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Common Questions: What is it Like to Ride a Race Motorcycle?

Aboard Buell's 1125R that's built for AMA Pro Daytona SportBike Competition

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Common Questions: What is it Like to Ride a Race Motorcycle?

The race-prepped Geico RMR Buell 1125R, hot lapping at Road America.

Photo © Brian J. Nelson

What makes a race bike a race bike?

Today’s off-the-shelf sportbikes are seriously fast, and in many cases more potent than race bikes from just a few years ago… so what makes a modern race bike stand apart? In the anything goes MotoGP class, race machines are unique one-offs that far eclipse the performance of their street bike counterparts. It takes a multi-million dollar budget to campaign a MotoGP team, but the cutting edge engineering there often trickles down to street bikes. Though the $72,500 Ducati Desmosedici RR street bike is the first MotoGP replica to come complete with license plates, it’s usually small details like valvetrain and exhaust technology that find their way to production bikes.

In championship series like World Superbike and AMA Pro, race bikes are homologized from production versions, with modifications to parts like brakes, suspensions, and engines (not to mention tires), making them better suited for track duty.

Racing is big business for motorcycle manufacturers. The success of the Suzuki GSX-R1000 raced by Mat Mladin in AMA Superbike, for instance, has helped sell lots of roadgoing GSX-R motorcycles like the GSX-R1000 and GSX-R600.

How is the Buell 1125R AMA Pro Daytona SportBike different than the production bike?

Every bike in the AMA Pro Daytona SportBike class must adhere to a rather specific set of rules (which can be downloaded by clicking this link.) The Buell 1125R’s presence in the Daytona SportBike class has been highly controversial, since the twin-cylinder, 1,125cc bike competes primarily against smaller displacement bikes like the Yamaha R6, Triumph Daytona 675, and Ducati 848 (though Aprilia’s 1,000cc RSV1000R is also represented in the group.)

Alterations to the Buell 1125R race bike for the Geico RMR team include carbon fiber bodywork, a slightly thicker perimeter brake rotor and a beefier braking system, an aluminum swingarm with a chain final drive (as opposed to the stock version’s belt drive), a more robust fork and rear suspension, and a less restrictive exhaust system. The rear subframe has been removed from the tail section, ditching the passenger seat for reduced weight. A steering damper has been added to reduce wobble, and geometry changes also make the front end of the bike lower. The engine is blueprinted, and cam timing, valves, and compression ratio has been changed, while additional tuning comes from a programmable ECM kit. An electric shifter with a GP pattern has also been installed, and other miscellaneous performance parts join the components seen here and here.

All of the race bike’s parts are available to consumers through Buell, and it would cost somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 to buy a stock 1125R and convert it to these race specs—for reference, a turnkey AMA Superbike spec 1125R racer can be had for $39,995.

How does it feel to ride the Buell 1125R Daytona SportBike race bike?

First, the process of climbing aboard a race bike is slightly different than a standard road bike. When it’s waiting in the pits, a race bike is usually sitting on rear stand, since the kickstand has been removed for weight savings. Tire heaters are installed to keep the rubber up to operating temperature (the Daytona SportBike series runs on spec Dunlop SportMax GPAs), and it takes a couple guys to roll the bike off the stand so the rider can hop aboard.

Right off the bat, it’s important to note that the turning radius is compromised, due to a more restrictive steering lock setup; forgetting this fact could result in an embarrassing (and costly) tip-over. Another thing you don’t want to forget is the backwards shifting pattern, that reverses the 1-down, 5-up pattern found on typical streetbikes. The "GP" shift pattern and electric shifter on the race bike requires clutch engagement to get into first, but the rest of the upshifts can be performed clutchlessly. Rolling out of the pits, it takes conscious effort not to kick the shifter up for second gear; I made that mistake, and overrevved the engine while accelerating towards the straight at the 4.048 mile Road America circuit in Lake Elkhart, Wisconsin.

Aside from the shifting gaffe, the race bike’s acceleration came across with smoother, yet strangely sharper response than the stock 1125R. Not surprisingly, the exhaust note on the race version bellows with loud howl, but the paradox of the smooth yet potent acceleration is totally unexpected. Accelerating toward the first turn—a fairly sharp right-hander, the clutchless shifts produce seamless, instant power transfer that produces strangely satisfying changes in the key of the engine’s tune. The waaah-brump-waaah pattern takes so little time that it makes the concept of a clutch seem superfluous.

Taking the first turn is almost anticlimactic; the bike leans over with ease, thanks to its lighter weight and more aggressive geometry, and there’s virtually no hesitation or hint of uncertainty as the 1125R finds its line and settles in mid-corner. The only difference between my test bike and the ones raced by pros Danny Eslick and Michael Barnes was the Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa rubber, and my bike felt completely hunkered down as it banked. The added leverage on the front wheel also makes it feel more planted, while the steering damper smoothens feedback. Upon exit, power transfers effortlessly to the rear wheel, and the first thought that consciously occurs is, “Wow, I could have taken that waaay quicker!”

But the bike’s acceleration is strong enough to make you think twice; the instant shifts and more flexible powerband have a way of compressing the scale of the track, especially when approaching the upper registers of 140 mph. Turn after turn, the 1125R inspires confidence, and its eerie stability invites higher and higher entry speeds. On the final turn towards the back straight, high speed is rewarded with a hair-raising ride up the hill which is capped off with the strangely exhilarating sensation of front tire lift at triple digit speeds. Heading back towards that first turn, brakes scrub off speed with a feeling of crispness, allowing for butt-shifting deceleration. The whole process starts again, with the bike inviting even more rider involvement.

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