I'm not going to lie to you: This is a painful story. - Racer X Online

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I'm not going to lie to you: This is a painful story. - Racer X Online

190

THE TORNADO

Ping teamed up with Chinese

motorcycle manufacturer Sky

Team to introduce their Tornado

model and turn the racing world

on its ear. He learned the hard

way that not all motocross

bikes are created equal

BY DAVID PINGREE

PHOTOS BY SIMON CUDBY

AND MATT WARE

I’m not going to lie to you: This is a painful story.

Not so much for you, the reader (unless you have

glaucoma or reading print gives you a migraine), but

painful for me. In case you haven’t been paying attention,

China is coming on strong in the world market—

all markets, including motorcycling. So I was assigned

the task of getting on board this growing dragon and

riding her to the American marketplace. How? I was

going to be the first Chinese factory motocross racer.

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192

The Blue Room

It all started back in February at

the Dealernews Indianapolis Trade

Show. DC and I were walking

through the seemingly endless

color-coded rooms filled to capacity

with bikes, trailers, quads, gear,

and an infinite amount of motorsports-related

product (and junk).

As we wandered into a big, blue

room, my mind still racing due to overstimulation from the

previous ones, I was taken aback by the exotic barrage of

motorcycle manufacturers’ displays. But these weren’t

your typical brands of dirt bikes, like Honda, Yamaha,

Kawasaki, Suzuki, and KTM; instead, we stood staring at

the new dirt bike offerings from UM, Jackal, Thunder, and

Sky Team. China’s latest moto exports had washed ashore

in Indianapolis to begin making their way into the American

motorcycle market.

The bikes were generally smaller, heavier, much less

technologically advanced, and downright strange. They

looked like they had been based on mid-’80s offerings

from the Japanese. Maybe that’s why the cost was so

low—right around $1,000 for most (and that’s low enough

for them to end up on the floors of such retail giants as

Costco, Pep Boys, Sam’s Club, and more).

We talked briefly with several of the representatives,

and they spoke confidently about their presence in motorcycling

and the quality products that China is renowned for

making. I can’t say with any accuracy what Davey was

thinking, but that night as I hopped into bed around 8 p.m.

after a perfectly balanced meal at Hooters, my mind was

racing. It was racing about racing.

Kung Pow Comeback

When my alarm clock rang the next morning, I marched

back into the convention center and headed straight for

the blue room. I planned to sit down with each of the manufacturers

to find out if any of them had plans to go racing

in the States in the near future. It’s no secret that

motocross is a difficult sport to walk away from, and I

clearly still had the bug. I saw these fresh-faced Chinamen

as my golden ticket to the top of the motocross world, an

untapped resource of sponsorship dollars. With no Ricky

Carmichael or Chad Reed to suck their budgets dry, I was

in a perfect position to rake in some serious yuan. That’s

Chinese for cash, and these folks probably had a junkload of it.

My first several meetings were disheartening. These suits just

couldn’t see the potential in my ideas. It was like I was speaking

Chinese … er, well, maybe Swedish. They weren’t getting on board

with my plan, and it was frustrating. One of the manufacturers,

Tomos, wasn’t even based out of China! I discovered that these

hacks were Estonian, but not before I wasted half of my day pitching

my ideas to them like Randy Johnson on a double dose of ephedra.

(I should’ve figured it out when they wouldn’t stop dropping Juss

Lansoo’s name.)

Just as I was about to abandon my dreams of a return to racing

against RC and take solace in a foot-long hot dog and an RC Cola

from the snack vendor in the main auditorium, I found my team.

Tucked in a corner next to a guy selling personalized trailer-hitch covers

and a middle-aged Harley-accessories-pushing woman whose

face was as leathery as her chaps and jacket, was the Sky Team

booth. I put the hot dog craving on hold and decided to give it one

last try. I ran through my spiel again, half expecting to fail. I offered

an immediate presence in U.S. racing, bike R&D, and an outside

chance at a championship. Sure, I was stretching for that last one a

bit, but a motocross bike is a motocross bike, right? Surely it would

be competitive.

They loved the idea. In fact, they had been workshopping ideas

to get involved in professional racing for some time. We exchanged

contact information, and they assured me we could work out the

details in the weeks to come.

Help Me Help You

When I got back home, I immediately contacted Jimmy Button. I

knew that in the imminent negotiations we would be talking mucho

dinero (and probably some American money, too). I would need a

wise sherpa to guide me over the contractual Himalayas that lay

(Opposite page) Ping took delivery of his new Team

Tornado gear before encountering stiff resistance at tech

inspection from Steve Whitelock over a loose wire. Then

when he asked Ryan Villopoto for advice on bike setup,

the kid suggested higher bars and air bags.

(This page) The brand-new Sky Team Tornado lacked “bold

new graphics,” so Throttle Jockey came up with the “funnel

meets trailer park” look for Ping’s Glen Helen debut.

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194

before me. Indeed, I was going to need professional representation,

and Button was my man. However, Jimmy was

a little skeptical at first.

“Dude, are you serious about this?” the former Yamaha

factory rider asked. “What the hell are you thinking?” After

a heartfelt talk and a thorough explanation of my hopes and

dreams, he was more receptive. I think my exact words

were “Come on, Button, don’t be such a #$@%. Dang!”

We eventually came to terms. Over the weeks that

followed, I learned that my salary would be minimal (read:

nonexistent), but my bonus program was one of the best

Jimmy had ever seen. “Okay, Ping, your race-win and

championship bonuses are huge! They make Reed’s look

like chump change,” Jimmy confided. “Heck, if you win,

I’ll be making more than Chad with my cut alone!” He was

now fired up and getting to work on my personal sponsorship.

I needed gear, head to toe, and any outside

sponsors he could line up. See, I figured he could walk

into the corporate headquarters of Chinese-based giants

such as Chung King, Kikkoman, or Panda Express and

write his own ticket. My plan was coming together perfectly,

just like those little paper Chinese finger cuffs that

get me every time!

Moto Pagoda

I needed a bike. With Button handling the business end of

things, it was time to get to work on the bike and my personal

preparation. After exchanging phone messages with

my new U.S. connection down in the Garment District, I

learned that my first shipment of bikes was apparently

being held up at U.S. customs in Long Beach (or maybe

she said I should quit using the wrong bleach).

It was then suggested by my editor (I’m still trying to

hold onto that job) that I should maybe just go and buy

one, kind of like Ron Lechien did when he bought his own

Yamaha YZ250 for the last race of the ’83 season and won

the San Diego Supercross. Apparently, my local Pep Boys

had a few Tornado models in stock. I swaggered in and

shot a head nod at the store manager. He didn’t act like he

knew me, but I figured it was just a matter of time before

my Team Tornado posters were blanketing his shabby little

establishment. I grabbed a pack of pine-tree air fresheners

and a bottle of tranny oil and pushed my new ride up to the

checkout line.

“That’s a sweet bike,” the manager offered.

“Damn right it is,” I quipped.

“But wouldn’t you rather have one with a kickstand?”

The total for the pack of three pine-tree air fresheners, a quart of

Pennzoil, and my ST 250 Tornado was $1,006. Those crafty Chinese

have just got it figured out, I thought to myself. Through clever purchasing,

efficient production, and lax labor laws, they were able to significantly

reduce the cost of the modern motocross bike. I had enough

money left over to pick up a case of Turtle Wax and some new wipers!

Organ Donor

I loaded up my new hot rod in the Pep Boys parking lot and headed

to Pro Circuit. The crew there had already agreed to help with the

engine and exhaust mods, and they were anxious to get a look at my

little dragon. When I arrived, there was a sense of confusion among

the Pro Circuit employees. I kept hearing things like “Is it really aircooled?”

and “There’s no linkage” and “This thing should come with

a neck brace.” Obviously, the Pro Circuit boys weren’t very openminded

about a lesser-known manufacturer like Sky Team. After getting

help from three guys to unload it, I pushed it back through to the

race shop, then asked another guy to help me lift her up on the stand.

But the standard weight of the bike proved too much for the hightech

milk crate, so I just leaned her against the wall.

Mechanic Jeremy Hoyer lets Ping

know what gear he should be in.

I still needed a mechanic, and I had been working on a guy

named Jeremy Hoyer from the service department at Pro Circuit. He

is widely known as “Spacey” due to his uncanny resemblance to

screen actor Kevin Spacey. It took some convincing, but I finally got

“Keyser Söze” on board as my wrench. One of his stipulations was

that he wanted to see the bike in action. I told him that I was anxious

for the guys to get started on the engine, but that I would give him a

quick demo in the parking lot. After an impromptu Supermoto session

of hopping curbs, popping wheelies, and pretty much kicking

ass, Jeremy was in. At least, I think he said yes. He was laughing so

hard when I shut her down that it was hard to tell. I left the bike with

Jeremy and headed home, confident that my ST 250 Tornado was

in good hands.

At this point, things were looking pretty good. I had a factory ride

with a major motorcycle manufacturer, a competent agent squeezing

money out of corporate sponsors, a skilled mechanic who

resembled an Academy Award-winning actor, and a powerful aftermarket

company helping with my race-bike development. I couldn’t

lose, right? Right?


196

Dim Sum Support

Button was on the warpath for me. He had been on the

phone with every gear, goggle, helmet, and boot manufacturer

in the business. I couldn’t help but think that when all

my contracts were signed, I was going to be raking in the

cash like a Hong Kong action film. Unfortunately, there was

a broad sense of uncertainty throughout the industry about

my new ride. While Jimmy had commitments from Troy Lee

Designs, Throttle Jockey, Alpinestars, and Dragon, none of

them would sign me up for a salary. Instead, they all insisted

on huge bonuses for race wins and podiums. It was at

this point that I really started to second-guess myself. Why

was everyone so hesitant? Was my Tornado not as competitive

as I thought it to be? Why did it keep crushing bike

stands like Coke cans?

We did manage to secure one great sponsor that was,

for the most part, outside the industry. Moto Brew is a

Fresno-based pale-ale company with a penchant for motorcycle

racing. They were my first major backer—my beer

backer, if you will. That was the first good news I’d had since

that fortune cookie told me I was about to win something

called a “lotery.” We’d either have plenty of libations to celebrate

our success, or we would drown our sorrows in

Ping’s former team

manager Roger DeCoster was

impressed by the bike’s cupholder.

Interview with

the Sky Team

After the big race at Glen

Helen, I had the chance to

interview Sky Team head

mechanic Jeremy Hoyer and

rider David Pingree as they sat

on the tailgate of their team

pickup truck, rehashing just

what went wrong.…

Racer X: What’s the closest

bike that you’ve worked on to

the Tornado?

Jeremy Hoyer: [Laughs] To be

honest, I’d have to say an ’82

or ’83 XR200. It’s a pretty sweet ride, you know? We got the

suspension—all works stuff—straight over from Taipei.

Any handcrafted parts on this?

No, it’s all factory stuff. But I’m not sure how the labor works

in the Tornado factory—what kind of machines they have—

so it could be handcrafted. By kids.

How many man-hours did you put in on the Tornado at the

Pro Circuit race shop?

Actually, it sat around for quite a while. We had to have the

machinist make a lot of parts. Then we had to do a little finetuning

in the garage last night, then have Ping dyno it on the

cul de sac in front of his house. We used special fuel, too—

leaded, even. Don’t tell [Steve] Whitelock.

Do you have a special spot for the Tornado in the PC Hall

of Fame, like right between MC’s bike and RC’s?

Yeah, right on the end next to Ivan’s bikes. It’s probably the

best bike that ever came out of there—it’s a strong runner.

Racer X: Ping, how was the ST 250 hooking up?

David Pingree: You know, I might have had a little bit of a

lapse in judgment when we were testing. I might have

thought it was a little better than it was.

If you had it to do over, would you have stayed with Honda?

Um, I was never with Honda. But I would have looked into

Husky, or maybe even Aprilia or something—anything. I think

the front wheel was kicking up more dirt from dragging than

the rear wheel was from accelerating

What about that double you cleared?

That was the highlight of my day. I was able to get enough

speed up to get five, maybe six feet in the air. But I bottomed

her pretty hard, even with the smooth landing. It came down

like a house; maybe that’s why they call it “Tornado.”

How many years away is it?

I would say that they could have a competitive race bike,

and really come over here and make a mark on the U.S. racing

scene, within maybe 25, 30 years.

It looked like you got a great jump off the gate—what gear

start was that?

Oh, it will only pull first. There is no other option.

What about the brakes? How did they work?

I never actually needed them. The engine drag was enough.

What one thing would you change on the bike if you could?

The rider.


198

amber suds. Either way, I spent

most of summer getting ready to

win, then celebrating said win by

opening a big bottle of Moto Brew.

Sometimes I would celebrate winning

both motos; other times it

was both motos of both classes;

and during one epic weekend out

at Lake Havasu, I celebrated winning

all three motos in every single

class at Loretta Lynn’s. I was getting

better at celebrating wins

than a USC frat house.

Lost in Translation

A few weeks later, I received a personal call from Mitch

Payton. I had explained to the Pro Circuit patriarch that he

really needed to get moving on the Tornado technology,

because I planned on racing the last national of the year on

it. Glen Helen was only weeks away, and I was obligated to

my sponsors to be there.

“We have a little problem here, Ping,” Mitch stammered.

I could tell by his voice that he was holding back

laughter. “This bike was obviously a cost-driven R&D project.

I mean, if we increase the performance of this engine

at all, you’re going to be pulling parts from the gearbox out

of the drain plug. The metal they used is so cheap, I could

bore the cylinder out with a Scotch Brite pad. The sad

thing is that, in stock trim, it doesn’t have enough compression

to blow the Styrofoam packing peanuts that we

ship our pipes in out of the muffler when we start it. I actually

had to reach in and pull a few of them out. That thing

is a roach, Ping.”

As you can imagine, this came as devastating news. I

tried explaining things to an R&D technician in China, who

I knew only as Sum Yung Guy, but the language barrier

was becoming a strain. I couldn’t tell if he said “Factory

parts on boat, on the way over,” or “Fat party goats own a

Fun Mover.” I was getting frustrated.

Wok the Walk

Glen Helen was only a week away. Despite the fact that the

Tornado was still mostly stock and my “works parts” were

stuck in customs, I was determined to go racing. I planned

to meet with my mechanic, Jeremy, in what had become

our team race shop—his garage.

Ping attacked Mt. St. Helen like

a fire-breathing Chinese dragon,

only to come crawling to a stop

like an insurance-selling gekko

lizard. He did, however, finally

make it to the top ... once.


200

While Hoyer and Ping

wait for the ST 250

Tornado to cool down,

a young cyclist challenges

Ping to a drag race.

“Bring that thing over and let’s get it dialed in,” Jeremy

said. I didn’t know what his plans were, but I liked his energy.

“Let’s try to drop the weight on that thing and then lean

it out a bit. Then we can do some dyno runs.” I was

shocked that he had titanium parts and a dyno at his house!

Alas, it turns out he didn’t. By “dropping the weight,”

he meant pulling out the battery for the electric start; by

“dyno runs,” he meant tearing up and down his street and

making a big sweeper turn out of his cul-de-sac. It was the

best we could do.

After several hours of not-so-fine tuning and countless

laps around the block, it was race-ready. It wasn’t the

fastest bike I’d ever ridden; I would have to ride like I’d

never ridden in order to be competitive. In fact, that probably

wouldn’t even do it. Now, I’m not a Buddhist, but in

order to qualify for Sunday’s national, I was going to have

to balance my inner self and attain an omnipresent, supergalactic

oneness. I’m not talking about something as simple

as total consciousness on my death bed, either. No,

this was going to take a miracle.

Moo Shu Meltdown

The weekend of Glen Helen came fast. As I packed my

pickup truck for Saturday’s practice and qualifying, I was

well aware of the shambles my team was in. The Team

Tornado transporter was “stuck in customs,” along with

every spare part, factory part, expense check, and rider

support from Taipei. This weekend, it was just going to be

me and Kevin Spacey working out of the back of my pickup

truck.

After getting a few odd looks as we pulled into the

Glen Helen facility, we set up our pit area somewhere

between the factory paddock and the no-man’s-land that is the privateer

pits. As Jeremy did his best to get us ready for the day, I

grabbed my #101 machine and headed for tech inspection.

First up was the sound check. The Tornado purred through with

a 94.7 decibel reading at 5,600 rpm, only slightly louder than a

KitchenAid blender. I jammed the silver beauty in gear and headed

for the AMA trailer. AMA director Steve Whitelock met us at the

front of the line.

“What’s this loose wire for?” asked Whitelock, pointing to the

electric starter cable that hung above the bars. I explained that even

without the electric start system and battery, we were still almost 100

pounds over the minimum weight limit, so please look the other way.

“Is that thing even homologated?” he continued.

“Of course,” I offered, adding, “Do you think we just showed up

unprepared? There are, like, a million of these at auto-parts stores all

across the country. I’m sure my employers have taken care of it.” I

quickly grabbed a number out of the bowl and hurried through the

line, knowing deep down that nothing was taken care of.

The Widow Maker

I was nauseous with anticipation as I headed to the line for practice.

The tension in the air was as thick as egg-drop soup. As I rolled over

the gate and into the deep soil on the start straight, I knew immediately

that I was in trouble. Our suburban-street dyno system had

failed us catastrophically. Any hope I still had was dashed as I rounded

the turn before Mt. St. Helen for the first time. I twisted the throttle

and wound up the Chinese power plant as I headed skyward up

the incline. I downshifted once as my rpm dropped. I downshifted

again. I tried to downshift again. No dice; I was already in first gear

and not even halfway up the hill. Uh oh. Then came my Iwo Jima

moment, as my forward momentum ended and I slung my leg off the

bike and began to push. It was all in vain.

As I sat there, stuck on the hill, reeling from the deathblow to my

resurrected career that this failed climb had come to symbolize, I

accepted defeat. I turned around and headed down the hill. It is a

strange thing to look into the eyes of your competitors as you fly by

them, the wrong way, on a big downhill.

So I cut the track and continued on with practice. The more laps

I completed, the more I realized the folly of my plan. This was not a

motocross bike that I was riding; it was a bladeless lawnmower. What

was I thinking? I felt like I was circulating the track on a fully loaded

pack mule. How desperate was I that I’d convinced myself I could

actually race this turd? Every jump I hit, no matter how small, ended

in a bottom-out session reminiscent of Doug Henry’s infamous crash

at Budds Creek. I was never happier that a practice session had

come to an end.

Shanghai Noon

It took all the strength I had to lift my bike onto its latest stand (basically,

an anvil). It wasn’t until right then that I acknowledged how

heavy the bike truly was.

“Well,” Jeremy said. “How is it?”

“If I had to sum it up in a sentence,” I replied, “I would say it handles

like a shopping cart and it runs like a thermometer.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it looked like,” he responded.

Then I really vented: “You know, as anemic as the engine is,

handling is this bike’s Achilles’ heel. All it would take is one little

kicker coming down a hill and I would have swapped out violently

through the fences.”

Jeremy fueled the bike and readied it for the qualifier. I swallowed

my pride, cleaned my goggles, and headed to the start line knowing that

qualifying was a long shot, at best. (Did I mention that this was actually

the Celebrity race? Whitelock had shut me out of the nationals when he

learned that Sky Team had not done the paperwork, nor paid the $3,000

homologation fee, and I couldn’t pay it because I had spent all of my

own race budget on new bike stands.) I got a good jump off the gate,

but the rest of the pack—a variety of editors, snowboarders, musicians,

and one policeman on a dual-sport bike equipped with a siren and a

gun rack—disappeared into the horizon before I got to second gear.

A few moments later, still struggling to make it to the end of the

long Glen Helen start straight, I was passed by the Asterisk Mobile

Medic’s Mule, which had been deployed to the first-turn crash that I

had yet to reach.

Finally, with two laps to go and qualifying well out of reach—I was

two laps down—the Tornado had twisted its last, heat-seizing on one

of Glen Helen’s many hills (though by no means the steepest).

My sad story pretty much ended there. I called Taipei on Monday

after the race. I wanted to explain how badly things had gone at Glen

Helen. I was looking for encouragement—a promise that we would

begin testing soon for 2006, or that I could get a handful of bootleg

Spielberg DVDs to hand out as Christmas presents.

I got nothing. Instead, when I dialed the international number,

a recording came on in broken English saying, “This company here

no more. You no call here again.” Of course, it could have said,

“U.S. Customs Pier 34. Your container’s on hold again.” It’s just

hard to tell. X

Ping knew his days as a Chinese

factory rider were numbered (to, like,

one), but he did his best to impress

the fanatical Glen Helen spectator

who came out to cheer him on.

201

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