Saddlemen

RoadRace Factory Race Report from Barber Motorsports Park: Fire and Water

| 20 September 2017 4:24 pm

MotoAmerica Championship Series
Round 10: Barber Motorsports Park

Courtesy of RoadRace Factory
Photos by GeoCrash Photography
LEEDS, AL, SEPT. 15-17, 2017

The final episode of this trilogy opens with a noir reflection of the triumphs from the last two rounds. Visions from Pittsburgh and New Jersey played in slow motion, properly building the sense of eminent success – all things leading you to prepare for the Grand Finale, the final scene where the protagonist makes that last step toward actualizing their destiny and becoming the hero we’ve all be waiting for.

The script has long since been thrown aside, as the scenes have rewritten themselves in real time. With every race, the story line swings so wildly that, as audience members, we’re getting emotionally drained. We come into this final act expecting the big pay-off, the reward for investing so much into this story. Will that pay-off happen? Will everyone receive their big reward? Or will it all come to an end in a flurry of sparks, broken machines and broken men?

Welcome to Barber Motorsports Park, site of a very soggy final round of the MotoAmerica Series…

Welcome to Barber Motorsports Park, site of a very soggy final round of the MotoAmerica Series…

Act 1, Scene 1: Leeds, Alabama
The remnants of Hurricane Irma blew through Barber Motorsports Park and left the track ground saturated with water and really ticked up the humidity. When the team arrived, the weather was typical Alabama – in June, not September. The temperatures for the race weekend were projected to be in the mid-80s, but it was the humidity that would really be the villain in this story. As the teams were transforming their transporters into garages and hospitality areas, preparing the bikes for battle, all that ground water was busy working on its nefarious plot to throw this story into absolute chaos.

Having spent an extra day in New Jersey before arriving at Barber Motorsports Park, the 32Crew had completed much of the maintenance and set-up of the primary machine, so when they unpacked the Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda from the transporter, the 32Crew was able to have a restful afternoon.

This calm and easy feeling would not last.

The relatively easy set-up day bolstered the feeling throughout the team that a podium finish was within reason and maybe, just maybe, the two upcoming performances would help to erase some of the bad memories from this season.

Jake Gagne at speed in Leeds, Alabama.

Jake Gagne at speed in Leeds, Alabama.

Scene 2: Friday morning, and that beautiful golden Alabama sunshine was hitting the track; a light haze was lifting. The temperatures were in the mid-60s as the sound of engines warming up reverberated off the hillsides and the multiple sculptures that surround the facility and hide in the woods.

The first practice session is essentially the first qualifying opportunity. With a strong desire to get up front from the beginning, Jake Gagne immediately got to work. Within the first few laps of the hour-long session, he was flying around the natural-terrain circuit. Track conditions were just about perfect.

Jake Gagne (32) was having a pretty good day – until gremlins of a nonmechanical nature reared their ugly little heads…

Jake Gagne (32) was having a pretty good day – until gremlins of a nonmechanical nature reared their ugly little heads…

However, while Jake was putting on a stellar show, the evil liquid under the track’s surface was beginning to make its move. As long as the track temperatures stayed low, there were no problems. The session was drawing to a close by noon, and Jake was able to complete an entire planned regiment of set-up options and suspension tweaks. Pulling the Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda CBR1000RR SP2 into the pit when the session was over, Jake and the 32Crew immediately began plotting their assault on FP2; all the while, they were being plotted against…

Scene 3: Friday afternoon, and the temperatures have risen to a balmy 85 degrees, with a relative humidity of a Russian bath house. The only thing missing was being flogged by wet birch twigs as the team prepared for free practice session number two.

Now we get to the turning point. Cue the evil-sounding music, with animated water bubbling through the seams in the track. During the previous class sessions, water had begun to weep through the surface of the track. An after-effect of Hurricane Irma and the high water table on which the track is built, this water sprang (pun intended!) its evil trap. MotoAmerica track safety officials marked the spots on the track that had water and green-lighted the session with waving debris flags in the areas of which they were aware.

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The first few laps were exploratory in nature, as many of the Superbike riders felt their way around the 2.3-mile track. It became a game of chance, as riders tried to avoid the weepers. Jake had been posting some respectable times, and he was moving up the field. He had crossed the line in sixth and was gaining on the top five when it happened: An unmarked yet considerably large and unavoidable patch of water on the line in turn two finally unleashed its fury upon Jake. He was immediately kicked off his motorcycle, and the bike began a slow and painful tumbling sequence that would’ve taken home the silver medal in the Floor Routine at the 2016 Olympic Games. As the bike repeatedly went airborne and came crashing down, it eventually broke into pieces upon re-entry, and the very unique Honda was now rendered useless, in multiple pieces. Following the incident, all remaining on-track activities for the day were canceled.

Scene 4: This scene begins with a rider who’s okay, a bike that is not, and a crew chief updating his LinkedIn profile. This is where the 32Crew solidifies their reputation as the hardest-working crew in the paddock.

With few options for getting a bike together, crew chief Scott Jensen and chassis engineers Danny Anderson and Evan Steel, with the help of Penske’s Eric Trinkley, jumped into action.

The 32Crew had their work cut out for them… big time.

The 32Crew had their work cut out for them… big time.

The “B” bike is essentially a parts bike that the team has transported around to cannibalize when necessary. Scotty had a frame and an untested motor in a crate. Once the decision was made to build a new motorcycle, the crew went into overdrive. Within an hour, the “B” bike was on the table, with its motor out and the new crate motor in. What could be salvaged from the primary bike was placed onto the backup bike. Phone calls went out to local Dyno operations that would be willing to help out late on a Friday night. One was located, and off the crew went to break in the new motor and tune it.

Once they got back to the track, there was still the bulk of the bike to assemble. At 4 a.m., the 32Crew called it a bike and retreated to their hotel rooms for an hour of rest before they needed to be back at the track. The scene ends with the crew leaving the track as the sun’s glow begins to grow on the horizon.

Act 2, Scene 1: Red-eyed crew members arrive at the track as everyone is buzzing around, wanting to see if they were successful in building the bike. Even spectators were surrounding the transporter as the shiny red machine was wheeled out. There was an audible sigh of relief and even a few claps from other teams who saw a virtually new machine rolled through the paddock to the hot pit. It was a moment of triumph that no one could take the time to enjoy, as the final practice session was quickly approaching. All would have to be revealed on the track.

Compound the unknown of the new bike with the unknowns of the track conditions, and this day had all the fixings of the previous day’s drama. However, this 30-minute session went according plan. With a small exception of dialing in the suspension without any data (data collection went out with the primary bike), everything was looking good for Superpole.

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The frenetic energy that surrounds Superpole is something that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated. The life had returned to the 32Crew, as the morning session showed them that Jake was able to ride fast, and the potential for a great couple of races revitalized them.

When the green flag was shown for Superpole, Jake jumped out and was running just okay – nothing heroic, but a solid start for his pre-qualifying tires. Unlike the previous few weekends, Jake came into the pit to have the special Dunlop qualifier put on, and he immediately got back onto the track. Hammer down after his out lap, and with a clear track – clear of riders and water – Jake put in a solid lap. Running faster than he had previously, Jake was looking good for a second-row start, but with time left in the session, he was bested and knocked to eighth for the races.

To paraphrase a certain song, Jake’s seen fire and he’s seen rain. Usually not all in one weekend.

To paraphrase a certain song, Jake’s seen fire and he’s seen rain. Usually not all in one weekend.

Scene 2: Race one was getting ready to begin. The track conditions were similar to those on Friday, but not as much weeping was occurring, as much of the water had dissipated. Temperatures and humidity still were in the range of Amazonian rainforest and Lakota sweat lodge. It was anyone’s guess as to whether or not the water would resurface – (okay, we’ll stop the puns) – and cause problems in the race.

As the entire paddock would find out, that water wouldn’t be the problem, as fire became the scene stealer.

The riders lined up for the start, and with no title on the line, this would be a free-for-all, leave-nothing-on-the-table kind of race. The crowd swelled and moved down from the tree lines as the lights went out. The grid thundered down the straight and into turn one.

In spectacular fashion, everyone made it through the first few laps without incident. Jake had moved from eighth to sixth and was making the pass for fifth when Josh Hayes crashed in turn two. The minor slip turned into a red flag, as his motorcycle caught fire. What water may have caused, water ended. After a 10-minute reset, the grid once again formed for a quick-start procedure.

This time, the race would be shortened to an 18-lap affair. As motorcycles are finely tuned machines, the second start wouldn’t be as aggressive as the first, due to everyone’s concern over clutch life. Therefore, when the lights went out, the revs kind of went up and the grid conservatively fast-walked to turn one.

As if the story couldn’t get any more exciting – there have been hurricanes, carnage and fires – more was to come.

Completing the first lap, Aussie Dave ran off the track in turn one and caused a plume that rivaled a California wildfire. His bike caught fire and burned, causing another red flag. This time the race would be restarted as a 12-lap event.

Two starts are hard on a clutch, but three is just ridiculous. But that is what would have to happen. By now, the sun was beginning to sink in the west, and people’s DVRs were going to be blamed for not recording the races. But, finally, the riders were lined back up and ready to hopefully finish the second-to-last race of the season.

The third time’s a charm, and when the lights went out again, it was reckless abandon. No saving the clutches – every rider just revved their machine and threw clutches to the wind. Jake made a good start, and within a few laps he found himself in a solid fourth place. No further drama ensued, and Jake took the checkered flag in his fourth fourth-place finish of the season.

As the scene draws to close, the feelings of a possible podium still loom large, and the 32Crew retreats to their rooms for some much-needed sleep before the grand finale.

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Act 3, Scene 1: Sunday morning arrived with lower temperatures and a forecast that called for potential rain by midafternoon. After a quick 15-minute morning warm-up session, there was little to do but wait for the race to begin and a season to come to a head. So far, the weekend had been brought to its knees by the odd pairing of fire and water. These two natural forces have added an unanticipated element to this final scene. As mentioned before, the script is being written in real time, and there is no secret ending to this epic saga. Doris Day said it (well, sang it) best: “Whatever will be, will be (Que Sera, Sera).”

One thing was for sure: There couldn’t be more red flags than in race one… could there…?

Turns out the answer is, “Sure there can be… why not?”

Jake Gagne (32) in action.

Jake Gagne (32) in action.

Shortly before the race was set to begin, a few solitary sprinkles had fallen from the heavens. Not to be deterred, the race was started as a “dry” race. From the far side of the track, the bikes sounded like a pack of angry wolves chasing a wounded buffalo. Within seconds of the start, the bikes appeared in the museum corner. The train of Superbikes snaking through the chicane was impressive. Jake was situated midpack and driving off the corners with aggression.

However, within a few laps, the leaders raised their hands to show that rain had begun to fall. The first red flag was thrown, and the grid returned to the pits to see what would happen.

Soon the decision was made to race dry, and the riders were sent back out to grid and go. Again, the lights went out, and this time the field only made it a few corners before the rain really began to come down. Without any hesitation, the race was stopped, as the rain of biblical proportions began.

There was an odd period during this time. The rain intensified, and rivers began flowing across the circuit. The race would be declared “wet,” and so the 32Crew had to set up a completely new setup for the rain. With absolutely zero data to work with and no experience on this bike in the wet, they went to work setting it up. The riders were sent out a few separate times to survey the track. Eventually, the rain would subside, and the chase car was replaced by Noah’s Arc.

Roger Hayden and Josh Herrin opted to not race, believing the track wasn’t safe. With a smaller grid and shortened race distance, the season for the Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda team came down to an unknown bike in sketchy conditions.

Jake Gagne (32) in hot pursuit.

Jake Gagne (32) in hot pursuit.

Scene 2: As the riders lined up for the third start, the rain was gone and the rivers had disappeared. The lights went out, and off they went!

Jake made an okay start and got stuck in the pack for the first few laps. However, his times were faster than most, and soon he had moved into third place. The podium was his – the best finish of the season was achievable!

As Jake continued to ride, he quickly gained on the second-place rider, Toni Elias. It didn’t seem real! Jake made the pass and was now in second place, now running almost half a second faster than the leader, Mathew Scholtz.

The sun parted on the front straight as the pair began the final lap. As the light bathed the riders and bikes in a warm, golden color, contrasted by the lingering storm clouds, the final triumphant moment was here! Not only was Jake going to get a podium, but he was going for the win! On a weekend sponsored by Honda and presented by Genuine Broaster Chicken, capping off a season brought to you by Pain and Suffering, the pay-off was here!

As the riders entered turn two, the cameras switched to the pits to show the drama unfolding on the team members’ faces when it all happened. In an instant, triumph became tragedy.

In the exact same place as Friday’s incident, Jake went down. As he slid into the gravel, all hopes of a glorious ending went into the gravel with him.

And so it ended. The epic struggle of 2017 came to an end in a flurry of sparks and melting carbon. Jake was going for the win for his 32Crew, the crew that had worked so hard all season to give him a chance at podiums. He wanted it for them. It was not to be, and the saga comes to a close. There were no tears. All the frustration at a season that was a struggle mixed with moments of intense joy came to an end. Hugs, high-fives and talk of a run at the championship next year were the unifying actions shared among the team as the sun set and the trailer was closed for the final time this season.

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Superbike rider Jake Gagne.

Superbike rider Jake Gagne.

“That wasn’t how I wanted to go out,” Gagne said. “I saw that I was closing in on Mathew and I knew I could take him. I was motivated for the win, not because I wanted to prove anything, but because I wanted to get it for the guys. This weekend was rough for them. I broke the primary bike on Friday, and by Saturday morning they had built me a bike that could run [in the] top five all day long.

“Scotty, D.A. and Evan really just busted their butts for me all season, and I wanted that win for them so badly,” he continued. “I was gaining on Mathew and just had the back step out on me over the top of turn two. I couldn’t believe it as it was happening! I don’t think I’ve ever been so upset about a crash. I’m really bummed about that, and I’m looking forward to working through the off season to get this bike on the podium every weekend next year.

“I just can’t thank everyone enough for their help this year: Genuine Broaster Chicken for all their insane support; our hospitality was always packed, and they even sponsored this last round! Honda for their help with the bikes and support throughout the season. Parts Unlimited and Akrapovic, Motorex were all huge helps. Eric from Penske for going the extra mile every weekend on the suspension. My personal sponsors, Red Bull, Bell Helmets and Alpinestars, for keeping me safe after some serious moments this year. Just thanks to everyone! We’ll be back next season fighting for those top spots!”

Team principal Danny Walker.

Team principal Danny Walker.

“How about that – what a way to finish off the season!” exclaimed team principal Danny Walker. “I don’t know if I’d change a thing about how this weekend went. Sure, it would’ve been awesome to get that win, but in the overall scheme of things, I’m pretty happy. I mean, he was going for the win! After the season we’ve been through, I totally understand his desire to put that thing on the top of the box as a way to say thanks to his crew.

“We finished kind of where we started,” Walker noted. “Austin was a fourth and a DNF, so actually, exactly how we started. This season is nothing to get down about. We are developing this bike to be a championship-caliber machine, and that doesn’t happen in a season. We’ve learned so much, and after the miracles I’ve seen Scotty and the boys pull off this year, I have no complaints. In fact, I’m even more confident when I say that I have the hardest-working crew in the entire paddock. They give everything they have to make sure Jake can go 100 percent. Jake in turn gives them that 100-percent effort every session. So, yeah… I’m happy.

“From here,” he said, “we go back home and take a much-needed break. We’re going to be discussing our plans for 2018 and working on the bikes. It helps to know that we are on the same bikes with the same support so we can get that jump on testing and builds. I’m excited about what’s in store for the team next season! 2018 starts on Monday – okay, maybe Tuesday!

“Thank you to all the sponsors, especially Genuine Broaster Chicken, American Honda, Parts Unlimited, Motorex Oils, and Akrapovic. Without the support from all of our great sponsors, there’s no way we would’ve been able to do what we did. Just a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone! See you all in 2018!”

Crew chief Scott Jensen.

Crew chief Scott Jensen.

“We came into Barber hoping to show the progress we have made over the season with the new 2017 Honda CBR1000RR SP2 and end the season with solid results,” said Jensen. “Unfortunately, in QP2, Jake had a mishap that damaged our primary bike beyond repair, which meant the boys and I were in for a long evening, as our back-up bike was still a pretty standard motorcycle. After a very long night, which included a run to a local dyno (thanks, Russell’s Speed Shop!) to break in and tune a new engine, we had a bike ready for Saturday morning. After a problem-free FP3, Superpole came and went with us ending up a little further back on the grid than we were all hoping for, so we would be coming from the middle of row three – eighth on the grid.

“Race one saw two red flags due to crashes and us finishing a very respectable fourth place,” he said. “Sunday morning warm-up, we found a few more things on the bike to make it a bit easier for Jake to ride, which also showed in improved lap times.

“Race two was a more hectic race to get going, with two attempts at starting the race but both being halted due to rain,” Jensen recounted. “Eventually, the race was under way, with 12 laps in a wet race. Jake managed to run down the leaders and was in second place, looking for a way around the leader, on the last lap. Unfortunately, Jake had a miscue at the top of turn two and crashed, bringing our race and our crazy season to an end.

“Now we are looking forward to 2018 and putting this CBR1000RR SP2 on the podium!”

Check out these video highlights from round eight at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex…

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