Posted Feb. 1, 2016, updated Feb. 4th
When I first became interested in motorcycle road racing the riding style was much different than it is now. Nobody put their knee down on the pavement in a turn, let alone their elbow. Racers stayed mostly centered on their bike, did all their braking while upright, coasted into the turns and accelerated out. Below is a widely distributed photo of Mike Hailwood on the 1967 Honda RC166, an in-line 6-cylinder 250cc GP bike. His knees are splayed outward, evenly on both sides, while his torso, head and shoulders are mostly in-line with the motorcycle.
I read that Hailwood used the outside edge of his boots as feeler gauges to sense his lean angle. On long races he would wear the boot completely through and finish with his toes bleeding. Ouch. Mike Hailwood was one of my early racing heroes so when I started racing in 1973 I adopted his style. There is a 1974 Mush Emmons photo of me, taken straight on, going through turn 2 at Sears Point. I was racing a 350cc Ducati single, and you can clearly see my toes sticking out. When the edges of the boots soles became worn I added Duct tape to try and keep the boots together and protect my toes.
We used treaded racing tires in those days, and the racing style was still to keep the body in line with the bike, as the photo shows. When road racing slicks showed up around 1975 or thereabouts, the top racers were quick to adopt them. Guys like Kenny Roberts would race their treaded tires until the tread was worn off and the tires still gripped. The lack of treads didn’t spook them like it did us lesser club racers. But slicks worked for them and they started showing up at the club level as well.
The extra grip of the slicks allowed racers to lean their bikes more, and things like farings, levers and other parts started dragging on the pavement. Paul Smart, racing Kawasakis on the factory-backed Team Hanson, made an interesting discovery. If he shifted some of his body weight to the inside of the turn, he could corner faster without scraping parts. The bike didn’t need to be leaned over as far. He would put his butt halfway across the seat and stick his inside knee out. Other pro riders noticed this and started copying it, notably Kenny Roberts. The knee out style became the style, in the U.S. first, then in Europe.
Steve McLaughlin was an expert ranked road racer at the time I’m writing about. He competed in Superbike but also with a Yamaha TZ750 against guys like Paul Smart and Kenny Roberts. Steve had this to say:
“Paul, most interesting your take on why and when leaning off the bike came into use…my recollection is a bit different. The problem was created by the race tire’s limited patch area and greatly increased horsepower of the new racing machines. Another problem was the new slicks had little side wall…by leaning off we could put more tire on the ground, unlike with the Dunlop Triangulars!”
For those who don’t know, the Dunlop Trianulars had a profile such that the contact patch was largest when the bike was leaned over. The 350cc Ducati in the shot above is shod with triangulars. The racing slicks, especially the rears, had their largest contact patch when the bike was vertical. Steve continues:
“John Cooper was one of the first to be seen with his knees out and Paul Smart created a very exaggerated hang off model. Both started doing this in England not the US…my father’s style [in the 1960s] was fully tucked in and aerodynamic which was pretty easy on low horsepower, poorly shod, narrow rimmed race bikes of that era…but [in the late 1970s] horsepower was beginning to reach the masses with the new high performing Japanese machines…. Always interesting to see and hear how racing was viewed by those that actually competed.”
Steve has been a very astute observer of racing through the years and I’m not going to disagree with him. He’s a member of the AMA Hall of Fame and you can earn more about him HERE. Based on my own experience and Steve’s comments I suspect both ground clearance and tire contact patch contributed to lean-off style.
END OF UPDATE.
In 1975 I raced my Ducati 750 Sport in a couple of races, and found that the knee out style worked better than staying straight on the bike. I also found that I had learned some skill while racing the little Desmo. At the Sears Point 3-hour endurance race I ran with the leaders for the first 45 minutes or so. There’s a photo of the three of us in turn 11. Jim (8, Suzuki 500cc Titan) is pushing the inside handlebar down, almost a motocross technique. Mike (51, Kawasaki 750cc H2) is pretty much straight in line and I (71, Ducati 750cc Sport) have my inside knee out, leaning slightly into the turn. Three different styles in one shot.
In 1977 I started racing for Dale Newton, who built some very quick Ducati Superbikes. This next photo shows me just behind Cook Neilson in Turn 4 toward the end of the 1977 Sears Point AMA National. You can see that I’ve got my weight somewhat towards the inside but not as much as Cook.
I finally passed him with a lap and a half to go, and I really tried hard to get away from him. Going through left-hand turn 9 I felt something hard touch the pavement and the bike moved a few inches to the right, but otherwise remained stable, so I made a mental note of it and kept going to win the race. After the winner’s circle and track-side celebrations, when things had calmed down I went to look at the bike. I got down on my hands and knees and looked under the bike’s left side. What I saw was a fresh bevel-edged scrape on the oil sump. I was stunned. I had touched the crankcase to the track! After that I started hanging off more.
You can see the change in this picture of me in 1978, at Sears Point turn 10, taken by Ken Mullins. I was in second place and trying really hard to catch up to Wes Cooley. I never touched my knee to the ground during my racing career, but as this photo shows I got pretty close. I’m guessing that if I had stayed at it for another couple of years I would have been skimming the track with my knee.
This shot makes me think of MotoGP racer Tony Elias or perhaps Mick Doohan in the late 1990s. My rear is well off the seat to the inside and the knee is out, but my head and shoulders are only slightly off-center from the steering head. Today’s MotoGP and top Superbike style is even more radical. Led by Ben Spies in AMA Superbikes and then Marc Marquez in MotoGP, the style today is to get the entire body off to the inside of the motorcycle, dragging the knee and the elbow on the track at the apex of the turn. Spies’ nickname was “Elbowz” because of his radical riding style. “Bowz” was AMA Superbike champion for three years in a row, 2006-2008, before moving on to World Superbikes. Here’s a shot of Spies on his AMA Superbike Suzuki making an inside pass on another Suzuki rider. Note how Ben’s shoulders are even farther from the bike’s center line than his butt. The other rider is using an older style that’s similar to the style I used in 1978. (Photo posted by “doser” on the http://www.hondacb1000r.com/forums website.)
Clearly styles have changed through the years. This has been the result of improvements in tire technology, track safety and pavement upkeep, engine developments and electronics, and rider skills. If a rider in my era, using the very best equipment available in, say, 1980, tried to ride like Ben Spies, or any of the top MotoGP or World Superbike racers of today, they would simply crash. Every time.
I think it’s marvelous to watch how racing styles have evolved through the years and to see what the top riders will do to beat their competition. What will happen next?