During my first MotoAmerica race weekend on the factory Yamaha YZF-R1 at New Jersey Motorsports Park, I was pretty uncomfortable on the bike. I didn’t have any feeling for the rear tire; I couldn’t tell when it was sliding. As soon as I got to full lean in a corner and wanted to touch the throttle, I started having big problems. There was a fine line between being comfortable and the bike trying to spit me off.
When you feel uncomfortable in certain places on the track, you either push really hard in other spots and make mistakes or, in my case, lose the motivation to push hard. I was definitely on the edge. I never like to think about crashing, but as a replacement rider for Cameron Beaubier, I didn’t want to tear up any bikes. Leaving Jersey, I was pretty down. For the second event at Barber Motorsports Park, I wanted to stay positive, fix the problem, and have a good weekend.
Between races, Attack Performance sent Yamaha a set of the footpeg assemblies that we had used on the Meen Motorsports R1. Using those measurements, Yamaha made new rearsets that were 21mm lower than what they had been running with Cam. We also lowered the entire bike by 20mm. With those changes, everything was better. I felt totally comfortable and in control. I could drive off corners and point the bike where I wanted to go using the rear tire.
Cam had tried lowering the bike, too, but he didn’t like it because the bike didn’t change directions as fast. The bike was slower changing directions, but the most important thing for me is a good all-around feeling. So I felt there were far more pluses to lowering the bike than minuses. Cam was interested in the changes we made, and Josh Hayes actually raced with the same rearsets. I was happy to see that because it was something I brought to the table.
During the past couple of years that I’ve been riding on my own, I’ve learned how to set up a bike. I believe in myself, and I think I can set up a bike as well as anyone else. Telling the team that I was uncomfortable on the bike and the ideas that I brought to the table, plus checking the measurements on the Meen bike, made them want to try some different things. It was a good test for me to see if I could improve some things in just one race weekend.
I believe I should have had pole position on Saturday. I was eight-tenths off pole, but I had big problem with another rider trying to get a tow. I was trying to let him go, but then he stopped on the track and wanted to follow me. That got in my head. I let the qualifying tire get cold and made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t think I would even be in the top five, so I was surprised when I found out that I was third.
Lowering the factory Yamaha R1 reduced cornering clearance, but Josh Herrin said the bike was the best he had ever raced. “Barber is known for scraping bellypans because we get so far over the curbing,” he said. “We probably would have gotten those marks even if we didn’t lower the bike.”
In the first race on Saturday, I was so pumped to be feeling good on the bike. I wasn’t getting tired—the bike was working with me instead of against me. I was able to ride the entire race without thinking about saving energy or the tire; I could just go. The two restarts—three starts in total—were the hardest thing for me. I had to keep getting around Toni Elias. That guy is like trying to pass four bikes wide. He’s fast and really good on the brakes.
Once I got around Toni, I was able to catch Roger Hayden, but it took a lot to get there. On the last restart, Roger pulled away. I’ve always had a never-give-up attitude. There is always a chance that he might run wide or maybe get a little tired. I just kept pushing and pushing. I caught him and then in the museum corner, I had a big front-end tuck. Luckily, I saved it. We had one lap to go when that happened. I closed the gap, but I lost by seven-tenths of a second.
I have probably watched the video 50 times. There is a patch in that corner. Every other lap, I was looking down at the patch so I knew exactly when I was going to hit it and expect the movement from the front tire. But on that particular lap, I was really close to Roger so I was paying attention to his back tire, and the patch caught me by surprise. Man, when that thing gripped it almost spit me off because it wheelied.
To me, it felt worse when it happened than it did watching the video. When stuff like that happens, it’s always best to relax your body and let the bike come back in line. If you fight it, that’s when you crash. With one more lap, I think I could have been there. That’s the famous saying, right? Not winning was a bummer, especially with the way Sunday went: I got a great start, got by Roger, had a little bit of lead, and then the rain came.
On the warm-up lap for the restart, Roger and I pulled into pit lane at the same time—before the red flag. I could tell he was thinking the same thing: “Forget this. It’s too dangerous. There are sealer strips everywhere, and I can’t see them because of the tire spray. Heavy rain is coming down. If you run off the track across the wet grass, the walls are really close.” Mathew Scholtz crashed, and I told Roger, “I’m not riding until it dries out.” He agreed.
I told the team, “I’ll go out for the restart, do the parade lap, look at the track, and if I think it’s still bad, I’m going to pull in.” I looked at it and still had the same feeling, so I came in after the second lap right before the restart and sat out the race. The championship was over, and I didn’t feel like there was anything to gain. I didn’t want to destroy the bike trying to get on the podium. And it was dangerous.
Those situations are tough. There is never a right answer. The team was fine with my decision. Yamaha’s Keith McCarty told me, “Do what you think is right. Nobody is going to judge you.” I was happy to hear that because I didn’t want to be the bad guy for sitting out, but I also wanted to look out for everybody’s safety. I want to be able to train hard this winter and race next year. I won’t look back on that decision with regret.
I think I did really well on the factory bike. It’s an R1, of course, but it was still a new bike to me. Winning the race on Saturday would have been the only way the experience could have gone better. I had the pace, and I made the passes. If anybody had any doubts, I think I proved them wrong, so it will really be a bummer if we don’t get something good next year. With the right program, I can win the championship.