This Honda CBR600RR Daytona 200 Winner Would Smoke 750s

Riding Jake Zemke's race-winning factory mini-Superbike at then-new Miller Motorsports Park

honda cbr600rr static 3/4 view
Jake Zemke's Honda CBR600RRKevin Wing

This article was originally published in the July 2006 issue of Cycle World magazine.

I shouldn't be here, I chided myself. I am middle-aged. I have graying hair and a bad back. I don't even hold a racing license. All the same, there I was, straddling Jake Zemke's Daytona 200-winning Honda CBR600RR, gripping the low handlebars, squeezing the brake and clutch levers, listening to the raspy exhaust note, waiting for the go-ahead to venture onto the track.

“Here” is the spectacular new Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City, Utah. I, along with a half-dozen other journalists, would have three four-lap sessions around the tricky 2.2-mile west loop from which to draw my impressions of Zemke’s and teammate Miguel Duhamel’s Formula Xtreme-spec CBRs.

These events usually take place at the end of the racing season. In this case, the situation was reversed because the 200 was a one-off appearance for both riders; from round two on, they will concentrate on the Superbike class.

That Zemke won Daytona was not unexpected. Last year, Duhamel, Erion Racing’s Kurtis Roberts and Zemke ran pretty much nose-to-tail for the entire race, lapping up to fourth place in the process. The rest of the season, the factory Hondas were the class of the (admittedly shallow) field, with Duhamel once again taking the title over two-time runner-up Zemke, albeit on the last lap of the last round of the series.

honda cbr600rr on track action
Miguel Duhamel's Honda CBR600RR was set up differently than Jake's Zemke's Daytona 200 winner, with a narrower riding position and more aggressive steering geometry.Kevin Wing

Unlike last March, this time around, Honda had competition. Yamaha had pegged the 200 to showcase its brand-new YZF-R6, Jason DiSalvo and Eric Bostrom at the controls. Not wanting to be outgunned, Honda went in search of more power, knowing full well that reliability and fuel mileage—must-haves for success at Daytona—were potential pitfalls. So great was the concern that the engines' final state of tune was not decided until the week before the race.

A freak snowstorm on the morning of our planned test put everything on hold. The upside was face time with Zemke, Road Race Team Manager Ron Heben, Team Coordinator Ray Plumb and chassis tech Rick Boyles, as well as a look around the track.

MMP is the brainchild of Salt Lake City businessman Larry Miller. The 63-year-old father of five got his start behind the counter of an auto-parts store, worked his way through management and eventually amassed a string of car dealerships. He also owns three sports teams—the Utah Jazz, the Salt Lake Bees and the Salt Lake Golden Eagles—a television station and a movieplex, among other ventures.

Miller’s passion is Ford GT40s and Shelby Mustangs. He originally saw MMP as a playground for himself and his vintage-car-racing buddies. Now, just one year after breaking ground, what was originally envisioned as a $5 million outlay is fast approaching $80 million with four configurations, 22 GP-style garages, a separate kart/supermoto track, a museum, an upscale membership-only clubhouse, 100 acres of public parking, the list goes on. Miller’s intentions are clear: to build the best racetrack in America.

honda cbr600rr engine details
A 600 that smokes 750s? MoTec ECU manages fuel-injection, ignition and data acquisition. Rear suspension is a mix of stock and HRC kit parts.Kevin Wing

Safety was a priority from the get-go. Freddie Spencer, who will base his High-Performance Riding School at MMP during the summer months, has called Turn 1, which comes at the end of the 3500-foot-long front straight, the “safest corner in America.” Designer Alan Wilson, who also penned Barber Motorsports Park and two dozen other tracks worldwide, had at his disposal 511 acres, three and a half times the size of Disneyland. “Larry told me to do whatever I wanted,” he said, grinning broadly. “I am living my dream.”

Much the same can be said of Zemke. The 30-year-old Californian clearly knows his business on-track and is welcoming off it. While he considers the 200 win old news (“I’ll probably appreciate it more when I’m retired”), the ex-dirt-tracker was more than willing to discuss the ins and outs of his FX machine, which, for all intents and purposes, is a 600cc Superbike.

With Plumb and Boyles spinning the wrenches, the lightweight carbon-fiber bodywork was quickly removed, revealing a stock airbox, frame and swingarm. A massive multi-tier radiator and large-diameter titanium exhaust hint that this engine is special. Inside are forged, short-skirted pistons providing compression well north of stock, custom cams, Ti rods (but steel valves), a slipper clutch and a very pricey, close-ratio HRC kit gearbox. Peak horsepower is said to be 140-plus.

New brakes, suspension and wheels accompanied the pre-Daytona engine upgrades. According to Zemke, the CBR1000RR-based Superbike benefited most from the move from Brembo to Nissin, from Showa to Öhlins and from Marchesini to Bito. "To get the FX bike where I wanted it took one really concentrated day of testing," he said. "Braking was already very good. The big thing was the suspension. For me, Öhlins has better feel. I have more confidence in the front end."

honda cbr600rr left handgrip details
Rotating aluminum wheel adjacent to left handgrip alters brake-lever span. Öhlins fork with pressurized damping offers myriad adjustments.Kevin Wing

Zemke prefers wider handlebars mounted low on custom clamps, while Duhamel’s bars are narrower and higher. Both bikes look small and sit tall. Zemke’s has a thin seat pad, while Duhamel favors a double layer of foam. Rider preference also extends to the shape of the brake and clutch levers.

By the following morning, the weather had changed for the better. Blinding sunlight replaced rain, and the mountains bordering the valley were capped with snow. My attention, however, was focused on the bikes. I was nervous, concerned mostly about the transmission’s one-up, five-down shift pattern. “Up is down and down is up” became my mantra.

Taking Plumb’s cue, I rolled out of the garage and onto pit lane, ever mindful of the reduced steering lock. Arriving at Turn 1, I squeezed the brake lever lightly and tipped into the corner. As I rolled the throttle open, I glanced down at the tachometer, which indicated just 7000 rpm, well below the nearly 16,000-rpm redline. Yet the engine responded without hesitation. I upshifted once, twice, three times. As the laps accumulated, I marveled at how remarkably easy the bike was to ride. I expected a narrow, peaky powerband, knife-edge handling and brakes that required a surgeon’s touch. Reality was just the opposite. “It’s easy to put the bike where you want it on the racetrack,” confirmed Zemke over lunch.

Back on the wide, largely billiard-table-smooth track for my final two sessions, pre-ride trepidations overcome, I was really enjoying myself. Owing to a slightly different chassis setup that included increased fork offset (30.0 versus 27.5mm), Duhamel’s bike—Daytona crash damage fixed—turned even better than Zemke’s but was less stable in quick transitions. Throttle response was instantaneous, the brakes, gearbox and suspension were far and away the best that I have ever sampled, and the grip from the 16.5-inch Dunlop slicks was outstanding.

That a one-time back-of-the-pack club rider could in such a short time feel so at home on a motorcycle that had just won the granddaddy of all American roadraces is testament to the overall goodness of the CBR and to the talented people involved in the project. I arrived at Miller hoping to dodge a bullet. I came away wanting to own the gun.