Three laps and about a hundred yards into the Saturday race at Road America last weekend, the only Ducati in the MotoAmerica EBC Brakes Superbike field was lying in the gravel outside turn one as Kyle Wyman stood over it and wondered how the most anticipated weekend yet this season had, so far, gone so wrong.
There are several things Wyman does not have: the budgets and support of the factory racing teams, a teammate to compare notes with, or even another Ducati V4R on the grid to potentially learn from. What he did have, coming to Road America, was reason to be optimstic, even excited, about the chance to make a big leap forward. Road America would be the first race his V4R was equipped with a Ducati Corse kit electronics system, replacing the stock system. New wiring harness, new ECU, new sensors, new everything, and vastly expanded ability to tune it all. Ducati had sent a World Superbike electronics technician, Fausto Ghafar, to a test at Pittsburgh International Race Complex to help the team learn the system.
"I was really comfortable straight away," Wyman said of his first ride on the V4R with the Magneti Marelli electronics. "Ducati has provided us with an amazing base map, but as far as the strategies and capabilities of that system, we've just scratched the surface, really."
So would Road America be the breakthrough weekend for the scrappy and innovative privateer team? There was reason to hope. I checked in with Wyman and crew chief Gary Dean throughout the weekend to follow their progress.
Friday morning: Options and optimism
The team is called Kyle Wyman Racing because Wyman does far more than just ride the motorcycle. As the team owner, he has to worry about sponsorship, budgets, logistics, etc. Some of his approaches to these challenges have been innovative. For example, it's hard to find a season-long title sponsor for a privateer team, so Wyman rotates that top billing among his smaller sponsors, which includes RevZilla's sister company, Cycle Gear. At Road America, for example, Genuine Broaster Chicken got the big spot on the fairing. There's also the KW Army, an opportunity for individual fans to support the team. Members not only get some swag and an invitation to visit the team's hospitality tent at the track, but also get their names on the tail section of Wyman's Ducati V4R.
In recent years, Wyman raced a Yamaha YZF-R1, the most common bike on the MotoAmerica Superbike grid, and therefore also the one with the greatest depth of information. But his team owner side, as much as his racer side, suggested a change for 2019.
"I had to do something a little bit different," Wyman said Friday morning as the Road America weekend began. "I could be doing the same exact results on a Yamaha and we wouldn't be sitting here talking about it. There's no story there."
Something different, but what? A BMW? A Kawasaki?
"I would like to sit here and say I had this huge master plan and it's all going exactly how I thought it would but it was a complete gut feeling Hail Mary," Wyman said. "Something felt right about it. I had a ride that fell through and the next day I said, 'I'm going to go buy a Ducati.' I've been a fan of the brand for a long time. The brand's connection to racing is more pure than any other brand out there. That was the coolest thing about it."
Prior to the MotoAmerica season, Wyman won the Daytona 200 on a Yamaha YZF-R6 in a tight, four-way fight to the finish. His early MotoAmerica results on the Ducati were mixed, with a sixth at the opening round at Road Atlanta being his best, but he also saw Álvaro Bautista reeling off race wins on the V4R in World Superbike, and he was convinced the potential was high. Still, he was riding a bike with a stock wiring system. The team had to tape the key to the bottom of the fuel tank so the built-in anti-theft system wouldn't kill the engine when he rode out of the paddock. After the Pittsburgh test with the new electronics, however, hopes were soaring.
"I think starting this weekend we're going to see some results start coming through," Wyman said.
As the Ducati grumbled its way out of the pits for practice, Dean added his own cautious optimism: "We've been running around seventh and eighth, so hopefully top five."
A setback: Missing Superpole
With the new electronics, the team gets vastly more options, but also new challenges.
"On the stock system, you could adjust the traction control and engine braking, but where you would have five levels of adjustment, here you have a hundred levels," said Dean, giving examples of the changes. "First and second gear on the stock system were more geared toward street riding, so the power doesn't come on as good as it does in third and fourth. Now, we have 100 percent of the power."
The system even allows the team to tune individual cylinders in the V-four differently to optimize each one. Settings like traction control, wheelie control and others can be tuned differently corner by corner — but since this is the team's first time at every track with the system, the first session must be used to create a track map. Only then can adjustments be made. To make it a little more complicated, the Wisconsin weather appears to be changing daily: 80s and sunny on Friday, high 50s and a chance of rain on Saturday, sunny and 60s on Sunday. There's a lot to consider.
The good news in the Friday practice sessions is that the electronics are working great. The bad news is that Wyman is suffering from front-end chatter on the Ducati, meaning the front tire isn't tracking smoothly through the long, fast curves at Road America and that's sapping his confidence.
"It's a chassis issue we've been chasing all year and haven't had the chance to really address it directly because we've been trying to work through so many different things," Wyman said. "I think of all the tracks we've been at, this is the worst for it."
Times set in the Friday sessions are used to determine which nine riders get into the Saturday Superpole qualifying session, which sets the first three rows of the grid. Focused on solving the mid-corner chatter problem, the team doesn't worry much about lap times — and then the session ends and Wyman finds himself 10th-fastest, missing Superpole for the first time this year as FLY Racing/ADR Motorsports' "Aussie Dave" Anthony edged him by less than 0.3 seconds.
"With the best bike I've had, and the first time missing Superpole, it's like, alright, that sucks," Wyman said. "I thought I was pretty safe so we didn't throw a tire on at the last second. We just kept working on that chatter issue with a used tire. And it kind of cost us."
A 10th-place start with only 13 bikes on the Superbike grid is no disaster, but during the long debrief at the end of Friday, there aren't any smiles to be seen under the KWR tent.
Saturday: The crash
The day begins with temperatures in the 50s and scattered showers, very different from Friday's heat. Feelings are mixed. Wyman is confident he can get a good finish if it rains, but both he and Dean want as much dry track time as possible, both to fine-tune the electronics and, more urgently, to sort out the chatter problem. Dean thinks perhaps a different front tire could help. But he's also considering something else. All season, the team has been gradually increasing the offset of the triple tree on the front fork to try to improve the handling. Maybe they've been going in the wrong direction?
As it turns out, the Saturday morning session is wet, so they learn nothing about the chatter issue.
In the afternoon, the track is dry as the Superbikes line up on the grid, but a shower is looming just to the west. Race direction delays the start, waiting to see if it will rain. Instead, the rain dissipates and the race is shortened from 13 laps to 12. The Superbikes take off on slick tires on a dry track, but a hint of mist hitting the riders' visors.
In turn five of the first lap, Wyman finds himself pushed wide, out on the rumble strips, where he couldn't brake. The slightest amount of moisture on the painted lines had nearly caused several riders to crash already Saturday. Shuffled back, Wyman began trying to work his way forward. Then, beginning the fourth lap, the crash.
"I picked off like four guys over a couple of laps trying to get back up in that battle," Wyman said. "I don't know if I went to brake too late or not hard enough in turn one and I just kind of got sucked in there. Almost hit the back of (Jake) Gagne and ran off and did what I could. I was struggling a little with the brakes, hard braking zones. I don't know. Just a little mistake."
Wyman's right index finger was caught under the bike in the crash. Nothing is broken, but it's bruised, sore and swollen, with a few small abrasions. Fortunately, he has an unusual braking style, keeping his index finger on the throttle for control and braking with the other three fingers. So he thinks it will be OK for Sunday's race.
But he has lost valuable track time, lost the chance to gain any points and, possibly, lost momentum. As the team packs up at the end of the day, it has so far been, by no metric, the hoped-for breakthrough weekend.
Sunday: A good finish is better than a strong start
In the few laps before the crash, Wyman had good feel from the front of his Ducati, so the team is encouraged to pursue the radical change of strategy to solve the chatter problem. All season, they had been adding offset, increasing it over the stock setting. They reversed course and reduced it four millimeters for Saturday. Now, for Sunday's race, they've set the bike to have less offset than stock.
After the morning warmup session, Wyman declares the injured finger "a non-issue." But there is another issue. The warmup session revealed previously unnoticed damage to the aftermarket radiator, no doubt caused by Saturday's crash. It's a special unit built by an Italian company, H2O Performance. The team only has one. A crew member carries away the massive piece, off to visit a welder who can supposedly repair this aluminum — "very thin aluminum," Wyman notes ominously — part that is perhaps the only one of its kind in the United States.
Another issue arises that probably wouldn't happen with the well funded factory teams. A rear sprocket is damaged and the team doesn't have another one that size, so they have to use a different size. The changed gearing means that Wyman will have to spend some of his mental energy thinking about things like gear shift points that would normally be automatic.
At least there are no weather concerns, as temperatures in the 60s and bright sunshine bring a big crowd out to Road America. Those who wandered by the KWR tent would have seen a last-minute thrash to get the bike together in time for the race. The H2O radiator was back, but not fixed. The team hurried to bolt on the stock radiator.
As race two unfolded, Wyman found himself in the third pack of riders, caught in a back-and-forth battle with M4 ECSTAR Suzuki's Jake Lewis and Schiebe Racing's Gagne on the BMW S 1000 RR. Starting the last lap, Wyman was at the back of that threesome, in ninth place. But on the final lap he was able to pass both Gagne and Lewis. That, combined with Toni Elias' crash in the final corner while running third, moved Wyman up to sixth, tying his best finish this season. Smiles were definitely back as the team slapped him on the back as he rolled into the pits. It's amazing how a couple of last-lap passes can change the mood.
"If you have a really good Saturday and a crappy Sunday, it's a terrible weekend. If you have a crappy Saturday and you turn it around on Sunday, it's a great weekend, because the last thing that happened was good," said Wyman. "So it was challenging, but it's nobody's fault but my own. We wouldn't have had radiator issues if I hadn't stuffed the thing into the tire wall yesterday."
On to Utah
The Superbike grid can be sliced into four tiers: at the top, the four riders on the two factory teams; then the two independent teams that have won at least once, Mathew Scholtz for Westby Racing and J.D. Beach for Attack Performance/Estenson Racing; then the teams Wyman was battling with in Sunday's race, with Lewis and Gagne and perhaps Anthony, who missed Sunday's race, and Omega Moto's Cameron Petersen; then the smaller privateer teams in the fourth tier. To gain the top-five finishes he wants without relying on a lot of attrition, Wyman has to move in front of that group that includes Lewis and start nipping at Beach and Scholtz.
"To be in that next group, and after those guys, I think we're exactly where we should be a this point," Wyman said. "We were in a battle with guys who have been finishing ahead of us and we came out on top, so I couldn't be happier."
Just as important, the team now has confidence it has found the right direction to solve the handling problems. MotoAmerica racing resumes this weekend at the Utah Motorsports Campus, where the race will take place for the first time on a different track configuration from previous years. That means KWR won't be the only team setting up electronics for a new track.
"We definitely made the chatter a lot better, so we went in the right direction there," said Dean. "Other than that, I think the electronics worked great, the bike worked great. I just think we missed the setup a little. So I think we'll be alright for the next round."
The slow walk out of the turn one gravel now seemingly long ago, Wyman said he was more confident leaving Wisconsin than when the weekend began.
"Now we've got a weekend under our belt with the new electronics," he said. "A ton more data to look at, now with two race tracks' worth of data. That's a big deal. We've got a week and a half to prepare for Utah. Just looking forward to it. It's going to be good."