The Mid-Ohio round of the AMA MBNA Superbike series is the most popular round with hard-core enthusiasts of the sport. Located smack dab nearly in the middle of the state of Ohio, the Trueman family-owned and run facility is country-club like in setting and festive in atmosphere. Fans, many from the East Coast and Midwest, and some riding their exotic two-strokes down from Canada, flock to the circuit on race day, filling the hills and valleys of the venue so that the grass is covered with human forms.
The Trueman family has a long history of doing things their way, quite successfully thank you, and one of their quirks is that they don’t release attendance figures; therefore, the actual attendance numbers are unknown, but if you guessed that fifty thousand people were packed in and around the 2.4 mile circuit located near both Lexington and Mansfield, Ohio, on raceday you wouldn’t be too far off.
Someone casually suggested that the reason for the high attendance is that there simply isn’t anything else to do in central Ohio on Sunday afternoon, that they had to choose between watching cars rust or stare unabashedly at the Amish as they wheel by silently in their wagons on the Ohio hi-ways. Untrue. Ohio boasts several national sports teams and things of that nature and you can’t drive anywhere without seeing some sort of declarative sentence regarding “the tribe” (which refers to the affection Ohioans have for the Cleveland Indians) so there are alternatives. The Truman family has certainly done an honorable job of attracting both the hard core racing enthusiasts and the local race-watcher.
Ohio is a very strong state for sport bike sales. CBRs, FZRs, YZFs and GSX-Rs abound and it seems that the owners of these many machines come to Mid-Ohio. And it’s just not Superbikes that the residents of Ohio and other states like to watch — the AHRMA vintage race the weekend before the Superbike event boasted a 40,000 spectator level, unofficially of course.
An AMA national now in its tenth year, the Honda Supercycle race at Mid-Ohio has been nurtured into a true ‘happening’ with many activities besides the racing to bring in the fans. If you do get bored at the racetrack, simply getting on your bike and riding is the easiest alternative — the nearby roads are quite good. Maybe too the contingent of hometown boy fans help boost spectator numbers: Larry Pegram, Tom Wilson and Tom Kipp all hale from Ohio and signs in their support litter the sides of the racetrack.
This is neither the same racetrack nor the same event that it was in 1996. The race last year was a rain-marred disaster which, in retrospect, was the first real sign of Jamie James’ career coming to a close when he crashed in the wet, hit the wall and broke his leg. He was not alone in hitting the notorious wall and the AMA lobbied throughout the past year for its removal. They also clamored for a serious purse increase, considering that Mid-Ohio is the most spectator popular venue on the schedule. The men from Westerville came away successful in both their quests: the wall was moved back far enough that a crashing motorcycle probably wouldn’t come in contact with it and the Superbike purse was raised to a nicely padded sixty thousand dollars total, with ten grand going to the winner. This makes it the third best paying AMA national to win, behind Daytona ($16,000) and Loudon ($10,500). In addition the Truemans added a gravel trap between the final turn and the start/finish and several hundred feet of new fence.
All is not perfect at Mid-Ohio though; the surface is extremely rough, rutted and spackeled together in places with concrete, asphalt and sealer. The Truemans will re-pave it when they feel it is in need of such repair. And not a moment before.
Mid-Ohio Sports Car course is a fifteen turn course including the ninety degree double-apex “Keyhole” and the decreasing radius “Carousel”. Previous winners at the facility have included Mike Baldwin as the first in 1983, Kevin Schwantz in 1987 and Tom Stevens in 1991.
Qualifying: Aaron Yikes!
The Great Lakes Road Racing Association held a track day on Thursday before the Mid-Ohio national and many of the top Superbike teams used the event for cheap practice time, including Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki. The best race of the day was a Heavyweight sprint that included none other than 250 ace Richie Oliver, Superbike champ Doug Chandler and Yamaha’s Tom Kipp, with Oliver proving that deft skill is an important quality to have at Mid-Ohio as the little two-stroke was able to keep pace and — gasp — even occasionally PASS the Superbikes.
When practice started young Aaron Yates was atop the leaderboard at the end of the session with a 1:29.507, just a half second or so off the existing lap record set years ago by Colin Edwards on route to his first AMA Superbike win —1:29.1. Following Yates came his teammate Pascal Picotte and Yamaha’s Tom Kipp, who has almost won the Mid-Ohio race so many times it stopped being funny a long, long time ago. Series champ Doug Chandler and his rival Mat Mladin rounded out the top five.
In the first qualifying session Colin Edwards’ lap record at Mid-Ohio checked out as Tom Kipp, Aaron Yates and others flirted with breaking it then DuHamel stepped up and shoved it out the door for good with a 1:28.799, followed by Chandler showing early form with a 1:28.620, good for provisional pole. Conditions for the first qualifier were stifling hot, the air dripping with humidity.
Saturday morning’s practice dawned pleasant —warm and sunny and most competitors tried to test race compound tires, forgoing any hijinks on the soft tires. Having a WSC race in the country the week prior meant that the Dunlop competitors had ample WSC-spec rubber, left over from the Laguna Seca race, at their disposal. Especially inviting was a Japanese spec Dunlop 501 rear with a different carcass designed to prolong its life. DuHamel, Mladin, Picotte, Kipp, Chandler and Tom Stevens were all in the 1:29s on the harder rubber.
Over at Vance and Hines Ducati the development process on the 955 Ducati machines had stopped while Jim Leonard and crew tried to fix an overheating problem that had been plaguing them for several weeks. “It’s pointless to go after more power until we fix that,” commented Leonard. Rider Stevens was in good form at Mid-Ohio after having to spectate and act as color commentator at Laguna Seca. Mid-Ohio is a good track for Stevens and he was clearly enjoying himself, even though the bike was down a few mph from the always fast Hondas.
Second qualifying Saturday afternoon saw Aaron Yates crowned with the pole position, the second of his career and only the second Suzuki pole at Mid-Ohio. Yates’ fast time was a 1:28.610 and came after he crashed big in turn six in an earlier 600 Supersport practice session, high-siding spectacularly while managing to avoid injury, fortunately. Chandler was second-fastest with his first session time of 1:28.620, DuHamel behind him at 1:28.787 and Mladin finishing the front row of the grid in fourth with a 1:28.884. Tom Kipp on the YZF750 sat fifth fastest, giving him pole position in the second row and Pascal Picotte next to him in sixth at 1:29.011. Tom Wilson showed some good form to go seventh fastest at 1:29.128 with Tom Stevens beside him at 1:29.211. Steve Crevier, Larry Pegram, (still sporting a seriously nasty bruise on his left leg from his WSC crash) Tommy Hayden and Ben Bostrom made up the third row, all of them in the 1:30 range . Chris Carr was fast out of the box but a experienced a huge crash during the GLRRA races on the front straight, the bike tumbling all the way to the wall through the sand trap and leaving Carr perhaps a bit gun-shy for the rest of the weekend. Gerald Rothman, Tripp Nobles on Don Tilley’s VR1000 and finally, former Mid-Ohio Superbike winner Doug Polen made up row four. Seven riders were under Colin Edwards’ old track record.
With a big purse, challenging venue and an ample and appreciative crowd to draw them in, Superbike competitors came out of the woodwork. A total of fifty-one riders attempted to qualify for the race with forty-four making the cut-off of 115% of Yates’ pole time. Last place on the grid was filled by Anthony Fanta Jr. on a GSX-R750. Fanta’s fastest lap was over eight second a lap slower than Aaron Yates’ pole time. The number of riders and their speed was a problem for the factory riders as the Mid-Ohio facility has but one textbook straight and passing is a calculated risk when the minutes are clicking down.
Chandler felt that the slower riders had cost him a run at the pole and he was not alone in that feeling; both Mladin and DuHamel helped Doug form a roadracing’s equivalent of the Three Tenors — but instead of singing Italian opera, they took part in a massive bitch-fest.
Chandler started it off: “It’s bullshit,” an unusually frank series champion said of the slower riders. “There are too many of them and they should limit this to a certain number of riders, like thirty, or they should split it up into two groups. Or they should stop the session with twenty minutes to go and only let the top twenty riders in points go out.” Chandler’s blue eyes were gray with anger.
DuHamel took up the second chorus, “The slower riders … do they know what they’re doing? I wonder if they do because they’ll be off line like they’re cruising and then suddenly they’ll go onto the racing line, sometimes in the middle of the corner. I had about five incidents out there where I almost hit people. It’s not just that they’re slow — it’s that they’re unpredictable. You don’t know if they’re off line because they have a mechanical problem or what, then they just flick it on the racing line. It’s pretty hazardous out there. ”
Mladin came last, “I realize that we don’t own the racetrack and that the other riders, lappers or slower riders if you will, have the same right as I do to practice. But I would think that they would know not to get into the line until the track is clear. When I go out from the pitlane I look over my shoulder and stay off the racing line for almost an entire lap of this place. But Doug is right, there’s too many riders out there.”
DuHamel was involved in a pitlane slap-boxing incident with privateer Paul Harrell on Friday when he and slower rider Harrell exchanged middle finger salutes for a lap or two and then rendezvoused back in DuHamel’s pit for some exchanged blows, in full leathers and helmets. DuHamel’s mechanic Al Ludington and others broke it up, much to the disappointment of the cheering pitlane crowd. Both riders were later fined “an appropriate amount” by the AMA for their unsportsman-like behavior.
Chandler suffered through mechanical problems at the Laguna Seca WSBK race the week before and he was still plagued by them at Mid-Ohio. “We don’t know what it is, to tell the truth. Sometimes it’s good and then the motor will start to slow and surge, act up and start to lay down.” Chandler’s Kawasaki started wearing a carbon-fiber heat shield at Laguna Seca, fitted between the engine cases and the fairing to keep his foot cool and according to Chandler the reason for the engine now overheating was a mystery. Tom Wilson’s Harley-Davidson also wore a heat shield.
DuHamel stated that he was confident yet cautious after Brainerd and Laguna Seca, “I have confidence of course, because it has been going well. I know too well that every week it changes and it’s a new race. We were close to the pole, it’s not like we were a mile away. I’m not a qualifying guy, I don’t have that many poles.”
Mladin said that it was a rider problem that kept him away from that single very valuable point for the pole. “It’s me more than anything. I’m just the worst f*&king qualifier in the world. I’m hopeless.”
DuHamel stopped him, “Hey, hey, hey, that’s my title!”
“No,” Mladin continued, “I’m hopeless at it. For some reason I always seem to get stuck behind someone and … it’s not just that. I’ve never been a big believer in going out there and qualifying for the pole. I did my fast time twenty-five minutes into the session and then I came in and they put a tire we thought would be too soft for the race. I went out and was one second slower than I was on the hard tire. I’m not a big qualifier. I think there’s more points to be earned on Sunday than there is on Saturday.”
This was Yates’ second pole of his career and first of 1997. Mid-Ohio has been good to him in the past. “I like this track a lot,” he said. “It’s, I guess you’d say, pretty technical: lots of turns, lots of curves and you have to muscle the bike around. You have to ride hard. I was second in the Harley race a few times years ago and won the 750 Supersport race here last year. My first time at Mid-Ohio —1993–I qualified second to DuHamel on the 600. That was a really good deal but (Mike) Smith took me out at the top of the hill in the race.”
The Yoshimura Suzuki has always been competitive at Mid-Ohio, the GSX-R750 chassis worked well, or said Yates. “The bike has gotten so good lately that we have only done like a click or two on the suspension front and rear. I’ve just been riding the thing. We sorted out some carburetor stuff trying to get the bike to run better. That’s what we spent all this morning on and then we ended up going back to the carbs we started with. Just like the other day, make some changes only to go back where we started. We tried some different stuff with the ignition and it really made a lot of difference in the last session. We ran a new ignition box with some more advance and it made the bike run a lot faster.”
The ignition swap left Yates without his on-board lap timer. “I didn’t realize that I was going so fast through the turns. When they put the new ignition on they forgot to hook-up the lap timer sensor deal and I had no idea what kind of lap times I was doing. I was just going as hard as I could. I guess it was a qualifying tire they stuck on. It was a new tire there at the end and they (the crew) said, ‘Here, try this’. So I took off on it. It must have been a qualifier because it went off in about two laps.” Yates set his fast time one lap from the end of the session. He also stated that the brake problems that hindered him at the Laguna Seca WSC race were cured: “It was the brake fluid. We realized that we were running a different brake fluid so we went back to the AP fluid. We also had some problems with the rotors and we didn’t realize that I was using the brakes up so much but the pads were totally gone at the end of the race. We’ve had a lot of problems but this weekend, so far, no problems.
On Sunday morning DuHamel, Yates and Thomas Stevens were among the riders who lapped in the 1:29s on race compound rear tires. Chandler did high 1:28s. The gauntlet then had been thrown down: do 1:29s or be faced with a plane ride home staring at the seat in front of you wondering where it all went wrong. When the session ended several riders were talking amongst themselves of the incredible speed off the corner of the Kawasaki ridden by Chandler — the green bike was hooked up on race tires the way most Superbikes are on soft qualifiers. Worried looks were worn on the faces of both Miguel DuHamel and Mat Mladin. Stevens was fast on race tires but brought the Vance and Hines Ducati back from practice a twisted mess on the crash truck. “It wasn’t much of a problem,” explained Stevens. “I fell when I ran into the back of Steve Crevier. He came out of the hot pit when I was on a really good lap and pulled right onto the racing line. I ran him over. It was really both our faults. But he’s been around long enough that he should know not to do that. He apologized and it’s all behind us.”
Those words didn’t seem to comfort the Vance and Hines team who had to frantically build a new bike for Stevens in a matter of hours.
Race: Maybe the best race ever
Starts are crucial at Mid-Ohio as the track affords only a few places to actually pass on acceleration. If a rider protects the inside line well enough, and has a Superbike with decent acceleration, as most riders that qualified do, passing becomes a game of bravery and simply elbowing your way past on the inside, on the brakes. Chris Carr was asked on Sunday morning if he had considered blatantly jumping the start to ensure a decent position on the first laps, hoping the AMA stewards and officials would not notice and leaving him first into turn one.
On the contrary, Carr showed the maturity of a former Grand National Champion, saying, “I wouldn’t do that. If you can’t do the times as the leaders, and unless I find something I won’t be able to match DuHamel and Mladin, then you really don’t have any business doing that. Yeah, it looks good and it might give you some good press, but any professional rider who sees you do that knows immediately that you’re a moron.”
When the green light flashed to start the twenty-six lap race Steve Crevier, from the middle of the third row, tried to go up the inside of Tom Kipp, Mladin, DuHamel and Stevens. There was plenty of bouncing and jostling in the first turn with Crevier almost going over Kipp, forcing him to slow and shunting him to the back of the top five and Crevier almost crashing out Larry Pegram on the Yoshimura Suzuki. “It was scary, very scary,” said Pegram. “I was perfect at timing the start and both Crevier and Bostrom were in front of me. I think Crevier jumped worse than Bostrom. Then Crevier decided to run into everybody in turn one. Somebody hit me after they bounced off him.” Pegram would soldier on with a heavily bruised leg and by race end, an engine that had tied up. “My bike was running hot the whole way and it finally tied up with like a lap to go,” said Pegram.
DuHamel was out front and trying to make a break immediately. Crevier and Ben Bostrom had made lightning starts and were up front as well, but by the second lap Bostrom was shown the meatball flag by the AMA and given a stop and go penalty for jumping the start. The running order on lap two was as follows: DuHamel with a scant lead, Mladin tucked in behind him, then Chandler, Thomas Stevens, Bostrom, Picotte, Kipp, Yates, Crevier, Hayden and Gerald Rothman. Bostrom pitted and took his medicine; he would finish ninth.
Within four laps the top four — DuHamel, Mladin, Chandler and Stevens were breaking away from the pack. Mladin took the lead on lap four and with nothing of the four cylinder variety to balk him, Chandler taking over the second spot. Tom Wilson had made a strong move in qualifying by garnering the seventh spot, and in the race he was able to get the VR1000 off the line fairly well and was circulating in the eighth position. He would finish seventh while Carr would be mired down in twelfth.
By lap seven of the race Chandler had squeezed his way up to the exhaust of Mat Mladin’s Ferracci Ducati. The first few laps were in the 1:30 range and now the hammer was being thrown down — the top three were in the 1:29s and the lap times were falling. The running order on lap seven was as follows: Mladin, Chandler, DuHamel, Stevens, Yates, Picotte and Kipp. Chandler took the lead from Mladin at the end of the back straight on lap eight in turn six. “That corner is really deceiving,” said DuHamel of turn six after the race. “You go in there and you think to yourself, ‘come on man, get serious’, like you’re not going in deep enough. And then you go in there half an inch further on the next lap and you’re like a millimeter from making the corner. It’s really slippery and hard to judge.”
Chandler usually likes to play things cool on the opening laps of any race: stay with the lead group and try to do a bit better than the leaders when it counts. Veteran riders call it riding with your head and not your wrist. This was not one of those occasions for Salinas’ Chandler. He was riding aggressively, the back end of the motorcycle quite loose. Mladin still held down second at this point with DuHamel in third. The order stayed the same with Chandler eking out a slight lead on lap ten and Yates going by Stevens. Stevens, in easily his best ride of the year thus far, tried to hang with the leaders but as the lap time fell he lost touch and then crashed, obviously over-riding the equipment to stay in line.
Two crashes in one day didn’t seem to dampen his spirits. Stevens, the 1991 AMA Superbike champion, explained, “Like I told Jim (Leanord, Vance and Hines Ducati crewchief): Either make the bike faster or expect more of the same. Because I am not going to settle to run around in the back. I can over-ride the thing and crash, or I can win. So they need to make the bike better because you just can’t keep making up all that ground on the brakes and through the corners, because eventually you’ll overheat your tires. That’s exactly what I did.” Stevens further punished the crashed Ducati by giving it a nice haymaker punch while it was on its side, shattering the windscreen. Crewchief Jim Leonard said, “I’d rather have him run at the front and crash, knowing that he was trying his guts out, than to just ride around.”
Stevens closed the conversation with this statement: “I’m not settling. I settled all my career. I’m not going to settle anymore.”
Yoshimura Suzuki’s Aaron Yates had made a horrible start but had chosen the same rear Dunlop tire as DuHamel and the pair were on the move by lap eleven. By lap thirteen Chandler had enough of a lead for some to start saying that the race was for all purposes over. Chandler was on the gas and had a two-second break from Mladin in second place. Mladin’s place was far from secure as DuHamel was constantly trying to come by him on the brakes, or, in typical Miguel fashion, anywhere he could attempt a pass. He’d try wide lines on the outside even though that would assuredly put him behind again come the next corner. Why? Just–well, because he’s Miguel.
Once he made it by Mladin, DuHamel almost crashed once trying to get by Chandler, the Honda going all but completely sideways on the brakes. “It wasn’t too scary,” he said of the near-crash. “I just didn’t feel too smart. I was just hoping nothing happened to Doug. I didn’t feel too good about it. I didn’t feel too smart. I almost took out Doug.”
Chandler acknowledged that DuHamel’s move wasn’t on purpose. “I was along side him and wasn’t too concerned,” said Chandler. “I knew he was going to get it stopped but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I could slow mine down more and cut back up the inside or just get off the brakes and stay on the outside. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
The cancer of the leaders would be the backmarkers and with forty-odd bikes on the 2.4 mile course Chandler was into the leaders in less than seven laps and into heavy traffic on lap fifteen. In one fell swoop he lost his entire lead after being balked by some slower riders in a corner. “I could ride my damn scooter through the corners faster than some of those guys,” Chandler told another rider after the race. They may be the bane of the leaders, but for the spectators, the slower riders made the contest an entirely new race. Chandler lost his advantage and at the end of the back straight he lost the lead, with Miguel DuHamel, who had been jostled back to third, smoking by both the Ferracci and Kawasaki bikes in one fearless move. Chandler made a brief run back at the front almost immediately when DuHamel ran wide, but by the time they reached the front straight DuHamel was back in the lead. Chandler was right behind him with Mladin in third.
Chandler tried to get past DuHamel again on lap nineteen at the end of the back straight and, in very non-typical for Chandler fashion, almost crashed when he ran wide, lost the front and then the rear on the brakes and had to gather it back up to stay in the game. This allowed DuHamel more than a four bike-length lead. On the next lap Chandler made a successful pass in the same spot on DuHamel and with the laps running down he was looking for the checkered flag. “I didn’t really ride over my head,” Chandler said, “but I put some effort into it. I tried to get away but every time I’d come up on some backmarkers and I’d lose everything. I couldn’t take any risks and at one point, when I put it almost off the track, I said to myself, ‘You can’t do that’.”
“I looked back and saw that it was just Miguel behind me at one point, that Mat (Mladin) had gone backwards. I said then that I was going to try and win because it would put Miguel in between us. It would have given me more points.”
Mladin began to drift back at this point with an ailing engine. “Just past the middle-way flag I got a couple of pops from the engine in fourth gear. Then it disappeared but came back. The engine was going away, so I just tried to finish.” He would come under fire from pole-sitter Yates and would eventually be passed by the Georgian for third place.
With two laps remaining Chandler was again in the lead but in the backmarkers as well. “Once I got back up to Doug I kept thinking, ‘Where can I get him? Where?’” said DuHamel, “It was a lot of work.” Then he made a brilliant, very calculated, two corner set-up pass on Chandler to take the lead in the back section of the course. The irony of the pass was that the backmarker in the middle of it was none other than California Yamaha rider Paul Harrell, with whom DuHamel had had a pit lane altercation on Friday. It was enough to seal Chandler’s fate. DuHamel took the lead and the checkered flag with a nasty off-center wheelie, followed by Chandler in second and Yates in third.
DuHamel’s margin of victory was a scant .120 with an average lap time of 1:29.908. He reeked of Ben-Gay in the post race press conference. “One rib is still for sure cracked from my Laguna crash,” he explained. “I didn’t have it x-rayed but I know it’s broken. I’ve had so many x-rays now I can change the television channel just by looking at it. Then I got up this morning and couldn’t lift my left arm up. It came out of its socket yesterday when I got in a bit of a wobble on the Superbike. It hurt my shoulder quite bad. I went to bed and thought it was okay. But when I got up this morning I thought, ‘I can’t do this’. I couldn’t even lift my arm.” DuHamel received treatment from a therapeutic masseuse who has been following the series this year, helping a variety of riders with their aches and pains. DuHamel rode under Yates’ lap record for three consecutive laps in the race.
DuHamel said of the final pass on Chandler, “I knew I could get him. But I knew that if I did it wasn’t going to be too pretty. I had a few options of where I could get by him, but none of them were too pretty. I saw the backmarker (Paul Harrell) and thought at first I was going to get them both in a slightly banzai move. Doug went to the outside and then to the inside and I went to the inside. It worked with the lapped rider in there.” DuHamel is now tied with Freddie Spencer on the all-time AMA Superbike win list with fifteen victories.
Yates moved from fifth to fourth in the championship standings. He commented after the race, “The start was bad. I over-revved it and the clutch was slipping and I had to let off and get back on it. The pack was gone and I had to work my way back up. I started sliding around towards the end, the shock was fading, and the leaders were gone.” Yates crashed more than once throughout the weekend, including once in the Sunday morning 600 Supersport race. “I pretty much trashed my leathers this weekend. After I fell this morning I had to wear a set I haven’t used since Daytona — the arms and legs are real tight in them. I thought I would have some circulation problems but it wasn’t too bad.”
Chandler extended his points lead with second place and was happy with his performance, — and the bike’s and the tires, which he hasn’t been able to say for a few races. “When I almost put it off the track I really started thinking. I told myself that I just couldn’t do that. I wasn’t going to go over my head like that.” Chandler led fourteen of the twenty-six lap race with Mladin leading four and DuHamel leading just eight. Chandler extended his points lead over Mladin 219 -199 with DuHamel now in third with 187. The fat lady has yet to bellow, but she’s warming up if Mladin doesn’t win at Pike’s Peak and Sears Point.
Several riders walked up to the AMA tech barn after the race to observe the tear-down inspection the top three bikes were given, especially Chandler’s Kawasaki. Nothing illegal was found in any of the bikes. All three were well over the minimum weight for the class of 355 pounds: DuHamel’s RC45 weighed 368 pounds; Chandler’s Kawasaki weighed 363 and Yates’ Yoshimura Suzuki weighed 360.
For the reminder of the top ten the race was over when they made their tire choices. Chandler used a one-off, made in Japan Dunlop 538 WSC rear, DuHamel and Yates used the WSC 501, Kipp and Picotte used another tire and were burning rubber before ten laps were in the books, the Yamaha’s telemetry saying that Kipp’s rear tire was spinning wildly, eighteen mph faster than the front, all the way down the back straight.