Race Report – WERA 2016 Grand National Finals – Barber Motorsports Park – Yamaha R3

This summer’s busy race season has finally come to an exciting culmination at Barber Motorsports park in Birmingham, AL at the 2016 WERA Grand National Finals over the weekend of October 20-23.  The Yamaha R3 cup race is also part of the WERA GNF, and is a separate race on Sunday where the winner of the all R3 class race earns a brand new Yamaha R3 as their prize!  Not bad!  The WERA GNF E Superstock race is a winner take all championship race.  Both races will have entries from the fastest Ultra Lightweight racers across the country and starting grid positions are determined based on total points earned throughout the WERA season in E Superstock races.  Since there aren’t that many WERA events on the West coast, us West coast members of team YamahaR3Racing.com have been out in full force racing this summer racing with CVMA, AFM, and WERA getting seat time on our Yamaha R3s and earning valuable points for the championship grid position.  Team riders Sergio “Zeke” Rodriguez, Toby Khamsouk, Erick Vizcaino, and myself, Jesse Norton, would all be making the long trip from California to Alabama to join other YamahaR3Racing.com team riders Kris Lillegard and Robert Evans for the 2016 WERA Grand National Finals.  Zeke, myself (Jesse), and Kris would be racing as experts and Toby, Erick, and Robert (Bobby), would be racing as novice in the year end finals.

 

Zeke and I have battled pretty closely in races leading up to the GNF, finishing first and second in each of the three E Superstock Expert races at Autoclub Speedway and Las Vegas Motorsports park, both earning solid points.  Toby and Erick have been battling it out as well.  They both have less seat time than Zeke and I on their R3s, so this is valuable experience getting used to the bikes before the big race at Barber.  This will be the first time at Barber for all of us on the West coast, so Zeke and I traveled out to Alabama a week early and signed up for a track day the weekend before the big event to learn the track.

 

WOW Barber is an amazing facility!  The track is nestled neatly in a beautiful Alabama forest just outside Birmingham and lush green grass and large metal statues of spiders and ants filled the infield.  It’s a very different experience from the desert racing we are used to in the Southwest.

I’m always a little slow to learn new tracks and it usually takes me 2-3 days to get up to speed.  Zeke, on the other hand, was just a couple seconds off the previous race’s podium pace after only a couple sessions.  Dang these kids!  Barber is such a fun track.  There is a little of everything from fast open corners, to steep downhill braking.  The track is pretty wide open, so we spend a lot of each lap at full throttle.  After just a few sessions, Zeke decided to switch gearing.  We both started at 18/56 with a 415 chain setup.  Zeke was already doing 1:45s and decided to go to a 55T rear sprocket to be able to stay at the top of 5th gear through some of the fast sections instead of bumping up to 6th gear.  I was several seconds off his pace but followed suit with the gearing as I tried to get out of my own way and stay in the throttle.

We made the mistake of signing up for the intermediate group instead of advanced since it was our first time at Barber and we didn’t know how our pace would be compared to the locals.  I won’t make that mistake again…  The problem with intermediate group on an R3 is that even with slower lap times and slower top speeds than the bigger bikes, when we are running at race pace, we brake very very deep into corners, if we even brake at all.  That means we are still wide open on the gas when the other bikes are braking hard for the corner and our entry speed can nearly double the entry speed of a typical intermediate group rider on a 600 or 1000.  This makes for some terrifying corner entries and as we tried to learn the track and drop seconds, we shoved ourselves into some tighter passes than the other riders were used to and earned ourselves a few scoldings with the track day organizer.  Oops, sorry about that.

The WERA GNF is a big event spanning four full days on track with registration starting Wednesday night and racing finishing up on Sunday.  We had practice sessions Thursday-Sunday, with the E Superstock Championship race on Friday and the Yamaha R3 Cup race on Sunday.  Toby showed up during the week to get some practice in before our two big races, but Erick wasn’t able to show up until just before the Clubman race on Saturday (he couldn’t make it for the ESS race Friday), and only had the Clubman race and a couple practice sessions before the R3 cup on Sunday.  We setup our pit and met up with fellow racers Bobby Evans and Kris Lillegard to talk bikes and work on little adjustments.  Kris had some bad luck during practice and crashed in spilled oil from another rider’s blown motor, and I also went off track once and went down in the slick grass.  We made our repairs and everyone was ready to ride for Friday.

Zeke was on fire in practice, but we couldn’t help but notice that Zeke, Toby, Erick, and I seemed to be the only ones running stock motors and pump gas.  All of the other top riders that we had chatted with were at least running race fuel, (MR12 or similar), and some had built motors (you’re allowed certain performance mods within the supersport rules, but our motors were still stock).  We just tried to forget about all that, keep it mellow, and not let nerves get to us.  Toby was learning the track quickly and in just a few practices was running the same times that I was.  Kris has raced here before and would definitely be a podium contender, and I was struggling a little to find my pace, so I was hoping I could latch on to the rear wheel of the faster guys and get a tow past my comfort zone and up to speed.  Erick is a little bit of a wildcard and a ruthless competitor.  I wish he had more time to learn the track, but I knew he’d push hard anyway.

 

2016 WERA E Superstock Expert National Championship

Gridding for the ESS race turned out pretty good.  Chris Parrish was on Pole, with Draik Beauchamp and Tristan Konneker on the front row.  I forgot to get a photo of the grid, but Zeke and I were in the front 2-3 rows, Kris back on the 4th or 5th row, with other KTM cup bike fast guys Josh Jovi, Jackson Blackmon, Ashton Yates, Damian Jigalov, and Nate Minster all right there with us.  There were 17 Expert riders and 9 Novice riders lined up for the race. This was it.  For us West coast riders, it was our first time racing at the national level.

 

The flag dropped and the race was on! Turn 1 at Barber comes after a long straight away and on an R3 is a wide open throttle left turn that falls away down the hill with a little bit of a narrow exit.  It’s a bit terrifying, and it wasn’t until about half way through the last race on Sunday that I figured out that I could leave the throttle nearly wide open.  I got a rough start.  I got pushed a little to the right, and when I rolled off the gas to get back on line, everyone shoved through.  It was probably my worst start ever on the R3.  Draik Beauchamp got a great jump on his KTM and Chris Parrish chased him down the straight.  Josh Jovi and Kris Lillegard both came powering through the pack and dove down the hill right behind Chris.  As I got pushed out wide, Zeke followed Kris and Josh up the hill to turn 2.

Turn 5 is called Charlotte’s web (easily identified by the giant metal spider sculpture on the outside of the turn) and is a hard braking downhill left turn.

 

The top 6 were very close coming up the hill through turn 4 but Chris Parrish had taken the lead from Draik by the time they reached Charlotte’s Web.  Lillegard was in third just behind Draik.  Zeke is in fourth (running a little wide in this photo) just ahead of Jovi and Blackmon.

 

By the second lap, Zeke had worked his way around Kris and Draik was chasing down Parrish at the front.

 

Lap 3, coming up the hill out of turn 4, Draik, Kris, and Blackmon were fiercely battling for 3rd.  They came down the hill three wide toward Charlotte’s web, turn 5.  You can still see Zeke chasing  Chris at the front.

 

By lap three, Zeke was right on Parrish’s rear wheel and Blackmon had made it through into third, with Ashton Yates and Josh Jovi behind him.

 

I’m not exactly sure if it was lap 4 or 5, but as you can see below, when they came around turn 7, Zeke was in front, followed closely by Parrish, Blackmon, Yates, and Jovi.  I was a few seconds off the pace of the lead group, so I’m sorry you can’t see much in my video, the pictures will have to tell the story.   Yates, in fourth, was closing the gap to Blackmon.

 

Another lap down and Zeke and Parrish were starting to stretch away from the group and Ashton had taken third.

 

Zeke’s corner entry speed and late braking were untouchable and by lap 6 or 7, he had stretched out a pretty good lead over Yates, who had hunted down Parrish and taken over second place.  Parrish was also coming under pressure from Jackson Blackmon, who set the fastest lap of the race at a 1:40.1 on the last lap as he reeled Parrish and Yates back in for a final fight.

 

Parrish and Yates traded places a few times in the final laps.

 

Zeke took the win by 1.041 seconds with Ashton Yates and Jackson Blackmon both drafting by Chris Parrish on the front straight of the last lap to take second and third.  Parrish finished a tough fourth.

 

I ended up racing with the lead novice riders and having a little battle with my teammate Toby Khamsouk.

 

We were both running laptimes around 1:45 and the lead guys were mostly in the 1:41s.  But what an amazing showing for the team, with Zeke taking the win by over a second at a new track, ahead of the fastest guys in the country and claiming the 2016 WERA E Superstock Expert National Championship!!!  Kris Lillegard took 6th, and I finished 10th.  Toby Khamsouk took second in the Novice class, another outstanding achievement!

 

Here’s the race from my camera:

 

I took Saturday off from riding to rest up for Sunday’s race, but Erick entered the D Superstock race to get some practice for the R3 cup on Sunday.  Erick’s flight landed about two hours before the race, and he barely made it from the airport to the paddock in time to jump on his bike and grid up.  With zero experience on the track, he was nearly at my same lap times by the end of the race.  Way to go Erick!

 

2016 Yamaha R3 Cup

Sunday was another big day, and after winning the National ESS Championship race Friday, Zeke was definitely feeling some pressure.  Everyone was getting pretty comfortable with the track, and with a free motorcycle on the line for the winner, the race was sure to be ruthless.  There were less riders in the R3 cup than the ESS race, only 10 experts and 6 novice riders took the starting grid.

 

Fortunately this time, Zeke put the GoPro on his bike, so we get a front row seat to another epic race.  Go ahead and watch, I don’t want to spoil it:

 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

The race was a nail biter all the way to the end, with the lap times getting a little crazy, and 4 of the top 6 riders dropping into the 1:39s!!  Zeke, Jovi, and Blackmon went into turn 1 nearly three wide, and Zeke held his own through 2 and 3, following Jovi out of turn 4 and taking the lead on the brakes down the hill into turn 5.  Check out this awesome photo sequence of Charlotte’s Web on lap 1, captured by Brian J. Nelson:

 

 

From there, Zeke and Blackmon battled for the lead for a couple more laps as the lap times dropped.  Here’s the top 6 coming up the hill after turn 4 and down into turn 5 on the second lap.  Toby and I follow a little behind.

 

Zeke ran an outstanding race, and definitely had Blackmon and the others on corner entry, but struggled a little to keep up on the drive down the straights.  On the third lap, Zeke tried to make up a little too much ground on the brakes coming into turn 5 and lost the front.

 

Zeke wasn’t injured, but when he crashed, it put a little gap between Ashton Yates and Jackson Blackmon, and Ashton lost the draft.  Once Ashton lost the draft, Blackmon was able to pull away and won by almost 2 seconds.  Ashton Yates took second, Josh Jovi third.   Jackson is a tough competitor and definitely fought hard.  I’m sure this won’t be the last time we hear his name.

 

Kris Lillegard stayed in the chase with the lead group and finished fourth, just behind Jovi and edging out Parrish.  Chris Parrish finished in 5th at the back of the very close lead group.

 

Here’s one of my favorite shots of Kris showing us just how far you can lean an R3:

 

Here’s the same race from my camera:

 

I had a pretty bad first lap, and blew turn 5 on the brakes.  Toby caught up and passed me and it was a couple laps before I collected myself.  Then, it finally felt like I figured out the track, and all of a sudden, I felt good.  I took a little bit getting by Tristen Konneker, then got in a groove and my lap times started to drop.  I started reeling in Toby, lap after lap, and finally caught back up.  I stalked him for a couple laps, careful not to do anything stupid, since he was leading the novice race and looking good to win some free Yamaha stuff.  I lined him up a couple times on the brakes into turn 5, but held off, and made the pass coming into the second chicane on the fast back part of the circuit.  I got in front and started pulling away, taking a lonely 6th in the expert race, nearly a mile behind Chris Parrish.

 

Toby took the win in the novice race, with Erick taking second and Mike Davis edging out our other friend Erica Muse for third.  Our final teammate, Bobby Evans, took 5th.  Toby also earned some pretty awesome exposure for himself and YamahaR3Racing.com, with his photo being used for Yamaha’s bLUcRU road racing campaign.  Pretty sweet stuff Toby!

 

My times got down to 1:43.  I wish there was another race to see what I could do.  That track is SOOOO fun with an amazing flow!!!! What an awesome, fun, exciting weekend of racing.  I might have to come back next year and push a little harder.

Zeke and the rest of our team definitely put on a show representing for the West coast and team YamahaR3Racing.com.  I couldn’t be more proud of everyone.  And extra congrats to Zeke for winning the ESS Championship race.  Congrats to the team, and to the other racers.  See you all soon!

 

Thanks to Brian J. Nelson, Active Shooter Photography, and Highside Photo for the amazing photo coverage of this awesome weekend!

 

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