Off to Daytona

A factory Crew Chief prepares for the Daytona 200.  An introspective.

As I write this, I keep glancing at the clock.  My annual flight for Daytona leaves this afternoon to kick off yet another season of road racing across this great country, with occasional gusts south of the border like this one.  In my other life I am crew chief and Suspension Technician for the newly united Pascal Picotte and Blackfoot Suzuki Road race Team.  This position forces me to keep up on all the latest technology available to the Superbike teams while challenging me to push the envelope on ideas to try and keep ahead of the competition.  Pascal is an incredible development rider and our debriefings will layout the strengths and weakness of a particular motorcycle’s particular set-up in seconds.  At Daytona, you need to have your ducks in a row and get them lined up fast.

Although the numbers shift around depending on whom you ask, it is often said that in motorcycle racing the rider accounts for 70% of the bikes capabilities while the motorcycle provides the remaining 30%.  At Daytona, it is closer to 50/50.  If your bike is slow, or if it eats tires, the gearing is wrong or it can’t get through the infield, you haven’t got a chance.  This place is so fast that the riders can’t make up for a poor running or handling motorcycle like they could on most other tracks.  They call Daytona the Big Black Dyno for a reason; you sit on it, settle down and keep the throttle wide open for a long, long time.  To emphasise, at Shannonville the average throttle position per hot lap on a 600 is about 39%, at Shubenacadie, a much tighter venue, a mere 32%, at Daytona it is a whopping 57%, this average number is dragged higher due to the very long time that you keep the throttle pinned, just watching the tach hoping everything stays together and you don’t get passed.

The technicians on the factory teams have a very daunting task at Daytona, it is the first race of the year with perhaps a new rider, usually new staff gets broken in at Daytona, and almost always you have a brand new bike.  You have no idea of where the chassis will want to be, all you can do is build suspension that you know from past history should work, set the sags, watch how much travel it uses and be ready to move it up, down, in, out, tighter or looser until the rider starts to feel some balance.  Hopefully, you have had your bike for months and have done several hundred dyno runs with the motor coming apart several times to get a feel for its tolerance to heat and compression, and hopefully you come south with an understanding of its torque curve and where it wants to rev.  Armed with this information you can download the Data from the logger after the first session out and start to hone in on gearing that you think will work.  As you analyze the data looking at peak speeds and rpm, you have to compare it to your notes you took trackside to determine whether the rider was alone or in someone’s draft.  Then how do you gear the bike?  You ask the rider if he intends on leading or following, not an easy question… Based on your grid position or how you qualified, you may want to gear the bike tall expecting a draft that may boost top speed upwards of 15 km/h or more.  Where are you gridded? How did you qualify? Was there a headwind or a tail wind?  You don’t want to gear the bike too tall so that the rider has no drive out of the infield corners, but go too short and it may hit the rev limiter just as he pulls out to pass for the win coming to the chequered flag.  You also have a staggering number of tire options to work through rarely getting the opportunity to go full race distance on any of them, so your favourite is usually a bit of a crap shoot anyway.  You may look at how long the bike is sitting at a particular rpm and decide to change maps, cam timing, velocity stack length, or exhaust system layout to suit.  In Canada we sometimes stay at the track till midnight, a full 9 hrs after the bike came off the track pouring over data, notes and impressions while we weigh the pros and cons of each change we are making, trying to make the best decisions for a win on Sunday.  At Daytona, the angry, retired NYPD officers hired as security ensure you have dropped your tools and are gone one hour after the last checkered flag or they will shoot you.

What about the privateers that make the pilgrimage to Daytona, they just got their new bike weeks or even days ago, relying on the promise that it is the latest and greatest offering from brand X.  You have spent hours pestering your Dealer or your OEM for spare parts that aren’t here yet, or kit parts that will make all the difference in the world, destined to arrive in…June.  Or, were you the guinea pig that sent your bike to the bodywork guy for 4 weeks so that he could ruin your pretty OEM plastic to give you a deal on a couple sets of fibreglass, or maybe you were the one that sent your bike to the pipe builder while they sorted out their latest offering all the while you were staring at your empty garage.  But, this bike is supposed to be faster than all the other bikes out there you have been told, so you hope and wait, looking at the calander.  You call for rearsets, they won’t have any for your new bike yet for a month or more.  Same goes for sprockets, no one knows yet.  So you load up your painfully stock bike knowing you are taking a knife to a gunfight, or maybe you are new and you think you have a chance, until Duhamel passes you on the banking like you were tied to a post.

Finally you cringe as you pay $200 US a night for a crummy hotel room and eat at restaurants for every meal burning up more money in a week than you would in a season in Canada.  But however you got here, you are in Daytona, there are bikes everywhere the sun is shining and it’s warm…!