RIDING THE CHAMPIONS OF 1999: THE WRAP

In the April, 2000 print edition of Dirt Bike Magazine, we got the chance to ride a bunch of National Championship works bikes. In two of the cases, the riders who won those championships never got to ride the bikes for themselves–at least, not with their number one plates. Ricky Carmichael was the 125 outdoor champion and he was moving up to the 250 class. Nate Ramsey was 125 West champ and he was injured. Here’s what we said about those bikes as well as Greg Albertyn’s RM250 and Ernesto Fonseca’s Yamaha of Troy YZ125.

RIDING THE RAMSEY/CARMICHAEL #1 KX125

Life just ain’t fair sometimes. Team Pro Circuit/Splitfire earned two number one plates with the KX125 last year (1999). Ricky Carmichael won the 125 National Championship and Nate Ramsey won the 125 Western Regional Supercross Championship. That’s two number one plates out of five. Forty percent. Almost half. Yet in the 2000 MX season, you won’t see either rider carrying a number one. That’s because Carmichael has switched to the 250 class full time (where he will be number four) and Ramsey was injured a week before the Opening round of the supercross season. He will switch to the Eastern region, which gives him a month of healing time. The bottom line; there will be no number one in either of their original classes. It also means that when we rode Ramsey’s bike, we were the only riders to ride a number one KX this year. A terrible miscarriage of justice? We don’t mind.

Tallon Vohland took over for the injured Nate Ramsey in 2000.

THE BIKE
The stock 2000 Kawasaki KX125 is no powerhouse. But it’s better than the 1999 version, which was better than the 1998 version. Pro Circuit has been fighting an uphill battle with the KX for a number of years. And every time that Kawasaki gets a little closer to the mark, life gets easier for Mitch Payton and his boys.
The bike that fell into our grubby little hands was Nate Ramsey’s Supercross bike. The setup for a supercross bike used to be completely different from an outdoor machine. It should be. Outdoor tracks are made out of dirt and mud. Supercross tracks are made mostly out of air. The dirt is only there to land on. Consequently, Supercross suspension has one overriding task: landing ramps. Supercross power, on the other hand, is in charge of take-off ramps. In the old days, that meant that stadium bikes were unfriendly things, but increasingly, today’s outdoor bikes and supercross bikes are coming together. The P.C. engine works well for both. Mitch only makes slight changes to the exhaust port to change from one spec to the other. On the outdoor bike, the team also switches to an Italian-made Vertex piston because they seem to be a little more durable than stock.
Of course the compression is bumped up dramatically. Stock bikes are made to run on gas that comes out of just any old ARCO pump. Race bikes have the luxury of race gas. Then there is the 37mm carb and a Pro Circuit pipe and silencer. The team uses stock reeds. There are no big secrets to the engine mods. Anyone who wants to have a Ramsey bike can have one built. The only part that can’t be purchased is the programmable ignition. But the team usually runs the stock advance curve. The chassis has some gussetting, and sloppy robot welds are ground off and redone by hand. Fast guys tend to stretch their bikes. If you measure the wheelbase of an ungussetted bike at the start of a season and at the end, you’ll find that it grows almost half an inch. All that big air has a price. Olympic does the powder coating (they do it for all the teams).
Carmichael used works suspension last year, Ramsey used KYB kit stuff. This year’s 125 has stock-based suspension. Bones Bacon duplicates the works kit stuff as best he can. The works fork, for example, is slightly shorter than a stocker. Most riders feel the KX front end is too high. Bones accomplishes the same thing by making a flush fork cap. That way the tube can be slid higher in the clamps without hitting the bars. The steering head bearings also are offset slightly to tuck the front end in. The rules say the frame has to have the stock dimensions, but don’t say anything about getting geometry changes in other ways.
The rest of the bike is a P.C. catalog. It has P.C. triple clamps, P.C. levers, P.C. seat cover and so on. That’s the whole point of having your own race team. Of all the number one bikes, this is the only one that truly can be purchased, piece by piece, out of a catalog.

Paul Krause aboard the Pro Circuit KX125.

NUMBER ONE
“So who’s that with the number one plate?” Just us. Ramsey and Carmichael have to earn theirs all over again. Riding the Splitfire bike was as much a treat as you can imagine. The bike is fast. Not just fast for a Kawasaki. Not even just fast for a 125. Just fast. It has unnatural low-end power and super quick throttle response. And it keeps on revving on top. As we said, the days of the short-revving, supercross-only bikes appear to be passing. This bike in this configuration could pull a holeshot on any track against any works bike.
The suspension, on the other hand, is very supercross-oriented. Ramsey has a tendency to keep his weight way back over the rear of the bike. That means he runs it stiff in the rear and less stiff in the front. Well, both ends were too stiff for us, but we would be confused if they weren’t. Of all the supercross bikes in the world, this probably has the most compliant fork.
Could we tell the difference in steering geometry? Sure. The stock KX is a little like a truck. Bringing in the front end makes it turn more like an RM125. And there doesn’t seem to be any trade-off in stability. In the past, whenever we tried sliding the fork tubes up on a stock KX, we got head shake. The suspension, evidently, has to be set up for it.
After we rode the bike, it was loaded up in the big truck for its trek across the country. The number one was peeled off and replaced with 24, Ramsey’s number for the eastern series. It’s a good feeling to have your number retired …

RIDING GREG ALBERTYN’S #1 RM250

Greg Albertyn’s 2000 Factory Suzuki RM250

 

The Nineties were not kind to American Suzuki. The yellow race team had a knack of taking champions and turning them into losers. The record looked bad; first, Roger DeCoster left his winning legacy at Honda to become the manager at Suzuki without much success. Then Greg Albertyn left a string of championships in Europe to become just another rider in the U.S. And even Jeremy McGrath’s unbelievable win streak was broken by his one season on Suzuki.
Was the problem the bike, the company or something in the water in Brea, California? We didn’t know. Roger didn’t know. No one knew, but frankly, it didn’t matter after 1999, because the string was finally broken. Suzuki entered the 2000s with the number one plate in the 250 Nationals, courtesy of Greg Albertyn.
In a world filled with petty rivalries and bad reputations, Albee stood out as a class act. He left no vendettas, burned bridges or broken contracts in his wake. His slow and sometimes painful climb to the top was received with universal approval, even among competitors, who usually took the “If it couldn’t be me, I’m glad it’s him” philosophy.

THE BIKE
Suzuki finished Albee’s 2000 race bike a full month before the start of the supercross season. That’s unheard-of. But the team had several advantages that year. For one thing, the new production bike was closer to Albee’s 1999 race bike than before. The flat-topped piston and larger rear axle on the production bike, for example, were tested on the race bike first. And Albertyn’s outdoor bike and supercross specs aren’t that different. The indoor bike has stiffer suspension and slight differences in the exhaust port for more instant low-end power. Mitch Payton at Pro Circuit had come up with a porting spec that beat anything the race team got from Japan–on the dyno it made almost eight horsepower more than stock. The bike also used a larger powervalve chamber, a programmable ignition and a Pro Circuit pipe that had only slight changes from a production model.
By far, the biggest difference between Greg’s new bike and his ’99 outdoor bike was weight. The race bike would typically weigh in at 228 pounds last year. That might be five pounds lighter than stock, but it’s still five pounds heavier than a stock Honda and 12 pounds over the minimum weight. DeCoster would have no more of that, so he decided to spend some money on titanium. Virtually every bolt on the bike is Ti, with the exception of the case bolts (which are aluminum) and the axles.


Back in 1996, Albee broke a titanium rear axle during a National, so their use has been banned on Suzuki’s race bikes ever since. For 2000, the bike got a slew of magnesium parts from Japan (the top triple clamp, the rear hub and the caliper carriers) and the bottom line was an amazing 10-pound weight reduction. The new bike was only two pounds over the minimum. Goes to show you what determination and money can do. Of course, the suspension was works Showa. Factory forks are things of beauty. The axle carriers were magnesium, the tubes were coated with titanium nitride and the fork caps were flush with the top of the upper tubes (it required a special tool to remove them). The rear shock looked like it should be in the Guggenheim.

Paul Krause on the factory RM250.

Suzuki doesn’t reinforce the frame anywhere; the mechanics just weld on glideplate mounting tabs and the front motor mounts (which are removable on the stocker). Then it’s all powder-coated in bright yellow.
DeCoster was kind to us. He knew that no one on the Dirt Bike staff was capable of making Greg’s suspension move. He revalved both ends so we could take the bike for a spin at Elsinore Raceway. That’s a rare treat. Sure, we get to ride some pretty trick bikes, but they are always someone else’s trick bikes and they really aren’t very comfortable. It was as if Suzuki built the trickest bike on earth just for us. For the first time, we got to see how good works suspension can be. Trust us; it’s awesome. The fork had no harshness and no friction. No wonder all works bikes have some level of factory suspension. It’s a huge benefit over stock.
The engine fooled us. We rode the works bike and it seemed really fast, as expected. But then we rode a box-stock RM, and it seemed pretty fast, too. Not as fast as the works bike, of course, but close, especially on top. Roger overheard that comment and just laughed. “Ride it again,” he said. “This bike makes almost 20 percent more power than stock. It just starts making power so much earlier that it doesn’t have a hard hit.”
We did ride it again and did some impromptu roll-ons against the 2000 model RM. Roger was right. The factory bike was way faster. Goes to show you how deceiving a smooth powerband can be. The factory bike also had much more instantaneous throttle response, as if it had less flywheel. It didn’t, it just felt that way.
Another big difference: the weight. The factory bike was 15 pounds lighter. You really felt it. That’s about the same difference between a Yamaha YZ426 and a regular RM250.
So back to the mystery: Why hadn’t Suzuki won any championships since Cooper in 1990, and before that, Mark Barnett in 1983? That was a whole different story. All we knew was that Suzuki and Gerg Albertyn carried the number one plate in 2000, which made sense to us.hat makes perfect sense to us.

RIDING ERNESTO FONSECA’S YOT YZ125

Yamaha of Troy YZ125.

I don’t think anyone really expected it, ” said Kenny Germain. “We went testing at the beginning of last year and Ernie looked good, but not that good. He would ride around with Casey Lytle and keep up, but never pull away. Then the season started and something just clicked.”
Something certainly did click and Germain got a front row seat to Supercross history. Ernesto Fonseca, otherwise known as “who?” won seven of eight 125 East rounds. Yamaha of Troy had hired the young Costa Rican as a dark horse. Germain, who already knew Fonseca from earlier trips to the US, became his mechanic and the two of them upset the balance of power in the Supercross championship. Yamaha of Troy Manager Erik Kehoe probably would like to take credit for discovering Fonseca, but doesn’t. “He came out of Yamaha’s amateur support program. Mike Guerra had supported him in a few amateur races and he was earmarked to go to us as soon as he turned 16. We figured he would get some experience in his first season and be a real threat the following year. He’s way ahead of schedule.
In the previous season, Ricky Carmichael dominated the 125 East class. With him out of the way riding 250s, it was a prime opportunity for riders like Broc Sellards and Nick Wey to step into the spotlight. No one really took Fonseca that seriously. But here we are, one year later and Fonseca looks like the next Carmichael. Only he’s sticking around in the 125 class to defend his title.

Ernesto came out of nowhere to win seven of the eight East coast 125 races in 1999.

THE BIKE
It’s easy to disregard Yamaha of Troy as another farm team and their bikes as aftermarket specials. But the truth is that a YOT 125 has just as many works parts as Greg Albertyn’s factory Suzuki. The motor came right out of Yamaha USA’s back room, where Bob Oliver and Dean Baker were responsible for making it run–the same guys who build McGrath’s engines. The ignition is straight from the back room at the factory in Japan. It’s programmable so that the team can, in theory, change the powerband to suit each track. That doesn’t happen, though. Most of the testing and settings are finalized before the beginning of the Supercross season and stay put until the beginning of the outdoor races. But if there were problems, the bike could be modified with a few keystrokes.
There are a surprising number of other sorry-not-for-sale parts. The carb is a works Mikuni with a Power Jet. The triple clamps look like typical aftermarket parts, but come from the factory in Japan. The front brake has a standard caliper with a works 270mm rotor and carrier. And the bike has a fortune in titanium parts. Oddly enough, the pipe is a standard Pro Circuit off-the-shelf unit.
No surprise in the suspension department. The fork and shock are KYB works kit units, which are available in limited quantity to special people. Ross Maeda at Enzo is responsible for tuning them and retuning them for various conditions.
Don’t misunderstand; there are a zillion aftermarket parts on the bike too, from N-Style graphics to the Renthal bars and the DSP carbon-fiber glide plate and disc guard. But frankly, this is the most factory-level bike in the 125 class.

Paul Krause aboard the Yamaha of Troy YZ125.

RIDING THE DRAGON
We took a spin on Fonseca’s bike before it was loaded on the truck to head back east. It had all of its full-on Supercross settings, so frankly we expected it to be a beast. That’s the funny thing about Supercross; the bikes usually seem awful to average riders. The suspension has to be super-stiff and the powerband has to be instantaneous, usually at the expense of peak revs. Surprise! Between Fonseca’s weight (138 pounds) and his smooth riding style, the suspension was actually supple. Well, supple might not be the correct word, but we could make it move!
As we expected, the motor was hard-hitting. But it revs at least as high as a stock YZ. Probably the biggest advantage that the YOT bike has is that it began life as a normal YZ125. That’s pretty good. The bike already has more revs and more bottom end than any other stock bike. The Yamaha guys in that dark back room don’t have to do that much to be miracle workers. The scene probably goes something like this: “Hey guys, we have this urgent order to build the fastest, most responsive 125 race bike on earth before tomorrow morning. What’s for lunch?”
As fate would have it, Fonseca’s east coast Supercross bike will be the only 125 in the country to carry a number one plate this year. Outdoor champ Carmichael and west coast champ Nate Ramsey have switched classes and can’t defend their titles. But that’s okay. Take it from us, that number one plate is in good hands.

Happy wheelies!

 

–Ron Lawson

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