Firstly, and I will say this only once – sorry to anyone that was hoping for a nice chronological and real-time progress update on this build. My plan was always to update the blog in real time as things happened on the lead up to the event. But I was faced with a choice; just get on and build it, or spend the time writing about not having enough time to build it – the choice was clear!
So, for once, I shut the f*** up. Then I cracked on with the actually making the thing come to life.
With 6 weeks to go before the event, things really weren’t looking great for the Kat’s chances of getting to Spa at all, let alone race.
There was an awful lot to get done, too much stuff, and too much stuff I couldn’t do myself. My head, fried, completely.
I learnt that although a project may well be 85% done, the last 15% is not only going to be the shittiest 15% but is gripped by the growing fear of the imminent deadline. That’s a deadline of course that looked a lot like a 4 hour day/night race against 70 other teams at a track where I’d only done 6 half hearted laps at a year earlier. Gulp.
I had hoped that I’d finish up the build with Paul Boulton at motocatman.com, but here’s a very unfortunate clash of interests – 2014 is the 40th anniversary of the RG500. Every year is a busy year for the RG500 parading crews of Europe, but this year – it’s gone ballistic. Paul fettles the amazing collection of RG’s run by Steve Wheatman at Team Classic Suzuki. I saw first hand that Paul’s workload, just at the point the Katana project needed some extra attention, was becoming very busy on RG stuff.
Amicably and sensibly, the Kat withdrew from Paul’s workshop after he’d made his last major step – thanks to a brutally simple loom he’d knocked together she had a running engine! Apparently starting the engine after it’s nut and bolt rebuild had been an unremarkable and simple event – oh how I liked to hear that!
So, with a running but still very unfinished bike I fingered my black book of contacts and sent out ripples of despair accompanied by sad puppy eyes. If you’re surrounded by good people that you haven’t yet managed to piss off completely, it’s never long before somebody who shares the same passion raises their hand and helps out. Truthfully, Karma isn’t some cosmic force that makes sure everything gets even (I have no proof of that of course, it could well be true) Being nice to people all the time (and without motive) seems to lead to the simple fact that you’ll never struggle for long in times of despair.
And so it was that Jon Slenzak, who was originally bought in just to tame the Katana suspension raised a hand and said “bring the bike to me” or more correctly, to his mate Derek’s, where he does a lot of his own work. It turns out that the union of Jon and Derek’s skills and workshop full of equipment form a pretty hefty resource for the project with a little “schedule lag”.
I first met Derek Chittenden on his 73rd Birthday. Derek’s life has been devoted to making motorcycles go faster as the engineering brains behind Hejira Racing Developments (Team HRD).
Instead of a card (I didn’t know it was his Birthday) I took him a Katana with a depressingly long list of things to do in a hurry. How very mean.
The Kat featured nowhere to even rest my feet, or anything you could describe as foot operated controls either, the front brake calipers were cable tied on, the hefty exhaust like-wise, plus the clocks, seat and headlamp all needed fixing to the bike as well. Stand bobbins, oil cooler mounts, chain adjusters – oh yeah, this list got longer every time I thought about it. I bit my lip and looked at the floor as I mumbled sadly through my lengthy list of needs… Derek wasn’t phased. He’s a proper, old-school racing motorcycle engineer having built around 800 racing bikes since his first Triumph engined Scrambler in 1960. He’s designed and built Championship winning motorcycles from scratch and is happy making anything from a footpeg to a carbon fibre frame himself.
To describe him simply as “a pretty clever bloke” is a masterpiece of understatement. The workshop walls are plastered with the pictorial record of an incredible racing heritage and a tour through his sprawling workshop to absorb more of Team HRD’s history left me in awe. HRD have made some incredible stuff! Once I’d seen his handmade carbon fibre frames and single cylinder engines hewn from solid billet in the flesh, I was convinced Derek was vastly overqualified to do such simple little bits and bobs on the Katana. He was happy to get involved though. Utter relief. I really needed help, and I actually couldn’t have found anyone better.
Add in to the mix being able to listen to great tales of racing from the golden era and the regular workshop visits from his wife Sally, with perfectly made coffee and slabs of cake, this wasn’t just a useful alliance, it was a genuinely lovely one too! Happy days.
4 weeks later and almost everything on the list had been hewn from virgin metal – the footrests are particularly gorgeous, as is the exhaust hanger after my very late change of plan about (not) being able to make a new link pipe (thanks Derek!).
Anyway, it wasn’t all happy clappy and tea and cake at this point – there’s some sadness-tinged news to share…(it’s not that sad, nobody dies or gets hurt)
With about 3-4 weeks to go I had to make the call in relation to putting in an entry to actually race at Spa. I’d made the decision a long time back that I’d only take a bike that was ready, tested and proven. I’ve seen enough shit unfold at racetracks with badly prepared or untested motorcycles. I wasn’t prepared to be the protagonist for that kind of grief, which with endurance racing is also shared with the unpaid members of a team that I would have dragged out of the UK to Spa to help.
With the available entries down to less than a handful, the project wasn’t ready. I also knew we wouldn’t have any time for testing, and the people I wanted to take with me to help were gagging to know if they should book time off work too. So, I did what any sensible bloke would do – I decided to race it.
BUT – In 2015…not 2014 🙁
Make no mistake though, I was gutted, I’ve spent a year trying to get this bike to Spa for a race, but without at least 4-5 extra weeks this bike wasn’t going to be a race-ready weapons system. I wasn’t going to put my arse (or anybody else’s) on the line without having the right tool for the job underneath us. I’m completely averse to presiding over grief almost as much as the time, energy and money that it consumes.
So, I took a small step back and booked us to go to Spa for “parade” duties instead.
The decision to ditch the race turned the heat right down on the project. Knowing what I know now about how long everything took to complete, it was the best thing I could have done. Why? Well, a prime example is not having to mount the alternator. It was sapping too much time from the rest of the build but it was only needed if we were racing. So, it was shelved, because it could be. We’d just charge the battery in between sessions instead. Because of the reduced demands of parading, there were a few sacrifices like that which saved the build from never getting there.
So, the Parade at Spa was booked through the nice people at Classic Bike Trackdays (whom I also instruct for) and at the end of the day, it’s the same event, same track, same weekend as the race just with a different level of commitment and preparation required. Nonetheless it’s a very useful test for Spa 2015…
Crikey, looking on the bright side for the moment, doesn’t this mean I’m going to be almost a year early?…!!!