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Old 12-21-2015, 08:40 PM   #1
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An Old Dog on a New Yamaha R1M Superbike

I have no business riding Yamaha’s new R1M. Especially not here at Willow Springs Raceway on a hot summer day. The R1M is among the most fearsome superbikes in the world, and I haven’t ridden any motorcycle on Willow’s 2.5-mile big course since early 1987. And my only occasion to ever ride on the newer, and tighter, Streets of Willow track was when Don Emde and I co-authored a story about the Bostrom brothers’ Sportster 883-class racebikes way back in 1994. My last foray at Southern California club racing took place during the summer of 1980 when, after nearly 12 years of racing and pretty much at the top of my game, I decided it was time to quit and I just walked away for good. You could say I was out of practice.

Yet those were precisely some of the reasons why this magazine’s head chief Cook invited me to ride the radical R1M in the first place. We wanted to see what would happen when an over-the-hill motojournalist and ex-racer (that would be me) straddled the saddle of perhaps the most sophisticated superbike money can buy—or at least what $21,990 gets you today. And for the record, you get a lot of bang for that buck.

This saga actually took root when, not long ago, Cook and I enjoyed a lighthearted discussion about the good old days we shared as staffers for Cycle Guide magazine back in the 1980s; as young and eager boy editors we experienced some awesome bikes of that era. I had been Cycle Guide’s chief road tester for two years (1979–’80), and as the magazine’s sport editor through 1987 I was in the envious position to experience many landmark models; in late 1979 I was the first American to ride the groundbreaking GS1100E, and in autumn of 1983 I joined a gaggle of other magazine scribes at Laguna Seca Raceway to ride Kawasaki’s revolutionary Ninja 900 for the first time. Both of those experiences, though, were trumped in February 1985 when Suzuki flew editors from around the world to ride the all-new GSX-R750 at Ryuyo, the company’s test track near Hamamatsu, Japan. I also sampled some big-time racebikes, including Freddie Spencer’s 1980 Honda CB750F-based superbike, an ex-Kenny Roberts TZ750 (both at Willow Springs), and Eddie Lawson’s 1986 Yamaha YZR500 Grand Prix racer (at Riverside Raceway), to name a few.

In the years since, I’ve enjoyed riding and testing an assortment of bikes—especially those not too challenging to my aging skills and tired old bones. To say I’ve been a bit out of step with the current sportbike market is exactly right. Which is probably why Cook lobbed this email my way: “We were talking about the new Jurassic World movie, and your name came up… Actually, we’ve been kicking around the idea we discussed some time ago about getting an, er, experienced racer on one of the new, super-high-tech sportbikes. Would you be available?”


If you grew up looking at dials to show speed and rpm, the R1 dash will make almost no sense. I’m sure there’s useful information there somewhere.

My quick and succinct reply—“You betcha”—wormed its way into Cook’s computer, and a few weeks later I joined young Ari Henning and Zack Courts at Willow Springs Raceway. The Mojave Desert’s weather forecast, in local lingo, was “clear and sunny,” which translates to blazing hot, with temperatures in the 90s.

A fresh, limited-edition R1M awaited this “senior” editor. Zack would be riding his long-term R1 base model, while Ari busied himself sampling slightly modified Yamaha R3 and KTM RC390 testbikes. Also in attendance was Yamaha technician Mike Ulrich, there to tend to my bike’s well being and to oversee its vast computer system that seems to take its lead from HAL, the precocious computer in the futuristic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even if mankind hasn’t achieved the lofty inter-planetary goals set forth in that movie, the R1M is out of this world.


"I've learned that the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person." –Andy Rooney

The best way to learn how to swim is to jump into the water, so I slip into my one-piece road ace leathers (not my old CG leathers, which have mysteriously shrunken over time) to fire up the R1M for my first go-round of this racetrack in 28 years. Despite the R1M’s awesome computerized capabilities, it has no rider control, so I still determine when and how to steer the 444-pound bike toward each apex on the nine-turn track. And as I complete lap one I realize that I missed all nine apexes. Perfect score so far.

Prior to heading onto the track, Zack and Mike both assured me that the R1M’s traction control function would kick in should my ride-by-wire commands tell the bike to go faster than physics allow. As much as I wanted to believe them, I just couldn’t make myself twist that darn throttle with the same zeal that I used to do. The M’s steering is so neutral and precise that I chided my inner child for not taking more command of the bike. Maybe next session, I tell myself as I putter into the pits. Sweat drips over my bifocals, and after only four laps, I feel about as battered and bruised as I did after a college rugby match so many years ago.

Tech Mike briefs me about the computer and its accompanying telemetry and other cyber-savvy gizmos that, to be honest, make little sense to this old goat. Our exchange reminds me of what my dog must experience when I talk to her. Here’s basically what I decipher from Mike’s briefing: “Blah, blah, blah, Dain. And blah, blah, blah traction control, blah, blah…”


Yamaha’s Y-TRAC system will display all data—that’s engine rpm, throttle grip position, speed, gear position, lean angle, brake pressure, and all electronic intervention—on a tablet so your friends can see what a wuss you really are. No more, “I was wide open all the way, man!”

Eventually I soak in that the Yamaha Ride Control has four modes, and they can be broken down into individual rider aids, and, oh, my aching head, never mind. Moreover, the computer gathers, equates, and reacts to how the bike is behaving every millisecond, but it never once confers with me, the rider, before reacting. That’s probably a good thing, though, because my reactions just ain’t what they used to be. The R1M is truly HAL on wheels, and I haven’t even had time to tune in to the cross-plane engine’s drone-like sound that I had heard and read about; I’ve been too busy holding on and anticipating the inline-four’s kick at 11,000 rpm.

The M is truly a handful on the track, and I hang on at every turn, not sure if I’ve come close to even challenging the traction control, slide control, and blah-blah-blah control. Make no mistake; this bike is rock steady at speed, feeling nimble and light for a streetbike. My racing days were spent riding modified-production Yamaha two-stroke twins that pumped out 40 or so horsepower and weighed about 325 pounds; the R1M checks in with only an additional 100 pounds but with four times the power. Scary.

I also have a tough time reading the M’s digital gauge—actually, it’s a mini monitor that displays pages of information to the rider who, with about 170 hp on tap, really has no time to be shuffling through programs and readouts—so I’m never really sure what gear the transmission is in or, for that matter, what rpm the slide-bar tachometer is showing or how fast I’m going, though I think I witnessed 152 mph (the download—or is it upload—to Mike’s tablet will verify this later, the young lads tell me). Would it be too much to mount a couple of good-ol’ analog gauges—ya know, a tach and speedo—or am I just being crotchety about this whole thing?


Magnesium wheels and 320mm discs? I thought 120-section tires were rears.

I’m also lost on this track. I know that turn one goes left, turn two right, etc., but that’s about all I know for now because my head is spinning (what, no spin control?) from the speed and technology. Zack and Ari assure me that we’re heading over to the Streets of Willow after lunch, so I’ve got that going for me at least. Maybe the slower pace will help quicken my learning curve, or it’ll just frustrate me more—but at a reduced tempo, that’s all. We’ll see.

Lunchtime I can deal with, and along with the crew from sister pub Sport Rider, we huddle in the inviting shade of a pop-up canopy to grapple over a platter full of deli sandwiches. My sugar level stabilized, and having rehydrated myself with buckets of Gatorade, I’m beginning to feel normal again. Young Ari, who looks as fresh and rested now as he did before our morning testing began under the blazing Mojave Desert sun, smiles and poses a simple question: “Well, Dain, are you enjoying yourself?” he asks, his teeth perfect and white. Just wait until your hair turns gray and starts to fall out, young man.

Actually, I am having a good time. Really. It’s been years since I rode a bike of this magnitude, and the few sessions were like homecoming to me. Willow Springs and I shared a lot through the years. It was turn three where I experienced my first race crash, and I also earned my first-ever trophy at this track. I later totaled two bikes here—turns five and six on a Suzuki GS550 and Honda CB750F, respectively—while testing. In later years I helped the late Bill Huth, Willow’s long-time owner until his passing just recently, with various promotional programs. And for the record, Bill was a heck of a guy.

But that was then, this is now, and now Ari wants an answer: “Yes,” I tell him, and after reciting some of today’s quasi-comical experiences to him and young Zack, I add: “You had better be ready to die when you ride this bike, you know.” As if scripted, we all laugh. Them more than me. Youth clearly is wasted on the young.

Tummies full, we gather our gear and bikes and shuffle over to the Streets of Willow, located on the outside of turn eight. My moment of solitude riding the R1M slowly on the connector road gives me time to take in what I’ve just done. It also lets me mentally note that even Ari’s and Zack’s accumulated years on this planet don’t equal mine. And I didn’t need the R1M’s computer to calculate that either.

The Streets’ modest length keeps speeds low, and it allowed me to experience something that I couldn’t on the fast track’s broad, sweeping turns. I got to challenge the R1M’s wheelie control. Chugging along in first gear on the front straight, I pinned the throttle and held on. Tightly. That thoroughbred 999cc engine screamed back at me with glee, and we were off. Literally because the front wheel lifted off the ground ever so slightly, and I watched in awe as the tach’s slide-bar needle shot quickly to the right. Eleven grand went by in a flash, and then like an explosion, the bike surged even quicker toward the end of the straight, the engine desperately seeking 14,000 rpm. The quickshift function helped me find second gear as if I’d been riding this bike all my life, and again the front wheel sought higher ground than what the track offered. This was cool, reminding me of my experience on Lawson’s wickedly fast YZR500 two-stroke V-4 at Riverside (when Ari and Zack were still in diapers). During that ride I purposely held back on the exit of turn six so I could loft the front wheel, using the bike’s awesome power to propel it skyward. But the only thing between maintaining that wheelie and looping the bike was my disciplined hand. I wrote in my account for Cycle Guide about that moment: “Gawd, what an experience. It wasn’t violent, nor did the fork lazily loft itself. It just went skyward, the bike never waddling or getting out of control.” Ditto those words for the R1M today.

Before my next session Zack and I fiddle with our bikes’ computers; he sets mine on Mode D, which amounts to Rain Mode. This proves detrimental to the bike’s performance, and even my tired old reflexes notice discernible lag in power response, so we tinker some more with settings. I settle on Mode C (which delivers peak power but not at such explosive rates of acceleration as Mode A or B) and head out onto the track. As I execute the tight right-hand turn at the top of the hill, I notice Zack just entering the long straight way off in the distance at the bottom of the course. I figure it’ll take him a few laps to catch me; I don’t want to interfere with his lines when he overtakes me.

The next lap, and feeling better about my riding level, I approach the top of the hill where again I glance to my 2 o’clock to check on the status of young Zack. But no Zack. Then zap! Zack blindsides me on my left, passing me on the outside as if I’m tied to the apex (which I just missed). And he was on the lowly standard R1. You know, the “slow” model with skinny rear tire and no active electronic suspension. The irony of the situation isn’t lost: Both his maneuver and our reference point on the track only confirms that I am, indeed, over the hill.

What does today’s experience tell us? Well, first, all that on-board computer hocus-pocus means that R1M owners will have to monitor their pit talk better. No more bragging about going flat out through certain turns or braking at the last moment at the end of the straight, unless you really are doing that. Your computer download (or was that upload?) will tell you and anybody who views it what you’re really doing on precisely every portion of pavement of the track. And you BSers know who you are, so don’t buy this bike unless you’re ready to fess up once and for all.

My R1M ride also reaffirmed what I’ve known since 1971 when, armed with my Royal manual typewriter, I entered this business. I love writing about motorcycles, almost as much as I enjoy riding them. Once upon a time I also enjoyed racing them, but as the R1M proved, my racing days are long gone. And I don’t need a computer download/upload to confirm that, though that doesn’t matter anyway. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. Getting old isn’t so bad after all. It certainly beats the alternative.

Postscript: When I returned home my child bride handed me an envelope that arrived snail mail that day from the Social Security Administration. Inside was a letter confirming that my first SS check would arrive—via computer to our bank account—the following Wednesday. Life really is good, ya know?

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