2010 Season: Over before it started?

I injured my right knee just before Christmas, playing basketball at the gym.  I was just killing time while my wife finished up on the treadmill.  Went to change direction, planted my foot, but my knee kept going.  I felt a pop, then some searing pain, and I was on the ground.  I suddenly realized, as the high school kids I was playing with stared down at me with clueless expressions, that I was the old fat guy writhing around on the gym floor!  I ended up with a torn ACL, and tears in my lateral and medial menisci.  I put off the surgery so I could go to Gulfport for my job, and to get my interview with Josh and Melissa done.  There was no way in hell I was missing that trip!

Anyway, I finally had the surgery done this past Friday.  They grafted a piece of my patellar tendon, with a bit of bone on each side, into the center of my knee to replace the ACL.  Doing that required that they drill holes in my femur and tibia, to thread the graft into.  Then it's fastened on each side with screws.  The surgeon ended up trimming off a little bit of one of the menisci, but the other one had already started healing up pretty well.

Pictures of my knee, post-op, follow (Warning, kinda graphic!!).

Basically, I'm looking at 6 months of intensive rehab, so track season this year may not happen at all.  I'm going to make every effort to recover as quickly as possible, but it just has to heal, and that takes time.  The pain isn't terrible right now, surprisingly.  A portion of my lower leg, from my knee to about halfway down my shin, is still numb to the touch.  I assume the surgeon may have nicked a nerve during the operation.  Hopefully, feeling will return in that region eventually, but for now, I'm perfectly content for it to be numb!  I'm also on Percocet and Ketorolac, and just came off of Oxycontin on Tuesday.  So yay for drugs, I guess, but I hate taking pills, so I'll be getting off of those as soon as possible.  The Ketorolac will run out tomorrow.  After that, I'll probably switch to Ibuprofen, if I still need an anti-inflammatory.

Therapy already started Monday.  I'm doing a handful of muscle-activation and range of motion exercises for now, and a couple stretches, just at home.  I go back in for another assisted session tomorrow, then have my post-op with the surgeon on Wednesday of next week.  The staples should come out then, and my leg will look a bit less gnarly.

All of this simply continues the pattern of my on-track activities for the past few years.  In 2008, I got married in May, which pushed my track season start back to August.  In 2009, we bought a new house, which again delayed my start until August.  This year, depending on how quickly my knee is rehabilitated and I get clearance from my doctors, my track season may be delayed until August or later.

This brings me to an interesting decision.  Last year, I spent all of my track time trying to knock off the rust from the previous year, and saw precious little gains in terms of improving my riding.  In fact, I saw no gains at all in terms of lap times.  So once my knee is good enough to ride again, I will have to decide whether it is worth the time and expense to go to the track for a few weeks at the end of the season, or just to shelve it all for this year and come out swinging in 2011.  The bike needs new tires, a new exhaust, and a few other tid bits before it hits the track again anyway, so I might be better served just waiting, doing those things over next winter, and getting the most out of it next year.  But boy, is that ever depressing to contemplate.

Sheesh, 2011!  I'll be hitting the track on a seven year old bike!  I'll try to massage a few more ponies out of her, but chances are, I'll be increasingly outclassed.  As much as I hate to think about it, eventually, I'm going to have to upgrade equipment.  Still, I'm not particularly worried about that until I'm starting to race seriously.  No sense in blowing money on equipment when the rider isn't up to it, right?

But anyway, there's plenty for me to do in the mean time.  I'll be rehabbing the knee, then once that's good enough, getting back on the mountain bike.  I was in the middle of a weight loss program (and having some success!) when I dorked up my knee, so I'll need to get back on track with that, as well.  I'll do my best to keep this site up to date with my progress, and hopefully I'll have some more interview and article content to post as well!

Until next time...


Interview with Josh Hayes and Melissa Paris

Be sure to head on over to R6Live.com and read my recent interview with Yamaha AMA pros Josh Hayes and Melissa Paris!


Also, don't miss OnTheThrottle's coverage of their recent back seat rides in two Ohio Air National Guard F-16s:


Toyota, meet Tucker.

The road of automotive history is littered with the burned and twisted wreckage of men, vehicles, and companies.  Often, they were brought to their untimely end not by the consumer or natural market forces, but by the power of corrupt government officials, auto manufacturing giants, and lobbyists.

Consider the story of Preston Tucker, an endlessly innovative American entrepreneur, engineer and automobile designer.  After conceptualizing and designing for 15 years, he produced the 1948 Tucker Sedan, a vehicle so far ahead of its time that it threatened to turn the established auto industry on its head.  The concept vehicle featured such innovations as a padded dash board, side impact and rollover protection for the cabin, driver-centric instruments and controls, a subframe-mounted engine assembly, fuel injection, disk brakes, seat belts, and most famously, a third headlight which would pivot to light a vehicle's course through turns.

All of these ideas were unheard of (for cars) at the time, but are commonplace today (with the exception of the turning headlight, which is available as an option on some high-end European cars).  In fact, many of them are government-mandated.  But in post-war America, the major automakers had not produced a noticeably new or different vehicle since the war started.  They were in the business of selling the automobiles they wanted to build, not necessarily those that the consumer wanted to buy.  So when Preston Tucker came along with a sedan that could singlehandedly decimate Detroit, they had to kill it.

At the unveiling of the first Tucker prototype, saboteurs cut into the rear suspension of the car with a hacksaw, causing it to break, rendering the car immobile.  Negative press following the event colored public opinion against the new vehicle, despite its status as a prototype.

Tucker persisted, making radical changes to the vehicle's engine, transmission and suspension systems.  The vehicle, now nearing production, was continuously improved to not only match, but far surpass anything coming out of Detroit at the time.  Finally, the Big Three could wait no longer, and in a conspiracy involving Senator Homer Ferguson of Detroit, launched a mostly-contrived SEC investigation into Preston Tucker.  The ensuing slanderous media frenzy and concurrent (and equally slanderous) government action proved to be too much for the fledgling automaker, and it folded, having produced only 51 complete vehicles.

Fast forward to January, 2010.  The media coverage surrounding Toyota's recent wave of recalls is bested only by the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, and the Saints going to their first Superbowl.  A largely undiagnosed problem with the throttle systems on some Toyota models has, in a few cases, led to uncommanded acceleration, slow return to idle throttle, or other speed control issues.  But if you peruse the media coverage regarding the situation, you would think that the entire Toyota fleet is careening wildly off the road, plunging their hapless drivers to their fiery deaths at the bottom of a ravine, like some poorly-scripted action movie.

Not surprisingly, it seems that even the number of crashes caused by the problem is in dispute:

First, the LA Times reports:
Sudden-acceleration events in Toyota and Lexus vehicles have been blamed for at least 19 fatalities and 815 vehicle crashes since 1999.

But the Associated Press, courtesy of The Advertiser says:
A private firm said it had identified 275 crashes and 18 deaths because of sudden, uncontrollable acceleration in Toyotas since 1999.

Since 1999, the actual number of reported complaints (not limited to crashes) related to "vehicle speed control" for Toyota vehicles to the NHTSA is 2,152.   Divide that by the 2.3 million vehicles covered by the recall, and you get a failure rate of about .087%.  The fatality rate works out to .00083%.  This is far lower than the 1800 or so people who actually did die a fiery death in the 1973-87 GM pickup trucks fitted with ill-designed "side saddle" gas tanks.  The fatality rate for this obvious, preventable design flaw was about .03%, or more than three times higher than the alleged problem with Toyota accelerators.  GM's own study of the problem indicated a failure rate in accidents of a whopping 19%.

But while GM was forced to settle numerous individual and class-action lawsuits to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, a recall was never ordered.  Former transportation Secretary Federico Pena was forced to stop the NHTSA's investigation, and the Justice Department brokered a deal for him to sign with GM that effectively precluded any further action against GM regarding the issue.

Interestingly, almost no mention whatsoever has been made of a popular GM vehicle, the Pontiac Vibe, also being affected by the same recall.  The vibe was built in a joint venture with Toyota, but remains a GM vehicle, and is affected by the recall.  But while information regarding the Vibe's recall is decidedly difficult to find, GM's special offers for Toyota or Lexus owners aren't.  Perhaps understandably, the Big Three are working hard to take advantage of Toyota's problems.  But this takes on a more sinister light given the following.

First, consider the person spearheading the investigation (and maliciously flubbing the public statements) about the recall: Former Illinois representative, and now transportation secretary Ray Lahood. Lahood is a liberal Republican product of the Illinois political machine, brought to his current post by virtue of his being good friends with Rahm Emmanuel. He has decidedly little experience in the realm of transportation, though he reportedly has significant financial ties to the industry he's supposed to be regulating.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar has basically said that the DOT's job is to be a yes-man to the White House, and that Lahood is a good candidate for the job (source: WSJ). In addition, he's in charge of regulating a vast amount of federal stimulus money, including having a hand in the bailout given to GM and other US auto manufacturers (except Ford). Interestingly, while Toyota's sales and stock price plunged precipitiously, based in no small part on Ray "The Other Joe Biden" Lahood's misstatement before Congress, the Big Three automakers are posting substantial gains.

Let's see how this all adds up. The government essentially owns GM and Chrysler now, which is great for the Democrats in control, because now they can capitalize even further on their unanimous labor union support. A foreign automaker, who routinely slaughters domestics in sales figures, has a statistically minuscule problem. The same government launches a barrage of investigations, negative press, and almost libelous comments against said automaker, causing their sales and stock to plunge.

Toyota, meet Tucker.  Toyota certainly has the capital and savvy to withstand these disproportionate attacks, but the intentions of Toyota's assailants have not changed.

All of this is not to say that Toyota doesn't have a problem with the recalled vehicles.  The problem, while statistically small, should be investigated and fixed, to ensure the safety of Toyota drivers worldwide.  But the public should be wary of the conflicts of interest held by the government in this case, and what has swiftly become a witch hunt by the media.


Giddy as a Schoolboy

My wife and I had the privilege of attending this past weekend's AMA round at Mid-Ohio, a track I had only previously experienced from the inside of the fence. I surprised my wife (the most wonderful woman in the world) with tickets and paddock passes Friday night, and we made the trip up early Saturday morning. It's rather odd, but despite my consuming passion for motorcycle roadracing, I had never previously attended a sanctioned motorcycle racing event of any kind. But the wait was well worth it, I assure you, as we picked one of the best racing weekends in recent memory to attend.

The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, and the racing was spectacular. From our vantage point in the grandstands at the end of the back straight, we witnessed some of the closest and most exciting racing the AMA has seen in some time. The seats (despite their state of disrepair) provided views of the entire back straight, through the Esses, and past where the riders shoot under the Honda bridge. It was an eye opening experience for me as a rider to watch the fastest riders in the country navigate the same course on which I have turned numerous laps, and I was able to pick up a few pointers that will certainly help me the next time I'm on track there. Not the least of which is that I need to stop being such a wuss going through turn 1!

The overwhelming highlight of the weekend for me, though, was our time in the paddock. Though I was pretty much star struck and dumbfounded on Saturday, I eventually got up the nerve and talked to several of my favorite riders, which was simply an amazing experience. I spoke to Josh Hayes (who ended up winning both Superbike races that weekend) twice for a short chat, as well as Ben Bostrom, Neil Hodgson, Josh Herrin (who was actually staying at our hotel!), and a slew of others. After getting hosed down with champagne by Tommy Hayden after race 2, I congratulated Hayes on his double victory, and he actually took the time to stop, give me a heartfelt thanks, and shake my hand. Truly a class act, that guy. I've always liked him, but after meeting him this weekend, he's made a lifetime fan of me.

Two days later, I'm still buzzing and grinning like an idiot from the experience. I was amazed at how friendly and approachable most of the riders were, and I'm grateful to have met them. True to common perception, it seemed to me that the factory Yamaha guys (riders and crew alike) were the happiest in the paddock. I have to say thanks to Josh Herrin in particular, who took the time to personally address the autograph on his poster to my wife and I. Great kid, and I hope he continues to excel. He and his teammate Tommy Aquino put on a great show in both Daytona Sportbike races. Meeting and speaking with the somewhat controversial but undeniably likable Johnny Rock Page was great as well, and I was sorry to hear of the penalties levied against him by the AMA.

The overall experience for this first-time attendee was incredibly positive. I enjoyed every minute of the weekend (minus all the walking, of course), and can't wait to do it again next season. We will be attending the Indianapolis GP next month, but even the MotoGP circus will have a hard time topping our AMA weekend.

Stay tuned for further commentary on the state of AMA racing in general, as well as a long-overdue update on my race bike build!


Scratching the Itch

Since the completion of my street-to-track bike project has been decidedly delayed (we finally closed on our new house on Wednesday!), and the weather has become decidedly summer-like, the itch to hit the track has become nearly unbearable. I could only read so many more track day stories and race reports from my friends without going insane! So it was that on a whim, I had a look at the Sportbike Track Time forums to see if anyone was selling their spot to the already-sold-out KTM Ride_Orange day at Mid-Ohio. For this event, KTM would be supplying the bikes (brand new 990 Super Dukes), the tires, the fuel, and all that, and all I had to do was show up with my gear and ride! Sounded like a perfect way to scratch the itch to me, so when I found someone who was selling their slot, I snapped it up without hesitation.

The Bike

The Austrian company having been famous for it's off-road bikes for years, KTM has more recently forayed into the world of road-going bikes with a modest line up of adventure tourers, supermotards, streetfighters, and even one open-class racebike. The SuperDuke would fall under the streetfighter category. With minimal fairings, a riding position almost like that of a dirt bike, and aggressive styling, the SuperDuke is a certain kind of beautiful, in the eyes of some beholders.

Powered by a 75° v-twin motor displacing 999cc, this KTM produces a modest 119 HP but a beefy 74 ft lbs of torque. For reference, that horsepower number is easily attainable on most modern 600cc inline fours, but the torque number is nearly twice that produced by the fours. In fact, beefy is a word that could be used frequently when describing the SuperDuke. Power is transferred to the rear wheel via a six-speed gearbox and a stout-looking 525 chain (I would have guessed it was much heavier). 48mm (beefy!) WP Suspension front forks lead down to muscular Brembo 4-pot radially mounted brakes, which clamp down on 320mm rotors. The gas tank boasts an impressive five and a half gallon capacity (including reserve). The forty bikes provided by KTM for the event were fitted with a variety of tires, including Dunlop Sportmax GP-As, D209s and D208s, Pirelli Diablo Corsa IIIs, and Michelin Pilot Powers.

The Ride

The day dawned warm and humid, mist and fog rolling over the gentle hills of north-central Ohio, as it usually does in the warmer months. The weather forecast promised a heavy chance of rain, but there was no sign of it as the day began, with partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze blowing through the paddock. After registration, I finagled my way into sharing a garage with four other guys (which would later prove fortuitous), unloaded my gear, and began suiting up. The riders' meeting advised us of the basic setups of the bikes (for a 175 lb rider, standard-shift only, no adjustments to be made through the day as we'd be sharing bikes between sessions), and KTM's damage liability policy (not quite you-break-it-you-buy-it, but...), as well as the usual routine of flags, pit procedures, and passing rules.

My group was the first to take to the track, and I mounted a brand-new (0.0 miles on the clock!) black SuperDuke fitted with Pirellis. Sitting on the bike, I noticed that it was long, tall and comfortable, the cushy suspension and wide, high handle bar leaving you sitting nearly upright. After adjusting the brake lever to the furthest position out, I cranked the motor over and we proceeded out onto the track.

And now for something completely different.

Veterans of Mid-Ohio will tell you that the first session of the morning is frequently treacherous, as the morning dew on the track surface, particularly on the technical back section, can make things quite slick. The amount of sealer used on the pavement at this track, while necessary to prevent the harsh winters from degrading the track surface, make it almost unrideable in anything but dry conditions. This, coupled with scrubbing in brand new tires, made the opening session particularly tricky for all of us. I was tucking the front and sliding the rear in nearly every corner, the mushy suspension not providing enough feedback to know when a slide was coming. Fortunately, the combination of compliant suspension and steering geometry also made it fairly easy to correct the slides, so nobody crashed.

My initial impression of the 990 SuperDuke was somewhat mixed. The strong points were certainly smile-inspiring, as the torquey v-twin motor provided power just about everywhere in the rev range, and the phenomenal front brakes slowed you from speed with excellent initial bite, feel and power. The wide, high bars made steering inputs easy and direction changes fairly effortless, despite the 410 lb dry weight of the bike. The bars also had drawbacks, however, as it was somewhat awkward to hang off the bike in the corners and still modulate the throttle. With more seat time, I might have been able to adjust my riding style a bit to help alleviate this problem.

Limiting all the bikes to the standard shift pattern (down for down, up for up) also presented a challenge for many riders in my group, who normally run GP or reverse shift pattern on our personal bikes. Several times in the first session I found myself shifting the wrong direction coming out of a corner, the bike protesting loudly as it was revved far past its intended range. The rev limiter, set at around ten thousand RPM, came on well before the bike stopped making power, and engaged with all the subtlety of a brick wall.

Coming from the perspective of a 600cc supersport rider, getting around the track on the KTM was an entirely different experience. I'm used to machines that carve corners like a scalpel, handle effortlessly, and let you know at all times what is going on between the tires and the pavement. Transitioning from a middleweight sportbike to the SuperDuke was akin to driving a go kart vs. driving a golf cart. Both can be made to go fairly quick, with the right coaxing, but the feel is so diametrically opposed as to deprive the operator of confidence when transitioning to the latter. After the first 20 minute session, I was left wondering what I had gotten myself into, and wishing hard to have my R6 back!

Ride it for what it is.

I went out for my second session determined to find out more about the bike, and let it show me how to ride it. I mounted another black SuperDuke, this one with nearly 2400 miles on the clock, and fitted with Sportmax GP-As that had been scrubbed in a bit and were at least lukewarm. Between the better rubber, warmer track, and my new mindset, I began to have a bit of fun on the big KTM. I discovered that the motor started putting power down as low as 2500 rpm, alleviating the need to shift so furiously as I do on my R6. As I shifted less, I gained more speed, allowing the bike to lug itself out of the corners, and enjoying the distinctive sound of a big v-twin growling beneath me.

A small group of loudly protesting riders had convinced the KTM techs on hand to tweak the suspension on all the bikes a bit, adding a bit of compression damping and increasing preload slightly. These changes made the bike much more responsive to control inputs, as if someone had given the bike its morning coffee and it was now fully awake. The bike was now able to more or less hold a line, and turning in while on the brakes was no longer a dicey proposition. Five laps into the session, I found myself having quite a bit of fun with the bike, particularly on corner exit, where you could wick up the throttle and get the rear to slide just slightly. And the sound of the motor was proving to be intoxicating, even with stock exhaust silencers fitted.

The clouds had started to gather somewhat during our second session, and just as I slipped on my helmet for our third, the skies opened up. The track marshals threw the red flag to bring in the riders from the session that was still running, but not before two people crashed on the suddenly slick track. So lunch started early for us, as the officials decided to cancel the third session entirely. I was completely disappointed, as I was just coming to terms with the SuperDuke, and wanted to see what I could do with my riding style to get even more out of it.

Fun in the... Damp.

Following our extended lunch, a riding instructor was sent out on track to see how much of it had dried since the rain let up. He came back in and gave his blessing, so after a brief riders' meeting, my group was sent back out on track. We spent several laps following the riding instructor, getting heat in the tires and scoping out the damp areas, trying to create a dry line through the corners. Riding at this reduced pace allowed me to appreciate the easy handling and overall good nature of the KTM at less than full pace. I came to the conclusion that the SuperDuke would be a fantastic street bike, with its easy handling and fat torque curve. The gobs of suspension travel would certainly be a plus in urban environments, and the bike was definitely surefooted when there was any traction available at all.

On about the fifth lap, myself and a friend got the go-ahead and charged past the instructor, eager to get a few decent laps in before the session was over. Once back up to pace, I still was left wishing for more suspension feedback, as the bike would frequently slide a bit before I knew it was happening. On the straights, the extra-long throttle throw made getting it wide-open a bit of a pain. Shifting while on the straights was somewhat comical to observe, as the throttle required such an exaggerated movement to go from on to off and on again (and the bike wouldn't shift any other way, at least without the clutch, and who wants to use that, anyway?). Several riders, myself included, reported having problems shifting into 5th and 6th at times, and I caught a few false neutrals. These problems might subside slightly once the bikes are fully broken in, but it was a frustrating problem to have nonetheless. All teething problems aside, I was really starting to come into my own on the SuperDuke, and very much wanted to get another full, clean session on the bike to really put it through its paces.

Vroom! Rain! Whoop! Bam!

The clouds had darkened again when we took to the track for our fifth session. Track officials had assured us that at the first hint of rain, they would throw the flags and bring us off the track, so I was paying special attention to the corner workers as I warmed up my tires and started putting in laps. There were a few drops of rain on my visor, but nothing to be really concerned about, so I started putting in laps and working with the bike.

I passed the instructor and chased down a (usually) faster friend of mine, passing him on the brakes going into turn 1. As I ran up to the chicane, more rain drops suddenly appeared on my visor, and I slowed to a moderate pace for turn 4. Exiting the turn, the instructor came back by me and the rain stopped, so we both charged hard down the straight. But just as we went through the kink by the flag stand, the orange and red debris flag came out, and the rain started in earnest. The instructor and I both checked up, had a look at each other and slowed dramatically for turn 6. In proper wet weather form, I slowed way down, let off the brakes completely, and tipped into the corner just behind the instructor. Just after I tipped in - whoop, BAM! I was on the ground. No warning, no slide, just me, the bike, and the pavement, getting friendly in ways I don't enjoy. My right leg was trapped under the bike as we slid off the track, coming to a stop in the grass, about six feet from the pavement. I wrenched my leg free and trotted away from the track into the sand trap, just in time to have another rider crash in exactly the same spot and come to rest just a few feet from where my bike lay! Then I looked to my left and saw another rider was down in turn 8, and unbeknown to us, a fourth had crashed in 10! So much for throwing the flags at the first sign of rain; 4 riders had crashed in 30 seconds!

My gear did it's job well, and I was unscathed from my lowside. My brand-new suit is now properly broken in, and I'll have to get a small hole on the right forearm patched. My right boot kept my foot and ankle intact, grinding down on the plastic protecting my ankle and lower leg. The bike was similarly lightly damaged, with only a couple scratches and a broken front brake lever to show for our off-track excursion. Once the rest of the bikes were safely by, I picked it up, pulled the grass clumps out of the bike, and rode it back to the pits. The rain became more intense as I pulled into the pits from my ride of shame, and event officials made the decision to call the day.

Right tool for the job?

In today's sport bike market, there are race bikes that are produced for the street, and street bikes you can take to the track. While the SuperDuke falls solidly into the latter category, the average track day rider would still certainly have a blast on it. And the practicality, comfort, and... er... crashworthiness of the bike certainly add to its usefulness during the rest of the week. Hardcore track riders, used to their razor sharp superbikes, may be unimpressed, but the KTM certainly does fine on the track, ridden like the bike that it is, rather than the bike you wish it was.