WERA West Club Racing at Auto Club Speedway
A few months ago, I was putting my motocross bike together and needed an inner tube. There is really only one shop in town (Camarillo, Calif.), and it just happens to be John Ethell’s JETT Tuning; he was my mechanic when I was racing professionally, and he is well known as a former Honda crew chief for numerous AMA National Championship winning riders and teams.
As we were catching up on old times, John informed me that he had borrowed three Hondas from the press fleet and was putting together an informal race team. The plan was to contest the first WERA West race of 2013 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana before the bikes had to go back into Honda’s inventory, and he invited me to join in on the fun. Boy, am I glad I chose that day to go pick up a tube!
The three bikes provided by American Honda were the CBR250R, CBR600RR, and CBR1000RR, and, of course, John worked his magic, tuning and prepping the bikes for racing. It is impressive how well prepared everything is when you go to the track with John. He can get you closer to where you need to be before you even get to the track, than most people can in a full weekend of tuning.
The Honda CBRs were equipped with off-the-shelf aftermarket parts, including an Ohlins rear shock, a Yoshimura exhaust, DynoJet Power Commander, Driven Performance Products sprockets, Galfer brakes, and a set of Pirelli racing slicks; everything else, including the motors, was left untouched.
Former AMA Formula Xtreme champion, Honda factory racer, and all around great guy, Jake Zemke would be riding the 1000 (yes, he won all his races), while I was given double duty aboard the 250 and 600. Fortunately, I have some prior experience with changing bikes in back-to-back races, and so I felt I could do okay.
The challenge of course, is switching from a 30-horsepower lightweight to a 115-horsepower middleweight – and back again on the same day. The huge power difference in acceleration, top speed, and the enormous change in weight and handling, all have to be learned. On the 250, for instance, you take Fontana’s Turn 1 with the throttle pinned; you definitely do not want to attempt that at 150 mph on the 600.
The excellent Fastrack Riders track-day organization had Auto Club Speedway booked for practice on both Friday and Saturday, so thanks to owner David Pyles, I had the opportunity to get to know the Honda/JETT Tuning race team and the two Hondas before race day.
Our aim with the practice sessions on Friday was to get my head up to speed, so we concentrated on adjusting the levers, handlebars, and other related components to my liking. Later, John made a minor adjustment to the front suspension to keep the 600RR from running wide when cracking the throttle open – and that was it. We added some VP Racing fuel and hit the track. By the end of Friday I was a happy camper; the bikes were set up.
On Saturday, I was able to focus entirely on my riding; I quickly got up to speed, such was my confidence in both CBRs. Although two days of riding left me a little sore by Saturday night, what was really bothering me was my nerves. I hadn’t raced in almost seven years, I was riding two completely unfamiliar bikes, and I was racing against people I didn’t know. My stomach was full of butterflies.
Years earlier, when I had been attempting to make a career out of racing, the atmosphere was always very serious, and that ultimately took the fun out of it for me, especially when I wasn’t doing well. So, it made a refreshing change for John to tell me that this weekend was all about having fun. He questioned me numerous times to drive the point home, “T-Sho, you having fun or what, dude?”
Apparently, I had a somewhat somber look on my face. I couldn’t admit it to him then, but I wanted to blurt out “Heck, yeah, I’m having fun‚ but I’m nervous as hell, man!”
I awoke on Sunday – race day – to the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains in the distance; it was just under 30 degrees. The weekend so far had been clear, bright, cold, and windy, too. I don’t think anyone was comfortable riding in that wind and chill.
The morning warm up session was cut short due to a faller and subsequent red flag, so I got just one flying lap in the seat. Next up, race time! Now the butterflies went into overdrive.
Unfortunately for me, WERA bases the starting grid on a rider’s points total first, and then order of registration, rather than on qualifying times. I had zero points and had not pre-registered, so that combo left me with a last-row start in both 600 races. Clearly a win was going to be unlikely, if not impossible.
Even that went out the window when we were informed at the riders’ meeting that the race would be a two-wave start for safety at Fontana’s infamous Turn 3. So, although I’m pretty confident in my pseudo Mike Alessi starting-skills, with only six-lap races, the best I could hope for was to catch the first wave and maybe finish in the top ten.
There I was, lined up on the last row, almost dead last, in my first race for a long time, and things were looking a bit grim for a decent finish. The flag dropped!
I did the same with the clutch and, as the 600 launched like a scalded cat, I aimed for a gap on the right. It was a bit close to the hot-pit wall and I narrowly avoided being pancaked between that and a fellow racer, but other than a couple of guys, I was able to squeak by everyone and I had the leading pack in sight.
In the early stages of the race, I tried to pass as many people as I could when everyone was clumped together. However, it is very difficult to pass someone when they’re also sniffing up the inside of the guy in front of them; you almost have to overtake the whole group in one banzai move.
Then I heard John’s voice in my head from the day before – he told me how more methodical and thought-out my riding is now. Apparently, I am less of a kamikaze win-at-all-costs racer than I used to be. For the first time in my life, and during the race no less, I became aware that I really do have to be at work on Monday! Although I could have been a little more aggressive, I was just getting my feet wet, and I wanted to finish.
As the race went on, I had some great battles. My bone-stock motor lacked the power of some of the other guys’ built engines, but my Honda CBR600RR’s superb handling and the grippy Pirellis made up for it in the corners.
It turned out that getting by someone and building a large enough gap that they couldn’t draft back by me on the front straight wasn’t that hard. John Ethell clearly knows a lot more than just how to build fast motors.
By the end of the race, I hadn’t been passed by a single rider; with a 12th place finish from a 30th place start, I was beyond stoked. I had run faster lap times than several riders who finished in front of me, and that made me really excited for the next race. The butterflies were gone, and I was chomping at the bit to get back out there.
My next two races were both aboard the CBR250R, and I absolutely wrung its neck. At 5′ 11″ and 160 pounds, I thought I’ be okay until I saw all the young pre-teens I was lined-up next to; I guess I weighed around 40 pounds more than just about everyone else in the class, and I had a stock motor.
I had another good start and dominated in the corners, only to have the guys – and a couple of gals – blow back by me on the straight. But, I didn’t care, as it was incredible fun.
I was shocked by how intensely hectic the racing is in the smaller class; it had the most passing and re-passing I have ever experienced. Three, and sometimes four, of us would swap positions in what felt like every corner. Lacking outright power, all my focus was on maintaining momentum – don’t touch those brakes!
It was a little hairball and extremely exciting. The 250 class is really the class for beginners, though experienced riders can enjoy it if they are looking for maximum fun without the crazy speed of the bigger motor classes.
It was now time for the last race of the day, and I was back on the 600RR, so I had to re-train my brain in only three-quarters of a warm-up lap. It was still cold, and quite windy.
Auto Club Speedway is a left-turn dominated track with lots of hard acceleration; it is murder on tires, especially the left side. The JETT Tuning race team was sponsored by CT Racing – Pirelli’s US West Coast distributor – and I owe them a huge thank you for keeping the bikes supplied with fresh rubber throughout the weekend.
I was very happy with the grip of the Pirellis; the front end gave me enormous confidence and provided lots of feedback. The rear had tremendous grip and, while I felt as though I was snapping the throttle to the stop rather than rolling it on, I didn’t experience rear end slides in any of the races. Even after several heat cycles and two six-lap races, I expected the tire would have been done. In reality, both tires felt as though they had plenty more laps left in them.
Once again, I was found myself gridded on the last row in the second wave. As in the first race, I managed to pass everyone other than fast up-and-comer Jake Lewis in the second wave by Turn Three. This time, I was determined to follow him, and whenever he would make a pass, I figured I would slide right in with him.
It worked for a bit. Lewis and I got by a handful of guys almost simultaneously, until we reached the front straight, where he was able to nab three guys in one bite. All four of them had powered away from me by the time we reached the end of the banking.
Coming into Turn One at Auto Club Speedway is fast and sketchy, to say the least. I was making up a lot of time there, almost running into the back of a few riders. Still, I played it safe and picked off as many guys as I could. However, my carrot was gone.
I did get into a little bit of a battle for the last couple of laps and, although I made the pass a couple of times, I couldn’t quite make it stick – each time I was drafted and passed back on the straight.
By the time the white flag appeared, I had become absolutely determined to take the spot; I was being held up, and I had to get by him. The Honda 600 screamed to 15,000 rpm, and I managed to get a better drive on him through the chicane and onto the infield straight under the bridge.
Tucked in as tight as I could, I pulled alongside him on the inside and planned to wait until he braked; all I had to do was hold the inside line and execute a block pass. He knew I was there and, as expected, he went in way deeper than he had on any of the previous laps. Clearly, he wanted that position as badly as I did.
With only a few feet between us, I waited with my nerves jangling until I saw him grab that brake lever. As his front end loaded, I grabbed my brakes with everything I could muster.
Having completely blown my normal braking marker by several yards, I knew I had overcooked it. I could feel the front Pirelli starting to tuck, and I was still heavily trail-braking, even at full lean angle.
The Pirelli was still holding. My right knee was on the ground, and I was sure the Honda was going down – my heart sank. Yet, just as I was about to fully lose the front end, it was time to pull the bike up and over to the left. Amazingly, the Honda managed it.
As I came over on to my left knee, I could hold a super-tight inside line for the remaining left-handers leading to the front banking and straight. Coming out of the final turn I opted for the shortest possible distance to the flag and stayed low on the banking apron. To my surprise, I had actually pulled a small gap on the guy and I kept the spot to the checkered flag.
This was the best weekend I have had in recent memory and, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve ever had finishing in eighth place!
Ultimate MotorCycling and Tristan Schoenewald would like to thank John Ethell of JETT Tuning, American Honda, CT Racing and Pirelli, Ohlins Suspension, Yoshimura R&D, DynoJet, OFD, Driven Performance Products, Galfer USA, Aim Sports, VP Racing Fuels, DMP Race Stands, Evelyne Clark at WERA, and David Pyles at Fastrack Riders. To see the races from Tristan’s viewpoint, visit Ultimate MotorCycling’s YouTube Channel at YouTube.com/UltimateMotorCycling.
If you would like to try your hand at club racing, or have a hankering to sponsor a team without breaking the bank, then WERA Motorcycle Roadracing is the place to start. Around for nearly 40 years, WERA is one of the largest national sanctioning bodies conducting motorcycle road races across the US. Based out of Canton, Ga., Evelyne Clarke runs both regional and national series that include endurance and vintage racing.
The racers are competitive, but the atmosphere is friendly and helpful. The WERA organization runs each meet professionally, with an emphasis on fun and safety. With over 3000 competition license holders, over 135 Lifetime Members, and over 75 Mini License holders, WERA offers track schools and entry-level racing for anyone with a motorcycle.
This story is featured in the March/April 2013 issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine—available on newsstands and good bookstores everywhere. The issue is also available free to readers on Apple Newsstand (for iOS devices) and Google Play (Android). To subscribe to the print edition, please visit our Subscriber Services page.