In 2003 Vincent Haskovec and Jake Zemke were the first riders to run racing motorcycles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in nearly a century. (Larry Lawrence photo)
The Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix has been off the MotoGP calendar for a couple of years now. Midwestern racing fans still lament the loss of what many viewed as the friendliest of all MotoGP events. But it was a great eight-year run from 2008 to 2015.
One of the untold stories of how motorcycle racing was even considered for the tradition-bound Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be traced back to a quiet test conducted on the old IMS Formula One road course by AMA Superbike riders Vincent Haskovec and Jake Zemke back in October of 2003.
Haskovec and Zemke’s test ride at IMS was historic and got the ball rolling in what would ultimately result in MotoGP coming the legendary racing facility five years later.
It was a crisp and sunny fall day in Indianapolis. Perfect conditions for the bikes to take to the track. Haskovec opened up the throttle on the Austin Ducati Superbike and the sweet sound of Italian V-Twin power filled the cavernous environs of IMS. The smooth rumble of the Ducati echoed off the eight-story tall main grandstands and the fire-engine red bike disappeared down the long front straightaway at an astounding rate of speed.
One of the surprises at Indy at that time was just how many of the staff of the Speedway were avid motorcyclists. Former President and CEO Tony George was a rider and it turns out that Mel Harder, right hand man to George, rode motocross and enjoyed taking his sportbike out to track days at nearby Putnam Park Road Course. Ron McQueeney, then director of Indy’s world-renowned photo department, was a long-time AMA member. Many of the staff came out to watch Haskovec and Zemke on the circuit and there were a lot of wide eyes.
The IMS staff seemed very happy to have motorcycles on the track for that initial test. AMA Pro Racing staffers and the racing crews of the Austin Ducati and Erion Honda teams were treated like honored guests. They were given tours on the road course, fed first-class catered meals and afterwards Haskovec even got out on the road course with one of the track’s Mercedes sports cars. He came back with a huge smile on his face after a dice with AMA Pro Racing’s boss Scott Hollingsworth, who drove an Audi.
For AMA Pro Racing, the dream was to have an AMA Superbike event at Indy, but the track was used to hosting very large spectator events and was likely thinking about the possibility of MotoGP from the very start. The very notion that AMA Superbike was making a bid at running an event at IMS, showed just how strong the status of the series was at that point.
Even though AMA Superbike was at an all-time peak in 2003 and was going to ever better venues, the staff of AMA Pro Racing had never seen a racetrack with the kind of state-of-the-art infrastructure boasted by IMS. The track’s facilities were second to none. Everything from garages, to scoring tower, to media center – it all was cutting edge.
Unlike most superspeedways with infield road courses like Daytona, Pomona, Pikes Peak and others where the AMA raced, Indy’s infield section actually had the look and feel of a purpose-made road course. Trees were abundant in the infield and beautifully manicured grass hillsides had been built up all around the infield section. Part of the track neighbored the gently rolling terrain of the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course. During the test golfers stopped their matches to watch the Superbikes.
“You forget you’re inside a big speedway,” said Haskovec. “It’s amazing what they’ve done in that infield. It’s like the most scenic road course in there.”
Part of the reason the infield section had a totally different look was the fact that it was situated inside a two-and-a-half-mile oval. “This place is huge,” Zemke observed.
Then AMA Pro Racing CEO Scott Hollingsworth, along with IMS’s Mel Harder (both seated) and AMA Pro Racing’s Ron Barrick, listen to input from riders Jake Zemke and Vincent Haskovec. (Larry Lawrence photo)
The bikes got down into the 1:30s range. About 15-20 seconds off what the F1 cars were capable of on the same course. But the riders were cautioned to take it easy out of the last turn where a wall lined the outside of the oval course and the teams really did nothing in the way of fine tuning. Both riders thought 1:20s would be very possible under actual race conditions.
Zemke said the track really had two separate personalities. “The oval section is wide open and the infield is very twisty,” he said. “Even with just a fairly short run down the short-chute coming into Indy Car turn one of the oval, our bikes are potentially near top speed.”
According to Haskovec the Austin Ducati team was running Elkhart Lake gearing and he still was clicking into sixth gear just coming onto the front straightaway. The team promptly went back to the garage and put even taller gearing on the machine. Erion had the gearing about right on the big Honda CBR and Zemke was clicking into top gear about halfway down the front straight. Both riders were reaching the 180-185 mph range down the long front straight.
Then there was the infield section that featured very twisty sections that saw the riders clicking all the way down to first and second gear much of the time. Zemke reported the racing surface to be very smooth with only a single small bump in the transition from the oval section to the infield in road course turn one.
It was cool on the day the bikes tested and by the end of the second session both riders were pushing the front ends of their bikes through the turns. Zemke ran hot into corners a few times, but had plenty of run-off room and was able to get turned around and back underway with no problem.
The 2003 test was very much a preliminary one just to get riders on the course to start giving input on what might need to be changed if motorcycle road racing competition were to be held there. Much of the feedback given by Haskovec and Zemke was used in making modifications to the circuit for the inaugural Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix in 2008.
Haskovec and Zemke will always have the honor of being the first motorcycle racers to run at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, since the Federation of American Motorcyclist (predecessor the AMA) National opened the track to motorsports back in 1909. The pair of Superbike racers were massively influential in showing that motorcycles could run safely on the track. Their contribution is little known, but key nevertheless.