Hayes Talks Topeka and Safety

Henny Ray Abrams | August 6, 2009

Yamaha’s Josh Hayes tried to help, but it backfired.The only factory Superbike rider to visit Heartland Park Topeka prior to the race, Hayes, who twice visited the track prior to the race, was tagged with the label as the one who ‘approved’ the track. When it became clear that the track’s safety margins were lacking, Hayes was the one who took the heat.We caught up to Hayes on Sunday morning in Yamaha’s hospitality area.CN: Do you regret coming here, because, rightly or wrongly you’re the only guy who’s spoken on the record about the safety?HAYES: No, I don’t have regrets about coming here. Like I said, the track itself has done a lot of what we asked and it seems open to continuing the trend and continuing to make this a better race track, a safer race track for us. A lot of it did happen kind of last minute. Timing of when we came here and when we came back, maybe it wasn’t enough time. I don’t know. I’m not a party to all these business decisions about how all this goes. And I think a lot of people, even this weekend it’s been a bit of a… people misunderstand what my purpose was when I came here. And all I was was a professional motorcycle racer who sits back and says ‘I think this is bad, I think this is bad and I think this is bad.’ And I explain to them what I would like to see. ‘Hey, we need space.’ It’s pretty simple for all the track owners. We just need room, because we don’t want to stop up against anything or fall in a hole, quite honestly. So I think that part’s pretty simple. From that, that was the end of my job. It wasn’t my job to say, ‘Hey, if you fix this we’ll come ride here.’ That’s for each individual person to decide and it’s up to the sanctioning body, which is the AMA, to decide if they want to force that upon or not. Hey, we deem this raceable or we deem this not raceable. Apparently, we don’t have a spec for a race track the way the FIM does and we have to deal with it on a case by case basis. Now, the track’s been very proactive. Whenever we got here and we said, ‘Hey, we appreciate you trying to fix this one particular area,’ but in the process we made an area that was even worse. And we talked about different options. And even at lunch on Thursday, they said, ‘You know, we tried to get the equipment, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to do anything about it this weekend.’ That evening when practice was over, they went out there and figured out a way to fix the problem, which is I thought was pro-active and very good for those guys. Is it ideal? No. I use the word ideal. Is it perfect? No, of course not. There’s no question about that. But there’s a list of race tracks that we ride at that are in the same situation and we ride at without saying much any more. Does that make it OK? No, it doesn’t. Mat (Mladin) came and talked to me a little bit. And honestly I couldn’t disagree with much of anything that Mat says. I agree with most of what he says. I think I just have, in this situation, I had a different approach. Mat had a very black and white approach and I respect that. The man’s opinion means a lot to me and I listened to what he had to say and I had to make the right decision for me, what I thought was good for me and for the sport and for a lot of things like that. And a blow to the sport, to the track, to AMA, I don’t want to bring any more bad things on it than what’s already going on. So I kinda made my decision based off of that.CN: Were you here as a representative of the AMA? Are you part of the AMA safety committee? Because that’s what the owner (Ray Irwin) said. He said, we did everything that the AMA Rider Safety Committee told us to do and no one seems to know who’s on this committee.HAYES: I’m not even sure who-all’s on the committee. I know who showed up. When we came here the first time, it was after Daytona, the first time I came here it was myself, Cory West, and Dane Westby. Cory West and Dane Westby had both ridden at this race track, I hadn’t. So I had to ask them a lot of questions. There are a few things that stand out in my mind that we talked about that I said, ‘Hey, these are things that I think need to be fixed, these are things that I think we could probably live with, these are things that need to be taken care of.’ And of course, as a rider I get back from the owner, ‘Hey, this is expensive, this requires this’ and I don’t know the business of this stuff. Like I said, that’s OK, but my opinion is, which you asked, you got these problems that need to be addressed. One of the things that didn’t get addressed that I wanted was the guardrail on the front straightaway, how it blends back to the race track. I said, ‘You know, there’s not a lot we can do with it, but I think it needs to come back at a more gradual angle so that we don’t have the angle that it does have currently.’ If they could just roll it back and put a lot less angle into that area of the race track, I thought it would be a lot safer. We discussed just Thursday some new ideas about where we go left at start-finish to go around the wall there, on how to approach that and do that a different way. Maybe something like Laguna’s got for pit lane and turn one, whatever they call the removable plastic pylon deals. Like I said, they’re very open to all these things. Yeah, AMA, I actually asked AMA if I could be a part of this. And I said, ‘You know, I knew I was setting myself up to be in a bad position and be public enemy number one almost and I hate that, because I care about it, I care about the other riders on the race track.’ I want to have a long career, I don’t want to see anyone else get hurt either, a lot of things like that. But my job’s been very small. I sit there and I get called upon. But then this weekend, like I said, there’s been a bit of misinterpretation. I’ve had quite a few people come to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m having this problem. Why did they send the kids out in a half wet, half dry session for qualifying?’ Well, I don’t know. That has nothing to do with what my job was explained to me to do for this rider safety committee. I have these questions, I have this relationship with Bill (Syfan) and I ask him these questions. The only reason that I feel I need to go ask him these questions is because Bill needs to hear him, so they can go to the people above him, because people aren’t seeking out Bill to ask him himself, they’re not asking themselves. I feel like Bill’s the person I go to and talk to. I can’t ever find Colin (Fraser). I have no idea where he’s at. Bill I can typically get my hands and say, ‘Hey Bill, why is this happening? Who made this decision?’ And he’ll say, ‘I’ll find out.’ And usually that’s the end of my discussion with it.CN: What should be done going forward as far as a rider safety committee? Because two of the last three tracks this year have serious safety issues.HAYES: I think time would be our best friend. The New Jersey track owner…I’ve been pretty fortunate, both here at Topeka and at New Jersey, the track owners or GM’s, whoever they may be, were very open and receptive to what we had to say. The setting at New Jersey started off pretty bad. Whenever you put ten pro riders or 15 pro riders in a room, and then you let the riders take over the show, it just…I sat back just shaking my head going, we’re putting the track on the defensive from the get-go and they’re not going to want to work with us, because no two riders could talk about one corner at the same time. Oh, well. Then there’s also this, because we recall things much differently and I didn’t think it went well. But when I got out on the race track I tried to stay with the GM (Kevin Wittman) of the race track as much as I could. I stayed as close to him as I could with Bill and two of the people that I thought had some of the best input. One, quite honestly, is Tommy Hayden. He’s quiet, but he had a good approach and he seems to care about the sport, safety, things like that and we wanted to get a rapport with the track so they’ll listen and not go on the defensive from the get-go. And actually I was surprised, Jamie Hacking was the same way. I actually expected Jamie to be more confrontational about it and he wasn’t. He wasn’t confrontational and he had a lot of things. He praised the track. He said this track is a very fun track to ride and we don’t want to mess up your track, but we have these problems around it that make it very, very difficult for us to race. The biggest safety issues that I think stood out from that, on a wall standpoint, turn one and the last turn. My understanding is the track is going to try to address those. It’s not going to be the perfect answer, but it will be something to hopefully aid from having a major catastrophe in those areas. Pit entrance for me was another major issue. Pit-in was just in a terrible spot. On a safety aspect and on just a riding aspect, if you’re qualifying, if someone’s not paying attention, they can ruin a lap for several other riders and things like that. Pit-out’s not perfect, but when we talk about using the one chicane that they don’t typically use, it set it up much better, because it gave two things; for one, the person coming onto the track is at the top of the hill where they can see turn one and see how much room they have to get through the new sections and get out of the way. Also, if they do that badly, a person at speed has an option to go straight if they absolutely need to. Where if they blend out in between for turn two, we don’t have that option. Now, does that mean it’s right? Are there still going to be knuckleheads that screw that up and possibly ruin your lap? Yes, but at least you have that option to say, ‘I’m not going to take that chance and go straight.’ It’s there, which I thought was better than nothing. I think race tracks are always going to be hard to get on and off of. There’s not a whole lot of really good ones. Laguna, if you don’t do it right, can be really bad. But where it comes onto the race track is pretty good. It’s just difficult. Depends on the layout of your race track.CN: Getting back to the original question, what’s the best way to move forward?HAYES: The biggest thing for us, I think, is we need a set group, and we need a group of riders that are committed to making the appearance and showing up. When we got the call, I was told Larry and Chris Ulrich were on the committee also, and when we first came here, neither of them came, and when we came back, Chris came back to do a media event. I don’t know if there hadn’t been that, would Chris have shown up? I would much rather have been home training, but we need people who are willing to take that time and show up and travel across the country, whatever it takes, to make this happen. And then I think that the AMA needs to begin these plans and things much further in advance. We should be discussing possibly tonight, Sunday night, or tomorrow, Monday morning, what changes do we need for next year and give these people a year’s leeway. And then we need to come back six months before the race and say, alright, ‘What’ve you gotten done?’ And the tracks need to be proactive trying to make these things happen long before we come back. Another thing we discussed at New Jersey is a lot of these tracks are making money off of track days and club days and one of my arguments to the owners of the tracks was, racers need a lot of space because we’re going really, really fast, but what you don’t think about is when the track day guys are here you’re going with a guy who’s paying for his street bike and doesn’t want to drop that thing very easy. So if he’s not sure, he’s going to stand up and ride off through the grass as far as he possibly can and try to salvage not buying some bodywork for this thing. Where a racer’s a little more committed. We’re probably going to try it. We might fall down, we might run off and not run very far off the race track a lot of times. We tend to stay pretty close to the race track, because we have the backing behind us to commit and make mistakes and fix the motorcycle. Our bodywork is $500 for a new set of bodywork, possibly some more. But a guy can total his street bike if he destroys all the body work on it from falling over doing the same thing. So those guys need more room than we do when I look at it, when I think about it like that. And that’s where they’re making a lot of their bread and butter. Timing, I think is a good thing. Getting the right people that don’t put the tracks on the defensive from day one, I think is important. If we can get a good strong committee I think we can see some big improvements. And still I’m still hoping that we get some…I wish we had more races on the schedule and more race tracks to go race at. So I still continue to hope that people will build new better quality race tracks and we have more venues to go race at.CN: Do you think that this committee should be active in advising race track designs? Because this place has been here forever, but New Jersey started with a clean sheet of paper a couple of years ago.HAYES: From what I’ve seen, it’s not active in race track design. The racing surfaces themselves are supposed to be challenging and the tracks that we ride at, a lot of them are really, really fun. It’s just the tracks sometimes need to reach out a little further than what appears to us to be reaching out to car guys, saying, ‘Hey, what is it you want?’ They need to look into motorcycles a little more openly and say, ‘Hey, what are the requirements? What is it that you need around this race track?’ They need to think about it when they’re building a race track. ‘Where are the property lines? How much room do we have to work with?’ Because these are things that are going to come into play over the life of the race track, is the fact that we need space. And where you put guard rails in. Sometimes just how you curb the guard rail and if you put bad angles in the guard rail that need to be covered with a soft barrier. Or, ‘Man, you could’ve made that straight, saved some square footage and this would have never been an issue for us.’ There are a lot of little things like that that I think a little bit of forethought for sure would help. And possibly our input could come into play with that.CN: Who should be in charge of rider safety committee?HAYES: I don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t honestly know.CN: Do you think it should be an AMA official or should it be someone independent like Kevin Schwantz?HAYES: You know, the question I guess is the AMA willing to give up that power to a contractor? Who’s going to make the call? Is it going to be the AMA making the call if we race or not or is it going to be an independent person like, possibly, Kevin Schwantz. If they trust Kevin Schwantz to make that call, Kevin could be a good go-between. But it’s going to be tough, though, because you need someone who’s fairly business savvy and understands this is a hard economic time, the tracks can do so much right now. Again, does it make it right? No, but we have to be realistic and we have to be reasonable. And what things can we live with and what things can we not. We shouldn’t compromise in any way. I’m with you on that, but, we have to. It’s been that way since the beginning of time and we’re going to have to in some stretch. I look at this race track and honestly I don’t see anything much worse than I look at the second to last turn at Infineon. That turn terrifies me, as fast as it is with a wall that close. Turn four at Road Atlanta, very scary. They attempted to fix it; it just wasn’t a very good fix. I look at a lot of things like that and we have to make compromises at every single race track that we go to and this one’s no different. So as far as who to run the committee? That’s a tough call. I’m not honestly sure how to do that.CN: How much worse would the reaction have been if the track had not, on their own, taken out the wall on the front straight?HAYES: I have a feeling the reaction would have been much worse. Honestly, and I knew that coming in. I tried to explain, hey, I in no way condone that that wall is good by any stretch. I never once said, ‘Hey, that’s OK.’ Not once. I feel I was misquoted a little bit. I think Cycle News put in a headline, ‘Hayes OK’s Topeka.’ I knew that was going to come back to bite me with the headline and that wasn’t a quote, it wasn’t my thing. I said I think the AMA is going to race at Topeka and I think we’re going to ride at Topeka. I also told Bill, ‘Hey, of all the safety issues that we talked about around the race track, that has to be priority number one. That’s going to be the make it or break it thing.’ And their efforts went a long way and then whenever they continue to do so on Thursday night, before we went on the track on Friday, was I think pretty outstanding. I thought it was actually good of the track. It was better of them to tell me, ‘Hey, I don’t know. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this,’ and then be able to fix this, and then be able to do it. (Rather) than make an empty promise of, ‘Oh sure, we’ll get rid of it,’ and we come back and it’s still here. That would’ve been a worse way to go.

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.