BROOKLYN, NY, JAN 24 - It wasn't hard to tell which of the nine Harley-Davidson XR1200 riders was the dirt tracker during the recent Daytona Dunlop tire test; it was the one gripping the left down tube with his hand, dirt-track style.At the age of 41, former Grand National Champion Joe Kopp has decided to give road racing a try. He'd retired from dirt tracking at the end of the 2010 season. For 2011, he thought he might do the Daytona short track, but nothing else. Then came an offer from longtime team sponsor George Latus, the owner of Latus Motors Harley-Davidson in Gladstone, Oregon, to try road racing."This way I still get to wean myself out slowly out of racing," Kopp said. "Still get to go fast, but not on the dirt track. I just don't enjoy taking the risk on a weekly schedule any more on the dirt tracks."Kopp made his pavement debut at Jennings GP in north Florida in mid-January, then came to Daytona for his first taste of the high banks. Kopp had been coming to Daytona for years, but hadn't experienced the banking until he did a lap in a car with AMA road race director Dave McGrath. That experience left him filled with trepidation, but it turned out to be unwarranted."I feel really at home on the banking," Kopp said, adding that his lap with McGrath had been on a wet track. His thoughts were, "I swear to God his thing was going to slide down off the banking. I'm like, God I hope it don't feel like that on my bike. But I got up there and I was just right at home, felt good."Still, he couldn't shake his habit of holding onto the down tube. Kopp said he didn't use it every lap, but was experimenting with different lines."It depends on where I enter up on the banking and how soon I pull down," he said. "If I got a hold of the fork tube I'm really having to push with my right arm to keep it steering. So a couple of times I had to pull up there on the bar to finish the corner, but it works good. As soon as I enter the banking I can grab the tube and start shifting gears. Never got to do that on my Harley before. XR's. You got to shift with the clutch and they take their time. These things shift a little better, so that was fun."
Not surprisingly, Kopp liked Turn 1, a long left-hander which he immediately saw as a passing opportunity."It's kind of like having a dirt track with no walls. I like that," he said. "I like to try to outbrake people and it doesn't seem like when I did get in there too hot a couple of times it didn't seem like it hurt me too much, because the corner kinda turns and there's a little straightaway and it turns again. It seems like if I go in there too tight I'm standing it up anyway, so if I got in there too hot it kind of was fun."The rest of the infield was more exciting. On his first lap he was overshooting most of the corners, including the fast dogleg left in the infield."Almost went straight through the kink in the back. Missed that totally," he said before adding, "I didn't miss it, but I went over rumble strips and everything else. Then I kind of slowed down more the next time. Because it didn't look like it was that sharp when I was coming up to it, all of a sudden the next thing I know it's here."The fastest line onto the east banking is to aim for the wall and pin it, which he found unnerving, "and it kind of feels awkward for me, but I was just talking to DiSalvo, Jason, and he says that's what you want to do. Because I'm letting it flow through that corner and the barrels are way down there" to the rider's left. "It's like, there's the inside, I'm way out there. Especially on them things, you've got a momentum deal to keep them going, so I think I got that part figured out pretty good."I was kind of worried about the banking. Do I want to go up to the top? But kind of like the way you treat a go-kart, playing around on a low go-kart track, you don't want to scrub speed by turning them, so when I'm holding onto one bar up on that banking, I can really feel where the neutral spot is. If I'm having to force it, then hey, it doesn't want to be here. So I learned the bankings that way."From the start, Kopp proved to be a quick study. He dropped his lap times by eight seconds over eight laps before one of his fellow XRs oiled down the front straight, effectively ending their session. He finished the 25-minute session with the fifth fastest out of nine, and only two seconds behind veteran Michael Barnes.The hard part for Kopp is body position. Jennings GP is a much smaller, tighter track with few real straights and 14 corners packed into its two-mile length. After his first two days on a road race track he said "it was a learning curve, big time. This track [Daytona] kind of caters to me, because you don't have to hang off too much, where Jennings was a lot tighter and slower and I just can't force myself to hang off like I need to yet."And so that's my biggest hiccup right now is trying to get comfortable. Everything I've learned in 20 years of dirt track is keep my butt on the seat and move my upper body and don't drop your shoulder or your head or nothing like that. That's everything you got to do here in the corner. So it's kind of hard teaching an old dog new tricks like that. They always say, dirt trackers, aw, you'll adapt to this. Well I might have had too many years of dirt track before I did this."DiSalvo, who will race the Latus Motors Ducati 848 EVO in the Daytona SportBike class, has been invaluable in helping Kopp make the transition from dirt to pavement. DiSalvo has worked as an instructor at riding schools, as well as having years of road racing experience."He's helping me tons with it," Kopp said, not only at the track, but with videos as well. "He's going to be my mentor for the year, I guess. He's got Jeff Haney that helps him out quite a bit. So between he and Jeff they're trying to point me in the right direction."The next step for Kopp comes this weekend when the Latus teams heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first WERA event of the year. Friday is open practice, after which he'll enter his first race on the weekend. "If Jason [DiSalvo] comes to pass me I might have to throw a block on him," Kopp joked.The WERA weekend will be Kopp's last pavement ride before heading to Florida, "So I guess we'll just just keep riding on the ice and try dragging my knee and see if I can get better at it or not. Daytona will be our first big race, our next event, so I'm definitely going to be still green out there. But I could use some more testing. But kind of hard for us up here in the Northwest this time of year to get much riding in."Kopp knows that he'll face different conditions at every venue, but it's a challenge he's looking forward to."I just don't want to do something that I don't feel safe at and I feel pretty safe at this," he said. "I have a long ways to learn is a good thing. It'll be fun, I think."