• Privateer Life: Scoring a point at Unadilla

    A couple of months back, we (well, I) decided to hook up with AMA Pro motocrosser Willy Browning for his jaunt from central Ohio up to Unadilla, NY for Round 9 of the Lucas Oils Nationals. The life of a privateer, which Mr. Browning most certainly is, has always been intriguing for motocross fans everywhere so when the chance came up to be a fly on the wall, I figured "sure, what the hell. I can slum it for a weekend with this kid and see what he's all about." Being a fly on the wall in such circumstances means a couple of things, or so I thought, and mainly it's that I wouldn't have to drive and I could get all of my work done on the way home from a long weekend of shooting pics. Unadilla or, more correctly, New Berlin, NY is about a 9 hour car ride at high speed. In our rig, we were looking at more like 12. The rig itself is a GM based Weekend Warrior, with a nicely setup garage area and a fridge well stocked with a shockingly good selection of brews. It's owner is crazy BOB MURRAY, who at the prodding of his longtime girlfriend Melissa, decided to help Willy out beginning last year by getting him to the races, doing a bit of wrenching on bikes, and for the most part covering expenses. Damn nice couple of people right here, no doubt about that. Read on for the painful details of what is involved in scoring a national point for a rider that's been on the verge of success for several years now...

    Getting loaded up at Bob's house in 90 degree heat and equally high humidity, Willy pushes one of his Munn Racing-supplied KTM250 SXF's, which he got not for free, but at a fair discount. Munn helps out a few privateers, not only by providing bikes but some engine mods, rebuilds and discounted parts. Willy has a bone stock practice bike and a race bike, which has a few engine mods, an FMF pipe and suspension work done by an unnamed source. He says the race engine blows away the stocker, and generally likes the KTM after having ridden Hondas last year (and in Arenacross), and Suzukis prior to that.

    After getting loaded up and leaving a mere 4 hours behind schedule, we headed on up the beautiful and incredibly long state of New York, stopping around Elicottville to go for a bit of a mountain bike ride. Getting to the general area of the trails was one thing, but finding them was another -- especially on forest service roads in a motorhome. We finally just pulled off to the side when we saw a trail crossing and unloaded the bikes -- it was about 7:30pm on Thursday at this point, so time was not on our side.

    We got into the woods and put the hammer down for a little while until the slick roots caught up with one of us. Here's Willy, trying to use arm power as opposed to leg strength to get him through a tricky little upstate NY bit of singletrack. The kid can ride a mountain bike (and road bike, and 20") there's no doubt, and he's finally gotten over the need to try and hop his way through the woods like a BMX'er. If he ever gives up moto, look for Browning to hook it up on a mountain bike, for sure

    After getting back to the rig about 20 minutes after it was too late to see anything in the woods, we headed back toward Elicottville looking for some grub. With it being around 9:30pm on a weeknight, and Elicottville being a fairly sleepy little town this time of year, we struck out miserably. Ultimately we ended up getting back onto the highway and finding a casino on an Indian reserve that still had a late night restaurant open inside, so we went for it. What's a privateer eat for a post-mountain-biking 10pm dinner two days before a National? Beef stroganoff (or beef strokinoff). That's Bob on the left here, as the boys pose before a fine statue in the casino. Yes, one of us lost money while there, but I won't say who...

    Another few hours up the road, Bob decided he'd had enough and wanted to get a hotel for the night. To us, this made no sense as A) we were in a motor home that was plenty comfy to sleep in and B) it was 3AM when we pulled in to check on rooms. Bob balked at $90, considering we'd planned on getting on the road by 7, so he came back into the rig and we slept in the parking lot. Only 3 hours to go to Dilla!

    Willy does a fair bit of the driving, but it's Bob that does the bulk and that's partially because Willy's A.D.D. sets in about 5 minutes after getting behind the wheel and he can't sit through a single tune on his iPod, or be happy with a single texting session at a time, or even a single phone call. The boy's got issues, but in this pic I caught Bob doing the same thing...

    So, arriving at the track around noon'ish Friday is always the goal for these guys, and Bob delivered his boy right on time. With tech inspection opening up in just a couple of hours, they had their work cut out for them: Unload the rig, setup the pit, swap plastic on the bikes, put a front brake on the race bike, put an air filter in, get new tires mounted, and a million other things before tech closed at 5pm. No problem, right?

    Willy gets the sweet graphics kits on his bikes from DZ Graphics. That cooler on the left has an ice cold mini keg of Heineken in it. Willy wasn't allowed to have any.

    The decision to swap out the sub-frame at the track was one made by Willy, and it was a poor one. He'd had a few mm removed from the practice bike's subframe (he's vertically challenged) earlier in the week and decided he liked it, so onto the race bike it was to go. Of course, that decision was made after the wheels were off and the crappy plastic stand that he brought absolutely would NOT hold the bike up no matter how many sticks he tried to put under the frame to prop it up. I felt like I should be helping, but a fly on the wall wouldn't typically lend a hand, so I just stood back and chuckled. Kids these days...

    After suffering through the subframe shuffle, Bob walked back over to Dunlop (who provide the #90 with a fresh set of rubber for every round he comes to, big thanks to the Dunlop guys for that!) to check on the progress. Unfortunately, the tire techs noticed a missing spoke in the rear wheel and wouldn't mount a tire on the rim. With just a couple hours before tech closed, the race was on to find a spoke.

    Our first thought was to find Ricky Renner, who also got KTM's through Munn Racing's program. For the Nationals, Ricky worked out of the Warthog Racing rig, so we headed over there. Chris Parsons, who manages/drives/does everything else at the races for WWR, had been pitching the idea to Willy all summer to come and race for WWR for the 2011 Supercross season. While clearly intrigued by his offer, Willy was more interested in getting a spoke and getting through tech and when he saw Ricky wasn't around, we pedaled off to find another KTM rider.

    Just up the way was Tevin Tapia's pit area. Tevin also rides a KTM250 SXF, but according to his mechanic (who's name escapes me but who is an incredibly nice guy), they don't run the stock wheelset and their spokes wouldn't fit Willy's wheel. Strike 2.

    Off to the KTM factory rig we went, where our interaction was so short I didn't even have time for a photo. The conversation went something like this: "Hi, do you guys have a spoke for a 250F back wheel?"... "For a stock wheel? Hahaha, no." Goodbye. Next up was the Champion Cycles pit (shown here), and without even getting out of his chair, the guy knew - nope, no single spokes for rear wheels. How could this be??

    Finally, and just about the time we were to lose hope and swap out the practice bike wheel (with a dented rim and the wrong sprocket on it), we stumbled upon another KTM 250 in the pits - this time belonging to rookie Killy Rusk, who was making his pro debut at Unadilla. BINGO! His Dad coughed up a single spoke, and with a wave of thank-you's, we were off to Bob's rig and over another hurdle for the day.

    Back to Dunlop we went, myself and Bob "I'm NOT a mechanic!" Murray, to put a spoke in the rear wheel so they'd mount a tire to it. Done, and done.

    While suffering through the spoke search, we also realized a key item that was missing -- hand guards. Unadilla's is infamous for it's rocks, and every other bike we saw in the pits was running hand guards, so this also became an object of desire. One stop over at the Troy Racing pits to find Willy's childhood buddy Michael Willard, who produced a pair of handguards, that Willy even installed himself (mostly) by the time we got back from Dunlop! With fresh graphics, tires, hand guards, lowered sub-frame and front brake now in place...

    ... it was off to AMA Pro Racing's tech trailer, with non-mechanic Bob signing off on all of the paper work. A sticker here, a transponder there, a few quick checks under this and behind that and voila, instant IN for Round 9 of the Nationals.

    Willy's been racing the Nationals and Supercross series for several years now. Having done most every round at some point, this year he was limiting the races to the most eastern stuff: PA rounds, Southwick, 'Dilla, Budds Creek and Red Bud. The #90 he earned last season was the first time he'd gotten a national number, and it took him 8 points to get it. To this stage of the 2010 series, he'd scored not a single point, so that was the goal this weekend - SCORE A FREAKIN' POINT! No pressure or anything.

    Upon further examination of the bike, Willy felt that the rear brake pedal was too soft. He had a bleed/rebuild kit, but didn't know how to make it work. Since BOB was no mechanic, we lucked out when local (Ohio) legend Mark Weaver walked up with his son Matt, who was also racing. Mark IS a mechanic, and knew how to take care of the problem. Hurdle cleared.

    One thing we hadn't done yet was go check out the track. Willy tries to walk a good bit of each track before Saturday morning, and he has to do it before the pitbike races that start around 6pm, so off we went on the bikes to pedal around the track a bit. A few minor layout changes and a whole bunch of new dirt that covered up most of the rocks, and he was feeling pretty good about things.

    At this point, it was time to get ready for the pitbike race. Willy Browning is known for a lot of things in this world, but riding a pitbike better than just about anyone is probably what he's most well known for. With career sponsor CHP USA, who provide him with insanely fast KLX110-based bikes and funding to get him to and fro, it's also safe to say that he always has the best bikes on the track. The result? Pitbike racing at the Nationals has pretty much become the Willy Browning Show. For a helmet cam vid of moto one, click here: http://vimeo.com/14425757

    All decked out and ready to go, when he starts up his pitbike everyone stops what they're doing. Off to the races...

    ...and we're done. Willy lapped up to 2nd or 3rd in each moto, and after a long conversation with MX Sports personnel, he realized he wasn't too big of a star to take care of a few administrative duties before each race. Live and learn.

    Up bright and early the next morning for the 8:30 rider's meeting, there's a lot to do before practice starts...

    Since Willy's usually a top-25 or so guy speed-wise, he gets to qualify with the fast guys in 250A practice. That gives him a bit of extra time, since they're usually the 3rd group on the track. He qualified 25th on this day.

    After practice, the kid was all smiles, saying the track was fun and good, and that he felt really solid. This is a little unusual, since sometimes even the slightest bit of discomfort or ill-preparation can totally ruin his confidence, so to have him happy was a sign of good things to come for the day.

    The #90 got a typically crummy start for the first moto, although not as bad as usual, and he rounded the track right around 18th-23rd the entire time. There are so many packs of equally-paced riders that there's some laps where a particular guy will go forward and back a few positions a lap. This time, Willy ended up squeaking by with a 20th place; a performance good enough for one point! That was it, the goal was accomplished and anything else would be icing on the cake.

    Unfortunately, the cake turned out to be rotten. Toward the end of the 1st moto, it seemed like there were occasional puffs of smoke coming from the exhaust on the bike and he said it was losing a bit of power. After looking over the most obvious stuff back in the pits (remember, we don't really have a mechanic in this case, so tearing a head apart or pulling a motor isn't an option), nothing was apparently wrong. On the line for moto two though, it was clear - smoke was pouring out of the FMF silencer and oil was evidently making it past the ring and into the combustion chamber. There'd be no chance of points scoring for moto two, and with that...

    ...our weekend of racing was done. The transponder removed, Willy and Bob pushed the bike back to the pits and started loading up. While it wasn't a total failure of a weekend, it was definitely a bummer since he was clearly up the task of getting more points in moto two. That was to be the only point he scored for the season, so it's back to the good ol' #156 for next year for Willy B.

    So there's a glimpse into the life of a fairly well-off and highly talented AMA Pro privateer motocrosser. Look for Willy Browning to be back on Honda CRF250R's for this year's Arenacross series, riding out of the Spinechillers Racing truck.
    Channels: Moto