PEAK PERFORMANCE: Project 156

It's man versus mountain as Don Canet tackles Pikes Peak on a custom-built Victory, the Project 156.

Victory-RSD Project 156 motorcycle studio right-side view

While seated on a flat slab of granite I caught my breath and gathered my thoughts. Looming 1,000 feet above the barren landscape around me, Pikes Peak's 14,110-foot summit and our finish line were a mere 2 miles farther up the road. My heart was still racing even though our bid for the finish had come to a somber halt when the Victory Project 156 prototype V-twin racer hesitated under full throttle and then fell silent. After a few desperate seconds working the throttle in hope that the engine would relight, I pulled in the clutch and coasted to a stop where the bike now leaned against a roadside snow pole.

I sat alone—aside from fellow competitors blasting past at 45-second intervals—and reflected on how much Victory, Roland Sands Design, and the rest of the team had achieved in the five months since Project 156 (named for the number of turns on Pikes Peak) was conceived. The disappointment of this DNF was trumped by the pride I felt in having played an active part in a meaningful collaborative effort with an American motorcycle company that wanted to go racing.

An enthusiastic group of young Victory engineers worked mostly on their own time in this after-hours skunk-works project—code named Speedball—to create the liquid-cooled 1,300cc (or so) 60-degree V-twin wrapped in a custom-built Roland Sands Design frame.

I've tested thousands of production-based motorcycles in my 25 years at Cycle World, but filling the role as the development rider for Project 156 was an entirely new experience of a very different magnitude. Witnessing the project evolve from rough design sketch to detailed CAD drawings to ultimately taking metal and carbon-fiber form was inspiring, insightful, and just plain awesome. Also, it was amazing to have a motorcycle spring from nothing but an idea so quickly. Many race teams would balk at the notion of prepping a mass-production superbike for such an effort in the same period of time.

Massive amounts of planning went into the project, but as is the case in racing, things don’t always go to plan. Back in May, Victory reserved Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Southern California for two solid days of initial engine/chassis shakedown. The prototype engine had already undergone countless hours of running on an engine dyno at Victory’s Minnesota facility, but this was the first time Project 156 had rubber meet road.

Unfortunately, build problems, compounded by a very tight time line, meant the bike wasn’t ready to test on the first day. One interesting issue revealed in the latest hour was simply starting the beast! With a 15.0:1 compression ratio, the engine won the arm-wrestling match versus the starter rollers positioned under the rear tire—it would not bump-start, even in top gear. The creative solution was installing the starter motor in the engine, with a high-current connector plugged into an external pair of car batteries wired in series for a 24-volt, high-amperage jolt. Clear!

Project 156 engine internal view

CP pistons and Carrillo rods reside at the heart of Victory’s prototype twin.

The excitement in the garage when the bike thundered to life the first time was amazing. Roland Sands himself was there with his internal Project 156 lead, Cameron Brewer, to roll the bike onto the track for the first time. Sands did a few shakedown laps since it was his baby and, after he was satisfied it was a trackworthy bike, handed it over to me. I was glad to find the chassis stable and that suspension was in the ballpark, but throttle response was rough, and it demanded quite a bit of work to get around the track.

In the end, I got all of about 15 familiarization laps of the 1.8-mile circuit prior to showing up at Pikes Peak for the first of two sanctioned test weekends in early June.

Racing up Pikes Peak on a fully developed bike presents an infinite number of unique challenges, and while the monumental task of sorting out an unproven machine at this dangerous venue was frightening, the regret of passing on such an opportunity scared me far more.

Mountain logistics and bike maintenance were handled by the Falkner/Livingston/AF1 Racing crew. I'd benefitted from this team's experience and support in my podium effort on a Ducati Multistrada last year and was glad to have them with us as we zeroed in this prototype machine. They were truly the atomic bonds that held us all together.

Project 156 practice run

And at Pikes Peak, you need all the help you can get. Still, once you’re on the bike and on the course, the challenges are personal.

Topping my list of these is the very limited amount of actual wheels-on-the-road testing available on the mountain. Practice days run from daybreak until 8:30 a.m., ending prior to the road opening to the public. With race cars and bikes sharing the hill, the course is divided into a section for each group. This means that the only time competitors get to run the entire 12.42-mile course is on race day. Making matters worse this year, the top half of the mountain road remained closed during the pre-event test weekends due to record snowfall during the previous month.

Add to this the challenges faced in establishing a workable fuel calibration map and set of altitude-specific trim tables for the 9,000- to 14,000-foot course elevation change. Our MoTeC man was busy! After every practice run the laptop was plugged into the bike’s ECU to retrieve data for analysis; then a revised map was uploaded prior to the next run. This process continued right up to race day as adjustment to ride-by-wire on-throttle response, engine-braking control, and quickshift function saw incremental improvement every time we ran the bike.

It was a rough first practice weekend on the mountain as I struggled to keep the engine running entering tight hairpin turns, and we lost precious track time due to a persistent radiator leak. Chilling rain and snow foiled our third day on the mountain when I joined the half-dozen professional car drivers at an exclusive Friday-morning session leading into the second test weekend.

The following morning saw clear skies and an engine that was running strong for the very first time. I had been thinking about the chassis and suspension as we worked out fundamental fueling issues but hadn’t been able to push the bike. Now that the engine ran well, it was time to step it up if we were going to learn where the bike stood on the handling front. This leads to another significant challenge of racing Pikes Peak and perhaps one of the biggest: Unlike a closed circuit where you incrementally increase speed lap after lap or focus on a particular problem area as you see the same turns every two minutes or so, here you might get a total of two to six runs during a practice session.

So when I finally got my chance to make a real run, I did. And in hindsight it’s easy to suggest I took too big a bite on my second flyer of the morning, resulting in the crash that all but totally destroyed Project 156. What I found was that I was not only exploring the limits of a new bike but the cold-grip properties of the Dunlop GP-A Pro supersport race tires. Road-surface temperature that morning was an estimated 25 degrees Fahrenheit at the upper end of the practice section, and although my crew’s routine included fitting tire warmers during downtime between each run, the heat was actually being sucked out of the rubber as I ripped up the mountain.

In a heart-stopping instant I lost front grip under braking on the 100-mph approach to a second-gear hairpin and went down. The bike slammed into a guardrail and resulted in what appeared to be terminal damage. I was lucky to slide up the road on the correct side of the guardrail and with no injury. When I ran back to look at Project 156, I feared we were finished.

But the wreckage was retrieved and loaded into a team van with Paul and Becca Livingston driving day and night to deliver the bike to the RSD compound in Southern California first thing Monday morning. I was present for the damage assessment: headshaking and doubt from all concerned. There was just seven days to race week, and RSD was stacked with other commitments in its shop. And it seemed like everything on the bike was damaged.

But Sands and Brewer are racers who don’t know quit. By midafternoon the bike was in the care of Dr. John’s Motorcycle Frame Straightening in nearby Anaheim with an encouraging prognosis. In amazingly short order, the frame, triple clamp, and front axle were massaged back to arrow-straight condition. Brewer, along with Aaron Boss and Scott Dimick, put in 80 man-hours each to get the bike in order. Meanwhile at Polaris, the call went in to expedite a second engine. What’s sleep?!

Everyone was amazed the bike rolled through tech the following Monday looking little worse for wear. Handling proved stable and true when I took to the mountain the next morning for the first of four practice days leading up to the race. My crew revised the tire-warming routine, checking tread temp with an IR thermal gun rather than trusting the temperature-setting control built into the warmers, and we played with lower-than-standard pressures. This, along with much improved late-June weather, bolstered my confidence.

Project 156 in the staging area

As a reminder of the grim consequences of racing on Pikes Peak, Thursday morning practice ended tragically when Carl Sorensen, a local club racer and Pikes Peak veteran, plummeted off the road near the summit. While the cause of the fatal accident has not been disclosed, the final 1.5 miles of road surface is riddled with frost heaves, depressions, and pavement patchwork due to severe winter climate. The hair-raising stretch is another of the many challenges.

Friday brought added focus, as each rider’s quickest run up the 5-mile bottom section served as qualifying to set the race run order within each class. We were in the Exhibition/UTV class, a sort of catch-all category for bikes and quads that don’t fit elsewhere. My third and final run was our best, placing us first in class by a wide margin and fourth quickest of the 66 motorcycle entries.

So mounts another Pikes Peak dilemma: Do I take it easy and secure the class victory or race the mountain? The answer was clear: We had come to race Project 156. The team made great strides since that first weekend at Pikes, and we now had sights set on posting a top-three overall time. The only added prize to be gained was that of personal pride and perseverance.

Throughout the week the trust and feel for the bike was reflected in quicker times with each and every run up each section. The race was no different as I set what would be the second-quickest bottom sector time of the day. The run was going to plan, and I was hitting my marks and keeping the big twin on the boil. Getting the very most of this road requires venturing outside the paint lines and using available pavement. In another Pikes pitfall, the grip on the paint varies greatly from one corner to another. I was bit by Brown Bush hairpin and tucked the front at 22 mph crossing the white line at the corner’s apex.

Project 156 leaving the starting line
Project 156 race day action.

I managed to keep my right hand on the throttle throughout the low-side spill, knowing full well that stalling the engine would put an end to our day. The radiator crash slider and folding footpeg served their purpose, and Project 156 was undamaged. I picked up the bike, took a deep breath, and then clicked it back into first gear to resume the race to the finish.

I lost a total of 23 seconds to the tip-over, and the official time sheet shows we were eight seconds ahead in class and pulling away as I entered the final sector at Devil’s Playground. But as an old adage goes, “To finish first you must first finish.” In the end, Mother Nature and the extended high-speed run at high elevation caused fuel vapor lock that stopped us short of the finish. So near yet so far.

As I sat on the rock overlooking the breathtaking beauty laid before me, I felt no regret and realized it simply wasn’t meant to be for this man, machine, and team to achieve our lofty goal on America’s mountain course.

As another worn saying goes, “There’s always next year.” Which happens to be the 100th anniversary of America’s second oldest race…

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Project 156 practice run.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 practice run.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 practice run.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 practice run.Randels Media Group

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Don Canet.Randels Media Group

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Morning prep.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 staging area.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 and Don Canet ready at the starting line.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Jeff Allen

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Project 156 race day action.Jeff Allen

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Project 156 race day action.Jeff Allen

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 race day action.Randels Media Group

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Project 156 studio view.Ackerman + Gruber

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Project 156 studio view.Ackerman + Gruber

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CAD drawings of early frame concept.Roland Sands Design

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CP pistons and Carrillo rods reside at the heart of Victory?s prototype twin.Jeff Allen

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3-D printed cylinders and heads allowed RSD to fabricate the frame, exhaust, and other key components while awaiting delivery of a complete Speedball engine. The aluminum ?tank? is actually a mock-up for the carbon-fiber airbox with K&N; cowl induction.Jeff Allen

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Project 156 air intake detail.Jeff Allen

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Project 156 instrumentation detail.Jeff Allen

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Project 156 badges.Jeff Allen