IENATSCH TUESDAY: Control Surfaces

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a difference.

Nick’s Note: Brian Smith spent decades doing track days in Porsches but recently saw the two-wheeled light. At the age of 58 he returned to the track on a Ducati 996, and “some drama” led to a realization of “the importance of everything” in our world. Here he writes about the human/machine interface.

Brian Smith on-track action

Brian Smith in action at NJMP “riding somebody else’s motorcycle” in leathers and a helmet that didn’t fit. Drama in his very near future caused him to step back and examine everything about his two-wheeled addiction. (Photo by thesbimage.com)

The definition of "Control Surfaces" includes references to flight, audio, and fluid dynamics. I suppose when it comes to motorcycles, the flight definition has the closest meaning. It says that the control surfaces allow the pilot to adjust and control the aircraft's flight attitude and there are quite a few similarities when it comes to controlling the attitude of a motorcycle if you really think about it. Funny that it took me nearly 50 years of riding and a lifetime of motorsports to "think about it!"

To give a perspective, in 2008 my youngest son (who was 22 at the time) decided to get into bikes. I remember the call when he asked me to look at a Sportster he wanted to purchase. There was instant horror thinking of my boy street riding on that behemoth and so I made a deal with him: if he wanted me to condone him riding bikes, he would allow me to instruct him. He agreed and so together we purchased two new Husky SM610s. I wanted to spend time in the dirt with him so that he would get an understanding of what’s going on with the front end with limited consequence. This took us both on a motorcycling odyssey over the last eight years that continues to evolve.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the influence of lifelong friend Nick Ienatsch. A large part of the odyssey was the coincidence of Nick’s school, YCRS, setting up shop at New Jersey Motorsports Park, a mere 50 miles from my house. It started innocently enough with my friend inviting us down to “observe” the school. It took all of ten minutes and we were hooked, completely fascinated by the modern riding techniques and the use of body position. After a couple of schools we had fully bought into the teachings and have spent every ride since, both street and dirt as well as track, consciously applying those skills.

This, as a matter of course, led to the desire to do some track days. Nick introduced us to the guys who formed N2, a regional track day program run by a great group of folks, and so we joined. Other than YCRS, I hadn’t been on a bike at a track since my WERA days in the late 1970s. Ah, there have been a couple of changes, I came to find out!

I really didn't want to take my new Ducati Multistrada on the track, although it is certainly capable, so I started looking for a dedicated track bike. It wasn't long before I found a 996 Ducati that fit the bill quite nicely. It was in good shape and just needed a full service to bring it up to snuff. I bought a set of leathers and boom, I'm ready for the track. (Meanwhile, my youngest son Jordan bought an 848 that would do double duty on the street and track.)

It was great getting going and up to speed. The N2 control riders were super helpful, very supportive and in a few events I had graduated from Novice to Intermediate and eventually up to the Advanced Group. All was going well and then it happened. In a second gear left hander, late in the day, I tucked the front and low sided. No real drama for me physically as I just slid to a stop in the grass. I stood and gave thumbs up to the corner worker, walked over to pick up the bike thinking I would simply continue on and looked down to see both handlebars had snapped off and were just dangling by the hoses. The marshalls came and loaded it and me onto a trailer and took me back to my pit. There I had a chance to see how banged up it was and then disappointment began to overcome adrenaline and the "why" questions started.

Why did the tire give out, why was I going so fast there, why didn't I feel it going away and save it, why am I doing this at my age, why am I here, why, why, why? Anyone who has done this knows exactly how I felt and can fill in a few whys of their own. When you question yourself to that point all sorts of crazy "I quit" feelings start to creep in and so you sulk around for a bit.

I got the thing home (see, I'm so pissed that I'm calling it "thing") and didn't have much motivation to fix it right away. A month or so passed and I was still street and dirt riding but wasn't ready for a track day again. At one point I thought, "no more track days, I'll just fix it and sell it." Thankfully, everyone mentioned earlier in this article began encouraging me to get back in the saddle. I got her up on the bench, stripped the nasty stuff off, wiped her down and ordered some parts.

The first things to show up were bars, grips and master cylinders. I began the rebuild there. I worked a few hours a night and was very careful with my fabrications. I would install a piece and then sit on the bike to feel its position, get off, make an adjustment and repeat. This went on for five nights. I finally got the bars, grips, cylinders and levers exactly where I wanted them.

Ducati 996 rebuild by Brian Smith

Rebuild almost done and this time the bike belongs to Brian. (Photo by Brian Smith)

The next day I was thinking about how long it took to get that aspect of the riding position just right and began to wonder why I hadn’t taken any time prior to the tip-over to make those adjustments? Yes, I moved the levers a bit to work for my wrists, but that was easy stuff. The bar positions I arrived at during the rebuild were totally different than the ones originally on the bike. The adjustments are infinite, yet I never thought to change them. I was riding a bike, on a racetrack, that was set up for someone else!

Vortex rearset on an R1
rear-brake-pedal on a stock FZ1

The photo on the top is a Vortex rearset on an R1. Note the threaded holes on the backing plate that allow multiple positions vertically and horizontally. On the bottom, a 12mm wrench quickly changes the rear-brake-pedal height on a stock FZ1 (remember to adjust the brake-light actuator as well). These are two examples of adjustable control surfaces that custom-fit the bike to the rider.

I remember the entire class at YCRS being asked what the definition of insanity was and the instructor's answer being, "making the same mistake over and over and expecting a different result." It was then I realized I must be insane because I've been making this mistake for a while now, but seriously, I realized how important this area of the bike was, these, these, these control surfaces!

I started replaying the crash over in my head to determine the exact reason it happened. I thought long and hard and I concluded that it wasn't a single thing, it was "everything." Everything about a motorcycle from the grips to the axle nuts, from the top of your helmet to the tips of your boots is a control surface. Your physical condition, your mental disposition on a track day all control the attitude of the bike. From that moment on, I was on a mission to eliminate any and all potential "control surface" reasons for that or any other crash. I planned to make all of the control surfaces work properly for me.

The handlebars were only the tip of the iceberg. Foot controls, suspension setup, seating position, tire choices, these are the obvious control surfaces, the ones you hear about often but are they really working for you? Is the shifter for a middle-aged person with a size 12 boot the same as for a younger person with a size eight? I think not.

hand position on a brake lever
second hand position on a brake lever

We see the brake-lever position on the top all too often: A lever that is too high, causing a sharp bend in the wrist, plus an awkward, upward time-consuming reach of the fingers. On the bottom, note how the forearm and finger angle are quite similar. It’s much more comfortable as well. A too-low brake lever (and clutch lever) hurts hard-braking performance as the wrists are so high that the rider can’t load their arms/palms of the hands with heavy braking force.

Gather all the info you can about components and then choose what works. The leathers I was wearing that fateful day were at least one size too large for me. Did they contribute? Possibly. I found the answer on the first day out after my rebuild as I was wearing the same leathers. On the front straight, at speed, they would flap. This shook my body, which shook my head, which shook my eyes creating temporary blindness. Did I pull in and try to fix them? No, I kept going so I could collect those valuable “track day points!” Insanity! Suffice it to say that was the last day for those flapping skins. I spent the better part of a day at Revzilla getting fitted for a set that feel like a part of me. Oh and while there I discovered that I’m not a large Arai, I wear a medium, control surfaces! Your body, what you wear and how it fits all have the potential to change the attitude of your aircraft. For Pete’s sake, get it right!

We were tying the bikes down in the trailer to go to the track. I can tie a bike down, been doing it for years. Someone told me to use this nylon ribbon thing that goes across from grip to grip, then hook to the loops and pull it down. Wow, it did pull it down and when we got to track and we released the straps, we found the grips we spent a night positioning and safety wiring were twisted and catawampus, previously I would go out with those kind of issues, but not anymore. Control Surface, you bet!

Why do we do that, hold a bike down by the bars? It smashes the grips and throttle barrel, it needlessly stresses the fork springs and tire, why? There is a fastening system called PitBull that secures your bike to the floor of the trailer or pickup by pinning it through the hollow rear axle. Zero stress on any control surface, ingenious.

Do you wear glasses? Do they fit nicely in your helmet? Do they fog up? Do you wear contacts? Do they stay moist when you ride? All questions you need to ask yourself before you throw the leg over the seat. What do you eat prior to a street ride or track-day run? Are you properly hydrated? Question everything from the safety wire to oil life to the number of heat cycles on your tires. Everything is in play when it comes to keeping the shiny side up.

Please understand that this doesn’t cover all of the reasons for laying it down. Nothing does, but if you can eliminate one reason by thinking it through, it’s worth it. My butt and wallet have paid the price for compromised control surfaces and I hope my experience helps your next ride.

Ducati Paul Smart Replica static side view

Nick’s Addendum: Brian rebuilt his 996, enjoyed it tremendously and has taken the dive into AHRMA racing with a Moto Corse Performance Ducati Paul Smart Replica. And the first thing builder Chris Boy had Brian do? Visit Florida for a complete fitment of all Control Surfaces. (Photo by Moto Corse Performance)

More Next Tuesday!

Photo #1

Brian Smith in action at NJMP.thesbimage.com

Photo #2

Rebuild almost done and this time the bike belongs to Brian.Brian Smith

Photo #3

Vortex rearset on an R1.Nick Ienatsch

Photo #4

A 12mm wrench quickly changes the rear-brake-pedal height on a stock FZ1.Nick Ienatsch

Photo #5

A lever that is too high, causing a sharp bend in the wrist.Nick Ienatsch

Photo #6

Note how the forearm and finger angle are quite similar. It?s much more comfortable as well.Nick Ienatsch

Photo #7

Moto Corse Performance Ducati Paul Smart Replica.Moto Corse Performance