Too tough to tame?
FISH OUT OF WATER? HECK, I WAS AS out of place as a trout flopping on the sands of the Sahara.
I was wedged into the saddle of Wayne Rainey’s 1989 Yamaha YZR500 grand prix racer, looking very un-Raniey-like, I'm sure, and negotiating Laguna Seca’s 2.2 miles of winding asphalt at very un-GP-like velocities. After five laps, I pulled in, my helmet’s faceshield fogged to the point of uselessness. “I can't see a thing,” I yelled to team manager Kenny Roberts as I rummaged for neutral and let the engine die. Roberts rather ungraciously slapped a strip of duct tape across the top of the visor to keep it cracked open and then motioned for the mechanics to give me a push-start. “It helps if you breathe,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Back up to speed, I realized Roberts had been right. In my efforts to keep the darting, wheel-standing YZR out of the guardrails, I was holding my breath as I punched through the gears and hunched over the fuel tank. Then, approaching a corner, I’d snap the throttle shut, sit up and grab the front-brake lever, at the same time letting out a sigh of relief and then gulping for air. Hence, the fogged visor. One-hundred-and-sixty-horsepower roadracers that weigh about the same as the average 250cc dirtbike are tough enough to ride without having to reach up and flip open your faceshield just to see what obstacle it is that you’re about to run into at 100 miles per hour.
Here at Laguna Seca four months before the third-annual USGP to help Alan Cathcart do his “Fast Four” story (see OF, May, 1990), I had approached the Yamaha with the proper degree of respect, asking first Rainey and then Eddie Lawson for advice. They were good-natured but not much help.
“You mean you've never ridden one of these before?”quizzed Rainey.
“Well, no, but I’ve ridden John Kocinski’s AMA 250 and Kevin Schwantz’s 1987 Superbike and ProTwins racers and several big-bore endurance racers,” I offered.
“Yeah, well, good luck,” said Rainey.
Lawson, who was piloting the Yamaha for the first time since winning the 1989 world championship on a Honda NSR500, wasn’t exactly a fount of information, either.
“I don’t know,” he said when I inquired as to a novice’s best plan of attack for getting the YZR around the racetrack in one piece. “If you find out, let me know.”
I never did find out, even with a clear faceshield. I circulated the track in a series of oh-my-God bursts of acceleration, wondering how in Hades to keep the front wheel on the ground and marveling at the skill the top riders must have in order to ride these machines at the limit. Five more laps and I pulled in, coasting to a halt and savoring the silence the way an infantryman must after artillery rounds have stopped being lobbed over his head. After a few seconds, Roberts walked over, leaned close and said softly, “Now you see why I don’t ride ’em anymore.”
Motioning to Rainey and Lawson sitting on the pit wall, I told Roberts, “You don't pay those guys enough to ride these things.” Both men pull down salaries well into the seven-figure range.
Million-dollar contracts notwithstanding, the grand prix stars had a tough time controlling their bikes at this year’s running of the USGP. You can read all about it in this issue’s Race Watch section, but let’s just say that Rainey set a pace that nobody else could match, as the competition fell—quite literally—by the wayside. After the race, came renewed criticism by the European riders of the Laguna track, never one of their favorites. But the fact is that the track wasn't to blame. The bikes were. They’re too good.
A contradiction? Not really. These days, GP racebikes have evolved to a point where power delivery, suspension and tires are all better than they’ve ever been. In years past, at least one element of that trilogy has been lacking, and that was the limiting factor when it came to pushing the bike. Now, the front-line GP bikes all make prodigious power over a relatively wide powerband, all handle well and all have tires that permit outrageous lean angles. Hence, everyone is running faster, closer to The Edge, where the penalty for even a slight miscalculation is swift, sure and often serious.
Laguna Seca this year magnified any mistakes. Where most tracks have a least one long straightaway where the riders can “relax” and let the bikes run upwards of 170 miles per hour. Laguna is tighter and shorter. Top speed there is about 140, and the one straight of any length doesn’t offer any relief, capped at one end by a tricky, firstgear, 90-degree corner and at the other by a blind, uphill bend that, if done correctly, puts the riders within inches of an unforgiving guardrail. And because Laguna is so short and tight, gearing of the bikes is lowered, amplifying the power delivery. Add everything up and you’ve got a track that demands respect. Just ask Kevin Magee, Kevin Schwantz or Randy Mamola, three of the best riders in the world, all of whom left Laguna Seca injured.
Some GP watchers have suggested NASCAR-style carburetor restrictors to soften the power delivery of the 500cc bikes and make then easier to ride. I asked Kenny Roberts what he thought of such a plan, thinking that he’d absolutely hate it.
“That’s not a bad idea,” he said. “I’m not opposed to it if the rest of the teams feel it's necessary.”
When a three-time world champion and the grittiest rider the sport has ever known thinks it’s time to slow things down a bit, maybe we’d betterlisten.