Paradigm Shifts: Changing Gears In MotoAmerica

Cody Wyman’s Liqui Moly Junior Cup bike, equipped with a linkage that converts the transmission to reverse shift.

“Stock car racing” is one of the biggest misnomers in the world of motorsports due to the fact that there is virtually nothing at all that is “stock” about those cars. They start with a purpose-built racing frame (most modern automobiles are unibodies with no frames at all) and attach “reasonable facsimiles” of OEM bodywork to the frame to provide a hint (more like a suggestion) of the production automobile that the stock car is supposed to (loosely) represent.

Even though we don’t call it “stock motorcycle racing,” the bikes that race in the MotoAmerica Series literally ARE stock motorcycles to begin with. Each of them starts as a streetbike with a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), and race-specific components are installed in place of many of the production parts, including lightweight bodywork, adjustable-position footpegs (known as rearsets), handlebars, seats, electronics, and a host of other parts. This is especially true on the HONOS Superbikes, but every MotoAmerica racebike is altered in many ways and according to the rules for each of the five race classes.

The shift pattern for a typical streetbike with a five-speed transmission: “one down and four up.”

The manual transmissions on streetbikes have a gearshift lever that is actuated by the rider’s left foot, and the shift pattern is generally “one down” and either “four up” or “five up” depending on if the transmission has five speeds (or ratios) or six. You start in neutral, pull in the clutch lever and press down on the gearshift for first gear. To switch to the higher gears, you lift up on the gearshift lever, through neutral and into the other five or six gears. The transmission is sequential, meaning that you have to go through each gear to shift to a higher or lower one. So, “upshifting” is literally shifting up on the lever and “downshifting” is pressing down on the lever.

The Yamaha YZF-R1 has a “stacked transmission” with the shift shaft located almost directly above the countershaft sprocket.

For most racebikes, including those in MotoAmerica, the shift pattern is the exact opposite. You lift the lever up for first gear and press down through neutral for the rest of the higher gears. And, as such, “downshifting” is not down so it is technically called “backshifting” because you are going back to select a lower gear.

So, why do most racers prefer that their racebikes’ transmissions have this “reverse-shift” pattern that is the exact opposite of a street bike?

With the linkage in place (including the electronic quickshifter mechanism), it is oriented for a reverse-shift pattern: one up, five down.

Several reasons. Imagine yourself railing through a fast, left-hand turn, with the bike leaned over and the puck on the left knee of your leathers skimming the asphalt. You’re just past the apex, you start twisting the throttle to accelerate, and you need to upshift. Now, imagine trying to slide your foot under the shift pedal. The pavement is literally millimeters below the lever. There is no room to get your foot under the lever.

Conversely, when you are braking while approaching a turn and need to downshift or, in racing terms “backshift,” the bike is mostly upright, so there is ample room to get your foot under the lever and lift it up to select a lower gear.

Most of the sportbikes used as platforms for the racebikes in MotoAmerica are now designed so you can quickly and easily switch the pattern around by switching the linkage around. It’s usually just a matter of moving the linkage 180 degrees so that it does the exact opposite of what it does on a streetbike.

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of shift linkages, there are, and have been, some motorcycle road racers who use street shift in racing. The one who comes to mind first is 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz, who spent his entire motorcycle road racing career aboard motorcycles that had a “one down, five up” streetbike pattern.

“Early on in my career, I tried to adapt to reverse shift, which is one up and five down,” Schwantz said. “But I couldn’t max out my performance on the bike and also keep track of which direction to flick the gearshift lever. It wasn’t natural to me. So, every bike I raced, including my Suzuki GP bikes, were one down, five up. Even when I did the Suzuka Eight Hours and had teammates, those riders used reverse shift, but I didn’t. When they’d come in to change tires, refuel, and switch riders for my stint, we had a setup where the mechanic just had to flip a little lever and change the linkage from reverse shift to street shift for me.

Kevin Schwantz raced his entire career, including AMA Superbike and World GP, with a street-shift pattern on all his racebikes. He went through a lot of boots, especially left ones.

“I never had a problem with putting my foot under the lever to upshift,” Schwantz continued. “Well, actually, NASCAR 3 and 4 at Daytona were a problem when we raced there because of the transition coming off the banking. Also, in GP, when we used to go in the opposite direction at Misano, there were some left turns there that were a challenge. I used to wear the sliders off my boots all the time because of the way I shifted, but I had a boot sponsor, so it wasn’t a problem. I went through a lot of boots.”

Also, there was a time, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when most motorcycles had their gearshifts on the right side of the motorcycle. Road racing legends like Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, Kel Carruthers, and many others from that era raced their entire careers with the gearshift lever on the right, which is where the right brake pedal is on modern street motorcycles and racebikes.

“Back in the day,” as the saying goes.

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