Top 10 Reasons Road Racing Motorcycles Crash
Today’s story was prompted by a press conference question to one of the MotoGP racers about a particular crash. Did the crash affect his confidence? The racer (I think it was Cal Crutchlow) said essentially, “No. We know why I crashed. As long as you know why it doesn’t affect confidence. It’s when you don’t know why makes you worry.”
Racers crash. My old racing pal Jack used to say, “If you ain’t bailin’ you ain’t wailin’!” Even the best racers in the world crash. We all are (or were) pushing the envelope, riding on the edge, and sometimes we slip over the edge and fall. I’ve crashed my fair share of times and, like Crutchlow, I always wanted to know why. Once I figured it out I could say “Don’t do that again,” or “That’s racing,” and press on. Here are my Top Ten Reasons to Crash, in no particular order, with illustrations from my own racing career.
1. Cheap Tires
The first and second crashes in my racing career were caused by cheap “race” tires I bought from a mail-order store. In 1973 there was a shallow pothole in Sears Point’s turn 11. I hit it and the front end skidded and I fell. My leather pants ripped open and I gashed my right knee, losing some skin and picking up some gravel. Not a fair trade. Quality tires would have made it through. Better leathers would have prevented the knee injury.
I’m a slow learner, and after I got some decent racing leathers I raced with the cheap tires once more. The second crash was a classic high-side exiting Sears Point’s turn two. I got on the gas, the rear tire slipped and moved sideways. I shut the throttle (error), the tire caught, the bike snapped upright and catapulted me over the bars. I sprained both ankles. I was OK at first but as the day wore on the pain increased. By the time I got home I could barely walk and spent some hours with ice packs.
Solution: Buy quality racing tires from a reputable dealer.
2. Cold Tires
We didn’t have tire warmers in the 1970s. For races we got a warm up lap but for practices we went out cold. I used Goodyear racing slicks on the Ducati twins, and racing at Sears Point, Riverside and Ontario I found that you had to take it easy for about half a lap then you could start pushing a little harder to get heat into the tires. The first time I raced the Ducati Superbike at Laguna Seca I was following this procedure. When I got to the second half of the Corkscrew and levered the bars to switch from left to right the bike slipped right out from under me. I was still going relatively slow so there was no real damage done, but I was puzzled. It felt like there was no grip at all.
Then it hit me (no pun intended). On the Laguna Seca of the 1970s the second half of the Corkscrew is the first right hand turn on the track (see the page “ZH. Tracks I’ve Raced” for a description of the original Laguna Seca track configuration). You go more than half-way around before ever turning right. The right hand side of the tire was still cold.
Solution: Make sure both sides of the tires are warm.
3. Falling Objects
I’ve had three crashes because someone fell in front of me. One is described in my book and won’t be repeated here. One at Ontario happened at the slow turn 6 but the one at Sears Point, when I ran over Mike, is a better story.
Mike had the classic scary look of an outlaw biker: beard, greasy jeans, denim vest (no colors though). Mike and his friends were rowdy beer-drinkers and I never had much to do with them. In spite of appearances Mike had the heart of a racer. He was darn fast on a Kawasaki H2 750cc triple. The H2 was known for its high quality speed and its low quality handling. One race start he charged out to the front with me right behind. When Mike got to turn 4, a nasty down-hill right hander that went from flat to negative camber in the middle of the corner, the H2 spit him off. I ran over his legs then crashed on the outside of the turn. I was OK but Mike would not let the corner workers move him.
“My leg is broken, I’m sure of it,” he said, and stayed on the track just past the apex, lying on his side kinda propped up on one elbow. The race was completed with waving yellow flags (no passing) and the corner workers directing traffic wide through the turn.
The ambulance folks picked him up and, yes, his leg was broken. The incident was a bonding moment and after he returned to racing he and I would always meet and chat a little before practice started. And having his leg broken didn’t slow him down at all.
Solution: “That’s Racing.” Racing incidents happen and sometimes they bite you.
4. Rider Error
Racers, even at the Valentino Rossi level, sometimes flub. For me it usually involved a sudden application of too much throttle while too far leaned over, causing the rear tire to slip followed by sliding along the ground. I had two memorable ones, both at Sears Point, once exiting the Carousel in 1978 and once in turn 8A, in 1979. I’ll tell you about the 1978 crash.
The AFM didn’t have a Superbike class in the 70s so Superbikes raced in the Open GP class, along with the frighteningly fast Yamaha TZ750s. There was an AFM race just before the Loudon AMA National and Steve McLaughlin and Randy Mamola came to the track do some warm-up and testing in advance of the National. I was there with Dale Newton, riding his Ducati Superbike, also getting some testing done pre-Loudon.
At the start of the race, a six-lap sprint, McLaughlin took off first with me right behind. Mamola somehow muffed the start and got away slowly. Steve was moving away from me a little bit each lap but I still had him in sight Randy finally passed me on the 3rd lap, in the short straight stretch between turns 6 and 7. He moved up quickly and started dicing with McLaughlin. This slowed them both down just a little bit.
Just before the fall, McLaughlin, Mamola and me in turn 3. I crashed that same lap exiting the Carousel (turn 6).
I noticed I was gaining on them and got excited. I had raced head-to-head with TZ750 pilots at Sears Point before, but nobody with the abilities of McLaughlin and Mamola. It would be really newsworthy if I could race with these guys I thought, and decided to try and catch them. Exiting the Carousel on lap 4 I opened the throttle quickly so I could get a good drive up to turn 7. Bad move. The tire spun and I low-sided. No traction control back then. As I slid down the track I watched the motorcycle doing cartwheels. Poor Dale! Later I sheepishly explained to him why I crashed. He thought for a minute, smiled and said, “It’s OK. I would have done the same thing.”
Solution: Don’t ever grab a big handful of throttle while leaned over.
5. Mechanical Failure
Mechanical failure can result in a crash. The classic is a two-stroke motor seizing in the middle of a fast corner or a connecting rod exiting the cases, dumping oil on the rear tire. My mechanical failures never put me on the ground, but it could have easily gone the other way. I shudder to think what might have happened if I was on the Daytona high banking when the Ducati’s rear end locked up, instead of on the straight leading up to the International Horseshoe. Others, notably Mert Lawill (flat tire) and Barry Sheene (seized motor) were not so lucky.
6. Mechanical Failure plus Rider Error
When a mechanical failure is combined with rider error bad things will happen. Here’s a personal example.
With the Ducati twins I used engine braking between turns 8 and 8A, closing the throttle to slow just enough to have the correct entry speed into 8A. In 1977 Dale and I were competing in the club’s 750cc Production class on a Ducati 750SS, a wonderful racer for a street bike. Toward the end of the 1977 season the 750SS, which had been raced hard for 10 races, developed a false neutral between 3rd and 4th gears. Fourth gear was the gear I used to slow between 8 and 8A and in the 11th race, shifting from 3rd to 4th, I hit that false neutral. Instead of slowing I gained speed (the track is downhill there) and was entering 8A with too high an entry speed.
I, well, I panicked. I pulled in the clutch lever, shifted down into 3rd gear and released the lever quickly. The rear wheel lost traction and I crashed, ending up in the tires outside of turn 8A. Rats. I had a secure lead too. I didn’t have to crash. I could have shifted up into 4th and probably made it through the corner. I could have eased on the brakes and made it through the corner, dealing with the gearbox after the turn.
Solution: Two things: First, don’t panic. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Second, don’t ignore warning signs. Dale had re-shimmed the gearbox by the next race and the false neutral had vanished. If we had done that before the 11th race I would not have crashed.
7. On-track Collisions
I was hit when riding the Ducati Superbike at Riverside right off the start line. It was a club race so I was racing in the Open GP class. I had gotten a good launch and went into the first turn with the lead group. Just after I made the corner something ripped my bike away from me — I was still in a racing tuck but with no cycle beneath me. I started sliding down the track trying to make myself very small because most of the field was still coming. Everyone missed me so when I stopped sliding I got up and walked off the track. There were two other riders down, the guy who ran into me and one unlucky innocent racer. The guy on the outside of the turn was injured and the medical people were rushing to help. Someone asked if I was OK and I said yes.
I couldn’t find my bike. There was a bike on its side about a third of the way to turn two, but it looked grey and mine was bright yellow-orange. But it was my bike. It had gone down on its side and slid for a long way, finally coming to rest with its underside facing me.
The race was red flagged, of course, and restarted but without me. I had a hand injury that needed looking at, but it turned out to be nothing serious.
Solution: That’s racing. No solution I can think of.
8. On-track Spills
Crashed motorcycles can leave oil or coolant on the track. I can still remember the MotoGP race where Colin Edwards fell in spilled oil and was furious at the track workers who failed to show the ‘oil-on-track’ flag.
Track crews do their best to clean it up but the stuff they use to soak up the oil can be a bit slick itself if it’s not thoroughly swept up.
Just prior to the Superbike practice at the Riverside AMA National in 1977 there was a crash in turn 6 that left oil on the track. The crew used something like ash or cement to soak up the oil but left a little too much of it on the track and I lost traction and low-sided. I wasn’t hurt and it wouldn’t have been a big deal but I tried to get up before I had stopped sliding. I was still moving too fast and couldn’t keep my feet underneath me and I fell again. This time I banged the back of my head and got dizzy, the sign of a slight concussion. I was thinking I was going to miss the race. Fortunately I recovered just before race time, went out and got a 3rd place.
Solution: Take it easy through the clean-up dust the first few laps, and don’t get up until you stop sliding.
9. Wild Critters
This may be a little obscure, but if you have ever watched the races at Philip Island, Australia, you have seen the racers dodge seagulls. Noriyuka Haga once hit one and broke his arm, which sounds unlikely until you remember these bikes are going nearly 200 mph. More close to home, I know a racer who crashed after running over a snake at Sears Point.
Deer have been flushed out of Sears Point by riders in the first practice, and I believe someone hit one once. The track was located pretty far from any residential areas and deer liked to bed down there after their morning forage. The noise of the bikes on race day would startle the deer and they would dash out of their hideaways in unpredictable directions. In 1973 or ’74 I had to dodge a bunny that was hopping across the track.
Solution: Watch out for wildlife during the first practice session.
10. Incorrect Set-up
Today’s racer and team managers talk about the importance of set-up for each track. Incorrect set-up can result in chatter, under steer or over steer, pitching and other suspension problems, and a host of irregularities that can lead to an off-track excursion or crash.
I didn’t know much about set-up in the 1970s. The Ducatis just worked. We found that using 13-inch instead of the stock 12-inch rear shocks helped a little with ground clearance and quickened the steering a bit, but other things we tried didn’t seem to make much difference. Different fork oil weights, different spring pre-loads front or rear, different brands of rear shock, none of it made much difference. It worked well in spite of the changes.
Thinks were different with the BMW I raced in 1979. It would get into vicious tank-slappers when it when over bumpy track on full throttle, and Sears Point has lots of parts that are bumpy. We tried a bunch of things with the steering damper and fork oil weights and spring pre-load, but none of it helped. On full throttle if it hit the bumps the BMW would try its best to yank the handlebars out of my hands. The only way to stop it was to close the throttle a little. It never led to a crash but it was pretty close a couple of times.
I’ve learned a little more about set-up since then, and now believe the problem was coming from the rear wheel, not the front. We needed lighter springs or more rebound damping in the rear shocks, or both. It’s too bad we never figured it out, the BMW had a decent motor and great front brakes and I think I could have had some fun on that bike.
Solution: Find out about set-up. Talk to suspension or tire specialists about problem you are having.
That’s the top ten reasons to crash based on my experience in the late 1970s. There may be a different top ten these days but I suspect most of these still hold true. Would you add something to this list? Add your comment below.