David Vaughn takes his shot at the AMA
Making the Decision
We all have dreams; some of which are more possible than others. I had achieved my dream of competing as an amateur and then as an expert. What I now wanted more than anything else was to qualify for a spot on an AMA grid so I could race as a pro. This was my burning desire from the first moment I found out that motorcycle roadracing actually existed as an organized sport. While I felt that perhaps I might have the ability, there were thousands of things standing between me and that impossible dream. Most of them were dollar signs. Sometimes though, dreams can come true.
During the 2010 season, I crewed for AMA Privateer Mike Morgan. September found us at Barber Motorsports Park for the final round of competition. That weekend at Barber was a memorable one. The Daytona Sportbike and American Superbike races were awesome, nail-biting contests and as a fitting end to one of the most competitive seasons in AMA history, all four AMA classes saw their championships decided at that final event. The buzz throughout the paddock was intoxicating and I just kept on drinking it in. The weekend concluded with the AMA awards banquet held in the beautiful Barber Motorcycle Museum. Everyone who was anyone in the AMA was there.
All summer long, watching Mike up close and personal while acting as his crew, the urge to try this game myself kept growing. As I walked around the museum, the idea that I might be able to do this myself just kept running through my head. Later in the evening as I was looking at vintage motorcycles with friend and current AMA Chief Tech Inspector, Mike Neely, the idea finally grew so big that it jumped right out of my mouth. I blurted out, “Mike, I want to race in Supersport next year.” His reply was, “Dude, you’re crazy! Those guys will kill you!” I heard what he said but it really didn’t matter to me. I think I had just wanted to hear how it sounded out loud.
From that day on, the wheels just kept turning. I remembered that I had purchased a 2008 GXSR 600 which was sitting in the garage. I got it for a great price and was intending to resell it for a profit but the bike was so beautiful that I was having a hard time deciding to let it go. Hmmmm. Not too long after that I called my two biggest enablers; my wife, Yolonda, and my best bud, “K3” Chris Onwiler. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but it wasn’t no!!
Fast forward to the spring of 2011. K3 and I spent all winter finding sponsors, acquiring parts, and working to save the money that was required for this project. Once riding season arrived, it seemed as if everything that could go wrong did. Between the crappy Midwest springtime weather and our endless mechanical gremlins, I was unable to get any meaningful seat time aboard the new bike. We traveled to Putnam Park in March to shake down the Gixxer mechanically and to give me the chance to ride it for the first time. Saturday was rainy, so I left our AMA contender safe under the canopy and rode my 750 instead. Sunday’s weather wasn’t much better. I logged a few laps aboard the 600 but wasn’t able to get a feel for it. Our next outing came the week before Easter. K3 and I drove to Talladega, Alabama for the Jason DiSalvo Speed Academy. There, I had a chance to ride the bike hard for the first time. We had issues with the Power Commander, but there was a month before our next trackday. Plenty of time to work it out, right…?
Fast forward again to Friday, May 27, the day before the three-day Sportbike Track Time event, held Memorial Day weekend at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois. At this point, there were just five days left before we were to make the trip to Road America for the AMA weekend. It had been a grueling month since Speed Academy. I’d spent long hours preparing the bike mechanically and myself physically and I was ready to go. I started the Gixxer one last time and then loaded it into the trailer with the rest of the gear. I wanted to use this event as a final high-speed warm up before the big show. That night, I remembered that the tech rep at Dynojet had told me to install their latest updates into the Power Commander and my laptop. I downloaded this data that evening and proceeded to update the PC-V first thing Saturday morning at the track. BAD, BAD MOVE!!!!! When I tried to start the bike nothing happened. The firmware updates had somehow corrupted the Power Commander and the bike would not run! For the next two days, a group of my friends took turns thinking about and attempting to solve this issue. (Big thanks are due here to Jason Kehoe, who put in a solid eight hours on the problem.) Longtime friend and sponsor Brian from Valley Racing even came out to the track Sunday afternoon to lend a hand. When our tuning genius couldn’t make the bike start, he finally decided to take the Power Commander completely off of the bike. Once that was done, she fired right up!
With only Memorial Day Monday left before we headed to AMA, it was vital that I get some laps and start learning how to ride this bike. Unfortunately, there had been torrential rain on Sunday. The ground at Autobahn was so saturated that on Monday, the track was still draining. This meant that I was unable to get in any fast laps. Our final chance to test prior to Road America was gone and I still hadn’t been able to become familiar with the bike at speed. On Tuesday morning, I dropped the bike off at Valley and Brian ordered a new Power Commander via next-day air. On Wednesday morning Brian called Dynojet technical support and they helped him to get the original P.C. up and running. I called Dynojet for reassurance upon hearing this news. I just wanted to throw the new one on at this point, since the original device seemed to have been cursed right out of the package. The representative from Dynojet was confident that their latest suggestions had solved the problem, so I left it in place. We loaded up the bike, which was still in pieces from two days of thrashing on it at the shop, and headed for Wisconsin directly from the Valley Racing parking lot.
Off to Road America
When we arrived at Road America I was in a somewhat precarious state because I had only two days of riding time on this newly-built racebike. Because it had never run correctly, I hadn’t had a chance to learn the machine. Now, there was just one final day of Sportbike Track Time practice in between me and the biggest challenge of my life. To top it off, my motorcycle needed to be put back together before I could ride it! We got to the track at least six hours later than planned and by then it was far too late to accomplish anything more that day. On the plus side, our dear old friends and teammates, Paul, Dawn and Renee Buxton, were there waiting to greet us when we pulled into the paddock. We talked and laughed; It was just like old times. This released so much stress that suddenly I was excited and ready to go. In the morning I reassembled the Suzuki and took her out for a spin. The bike ran great but our Power Commander Gremlins were back. The quickshifter was causing the bike to throw codes, illuminating the fuel injector trouble light. As a result, the shifts were not as crisp as they should have been. By now, we had enough experience with these electrical issues that I knew the F.I. light was being caused by the P.C. and did not mean that the bike was about to blow up, so I spent the rest of the day riding at a moderate speed; working on body positioning and getting a feel for the track.
This was it. The AMA circus was up and running at Road America! Our first order of business was to visit the Dynojet guys. We told them about our issue and they put the bike on their portable dyno to see for themselves. They told us that the QEM module was bad (this was a guess on their part) and gave us a new and improved SFM module as a replacement. Great!!! Chris installed it and we were on our merry way to getting ready for my first AMA practice session. The crew, K3, Nick Desautels, Paul and Dawn Buxton, and my wife Yolonda set to work installing tires, putting on warmers, cleaning my helmet, polishing the bike, adding fuel, setting tire pressures and all of the other countless tasks that a professional outfit executes before sending their rider off to battle. My job was to clear my mind and relax so that I could focus when the time came. I just rode my bicycle around in the pits, smiling and soaking up the atmosphere. I’d waited all my life for this day.
One of the many details that we’d been unable to resolve until the last minute was our team shirts. We chose Vicci Apparel as our official clothing supplier. Vicci is the creative force behind the look and at-track presence of many of the most famous teams in motorsports. Two months before the AMA weekend, we started the process of designing our team shirts. It took about a month before we were able to finalize a design, which left Vicci with exactly four weeks to make the shirts. The problem was that the shirts have a four week lead time and the Indianapolis 500 was the week before the AMA event at Road America! Lisa and Danielle at Vicci did everything they could to get our shirts made on time but their workload was way too big and it came down to the last minute. On Wednesday, they knew for sure that our shirts would not make it in time and started on a contingency plan. They decided to make backup shirts that were a simple black design with the TrackdayMag logo silkscreened on. Vicci sent these to the track, next day air via UPS, probably packing the shirts while they were still hot off the printer. While the crew was hard at work preparing the bike I rode up to shipping and receiving to grab our shirts. I opened our care package from Vicci and could not believe my eyes. In two days, Vicci had made and shipped eight backup shirts to get us through our big weekend and they looked awesome. No one in attendance at Road America could have guessed that these were last minute, “Get us by” shirts. Thanks to Vicci, my crew and I were all “Fresh dressed, like a million bucks.”
Time to Go
When I dressed for practice and walked onto hot pit lane wearing my leathers, the feeling was surreal. All my life I had dreamed of this moment and now it was to happen in about 3 minutes. I started the practice session from our canopy at the trailer, so I had to ride through the paddock to enter onto hot pit lane with the motorcycle. There were a good number of people walking throughout the paddock and they all looked and moved aside as I navigated through. It was an incredible moment. At that instant, I became a part of the show. That awestruck feeling ended as soon as I entered hot pit lane. I accelerated up to the 50 mph pit lane speed limit and headed out onto the racing surface. It was time to get down to business.
The first thing I noticed as I tore off towards Turn One was that now the quickshifter was not working at all! There was nothing I could do about it, though. I needed to get up to speed. Next, a new problem presented itself. The power delivery was way off. The bike started spitting and hesitating. There were points mid-turn when the bike would lunge and try to throw me off of it. I came in and let K3 know that the bike was trying to kill me. I was running out of time for this session, so I went back out and just tried to ride around the problem. The first practice session was 30 minutes long. I came in twice more to make minor adjustments to the bike but was still upwards of 2:40 second lap times. When I headed out of the pits for the third time, I started to get busy. My last three laps were in the 38’s, which was close to where I needed to be. To make the grid, riders need to be within 110% of the pole time. If that first practice session had been qualifying, I would have been in. As soon as I got back from practice, K3 was rolling the bike over to the dyno. He was determined to light a fire under the Dynojet guy and get him to solve this problem once and for all. I wasn’t there for whatever conversation took place between them but when I went over to look, the Dynojet tech was in no talking mood. He was deep into the bike and did not want to be disturbed. I went back to our pit and a few hours later, Chris came back with a fully functioning motorcycle that he said, “Ran like a scalded dog” on the dyno.
I went into qualifying knowing that I probably needed another two seconds to get in. I had studied the previous year’s times and knew that the leaders would pick it up and drop another couple of seconds before the pole position was claimed. I left out of pit lane and the first thing I wanted to check was the quickshifter. It worked. Good. I exited the pit lane and brought the 600 up to speed. I rounded Turn One and brought the bike outside to the rumble strips. I crested the hill in Two and flew down the hill into Turn Three. I flicked the bike in hard, apexed with my knee in the rumble strips and twisted the throttle as far as I could. The bike accelerated like never before. It was finally riding like Suzuki and Dynojet envisioned it. I smiled. At last, the bike was no longer the issue. I rode my ass off for the entire session but never got comfortable. I wasn’t even able to match my times from the first practice; as a matter of fact, I was ½ a second slower in qualifying than I had been in practice. This was a problem because that left just the final 20 minute qualifying session on Saturday morning for me to get in. I’m not too fond of trying to go fast on a green track, since it’s a good way to get hurt and wad your bike up. But, hey! I was in with the pros now. All I could think was, “I gotta do what I gotta do.”
As it had been all day, my job for Friday evening would be to get my mind right and prepare to be fast the next morning. Meanwhile, K3 was on a quest to shave seconds from our machine by utilizing any resource he could find in the AMA Paddock. Lenny Albin from Racetech Suspension had offered to rebuild my shock that evening, so K3 removed it immediately after practice and delivered the damper to Albin’s van/workshop. We also had to make a decision on tires. My budget allowed for three sets of tires. One set for qualifying, and one set for each race. The rear tire on my Suzuki was showing significant wear after two sessions and our times had been getting slower instead of faster. K3, Nick and I had a pow-wow. I didn’t have the money to spare but they insisted that I should, at minimum, put fresh rubber on the rear. K3’s logic was, “If you don’t make the show, you won’t need any more tires.” They were right. I had one chance to do this. Our qualifying session had been the day’s final event and by the time we’d made our tire decision, the Dunlop tent was closed for business. We checked back in at the Race Tech van to find that because of his workload, Lenny had been unable to get to our shock. He was going to have to do it in the morning before our 8 A.M. final qualifying session. We were going to bed with no tire, no shock and our bike in a million pieces. K3 was not happy.
At 5:00 a.m. Chris camped out at the Dunlop tent, first in line for new tires. He also staked out Lenny’s van, keeping a watchful eye out for my rear shock. Once I picked up the new rear tire from Dunlop, I brought it back to our pit, put a tire warmer on it and set it aside. K3 and Nick were running a race of their own, trying to get our machine ready in time for me to qualify. I was in the trailer stretching and focusing. Eminem was whispering in my ear. He told me that I had one shot…
I went out into the second qualifying session with determination. I rode the first three laps as hard as I could. On the forth I came in because I was winded from putting in such intense effort. I asked Nick what kind of lap times I was running and he said that I had not even matched yesterday’s qualifying time. I got off the bike to gather my thoughts. I retraced my laps in my head, looking for the time I needed. I’d found the necessary speed earlier in the weekend but now couldn’t get it back. I needed help. Fortunately, the AMA had assigned us the paddock spot next to Mike Morgan. I spent half of 2010 crewing for Mike, watching and helping as he rode to his best finishes ever in AMA competition. Morgan was named the “Privateer of the Year” by Lockhart Phillips for his efforts last season. Seeing me stopped in our pit during that final qualifying session, Mike came over and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I was great and the bike was right but said, “I need you to talk me through the carousel.” I knew that there was a bunch of time to be had in that section but there was no time left for me to figure it out. Mike gave me a detailed picture of everything I needed to do from the exit of Turn Eight, all the way around the carousel to the entrance of Turn Ten. There were 15 minutes left in the final qualifying session. I flew out of the pits like a bat out of hell. As I exited turn three and tucked behind the windshield, I thought “These could be my last 15 minutes as an AMA Pro racer. I want to enjoy every last second of it.” I relaxed on my out lap, trying to savor the moment. I just rode the bike and had fun; the session was no longer qualifying for me. It was riding at Road America, one of the most famous racing circuits in the country, simply because I love that track. I rode the carousel the way Mike had told me to and it was beautiful. The bike did exactly what he said it would do. During my first flying lap, I was in a zone and having fun. Three laps in, eventual pole-sitter Tomas Puerta passed me as we were going into Turn One. I drafted him for as long as I could and then his teammate, David Gaviria, shot by as we ripped down to Turn Five. I stayed on his heels up the hill, through Six, through Seven, down the hill, through Eight, around the carousel, and into Ten. Then disaster struck! The front tire wobbled mid-turn and just like that, I was down. I landed hard on my hip, looked up and saw my hopes, my dreams and my motorcycle all sliding through the kink in a trail of dust and sparks. As it ground along, I was telepathically yelling to the bike, “Don’t flip! Don’t flip!” To my complete amazement, she listened. The machine came to a stop and I ran over to pick it up. I checked the brakes, the levers, and the pedals. Nothing appeared broken or out of place. I started the bike and took off. My split times show that whole ordeal took about 58 seconds. I rode back to my pit so that the team could double check the bike. I don’t think they even knew that I’d crashed. As I told K3 what had happened, Nick yelled out, “You did it! You did it! You’re in!” Chris determined that the bike was OK and sent me back out to get my head over the fact that I’d just fallen. I rode the last lap or two just trying to absorb what had happened. I dropped another 1.5 seconds off my previous best and in the end, it was just enough. Even with a crash, I’d done it. I was IN THE SHOW
Once qualifying had ended there was no time to lose. We had to make repairs from the crash and get the bike ready for Race One. We also had to make the bike pretty for the fan walk which was immediately before the race. My all-star crew was on top of it, leaving me time to take a walk and process all that had just occurred. As I circulated through the paddock that morning, it seemed everyone had heard that I’d made it in. So many people stopped me to offer their congratulations. It was amazing!!
By the time Race 1 came around, the pressure was all off. I was in the show; now all I had to do was have some fun! As I took my sighting lap, I finally had a chance to see all the people in attendance. The rolling hills of Road America were filled with thousands of fans. It was a beautiful sight; one I will never forget. As I came around and took my place on the grid, I got a little nervous. No throwing up or anything, I was just ready to go. I’d finally gotten my wish. We circled around on the warm up lap and then it was time for the start. When the red light went out, I got a horrible launch. For the next five or six turns I missed every braking point and turn in marker. I could not get it together. I was so flustered; it was like I had never been on a motorcycle before. It took me about five laps to finally get comfortable. I could still see the next guy just one turn ahead and I could tell I was faster. I set my sights on him. I rode as hard as I could and he kept getting closer and closer. On the last lap I ran my best time of the weekend so far, but the rider in front still beat me to the finish by a couple of seconds. I finished in fourteenth place in my first ever AMA Pro race. The cool down lap was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. As I rounded each corner, throngs of people cheered from both sides of the track. I waved to the crowd and a thousand people waved back. I’d just completed my first AMA race and this reward was like nothing I could have imagined and it nearly brought me to tears. When I came back to our pit, it was like I had won. My team was just as happy as I was and it was several minutes before they stopped hugging and pounding on me!
The morning warm up showed how close I’d come to not finishing our first AMA race. Just three laps into the session, I tore up the rear sprocket as I accelerated from Turn Five to Turn Six. I’ve never done that before, even on bikes bigger and more powerful than a 600. Our chain stretched a bunch during the race and that probably did in the gear. We didn’t have a replacement, so we had to use a smaller sprocket for the race. That sucked because the bike had been geared perfectly. Still, it was better than not racing so we did what we had to do. During the pre-race fan walk, there must have been a thousand people out on hot pit lane. This event was much bigger than it had been on Saturday! I signed a lot of autographs and gave away all of my posters Many of the folks I’ve ridden with, raced against and coached stopped by to wish me luck. Many readers of TrackdayMag.com came over as well. Our pit was pretty popular with the fans and it was really fun to play the hero’s role for a little while. I could get used to this!
In Race 2, I only messed up the first three turns before I found my groove. After that I was able to put down some faster laps right from the start. I ran my best time of the whole weekend on lap four. Unfortunately, the guys I was chasing got away and I could not reel them in. I started having a few issues with front grip late in the race and had to bypass Turn Ten twice, which cost me any possibility of catching them. In the end I finished in eighteenth place.
Gauging Our Results
On the drive up to Road America, K3 and I had discussed what our expectations were for this adventure. He said he would be happy if we just made the grid. We had the slowest bike in the race and were up against riders and teams who were all more experienced at this level of competition than we were. On top of that, I am larger than most of those riders. I agreed. My personal goal was to make the grid, but if I could finish better than 20th place in AMA Pro competition my first time out, I would consider it a win. Well I ended up qualifying, earned a fourteenth and an eighteenth, made a lot of new friends, earned some fans and made a mark in the AMA paddock. This weekend was a big success!!!!!!!!
Since SPEED TV did not come around to collect a sound bite, (Imagine THAT!) TrackdayMag.com gets the exclusive rights to my post-race interview. I would like to thank my beautiful wife, Yolonda, “K3” Chris Onwiler, Nick Desautels, Paul and Dawn Buxton and Lee Dean for coming out and being the hardest working crew in the paddock. Thank you to veteran privateer racers Shawn Hill and Mike Morgan for guiding me through my first pro weekend. I would also like to thank Vortex Racing for the bulletproof parts that kept me in the game by saving the bike from destruction when I crashed. Brian Conley and Valley Racing have invested more work and time into this project than anyone outside our team could even imagine. Lenny Albin and Racetech Suspension have been instrumental in setting me up with the best handling bike I’ve ever ridden. Lenny? Where did the bumps go? Kudos are due to Spyder Leatherworks and Guy at Expert Racing for all their support throughout the years. Vicci, Trackskinz Leathers, Motobrackets, and Superbike Suspension all had a hand in our AMA quest. Also, big thanks to Jason DiSalvo and the guys at the Jason DiSalvo Speed Academy for their great instruction and the personal attention and the pep talk I got from Jason on race day. Last but not least, I would like to thank all of my friends, family, fans, and everyone else who offered word s of encouragement and congratulations. The outpouring of support I received during this event via phone, text, email, and Facebook was overwhelming. It all helped me get through the weekend and it meant more than I can express.