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Ultimate MotorCycling Amateur Race Report Volume 2, #3

A long tradition of motorcycle racing at Willow Springs was disrupted when track owner Bill Huth shut down the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club (WSMC) in April 2012, reportedly for financial reasons.

Having run continuously since 1991, WSMC was a fixture of the Southern California racing scene, and its closure left a void not readily accepted nor easily filled. Willow Springs was considered the home track to legions of aspiring Southern California racers, and now they were homeless.

But with the closing of WSMC, WERA West had an opportunity to schedule a race at facility that had not been available to them ever since WSMC was created. A double-header race weekend was scheduled on short notice to be run on June 17-18, 2012, and the orphan WSMC racers had a temporary reprieve. That event was the last motorcycle race held of the 2012 season.

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Marc Rittner at Willow Springs Yamaha Supermoto

Motoyard Trackdays owner Greg Nulman organized the MotoWest GP series for 2013, and attracted back a number of the old WSMC racers.

However after the passing of nine months without racing at Big Willow, a lot of them had moved on to join other established organizations, like WERA, CVMA, and AFM. Eventually the MotoWest GP series closed in early 2016.

Once again WERA West stepped up and returned to Big Willow to host a double-header race weekend on June 10-11, 2017. This event brought a lot of the old WSMC/MotoWest GP racers out of the woodwork, and of course a new crop of WERA racers who had never set a wheel on the “Fastest Track in the West.”

The seemingly simple nine-turn layout is in reality quite difficult to master, and the high average speeds give even seasoned racers reason for pause.

Fortunately for me, I learned to race at Willow Springs, and had successfully raced there just 2 months prior with AHRMA. My race bike was built and setup specifically for this racetrack, and I know very well what to expect when I got there.

I had to skip the May WERA West Round 3 in Las Vegas due to the knee injury I had sustained at the AHRMA event in April. Two weeks of rest and five weeks of work at the gym had improved my knee’s condition to “raceable,” but it was still weakened.

No worries though… I might limp a little when off the bike, but when suited up with my Alpinestars racesuit, boots, gloves, and Arai Corsair X helmet battle gear I am ready to race!

Friday, June 10: Practice

I arrived at the track around 8:30 a.m., and unloaded my equipment into one of the garages I was sharing with my racer buddies Tim Chen, Brian Morris, and David Price. Registration and technical inspection was fast and easy. The 2wheelTrackdays.com crew was friendly and efficient. A very well run organization.

I ran a total of four sessions in their “A” group, and had no trouble getting on pace. The track was still pretty fresh in my mind as it had only been 7 weeks since I raced there last, and I focused that day on my weak spots. It was a good little pre-race tune-up.

Inspecting my tires after the April AHRMA races showed some signs of distress. I had my own theories about what I should do about it. But instead of going it alone, I contacted Dave Moss, who is widely recognized as one of the industry experts on suspension tuning, race preparation, and tire management.

I emailed him close-up photos of my tires after the AHRMA races, along with a detailed narrative of my setup and what I experienced on the track. His analysis was that for my current race pace and track conditions that I my tire pressures were too low, causing carcass flex and overheating. With that in mind I experimented during practice with a few adjustments to my tire pressures in order to evaluate change in grip and wear patterns. Dave’s analysis and advice turned out to be spot-on, and the price for his remote services were very reasonable. I highly recommend contacting him to help cure your bike’s handling ills. Dave Moss can be reached via email at Dave@feelthetrack.com

Saturday, June 11: Race Day 1

Big Willow’s high speed turns 2, 8, and 9 are pretty tough on tires, especially the right hand side. If your tires aren’t battle-worthy come race time, you will be at a disadvantage. And my tires were already showing wear from the previous day’s practice, so I thought it prudent to just take it easy and just run a single practice session.

Race 3 – D Superbike Expert

This was a combined race of Lightweight Twins Expert, D Superbike Expert, and E Superstock Expert and Novice, gridded in that order for a single wave start. There was only one other racer in my class (Russ Granger/Blackheart Racing), and from practice times it didn’t appear that he was going to be able to fight for the win this weekend. Ahead of me on the gride in the Lightweight Twins class were a couple of veterans: Curtis Adams (ex-track record holder at Willow Springs) and Ed Sorbo (ex-AMA pro). I wasn’t worried about what was behind me…yet.

I got a good start and latched onto the back of Ed. I chased him for six laps, but just did not have the steam to catch him. Curtis checked-out on his new KTM 690, which he has been riding brilliantly. In fact, it is downright embarrassing that he can go six seconds a lap faster than me and Ed, but he is that good.

Marc Rittner Amateur racing at Willow Springs WERA

I took a look behind me around lap four of six and saw two smaller bikes battling it out.   I knew them to be teenage phenom Toby Khamsouk, on his KTM390 Cup bike, and veteran racer Josh Fogle, on a borrowed Ninja 300 race bike.

Neither of these guys are slouches. Toby has won the 2016 Yamaha Blu Cru R3 Cup Finals (Novice), and Josh is the 250 SuperSport lap record holder at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Both have raced in the MotoAmerica series.

I have raced Toby at a few previous WERA events and each time I have prevailed. But we all know that past history is no guarantee of future results. I’ve never raced against Josh, but had seen him at Big Willow two years prior getting close to cracking 1:40 lap times on a little Ninja, which is pretty impressive. So I knew that both of these guys were serious threats.

Meanwhile, I ignorantly thought the world was in its rightful order, and didn’t think either of THOSE guys on THOSE bikes could mount a serious challenge to MY Yamaha YZ450F Supermoto at MY track. #SwelledHead

Result: 1st Place D Superbike

Race 7 – Clubman Expert

This time I lined up on Row 1 with Toby and Josh, with me on pole position. The flag dropped, and I expected to get my regular holeshot and never see them again. Wrong! Both of the blazed off the line and were right with me for a couple of gears headed towards turn 1. I entered the long, sweeping uphill turn 2 with the lead, but that didn’t last long as Toby railed around me on an outside line. Crap!

I was shocked, and at that moment it looked like he might get away unless I started twisting the throttle harder. Toby led me both into and out of the Omega, down the hill to turn 5, and over the crest of turn 6. It’s lucky for me that my bike really performs on this part of the track. I hauled him back in, drafted him on the front straightaway and passed him before turn 1. Strategic asset confirmed…I had the horsepower (courtesy of Mummert Machine and Development)

I thought if I rode harder in turn 2 the second time around that I could keep him behind me. Wrong! He did exactly the same thing as last lap, and again railed around the outside of me. Double Crap! But a racer needs patience…it was early in the race…I was still fighting for the front…and I was willing to repeat the last lap’s scenario until I could come up with a better plan.

You all know the definition of “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome.” I knew I had to come up with a plan to do something different, something to counter his strengths. Knowing Big Willow well, I know that most racers don’t want to ride too wide a line in turn 2, as there is lots of dirt, debris, and rubber “marbles” just outside of the mid-track race line. And since Toby kept using that middle line to come around me in turn 2, I decided to see how much he would like taking an even wider line to get around me.

On the third time around I scooted my line over a bit, hogging just enough of his line to make him think about riding through all that trash. Apparently this change generated some indecision, as he did not go around me this time, nor did he make the choice to go underneath me.

This stunted his drive and he lost almost two seconds to me on that third lap. I’ve been told that my Supermoto race bike with standard handlebars can appear just as wide an 18-wheeler on a mountain road when you are looking to pass.

Now that I was in front I did not have to play catch-up through turns 8 and 9, and had an open track ahead of me. I stretched my lead out to a little more than three seconds over the next three laps and took home the checkered flag.

Result: 1st place Clubman Expert

Back in the garage I took a look at my tires. They looked pretty bad, so I went to the Dunlop vendor to get a fresh set. They had a new guy running the truck, and he did not bring any of the models/sizes tires which I use with him, so I was out of luck. Not much I could do other than to accept the situation and go with what I’ve got. I cleaned and serviced the bike, and put her up for the night.

Sunday, June 12 Race Day 2

Today was going to be a repeat schedule of the day before, hopefully including the same two wins.

Race 4 – D Superbike

This race again was just me and Russ. We diced it up with another bike for three laps before it was time check out. I wanted to save my tires for the second race, so I only did what was necessary to take the win. It was more like a trackday warmup session than a race. Not my proudest win.

Results: 1st Place D Superbike

Race 8 – Clubman Expert

Now it was time for another epic showdown with Toby and Josh. The race started almost exactly like the Clubman race on Saturday. I took the lead off the start, Toby came around me in turn 2, and it was once again “On like Donkey Kong.”

This time I only waited until the second lap to obstruct Toby’s line, and I held my lead for the next 4 laps. I never saw Josh (who really was not far behind), but Toby tried to show me a wheel going up the inside on the turn 6 rise at least twice. I could see him coming out the corner of my eye, and adjusted my line just enough to block him and ruin his drive.

Things were looking good for another win. I took the white flag at the start of lap six with about a 1.5 second lead, and was twisting the throttle pretty hard on the short straight between turns 1 and 2, nearing 95 mph. Just as I was about to tip the bike into turn 2 I felt a little rumbling vibration come from the engine. A split second later the engine was locked up and my rear wheel was skidding, leaving a long black stripe on the track where there shouldn’t be one.

The bike snapped upright and headed off the track towards the roughly maintained dirt runoff area. Thankfully the rear wheel started turning when I pulled in the clutch lever, giving me back some semblance of control over the now silent machine. I cruised to a stop and watched wistfully as the other bikes sped past on that final lap, knowing that this was a race I should have won.

A few minutes passed before the crash truck showed up to take me on ‘The Ride of Shame’ back to the garage. I hate this part where you have to repeatedly explain to all your racer friends what undeserved bad fortune has befallen you. I would much prefer to regale them with my tales of battle and heroic efforts to win the race.

Results: DNF Clubman Expert

Race Recap

  • Overall it was a pretty good weekend…well, at least until my engine puked.
  • The knee injury I had been nursing for seven weeks didn’t really affect my performance. But it is not so great when I am not on the bike.
  • I had three wins in four starts, but was regretting the “one that got away.”
  • All of my garage mates were in the ribbons this weekend, with some spectacular performances.

There is only 3 weeks until the next race (WERA West Round 5 @ Buttonwillow Raceway Park). That is not nearly enough time to source parts and build a new engine.

But I do still have complete spare (last season’s engine) which I can press into emergency service for the next race. All it needs is a regular race service on it. Let’s hope with a little luck that it holds together for another round of racing.

Until Buttonwillow…

Marc Rittner
WERA Expert #129

Riding Style

  • Arai Corsair X Statement Helmet $969.95
  • Alpinestars Atem Suit $1,499
  • Alpinestars KR-R Back Protector $149.95
  • Alpinestars GP tech leather gloves $299.95
  • Alpinestars Supertech R boots $499.95

Read previous reports from Ultimate MotorCycling Amateur Race Report, Racing Past 60:

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