A Daytona Diary

by Kent Larson

Every February my winter weary brain starts to be increasingly consumed by thoughts of warm, motorcycle-friendly weather and my soul shrivels from cycle riding withdrawal. Seven years ago I discovered a way to temporarily treat my annual early yearnings for spring: Bike Week, Daytona Beach, Florida.

Bike Week in early March hits at the perfect time. I find that three months without riding is about all that I can stand. By February I’m close to my limit. Knowing that within a month I’ll be riding again and watching the best racers in the country running Daytona Speedway makes February bearable.

This year it was even easier to live through January and February. In fact I would have even been ok with adding a few more days to those months because this year I wasn’t just going to be watching the races. I was going to be in the races! Well, provided I could find a bike, and get the time off, and could afford it, and could get ready in time, and if I could do a qualifying lap that beats the cutoff time. Minor details.

I’ve raced a Yamaha FZR400 for a number of years and even won a race at Daytona with my 400 back in 1997. The FZR400 was a great bike to have for Lightweight race classes but the professional classes don’t include anything for a Lightweight bike. To race with Duhamel, Mladin, Chandler, Yates, Bostrom, Hayden and my other heroes I needed a strong, late model 600.

Did I mention my wife’s street bike is a 1999 Yamaha YZF600R6?

Man, she must really love me. She let me have her R6 for the summer! It went into the basement a street bike and a few thousand dollars later emerged as a 107 horsepower middleweight supersport racer. I’m told the factory bikes make in the neighborhood of 115 hp, but that’s a pretty exclusive neighborhood.

Look, here’s the plan. One week before the AMA Supersport 600 was a CCS/Formula USA weekend. I entered all the CCS club’s middleweight races and the Formula USA Supersport pro- national. That way I could work up through increasing competition levels. CCS racers are regional club racers and the Formula USA is like a second tier pro series. That first weekend will let me know if I’m able to do respectable times and try to qualify for the AMA pro race or if I should just pack it up and be a spectator.

Last year’s pole for the AMA Supersport was about 1:55. Last year’s winner, Miguel Duhamel, ran an average lap of 1:56.322 over the 18 lap race. So if we assume a little bit faster times this year, a 1:54 pole time would mean the 112% cutoff for qualifying is 2:07.68. But more important to me, if we assume an average lap of 1:55 during the race, you need to average 2:01.7 to avoid being lapped. I’m not about to enter a pro race if I’m going to be lapped. I’d feel terrible if Miguel lost the race because a lapper riding my wife’s R6 blocked him at a bad time.

In 1997 I was able to turn a 2:16 on my 69 horsepower, 140 mph FZR400. With a 107 hp, 165 mph R6 the extra straight away speed should be good for at least 15 seconds, right? And I already know the track. Running the banking at 165 mph won’t be that much different than running at 140 mph, right? What’s an extra 25 mph when you start to brake for a corner? 25 mph is nothing. You can practically walk that fast!

Those thoughts lasted for about a lap. Then they were replaced with thoughts like, ” Holy Crap! This bike is fast! Are these tires really going to hold up here? I guess I should at least try to keep it pinned, the others seem to be doing that.” How the hell do they run at 190 mph up here on the Superbikes?

I remember running the banking on the FZR felt like you were going in a straight line next to a wall. The 33-degree bank would keep you going around the corner without needing to turn. With just an extra 25 or maybe 30 mph on the R6, you needed to pull a pretty hard 165 mph turn to keep from running straight into the wall at the top of the banking. Another big change on the banking was the extra effort it took to keep your head up. Centrifugal forces made your body feel much heavier and the ripples in the tarmac would make the bike jump and buck and try to repeatedly whack your lead-filled noggin. I understood how the 200-mile Superbike race could wear out a rider.

Despite my acclimation problems, I was having a wonderful time. The R6 was amazing! It pulled strong from 9000 rpm to 13000 rpm. It would pull a nice wheelie on the change from 2nd to 3rd gear when pulling out of the first horseshoe. It would lift the front wheel off the ground in 4th gear during the charge up the banking. It changed direction on a whim and stayed planted on the line you set it.

I got in two 5-lap practice sessions the first day. Session one was done on street Dunlop 207s and I never even turned it full throttle on the banking. About the third lap I got spit out of the saddle as the rear spun up, slid sideways and hooked up again at the exit of the second horseshoe. I landed back in the seat and decided it may be prudent to wait for some race tires before I wick it up too much. The next session I scrubbed in a set of Michelin Pilot race tires and got used to running at full throttle.

The next morning, Friday, I used the first session to make sure I was able to maximize my high-speed runs and it was the first time I was catching and passing the occasional competitor. Still, by the time the checkered flag ended the session, I still had not even started to pick braking markers. There was a good gap between the next racer and me so I thought I’d use the cool down lap to start figuring out when to brake for some of the corners.

The back straight braking area for the chicane is important both because you need to come down from top speed and because it is a late-brake passing location. I remember popping up at marker 3 to grab the brake and thinking “way too early, try marker 2 next time” and letting off the brake so I could coast, at like 140 mph, to the turn in point. Then I remember someone coming past on the right and tossing his bike across my front tire. I remember getting back on the brake and turning left in an attempt to keep him from taking out my bike, and that’s the last thing I remember for three days.

My wife says I was acting like I was normal during those lost days, but I’ve only retained a few minutes of memory. I guess my brain was too busy trying to recover from a major melon thumping to be bothered with things like keeping a running history.

I also came away with a broken thumb which is now in a cast and has surgically added titanium pins. It should be fully repaired after about two months. You know that opposable thumb thing? Good invention! I’m really missing mine.

I’m a bit disappointed about the crash, but that’s racing. It happens sometimes. I can’t even be too upset at being taken out during a cool down lap. I wasn’t expecting a racer to try an aggressive out-braking move during the cool down lap. In fact, I wouldn’t have really expected that particular move at any time during a practice session. I would have saved a move like that for the race. There is no prize for winning practice.

But then there is no way to know if the other racer even saw the checkers. He may have felt we were still on a hot lap. He may also have seen me pop up early and felt I was going to slow down more than I did. We’ll never know what he was doing or thinking since I don’t even know who he was. No one came to visit me in the hospital to let me know what happened.

At least the bike is ok. It landed on the left side and slid. Didn’t flip or run into anything. It just ground through a thick plastic frame saver and a bit of the cast aluminum portion of the frame. Must have slid for hundreds of feet but it’s still straight. If you’re going to toss a bike at 120 mph, I highly recommend dropping it on the left side. The $1000 Akrapovic pipe came through without a scratch!

Remember to always assume the other drivers on the road are looking to get you. Stay safe. See you out there.

M.M.M.

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