lower. In addition, I would imagine that advanced electronics—so vital in controlling the power of MotoGP bikes—would also benefit 450cc motocross thumpers, especially in the tight confines of a stadium track. Then again, the motocross four-strokes already enjoy pretty good traction, since they actually use the delay between firings that MotoGP bikes attempt to replicate with their big-bang engines.

I’m starting to get in a little over my head here technically, but the point is that there are parallels and differences between supercross’ transition between engine platforms and that of MotoGP (and come to think of it AMA road racing, if you consider the change from Formula One as the premier class to Superbike, back in the late ‘70s). It will be interesting to see if there’s an accompanying parallel in riding styles.

This weekend, Hayden Gillim (cousin to the Hayden brothers) is racing
at Valencia.

Marty Hayden photo

From what I saw last weekend, it looked like the big 450s definitely favor a point-and-shoot style, as opposed to a technique where speed is carried around a turn. This is no surprise really, since 250cc two-strokes and even 250cc four-stroke motocrossers (not to mention MotoGP bikes and superbikes) tend to favor the same approach. (On the other hand, 125cc two-strokes motocrossers—like 125 and 250cc road racers—favor high corner-speed.) In Toronto, though, 450cc thumper riders could use the stop-pivot-go technique even in turns followed by fairly large double- and triple jumps, since the bikes’ torque enabled them to clear the obstacles even with almost no run-up at all to the first jump face. It will be interesting to see if supercross lap times drop as drastically as they have in MotoGP.

Okay, that’s enough motocross-road race comparisons for now, but how about a MotoGP-MiniGP comparison? If you read this week’s Between the Races, then you know that the MiniGP World Festival is taking place this weekend at Valencia, Spain’s Ricardo Tormo Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana, the same track where the MotoGP series finished up about a month ago. It’s an international road race for kids on Metrakit mini racers, and America is being represented by Hayden Gillim (cousin of the Hayden brothers) and Rey Dominguez Jr. In addition, Spain resident Dakota Mamola (son of Randy Mamola) is taking part, as are several other notables (among the kids we’ve heard might be racing are Alex Barros’ son and Sito Pons’ two sons). Unfortunately, Randy won’t be able to see Dakota race, as he had commitments here in California. Randy will be joined by his wife and kids shortly, and they’ll be visiting his parents in California through January 8. (He plans to take in the first Anaheim Supercross just before heading back to Spain.)

The night before he got on a plane for Spain, Gillim spoke to me by phone from his Owensboro, Kentucky, home, and he was looking forward to his first overseas trip. Already accomplished dirt trackers, the Gillim brothers started road racing about a year ago, and Hayden qualified for the Festival at a Nashville race. The 10-year-old rides a 72cc Metrakit and two RS125s, and he’ll be accompanied by his mechanic, Jerry Clark. “I’m really excited,” said Gillim, who, like his cousin Nicky Hayden, is the middle of a trio of brothers. For more on Hayden Gillim and this weekend’s race, check out this link.

Speaking of Nicky Hayden, he’s going to make an appearance on Speed’s 2 Wheel Tuesday next week, so be sure to check it out. Also worth checking out is Nicky’s interview over on www.superbikeplanet.com this week, in which Nicky utters the immortal words: “ If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”

If you liked following Nicky in this year’s MotoGP championship, you might want to consider Duke Video’s 2005 Season Recap of the MotoGP championship, which was released yesterday. The DVD is available at www.dukevideousa.com for $34.95.

Last week, I mentioned the rumors in the British press that Max Biaggi might be signing with Kawasaki for 2006. Those same publications are now reporting that Bridgestone have vetoed the Kawasaki deal, as they can’t support another rider (they had already turned down Makoto Tamada’s request for Bridgestones). We’ll keep you posted as this story develops.


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