As far as racing fantasies go, competing for Yoshimura R&D in a national-level roadrace at Laguna Seca is pretty dreamy.
I never actually
Before we get to that, an update on what’s happened since we touched base in early June. As of the last article on this YZF-R7 project, the bike had undergone two days of on-track development at Chuckwalla and was shaping up nicely, but there were still some issues to work through before the big race on July 9.
Thankfully, in late June, we were able to schedule a Friday track day and Saturday and Sunday race weekend with the West Coast’s newest race organization, the California Roadrace Association, at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, no less. This was a real gift, as it provided time for much-needed testing on the future battlefield and an opportunity to run the bike, rider, and team through several dry run races.
Unfortunately, the track day got off to a rocky start due to Laguna’s strict sound limit and an exceptionally raucous, full-titanium R7 exhaust. My first two sessions resulted in meatball flags on the out lap, benching me for the remainder of those 20-minute stints. A third strike would take us out of the game for the day, so we installed a curved insert in the muffler to direct sound away from the microphone and I short shifted and eased off the throttle past the sound booth at Turn 5, just for good measure. What a ridiculous problem to have at a racetrack!
With the fear of getting sacked looming over us, we set to work testing. Laguna Seca has significantly harder braking zones than Chuckwalla, as well as generally more dynamic corners due to speed, camber, and elevation changes, so we had a lot to contend with.
Fork bottoming and brake fade emerged as issues, and we were still trying to get the slipper clutch and electronic engine braking to work well together during rear-tire slides at corner entry. Daisuke addressed the fork issue with oil-height and spring-rate changes, while Kae and Kenny got the back-torque system dialed in. Sean bled the brakes for me, repeatedly, and we agreed to install a remote adjuster and try different brake-pad compounds during MotoAmerica practice in a few weeks. The testing and progress never end, but honestly, that’s part of the fun.
For the CRA weekend, we signed up for every race we were eligible for, eager for the under-pressure practice and valuable intel on tire life, gas consumption, and race-pace lap times it would afford. As a reminder, Yoshimura hadn’t competed since 2019, and some of the team members had never been through race-day maneuvers before, ever. As for me, my last real roadrace was back in 2017, so I had some rust to knock off, as well.
I had another, fairly serious concern that I hadn’t fully shared with the team: I had doubts about my ability to ride at pace for the entire 13-lap MotoAmerica race. Throughout my club-racing career and up through our tests at Chuckwalla, lower-back pain from a disc injury has inhibited my riding after six or eight laps. I’d been training heavily for weeks though, taking the advice of a physical therapist friend (thanks Gabby!) to switch up and intensify my workout routine to strengthen my lower back, legs, and core. So for me, the most important function of these CRA races was to see if I could even go the distance.
Saturday morning would certainly provide an answer, because we were running a 20-lap “600 GT” doozy followed by a 30-minute break and then a 16-lap “Twins GT” event. “You’re going to do 36 laps in a short amount of time,” remarked Daisuke. “That is not normal.” Nope, but when it comes to racing at the MotoAmerica level, neither is slowing down because you’re in pain or tired.
As it turns out, I logged my fastest time on lap 17 of the 600 GT event and felt solid all the way through to the checkered flag in all of the weekend’s races. That was a huge relief, and the weekend was great training for the whole team, but there was still one problem: My lap times. Mid-1:34s were the best I could muster, and the frontrunner Twins Cup guys did mid-1:31s in last year’s race at Laguna.
I’d never expected to gun for the lead, but I was definitely hoping for a top 10, and that wasn’t likely with 34s. Other than the brake-fade issue, the bike was more or less sorted, so I just needed to ride better. Even without Daisuke’s data I could identify a dozen ways to go faster, so my only hope was to be able to implement some of it come race day.
Yoshimura’s return to racing
Race day arrived a little less than two weeks later, and when we returned to Laguna Seca the team had taken on a new polish. Matching jerseys replaced T-shirts and the R7’s subdued testing bodywork was now adorned with some of the flashiest graphics anyone has ever seen. Troy Lee Designs is responsible for the paint, and as Troy himself put it, “That’s the wildest design we’ve ever done.”
TLD hand-painted my Bell Race Star Flex DLX helmet as well, and Alpinestars came through with a matching, asymmetric custom Tech-Air-equipped suit to complete the package. It was a lot, and while I was honored and grateful, it all went against my “don’t make it too pretty to crash” ethos. Yet the only pressure I felt came from within; other than encouraging me to get good starts, nobody on the team had ever burdened me with any expectations or edicts, which in retrospect, is incredible.
As latecomers to the MotoAmerica paddock, our pit placement was fairly removed from the action, but that beacon of a bike and the general buzz that Yoshimura’s presence created kept our camp busy. Between racers and team managers coming over to study our R7 and ask about parts availability, to industry folks and fans flowing through for handshakes and pictures, the down time — of which there is plenty during a race weekend — seemed to fly by. There were also several dozen Yoshimura employees who had made the pilgrimage to Laguna, and I had a few friends and family members in the crowd, including my wife, Loren, and my father, Todd, which only added to the significance of the event.
Practice provided a shot of optimism when I clicked off some high 1:33s; faster than I’d gone before and in the top third of the 36 bikes on track. Qualifying 1 and 2 were a rude awakening, though, as my competitors rapidly got up to speed and lowered their lap times.
I qualified on the front row in the twins races at the CRA event, but a similar qualifying time put me way back on the seventh row for the Twins Cup, in position 18 out of 28 (eight riders didn’t qualify). For anyone who thought the Twins Cup was a feeder class, think again. There are former 600-class champions on the grid, and most of the top-10 riders are multi-disciplinary racers who have been competing at a high level since childhood.
After the sighting lap, 15-minute pre-grid fanfare (which I thought would be nerve wracking, but was novel enough to be fun), warm-up lap, and gridding, it was time to race. My first start from lights (as opposed to the green flag used at amateur-level races) wasn’t my usual rocket launch, but I didn’t lose any positions and I survived the chaos of the Turn 2 apexes. Not crashing is always my first priority, but it was more front-of-mind than ever given, well, everything.
I’d be lying if I said I had an exciting race in the classic sense, but it was certainly one of the most memorable and meaningful track sessions of my life. I was at the tail end of the fast guys, as expected, unable to make time on the two riders ahead of me. Even if I wasn’t clawing my way through the grid like I’d aspired to do, I knew we had all worked hard for these laps, so I focused on squeezing every drop of enjoyment out of the ride.
Laguna Seca has a lot to enjoy. Keeping it pinned over the blind rise of Turn 1 is a thrilling test of nerves, and Laguna is one of those rare U.S. tracks that uses grippy “MotoGP paint,” so braking and throttling across the curbs is fair play. And while everyone is familiar with the Corkscrew, few people actually get to feel what that three-story drop does to your stomach. Laguna Seca is hallowed ground in the racing world, I was on a very special bike, and I wasn’t going to let the uniqueness of the experience escape me for a moment.
In the end, I rode past the checkered flag in 13th place, feeling grateful for the opportunity and thankful to have brought the R7 back to the team unscathed.
With the project’s zenith behind us, the big question everyone kept asking was if I was going to race the R7 again. In the hours and days after Laguna there was certainly talk of going to Barber in September, but once the adrenaline leached from our brains we realized that another race, on the other side of the country, would be too much of a push. “This was a success, a huge success, and everyone enjoyed it,” says Yusaku. “I think it’s best to stop here.”
As for fielding a team in the future, Yusaku was characteristically sober and open-minded. “We raced for so many years as a factory team, I don’t think we need to do that again,” says Yoshimura’s young CEO. “But I loved the project, so did the team, the whole company; it really got people excited, so I’d like to do an event like this once a year, but perhaps in a different discipline of racing.”
“Don and Kenny have been building engines for 1,000cc micro-sprint cars,” says Eric Steen, “and our products are used in flat track and have become really popular in the small-bore drag-racing scene. So there’s opportunity to do something in an area that’s out of our wheelhouse, as a way to promote development and explore different business opportunities.”
The idea of a fluorescent flat-track bike or Yoshimura’s iconic katakana characters scrawled across the hood of an open-wheel dirt-track car is certainly compelling, but for now the company’s attention remains on the R7, though the focus has shifted to producing all the parts the other race teams have been clamoring for.
“The exhaust is a slam dunk,” says Eric, “as well as the aluminum subframe. We’ve already got those designs refined. The cams, swingarm/frame plates, and linkage are next. Whatever we do, it has to be available in time for next season.” So if you’re thinking of building an R7 for the track, keep refreshing that YZF-R7 products page.
At the onset of this project, I assumed the MotoAmerica race would yield the most powerful memories. The race weekend was certainly a highlight, but looking back, it was working with the nascent Yoshimura R&D race team — growing and learning with and from them — that was the real prize for me.
I’ll miss the excited texts from Ricky, the quiet data debriefs with Daisuke, Sean’s pearls of race-prep wisdom, and Yusaku’s calm encouragement every time I set out to turn laps on his motorcycle. We may not be teammates anymore, but we’ll always be friends.