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WERA Formula USA Championship:
Gray launches Yoshimura Rocketship at Willow
By Larry Lawrence
ROSAMOND, CA, APRIL 29
The space shuttle Discovery landed Sunday morning down the road at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, but the giant sonic boom that shook Willow Springs Raceway might have been created by Scott Gray’s awesome Carry Andrew-built Yoshimura GSXR1100 Superbike. Gray came out of semi-retirement for the first round of the WERA Formula USA Series and proved that he could beat the country’s top riders, winning a pressure-packed race and avoiding crashing. Gray used the stunning power of his Yoshimura Suzuki to completely dominate the weekend against an impressive field of riders, including Vance & Hines teammates Dave Sadowski and Thomas Stevens, on their Yamaha FZR750RR OW01 Superbikes.
The story of the first WERA Pro race was the diversity of equipment used; Formula USA allows unlimited modifications. Rich Oliver showed up riding a Marlboro TZ250 GP bike; Lee Shierts also elected to go with a 250; Vance & Hines didn’t bother to build a special bike just for this race, opting instead to use their AMA legal Yamaha 750cc Superbikes. Most of the other entries were big-bore Superbikes with varying stages of modification.
It quickly became obvious during Saturday’s practice that the state of the art in Formula USA machinery was Gray’s bike. The monster GSXR1100-based machine (actual displacement was open for speculation) had enough brute power to pull the 200-plus-pound Gray down the back straight with enough velocity to suck the paint off any bike that happened to be in its path. Sunday morning practice was an indication of things to come, when Gray broke his own track record, turning a 1:25.98 lap. The feat was even more impressive when you consider that the new record was set in winds gusting up to 40 mph.
A top race mechanic for a competing team said he witnessed the Yoshimura machine being dynoed at an astounding 172 horsepower. By comparison, the Team Hammer Formula USA Suzuki GSXR1100s are estimated by builder Keith Perry to make 158 horsepower. With that kind of power, the Yoshimura Formula USA bike is likely the fastest four-stroke motorcycle ever road raced in this country.
But to credit Gray’s win entirely to his machinery would be unfair: the Willow Springs racing veteran had to harness that power and put it to good use. To assist Gray in this task, the Yoshimura Suzuki was fitted with the best Michelin slicks available in this country, along with Kayaba’s best upside-down forks and rear shock. That combination made Gray’s one of the best-handling machines on the track.
The Michelin slicks used by Yoshimura seemed to be the hot set-up. Partly because of the scarcity of Michelin racing rubber in this country, most riders were running with Dunlops. Vance & Hines had a good supply of the latest tires Dunlop has to offer, the same that are used at World Championship GPs, including the superior 442 rear. But other Dunlop teams, include Team Hammer, had a limited supply; Team Hammer got only two new 442s and riders Kurt Hall and Mike Smith had to set up their bikes and run their heat races on used 442 tires that were take-offs from the Vance & Hines Yamahas.
Tire life was a major question. Last year’s Formula USA race saw at least one front runner chunk tires, and this year several teams were having trouble with chunking tires during the endurance race held the day before the Formula USA Final. Could Gray’s tire hold up under the extreme pressures put on it by the bike’s high horsepower, his relatively heavy weight and his blistering pace during the 20-lap dash?
At Willow, tires are put to the ultimate test. “This track is tougher on tires than any track in the U.S.; even Daytona doesn’t put the continued stress on them like Willow does, and we record the highest tire temperatures seen in the world right here in turn eight” said Dunlop Tire technician Jim Allen.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Marlboro Yamaha TZ250 ridden by Oliver. During practice, Oliver was second fastest, but that was during runs on an open track. The challenge that faced Oliver was being able to keep that fast pace on a track crowded with Superbikes. “The problem is that I really make time by using the advantage of the light weight and handling of my 250 going into turns. If a Superbike is blocking my way I have no way to get around them,” explained Oliver.
In the first heat, defending Formula USA Champion Kurt Hall darted out to the lead. Willow fast man Barry Burke was stalking Number 1 plate holder Hall and moved around the outside of him at turn eight on the second lap. Burke went on to win by 1.48 seconds. Wes Cooley did an excellent job of putting his Phil Scott-owned-and-tuned Suzuki GSXR1100 in third in front of Phil Kress and Mike Harth.
During the second heat Mike Smith forged into a good lead on the first lap. Gray, who started at the back of the grid, zapped riders one after the other and was up into sixth by the end of the first lap. Halfway through the next lap, Smith was out of the race because of an ignition problem. That would force the Georgia rider to start from the back of the grid. At the same time Gray, was making his move around Chuck Graves and Curtis Adams, the final barriers between him and the now-leading Vance & Hines riders Sadowski and Stevens. As the trio drafted down the front straight, Gray motored into the lead. Gray went on to win the three-lap race, followed by Sadowski and Stevens. Adams nipped Graves at the finish.
Any doubt that people might have had about Gray’s superiority was laid to rest by that heat race; for everybody else, suddenly it was a race for second place at best. Gray’s fastest lap in the second heat was 1:26.18 versus a 1:28.14 by Burke in the first.
The grid was now set for the final. Gray, Burke and Sadowski occupied the front row. On the second row were Hall and Stevens. Cooley headed up the third row which was rounded out by Adams and Kress.
At the start of the final Gray grabbed the lead but was closely pursued by Stevens and Sadowski. Hall was in fourth followed by Graves and Cooley. By the fifth lap Gray had a surprisingly small lead (2.5 seconds) over the Stevens/Sadowski battle. Graves, last year’s first-round winner, moved into fourth five seconds back; then came Burke.
Hall was dropping back through the field and was now in sixth. Hall had said before the race that he was going to ride conservatively to finish in the points, since Willow wasn’t one of his favorite tracks. Oliver and Don Greene both observed that Hall’s bike was really loose and Greene said that Hall was having to almost park in the turns. Greene was on a Dutchman Suzuki and was hooked up in a four-way battle with Cooley, Phil Kress and Oliver for seventh place.
On the next lap Gray became a blue-and-white blur, turning a 1:26.74, the best time in the race. During the middle stages of the race Gray would continue to consolidate his lead, getting as much as a seven-second lead on Stevens and Sadowski.
Smith was charging through the field from his 23rd-row grid start, and by the eighth lap had moved around Greene, Kress and Cooley (whose 1989-spec Dunlop rear tire had already chunked off much of tread off its right-hand shoulder) to take over sixth. Oliver followed Smith around and was shadowing him. It was the first time Smith and Oliver had raced together, and Oliver was impressed with the kid. “He has a really neat riding style; first he leans his upper body over going into the turn, then he moves his head way over to the side. All the while he’s not really hanging off the bike much. If he stuck his foot out he would be flat-tracking,” observed Oliver.
By the halfway mark, Gray had his biggest lead of the day. Stevens continued to hold a negligible lead over Sadowski. Graves was barely holding off Burke in fourth, and Smith was putting some distance on Oliver.
In the second half of the race the battle between Stevens and Sadowski was heating up and became the center of attention. The two Vance & Hines riders were pushing their bikes through the turns at an unbelievable pace. Watching the duo go through turns eight and nine was amazing, the FZRs running side-by-side with both wheels drifting all the way to the edge of the track. The battle was so intense, that the V&H riders were turning 1:27s and closing on Gray.
Graves’ tire began to fade on his bike and by 14 he had been passed by Burke. Two laps later Smith went by; his tires were also now becoming greasy. Oliver was back in a lonely seventh.
With three laps to go Sadowski led Stevens across the start/finish line for the first time. Gray was now cruising at a high-1:28 second pace (a pace that most of the others riders would have loved to run) and his victory was almost in the bag.
On the last lap Stevens got back up into second. “I knew I had to lead the entire last lap. My bike wasn’t quite strong enough to pull around Sadowski, even with the draft,” he’d say later. Coming up to turn eight for the last time, Stevens went in faster than he ever had before, and he knew it was the moment of truth. “He went in there so hot that I knew he was going to force me to do something I didn’t want to do,” said Sadowski. What Sadowski didn’t want to do was to push that hard through the turn, but he wanted badly to beat his teammate, so push he did. The result was that both riders lost their front ends, the front wheel sliding toward the outside of the turn. Stevens’ slide was the most extreme. Blue smoke billowed from Stevens’ front tire. “I felt the front end go, and at 130 mph there is not much you can do but hold on and hope it catches and doesn’t throw you off. That was one of those situations where nine out of 10 times you crash,” said Stevens later.
“I hope they caught that on the television cameras. That had to be one of the best double saves of all time,” said Sadowski about the turn eight incident. Sadowski recovered from his near crash first, closed up on Stevens and drafted by Stevens just before the checkered flag to take second.
Burke kept his Yamaha in fourth at the finish. The fuel-injection system being worked on for Burke’s bike was not ready at Willow.
Smith was charging but ran out of time in his bid to catch Burke. “It would have been real interesting if I had been able to start from the front. I’ll be ready for Seattle,” said Smith. “I just hope Scott Gray comes out to more of these because it won’t be quite so easy for him on other tracks and I want a shot at him”
Graves nursed his bike home to sixth in front of Oliver. Mike Harth, Curtis Adams and Kurt Hall rounded out the top 10.
Up front, Gray had already taking the checkered flag and the win, 4.6 seconds ahead of Sadowski. It was a sweet victory for Gray, who most people thought was through with racing. Gray was casual about the victory. “I was really riding conservatively out there. I got stuck in some traffic near the end but I knew I had a big enough cushion,” he said.
The victory so pleased the Yoshimura crew that there was talk of having Gray run the rest of the Formula USA Championship Series. “The original plan was to run Willow only, but Scott rode so well today, that we haven’t ruled out doing some more races,” said Andrew, Gray’s engine builder.
As for Team Marlboro Roberts team, Kenny Roberts announced that his team would contest the rest of series and would work to make Oliver’s bike more competitive.
“We can do some things to pump up the 250. We will try that first and we’ll go all the way up to a 500 if we have to in order to win races,” said team spokesman Chuck Askland.
In other racing action, Chuck Graves was the big winner in the Suzuki cup races. Graves used his Suzukis (sponsored by Dunlop, Fox, Biefe, RK, Kal-Gard and Van Nuys Suzuki) to win two Suzuki races over two-time second place rider Mike Smith. Graves pocketed $1000 from Suzuki for his efforts.
Smith’s second in A Superstock came at the expense of Curtis Adams, who was mounting a strong challenge to Graves and tried to get a better drive to pull underneath Graves exiting turn nine onto the straightaway. But Adams gave his GSXR1100 a little too much throttle and got sideways, and when he backed off the throttle the bike snapped back into a set of full-lock left-right-left-right slides, Adams hanging onto the bars with his legs flapping behind him. Finally Adams’ “worm-walk” ended when he was tossed over the handlebars and race officials instantly threw the red flag. Eye-witness Smith inherited second; scoring was backed up a lap but WERA rules do not score a rider who causes a red flag so Adams was not credited with the second place he held at the line the lap before.
Behind Graves and Smith young up-and-comer Tripp Nobles also had an exciting experience in the A Superstock race. Nobles had been battling Britt Turkington, for third place the pair sliding and bumping into each other and pushing hard. A few laps from the finish, Nobles tried driving around the outside of Turkington between turn eight and nine, coming up on the lee side and getting hit by a gist of wind as his front wheel came past Turkington’s. Nobles lost the front end and crashed hard at probably 130 mph, his bike suffering major damage, but Nobles himself escaped with bruises.
One of the most exciting races of the day was the C Superstock event. Turkington and Don Canet were out to win the first place Suzuki money on their bright red Team Hammer Katana 600s. Nick Ienatsch and Dave Deveau were on spoilers, Yamaha FZR600s.
Turkington took a big lead on the first lap. Deveau and Ienatsch started slow but were coming on strong. By the third lap the fast Yamahas closed in on Turkington on the front straight. In a spectacular set of moves, Ienatsch tried drafting around the inside, backed off and tried the outside. In the meantime, Deveau snuck through as the trio entered the turn to take over the lead. Turkington repassed on the outside of turn one.
At the halfway point Deveau moved into the lead and Turkington was relegated to third. The Texan was trying to make it up in the turns. He forced his Suzuki inside Ienatsch’s Yamaha in turn four, but Ienatsch suddenly tightened his line, clipping “Turk’s” front wheel. Turkington nearly fell off the bike, standing up with one foot on the pegs while the other foot was dangling off the side of the bike.
Turkington lost a bunch of ground and the race was left to Deveau and Ienatsch. Ienatsch got around Deveau in the closing stages of the race, putting his Yamaha
in the winners’ circle. Ienatsch is sponsored by Dunlop, Vance & Hines Torrance, Ohlins, Shoei and Motorcyclist magazine.
Keith Code held his California Superbike School Challenge, which featured 10 top racers going at it on Kawasaki Ninja 600s. The riders stayed in close formation during the first seven laps, per Code’s instructions. Almost every rider took his turn leading the race, and there was a lot of horseplay going on, such as riders leaning on each other, tapping one another as they went by, etc.
On the last lap Kent Kunitsugu and Chuck Graves pulled away from the crowd and Kunitsugu drafted Graves at the finish line to win the crowd-pleasing race.
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Larry Lawrence – RiderFiles.com
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