The old Formula USA Series, a run-what-you-brung roadracing championship that started out as a Willow Springs Raceway club series and then went national under the WERA Pro Series banner, brought out some of the most unusual roadracing bikes ever.
So unusual were they that A lot of these racebikes had names. There was the Terminator, a pumped-up 1986 Kawasaki Ninja ZX1000 campaigned by early F-USA champ Earl Roloff; Yoshimura Suzuki’s Big Papa ridden by Scott Gray and Valvoline Suzuki’s Methanol Monster, ridden primarily by Kurt Hall, to name a few. Rich Oliver and Robbie Petersen even raced factory Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha YZR500 Grand Prix bikes in the series. There were turbocharged bikes, punched-out 250 Grand Prix machines and Doug Polen once even rolled up to a race with a Suzuki that burned methane (which was promptly banned).
Perhaps one of the most unique examples of creative modifications used in an attempt to build a competitive F-USA bike was Cycle World’s own Don Canet. Long before he began working as a motorcycle journalist, he was a privateer struggling to make it at the national level. Canet ran what racers of the era called a Suzuki GSX-R 7-11 – a GSX-R750 chassis with an 1100cc stuffed into the frame. That’s not what made the bike unusual, though. No, what made Canet’s fairly stock-looking Gixxer a real sleeper was the fact that hidden under the fairing, tucked away where the battery normally was, were a pair of custom-designed two-and-a-half pound tanks of nitrous oxide. Canet could activate the nitrous with the touch of the Suzuki’s horn button. A push of that magic nitrous button turned the already-fast Suzuki into a raging beast easily capable of lofting the front wheel skyward in fifth gear at 130 mph.
Canet was coming off of a successful 1989 F-USA season where he finished fourth in the final standings with his pre-nitrous Suzuki. In 1990, he picked up sponsorship from NOS and added the nitrous system, which featured the high-capacity twin canisters.
“I didn’t have the budget to build a 1000cc Superbike, so I added the nitrous and had a poor man’s F-USA bike,” Canet recalls. “The general approach was to have a pretty stock 1100 that would let the nitrous do the talking.”
Turns out the biggest problem for Canet was keeping his finger off the magic power button.
“Even with the big twin canisters, the thing probably had 60 seconds of juice,” Canet explained. “The plan was to hit the button when I was at the back of a draft line or something like that and shoot to the front. But what ended up happening was I’d come up on a couple of riders, hit the juice, pass them, and then see another rider 10 bike lengths ahead, so I’d just keep my finger on the button to pass him too. Before I knew it, I was out of juice.
“It worked okay for short six-lap qualifying heat races, but in the finals it was just too tempting to keep hitting the button and I’d be out of nitrous with a lot of laps to go.”
Another interesting item Canet used on his nitrous Suzuki was an early electronic shifter. “When I’d hit that shifter it would shut off the engine for just a split second and then when it fired again a big four-foot flame would shoot out of the tailpipe.”
Fellow F-USA competitor Barry Burke got a major scare at Heartland Park Topeka when he was drafting inches behind Canet. When Canet hit the auto-shifter Burke suddenly got a visor full of fire from Canet’s flamethrower!
While the nitrous Suzuki F-USA bike ultimately was considered a spectacular failed experiment, it made for one of the most entertaining bikes to watch from the fans’ perspective. In practice sessions, Canet says the magic button made the bike almost too much fun to ride. He thrilled spectators with his 100-mph-plus power-wheelies, all of this from a bike that from outward appearances looked like nothing more than a Supersport machine.
The nitrous racer also served as Canet’s entrée into motorcycle journalism. At first, he did product evaluation for parts he’d use on the bike, and then an article in Roadracing World relating the experience of crashing at 160 mph at Road Atlanta’s infamous Gravity Cavity. It showed that Canet had real talent as a writer as well as a rider, and, shortly afterward, he was hired by Cycle World.
Dale Quarterley remembers Canet’s crash as one of the most spectacular he’d ever seen, not just for Don highsiding at 160 mph, but but also for watching the explosion of the nitrous bottles as the bike self destructed before blasting into the abutment of Nissan Bridge.
Canet’s sleeper nitrous Suzuki was just one of the great motorcycles that made that era of Formula USA racing such a fun time. For riders and spectators. Just ask Don…
–Larry Lawrence, The Rider Files