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Riding and racing the Graves Motorsports Yamaha R-1
by Kenny Kopecky

Over the years I’ve heard more than one of my fellow racers quip “If I had that bike...” or “I wonder what it’s like to ride that [insert bike you lust for here]”. Well, at the August 2000 race at Willow Springs I had one of those rare opportunities to not only ride one of the “dream bikes” but to race it against some of the fastest old guys at Willow Springs. I hope they will forgive me for labeling them “old”, because I never expected to be roadracing at 40, and face it..we’re not exactly spring chickens anymore. There is an extremely small handful of people here at Willow that were here in the, umm, mid-eighties when I was a regular top 3 finishing competitor in Open and 750cc classes. I even was racing in the 600 class here before the current 10th overall WSMC points “kid” Carlin Dunne was born. Yikes! So, face it. They even have a class for guys our age in moto-cross, “Seniors”.

So, several months ago while chatting at the end of the day in the WSMC Office with Chuck Graves, he who dominated back in May with seven starts, seven wins and thousands of dollars in club and contingency winnings I blurt out something like “I could win F-40 if I had one of those” referring to his nice fleet of Yamaha R model bikes. After a small debate if I was old enough (I really did turn 40 in April), Chuck got a funny little gleam in his eye and thought for a moment, and in his new role as team manager for Graves Motorsports he decided he could indeed add an old guy to the team next time they came back to Willow. He asked “Can you win?” I hesitate, then say “Yes!”, trying to sound confident. He asks if I’ll practice (he knows the last few season have been “slow” for me with very little practice and riding older equipment). I tell him “Yes, if you let me ride the bike I’ll practice on it!” I’m thinking what a great opportunity that’ll be, and I totally forget to tell Chuck I haven’t actually roadraced since before breaking my foot in three places moto-crossing last September. Oh yes, the one practice and one six lap sprint this year on a Lightweight Vintage class 1983 GPz550 really don’t count, as I was reminded of by my fast riding friend Frank. Okay, they have two wheels, the tires are still round (and black), but as far as riding and racing those bikes are light years apart.

The week before our August event Graves telephones me at the WSMC Office and asks if I still want to ride an R-1 in Formula 40. Am I going to say no? Of course I want to do it! I’ve now got two more six lap races on the GPz550 (without any practice - just the warm-up lap) under my belt and have been racing every weekend event I can with the local moto-cross club. Am I ready? Nope! The days are long preparing for a club event on the management level, but twice I find a few minutes in the evening to do a couple of mental races like I did years ago. Each of the races I was gridded in the back due to my lack of points, but latched onto my target of the current class champ to chase him. I can see it happening in my minds eye. Gee, it worked years ago, maybe it will again.

Saturday morning of race weekend, Chuck and I briefly discuss a practice plan. I’ve been a New Racer School Instructor for many years, with another organization and with WSMC. I can ride Chucks’ R-1 Super Stock bike in the School sessions, and he’ll practice on it in the regular club sessions. Cool. Chuck and I discuss bike set-up, and considering that I’ve never even ridden one of these things and weigh 40 pounds more than the little guy I politely suggest he “make it right” for him and not worry about me. He rides faster, I weigh more and maybe it’ll work out is my reasoning. “Lucky Kenny” I’m thinking, “I just want to ride that thing”. I manage to put a scare into Chucks’ mechanics when I ask about the shifting pattern (they weren’t going to bother to tell me). Chuck say’s “It’s backwards” and I reply “What’s that?” His crew chief Jerry Dagget just about keels over and one of the other guys exclaims “Oh no!” These guys, of course, have no idea of my racing history and think that I’m going to take out one of their beautiful R-1s and wad it. One of them asks what I ride now. I tell them I have a 1982 GPz550 and a ‘98 KX-250, and “they’re down for first”. They’re really getting dizzy now! I grin at Chuck and say “Your R-1 is like, umm, down for go and up for slow, right?” Chuck realizes I’m messing with the guys, and snarls in his best wanna-be-a-tough-guy voice “You better not back shift my bike.” I suggest they tape the shift pattern where I can see it...then tell them that the last few GSX-R750s I raced from 1989 to 1997 were all “backwards”. After assuring them “I can do it” I leave the garage laughing...they’re still weren’t too sure!

Two hours later, Chuck has run the bike a couple of times and has been fiddling with some damping adjustments front and rear. It’s time for me to go out with the School, so I cruise to the Graves garage. I think to ask the guys how strong the motor is, and they say 142 horses. Now they speculate I’ve never ridden anything with power. Wrongo. Thanks to Hypercycle and Team Pasta Marin, I rode some awfully strong GSX-R1100 racers not only here at Willow, but at Road America and Daytona (back in ‘88 and ‘89!). 142 sounds great to me though, and it’s definitely a lot more than anything I’ve been on since the 24-hour in 1992. A heat wave flashes over me when I realize that wasn’t “just the other day” but seven years ago. “What have I gotten myself into” is flashing on the screen in my mind!

I stretch a bit in my suit, lamenting my lack of the bicycle training I try to enjoy and the extra weight I carry this year. Well, if my Aussie friend Anthony can ride well with his suit too tight maybe I can too? Ya right!

Jerry rolls the bike out into the sun and fires it up.Wow. I sat on an R-1 when Curtis Adams brought one by my office during magazine testing at Willow late in 1997. What a tiny 1000! Oh brief history note: I raced mostly GSX-R750s from 1988 to 1997, but spent the 1991 Willow Springs club racing season on a 1990 Yamaha FZR-1000 winning 9 races and an Open Stock Production class title on it. So, this will be the second Yamaha production race bike I’ve ever raced.

Clunk! I actually put the thing in 1st gear instead of 2nd thus temporarily allaying the fears of those who doubt I’ll shift the right way. Or is it the wrong way? Backwards is right? They didn’t tape the pattern on for me, so I leave the pits repeating mentally “down for go, down for go, down for go”. Short-shifting my way out of the pits I feel like I’m perched on top of the bike, and the windscreen seems really low. That’s what I get for riding a GPz550. I pull memories of strong GSX-Rs out of the memory bank, and start looking ahead at the track and all is well.

Until I look down at the little gauge panel, and start watching the digital temperature readout go higher and higher. Right next to it is a glowing red light. Oh crap, I’ve gone half a lap and Chucks’ bike is gonna cook. It’s hot today at Willow, but not THAT hot. I decide I must be going to slow for this mighty R-1, and there’s no air flow through the radiators. I run a little faster, but as an Instructor on initial laps we sit behind everyone while our WSMC Chief Instructor Danny Farnsworth leads them around kind of slow. Ack! I’m at the back of the group and have to slow down. The temp keeps going up, and finally we get around the pit entrance. The red light glows menacingly. I’m worried. I signal and immediately head to the Graves garage. They laugh at me as Chuck tells me the red light is always on, and I wonder if the red light is always on at Chucks house! “Oh ya, I should have told you...” echoes in my ears as I leave. This time I run it a bit harder and totally ignore Chucks red light and gauges for several laps, until I realize it has a digital speedometer. I’m trying to ride smoothly and get comfortable which is difficult for me because this bike is so much more capable (and fast!) then my 18 laps this year on the old GPz-550! I’m running fairly hard on the straights and Willows’ fast turns 2, 8 and 9, but I’m a dog in the slow stuff. One time on the front straight I’m suddenly transfixed by the speedo as the numbers just whip as I click from 4th, 5th and into 6th. Yes, I know these things aren’t accurate, but it’s kind of cool to see it go from 120-something to 163 on your gauge in just a couple of seconds, huh? Reminder to Novice racers, it’s better to tape that stuff up because you need to watch where you are going and concentrate on that! I never looked at the speedo again.

The session starts to wind down, but I’m gettin pretty excited. Going a little faster, and enjoying what I feel is a great steering 1000. Really precise. I’m pinned WFO on the back straight when I almost run off the track (sorry Chuck, I should have told ya...) wide open because I over-inputed my transition for “turn 7” at Willow. My momentary combination of over-control and maybe a bit of wandering concentration have my feet off the pegs as I make the bike go where I really want to instead of into the desert. Maybe it’s time to exit? Naww...I rip through 8 and 9 and go until the checkered flag. Oh ya, I also studied several of our New Racers, and showed several some good lines.

Now I’m back in the garage with a big grin and wide eyes and Chuck asks if they were any changes I would make. How considerate. I told him the nut holding the handlebar needing changing, but other than that it was really neat. He said he was serious. So was I! I did feel the rear was “bouncy”, and low and behold Chuck had just gone softer (or quicker) on the rear rebound damping. My extra weight and much lower speed made the bike feel uncomfortable to me in the slow turns, but it felt nice in the fast turns. Personally, my mind wasn’t quite “with it”, as that speed memory I developed so many years ago has been on an extended vacation! Also I was severely lacking in lean angle and knowledge of available traction. Oh well. The crew was relieved that the bike made it back in one piece!

Later in the day I rode the second School session. Chuck had changed the rebound damping a bit, and I was feeling a little more confident. I found that there was a side breeze and the bike moved around a bit more down the long front straight, and that I was having an inadvertent lofting of the front wheel over the second crest at turn 6 when accelerating hard onto the back straight. Very exciting! I rode the entire second school session, and was joined towards the end by fellow Instructor and several time WSMC class champ Frank Aragaki. Frank shadowed me a couple laps, then out-braked me into one. I followed him until the end of the session. It was cool, you can always learn something. I learned my “new line” in turn 2 was good according to Frank, and that I’m weak on the brakes. Yup, I sure was. Considering my lack of seat time, the speed of the R-1, and my personal fright level, all was well.

During the final School session I continued to acclimate myself to the bike, and continued to find it steers great, goes like a missile, and that I still love to ride fast motorcycles! The “dance” out of turn 9 was a little more pronounced as the breeze came up, and I found that unlike earlier in the day I was now “Kenny the meek” and couldn’t pin the throttle on the straight. The lack of knowledge and familiarity with the bike had me a bit worried, and I was feathering the throttle more than a few times. Still I rode fast, but the personality of the bike changed and I wasn’t comfy with it.

Our Saturday race plan was to run me on the Super Stock bike in the WSMC Solo GTO 50 mile race at the end of the day, with Chuck on his Formula-prepped R-1. Due to some kind of tire availability situation, I was told just before the warm-up lap that I had a scuffed rear slick with the same DOT front I’d been on earlier. Being a trusting sort and knowing nothing about R-1s and their idiosyncrasies, I shrugged and said “okay” and went off to battle. My goal? Top 3 in this long race. I’d won in this class before, but felt that top 3 would be really good, and I had the bike to do it.

It didn’t happen. During the warm-up lap, the bike had a strange, new violent head shake in turn 8! I wondered if all was well with the rear end, and hadn’t considered until right then that there was an imbalance in the bike. I remembered years ago that some bikes wouldn’t work with a DOT/slick combo, and that more often than not that isn’t a good combination. Ah, but the desire to race was overwhelming, so instead of heading to the pits I took my 4th row grid assignment. Green flag flies, I’m boxed in. Badly boxed in. Turn two and I’m trying to run around the outside of Rob Nelms on his ex-Erion Honda CBR-900RR. Whee...can’t quite get him, and I settle in behind him. The nose-to-tail snake of riders rounds turn 4 and 5, I glance down the hill as I come off 4, see team leader Graves already with a 6 bike lead. Cool. I also spot my F-40 target man Stephen Hewitt as the 3rd bike in front of me. Looks like he’s 5th and I’m 8th. No worries, I’ve got a fast bike and a long time in this event, or so I think. We accelerate onto the back straight and everyone at the front has a fast bike! This is really neat, until I hit turn 8 and the bars just about rip out of my hands as I’m looking to go around Nelms on the outside! Ahhhh...this isn’t normal behavior and now I know something isn’t right. I stay riders left and signal, making sure I don’t block the guys behind me. Graves Motorsports crew chief Jerry is at the wall, and spots me pulling in. I tell him my story, and he says “Ya, I didn’t think that would work”. While he apologizes two or three times I’m staring out at the track, thinking I could get more track time. The logical side (strangely enough in a Bart Simpson voice) says, “No Way Dude, you can’t ride it fast the way it is now”. And I want to ride it...fast.

Back to the garage. I’m disappointed, yet can’t really complain because I’m really lucky to get to ride their bike, burn up their tires and their fuel. The thought was that hooking up with some fast guys in this long race would really help me get up to competitive sprint speed. Not to mention more of that valuable track time and R-1 experience. Oh well. The bike and I are in one piece, and we have race day to look forward to.

Saturday night I only run a few mental laps. Now knowing what the bike is like makes it much easier than trying to rely on the memory of great open class horsepower and speed from seven years ago! First day reflections including a feeling of a great all-round package of power and handling, but also seeing and feeling first-hand that the R-1 is an extremely “picky” bike when it comes to set-up.

Sunday morning on race day at Willow Springs is bright, clear and calm. Chuck and I briefly coordinate practices...he’ll ride it in F-1 sessions and I’ll ride it in both of the regular Heavyweight practice groups. Overnight the bike has had it’s rear spring replaced with a softer one, and Chuck tells me after his first session on it the damping isn’t matched to the spring rate. Okay Chuck. Off I go half a lap behind the field in my first warm-up. The bike feels pretty darn good today, and on the 2nd lap I realize it’s actually worlds better than my last two laps on it Saturday afternoon. Tires feel great, and the bike has a better balance to it without any of that turn 8 scary feeling nor the front straight dance from yesterday afternoon. The softer spring with stiffer damping is working for me just fine. I’m pinned. I’m rippin, slicin’ and carvin’ big-time through the riders in this session. When some bunch up into turn 3 and start to wander wide, I just push forward on the left grip and the bike banks and I motor up the inside easier than that old proverbial hot knife through butter. I get through one pack only to quickly catch another. Last season’s #2 ranked WSMC F-40 racer David Molitor is in this group. It’s fun to see how the competition looks. Dave looks like he’s being blocked. Why look when you can run? I pass Dave and the hoard of riders in front of him and go find another pack to blow through. Coming to another group, with guys all over the place I back out of it a bit. Super fast guy Jeff Hagen had been catching me, and now goes by and starts carving through the next group. I pull in this time just as the checkered flag comes out, end of session. In the pits Chuck asks how is it. It’s fine, and I’m even better. Huge grin. That was really fun! Chuck seems happier with the rear spring he choose though it can be better for him. He tells me it’s still spinning the tire a bit too much off some of the turns. I can’t ride the thing fast enough for it to matter. It was as perfect for me, at that time of day, as a bike can be. A rare and unique feeling, one that some never find. Wow.

Second warmup session, the WSMC officials at Start-Finish let half the guys out to break up the traffic. Good idea! I go out at the front of the second group...the tires are already warm and I’m feeling good. I run a couple of hard laps before getting close to a huge amount of traffic. I’m working it really hard off the hill (turn 4) and from 8 into 9. I’m getting a little tire spin now. It’s fun! I’m still feeling my corner speed is weak through the slow turns (at Willow that’s three through five) and weak on my entrance into 1 and 3. I catch a group that has one of our Top Rookie Expert guys on a GSX-R750..he finished top 3 last month in some races. I almost rail around turn two on him, but there’s some slow traffic ahead. “Discretion Kenny” I think. Hard to control yourself when the bike makes it sooo easy. I follow through the top of the hill and dispatch him down the back straight. I LOVE THE POWER.

All is well and right with this R-1. WHOA...until mid-turn in turn two the rear steps out. Ah, something new. My throttle control had been pretty good, and it had better be pretty good when you have 142 horses! The bike is feeling a lot looser off of turns 4 and 8, and I decide I’d better pit. The second warm up sessions at WSMC on Sunday are a little longer, and as I report to Chuck what’s happening he says “Well get out there and ride!” He knows I’m pleased as can be, and he’s apparently getting a kick out of seeing me grinning and so happy. But what he doesn’t get is that I think the tire is going away. One of the Graves Race Tires Service guys checks the rear Michelin, and indeed says “The tire is worn out”. Cool. It was probably worn from Chucks fast laps but now I’ve really used it up. I’m completely happy and don’t care if I miss a couple of more practice laps. The bike is great, the tires are great, and I feel pretty good about the world this morning. I want to race, I want to win, the bike is boss and I’m ready now!

Graves tells me he’ll put new tires on the R-1 front and rear. He has one race on it in Open Super Stock in the morning, and my Formula 40 race will be early afternoon. I stroll by a bit later in the day and ask if the bike is ready. Chucks’ mechanic says it’s all the same, and Chuck says “No, it has new tires”. They look at each other and then look at the tires. Uh oh. A few more minutes and Chuck would have been going to the grid on toasted tires for his Super Stock race, so now I’ve created more work for the already busy crew. Just a peek at the behind the scenes stuff going on for you.

Needless to say, Chuck goes out and wins his race and the Yamaha 1st place contingency money with it. R-1s take the first 8 positions.

I spend the next several hours between announcing duties, handling some racer matters, assisting in the data-entry department with a reluctant program, and staff development and payroll duties. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s I would have sat quietly in my pit, perhaps staring at my bike and thinking about going fast. It may have served me well to do a bit more mental imagery before racing the R-1.

Finding I’m gridded on the inside of the 5th row, I’m a little nervous. I’ve told Graves I can win. I felt great in the morning warm-ups. I’m on the 5th row. I know how to get great starts, but haven’t done one on the R-1 yet after getting blocked in yesterday. The F-40 front runners are really fast. They have great equipment and ride them well. I feel pressure! Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve felt this way about a road-race. This is fun and I like it!

Time to go. One more time the bike is wheeled out of the garage for me to ride this weekend. I can get a pretty good “race face”, and the world turns into me, the bike and the track. Riders turn into obstacles more often than not for me. Cool. As I roll to pre-grid I glance at the flags along the front straight at Willow. They’re stranding up now, breeze in a northerly direction. Head wind into two and nine, tail wind into three, cross winds over 6 and on front straight. Mental notes made...I’m at pre-grid only a few seconds when the field is released. Three classes are heading out, F-40 is the first wave to take off, with 550 Superbikes second and Formula Singles third. I wait just a bit so I can get a half-ass practice start out of the pit lane. Wheee...the rocket ship Graves Motorsport R-1 lofts it’s front wheel under power through the first two gears and I get way forward to drive hard onto the track in third gear. During the warm-up lap all is well. Bike feels good. I feel good. We slow coming out of turn nine onto front straight as the 3 fields assemble for the start.

Click into neutral, coast to assigned spot. I avoid looking to see where the front row and my targets are, choosing to concentrate on the starter. I see the lane I’m taking, up the inside past the obstacles to turn one. I will get there ahead of all these guys. Moments later, tick tick BANG. We go, and we go fast. I have a little trouble driving hard in first gear, this thing is short and strong and wants to wheelie. Into second and I’m forward enough on the bike to keep the nose near the ground. Third is sweet, and I’m almost past the entire field. Catching 4th gear and blasting past rest of the front row save one, I move from left side of track to right setting up for turn one, and low and behold, the mental image from last week is in front of me. I’m behind the current king of F-40 Stephen Hewitt, who has holeshot from the front row, and I’m in second. The plan is working. Until we get to turn two! The May F-40 winner sweeps past outside of me on his RS250 GP bike, and then blocks me out of two into three. I think, okay, time to let things develop, stay close and work hard. That’s fine until we hit the front straight the first time...the dreaded dance from yesterday afternoon is back. Unlike the morning warm-ups I can’t hold the R-1 wide open anymore. Off the start I was Kenny the Slayer, but now Kenny the Meek from yesterday had returned. A rumbling Ducati 996 blows past me in turn one. I stay close for rest of the lap until we get back around turn nine, and the bike shakes and shimmies all the way past the starting line. I get passed again in turn one. Riding hard, staying close again, this time until we get to turn six, where now I find another weakness in my riding. Ah well. I watch the battle at the front for a lap or two when I’m still close, as the yellow R-1 leads the RS250, with the charging red Ducati 996 closing and taking over 2nd. The green Kawasaki Superbike has demoted me to 5th, and he smokes me repeatedly through turn six. I try hard, I try to overcome my fears, but that stupid little voice says “Relax, don’t worry...keep going as best you can. Relax, don’t worry...”. Ya right. The little voice didn’t tell the bike owner he could win. I’m not even going to trophy. I’m wondering how close the other guys are, but the R-1 runs so hard, and is dancing on the straights so bad I can’t look back. We work through some traffic from the classes that started behind us. I had cleared away from the other 12 riders to start the F-40 race, and ran the last couple of laps all alone save for the traffic. And as quickly as it started the race was over.

My guest ride on the Graves Motorsports Yamaha R-1 was full of mixed emotions. My observations are that the R-1 is phenomenal, when conditions and bike set-up are carefully matched. When they’re not the bike can be, dare I say, evil. I didn’t want to ride it Saturday with the mismatched tires, but Sunday morning was about as good as it gets from my experience. Come race time, different conditions, and admittedly with a rider who isn’t “up to speed” and only had a few sessions on the machine, we couldn’t race at the front. The bike is a proven winner in club competition. The first couple of laps, despite my “tentativeness” in applying the throttle in several key areas, I lost very little time to the leaders. Some of my racing friends said I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Remember, they said, that maybe it helped the leaders to race almost every month? Okay, I’ll remember but that doesn’t make me happy to be 5th. It was nice to hear many riders welcome me back to competition, and several of the riders who’ve only been here a couple of years at Willow said “Gee, I didn’t know you were that fast”. I wasn’t. It really was the bike, and it really was easy in practice! Racing to win though, is never easy. Even with the best equipment it takes a complete combination.

Two days after the race, I was still thinking of things I could have done to try and better my performance. I’ve got some ideas and I’ll save those thoughts as after it was all over, Chuck said “Don’t worry, we’ll do it again”. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for another opportunity. I had a absolute blast in my first ride on the Yamaha R-1 and in Formula 40 racing. Ask me again and I’ll tell you “Yes, I can win with that bike”, and I never did shift wrong...only backwards!


(Note for editor: Kopecky is a twenty one-time Willow Springs club racing Class Champion with over 135 expert class roadrace wins and 450 top 3 'podium' results, and started competing in roadracing in October of 1982. He’s ridden AMA Superbike Nationals and Endurance National Championship races, and been on the podium at both AMA and WERA Nationals (Endurance racing). He ran the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club program from 1992 to 2003, and now lives with his wife Dana in San Diego, CA. In 2005 he won over 40 races and the Overall Track Championship #1 title at Willow Springs)

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