Competition: The Myth Of A Level Playing Field

What the… what are those clunky things being pulled out of Doug Chandler’s Kawasaki Superbike? Carburetors? What are they? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

At its core, motorcycle road racing is competition. And, while the purest manifestation of that competition takes place on the racetrack and between the riders, it is also a known fact that motorcycle road racing is a team sport, and everyone on the racing teams within the paddock play a part in that competition.

With the advent of sophisticated electronics in motorcycles, there seems to be an opinion that those electronics have caused an unlevel playing field. The prevailing feeling among some fans is that the electronics are overly complicated and only those teams with deep pockets and specialized personnel can succeed.

But, how is that any different from the way things used to be in motorcycle road racing before this modern age of sophisticated electronics?

Consider, if you will, the Golden Age of the Carburetor. Before electronics and before fuel injection, there was the motorcycle carburetor. In today’s world of fuel injection, carburetors have become quaint artifacts of a bygone era. But, in their heyday, carburetors were incredibly complicated fuel-delivery systems. These steampunk-esque contraptions were collections of air jets, fuel screws, slide valves, springs, needles, doohickeys, and whatchamacallits that all worked together to deliver “just the right” air-fuel mixture to a motorcycle engine.

Tuning a carburetor – or, in the case of AMA Superbike racing, a bank of four carburetors – was a black art. On the surface, the adjustability of a bank of carburetors was a finite task. But, in reality, with so many things that could be adjusted inside a carburetor, the task was never-ending. And it took talent, experience, and sometimes even dumb luck to tune an AMA Superbike race-winning set of carburetors.

In the history of AMA Superbike racing, men like Jewel Hendricks, Rob Muzzy, Merlyn Plumlee, Eraldo Ferracci, Gary Medley, and others became legends because of their carburetor- and engine-tuning prowess. They were very much a part of the competition even though they didn’t actually ride the motorcycles.

During the era when all the motorcycles in the AMA Superbike paddock were equipped with carburetors, not every team had the personnel who could maximize the performance of those carburetors. And so, the playing field was not level. Some teams had tuners who were better than other team’s tuners. And, most of the time, those teams with better tuners were the teams who won the races.

Laptops and data have replaced barometric pressure gauges and jetting, but tuning is still the secret to success in MotoAmerica Superbike racing. Photo by Brian J. Nelson

Now, let’s think about today. All the motorcycles in the MotoAmerica Superbike paddock are equipped with electronics, but not every team has the personnel who can maximize the performance of those electronics. And so, just as there was competition among the teams in the era of carburetors, there is competition among the teams in this modem era of electronics.

Tuning the electronics on today’s MotoAmerica Superbikes is a black art. Air jets, fuel screws, slide valves, springs, needles, doohickeys, and whatchamacallits on the Superbike carburetors of yesteryear have been supplanted by sensors, switches, potentiometers, fuel maps, autoblip, doohickeys, and whatchamacallits on the Superbike wiring harnesses of today. It may be a different kind of black art, but tuning is still a black art just like it always was.

It’s also not a level playing field now just like it wasn’t a level playing field back then. That’s because a large part of the competitiveness of motorcycle road racing is the teams themselves that are trying to make the playing field unlevel and to tip it in their favor. Those are the teams that win.