Photography by Mark Wernham
Picture this: You’re 28 years old. You began roadracing seven years ago, just months after learning to ride a motorcycle. You’ve made steady progress through the club ranks and now compete in AMA Pro Daytona SportBike. Your best finish to date in a national is 15th.
Here’s the kicker: You’re married to two-time AMA Pro American SuperBike Champion Josh Hayes. And when your husband is invited to test ride Colin Edwards’ Tech 3 Yamaha YZR-M1 after November’s MotoGP season finale at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit near Valencia, Spain, Tech 3 principal Hervé Poncheral agrees to give you—yes, you—a few laps on one of his 600cc Moto2 machines.
So generous, right?
That’s exactly what Melissa Paris was thinking. So, Mr. and Mrs. Hayes booked flights, reserved a swank hotel room and packed their duffels. Then, Japan phoned. Higher-ups wanted to know why Paris was going to ride a Moto2 bike—they have Honda engines! Put her on Edwards’ MotoGP bike, they said.
Paris was actually disappointed. “I’d been dying for the opportunity to ride a Moto2 bike for a long time,” she said. “It seemed more…realistic.”
Hayes’ plans changed, too. When Edwards was injured in a crash at the penultimate round of the series in Malaysia that claimed the life of 24-year-old Marco Simoncelli, Hayes was drafted as a last-minute—actually, last-second—replacement for the Texan at Valencia. Against all odds, he finished a remarkable seventh in his MotoGP debut.
As usual, Paris watched from the sidelines. “In the U.S., it’s a lot easier to be a fly on the wall when Josh is debriefing with the team,” she said. “At Valencia, there were eight people crowded around him. It was so intense.”
Of course, racing doesn’t stop with the checkered flag. On Monday, the Tech 3 crew spent the entire day building 1000cc 2012 versions of the prototype M1 for MotoGP Rookie of the Year Cal Crutchlow and his new teammate, ex-Honda man Andrea Dovizioso, to test on Tuesday. Hayes said, “It was more tense in the pit box on Tuesday than the entire race weekend.”
Hayes expected to get more laps on the now-mothballed 800, but because the team was so busy, that plan was scrubbed. Paris “was worried that something might come up and I wouldn’t get to ride.” There were other concerns, as well. Last year, she’d tested Hayes’ title-winning YZF-R1 and wasn’t interested in reliving the experience. “Josh’s SuperBike wanted me off,” she said. “Every time I tried to open the throttle, the thing would headshake violently.”
Paris cut her racing teeth on Grand Prix machinery—stiff, purpose-built Honda RS125s and 250s. Production bikes, like her YZF-R6, feel “squishy” in comparison. “One of Josh’s complaints about the M1 is that he’s used to the R1 pitching back-and-forth,” she said. “I don’t like that.
“I work with Thermosman [Mike Fitzgerald] on my suspension. Sometimes, when I’m trying to describe the feeling I want from the bike, I tell him, ‘I want to feel the racetrack in my teeth.’ You get a lot more of that on a GP bike.”
Even though weather conditions were ideal and the track was completely dry, Paris assumed the M1 would be fitted with rain-spec steel brake discs, not the ominous-looking, matte-gray carbon-carbon Brembos that are exclusive to MotoGP.
“I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for that,” she admitted. “I said to Josh, ‘What am I supposed to do?!’ He said, ‘You know how to ride a motorcycle. Go easy for a lap or two. You’ll see.’”
Paris got similar advice about the equally unfamiliar class-spec slicks from a Bridgestone engineer. “He told me, ‘Give the tire a minute to warm up, especially in the first right-hander. Once you get going, keep going. Don’t let the tire cool off.”
Before setting off down pit lane, Paris turned to one of the crew. “How long can I go?” she asked.
“There’s enough fuel to do a whole race,” he replied. “So, have at it!”
Paris barely knew the track, but the 5-foot-5 Californian felt physically comfortable on the bike. “The M1 is really narrow and so flat,” she said. “On a SuperBike or a Supersport bike, the seat is high and all of your weight is over the front end; the M1 is much more neutral. Also, my legs were less cramped than on my R6. I guess it was designed for someone my size!”
Now, it was Hayes’ turn to watch. “Cal and I were sitting on the wall along the front straight,” he recalled. “On her first lap, Melissa came by and we couldn’t even see her behind the bubble; she’s so small and tucks in so well.”
Hayes turned to Crutchlow and said, “I hope she shuts off sooner than I did. Otherwise, I’m going to look bad!”
After nearly a dozen laps, Paris pitted. “I thought I would let my brain decompress a bit. So, I came in, sat down for a minute, then went back out and did 10 more laps. When they gave me the ‘In’ board, I briefly considered pretending that I hadn’t seen it, but I realized that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”
No surprise, the M1 is a bullet. “Josh warned me, ‘You’ll see the shift light, and as soon as you shift, it will be time to do it again.’ The front wheel comes up, you grab a gear. The front wheel comes up, you grab another gear.
“On a 600, you come on the front straight, put the throttle straight to the stop, stretch your legs, take a couple deep breaths and think an errant thought or two. There’s no time for that with the M1.
“The thing has so much power. It just pulls the front wheel off the ground. Without the electronics, the bike would be unrideable.”
Paris had never piloted a motorcycle equipped with traction control, so, just as she’d been told to do with the brakes and tires, she toed the digital waters cautiously. “I definitely wasn’t putting the thing on the stop at full lean!” Still, she says the M1 was much friendlier than her husband’s SuperBike. “It wants to be ridden.”
About the brakes: When they’re cold, Paris says, they simply don’t work. “Cal said, ‘If you go into a corner and you don’t have any brakes, don’t just keep squeezing the lever. You need to let go and grab ’em again.’
“What’s crazy is how well the brakes work when they come up to temperature. I’m still not sure if I fully comprehend how good they are.
“There’s such a different sensation at the lever than what I’m used to. Usually, if you squeeze the lever harder, it comes back closer to the handlebar. With the M1, the lever never moves; it’s just the pressure you put on it. It’s so impressive.”
Paris knows full well that a few laps on a MotoGP bike won’t do much for her racing career, but it has inspired her to push even harder to achieve her goal of competing in Moto2.
“The best thing I can do is get back to work on the 600—hone my skills and learn to ride it the way I rode my 250.
“If you let someone have a taste of what they could get if they work hard enough, it can be a good motivator. If you want something bad enough, who knows, it might actually happen.
“That’s the American dream, right?”