I wasn’t able to attend round 6 of the CVMA series in March 2016, so I drove up to Buttonwillow Raceway the weekend before for the AFM 2016 Season Opener on March 19-20 to get some more time on the bike and try to sort out the geometry and suspension. I couldn’t stay for Sunday, so I would only get in Friday and Saturday practice, and the 350 Production race Saturday evening before I’d have to head home, but I was pretty excited about this weekend, since I’d never even ridden Buttonwillow before. I was also meeting up with Gregg Spears and some of the Spears racing team for the first time. I’m sure we’d have a good time. Buttonwillow is a well known track that earned the nickname Bumpywillow because of it’s uneven surface. However, it was repaved last summer and should be a little better now. Here’s the track with the configuration we would be riding:
I arrived Thursday night to setup my pit on the front row with the Spears Racing team. Friday was track day with 3 session format and I was riding in the middle group. Austin Guinn, one of the Spears riders that would be racing the Spears R3 for 2016 and 2015 Champion for several of the classes that the R3 competes in (he was riding a well equipped Ninja 300 last year when he won several championships) was nice enough to lead me out on track first session and give me a few slow laps to figure out which direction the track turned. The second session, I went out on my own and kept learning the track. I think a I forgot a couple corners and went off track at least once lol. Buttonwillow, like Chuckwalla, is pretty open in a few sections and on an Ultra Lightweight bike, you spend a considerable amount of time with the throttle wide open. I chatted with Sean Corbin and Austin about the track and the R3, what to do where, and tried to get a feel for what to expect. I didn’t expect much during the races the next day, but they said if I could get my lap times under 2:10, it should be fine and I’d have fun.
Saturday Morning before the first session, I also went to see Jason of JPH Suspension to discuss some of the issues I was having at Chuckwalla the previous couple of rounds. I’ve worked with a lot of different suspension tuners in my years of track riding and racing including Randy Acevedo of In House Suspension, AJ from Paradigm Racing, Andy Palmer of AP MotoArts, Teague and Dave Moss from Catalyst Reaction, and Jason from JPH. They all have a slightly different style, and I had the best success tuning my R6 for my riding style while working with Jason at Laguna Seca, so I was excited to see if he could help me sort out the R3. Unfortunately, Jason is from Northern CA so I rarely see him at the track. This was a good opportunity to work with him again.
I gave him the full long explanation of what I had been through, tried, tested, and how the bike felt. I also raised the front of the bike since the last round at Chuckwalla so that there is now 15mm of the fork tube (not counting the cap, just the tube) sticking above the triple clamp. This is how I knew Spears had his bikes set up, and also how Hammer was running his bike, so I thought I would try it. He checked out my bike, pushed on it and bounced on it a few times, and had some immediate first impressions that were a little different than the others I had spoken to. He also had some experience with the R3 already working with Austin Guinn. The forks weren’t too far off, but he recommended adding quite a bit of preload to the rear shock to stiffen it up and suspected this had a lot to do with the pogoing I was experiencing while hard on the gas coming out of the bowl at Chuckwalla. This would also keep the rear of the bike taller mid corner when corning forces are at a peak and may help the bike finish the corner. The bowl at Chuckwalla is a 10 degree banked turn with intense G forces that really compresses the bike before you even get on the gas. He added 2 full turns (5mm) of preload to the rear shock. This removed all free sag from the rear of the bike. He also removed all preload from the front forks to soften them up, but said that it was on the slow side because I had dropped from .80 to .75 springs and the rebound damping was already reduced all the way and couldn’t be adjusted any further, so we may have to add some preload to speed it up.
I did 3 sessions Saturday morning to get a feel for the track. By the 4th session, I was getting up some decent speed and could start judging the feel of the bike. So far, it felt much better already than it ever had at Chuckwalla. I came in to see Jason after the 4th session. He had been watching and said that the front forks were still too slow so we added some preload back in and he commented that lighter oil in the right side fork where rebound damping is adjusted may solve this. He added a little compression to the shock to balance the increased front preload, and sent me back out.
In the 5th session, the bike was really feeling good. It was cornering beautifully, I had never felt it like this. The bike felt like it was on rails. On corner entry, I just picked my turn in point, dropped the bike on it’s side, and it just effortlessly fell to the edge of the tire and held a line. It was SOOO much easier to ride, and SOOO much easier to go fast. I was already putting in 2:10 times and there was all kinds of slower bike traffic, I couldn’t get a single clean lap to really figure out my times. By the end of the day, I had put in a 2:07 or 2:08 and was feeling really confident and excited for Saturday practice.
Saturday practice was FUN and a little frustrating. Because I had never ridden Buttonwillow before, they grouped me in with the slowest riders for practice. This meant that I was riding with mostly people on larger bikes with very slow corner speed and our speed differential on corner entry was huge. For any of you who haven’t experience this yet, it can be terrifying. The bigger bikes would have just enough horsepower to pass me 50 feet before the corner, then slam on the brakes while I’m still wide open throttle. So I found myself weaving through slower bikes while turning in on a track that is pretty narrow trying to keep up my corner speed to see where my lap times really were. I don’t think I got a clean lap until the last session Saturday before the races started, so there were a few corners that I didn’t get much practice on because they came after long straights and I always had a slower big bike right in front of me. Oh well. I was still able to put in a high 2:05, which was on par with the fastest guys in my upcoming race during practice. I was getting a little tired by the end of the day, but was definitely excited!
The grid position for AFM is generally based on points, and since I didn’t have any previous experience, I was expecting to start in the back of the grid. But for some reason I was starting pretty close to the front, in 6th, on the second row. I got a decent start and went into the first corner right behind Austin, in 4th position. I made some mistakes each lap and lost a few places. I was definitely still figuring out my lines and speeds in a few corners and was a couple seconds off the lead pace. I was starting to get a little bit of a groove going by the middle of the race, but the other wave of SV racers started catching us and really threw a wrench in my groove, so I kinda fell back and gave up chasing down the Ninja I was battling with. Overall it was a fun race, and I dropped my time a little more to low 2:05s, but it was easy to see places where I had tons of time to make up. I ended up 6th, kind of at the back of the lead group, but well ahead of the next rider. I’m very excited to come back to this track and learn it a little better. I think I can compete with the front runners with a little more experience here.
Here’s the full race video, enjoy!