During both Friday morning practices at the New Jersey Motorsports Park AHRMA round, fuel didn’t want to stay inside the number 4 carburetor’s float bowl, instead preferring to gush out past the stuck needle, over the engine, and into the bellypan in preparation of lubing the Spondon TZ750’s rear Dunlop slick with 110-octane race gas mixed with Yamalube R oil. After the tire was lubricated, the entire Spondon was ready to snap sideways and chuck me many feet in the air with a crushing landing in NJMP’s grass or an even worse landing on the asphalt if luck wasn’t with me. The grass landing is certainly preferable but not always an option.
Back in 2007, I attended an AHRMA rider’s meeting at Daytona for new-to-vintage-racing racers and learned a fantastic tip: On the straights, look down at your boots for signs of vital fluids escaping your engine with plans to lube your rear tire and the rest of the track. I do that little trick a lot and aborted the first two practices at NJMP, returning to the pits still on the Spondon with nothing worse than a smelly right boot and a bellypan full of fuel. I nodded to the ambulance drivers, but I didn’t have to meet them.
After the second aborted practice, Rusty Bigley pulled a brand-new needle/seat arrangement out of his Lectron parts bin and we were in business for the first practice after lunch.
Friday and Saturday practice went well as we tuned the Lectron needles and I tried to get my brain around the insane grip the new Dunlops were providing. Until we signed a deal with Dunlop for 2018 (because it introduced a 180 KR451 rear slick), we had never run the same brand of tire two weekends in a row, and sometimes swapped brands during the weekend! It’s hard to build midcorner trust when you keep changing tire brands.
Rusty had fabricated a new set of “fatty” pipes, a job that this expert welder pulls off in 100 hours of measuring, cutting, welding, and fitting. It’s artwork like a military jet is artwork: serious purpose. The bike was fast on top but the party didn’t start until 8,000 rpm, which made second gear a “wait-a-few-hundred-feet-while-RS125s-drive-away-from-you” choice and first gear almost unmanageable due to the hit of four 188cc cylinders on the pipe. And NJMP has a lot of second-gear corner exits. We went leaner and that was wrong, so we started throwing fuel at it. As usual when tuning a TZ750, we ran out of time and the races started.
Our first race on Saturday was Open Two-Stroke (sponsored by Tony Doukas Racing) and it was going to be a war. This class is swelling at every round and NJMP had 20 strokers ready to battle. Last year, Pat Mooney and his TZ250 beat me here and Ralph Staropoli and his RS250 almost beat the year before at Barber, plus Darrell Cooney and a few other 250 pilots like Bill Himmelsbach and Adrian Jasso had come loaded for bear. Both Mooney and Staropoli had their own struggles during practice but I knew for a fact they’d be ready come race time and Cooney seems to be getting faster every year!
I see this as a fascinating battle: Bigley’s 35-year-old TZ750 Spondon versus “more” modern TZ and RS250s (late 1990s and early 2000s). We run about the same lap times but in distinctly different ways. The 250 guys are trying to find more power to keep the Spondon in sight on the straights, while I am trying to find improved handling and personal fortitude to keep the 250s in sight in the corners. Our new deal that puts me on Dunlop slicks should help my midcorner pace/personal fortitude. The one common tie in this class is our love of two-stroke Grand Prix machines. Put simply—they’re addicting. While we’d all like to win, the real joy is being on track on a motorcycle built only for racing.
But escaping fuel wasn’t done with us yet. As announcer Chris Carr gave “first call” for Saturday’s Open Two-Stroke race, fuel began dripping out of the fuel tank at the weld for the internal bracing. “Can we diaper it well enough to get eight laps in?” Scrambling ensued but as “second call” went out, the leak won and I peeled off my gear, walked to turn 3 and watched Cooney beat Mooney and Staropoli in a terrific battle that took me back to AMA 250GP days. The “always young” Himmelsbach was fourth, and you will read more about “senior” racers in this column in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Bigley ran the fuel tank to the insanely talented Andrew Cowell, who not only fixed the current leak but found several other cracks ready to become leaks. When Cowell isn’t saving racers’ weekends with his fabricating talents, he’s running the Fast & Safe AHRMA new riders school that allows graduates to race that same weekend. Cowell and his gang of instructors is another reason I’m such an AHRMA fan. Get on ahrma.org for more info.
Bigley, Lentz, and Mike Studzinski reworked the fuel tank mounts, believing that the extra pressures of me hanging off the bike were causing the tank to shift in the current mounts and perhaps rub against the always-vibrating frame. Mike had raced a TZ750 at Phillip Island with us two years ago and it was great to have the MFactoryWest owner in the pits, lending us his talent and knowledge. Bigley had fitted Mike’s MFactoryWest silencers to the new fatty pipes and the sound was awesomely nasty.
We won the Formula Vintage race (sponsored by Race Tech bodywork… Thanks, Kent Riches) later that afternoon and ran into the top 10 of the Pro Thunder 1 modern twins class (sponsored by Dragonfly/Alliance Motorsports Racing, LLC) that started in the first wave. Yes, AHRMA is vintage racing but modern triples, twins, and singles have classes here too. Finally, fuel went from the tank to the Lectrons and then into the engine as designed.
I write “we won” because getting a 35-year-old bike ready and willing to run at this level is the definition of team effort. We could show up and roll around, but nobody connected to this effort is there for parade laps. We have a responsibility to showcase this bike in the manner Yamaha, Kenny Roberts, and Spondon intended. Our jetting was getting close, I was loving the Dunlops, and we had some ideas for Sunday.
The Spondon sailed through Sunday’s only practice with flying colors. We stayed with the same KR451 Dunlop front slick (soft-compound 2662) that started the weekend and slipped in another soft 0097 rear. Until this year, Dunlop was only making 190 rears and the Spondon needed a 180, but now they are available. I had texted pictures of our rear tire wear to MotoAmerica racer Kyle Wyman and he suggested a slightly lower tire pressure and things were rolling.
My lap times were okay when you consider that I have literally never had a clean lap on the Spondon at any AHRMA event. That’s not complaining, that’s just the way it is on a fast bike and in a class that always starts in a wave with other classes or runs in crowded practices. A big part of my pre-race-weekend mental preparation is working on passing approaches, and it’s something I discuss with my pit mates, all quick guys on fast bikes (all YCRS instructors too). Clean, efficient passing is part of racing fast bikes.
And in the Open Two-Stroke race, passing handed me the win. Lentz had reworked the clutch Saturday night and I got the best launch ever, sliding into fourth place in turn 1. I slipped the Spondon under Cooney into turn 3A, with Mooney and Staropoli about 10 bike lengths ahead of me. I wasn’t making much time on them, but I wasn’t losing any either. We had regeared that morning and second gear was working better than ever.
Then we hit traffic. Formula Thunder, sponsored by Moto Corse Performance, had started in the wave ahead of us and we caught them by turn 10 on the first lap. Common thinking is that you want to be the first to hit lapped traffic, but two turns later the exception to that rule played out.
NJMP’s turn 12 is wide-open on a 250GP bike on hot tires, but not this lap for Staropoli and Mooney. The tail end of the Formula Thunder class forced these two guys to close the throttle at T12’s entry, killing their momentum. They had to check up to avoid hitting the twins, yet they didn’t then have enough power to outdrive them down the track’s longest straight to turn 1. I did. Insert smiley face here!
I saw it coming and snapped an extra downshift to third gear, pointed the bike a bit longer at T12’s apex and stood the bike up and got to full throttle as soon as I dared, the Spondon wheelying onto the front straight to the right side of the mob. Mooney and Staropoli were mired in a drag race with the fast twins and I sailed past, made a sketchy pass on another twin into T1, and the race was over. This first-lap T12 traffic jam gave me a three-second gap and I held it for the next seven laps, while Staropoli beat Mooney for second and Cooney grabbed a close fourth. We put our four two-strokes well into the top 10 of Formula Thunder, though we were several seconds slower per lap than the Formula Thunder front group, racers like Seth Starnes, Mark Heckles, William Arnold, Tony Strippoli, and Ricky O’hare.
I’ve said it and now I’ll write it here: I don’t have to win, but I want to be in the fight. This is a feeling that pervades the AHRMA paddock because the machines we run are so cool, the people we race with so precious.
It’s a privilege to race Rusty’s Spondon, a joy to pit with friends Brian Smith, Rob and Robbie Cichielo and AJ Ciampa, and to work alongside Rusty, Lentz and Studzinski. Rusty keeps the trophies, I treasure the memories and visceral feel of a TZ750 on the pipe.
More next Tuesday!