1998 Daytona 200 Race Report
The defining moment of the weekend, the single moment when all the other competitors knew they were in very deep trouble and that Mr. Daytona was going to win the Daytona 200 no matter what they did or tried, happened in the Sunday morning warm-up session. As the Superbikes sat in the pit lane waiting to go out to scuff race tires or test fuel loads, a raspy Yamaha Superbike semi-idled down the pit lane, the rider occasionally blipping the throttle of the YZF750 engine to keep it running on the lean portion of the jetting circuit where the engine really snapped. As he passed by rival teams he whacked the throttle just to make certain everyone was looking at him. When they glanced over at Mr. Daytona, they saw him cruising very slowly down the pit lane with his left hand off the clip-on and cocked in an exaggerated way, with Mr. Daytona looking directly at his wrist, as if he was checking the time. The gesture meant this: ‘I have the pole, I have the boat-anchor Rolex, this race is mine. I challenge anyone who thinks they’re good enough to try and run with me.’ It was a bold move and gave everyone confirmation that Mr. Daytona was out for blood. It was a tense session; Russell also nearly got into a fist fight with members of his old brigade, the Muzzy Kawasaki team in the morning warm up, and rode closely to backmarkers when he passed them, and once passed gave them the ‘what the hell are you doing?’ look through the visor of his Shoei helmet. He also stared long and hard at the American Honda camp, remembering that one of his recent defeats came at their hands and afterwards they said that they’d outsmarted Mr. Daytona with a last lap draft pass. “Payback is a bitch,” Russell stated when he heard what they said. Time now for payback.
Somehow the rain that everyone knew was coming was delayed and Sunday dawned bright, sunny and windy. According to the Daytona pit guards, the Bill France Senior luck pushed the bad weather away from the Speedway. Whatever the cause, natural or supernatural, the only reason for concern on race day was the wind, blowing gusts of twenty-five miles per hour at time which made gearing headaches continue and braking into turn one and the chicane a bit dicey, with the gales blowing riders off line.
From the start, the race boiled down to a two rider confrontation. Lap one went into the books with Russell leading, Honda’s Miguel DuHamel in second, Doug Chandler in third, Anthony Gobert, Pascal Picotte, Mike Hale, Mat Mladin and Rich Oliver making up the top eight. Jamie Hacking and Picotte on the Harley-Davidson VR1000 were on the move. By lap two DuHamel had taken the lead from Russell and the top two had already made a break.
On the third lap Mr. Daytona and DuHamel went across the line together but the Honda was not able to get around the Yamaha with the ease in which some said it would. Perhaps a gearing error had been made or better yet, perhaps Mr. Daytona had suckered DuHamel into thinking his bike was faster than the Yamaha by sandbagging slightly at the right time. Whatever the situation, Mr. Daytona and DuHamel were not cutting the fastest laps on the racetrack on lap three of fifty-seven, (1:52.39 & 1:52.40) that accomplishment went to Pascal Picotte on the VR1000 (1:51.92) and Mike Hale on the Ferracci Ducati (1:51.74), all this according to American Roadracing’s private timing system.
Incredibly the VR1000 with Picotte on board was running around people like pylons in a parking lot. In the most incredible show of force yet with the much-maligned Harley-Davidson Superbike, Picotte circulated in third place behind the leaders on lap four, and had passed Doug Chandler’s Kawasaki, Hale’s Ducati, Hacking’s Yamaha and Gobert’s Ducati to get there. Other riders after the race were marveling at the speed of the VR on the banking and the incredible acceleration of the machine as it exited the chicane. The bike had passed another milestone. No doubt the gear drive engines the team has been struggling with for more than a season were operational at Daytona as the American bike simply snarled, sounding fresh and crisp all weekend. Another very important cog in the VR1000 success story at Daytona was Picotte himself who had turned down other lucrative offers to ride for the Harley-Davidson team. The Canadian is known far and wide as an extremely precise rider who, if the bike is capable, can put in almost unmatchable fast laps. Precision is everything at modern-day Daytona and Picotte has a Rolex Daytona pole award from a previous Daytona to prove he has the mettle to run fast there. Mike Hale was chasing a podium position when on lap seven he crashed out, folding the front on the brakes. His weekend, and probably his championship run, was over.
Mr. Daytona began to settle down to a consistent high 1:51 to mid 1:52 race pace on lap six, and he also began a mental campaign to try and wear DuHamel down at this point as well. When their bikes were drag racing up the banking Russell would look over at DuHamel and give him the finger, DuHamel would do the same back. As they exited the chicane with Russell in the lead he would look back at DuHamel and motion with his left hand, waving DuHamel forward, as if to say, ‘C’mon, boy, come and get me’. Moreover, at any point when Russell went past DuHamel, at the next available moment when two hands were not necessary to control the bike, Russell would take his left hand off the clip-on and hold it out, as if to say, ‘Is that all you have for me?’. These are indeed times in which fellow riders want to pull out a handgun and shoot Scott Russell. Correspondingly, it’s exactly at this point that Russell knows he’s got you sucked into racing with him instead of waiting until after the last gas stop to run ten-tenths, and if there is any time in which a knock-down drag out race to win is pointless, it’s before the first stop.
Things were happening: Tom Wilson on the second VR1000, Tom Stevens and Anthony Gobert pitted before the leaders, and the leaders were deep into the lapped riders at this point. DuHamel seemed to have the edge going through the slower riders and once he nearly collided with Russell as they braked for the chicane. Gobert’s stop took an unusually long time and he spoke with Vance and Hines crewchief Jim Leonard during the stop, motioning to the engine on the bike. The temperature gauge was already deep into the red zone as the engine was overheating. Gobert made an consistent slide backwards at this point.
At the front, drama unfolded when DuHamel decided to show some hair by drafting by Russell on the banking leading to the chicane. He made it past Mr. Daytona and was slightly out of shape when braking for the chicane. The bike started sliding slightly and DuHamel decided to try and make the corner instead of running straight and taking his chances later. The front Dunlop slid, and then completely lost adhesion as the weight of the slowing motorcycle was forced down on the contact patch. The bike was on its side in an instant and DuHamel was out of the race, and purportedly the championship as well. American Honda was out some greenbacks too as the RC45 tumbled and barrel-rolled into the infield grass, destroyed. DuHamel was up in an instant and over to the RC45 to see if it could be salvaged, but the machine was nearly totaled.
Russell said later that once he saw that DuHamel was okay, he smiled in his helmet and carried on. From that point on the race for the win was about a big a question as in which direction the sun was going to rise the next morning. If the bike stayed upright and the YZF engine running Russell would win. DuHamel walked away from his destroyed machine with his chin on his chest, dejected. He leaned against the track wall and contemplated the previous moments.
After the crash, Picotte on the Harley-Davidson, incredibly, took over the second place position. The running order just before Russell’s pit stop was Russell in the lead, Picotte holding down a solid second, Chandler behind, Bostrom on the second RC45 in fourth, Mat Mladin in fifth, Tom Kipp, Gobert, Hacking, Oliver and Crevier behind. Russell pitted on lap twenty, with Picotte behind him. Russell’s stop was flawless and he was in and out in just under ten seconds.
Picotte followed and what happened showed just why the Harley-Davidson team had rented an industrial building on Saturday night, loaded up their bikes and crew and practiced pit stops late into the evening hours. Picotte’s pit stop went well until the team tried to change the rear tire, the VR1000 refused to let go of the axle. The pit stop was an unmitigated disaster. It was like watching a car accident in slow motion. The team had come so far in just one weekend only to have it all come crashing down on them. Russell exited the pit lane and gave the American Honda squad a little wave as he passed by them. Russell entered the track still in the lead.
The running order on lap 21 was Russell in the lead, Bostrom in second, Chandler in third, Gobert in fourth, Hacking in fifth, Mladin in sixth, Yates (or as his new paddock nickname : “Jaws”) in seventh, Picotte now on the track but in eighth instead of third or fourth, then Oliver. Russell was waving to the crowd and wheelying the Yamaha for them.
Doug Chandler was slowed in the early portion of the race by a non-working KLS shifter but that was fixed in his pit stop and he now began to make up small increments of time on Russell; although nineteen seconds separated them and it would take a Herculean effort to catch him. Bostrom pitted and gave third place to Jamie Hacking. Hacking was on the move. About ten laps after the lap twenty pit stops the running order was Russell, Chandler, Hacking, Bostrom, Gobert, Mladin, Kipp, Picotte, Yates and Oliver. Gobert was visibly slowing at this point. Tom Wilson, Steve Crevier and Tom Stevens chased the back half of the top ten. Jason Pridmore went out of the race with a violent crash just after passing Larry Pegram for position. He left the Speedway with a broken shoulder and arm.
Gobert and Tom Kipp battled for position in the middle of the race, Gobert slowed by engine problems was no match for anyone. Picotte had set his mind on a podium finish and had his head down, blowing past riders on the banking with the superior torque of the VR1000 engine. On lap thirty-seven he worked his way up to seventh and was moving closer every lap to a top five finish. The Harley partisan crowd in the grandstands were screaming Picotte on and praying for the one thing that could actually make a race between Picotte and Chandler or Picotte and perhaps Russell: a pace car. Tom Wilson came in for his second stop on the VR1000 and it didn’t go any better than Picotte’s first one. Jamie Hacking went down the pit lane, got a rear tire and fuel, and exited as Wilson’s bike sat in the Harley pit as the mechanics tried to beat the rear axle out of the machine. Picotte came in for his second stop on lap forty for a ten minute stop that destroyed his hopes at anything but a finish.
The VR1000 had been smoking and leaving an oil film on some of the bikes behind it which made those riders cautious. Once Picotte was in and his bike being worked on, Hacking and other began to really lay down fast laps.
Russell pitted for the second time on forty-two, and in ten seconds had a tire and fuel. He, again, waved to the Honda pit as he rode by, and re-took the lead. From this point on he was cruising to the flag. There were thirteen seconds between he and Chandler at this point, a margin that would be whittled down to ten seconds and a bit less at the flag. On lap forty-nine, eight laps from the end, the running order was as follows: Russell, Chandler, Hacking, Bostrom, Mladin, Kipp, Yates, Oliver, Gobert, Crevier, Stevens, Pegram, Wilson, Hayden and James. Steve Crevier soon was out of the race with a thrown chain.
Rich Oliver had yet another horrible weekend working at Daytona before the race started. His left hand after his practice crash looked like it had lost a fight with a meat grinder. A finish at this point would have been fantastic and a top ten finish admirable. Oliver wanted more and really put his head down and pushed in the closing third of the race. He went by Yates and the two fought for the seventh place position. “Yates is a man who knows all about fighting, doesn’t he?”, said Chris Carter from his stand in the horseshoe.
It was time to go for many and on lap fifty three the running order had changed to Russell, Chandler, Hacking, Mladin, Bostrom, Kipp, Oliver, Yates, Stevens and Pegram. Oliver was looking for a top five position, Mladin was looking for a podium finish while others like Kipp (who discovered late in the race he had rear suspension problems) and Stevens merely wanted to finish. Mladin wanted Hacking’s position and he chased the man he affectionately calls “that back-ass punk” with everything the Suzuki had: if it meant scraping the wall and sliding the bike so that both sides were visible from the track side, he did it. Hacking knew he was being chased from seeing his pit board and he too put his head down.
Rich Oliver’s weekend came to an early end when on lap 54, just three from the end, he lost the front in turn one and crashed out unhurt. Before the race started due to the number of pre-season test crashes by both Hacking and Oliver, plus crashes at Phoenix and then practice and qualifying crashes at Daytona, there were zero spare sets of YZF bodywork in the transporter at Yamaha. Picotte went out a lap earlier.
Before the flag, Kipp slowed with suspension problems and Yates seized the opportunity to go by him, Mladin held onto fourth place and Hacking finished a fine if not spectacular third, the first rookie to finish on the podium in the Daytona 200 (Troy Corser had ridden Superbikes in Australia prior to riding in AMA).
Mr. Daytona cruised a record fifth win with Chandler distantly behind him. He said in the post-race press conference that he would like to win seven times at Daytona to match Richard Petty’s record number of wins. Only a fool would doubt he is capable of achieving that goal. It can take Dunlop riders an entire season to become comfortable on Michelin tires as the two have such drastically different traction characteristics. The special hard-compound tires used by both tire companies at Daytona only expand the problem areas for a rider trying to acclimate himself to Michelins. If Mr. Daytona can switch tire companies and still win as easily as he did in 1998, there is very little that will prevent him from winning again.