Wednesday, July 25, 2012
AMA Flat Track: Inside the Howerton Motorsports-Eaken Racing/Bryan Smith #42 Kawasaki, Getting Ready for the Sacramento Mile & Beyond
Round 4 of the 2012 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship presented by Motorcycle-Superstore.com season at the Springfield Mile I event saw a new player in the game at The Rolling Thunder Show, and the new team immediately made a big impact on the field in The Rolling Thunder Show.
Back in April, veteran rider Bryan Smith announced he would be riding a new Kawasaki in the five mile events for the season, the very same motorcycle that debuted under the tutelage of former championship-winning tuner Skip Eaken, with Australian flat track champion Luke Gough at the controls in the 2011 season. Smith, Eaken and long-time IndyCar fabricator Ricky Howerton were teaming up for the new season with a double-handful of new Kawasaki 650R-based mounts in order to make an assault on the big tracks of the AMA Pro Flat Track schedule.
While rider Gough had made some great strides with the 2011 version of the machine, Howerton approached Michigan resident Smith about riding his machines for the 2012 mile events. Flyin' Bryan was immediately impressed, and within six weeks the #42 Crosley Radio/Howerton Motorsports Powered by Eaken Racing Kawasaki/Midwest Performance Hardware/Guts Wear-sponsored team was rolling the new and updated machines out of the team's transporter at the first Twins Series event at the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile oval on May 27 over the Memorial Day Weekend.
In the shot above, Flyin' Bryan acknowledges the enthusiastic crowd at Springfield while builder Howerton and right hand man & close friend Jeff Gordon roll the #42 machine out to the grid.
A long-time fan of the sport, Rick Howerton worked on perfecting his in-house 650R-based parallel twin build over the off-season after the bike's initial debut at Springfield the season before with Australian Gough at the controls. With over 2500 hours invested in designing, building and fine-polishing the new threat to The Rolling Thunder Show, his long hours of toiling, sweating and putting his dream to work paid off pretty quickly, hot right out of the box.
Flirting with the top-5 right off the bat in qualifying, Smith settled into a 7th-place overall qualifying spot out of the 48 riders that took a timed session for the day, and at the time the 3rd-fastest Kawasaki (Johnny Lewis #10 qualified fastest, Brandon Robinson #44 qualified 5th) of the 11 riders on Kawasakis that had taken a timed lap. “We had to make a few changes early to the bike to get it right for Bryan, but it paid off,” stated builder extraordinaire and IndyCar fabricator Howerton.
When the first heat race of the day lined up with 16 riders ready to kick start the day's events, Smith settled into the middle of the front row amidst fast qualifier Lewis, 2-Time and defending AMA Grand National Champion Jake Johnson and a strong line-up of Grand National racing's best. Slotting in second at the end of the first lap to Johnson, Smith went on a charge that had the paying house standing on their feet for the next seven laps as he went on to lead the remainder of the heat at the line (where it counts) to win his first race with his new team by .084 seconds over Jersey Jake and by .203 seconds over fast qualifier Lewis.
In the 4-lap Dash for Cash event, it was almost the same scripted scenario as his heat, but with Kenny Coolbeth, Jr. leading the first lap and Smith taking over for the last three laps to lead Johnson home again. During the podium ceremonies (pictured above before runner-up Johnson and 3rd-place finisher Jared Mees came up to help celebrate) Smith gets a chance to enjoy the limelight while being interviewed by one of the great announcing crew from AMA Pro Flat Track.
When it came time for the 25-lap National main event, Smith and the Howerton/Eaken team were ready to go at it, and Smith led 15 of the 25 laps, making the new-build Kawasaki look awfully good for it's first time out with the new team. In the end, he brought the bike down low coming off of turn four in the dash to the final checkers, which caused his tire to spin off of the turn and allowed eventual-winner Willie McCoy and Johnson to slip by to take the top-2 spots, with Smith finishing in the 3rd-place spot just .033 seconds behind McCoy and .016 seconds behind Johnson.
Since that time, Howerton has added to his long hours of toiling over and with the machine. “Yeah, we started with about 17-1800 hours in this thing by the time last season had wrapped up, and now we're pretty close to having about 2500 hours in them,” Howerton surmised during my visit to his shop on Monday, July 23 as he was getting everything loaded-up for the 2200 mile trip to Sacramento.
Starting with the initial bike (#1-left above) in late 2010, that bike is the one that Luke Gough campaigned with Skip Eaken during the 2011 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship presented by Motorcycle-Superstore.com season. Along with the street tracker version (as talked about with Stu's Shots late December 2011) that one (#2-right above) is now the back-up bike for Bryan.
“Skip provides all of the horsepower, and went another way with his new Kawasaki for Luke for the 2012 season, going with the J&M Framed-model,” commented Rick during our visit on Monday. “He's doing his deal while we put this together for the five mile events for this season. I've already had everyone asking about going forward for the 2013 season in putting something together for the rest of the Twins Series events, but that's a lot of extra work and time that I'm not too sure about for now. For now we're going to just concentrate on winning Sacramento, Indy, Springfield and Santa Rosa. Ha!”
Not only have the hours built up in perfecting the machines, but so has the money involved. Howerton continued, “We also added NAS fasteners, which are aircraft-rated for high strength. But you don't have to safety wire those.” Some of those average $3-4/each and Rick guessed they could have close to $1000 just in those alone.
Of course originally, they built everything from the ground up before hitting the track at Springfield during the Memorial Day event. One of the original builds on the bike is the hand-made exhaust. Howerton continued, “Those were built to plan with Inconel (commonly referred to as Iconel in the U.S.), which is a high-temp metal used in all of our exhaust applications and in Formula 1 applications, and sells for about $120/per foot.” And the finished product, like the rest of the machine, is a work of art.
“Bryan was in town last week checking out last minute things on the bike, and one of the areas he was concerned with was braking,” Howerton mentioned. He rode it up and down the street with the original brakes, and would come in and Rick asked him about them. Long story short, after affixing a caliper off of a Honda CRF450, “we added the Brembo twin piston unit (above) off of a Ducati. He came back with all smiles after that, so we knew we were good in getting it stopped for him.”
Crosley Radio/Howerton Motorsports Powered by Eaken Racing Kawasaki left side shot.
“We also made some changes on the foot pegs and brake and shifter assemblies, again all hand made, but are really pretty trick pieces. I'm pretty proud of those. One of the original pegs had a metal spot on it, and it caused Bryan's foot to slip off on the restart after the red flag during the National, so we went all rubber with it, and then also made up a new shifter assembly.”
Howerton Motorsports Kawasaki right side shot.
Howerton sourced a spare brake master cylinder off of eBay which had just arrived that day. “$19 for this one, can't beat that! I'm going to throw that into the crash cart now so I don't forget.”
The crash cart was also made-up to match all of the racing gear, and looks impressive sitting with the bikes and the Crosley Radio stands which will help to make-up their pit set-up at Sacramento , Indy and beyond. It can be seen in the shot above on the left side in the back.
“And we crafted our own quick-change rear disc and gear assemblies as well,” Howerton beamed (above.)
Howerton and company look to have a fun time and a good day at Sacramento on Saturday, and beyond for the remaining four mile events of the year. “The owner of Crosley Radio (crosleyradio.com), Bo LeMastus, is coming in to hang out with us. He'll be at Indy , too, on Saturday, August 18. Crosley Radio is based out of Louisville and has helped us immensely on this, and he's a long-time flat track fan just like the rest of us. He's got a lot of enthusiasm for the sport and in general, and is alot of fun to hang around with.
"Crosley sent us a juke box which we'll have set-up in the pits to play some music and talk with the fans, and we've got some promotional flyers to hand out while Bryan signs autographs during the fan walk. That reminds me, I gotta remember my iPod so we'll HAVE some music to listen to instead of just the radio!” Needless to say, they'll be jammin' in the pits with this sweet piece spinning some numbers!
“We also re-did the seat for Bryan, the original was too slick and you could see in some of the pictures he was having to hold himself with his left hand from sliding too far back onto the tail section on the track at Springfield. We had the seats cut to size and lowered and should be just right for him now to where his backside should line up just right on the number plate.”
The team is still coming together in terms of really gelling with one another, with Bryan's Dad, Barry, having done all the prep and building on his Moroney's FastHog.com XR-750s for last season, they are all still getting used to one another. But by the looks of what Bryan was able to do at Springfield, eventually finishing 3rd in the National main, they seem pretty cohesive already! And that was just after their first event together.
“Crosley is sending up a couple of drivers this afternoon out of Louisville to hook-up and head to Sacramento with the full gear ready to go,” stated Rick. (As of Wednesday, July 25 2:30 PM EDT +/-, they were almost there. “Jeff Gordon, Dink (one of the other wrenches on the machine that has worked for Dreyer Honda in Indy for decades, also one of the team's sponsors) and I are flying out around 4:40 PM EDT on Friday and we'll be ready before we land!”
One of the other areas of concentration since the Memorial Day Weekend was the starter box (shown above with usually-camera shy and proud builder, Howerton), which will be used primarily by friend/helper/gofer/stooge/sponsor Jeff Gordon, who is one of Rick's long-time Indy friends, and whose shop Speedway Engines, is right next door to Howerton's on Gasoline Alley on Indy's westside.
Speedway leases all of the engines for the Indy Lights Series that follows the IndyCar Series trail, and has an impressive layout in their shop, as well. If you think flat track is expensive, try leasing an Indy Lights motor for a season that costs roughly $10/mile to run. All engines are rebuilt, checked and replaced as necessary every 1700 miles.
“I've probably got close to 30 hours just in the starter box. We wanted something that would look right with the rest of the gear, and it was made for JG's large frame (Gordon stands at about 6' 4” +/-), since he'll be the one carting it around, we made it to spec, so to speak, for him.” Balance was taken into account when putting it together, and it pivots with ease! “I don't have it stickered up yet, but we have Crosley's name on there and it looks better then just a two-wheeled cart with a battery and starter motor on it.”
One of the items that Rick touched on again with me during this trip to his shop was the amount of time that went into just the fuel tanks. His Dad, Jackie Howerton, a former USAC Silver Crown champion driver, who now lives in Prescott, AZ., spent close to 80 hours on the two tanks forming them on an English wheel. “One of Bryan's concerns after the red flag at Springfield was if we had enough fuel. I asked him, do you want to top it off, and he went 'well.....' so we topped it off, and still had plenty left over after 25 laps. We're in good shape as far as fuel economy is concerned."
In the shot above taken at round 4 of the 2012 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship presented by Motorcycle-Superstore.com season at the Springfield Mile I event, builder Howerton, right-hand man Jeff Gordon and Bryan's Dad, Barry Smith can be seen getting ready for another round of action on the mile oval at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Two of the things that Howerton wouldn't touch on were weight or horsepower. “You've heard of those Harley XR750s haven't you? Well, we're real close to them for sure........ha, ha!” I tried to flirt with numbers of 270-280 pounds on the weight and 95-98 HP on the output, but he wouldn't budge, even off the record, about the 750cc powerplant. Hey, a guy has to have SOME secrets, right!? “We're real good so I'm not too worried about either now!"
One thing builder/craftsman Howerton is quick to note is all of the help he has received in putting this all together. “I couldn't have done it own my own, so a big thanks to all of the volunteers who've helped work late into the night/early into the mornings, like Jeff, Dink and a whole slew of other people. They've been a big help all around and without them it wouldn't have been possible to get this ready again for Sacto on Saturday. They're all just like me, big flat track fans, who were willing to lend a hand to see us try and get us a win in one of these.”
In the shot above, Barry, Jeff and Rick can be seen proudly acknowledging their's and Bryan's win in the Dash for Cash event at Springfield on May 27 while Bryan takes in the accolades on the podium. If these guys get on a roll, this could become a familiar scene in the remaining four mile rounds in the 2012 season.
I'd say based on effort alone, these guys are pretty close to the top rung on the box, and if not at Sacramento on Saturday, then maybe in front of the home crowd at the Lucas Oil Indy Mile over the Red Bull Indianapolis MotoGP Weekend on August 18. I sure wouldn't bet against them, based on what they've done so far, and with four more mile races yet to go in the 2012 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship presented by Motorcycle-Superstore.com season they've got some room to wiggle, but probably won't need it. Can you say 'place your bets now?'
So keep a close eye out for Bryan Smith on the #42 Crosley Radio/Howerton Motorsports Powered by Eaken Racing Kawasaki/Midwest Performance Hardware-sponsored parallel twin in the upcoming mile events. With round 7 of the 2012 season ready to roll off on Saturday afternoon, he could just be the one to spoil the party and get Kawasaki back on top again at a Twins Series mile race just like he did at Indy and Springfield in 2010 with the Werner-Springsteen team. And if that happens at Indy next month, the whole west side of town will be rockin' and partying!
Good luck guys and have fun, you deserve it!