Superbike Bookends

    Ken Vreeke -- Honda Red Rider
    Apr 03, 2013

25 years after sampling Honda’s first inline-four Superbike, we take Duhamel’s CBR1000RR Superbike for a spin

Two traits overwhelm all other impressions of number 17, the factory Honda CBR®1000RR ridden by Miguel Duhamel in the 2004 AMA Superbike series. The first, you notice on your warm-up lap around Buttonwillow raceway. This motorcycle, all 370 pounds and 200-plus horsepower of it, is so docile at normal riding speeds you could hang a plate on it and commute to work. There is no high-strung sputtering at low revs, no bare-knuckle kidney-punch over the track’s rippled pavement. There is nothing, in fact, to remind you that this remarkable machine is capable of catapulting you to speeds approaching 200 mph in barely more time than it took to read this sentence.

Until, that is, you hear that little voice in the back of your head whispering like the devil himself: “Come on. Let’s see what she’ll do.” That’s where the second impression comes in.

Hold the outside line around Buttonwillow’s slow turn four and get the nose pointed straight over the tricky rise, because when the front end snaps up you want to set it down straight for the run through the gears. Roll on the throttle in second and then crank your wrist hard to the stop, grab third when the shift light glows at the engine’s 13,400-rpm redline then fourth in rapid-fire succession. Bang, bang. The bike’s catapulting acceleration feels like nothing you have ever experienced, slamming you into the tail section, driving you hard into the seat, the exhaust note a hard, hammering shriek in your ear. Mere seconds pass between gearshifts, yet each gear launches you 150 yards up the track. Before you know it, the orange braking cones on both sides of the track streak toward you like comets. You grab for the front brake—carefully, as a single digit tug is all it takes to mash the front end down and lighten the rear wheel—and the bike sheds speed with violent force. You notice you’ve started breathing again, and that’s when the second impression hits you: This motorcycle accelerates so hard that the most terrifying part of the race track is the straightaway.

Our day at Buttonwillow Raceway in California’s central valley provided a unique opportunity to sample American Honda’s Superbike weapon, the company’s first inline-four-powered Superbike since the CB750-based racer debuted at Daytona in 1980 in the hands of teenage-phenom Freddie Spencer. For me, it was deja vu all over again. As a young magazine editor and budding racer, I had tested Spencer’s Superbike at Willow Springs just weeks after its Daytona debut, which also marked Honda’s return to U.S. road racing after a 10-year hiatus. That bike was, at the time, an exotic masterpiece of American hot rod ingenuity, handmade by the guys in the U.S. Honda race shop. Now, 25 years later, I joined a select group of wide-eyed magazine editors invited to take the CBR1000RR racer for a spin.

By today’s standards, the old air-cooled CB750 Superbike is a precious artifact, a stepping-stone in the history of Superbike racing. Ridden by guys like Spencer and arch-rival Eddie Lawson while still in their teens, the early ’80s-era Superbike formula called for fire-breathing 1025cc engines plugged into rudimentary twin-shock chassis. Power was the name of the game long before chassis technology would catch up. As a result, these massive machines were a serious handful. Spencer and Lawson, both dirt-trackers, mastered the beasts better than anyone.

Think back: 1980 was so long ago that Spencer hadn’t even adopted his signature #19 yet, knee pucks hadn’t been invented and the Honda guys got their trick parts from RSC (Racing Service Center) because HRC wasn’t in the racing business. Spencer’s Superbike tipped in at 425 pounds, made about 135 horsepower at 10,500 rpm and hit 160 mph at Daytona. By comparison, Honda’s bone-stock CBR600RR weighs a mere 361 pounds, makes more than 135 horsepower at 15,000 rpm and can easily top 160 mph. That’s progress.

But that’s a mere blip on the performance radar compared to Duhamel’s Superbike. At 370 pounds and 200-plus horsepower, the CBR1000RR has a power-to-weight ratio of approximately 1.85 lbs/hp. Just as impressive, however, is the way the RR makes its power; between 7000 and 13,500 rpm, the torque curve is amazingly flat, never varying more than 10 lbs/ft from its peak. That explains the bike’s amazingly broad performance envelope, and ability to accelerate so hard off the turns, especially at low engine speeds.

Chassis numbers define generations as well. Spencer’s bike achieved its stability the old-fashioned way; with an expansive 59-inch wheelbase and lazy 27.5-degree steering angle. Duhamel’s bike is a whopping 4 inches shorter between axles, and tucks its steering head in at a modern 23 degrees (adjustable from track to track). The old bike’s steel tube frame was strengthened through extensive gusseting for Superbike duty; the stout aluminum frame of the CBR1000RR was designed in stock form to handle Superbike-level horsepower, and requires virtually no modification.

I vividly remember my day on Spencer’s 1980 Superbike. That motorcycle was faster than anything I had ever ridden, stopped hard and handled well compared to the street-going CB750. It seemed like the dream ride—unless, that is, you were capable of riding it as hard as Spencer.

“That old Superbike was a great first effort,” recalls Spencer. “But it was a handful. With lots of horsepower and sticky slick tires, chassis rigidity was a problem. And it had a light-switch powerband. All the energy would wind up in the frame, and, boy, that thing would really start moving. Once the power would hit, it would wind up the chassis and I had to leave a few extra feet at the exit of the turns to let it react. You had to gauge how much it was going to slide and flex and eat up race track. This happened in every turn. But it taught me how to ride. Once I got on a GP bike, well, that was easy. I didn’t have to deal with all the chassis reactions.”

Ridden hard, Spencer’s Superbike developed evil habits. No such issues exist with Duhamel’s CBR1000RR. Why? Because the difference between a stock 1000RR and full-blown Superbike is not that great—not nearly the leap from CB750 to Spencer’s original ride. Duhamel’s bike shares many characteristics with the stock 1000RR, but it is built to respond at a higher performance level.

At my personal performance level, the CBR1000RR Superbike was awe-inspiring: the chassis combines the almost polarized characteristics of agility and stability like few machines can; the brakes are ultra-powerful, but also provide sensitive feel; steering is light and the front end responds precisely to subtle inputs, and the suspension provides a compliant ride Gold Wingers would envy, while also keeping the fat Dunlop slicks pressed hard against the pavement for maximum grip. But it is the acceleration that staggers the mind.

Hard on the gas, Duhamel’s Superbike is like some science-fiction portal that compresses time and distance. The race track shrinks around you, and the world lunges at you like a fast-motion video game, sudden and surreal. But don’t just take a mortal-man’s word for it; even Duhamel, who has raced Superbikes for the last 12 years and wears triple-digit speeds like a favorite sweater, can’t forget his first ride on the bike at Daytona in 2004.

“Going from the RC51 to the 1000RR was a whole different ball game,” says Duhamel. “My first laps were insane. On the RC51, you could get on the banking and just pin the throttle. On the CBR1000RR, it took most of the first few days for me to hold it wide open on the banking. And I only did it a couple of times.

“Every year, our bikes get a little faster, but after one lap you’re no longer impressed by the power. The CBR took a whole year to get used to. It makes that much more power, and accelerates that much harder. It was the biggest leap of power I have ever felt. Everyone was overwhelmed by the power. It just gets there so quick. It was pure warp speed. At Daytona, it took me five laps just to find my marker to come down the banking in NASCAR turn 4. The first two or three times I came through, I was saying, ‘Was that my marker that I just flew past?’ It was amazing. It was the biggest step-up ever. It was like racing a different class.”

So how much difference has 25 years of technology made? Spencer’s CB750-based Superbike and Duhamel’s CBR1000RR are as different as the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer and the space shuttle, but my experiences on these two remarkable machines ran exactly parallel. How is that? Simple: Riding a factory-level Superbike around a track at anything less than true race pace tells you very little about the machine’s true capability. And there are only a handful of people in the world who can explore these outer limits. But it’s more than that. Both Superbikes represent the cutting edge of technology for their time. Both elevate the experience of the production street bikes on which they are built. Both were created for absolute maximum speed.

But there remains one important distinction: In 1980, the chassis imposed limitations on the best of riders. In 2005, the sheer, thundering acceleration of Honda’s Superbike is something the best riders are still striving to harness in full.

Honda Powersports
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