Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad | Success in the Making

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad Joseph Blasius
Joseph Blasius

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad

The skills and discipline required to be a professional motorcycle racer don’t just happen; they have to be nurtured and honed from a very young age. At the very least, the path to get to the pinnacle of any sport is typically one that begins very early in life, and requires the unflinching support and sacrifice of parents, siblings, extended family and even friends.

A professional athlete is always the end product of a huge, ongoing effort from a team of people who saw a glimmer of talent early on, and everyone, collectively, decided to go for it.

However, unlike the more typical ball-and-stick sports, motorsport is very much more dependent on the equipment. To a prospective team, the machinery variables alone are almost countless, and the myriad of choices can be extremely confusing. Mistakes can be very, very expensive in both time and money, and perhaps worst of all, in opportunity cost. Poor decisions in a young person’s teens could potentially cost them their career.

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad Tyler Wissel
Tyler Wissel, part of 2018 Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad

Yet even if the parents make all the right machinery and tuning decisions, the management of the actual racing season can then be equally as challenging. The list of variables grows exponentially as the rider and crew chief have to factor in a myriad of conditions that change track by track, hour by hour, and sometimes even minute by minute. And that’s even before the flag drops and junior gets to do his thing.

Although professional teams have huge amounts of experience and data to fall back on, at the more junior level of racing, the budget and that level of experience can be sorely lacking. There must be many moms and dads who can see the potential in their offspring, only to reach a point where they discover that the lack of resources and/or experience is holding their kid back. I’d imagine it stops being fun at that point.

What if there was an answer to this conundrum?

There are two things needed to resolve it effectively: a suitable youth-oriented series with rules geared towards affordability; and an experienced team organization that could help nurture the young talent.

The first part has been answered by our national racing series organizers, MotoAmerica, headed up by the highly respected triple 500cc (MotoGP) World Champion Wayne Rainey.

Acutely aware that MotoGP and World Superbike competitors don’t just get beamed down by Scotty, Rainey and his colleagues decided that America needed a challenging national series where talented youth could both learn and showcase their skills.

MotoAmerica started the ball rolling in 2015 with the KTM RC Cup, using the exciting and just released machine of that name. It was a spec series, so everyone had to ride identical machines, and use identical Dunlop tires. The bikes are small, light, relatively powerful, and a great way for a youngster to learn his craft.

Subsequently, the success of the Championship has been strong enough that MotoAmerica decided for 2018 to convert the series into the more global FIM Junior Cup regulations.

The series is now open to all makes of machine, and in effect, any manufacturer can now apply to have their motorcycle homologated. The list of machines currently totals four with another in the wings. In addition to the already established KTM RC 390, are Honda’s CBR500R, Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 (and presumably the new 400 very soon), and of course Yamaha’s R3. Suzuki’s GSX250R is currently pending homologation.

The FIM regulations tightly control the machine specifications and weight to keep things fair. Diversity of displacement and engine configuration is leveled out by rev-limiting each engine according to a complex series of parameters. There are also weight handicaps, and the decision to apply any handicap will be taken by the MotoAmerica/FIM Commission at any time necessary to ensure fair competition. As it stands, the KTM is allowed the least weight at 300 pounds, with the Honda 31 pounds heavier at 331. The Kawasaki and Yamaha fall in the middle and must each weigh a minimum of 309 pounds.

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad R3 Race Bike
Graves Yamaha YZF-R3

One of the biggest variables in any motor racing series are the tires used, and the Junior Cup specifies Dunlop tires that are allocated ahead of time, with a fixed number per meeting to control costs. John Haner, Crew Chief for Dylan Deutschlander, told me that Dylan typically uses only two sets of tires per meeting.

On the financial side, there aren’t too many parents out there able to re-mortgage a house in order to fund their kid’s race dreams, so the rules are geared towards making it affordable. That’s a relative term of course, but for a televised national race series, the dollar numbers are surprisingly low. Through smart technical rules that level the playing field and minimize costs, the intention is to leave the rider as the only variable so that the truly talented will shine and be able to move forward in their career.

So with the US now having a useful, affordable, high-profile, junior national race series, it’s obvious that manufacturers might step in and help, and Yamaha have done just that. The factory’s commitment to racing at every level, without exaggeration, is—and always has been—legendary.

I don’t have the space or time here to go into a history of how deeply Yamaha has been involved in motorcycle racing over the years, but suffice it to say that when cash-strapped Laguna Seca needed two million dollars’ worth of FIM mandated safety improvements to bring MotoGP to the US in 2004—guess who stepped up and paid the bill? Now that’s commitment to racing!

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad Chase Lyons
Chase Lyons

Yamaha have always been intimately involved at a national level too—who can forget the two-stroke era with entire grids made up of screaming Yamaha TZs?  In the last couple of decades Yamaha have fielded factory teams in both the Superbike and 600cc classes, and running those programs for the entire time has been Graves Motorsport out of Van Nuys, California.

The Graves Yamaha success in the national series has been absolutely dominant. Coupled with the sales success of the Yamaha YZF-R3, it’s only natural that both Graves and Yamaha would field an entry into the Junior Cup. By making available their considerable experience to teams in the Junior Cup, Graves Yamaha have provided a solution to the second part of the puzzle facing teams stepping up to the national level.

Although costs will differ from team to team depending on their geographic location and transportation costs, a typical Junior Cup race team budget will likely be around $30,000 for a full season. John Haner mentioned told me they were budgeting around $2,500 per race, which is even less.

Now those are still not small numbers, but with a little help from company sponsorship such as California-based legal firm RiderzLaw (sponsoring Jackson Blackmon) the Junior Cup might look doable for a serious young racer and his family. In addition, Yamaha, coupled with their Blu Cru initiative are helping each Graves Yamaha team rider with a $3,000 parts credit for the season (parts will be available at dealer cost prices and sometimes cheaper), and Yamalube are giving $1,000 in product to each rider as well.

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad Joseph Blasius
Joseph Blasius

As far as the bike goes, Graves Motorsports has created a weaponized R3 capable of winning the Cup for a reasonable price. It was developed over the last year, and took full advantage of the company’s serious racing experience, without flaunting the (rightfully) stringent rules.

Although there are no internal engine modifications allowed (the camshafts, pistons and rings, rods, crankshaft, and crankcases must all remain unmodified), the R3 is rev-limited to 13,000 RPM, considerably up from the stock 10,750 RPM redline. The additional revs will be achieved through better breathing, and that includes a Graves performance exhaust and a flashed ECU containing the Graves ‘secret sauce’ fuel map to get the best out of the R3 motor.

An unmodified engine of course also means “affordable,” and I’d imagine much to the relief of the chap paying the bills, Graves engineers project that the unburstable R3 motor will go for around 7,000 racing miles without needing a rebuild; so it will quite easily see out the full season with room to spare.

Although the gearbox ratios must remain unchanged, undercutting and coating of the gears is permitted, and in addition a MotoAmerica approved quickshifter (with no blip-downshifter) is allowed. One of the biggest (read: most expensive) modifications allowed is a change to the clutch, and of course Graves goes for the best by adding a $995 Suter Racing clutch to the R3. It’s money well spent though, as this gives the rider great feel when hard on the brakes, as maximum back-torque management is needed to prevent wheel hop and subsequent loss of rider control.

The price of the stock R3 is $4,999 and the additional $9,955 that goes into the Graves R3 essentially saves weight, adds race suspension, electronics and a myriad of detail parts. Naturally the finished race bikes look very committed; every component has been optimized to work as well as it possibly can within the rules.

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad prepping bikesNot to be underestimated is the intangible contribution of the Graves Motosports brain trust. At the team orientation camp on a warm day in early February at Buttonwillow Raceway, California, I was able to get some insight into how Graves will run the team, and the considerable support that will be given to each rider.

Chuck emphasized that he and his crew are there to help, and one example of that is the addition to the team of retiring Superbike Champion, Josh Hayes, to act as mentor and rider coach. There are few, if any, riders at Josh’s level as articulate and good-natured as he, that are capable of explaining in detail how to go fast and race successfully. It can be said that Josh has pretty much done it all, and thanks to Yamaha he will be at each round holding classroom and individual coaching sessions to advise the youngsters, should they want it.

At the Buttonwillow team introduction, he did a full walking lap with the riders and explained the nuances of each corner and how to get the best from the track. Josh’s good humor and serious experience will help these young men—and they were clearly hanging on to every word he said.

Graves Yamaha only launched their team concept relatively recently, however such is the success of the idea, that the 2018 Graves Yamaha Junior Cup team now numbers nine riders. They include:

  • Cory Ventura, 15-years old: last year’s RC Cup Championship season runner-up (with Melissa Paris, Josh Hayes wife and a seriously accomplished racer in her own right, as his crew chief)
  • Jackson Blackmon, 16: fourth overall in 2017 RC Cup
  • Toby Khamsouk, 17: sixth overall in 2017 RC Cup
  • Dylan Duetschlander, 16: ninth overall in 2017 RC Cup
  • Joseph Blasius
  • Hunter Dunham
  • Chase Lyons
  • Gage Rees
  • Tyler Wissel

Handing a large ring binder detailing all the parts to each rider, Chuck Graves introduced each Graves crew specialist to the riders and their crew. He then took everyone through a very detailed presentation of the various changes made to the bikes. This included things like the Suter clutch adjustments and personalization; bleeding the clutch mechanism properly; and the service life of the various parts. For example, the super-skinny, lightweight chain and sprockets only have a 500 km life to them. Graves mentioned everything down to the tiniest detail, including advising on the correct engine oil level, which is different from the street as the g-forces on the race bike could cause loss of oil pressure.

Each crew chief and rider is expected during each weekend of the season, to upload their rider experience summary and set-up data that includes fork preload settings, damping clicks settings, and rear ride height among much else. Graves uses sophisticated interactive software that logs all the changes, so each crew chief will be able to refer to a prior meeting’s data.

Of course that also means Graves Yamaha will have everyone’s data to compare, and although the Graves Team management insist they won’t pass individual team member secrets directly on to the others, nevertheless Chuck made it crystal clear that he does expect everyone to act like a team player. Go fast secrets discovered in the white heat of competition will be assimilated by the Graves Motorsport team and as appropriate, then incorporated into the constantly evolving project to benefit everyone.

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad Melissa Paris
Melissa Paris, who helps coach the team with husband and SBK Champion Josh Hayes tries out the Graves Yamaha R3

Whoever said school was boring clearly haven’t gone Junior Cup racing with Graves Yamaha. The uber-professionalism and experience of Graves Motorsport and the Yamaha team has ensured a highly detailed, cohesive set of riders who will be helped and encouraged into a habit of good decision-making.

Judging by the excited, focused expressions on the assembled young faces that were clearly hanging on to every word coming from the Graves staff, I’d say this is going to be a big success.

Ultimate Motorcycling has already published one rider profile (Jackson Blackmon) and will do the same for each of the remaining 8 riders, once a week, until the start of the MotoAmerica racing season in about two months time.

We understand that the Junior Cup will likely be a part of the TV coverage package—so who will you be rooting for?

Graves Yamaha MotoAmerica Junior Cup Squad | Photo Gallery