Brian J. Nelson

Man In A Van With A Plan 2.0—The 2017 Season In Review

Hayden Gillim attacks his second MotoAmerica season on a GSX-R1000 and manages to win a few American Flat Track TT races along the way

rick matheny and hayden gillim
SIGN LANGUAGE: Gillim talks with Crew Chief Rick Matheny about bike setup, hand in motion trying to relate what happens on the track. The rider/crew chief relationship is key to success.Photo: Nikolaus Wogen

You know, 100 percent doesn’t make the grid.” It’s a saying offered by Technical Editor Kevin Cameron, who’s spent his share of time as a tuner and crew chief riding in a van with a motorcycle, tools, and all needed possessions going from race to race in search of victory on the national roadracing circuit. It’s a good thing to remember—that perfection can be strived for, but the reality is nothing is ever perfect and you’ve got to show up and race, no matter what. Related: View the entire Man in a Van with a Plan race coverage And so it was with our Man in a Van with a Plan, Hayden Gillim, and his crew on the Cycle World Suzuki GSX-R1000. How so? There was no luxury of preseason testing, with piles of race parts at the ready and plenty of time to methodically explore the performance potential and experiment with setup. In fact, developing the new racebike—the completely redesigned 2017 GSX-R1000—had to start at the third round of the season while the team awaited delivery of the bike. The well-developed but now-dated 2016 GSX-R1000 served well at the first two rounds (four races), and then the team dug in, developing the new bike on the fly during the rest of the race season.

hayden gillim on the motoamerica grid
The new GSX-R1000 proved to be a weapon for Gillim by season's end and helped Yoshimura's Toni Elias win the MotoAmerica Superbike championship.Photo: Nikolaus Wogen

“Bike development started slow,” Crew Chief Rick Matheny explained. “We got the bikes late. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. Then it’s all new, with throttle by wire, a lot of electronics, variable valve timing, so we worked and worked and worked.”

Adding to the challenge was the grassroots nature of the MVP program, with a small crew and Gillim himself piloting the van. At least he’s experienced after last season. In fact, the 22-year-old from Owensboro, Kentucky, is already a 10-year veteran of roadracing. This season Gillim was on the road going to races from April to October. Over six months he logged nearly 30,000 miles on the road and crisscrossed the country a half-dozen times en route to 13 national races in 11 states, as well as several independent test sessions.

In addition to his highway miles, Gillim racked up more than 1,500 miles in the saddle of his racebikes—approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Springfield, Illinois, riding on the edge!

In the MVP Ford Transit van Gillim carried his Cycle World Suzuki GSX-R1000 for MotoAmerica Superstock 1000 races and the Cycle World Suzuki RM-Z450 for select American Flat Track Singles class national events. And most of his other worldly possessions.

man van plan ford transit vehicle
Is anything better than a van for hauling all your worldly possessions from track to track? Ford Transit became the official "V" in MVP this season.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

Thousands of miles alone on the road in a van can be tough, but Gillim’s support system is nationwide, so he got breaks to stay with friends and train along the way. He also spent as much time at home in Kentucky and in his Southern California digs to help stick with his training routine. Along the way, Gillim met and became friends with elite track cyclist Roger Ainslie. “He was a great training partner early in the year,” Gillim said.

Fellow roadracers Josh Hayes and Melissa Paris also were great friends and training mates.

“During the off-season I lived in one of their rental properties,” Gillim explains. “I was with them a lot at the races. Josh and I would play golf a lot and go and ride motocross. And at the races if I was having a rough time figuring something out I could go have a talk with him.”

Once the season starts it can be tough keeping fit and eating right on the road, but Gillim took advantage of his travels to train in some of most scenic destinations in the country.

hayden gillim suzuki gsx r1000 race action
Race action from Round 8 at Pittsburgh International Race Complex.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

"Driving all over the place I got to stop and ride my bicycle at some awesome areas like up in Park City, Utah," Gillim explained of his on-the-road routine. "Eating well can be tough. I try to eat halfway healthy. I'm a fan of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. So, whenever I get the chance I try to stop somewhere that's been on that show and try some different foods. And obviously whenever I see a Cinnabon on the road I've got to stop."

That might be the halfway unhealthy part of the diet.

At least the preseason was spent riding his bicycle about 300 miles per week and getting lean. Everybody needs a treat once in awhile.

The finishes from the first two MotoAmerica rounds were solid but not particularly inspiring, but when the 2017 was finally ready for racing at Virginia International Raceway in mid-May, good results came quickly, even with limited development time. At Road America, the second outing for the 2017 bike, Gillim scored his first Superstock 1000 podium of the season, taking third in race two.

hayden gillim flat track race action
VICTORY: Struggles in Superstock 1000 were left behind when Gillim hit two AFT TT races, taking decisive wins at Springfield (top) and the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis (bottom).Photo: Andrea Wilson

All the more impressive considering this was following the heartbreaking low point of the season when Gillim's second cousin Nicky Hayden was killed in a cycling accident in Italy, a tragic loss for the entire racing community. Nicky's death hit home especially hard for Gillim, not only because Nicky was a lifelong hero, mentor, and training partner, but it also opened up the emotions of Gillim losing his younger brother Ethan in a racing accident, almost 10 years to the day before Nicky.

VIDEO: Springfield TT Race Report

A form of redemption came in flat-track racing as well when at the Springfield TT in late May, Gillim served up an extended masterclass session. He not only clocked the fastest time in qualifying, but he won his heat and owned his semi. He then continued his domination right to the checkered flag in the Main Event, taking the win (on the only Suzuki in the field) with a loose front brake master cylinder that caused the lever to drop straight down. He coped by pushing it up with his thumb when he twisted the throttle then quickly grabbing the lever before braking zones! Even on his fully developed 450 flat-tracker, 100 percent didn't make the grid!

It was fitting that Gillim stood atop of the podium for the Springfield TT, 15 years after his cousins Nicky, Tommy, and Roger Hayden swept the podium in the historic race, particularly in the wake of Nicky’s tragic passing earlier that week.

“Seeing Nicky, Tommy, and Roger put it up on the podium, all three in one night, that’s always made me want to get here and get this win,” said Gillim on the podium. “Team 95 [his late brother Ethan’s race number]… This one is for my little brother, and it’s for Nicky too. This is for them.”

hayden gillim buffalo chip tt race action
Race action from Buffalo Chip TT in Sturgis.Photo: Andrea Wilson

A schedule conflict meant Gillim missed the Peoria TT, a big disappointment after his decisive win there in 2016. But there was time for more TT dominance later in the season when in front of a huge crowd in Sturgis Gillim put on a clinic. He got so far ahead in the main that he spent nearly the entire last lap doing wheelies for the crowd.

“I was just having a lot of fun with it,” Gillim said of his flat-track excursions. “Going to those races is stress free. I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything to anybody at the dirt tracks, so I was just having fun riding my dirt bike. Everything kind of clicked at those events, which made them seem kind of easy.”

Which was nice because Superstock 1000 racing remained challenging. Three-quarters of the way through the season, an issue with his bike's front brake forced Gillim to retire from race two at Sonoma. Then Gillim survived one of the scariest crashes of 2017 in MotoAmerica when he flew head first into a tire-lined barrier at high speed in the race at Pittsburgh International Race Complex. He came through with not much more than a massive headache, which was an incredibly lucky outcome considering the force he hit the barrier with. Gillim credited his Bell helmet and particularly the Alpinestars Tech-Air airbag suit for saving him from worse.

hayden gillim motoamerica crash sequence
BANG!: It was a bad crash when Gillim ran off-track at Pittsburgh and into a tire wall. Fortunately injuries were minor, but the bike was destroyed.Photo: Nikolaus Wogen

It wasn’t enough that Gillim’s bike cartwheeled through the grass as it perfectly vaulted over the tire wall and down an embankment. At least it missed hitting Gillim. But the bike was destroyed causing Matheny and crew members Josh Day and Glen Veatch to once again burn the midnight oil to get their second machine ready to race.

The payoff for all the hard work was awesome but late coming. By the time they'd worked out all the kinks and finally had the 2017 machine dialed in, Gillim had his best roadrace weekend of the season by far, with a pair of MotoAmerica Superstock 1000 podium finishes at Barber Motorsports Park, including a season-best runner-up finish in race two.

“They say you’re only as good as your last race, so if that’s the case we’re good,” Matheny said. “The last three races we really had a good bike. Earlier we had some brake problems. We had a crash, but it got better and better. Then at Barber it just sort of came together and we’ve made it all work. It’s really promising for next season. I’m looking forward to it.”

The season ended on such a high note that Matheny wasn’t ready to see it end.

“No, give me another race tomorrow,” he said at Barber. “I just have to thank Glen Veatch and Josh Day. They’ve been a fantastic crew this year. I’ve really been proud of them. Both of them are new to us. We lost our other guys. They did a fantastic job and Hayden at the end of the year he really focused and bore down and it paid off. So, I’m proud of the team.”

hayden gillim, rick matheny, and josh day
TEAMWORK: Emphasis is on the man in the van, Gillim, but without the support of sponsors and crew there would be no Plan. Former racer Josh Day (with Gillim and Matheny) served as coach and wrench alongside Glen Veatch (not pictured).Photo: Nikolaus Wogen

Gillim was also encouraged with the way he and the team closed out the year.

“It was a great way to end the season,” Gillim concluded. “I’m hoping we can do this again and we’re talking about next year. I can’t thank the whole team enough: Rick, Glen, Josh, Eric Vallarta [K-Tech Suspension], and Chris Gardell [Flash Tune]. Everybody that’s been a part of this. It’s a blessing to have them all.”

One lesson from this year is, truly, that 100 percent doesn’t make the grid. The freedom in that is that there is always room to improve, room to control more of the variables, and have a better bike and better outlook. In victory and defeat, there is equal motivation.