Stranger In A Strange Land: Andrew Lee Puts It On The Podium At Suzuka

Andrew Lee (center) and his Japanese teammates Hikari Okubo and Kyosuke Okuda finished second in the Superstock class at the Suzuka 8-Hours.

RiderzLaw Racing’s Andrew Lee is currently leading the MotoAmerica Stock 1000 Championship aboard his Kawasaki ZX-10R. Lee is from Clovis, California, and he and his ARMY GIRL Team MF & Kawasaki team recently finished 19th overall in the iconic Suzuka 8-Hours Endurance Race. What was even more impressive is that he and his team finished second in the Superstock class, so he stood on the podium in his very first Suzuka 8-Hours. We had a chance to talk with Lee after he returned home to America following his Japanese road racing adventure.Pucc

Andrew, tell us about your Suzuka 8-Hours experience.

AL: The whole Suzuka experience was amazing, for sure. It was the first year that my team raced in the 8-Hours, but we had Hikari Okubo, who is a World Supersport rider for Puccetti Kawasaki, and he’s raced in the Suzuka 8-Hours before. But, for Kyosuke Okuda and me, it was our first time doing it. So, basically, we went into the thing with a couple of rookies and we came out with a second place, which is pretty amazing, honestly. We didn’t have the expectation of coming out on the box. Going into the race, we qualified pretty good, even though all of our sessions were pretty short due to red flags. We missed out on the win by only about 60 seconds, I think, but we had to make a couple of extra pit stops due to some issues in the race. So I feel like we were pretty close to actually getting the win in the Superstock class, which would have been just really crazy

Can you talk about your team’s race strategy? You had three riders. Did all three riders compete in the event?

AL: Yeah. The way that we did the rider rotation was every hour we’d do a rider swap. So at the beginning of the race, we had Kyosuke start because he’s a good rain rider, and we had a bit of rain at the beginning of the race. Then we had Hikari go second, and then, I went third. So we continued that rotation throughout the event. The way we’d go is basically one hour was about 25 laps, so we would go 25 laps at a time.

So, each stint was the equivalent of a little more than a full sprint race, is that correct?

AL: Oh, yeah. It’s a long sprint race. Going 23 laps, you’re like, “OK, I’ve got two more laps. I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”

So, you would do the 25 laps and then you’d come in and switch riders. How much time did you have before you had to go back out for your next stint?

AL: We had basically an hour and a half to kind of “relax” before we had to get suited up again.

What did you do when you weren’t riding?

AL: The team has a couple of cooks, so we’d have our meals prepped, and they also had a masseuse on hand because you get pretty sore after doing what amounts to a full Superbike stint, plus a couple more laps after that. So, we’d go and get a massage, drink some water, get in the sauna, eat, and then basically get back suited up. It’s supposed to be two riders between stints because you’ve got two riders before you’re back up, but once you cooled down from your stint, you only had ten minutes to get ready before the next stint. So there’s no relax time. It was really exciting. I’ve never done an endurance race.

For a rider who hasn’t done any endurance racing, the first one you did was one of the biggest endurance races in the world, if not the biggest. LeMans and the Bol d’Or are a couple of other ones, but certainly, the Suzuka 8-Hours is prestigious and iconic.

AL: Yeah. I was thinking the same thing. I was like, “What did I get myself into?” Once I started off and we were turning some laps, it was really crazy. The first stint was just so difficult because I’ve never done a 25-lap stint. In the middle of my stint, I actually had to come back in and get something changed and go back out. I did five or six laps, I pitted, and I went out and did another 25 laps. So, my first stint was actually longer than a normal stint. I was tired, for sure.

How many stints did you do in total?

AL: I did two. My first stint was in the dry and then my second stint was it had just rained right before I went out, so Hikari came in and we went to rain tires, and I went out and did 25 laps on a drying track on rain tires. So the race started at 11:30 AM. My first stint was at 1:30 PM, and my second stint was at around 5:30 PM.

Tell me about the bike that you raced in the 8-Hours versus the bike that you race in MotoAmerica Stock 1000. Did the Suzuka 8-Hours bike feel a lot different, even though it’s the same make and model of motorcycle?

AL: Yeah, it felt pretty different. The main difference between the bikes actually is the larger fuel tank, the tires, and the suspension that they were using. It’s the stock Kawasaki ZX-10R with a bigger fuel tank.

It’s fairly common that you have incidents during the Suzuka 8-Hours, whether it’s mechanicals or crashes. Did you guys have any incidents?

AL: No. We actually got through the race pretty unscathed, thankfully. We had some competitors that made some mistakes, but the one thing that is a struggle in the Superstock class is that we’re not allowed to have any quick-change equipment for the wheels so we had to be pretty sparingly with our tires and pit stops.

How many tire changes did you guys have during the whole event

AL: Three. We did three tire changes, I believe.

Andrew Lee and the Army Girl team celebrate their Suzuka 8-Hours success.

What brand of tires were you on?

AL: We were on Bridgestones. I think we used two fresh sets of slicks and one set of rains. We started the race on rains.

How was the dynamic between you and the other two riders? They were both Japanese riders. Was there a language barrier?

AL: Yeah, there was a language barrier, for sure. Hikari, since he has raced in the World Championships, he knows a little bit of English, but Kyosuke, he competes in the All-Japan Road Race Championship, so he doesn’t understand much English at all. So, the language barrier between him and me was pretty big. The team didn’t speak any English, either. My crew chief Derek Keyes came over with me, and he speaks a little bit of Japanese. The team’s race director Morohara-san, he is bilingual, so whenever I had something to say about the bike, he would translate and tell the team what I was trying to say.

Is there a guy who kind of manages the strategy and communicates to you guys about what you’re going to do as a team?

AL: The team boss is Hidemichi Takahashi, and he and Morohara-san were doing the strategy for the race. They had their computers and they were logging lap times and comparing it to the other riders in the class. They would decide who’s up next and when they needed stops and the riders to come in. With the changing conditions due to the typhoon, it was actually really hectic. Those guys worked really hard and got us in and out and helped put us on the box. I was pretty impressed by all the hard work on the team.

You ended up second in class and 19th overall. To get a top-20 overall in your very first Suzuka 8-Hours is pretty impressive, in and of itself, aside from the Superstock podium. How do you feel about that

AL: I’m completely amazed about it. We obviously could not have done it without all the hard teamwork. My teammates rode phenomenal. With all the instances because of the changing conditions and just the tricky weather, it was really mentally challenging because we had to stay focused for an hour straight, and you’re not just cruising around. You’re riding all-out and you’ve got to do it in a way where you know you’re not going to crash because it’s an 8-hour race. You can’t really afford to crash.

Did you have any interaction with any of the other teams, or any of the other teams’ riders? Not necessarily on the track, of course, but during your break?

AL: I stayed with my own team for the most part because they invited me over there, and I was really thankful to have the opportunity, so I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. I also had my family come out, my mom, my dad and my brother. So I spent a lot of time with them. Joe Roberts was there, so I spent some time with him. It was basically finding English-speaking people. In a country where they don’t really speak your language, it’s pretty difficult. I went to two tests before, and it’s pretty tricky when you’re one of the only people who speaks your language.

So, you were kind of like a stranger in a strange land, weren’t you?

AL: Yeah, I really was because we don’t look the same either. I’m obviously not Asian. They could easily pick me out of a room, that’s for sure. In the riders’ meeting, with the Japanese announcers and stuff, I just kind of stood off in the distance. I didn’t understand any of it. I was like, “I don’t know what you guys are saying.” Then they’d say it in English, and I was like, “Okay, got it. Understood.”

Despite the cultural and language barrier, or the differences, let’s say, can you tell us about the atmosphere? The whole concept of the Suzuka 8-Hours, the way the fans are and their enthusiasm? Describe that.

AL: I’d never done an international race before. The only international thing I’ve done was the Red Bull Rookies Cup tryouts, so I’ve only raced in America. Going into it, I didn’t really have any preconceived notions of what it would be like. So, I went into it with an open mind, and the fans just blew me away. Everyone was super-excited to be there. Even with the typhoon, the turnout was great. For the fans, it’s really hard to explain it other than, it’s like a soccer event in a country like Spain or Mexico where that’s their culture, soccer. That’s kind of what it felt like. That is their sport, motorcycle road racing.

You talked about the rain, and you mentioned the word typhoon. Was there an actual typhoon that went through?

AL: Yeah. The typhoon went through the night before the race.

And you said it was wet conditions to start the event?

AL: Yeah. We had a morning warmup, which was dry, and we were sitting on the grid in dry conditions and it just started pouring right before the race. I feel like the first, maybe 45 minutes, was wet, and then it dried out until 5:00, my stint.

After the race, being up on that podium has got to be just unbelievably exciting.

AL: Yeah. The way they do the entire event is really amazing. At the checkered flag, they have a fireworks show. You don’t see any of that stuff in America. So a little bit of that was shocking to me because I wasn’t expecting it. They did a cool-down lap behind the pace car. All the fans were standing along the front straight with all their favorite t-shirts on and all that stuff. The fans were just really into it. As a rider coming from a country where you don’t really see that too much for any sort of sport, it was really amazing.

Obviously, you had the connections to get there. You probably solidified those. What does this bode for you in the future regarding possibly doing more endurance racing or racing on an international level?

AL: I made some good connections. I feel like next year we’ll probably do the Suzuka 8 Hours again. I’d like to try out for the FIM EWC (Endurance World Championship) event in Malaysia at Sepang. I’d like to go to the 8-Hour race there, too. But, I want to race in America because it’s where I live. I really like American racing, and the fans here are cool. I know a lot of cool people here. The teams are cool. But it’s nice getting out, getting to experience a new culture and new competitors because everyone in America, we basically all know who we’re racing against when we go to an event. But, when I was at Suzuka, I’ve never raced against Jonny Rea or Leon Haslam before. So, it was a new experience to race against some new people. I would like to go and do a Japanese National Superbike round, which might be in the future this year. Then obviously trying to go do the Suzuka 8 Hours again next year.

The seat time is very important and probably helped your training a lot and your racecraft, would you say?

AL: Yeah. With the hour-long stints, I’ve never done anything like that, and I feel like, even if you’re not having the best day, you’re learning a lot. I feel like the experience in Japan really opened my eyes to just a lot more. I feel like I learned a lot in the 8-Hour race. With it being one of the biggest events in motorcycle racing, I couldn’t have picked a better race to go and do.

So you’re back home in the U.S. now and you live in Clovis, California, which isn’t all that far from Sonoma You’ve got the advantage of being able to drive up to the track, and it’s not too far of a drive. Can you tell us about what you’re looking forward to this next weekend at Sonoma?

AL: What I’m really looking forward to is the nice weather. Hopefully, the weather isn’t like it was in Japan with all the rain we had. I’m also really excited to have some friends and family come out to the race. My dad doesn’t come to my races much anymore, so having my family come out is going to be really cool for me. Going into this race, coming back from Japan, and having a good showing there, I’d like to go there and win it. It’d be great to win in front of some of my family, especially my grandma since she’s supported me for so long.

Have you had many laps at Sonoma Raceway?

AL: Yeah, actually, my first professional podium was at Sonoma, and that was last year in Superstock 600 race two. Michael Gilbert won, and I got second. Ironically, Gilbert is now my teammate.

RiderzLaw is a presenting sponsor at Sonoma. I don’t know how it happened with you, because at the beginning of the year you were Andrew Lee Racing, but now you’re with RiderzLaw Racing. Did you get hooked up with them during this year? How did that come about?

AL: It actually happened maybe a month before the season started. So, we registered as Andrew Lee Racing because that was our intention, and then RiderzLaw stepped up and offered me a ride. I’m really enjoying my time with the team. They’re working really hard. They give us a good platform to perform on. The fact that they’re supporting Sonoma and MotoAmerica for this upcoming race weekend is actually really cool of them to do for the sport.

You’re currently leading the Stock 1000 Championship. What’s your strategy for the rest of the season? Go for the win or preserve points? What are your thoughts going into these final few races of the season?

AL: We’re coming down to four races left in the season, and I’ve got a 21-point lead. I want to go into each one basically the same and have the mindset that I want to win. But coming down to a situation, I have to analyze it and be thoughtful. “Is this worth the risk? Is the reward worth it?” Obviously, I’m going to go for the win if I have it, but if not, I’m going to think about the championship. I’m going to bring it home, and try to put it on the box as opposed to risking it all for a win.

Do you have any plans solidified for next year or any hopes about what you’re going to do in terms of moving up a class?

AL: As of right now, I haven’t had anybody reach out to me for next year. So, I’m going to try to submit some plans and get some sponsors and maybe make a move up to Superbike.

You went from Superstock 600 to Stock 1000. You’re on a 1000cc bike now. How do you like the bigger bike compared with the 600cc machine you rode last year?

AL: Coming into the season, I hadn’t had much time on a 1000. Coming from the 600, it’s a pretty big difference. You have, maybe, 60 more horsepower in the bike and it’s a little heavier. I know Travis (Wyman) and Shane Richardson, who are my two biggest rivals in the class, haven’t had much time on 1000cc bikes, either. So, the three of us battling for wins and the championship is awesome. We’re all learning the bikes, and we’re all actually going pretty fast. I think we’re all enjoying the 1000. I know, for sure, I like mine.

Between rounds, what do you do for training?

AL: Mostly, my training right now, I’m kind of doing motocross stuff. I do a lot of running and I also do some cycling. I’m starting to get more into running. After the whole Nicky Hayden incident, I’ve kind of stuck to running more instead of cycling.

Thanks for talking with us, Andrew. We’re looking forward to seeing you race at Sonoma and the rest of the season. Good luck with everything.

AL: Thanks for having me.