Superbike Showdown

Photographs By Rory McNamara

I’m No. 1: Heading into the Superbike Showdown, Suzuki’s Matt Mladin was the man to beat.

Duhamel’s Demon

Winning at Infineon requires skill, luck and divine intervention

By R. V. Scheide

It’s simple. You lost. Go home.
–T-shirt slogan seen at Infineon Raceway’s 2004 Kawasaki AMA Superbike Showdown

“I think I need a young priest and an old priest,” says a frustrated Miguel Duhamel. The second-winningest rider in American Motorcycle Association superbike racing history is convinced that his factory Honda CBR1000RR superbike is possessed by a demon.

It is Friday, April 30, the first day of qualifying for the 2004 Kawasaki AMA Superbike Showdown at Infineon Raceway. The 35-year-old French Canadian has just set the fastest time in practice for Formula Xtreme, one of four classes of motorcycles–Supersport, Superstock, and the prestigious Superbike class are the other three–competing this weekend.

Before Formula Xtreme practice, Duhamel had taken the superbike out on the tight, twisting 2.2-mile circuit nestled in the rolling green hills just southwest of Sonoma. The demon materialized almost immediately, chattering incessantly as a white-knuckled Duhamel struggled to hang on to the 200-plus horsepower motorcycle.

In the pits, his factory Honda mechanics fiddle with the suspension, swap out the front and rear wheels, and tweak on the motor to no avail. The chattering continues unabated, and the normally affable Duhamel is not happy about it.

“Do I have to talk about the superbike?” he asks a small group of race journalists. “I had my tooth fillings falling out in the corners. It’s vibrating like hell. I can’t see the track.”

Not an ideal situation when racing a motorcycle at speeds in excess of 150 mph. Duhamel and the Honda team are faced with the grim prospect of completely tearing down the bike in order to exorcise the chattering devil and have a shot at winning either of the two superbike races that weekend.

Earlier in the week, factory trailers, motorhomes and pickups towing motorcycle haulers began filing into the raceway, located near the junction of Highways 121 and 37. By Friday morning, a small tent city has sprouted on the tarmac behind the main grandstands: nonfactory racers called “privateers” work on their bikes right out in the open, motorcycle industry vendors sell everything from protective gear to custom exhaust systems and local dealers display the latest new models.

For North Bay motorcyclists, the Superbike Showdown is the event of the year, and hardcore fans snag test drives on the fleet of bikes brought by manufacturers Buell and Aprilla, stake out positions in the three enormous new grandstands situated around the track and linger around the paddock hoping to catch a glimpse and maybe even an autograph from their favorite factory superstar.

Superbike racing is to motorcycles what NASCAR is to automobiles, only more so. Both are forms of production racing, meaning that the vehicles to be raced are based on motorcycles and cars sold to the general public. But while Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Monte Carlo, with its full roll cage, racing chassis and 750 horsepower V-8 engine, hardly resembles the model sold on the local Chevy dealer’s showroom floor, the bikes raced by AMA pros are remarkably similar to machinery anyone with $10,000 or so to spare can buy.

Motorcycle manufacturers have a saying: “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday.” Duhamel’s Honda, aside from a few trick engine and suspension components allowed by the rules, is identical–right down to its paint scheme–to the CBR1000RR sold in Honda shops. Same goes for current AMA Superbike champ Matt Mladin’s factory GSXR1000 Suzuki, Eric Bostrom’s factory Ducati 999S and Josh Hayes’ factory Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R. Santa Rosa privateer James Randolph turns up on what was essentially a stock Yamaha YZF-R1 with suspension modifications and the lights stripped off of it.

Calling the Shots: Honda’s Miguel Duhamel predicted he’d have something for Mladin on Sunday. He was right.

Aside from a smattering of BMWs and Harleys, such motorcycles–known as “sport bikes”–are the mounts of choice for the racing fans, men and women alike, attending the Superbike Showdown. The median age appears to be about 30, and because sport-bike riding is relatively affordable, Infineon has what might be the most racially diverse crowd in motorsports.

These thirty-somethings bring a certain sexual charge to the atmosphere. For the women, bare midriffs, pierced navels and tattoos across the small of the back (“Made in America,” one reads) are de rigueur. Fit skinny boys wear T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Real Men Ride Twins,” referring both to the twin-cylinder Ducati 999S superbike pictured on the shirt and the identical Barbie-doll-proportioned amazons seen propping the bike up.

The flirtatious air is encouraged by the Umbrella Girls, a dozen models dressed in tight-fitting miniskirts engaged to provide shade for the factory racers waiting on the grid in the blazing sun for the race to start. Tugging at their hems to keep their skirts from creeping up, the Umbrella Girls mingle with the gathering crowd, attracting whistles and catcalls from middle-aged men.

Brand loyalty runs deep here, and many are in attendance to cheer on their respective makes’ top rider. Brothers Eric and Ben Bostrom (the latter is Duhamel’s factory Honda teammate), native Northern Californians who graduated from Petaluma High School and have since gone on to superstar status in the motorcycle-racing world, are clearly the sentimental crowd favorites. A few fans resent the fact that the American superbike series has been dominated for years by “foreigners” such as Australian-born Mladin and Canadian-bred Duhamel (both of whom now reside in the United States), and therefore cheer on the American with the best chance of winning. This weekend, that looks to be 28-year-old superbike rookie Jake Zemke, riding for Erion Honda, a factory satellite team.

If there is one question on the minds of discriminating race fans, it is this: Can anybody stop Suzuki ace Mladin? The four-time AMA Superbike champ has set a sizzling pace so far this season, winning the prestigious Daytona 200 for the third time in March and notching two more victories at the California Speedway in Fontana last month. Mladin broke Duhamel’s record for most career superbike victories (26) with his second win at Fontana, exerting the same dominance over the field that last year led to 10 wins in 18 starts, the most ever in a season.

With 12 challenging corners linked by relatively short straights and numerous elevation changes, Infineon is known as a rider’s track, a venue where skill and motorcycle setup are more important than sheer horsepower. But that fact only works to Mladin’s advantage, as he is arguably the most talented rider at the AMA Superbike today.

For Duhamel, who won a single AMA Superbike championship in 1995, there is plenty to lose. With three consecutive race wins, Mladin is intent on closing in on Duhamel’s record of six straight victories, set in 1995 at Infineon, then known as Sears Point. Moreover, the current champ has gained a significant points advantage in the race for the 2004 title. But it is still early in the season, and Duhamel is well within striking distance. The only thing standing in his way is the chattering demon that has seemingly possessed the CBR1000RR. Maybe calling in a couple of priests isn’t such a bad idea, after all.

Rubber on the Road: Dunlop supplied 80 percent of the tires, changing 1,800 racing slicks during the three-day event.

Competitive superbike riders can lap the 2.2-mile Infineon circuit in under one minute, 38 seconds. That averages out to roughly 93 mph, but average speed doesn’t come close to telling the real story. To understand how difficult it is to turn a 1:38 lap, it helps to recall Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.

First Law of Motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state unless an external force is applied to it.

See Miguel Duhamel’s shiny bright red No. 17 bike idling on the checkered stripe that marks the raceway’s start/finish line. Note the aerodynamic shape formed by the front wheel and the plastic bodywork, the massive aluminum swing arm that holds the fat six-inch rear racing slick steady under cornering loads. Underneath the plastic, an in-line four-cylinder engine cranks out enough torque and horsepower to propel Duhamel and the CBR to 192 mph on the long banked straights at Daytona. Nothing like that speed is reached on the shorter, tighter Infineon track, but it illustrates the potential lurking inside this red beast.

Of course, until an external force is applied–which can’t happen until Duhamel climbs on board–the superbike will simply sit there idling. The French Canadian’s wiry, 5’6″, 145-pound frame fits snugly into the contour formed by the gas tank and tail section, helmet tucked behind the small windscreen and chest resting on top of the gas tank to increase the bike’s aerodynamic capabilities.

Duhamel controls the superbike with his hands and feet and by shifting his body weight. Hands outstretched to the clip-on handlebars attached to the front forks and legs scrunched up awkwardly to fit the rear-set foot pegs, Duhamel pulls in the clutch lever with his left hand, snicks the six-speed transmission into first gear with his left toe, turns the throttle with his right hand while simultaneously releasing the clutch, and the CBR screams toward turn one, immediately kicking in Newton’s Second Law.

Second Law of Motion: The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma.

Force equals mass times acceleration. Duhamel’s factory Honda weighs slightly under 400 pounds and can accelerate with all the violence of a pro-stock dragster. His bike’s engine howling at 10,000 rpm, Duhamel grabs second gear and 100 mph, acceleration pinning him back against the seat rest as he enters turn one, a 45-degree left-hander that heads sharply uphill.

Thanks to Newton’s First Law, the bike wants to keep going in a straight line right off the race track and into the gravel trap. To combat this, Duhamel countersteers slightly to the right just before the corner’s apex, hangs his body over the left side and leans the bike over so low that the fairing would scrape the asphalt if his left knee, protected by a plastic slider, wasn’t extended like an outrigger to guide the Honda through the corner. He grabs third gear up the hill and reverses the process for turn two, an off-camber 90-degree right-hand bend, spinning up the fat rear slick and laying a thick streak of rubber known as a “darkie” all the way to the entrance of turn three.

About 45 seconds through a hot lap, Duhamel rounds turn five and heads into turn six, a wide increasing radius curve known as the Carousel. Imagine hitting one of those 180-degree freeway off-ramps doing 120 mph, both wheels drifting as centrifugal force pushes the bike wide onto the “drag strip,” the longest straight on the track. Duhamel grabs fifth gear and 150 mph. Forget about driving by feel at this speed. With his peripheral vision, Duhamel searches for his braking marker, a preselected spot on the side of the track used to signal when to pull in on the binders before the next turn. Here, Newton’s Third Law of Motion makes itself known in spades.

Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Just as the bike’s fearsome acceleration throws Duhamel back into the seat rest, jamming on the brakes doing 150 mph compresses the suspension and slams him forward against the tank. He slows the bike to 80 mph entering turns seven and seven-A, a long wide curve that sends him careening down the track in the opposite direction, toward turns eight and eight-A, a series of high-speed esses–or “flip-flops,” as the Southern riders call them–that pass right in front of one of the new grandstands.

Watching riders hit the esses doing 130 mph–flipping right, flopping left, flipping right, flopping left–is one of the most exhilarating sights in motorsports. But hidden in Newton’s Third Law lies Duhamel’s demon. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Last year Duhamel, challenging for the lead in the 600 Supersport race (he still holds the record for most victories in the smaller displacement class), successfully completed the esses and was entering turn nine, the notorious Chicane, a short, sharp 90-degree kink designed to slow the riders down on the back straight. There, the demon struck, throwing him over the front of the bike, smashing him into the pavement and breaking his collar bone. He’s still not certain what unintended action prompted such a violent reaction, and remains wary of the Chicane.

Blasting through turn 10’s obtuse right-hand bend, Duhamel picks up speed for what many riders consider the most difficult corner on the course: turn 11, a treacherously slow hairpin that can be negotiated at no more than 45 mph, lest the rider run wide and slide out. Many a race has been won or lost in this corner since Infineon opened in 1968, and more than one AMA pro has been picked off in turn 11 by a hard-charging Duhamel on the last lap, watching helplessly as the French-Canadian superbike pilot swooped past them into turn 12 and onto the front straight, where he pulled his trademark standup wheelie across the finish line.

Duhamel has won the Superbike class at Infineon four times–in 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1998–but Friday’s practice and qualifying session do not bode well for a fifth victory. Earning a top qualifying spot is important for three reasons. One, it determines the position on the starting grid, crucial at Infineon, where passing during races is difficult. Two, it helps riders and mechanics set the bike up properly. Three, qualifying for the top spot, the Pole Position, earns the rider one point, which can make the difference between winning and losing the overall championship at the end of the season, determined by the points earned for the finishing position in each of the 18 races.

Mladin owns the all-time record for career Superbike Poles with 34, and immediately begins setting the quickest times in practice, running consistently under 1:38, while Duhamel and the other contenders–the brothers Bostrom, Zemke, Mladin’s teammate Aaron Yates–struggle to find the right setup. Near the end of the first 50-minute qualifying session, Mladin rips off a blistering 1:36:916, a time that would never be headed, earning him his 35th Pole Position for Saturday and Sunday’s superbike races.

Duhamel, beset by a mysterious, chattering demon his Honda mechanics cannot seem to exorcise, ekes out the fifth spot on the grid with a time of 1:37:633, more than a half-second slower than Mladin. That may not sound like much, but multiply that half-second by the 27 laps in a superbike race, and it translates into a 14-second lead by the end of the race. The 2004 Kawasaki Superbike Showdown was shaping up to be yet another Matt Mladin/ Suzuki GSXR1000 blowout.

Made in the Shade: Suzuki’s Aaron Yates was happy with third place in Sunday’s superbike race.

Shortly after 2:30pm on Saturday, 44 snarling superbikes bolt toward turn one, led by Mladin’s teammate Aaron Yates, who qualifies as second fastest and proceeds to light up the rear tire on nearly every corner. Smoke boiling off a fat racing slick looks pretty bitchen, but it’s not the fastest way around the racetrack, and Yates is nipped by rookie Zemke on the second lap. Slow-starting Mladin passes Zemke at the Chicane on lap three and motors away from the field, winning the first superbike race–his fourth victory in a row–by a comfortable seven-second margin over Miguel Duhamel.

With the possible exception of the Suzuki GSXR1000 owners in the crowd, it is by no means a popular victory. “Anybody but him!” mutters one of the journalists in the press box. Besides being an Aussie, Mladin suffers from a malady his racing colleagues wouldn’t mind sharing: he wins too much. He’s one cool customer, and this confidence sometimes comes off as arrogance. When you’ve won 27 superbike races, perhaps you’re entitled to a little arrogance, but Mladin’s aloof personal style hasn’t won him leagues of adoring fans.

AMA superbike double-headers are structured so that the tension and excitement build throughout the weekend. Only the first superbike race is held on Saturday; Sunday features all four classes: Superstock, Supersport, Superbike and Formula Xtreme. The superbike race on Sunday is supposed to be the climax of the weekend, but Mladin’s consistency so far this season has the crowd gritting their teeth in anticipation of another ho-hum Mladin runaway.

But Duhamel has a different idea. His Honda mechanics have labored through the night on the CBR1000RR, stripping it down to a bare-framed skeleton and then meticulously bolting it back together. The demon is miraculously exorcised, and with six laps to go in Saturday’s superbike race, Duhamel passes Zemke for second and sets out after Mladin. He is gaining on the flying Aussie when he hits a false neutral in the Chicane, stretching the superbike’s chain and causing him to back off the pace and settle for second place. But at the post-race press conference, he promises he’ll have something for Mladin the next day.

“I’ve got tomorrow to back up what I just said,” Duhamel insists.

The largest crowd ever to attend an Infineon superbike event turns out Sunday for the grand finale, both men and women scantily clad in 93-degree heat. The temperature on the track is a nuclear 125 degrees. The Umbrella Girls, primping and preening in their miniskirts, are the only ones who seem to be enjoying the heat.

Shortly after 2pm, the howling beehive of superbikes once again funnels into turn one. As the riders came around the turn-11 hairpin to complete the first lap, Yates is in the lead, followed closely by Zemke, Ben Bostrom, Duhamel and Mladin. Zemke zaps Yates on the second lap; by lap seven, Duhamel has worked his way past Bostrom and Yates for second and sets out in hot pursuit of the rookie. The pair of Honda riders quickly begin to gap the field.

Mladin is mired in an uncustomary fifth position, and a report comes in from the pits that the Aussie might have a bent rim. There are no planned pit stops in a 27-lap superbike race, and the precious seconds he’d lose changing the wheel would almost surely preclude victory. But just when it looks like Mladin’s hopes for a fifth consecutive win are dashed, privateer Kenyon Kluge loses control coming out of the Carousel, wadding his bike in a serious high-speed get-off that brings out the red flag on the eighth lap.

A red flag stops the race so emergency crew workers can provide aid to injured riders and remove damaged machinery and debris from the track. During the stoppage, riders are allowed to come into the pits to add fuel and change tires. So much for Mladin’s bent rim. Kluge is carted off by ambulance and the riders return to the grid for restart. The gap Zemke and Duhamel had pulled on the field before the red flag is now negated. Advantage: Mladin.

Duhamel is having none of it. Forty-three superbikes roar into turn one together; when they emerge, the red No. 17 is at the head of the pack, followed closely by the black No. 98, Zemke. For the next three laps, the duo exchange the lead, Zemke passing Duhamel, Duhamel passing Zemke, until the rookie takes control on the 10th lap and begins pulling away from the French Canadian. Meanwhile, Mladin charges to the front, passing Bostrom for fourth on lap 10 and then teammate Yates for third on lap 11, with plenty of time left in the race to catch Duhamel and Zemke.

But the Aussie’s charge fizzles out. Perhaps he’s spent too much energy winning the previous day’s race in the sweltering heat. At any rate, the blue-and-white No. 1 Suzuki can gain no ground on the fleeing Hondas. It is not to be Matt Mladin’s day.

Although the good-natured Duhamel is one of the most popular riders on the circuit, the crowd begins pulling for California native Zemke, hoping the rookie might win his first-ever superbike race. Zemke does not disappoint, holding on to the lead as the pair begin weaving their way through lapped traffic. Coming out of the Carousel on lap 22 at more than 120 mph, both wheels drifting, Zemke zips around the inside of one lapper and the outside of another with a gutsy move that will be talked about by racing fans for years to come. By the last lap, Zemke has pulled a two-second gap on Duhamel, a margin that under ordinary circumstances would have sealed the win.

But having Miguel Duhamel on your tail is no ordinary circumstance. The wily veteran has been in exactly the same position many times before, snatching victory just when it looked like the jaws of defeat were set to clamp down. After the race, Zemke says he slowed down to preserve the win, a typical rookie mistake. Whatever happened, coming through the esses on the back straight and heading into the Chicane, Duhamel somehow gains the two seconds back and nips at Zemke’s heels. He stuffs his big red machine underneath the rookie in the turn 11 hairpin and motors on by, taking the checkered flag with his trademark standup wheelie, like he had planned it that way all along.

Standing on the podium with Zemke and Yates, who passed Mladin near the end to finish third, Duhamel refuses to take credit for the victory, instead thanking his Honda mechanics and plain old racing luck. He dedicates the win to the U.S. armed forces serving in Iraq. Duhamel, Zemke and Yates uncork bottles of champagne and spray the parched crowd with bubbly. Then, the small gold crucifix around his neck glinting brilliantly in the sun, Duhamel rides a red Honda scooter back to the paddock, where mechanics are preparing his Formula Xtreme bike for the day’s final race.

Just to prove that the superbike victory was no fluke, Duhamel wins that race too, once again passing Zemke on the final lap. Asked at the post-race press conference how he had managed to tame the demon residing inside the CBR1000RR, Duhamel thanks his mechanics and racing luck once more before adding with a grin, “We called in a priest, too.”

From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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