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It’s not often that a race bike gets me second guessing my meager riding skills and questioning if I am man enough to get on it from 30 ft away across the paddock. That was my exact thought process however as owner Stan Friduss pulled away the remote starter and the heavily breathed on 1000cc engine of the 1976 Moto Guzzi Lemans Superbike exploded to life. Every head within earshot turned towards the pit. I approached cautiously as the biked settled into a spitting idle as if it was pissed off for being woken up, courtesy of the gaping DelOrto smoothbore carbs. This was my first introduction to my dance partner for the weekend, and the fortuitous relationship to come.
Thanks to Stan and Pearl Friduss, I got the opportunity to ride the Friduss Racing Moto-Guzzi vintage heavyweight superbike for the AHRMA season finale at the beautiful Barber Motorsport Park. I am a huge fan of the vintage superbike class, having grown up during that exciting first era of 1025cc high handlebar superbikes. This was an era when tires and chassis hadn’t quite caught up to impressive power output the superbikes were capable of. Exciting would be a huge understatement to anyone who witnessed the original spectacle. Ever since AHRMA re-introduced the class a few years ago, I had been itching to throw my leg over a heavyweight superbike. Honestly, however, a Moto Guzzi ‘Superbike’ was pretty far down the bucket list. Why would I want to ride an old quirky pushrod, shaft drive Italian V-twin originally intended for the touring market when I could be pretending to be Eddie Lawson or Wes Cooley on a 1025cc Japanese inline 4 fire breather? Part of the draw to riding one of Stan’s bike was his history of building quick Moto-Guzzi’s. After racing against his impressively fast Daytona based Formula 2 Battle of the Twins racer, I always wondered what it would be like to ride one.
Then 19-year-old Mike Baldwin (and friends) on the very same Guzzi superbike I would ride at Barber.
One of the other draws to riding this particular superbike was it’s incredible racing history. This was no replica, but one of the original protagonists from the dawn of the superbike era. It was the very bike (purported to being the first Moto Guzzi Lemans brought into the U.S.) the great Reno Leoni of Ducati/Jimmy Adamo fame built for a 19 year old Mike Baldwin to ride during the 1976 season. Baldwin placed 5th at Daytona that year, then won in stunning fashion the following round at Loudon. Baldwin notched another victory on the bike the following year at the Charlotte superbike race. This was about the time Stan acquired the bike, where it went on to win countless club races, as well as several AMA Battle of the Twins victories and AHRMA races and championships. The list of names who rode the bike was a veritable who’s who of American road racing, including Rick Schlacter, Sherri Friduss, Will Harding, and even equally famed racer/announcer Richard Chambers (who just happened to be calling the races at Barber!).
In the shadow of greatness, frantically trying to learn to understand Italian …
Despite the bikes racing pedigree, there were still some concerns about riding it in anger on my end. Even in it’s day, it was a bit of stretch to call the Lemans a sportbike. I had never ridden, let alone raced, a shaft drive motorcycle. The shaft drive also limited gearing options. Due to the shaft drive specific wheel, we were limited to running the stock 18” hoops (17” wheels and modern radial race dots are allowed in the AHRMA superbike class). The bike still runs it’s original 35mm forks, that even back in the day were considered small. The bike was also physically very low to the ground with a really long wheelbase approaching 60 inches. It would be a challenge to race around a track like Barber that rewards good handling and front end feel. To make matters worse, The allotment of Dunlop KR race compound 18” tires run on the Guzzi was gone for the year, so we had to make due with a half cooked rear tire and front tire of undetermined age. Not exactly a recipe for rider confidence…
My first laps around Barber on the Guzzi didn’t do too much to improve my confidence either. Despite the thing scaring me silly during the starting process, I still managed to muster up enough courage to climb aboard to do my best Mike Baldwin impression. First thing I noticed, besides the glorious Italian symphony emanating from the 2 into 1 megaphone exhaust, was how quickly the bike revved. I have never ridded a stock Lemans, but expected the Guzzi to rev lazily like an air cooled Buell or Harley. This was definitely not the case, as the bike’s lightened flywheel and automotive style clutch allowed the big twin to rev like a two stroke. Each rev was accompanied by a disconcerting gentle side to side swaying caused by the inertia forces of the axially mounted 90 degree V-twin. You sit low in the saddle of the Guzzi, and when combined with the high pegs and long reach across the bulbous tank to the bars, promoted a ‘crouching surfer’ like riding position. The shift lever toe piece was very far out, resulting in a long shift throw that required a deliberate stab. Luckily, the sweet power delivery of the engine kept shifting to a minimum. The Guzzi pulled extremely strong from down low to its self imposed 8000rpm red line. I was a little shocked at how fast the thing was in a straight line. There is no question Stan can build a Guzzi superbike engine!
Hole shot from the 3rd row – blind squirrel, nut, etc …
As good as the engine felt, the chassis felt a generation behind. The long reach to the bars combined with the skinny 35mm forks resulted in a numb feeling front end with little feedback. The front end protested with chatter anytime I tried to push my corner speed up and ride the front end. The chassis was very loose feeling on the gas as the powerful engine would spin the worn Dunlop at will. The worst part of the track for this was at the end of the back straight where you crest a hill in a right hand turn. The bike would spin the tire and weave all the way up and back down the hill….all with your knee on the deck. Surprisingly, the shaft drive didn’t factor into any negative drivability issue while on the gas. Where I did notice it was on the brakes, where it actually sucked the back end down under engine braking, causing severe rear end chatter if I wasn’t careful about matching revs on down shifts.
Practice ended, and I still hadn’t figured out how to ride the bike. My times were about 10 seconds off a competitive pace for the class, and actually slower lap times than on my 350 Honda sportsman bike. Power was not an issue, but I just couldn’t get any confidence in the chassis or the numb feeling front end. A change to an equally ancient Avon rear tire didn’t help the situation at all. Despite the problems, we slowly chipped away at some of the issues on race day practice. Randy at Framecrafters welded up a new shifter toe piece that drastically shortened the shifter throw, allowing me to focus some additional brainpower on riding instead of shifting. Stan threw a $25 used Dunlop rear tire cast off from fellow competitor Tim Joyce on the bike which easily outperformed the Avon. I generally got more comfortable on the bike and concentrated on riding better, but it was obvious I was no Mike Baldwin. Before we new it, it was time for our first superbike race…ready or not.
If only the race would have lasted 4 laps ...
I was lined up on the 3rd row for the start, wondering how the hell I was going to get this thing around the track competitively. I got a so-so launch and got stuck behind some 2nd row guys, bending the Guzzi delicately through turn 1 and making what I thought were clean outside passes through turns 3 and 4 with the front end protesting the entire time. I made it up to about 5th place when the race was red flagged for a crash. During the intermission while the track was being cleaned up, I was ripped a new one by a fellow competitor who said I cut across his front wheel and almost caused him to crash (I am probably guilty as charged….). I sat there biting my lip simmering. I was frustrated with my riding, angry, and focused on getting a good start for the re-start to get away from any issues in the middle of the pack. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was exactly what I needed.
I rode the warm up lap for the re-start as hard as I dared to get some heat into our old Dunlops. I was done walking on egg shells with this thing, it was win it or bin it time. I made a really aggressive drag bike like start. The bike responded beautifully. It is so long and low, that there was no way it was ever going to wheelie, so it just dug in and took off like shot. I surprised myself when I went from the third row into a 4 bike lead after the first corner. I just rode the bike angry, and it seemed to work. The bike still protested, but the feedback was the same if I was riding a cautious 80 percent or an aggressive 100 percent, so the choice was obvious. Like any fiery Italian, the bike would gesticulate wildly up in your face, but you were pretty sure it wasn’t actually going to punch you out….at least I hoped so. We led the first 3 laps of the superbike race as things finally began to gel, but the pace just wasn’t sustainable. The front end chatter got worse with each subsequent lap as the tires and front suspension heated up. Our well worn $25 rear tire began spinning up on early throttle application. After barely staying upright when the front end folded on the last corner on lap 4, I had to back down the corner speed even more to try and keep it on two wheels. Inevitably, we were passed for 1st place by Peter Politek on his 1000cc Ducati. No. 1 plate holder Crussel on his big 1000cc Kawasaki also got by eventually after an exciting lap of battling for 2nd place. We caught back up, but just didn’t have the corner speed or drive to get the position back. We ended the race in a surprisingly competitive 3rd place; a position I would have never thought attainable prior to the red flag re-start.
The rest of the weekend had its up and downs. An electrical gremlin took us out of a possible podium in formula vintage. Now that I had cracked the code to getting the most out of the bike, I was able to take advantage of the bikes strengths…the great power and the bikes surprising stability on the brakes allowed us to go faster each time out. By Sunday’s superbike race, we were able to lead a number of laps and finish in 2nd place. After strongly considering racing on the nearly bald rear tire one more time, we decided to call it a (safe) season and skip the last formula vintage race.
As I faced the bleak prospect of a cold Wisconsin winter on the 14-hour drive home, I found myself drifting off re-living my saddle time on the old war horse. The memory of the big Guzzi twin wrenching off of corners of a beautiful racetrack on a perfect fall day had left a lasting impression. Add to that the chance to ride one of a handful of original superbikes with such a rich and colorful racing pedigree made for an exceptional weekend. It had taken me two days to figure out how to ride the bike. I could have saved myself some time with a quick reading of the superbike race reports of the day. Mike Baldwin was one of the fastest riders of his time, and often criticized for what some felt was overly aggressive riding. I could see how that riding style worked well on the Guzzi. The secret to going fast on this bike was as simple as being Baldwin. A tall order indeed…..
Thanks to Randy at Framecrafters for the emergency shifter modification. A huge thanks to Stan and Pearl Friduss of Friduss Racing/Stan’s Moto Guzzi/BMW for the opportunity to ride this amazing motorcycle.