Pleasing Kenny

In spite what race track observations from a distance may lead you to conclude, pit lane conversations are not always cerebral.

The late Nobby Clark works on Eddie Lawson's Yamaha OW69 at the Laguna Seca test. Peter Ingley on right.
The late Nobby Clark works on Eddie Lawson’s Yamaha OW69 at the Laguna Seca test. Peter Ingley on right. Wayne Baker

“You checked the pressure, right asshole!?”

Kenny Roberts was in fine form this day at Daytona. It was February 1983 and we were participating in a Yamaha-only test at Daytona Speedway, one which followed immediately on the heels of a similar test at Laguna Seca the previous week. Yamaha was on the hunt, and the target in their gunsights was a win in the Daytona 200. For this mission, they’d trotted out the big guns—literally. The weapon of choice was a one-off special, a 680cc version of their 500cc GP bike, a monster known internally as the OW69. But that didn’t matter right now. What mattered was that Kenny was NOT happy. Not happy at all.

The Laguna test had revealed that the big Yamaha didn’t do a whole lot very well except go like hell. Kenny had even gone so far at one point as to duct-tape a porno-shop purchase depicting a not-often-viewed portion of the female anatomy underneath the seat for Kel Carruthers to find. This was Kenny’s delicate way of making the point that “After riding the 500, this thing handles like a XXXX! You need to fix it.”

And now, here we were testing at Daytona for the win that Yamaha wanted, the win that Yamaha needed. After spending all that money bringing over both 500cc bikes and 680cc bikes, various Yamaha USA and Yamaha Japan staffers, mountainous piles of equipment, tools, parts and us—the two Dunlop guys who had to keep Kenny happy in the tire department—they HAD to win. Dunlop UK’s Pete Ingley, a veteran of many GPs and a guy who’d worked with more famous riders than I could count, had flown over for the Laguna and Daytona tests. Me? Even though I’d had a modestly successful eleven-year career as a pro racer, I was just starting out on what turned out to be a thirty-one-year career at Dunlop. So far today, neither of us had done a very good job at all in helping Yamaha get that win, or in keeping Kenny happy.

In spite of Kel’s best efforts, Kenny couldn’t get the 680 to turn the way he wanted. As an ex-racer of TZ750s myself, I thought I knew a little about big Yamaha two-strokes, but I had been amazed that morning as Kel and his guys had changed fork crowns, fork heights, fork oil, fork springs, fork settings and still, the bike wouldn’t turn. Kenny’s last pit-out had resulted in a single lap before he pulled back in again. When he had his helmet off, he delivered a scathing look at every one of us gathered about and said, “Now the f___ing thing won’t turn AND it’s pushing the front.” Which was the point at which he drilled a hole in me with his eyes and said, “You checked the pressure, right, asshole?” pointing to the front tire.

Panicked, my mind ramped up to a thousand-miles-an-hour in a nanosecond and I held a scrambled conversation with myself. “Damn, I think I did….I’m pretty sure I did…. I know I did.” Out loud I said, “Yeah, I checked it.” But Kenny had picked up on my hesitation and pointed to the front of the bike.

“Well check it again, asshole.” No shortage of suitable descriptive terms in Kenny’s vocabulary today.

As I knelt there looking at the pressure gauge, I was thunderstruck. “Eighteen pounds? How could it be eighteen pounds?” I’d checked it not twenty minutes ago and set it at thirty-two! I was desperate not to look like a moron, but there was no escaping it. The gauge definitely said eighteen – much too low.

“How much?”
“Uh … eighteen Kenny.”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought. Thanks asshole. Eighteen pounds, thanks.”

In spite what race track observations from a distance may lead you to conclude, pit lane conversations are not always cerebral.

I was pissed, embarrassed, and muttering to myself as I carried the wheel back to the garage, my Dunlop UK buddy Pete walking beside me. “I checked it, Pete. I KNOW I checked it.” I hated looking like a dummy in front of the world’s greatest motorcycle road racer and I was still doubting myself.

Pete tried to reassure me. “If you say you did, then you did. Don’t worry, Jimmy. We’ll figure it out.”

Back in the garage we pressed into service the high-tech equipment we tire guys use to check for air leakage in our expensive, special racing tires – we filled the laundry sink and plunked in the wheel assembly to see if we could spot any leaks.

There they were. Three little streams of bubbles emanating from the tread surface. Kenny had run over something on the track. It was a simple flat! It wasn’t my fault! I was elated—I felt vindicated.

Beside me, Pete was not nearly so giddy. In fact, he looked almost crestfallen. With a groan, he managed to say, “My fault, it’s my fault.” Now I was confused. “That last temperature check I did, I must have gone in too far with the needle. You don’t get three holes in the same place on the tire any other way.” When a tire technician checks for maximum temperature with a needle-probe temperature set at Daytona, it’s absolutely necessary to get deep down, right to the interface of the tread and the casing. Normally, that’s anywhere from four to five millimeters on a front tire. Pete had sunk his probe in too deeply, penetrating the airtight innerliner.

My thoughts immediately turned to all those guys out there on the pit wall. We could count on the Yamaha USA guys to at least be understanding, but we were going to catch holy hell from the Japanese Yamaha guys. They had more pressure on them than any of the rest of us at this test. They HAD to win this Daytona 200, and we had just wasted a morning’s testing for them. Pete and I both knew that the way these things work at the international level, execs at Dunlop USA, Dunlop Japan, and Dunlop England were all ultimately going to be involved in explaining this one to the big shots at Yamaha in Japan.

“What do we say? What do we do, Pete?” Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking we could still keep this quiet, that maybe Yamaha didn’t need to know exactly what had happened. I was about to learn one of the most valuable lessons of my entire career at Dunlop, a lesson that stuck with me from start to finish in that career.

Pete had caught my drift and now it was his turn to drill holes in me. “What we do, Jimmy is always tell the truth. We walk right back out there right now and tell those guys that we made a mistake. They’ve just spent about two hours chasing their tails, and if we do anything but tell them exactly what happened, they’ll believe us. And then they’ll continue to chase their tails, maybe right up to the point where they lose this race.”

I felt like crap. I’d instinctively known the right thing to do and for a moment, I’d contemplated another. Now the awesome responsibility Pete and I carried and our duty to carry it honorably had just slapped me in the face. The lesson was clear: In a world where bullshit and lies causes wasted time at the very least—and got people hurt at the very worst, those of us working on the pit wall with racers MUST tell the truth. No truth … no credibility. No credibility … no place on the pit wall.

Most of the rest of that test is a blur. We did tell Yamaha exactly what had happened and we did catch a healthy ration of grief from them. Most of what we got from the Yamaha USA guys was good-natured and understanding. And as predicted, most of what we got from the Yamaha Japan guys was quite serious and prodigious in quantity. Roberts? He loved it. I think the hoots and laughter lingered at the track long after Pete and I beat it back to the hotel that night. To this day, Kenny loves it when he’s right and someone else is wrong, and there’s not much he likes more than rubbing your nose in it when it’s you. No matter, we told the truth.

Oh … and the race? Kenny smoked ’em!

Kel Carruthers. He did lift the OW69's tank up once only to find a gigantic dildo.
Kel Carruthers. He did lift the OW69’s tank up once only to find a gigantic dildo. Wayne Baker

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