“The brakes are bad,” the rider said when the first Superbike practice at Road America had ended. This was the early 1980s.
His mechanic reacted with indifference. Bad how? he asked.
Well, the rider explained, they don’t work. The corners are longer here and they just get overwhelmed after about two laps. The lever is at the bar and they just get worse the hotter they get. Can we put fresh brakes on?
No, the mechanic said sharply. The brakes are on a schedule to be replaced after this race. I’ve tested them; they are fine. There is good lever pressure, the pads have plenty of meat on them and everything functions as it should. I just changed the fluid in them before this race.
The pair moved on to gearing and jetting. As with every topic this mechanic had to initially establish technical superiority over the rider by mentioning his past. Gearing? Well, when Freddie won Sears Point, he did so with the bike’s stock gearing. I know because I worked on the bike that weekend. Jetting? Do you know why the bike needs fatter main jets here? It’s because of all the trees around the track. When Yvon won Talladega, he did it because I jetted it.
“You have to jet for the trees” was one of his more infamous rules.
The mechanic did this with nearly every topic of conversation. It was a mystery to only him as to why he ate dinner alone most nights or why at the end of the day the other mechanics would pack in the second rental car so they did not have to ride with him and listen to how he alone was responsible for the internal combustion engine or other myths. Think about it: six sweaty, dirty and exhausted men packed shoulder to shoulder in a car for a 20 minute drive. All to avoid one person.
After another practice session with the brake lever spending more time on the handlebar than away from it, the rider asked his teammate say how are your brakes?
Their bikes were largely identical.
Mine are good, he answered. We’re doing new discs every morning, new pads every other session. I think we’re bleeding them before every session. They’re not fantastic but good enough.
Before he went out in the next practice session the rider again mentioned to his mechanic that the brakes only last about a lap and then they basically stop working. He implored his mechanic to go out in a corner and watch. Nothing doing. Okay, look at my forks, see how they don’t compress nearly as much as my teammates’ forks? He pointed to the telltale zip-tie on the fork leg.
Oh, that’s because I put stiffer springs in them, he was told by his mechanic. I talked to the factory in Japan and we decided you need stiffer springs.
If his mechanic ever accepted any technical advice, it was always and only after he’d claimed to have spoken to the head of the racing department in Japan. No one on the team believed this to be the case.
The rider took this information and let it stew in his brain.
Keep in mind that Road America was designed as a car track, they all were back then. Riding with a percentage of your ability looking for a safe place to ride off on every lap, in multiple corners, or going into some of the more dangerous corners knowing if the brakes fail that it is going to be bad, rod-in-your-femur bad, is no way to go fast.
For the next practice session the rider stayed out the entire session. He never came in once for a tire or fuel or a drink of Gatorade. The brakes were again cooked in two laps but he stayed on the bike and did the best he could; he’d do a fast lap then move off the line for a lap and let the brakes cool off. Near the end of the session his teammate came up beside him and he tried to hang. In two corners his teammate–on the same bike– dropped him by simply being able to stay on the racing line on the brakes, whereas he nearly bent the inside footpeg down trying to square the corner and not die.
Fiery rage filled his helmet.
He followed everyone else into the pit lane where teams were waiting to grab bikes, put them on a stands and then debrief. He maintained the same speed as the other riders, and then swooped into his team’s pit area where his mechanic was waiting, with that same superior, I-know-everything-look-on-his-face.
The rider grabbed the front brake lever and pulled it to the handlebar. The scene was his only as he watched his mechanic’s eyes lose their superiority and instead grow large in horror. The brake lever to the bar and the bike barely stopping meant that the rider hit the mechanic at about fifteen miles per hour. The brakes actually didn’t stop the bike, the mechanic’s body and the pit wall did instead. Boom!
People jumped up, scrambled to help. The mechanic was laying on his back, awkwardly caught up in the bike, front wheel in his crotch.
Confused on-lookers, other mechanics and rider wives were there when the rider pulled his helmet off. What the hell happened? someone asked him.
He put his face in the mechanic’s face and shouted I TOLD YOU, THE BRAKES DON’T WORK. With that he stalked off to the team’s box van to change into his street clothes, and prepare to be fired.
The team manager of the squad was new on the job, but not new to racing. He had been in observational mode up to this point but took careful note of the other members of the team avoiding one mechanic at nearly any cost. In addition, his own conversations with the mechanic rarely went well.
The next day on the grid, the rider’s bike was set with new brake rotors, brake pads, brake calipers, brake lines and even a new master cylinder.
After the race that day, there was an informal team meeting away from the box van. All members of the factory team were in attendance, other than the headstrong and unpopular mechanic. The team manager listened while everyone on the team said “It’s him or us. We’re sorry, but this can’t continue.”
Two races later the mechanic was gone.