Aaron Yates Returns to AMA Superbike | The Long Road Back

Aaron Yates' return to AMA Superbike took much longer than he expected—more than two years longer

Aaron Yates’ world changed in an instant on the morning of March 28, 2010.

A day earlier, starting from pole aboard the Jordan Suzuki GSX-R1000, Yates finished a close third in the AMA Superbike race at Auto Club Speedway to Larry Pegram in a four-rider pack that was covered by 0.742 seconds. A day later, he was on an out lap after pitting in morning warm-up when he fell coming out of Turn 10, a fast kink in the back straight. The fall didn’t do any damage, but the rider just behind unavoidably ran over Yates’ legs. He couldn’t have known that it would take him nearly three seasons to get back to the AMA paddock.

The damage was significant. There were two tibial fractures of the right leg, one below the knee and a second above the ankle, and a third break of the lower fibula. Plates and screws from a previous fracture had to be replaced. There was damage to the tibial plateau, within the knee, which was shattered in five pieces. Dr. Thomas Bryan performed six hours of surgery, then said that the procedure had gone well and that the resolute Georgian could be back in action in as little as six weeks.

About four months later, Yates tried riding at Virginia International Raceway, though he knew his leg wasn’t right. He qualified eighth, but chose not to race. That would be his last high-level race for more than two years, until the 2012 Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, where Yates rode the GP Tech Suzuki GSX-R1000-powered CRT machine.

Yates made it back in the AMA paddock on the third weekend in September in the return of AMA Superbike racing to Homestead-Miami Speedway after a 16-year absence. Yates was one of only three riders to take part in the 1996 race, where he won the Superstock final on a Yoshimura Suzuki. Now he was on an Evan Steel Performance BMW S 1000 RR in his first AMA Superbike race since VIR, and looking forward to continuing where he left off, and talking about the long road back.

“Well, I mean, you know, it was really unknown,” Yates said of how long he was told it would take for him to heal up after the original surgery. “They didn’t really say. I guess I kinda treated it like I had a little single break or something.” The complication, he explained, was a section of his right tibia about an inch and a half long that refused to knit. “My ankle joint was fine, but it’s up above there that got crushed. There was a plate there before that got broken and there was 30 screws there and then under my knee the whole knee plateau was broken in about five pieces up there and my fibula was broken in about five or six pieces and it’s still kind of in pieces there.”

The months following surgery were a roller coaster. He’d try to exert pressure on the leg, only to suffer a setback. “I tried to do stuff and then I’d have to wait for four to six weeks again.”

Yates said he went to VIR in 2010 to go see the team and hang out for the fans since it was the closest race. The next race wasn’t for a month, which would give him time to recover.

“So went up there and rode and come back home and was trying to do some training and stuff and had some pretty good pain in my leg,” he recalled. He was walking downhill when he felt something move in his leg. At the time the lower leg was in a brace, which was irritating his Achilles tendon, so he loosened it. “So I walked around for a little while and when I got home and took the brace off, my leg was pretty ugly looking, had a little bend to it. The plate was broken. And that was in September 2010.”

At that point he contacted Dr. Dave Kieffer, the famed bone surgeon and former racer. Kieffer’s partner is a leader in his field in bone grafts. A month later Yates had the bone graft — it was taken from his hip — and “so I went the whole 2011 just kinda taking it easy. And trying not to do too much on the thing and getting it healed up.”

Yates showed up at Daytona in 2012 walking with a cane. Not long after, he ditched the cane and started thinking about racing again. The leg progressed throughout the summer and, coincidentally, Yates got the call from Geoff Maloney of GP Tech.

Yates finished just out of the points in 16th, completing his first ever MotoGP race at the age of 38.

“It was fun,” Yates said on the Indy race weekend. “That’s what the whole idea was. We made it into the show, went out there and rode and it was pretty neat. It was fun to be (there). I wish we had something a little better to ride, had a little better showing, but we had what we had. Just tried to make the most of it.” Yates said there was a rear suspension issue that kept him from riding it as he’d have liked, “so I just kinda settled into a comfortable pace and just rode. Just turned the 28 laps and brought it home. And everybody’s happy. That’s what we came to do, and we managed to run us a MotoGP race.

“But I’d really like to do it again with a little better effort or just with maybe even some time to develop the bike that we have to make it better, faster and lighter. The thing is way heavy and underpowered a good bit. There’s a lot of potential, and especially with some tracks that don’t have such slow corners and long straightaways, we could definitely put in a whole lot better showing. I feel good about my riding. I was pushing hard, riding good out there.”

Yates was ready to go racing when Indy rolled around and wanted to continue. “I feel like I’m ready to ride. I’m ready to do something. I mean, if I’m not riding I’d like to be involved with somebody or doing something with a team or helping develop some bikes or doing something. It’s come at a time when I’ve got to figure something out. I had a long time there where I couldn’t really do much but carry a set of crutches around or a cane. And it’s been nice this year. Hands have been free and I’ve been able to get some stuff done. So yeah, it’s time to make another step and do something.”

Not long after that, Yates got the call from Evan Steel. The plan was to ride at Homestead and possibly New Orleans. Though he chose not to race on the wet/dry Homestead track, Yates’ performance and feedback convinced the team to go on the season finale in New Orleans. And there’s talk of a full program in 2013.

“Evan’s (Steel) idea is…he thinks that there (are) possibilities of getting some pretty good support from BMW if we go out there and have some pretty good success,” Yates said, “but we really haven’t had the time on the bike to develop it and get what I need out of it.”

Yates is different from most riders in that he’s always worked on his own machinery. “I’m pretty much a mechanic that ended up I had to work on my stuff to go ride,” he said. “When I was doing my own program in ‘94 and ‘95 I was doing my own motors, doing everything and it’s just kind of what I do. I keep my stuff up and go race.

“I’ve always kept up with the changes we’ve made to the bike and what they do and I’ve got a pretty good knowledge of geometry stuff and all that. I just enjoy trying to make things better, making changes to make stuff better. I’ve always paid attention to what we do with the bike and been involved with it, not just telling somebody what the thing’s doing.”

His knowledge has sometimes gotten him in trouble with crew chiefs. What they want to hear from riders is how the bike feels; what they don’t want to hear is suggestions for how to fix it. Yates says many of the technicians don’t ride motorcycles. He said they’ve got “little computer programs and they can look at these numbers and stuff, but it takes actual hands-on experience, actual riding and, you know, just being able to make changes to get an idea of what you want to do.”

Yates didn’t have much time to improve the Evan Steel Performance BMW at Homestead. There was little dry track time for Yates, who was racing against riders who’d had a two-day test at the facility following Daytona.

“I mean, we get like an hour and a half of dry track time, like about 30 laps, maybe to go out there and race with these guys who spent two days, pretty much everybody there spent two days testing at that place,” he said. “And every time I went out we were changing gearing and setup stuff.”

As confident as Yates is in his recovery, he didn’t believe it was worth taking risks on the wet/dry circuit, even though he’s a proficient rain rider. He’s spent time testing Dunlop tires in the wet at the company’s facility in Huntsville, Alabama and went “decent” in the wet practice at Homestead. “But then again, there was really nothing to gain. It was just a little risky. I’m not ready to go put it on the line like that and risk throwing the thing down. It’s different than going riding around in practice and qualifying or riding around there with a bunch of guys. And there’s no telling who’s out there thinking they’re going to go try to win this thing. But it looks like everybody rode smart and had a pretty good race.”

What Yates objected to were the concrete patches just off the racing line that were slipperier than the track surface. “If it wasn’t for the little patches in the corners, the little patches that made the line about a foot and a half wide on the inside of the corner, I would’ve gone forward.”

Having come this far in both his recovery and the improvement of the BMW, the decision was made to get to the next race “without having to spend money on the bike to get it back together. The guy I’m riding with really doesn’t have any kind of budget. They want to try to make the bike better so we can be competitive at the next round. So that was our thinking.”

Having raced through the salad days of AMA Superbike racing, Yates was always properly compensated for his work. Now, he said, it’s hard since he’s not being paid big bucks to go out and race and “that would make things different for me. But to go out there and ride or to try to get $2000 purse money to win or a thousand for third or something like that,” on a dodgy track, “I’ll just wait until it’s more necessary.”

Yates turned 39 in mid-December, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He spends a fair amount of time riding Supermoto bikes. His race fitness isn’t an issue. When he got off the BMW, on a sultry weekend in south Florida, he’d hardly broken a sweat.

And he might get another shot at the MotoGP bike. GP Tech's Maloney has been taking weight off the bike as well as boosting engine power. There's talk of riding it at the WERA GNF, which Yates thought would be "cool." There was also talk of taking it to the final round of the MotoGP season in Valencia. "But that whole deal, that was really a lot of fun. It was pretty neat to go racing like that with really no pressure. Not do anything special other than get in the show and that was pretty easy to accomplish. The bike was what it was. It was put together real quick, we had no kind of electronics or anything. Obviously it was a good time had by everyone." Which — after waiting two and a half years to get back in a racing environment — is what's important to Yates now. SR