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EXCLUSIVE Geoff May (Erik Buell Racing) Q&A

8 May 2014

“That's one of the biggest hurdles here. It doesn't matter what manufacturer it is, it's getting that feeling you like so you can really hang it out and just go balls out.”

Geoff May's first season in world championship racing has been a baptism of fire. Joining the World Superbike series with a manufacturer also making its championship debut was always going to be an uphill battle. Throw in new team personnel, new tyres and suspension and the challenge becomes even more daunting.

Matters weren't helped when May crashed heavily in practice for the first round at Phillip Island, breaking his left collarbone and ruling himself out of the races in the process. Although unhappy with the results so far, May feels there is still reason to be optimistic.

Here, he tells Crash.net about his experiences with Erik Buell, first impressions of the World Superbike Championship, and making it as a motorcycle racer in the USA.

Crash.net:
You're here in World Superbikes with the Buell for the first time. How is the 1190RX different from the RS model you rode at the tail end of 2013?

Geoff May:
In the AMA we ran the RS where they made 125 homologation special bikes. We ran different suspension on this bike and the geometry and the chassis is pretty much the same, but the engine and suspension were different. The main thing is we ran Dunlops as well. All the data we have is on Dunlops. We switched suspension manufacturer so it's kind of like starting over. Aaron [Yates], I know he struggled really badly in Australia to get comfortable and get that feel back that he knows the motorcycle has. It's the same with me. Because we went testing in the US on Pirellis and it went really well. It was not a national calibre track, something similar to Alcarras, where they have national club racing, and we were right there at the track record. We were really excited and then we switched to Ohlins and it's just finding the balance with this bike with Pirellis. And the tracks are a quite a bit different [to] tracks we raced on in the US. They're much more flowing and much faster and they have a lot more grip. That's one of the biggest hurdles here. It doesn't matter what manufacturer it is, it's getting that feeling you like so you can really hang it out and just go balls out.

Crash.net:
How are you finding the change to Pirelli tyres?

Geoff May:
I really enjoy it. I spent a lot of time in the US on them from 2001 until 2008. I was exclusively on Pirellis and worked quite a bit with the engineers. A lot of Italians came over and we did quite a bit of development in the AMA series when the tyre rule was open. I really like it. It suits my riding style. I like to carry a lot of corner speed and I like these more flowing tracks. I really enjoy the side grip the Pirelli offers, as opposed to the Dunlop that is a much firmer carcass, maybe similar to the Bridgestones in MotoGP where it's really hard. The more you push the more grip you get out of it. It's nice with the Pirelli, it gives you instant feedback and you can really feel what the tyre is doing.

Crash.net:
You joined Erik Buell Racing in 2010. How have the bikes you have raced evolved since then?

Geoff May:
Quite a bit. Erik hired me in 2010. It was myself, the accountant, his lead engineer, one engine builder and a couple of race personnel because Harley [Davidson] had shut the company down and laid everybody off so there was just the seven of us. I started racing the 1125RR which is a little different. It's based of the 1125R but it was a Superbike. We started racing that but we knew this [current model] was in the works and he hired me to develop the chassis. So we have a similar chassis now on the 1125 and then once he started producing the 1190RS we were allowed to jump and run that in the AMA. We knew we wanted to go World Superbike – it's a better place for Hero [EBR's sponsor], it's a better place for EBR, getting global coverage in a stronger series – he knew he had to make the correct amount to get homologated. It's like a thousand something [models] which is what you have with the RX. It's more of an everyday bike that can compete with a Panigale, the KTM, [bikes] in that price range.

Erik seems to have like a five-year plan. He's looking five years down the road. I didn't know if he was BS-ing me in the beginning but back in 2010 we had talked about racing World Superbike. Four years later and we're here. It's pretty neat seeing all of his ideas coming to fruition.

Crash.net:
Is that what caused to you to stick with the team through these years and follow his vision?

Geoff May:
Absolutely. I was at a spot in the US where the AMA series was bought and switched hands in 2009. The manufacturers really pulled back and it was very hard. A lot of racers lost their rides, a lot of people lost their homes. It just became tough to be a road racer if you're used to getting a salary. I lost my ride and Erik gave me shot based on a former boss' – I raced for John Ulrich for years with Suzuki – and he recommended me. So Erik hired me from John Ulrich's recommendation that I was a good development rider to help him take this American made motorcycle and do something with it. I felt like I owed it to him and also I believe in the project. It's really cool, an American made bike being able to compete on the world level. In the AMA we got to where we were getting really successful against the other manufacturers. It was a little easier because the rules aren't quite as open. So here in World Superbike we have done development on the engine to get up to speed. As you can see on the mph charts at Phillip Island we were 40k[ph] down on Aprilia. In Aragon we narrowed it down to 25. So we've taken a chunk. There's more to come. We have to chip away at it.

Crash.net:
You very nearly had some success with the bike straight from the off. You led an AMA round at Barber in 2010 in your first season…

Geoff May:
Yeah, we led the race. I had a good run. I got kind of tangled up with another rider and got bumped off the track and that ruined the glory of it. You always think, 'man what would have happened?' It was all coming together that day. We had another one in 2012 at Homestead, the Miami racetrack, where I think I led 16 laps and made a bad choice, the weather conditions were half wet half dry and I went with a rain front and a slick rear and it burnt the rain tyre off the front. It literally went through all the groves and started to turn it into a slick. The guys that gambled and went on slick/slick or DOT/DOT ended up running me down at the end and got by. It's another one that just got away from us!

Crash.net:
How do you find working with Erik? Is he fairly hands on with development?

Geoff May:
The good thing is he was a racer and a fast one – a national calibre, top rank rider. He didn't win a bunch of races but he was there with guys back in the day like Kenny Roberts and those guys in the AMA. He understands. I can talk to him as a rider about what the chassis is doing, how the bike is handling, and he understands. He can call BS on me so it's cool that we can have those conversations about what the bike is doing and what we need to do with it to better suit the conditions or racetracks or whatever direction we're going. It's really cool to have a boss that has that kind of input. He understands what we're going through as riders with all the travelling. I've really enjoyed the bosses that I've had, like John Ulrich, they were racers themselves. They have a good sense of direction for the team.

Crash.net:
You were team-mates with Aaron Yates when you both rode for the Jordan Motorsports Suzuki team. You've both been with EBR for some time now. Do you get on well together?

Geoff May:
It's funny. We didn't help each other at all in the Jordan days. It was every man for himself. I was kind of the young guy coming through at that point and there was no way he wanted to get beat by me. I obviously wanted to beat him every weekend so we didn't share anything. I noticed we could look at each other's notes and see what the other guy was running but that was the extent of it. We wouldn't help each other. But we were looking for a team-mate [for 2013] and Erik asked me what I thought. I said, 'Aaron is coming back from his injury that he had really bad, for taking this bike to World Superbike level we need another guy that can develop it as well as myself.'

Some of the younger guys have the ability to flip the switch and go ridiculously fast. But they can't do it on a bike that isn't right. All they do is end up hurting themselves or going slow. So I was like, it's better to have to guys at the same level who can develop it in tandem. I knew we had some similarities in riding styles and how we set the bike up. Aaron has more experience than anyone I know in the US as far as developing a bike. He came from Yoshimura back when you could change swingarms and they were full on works Superbikes from Japan. You can't find that so we really need to tap into his knowledge. Someone who can say 'This swingarm is too stiff or soft,' that's beyond my realm.

Now we share everything, we talk about everything, what it's doing, gearing, everything. We're working together to try and bridge the gap on the other bikes. We have a battle ahead of us.

Crash.net:
For 2014 you have a lot of new members in the team, many of them Italian. How is the American / Italian dynamic working out within the team?

Geoff May:
It's interesting. We have a lot of high quality personnel with stacked resumes. Obviously there's a bit of a language barrier between the Italians and the Americans. I'm living in Italy myself so I'm experiencing it first-hand but everybody's got the same common goal, we're working hard. It's really neat to see such a well put together team; I've never been on a team that's been this strongly stacked. I mean it's a dream team in terms of personnel. You hear just a wealth of knowledge that they have. I wish our results were a little better. I mean for me it's painful to be where I am. I've never been in this position in 14 years of racing [laughs]!

Crash.net:
It must console you to see that both Hero and Erik see this as a long-term investment. They're not just here for one season. Does that take the pressure off somewhat?

Geoff May:
Absolutely. Aaron and I are putting a lot more pressure on ourselves than any of the sponsors, team members or Erik himself. I mean we've seen it. BMW set the precedent for us a little bit. They came in four or five years ago and they flat out struggled. And then they ended up developing a bike that could win races. That thing had a really hard time even scratching the top ten for a good year. They had world champions riding for them. [Here] We got two American riders that don't know any of the racetracks, a brand new motorcycle and new team. It's going to take a little bit. Honestly, if we can get better each and every round, each and every session, it's all we can really ask for. Just to keep improving.

Crash.net:
As you're developing the bike did you readjust your mindset over the winter to approach this season?

Geoff May:
Honestly not. I dropped the hammer in the off-season, just training as hard as I ever had. I looked at some of the lap times, tried to draw some comparisons from Laguna and what we know from Miller, the two tracks where we've had World Superbikes. What we saw from Pirelli, how much faster they were than the Dunlops. And some of the guys I compete against, my old team-mate Danny Eslick and Roger Hayden were running well at Laguna. I thought, 'Hey, we probably could have run top ten at Laguna' [2013] comparing all the data. I had really high expectations coming into Phillip Island. I think that's why I hurt myself, just wanting too much. When I was three or four seconds off the pace, for me mentally it was tough. I was overriding the bike and trying to make something happen. I want to show everybody how good the bike really is but in fact you're not showing anybody anything. Honestly the bike wasn't quite where I was used to having it. I wasn't able to get away with the same things I did last year so it threw me on my head good! It let me know. Now, wake up call, I need you to back off a bit and improve each session. Get data and let these guys tune the bike and make it better for me. They can't do that if I'm putting myself on my head.

Crash.net:
Have you set yourself a target of getting points by end of season?

Geoff May:
I don't think any racer has patience. I think that's a trait that all guys that have run at the front, they don't have it. You want everything right now. You're racing. You're in competition. You don't want to go into a war or a fight with a handicap. You have to try harder but that's the hardest part: not trying too hard.

Crash.net:
You came from the AMA, a series that's in a difficult place right now. It must be dispiriting for an American to see the national scene in the shape it's in.

Geoff May:
It's a strange thing because I think the racing is much better than it was when the factories were involved in it and the paddock was much healthier. You had Neil Hodgson and all the guys wanted to be in the US. That's where the money was and where the manufacturers were spending all the money. We were the largest motorcycle and sport bike consumer in the world. Then there was this perfect storm of the housing crisis in the US, the stock market collapsing. Those were hard times for a lot of Americans. I'm coming to understand it's that way now with Spain, Greece and other countries over here. At this time we had Daytona Motorsports come in and buy the rights of the AMA. They changed the rules and the factories were going to have to pull back anyways, they made enough waves that a lot of them just pulled out. Kawasaki, Honda, they just said, 'Fine, we'll take our show and go somewhere else.' We lost all of our stars. We had Mladin leave, Spies leave, Erik Bostrom leave, Jamie Hacking leave, Hodgson left, James Ellison… the list goes on. These guys evaporated in just one year so then the fans stopped coming. The rules got tighter which made it more competitive and equal and now you have five different guys that could win on any given weekend. Subsequently it made the show better but the fans left.

I think the exact same thing would happen in Supercross. Supercross is huge in the States, that's the MotoGP of motocross. If you had James Stewart, Villopoto, Ryan Dungey, all the top five guys left in a year they'd lose 50 percent of their fans too. You have a lot of guys like myself who were on a factory 'B' team like Jordan, and starting to get where I was beating these guys like Neil Hodgson and Duhamel and sniffing at the back door of these guys, winning races, but to be the next guy you have to beat the best guy. Like here, you want to be the next guy you've got to beat the best, like Chaz Davies. Now he is one of the guys.

Crash.net:
Do you feel new riders coming through the American scene simply haven't been given that chance?

Geoff May:
A lot of people in the States weren't given that chance. The guys that were coming up with me, like Blake Young, Jake Holden, guys in their twenties, just kind of evaporated. You see there are a lot of guys bringing sponsorship. Before, you could work your way up on talent alone but it's almost impossible if you don't have money to start with now. The way I made it into being a professional racer, there's no way that could work for anybody at this point in time. I made it up by chasing contingency. I could go make six thousand dollars a weekend. My budget for racing in 2004 was five thousand dollars and free tyres. I had a dealership loan me two bikes that I had to pay for at the end of the year. I ended up making fifth in the AMA Superbike Championship and we didn't even have a tent. That's how little money we had. We'd sleep in the van but because of this contingency I could go win the money at club races to pay for the AMA races. But that was all driven by the manufacturers. As far as road racing goes it's hard to predict the outcome.

Crash.net:
Do you now feel a certain responsibility, as an American competing on the world stage. Could this be the start of a path to the world stage being forged?

Geoff May:
Hopefully. It's an uphill battle because our tracks are different. They're tighter, bumpier; I want to say more Supermoto-ish. You have to be more aggressive to the point where if you do it on a track like this [Aragon] you just lose time. It doesn't work. I think Americans in general, there's a comfort level. We're not as well travelled as British or Spanish or Italians because there's so much cultural vastness in Europe. You don't have that in the States. You can have everything you want, whenever you want it. You can go to Walmart and buy it. And there's a pill for everything! You don't even have to think about life, it's just so easy. Then when you come to Europe and start travelling… it took me three weeks to get a cell phone. I had to find an Italian friend who was able to get the phone for me. Little things like that, Americans don't adapt as well to. I see it with other American mechanics too so I'm like, 'Well I'm not the only one.'

Crash.net:
And finally Geoff, I read that you said the Buell 1190 street bike is the best you've ridden. How does it compare to what you race on track?

Geoff May:
It has some very similar handling characteristics. I used to quite a bit of track days back in the States. I had my own personal 1190 and I used to have a house by Road Atlanta. I'd go there and ride track days three or four times a year. It really helps keep my mindset alive while doing this to be able to go and spin the tyre, wheelie. The bike is a riot to ride. A lot of the litre bikes don't turn well. You try and get into the corner and it's like a school bus. It doesn't want to turn. But the 1190 truly handles like an R6 or a GSX-R600 and it comes that way right out of the box. Whereas a lot of the other manufacturers, back when I rode for Suzuki, they'd give me a practice bike every year. So I had a 600, a 1000, and the suspension that comes for those Japanese bikes is for the street. It can be not very much fun on the racetrack. It's fun to be able to take something like Erik's personal RS to the track. I took off the mirrors, put on a slip-on muffler on there because you've got to hear the thing. I went out there and was only two seconds slower than my AMA race pace at a track day, with the headlights and the horn! It has torque, it gives you so much feedback and it steers so well. And the sound of it…man it's so beautiful. I think it's the best and most fun street bike I've ever ridden.

Crash.net:
Thanks for your time Geoff.

Geoff May:
You're welcome.


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