It’s 7am at Utah Motorsports Campus on Day One of a three-day MotoAmerica race weekend. Being my overly punctual self, I’ve shown up at the track too early, but it’s given me a unique opportunity to watch the teams arrive and get set up.
As I walk around the paddock, I can hear the sounds of a race weekend beginning. The quiet tones of the teams waking up and starting their day; eyes still bleary from the long drive to Utah. I could smell coffee brewing and breakfast cooking in some pits, while others were still devoid of activity.
I came around a corner and saw the unmistakable blue awning of the Monster Energy Graves Yamaha Factory Superbike Team. Yamaha invited me to spend a weekend with them to see the inner workings of a professional racing team, and all of the hard work that goes into such an undertaking.
Over the weekend, I’d have opportunities to sit down with Racing Division Manager and AMA Hall of Famer, Keith McCarty, 2015 Superbike Champion Cameron Beaubier, four-time Superbike Champion Josh Hayes, and Crew Chiefs, Rick Hobbs and Jim Roach.
Since it was still early and the tent flaps were still down, I stood and watched as the paddock awakened.
Almost without a word, the Yamaha team arrived. The members of the team began their daily set up, and as I watched, something occurred to me – they really weren’t saying much. Though there was a lot to do, little was said.
Each member knew their appointed job and went about it efficiently. Tent flaps were tied up, concrete blocks were attached to the tents to ensure the winds wouldn’t blow them away, tool boxes were rolled out to pit lane, and bikes were quietly prepared for a weekend of racing.
It was an operation that gave the appearance of military precision and efficiency. “Everything here has a purpose, everyone here has a job – they have multiple jobs,” says Crew Chief Jim Roach. I would sense this theme of professionalism and teamwork throughout the weekend.
Yamaha was really the only manufacturer that continued to support professional road racing in the US at the factory level during the recent economic downturn.
Through a strong partnership with Graves Motorsports, some innovative management of the racing program by Keith McCarty, and frankly, some bold risk taking, Yamaha was able to continue their factory road racing efforts, while other manufacturers closed-up shop.
“During the recession, we found a different way to do it (road racing) and it paid off,” explained McCarty. “Everyone else decided to keep their Supercross teams and we decided to work it where we had satellite teams in that series and kept the road race team instead.”
“We were able to get supercross sales and sportbikes, too. I think my boss was quite surprised and quite happy. It was very lucky, I guess, but it all paid off.” This dedication to road racing provided a handsome return, as Yamaha is now the dominant force in the MotoAmerica series.
In 2015, Yamaha swept all eighteen races in MotoAmerica’s Superbike class with Cameron Beaubier earning his first superbike championship. But 2016 has been different. Though Yamaha is still strong (currently with Beaubier sitting 1st and Hayes 29 points behind in 2nd), Yoshimura Suzuki is having a resurgent season.
With six race wins to their credit in sixteen races and a number of very close second place finishes at the line, Suzuki has upped their game this season. Much of that increase in performance is attributed to former MotoGP winner and Moto2 World Champion, Toni Elias.
“Only one thing has changed; the addition of Toni,” Hayes says, while talking about last season. “He understands the strengths and weaknesses of the machine he’s riding, which has always been a race winner, and he’s figured out how to exploit those strengths.”
The Yamaha teammates all agreed about Elias’ impact, with Hobbs, Beaubier, and McCarty discussing the new dimension he’s brought to the series.
After spending some time with the team, I noticed that this is not a young group of guys. As a matter of fact, I’d term them as “mature”. This maturity, though, offers mostly plusses with the potential for some minuses if not managed correctly.
Rick Hobbs mentioned to me how, “most of the guys are a little older, so we’ve been through a lot of things that ruin a team and mess up your chances for success.”
At the same time McCarty cautioned that, “maturity can work for you or against you. You can develop a lot of bad habits and have the cancer within, or you have older guys that are willing to accept change.”
Based on the success of the team, it looks like they’ve had a lot of the latter.
While talking with everyone, there was a very consistent message of team and family. The MotoAmerica series is like a traveling circus, and with constantly being on the road, long hours, and time away from home, it’s important to have a strong support network.
“I am fortunate that I have a crew that’s like family,” says Josh Hayes. “They believe in me and work hard for me.” Rick Hobbs echoed that sentiment and added, “We all support each other really well. It’s not the Hayes team versus the Beaubier team and we’re all working towards a common goal.”
As the morning’s preparations continued, the smell of breakfast wafted across the garage area. Yamaha brings two large haulers to a race, one of which serves as the hospitality area, which was a beehive of activity throughout the weekend.
Besides the factory superbike team, the hospitality operation supports the Graves Y.E.S Yamaha Supersport team, along with the other Yamaha support operations in both the 1000 and 600 Superstock classes.
This kitchen served as the center of the Yamaha social network over the weekend. Racers, mechanics, sponsors and family members made a steady stream through the hospitality area for good food, camaraderie, and occasionally a little relaxation.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “an army marches on its stomach” and it was obvious to me the Yamaha team understands the importance of good food, good nutrition, and its effect on morale. Unlike many of the teams that simply put a BBQ grill by their garage and cook out, the Yamaha team takes catering to a higher level.
The importance of nutrition for the team was emphasized with a large variety of healthy options. The team served breakfast, lunch, and snacks throughout the day. The variety was impressive and even vegetarian options were available. Yamaha figured out that a well fed team is a happy team.
After breakfast, the team rolled out to pit wall for the first day’s practice session. While watching the proceedings, I noticed they were doing a lot of rear suspension work, changing shocks and springs frequently. In this case, the team was combining practice with some development work that allowed the team to try some new setups.
“Leadership lets us try different things and go in our own direction, somewhat,” explained Hobbs. And since the first part of the season consisted of eight rounds and sixteen races crammed into a twelve week period, development time was at a premium.
It was also explained that their hauler was on the road for almost 75% of the season, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to go back to Yamaha’s mother ship in Cypress, CA to do engineering and testing. The compressed season has some benefits, but allowing the teams to have time to work on their bikes and test them isn’t one of them.
Of course, all the best equipment in the world won’t win a race without a talented rider, and Yamaha has two of them. Josh Hayes is the senior statesman of the team and has four superbike championships to his credit.
Cameron Beaubier won last year’s championship and is leading this year’s with two races to go. Cam is the future of Yamaha, but quickly acknowledges how important Hayes has been to his development.
“As much as I want to beat him (Hayes), I can still learn a lot from the guy,” said Beaubier. “Especially in the last couple of years, he’s helped me a ton being my teammate. Probably more than he thinks.”
In addition to Hayes, Beaubier also has an important relationship with former Formula Xtreme champion, Jake Zemke. Zemke (with Bob Moore) serves as Beaubier’s manager.
“Jake is able to come to the races, and that guy has a ton of experience. He doesn’t tell me go ride like this, but he’ll tell me that this guy is doing a little better here and you’re a little stronger there. He’s a really good guy to have in my corner” explained Beaubier.
Besides Zemke, former AMA and World Superbike Champion Ben Spies also helps with nutrition and fitness. Beaubier went on to talk about how Spies, “writes up a program for me and he tells me what to eat, how to cool my body down, and what to do before the races. That helps a lot more than you think when you need an edge.”
Watching Hayes and Beaubier together is interesting. They talk with one another a lot and also joke around quite a bit. The fact that they have a relationship based on mutual respect is obvious. Hayes is a mentor to many of the young riders in the paddock besides Beaubier.
At 41 with over 20 years of racing experience, his knowledge is vast. More importantly, Hayes is not just a talented racer, but rather is a student of the sport. As I spoke with him, his passion for racing came right through and his understanding of all aspects of racing, including the business and financial end of the sport, was impressive.
“The racing side of things, I still love. I still can’t imagine what I’d want to do if I wasn’t throwing a leg over that motorcycle.” At the same time, he’s also realistic about getting older, “my pace is down on my own pace from a year ago and there are some things in life that are a little bit harder than they used to be. Things that are hard now, that I never realized were hard before, because they were things that I never had to think about.”
But Hayes knows how fortunate he is to race professionally and competitively into his 40s, adding, “I’m a blessed, lucky man that I still get to do it. For so long in my career, people asked what I would consider success and I said if I could ride motorcycles for a living till I was 40 that would be amazing. Here I find myself at 41, and I’m still a factory rider and still win a race or two, and I’m still a threat any given weekend.”
Most of the members of Yamaha’s team have been around this sport for a long time, with many being in the paddock for over twenty years. They’ve seen the good and bad of American road racing and have lived through some tumultuous times, especially during the recent recession.
The transition from Daytona Motorsports Group to MotoAmerica in 2015 was a critical moment for the future of road racing in America, so I asked some of the team members how they thought MotoAmerica was doing.
Keith McCarty started off by saying, “as far as the organization and camaraderie, I’d say it’s an A+. It’s the best it’s been in years.”
But he also added, “The marketing side is still a tough one. A big difference, I believe, is to get other manufacturers involved. It would bring more people to the races to cheer on their favorite brand.”
Hayes echoed that sentiment saying, “we need those guys (the manufacturers) to come back. We need all the manufacturers to have a stronger presence.”
After eight weekends and sixteen races, the MotoAmerica series is now on a well-deserved summer break. Upon their return in September there’s only one round remaining, the second stop of the season at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
With a two-month break between race rounds, I asked the team how difficult that was to deal with. Both Jim Roach and Rick Hobbs felt it was tougher on the riders than the rest of the team.
“We ask the riders to take eight weeks off and then get back on the bike and ride with as much confidence and as hard as they were; that’s pretty challenging,” said Roach. As for the rest of the team, the long break offers some much needed time to catch up and do some development work.
“As far as the team, it’s actually good for us in a way. It gives a chance to take a breath and evaluate everything. Over winter, you tend to get a little rusty and you forget your procedures and your rhythm, but I don’t think a couple of months will make that big of a difference for us,” added Hobbs.
In the end, it will be interesting to see who weathers the long break better; the ultra-experienced Hayes or the younger, and possibly more resilient, Beaubier.
Running a professional road racing team is tough, demanding tremendous dedication and long hours. During a break, I asked the team members what the toughest parts of their jobs were, and it was interesting to hear the various perspectives.
For the leader of this racing effort, McCarty said, “it’s managing the things I’d like to do with the things I’m able to do, meaning the budget, or the direction the company wants to go.”
For Hobbs and Roach, the challenges are more directly related to the building and development of the motorcycles and the challenge of the small staff that handles a lot of the major work.
“The hard part is staying ahead of all the planning at the shop and all of the development. I take care of all the engine development. Rick Hobbs builds the engines and I dyno them and do all the mapping,” offered Roach.
While for Hobbs, the toughest aspect of the job was “paperwork” said with a laugh. Adding that “being away from home with back to back races for two or three weeks is also tough.”
As an experienced rider, Josh Hayes had a different perspective on the question. “There’s no next step. There are no world championship opportunities for me at my age. That’s been pretty apparent to me for quite a few years.”
“That’s honestly made things a lot more difficult because there’s always this huge chip on your shoulder when you know there’s that next level, so to be honestly content with what I’ve accomplished in racing and still find motivation to stick my neck out on the line.”
“I’ve found that more than this desire to want to win, it’s more of a desire to not want to lose, so it’s been a bit of a learning experience for me.”
Putting up with long hours on the road and weeks away from home and family is tough, but at the same time, there has to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that keeps these guys coming back for more. With that in mind, I asked what’s the most rewarding part of being on this team.
For Hobbs, it was “working with a younger rider and seeing him have success, and of course, winning races and championships,” while Hayes still “enjoys the pressure to perform when it counts. When you grid up to race, that’s still my favorite. I still get nervous.”
As I watched the race weekend unfold, the professionalism and spit & polish of the team were always evident. Uniforms for the mechanics and leathers for the riders were clean, the haulers gleamed in the sun, and the mechanic’s areas were well organized with a place for everything and everything in its place.
Practice led to qualifying, which led to racing; all in a highly choreographed display of competence and proficiency. While some teams around the paddock seemed chaotic, Yamaha’s team was always composed.
Watching this well-oiled machine led me to ask what the keys are to the team’s success. The answers might surprise you. It wasn’t the fact that Yamaha has invested a lot of money into this enterprise, nor was it about having superior equipment, but instead, it took on a more personal tone.
“I think just trusting one another,” said Keith McCarty. “We have a great group of guys with individual skill sets who have a great deal of confidence in one another to do what needs to be done.”
Hobbs was quick to mention how “it comes down to opportunities and taking advantage of them, being prepared, and getting along.” On the other hand, Jim Roach discussed how the key to the team’s success is, “relationships and getting the rider’s trust. Everything’s dynamic and always changing, so if you can find out what a rider likes and needs, the relationship works and the communications are there.”
As I started my long drive home from Utah to Southern California, I reflected on my weekend with the team. I interviewed five of the principal members of the team, but there are so many other folks who work behind the scenes to make this team successful.
From the chassis mechanics, to the electronics and suspension technicians, to the hauler drivers, to the families—this is a special operation.
Watching a band of brothers that trust one another was impressive. Motorcycle racing is an exciting but dangerous sport. Everyone on the team had an obvious stake in the safety and well-being of the riders and their fellow teammates.
This team withstood the economic downturn, yet managed to thrive and win multiple championships. Hopefully, as MotoAmerica grows and becomes more successful, more factory teams will return to the paddock.
Just know that they’ll have a lot to do to catch the Monster Energy Graves Yamaha Factory Superbike Team.
Photos: © 2016 Andrew Kohn / Asphalt & Rubber – All Rights Reserved