This coming Sunday, on March 14, the Daytona 200 is scheduled to run for the 79th time. It’s an iconic event, once the battleground of roadracing legends, but its reputation has fallen in recent years. Is that fair? And why do Canadians continue to race this event, and watch it?
Over the past 20 years, you could say Darren James has been Canada’s Daytona mainstay. Other Canadian riders have been down there, but sometimes he’s been the only Canadian racer in the event. And he’s done fairly well, with a few top-10 finishes.
But it’s about 4,800 kilometres from James’s front door in BC to Daytona. He figures that, of all the racers who truck their way to Daytona, he comes the farthest distance. What brings him back to the Speedway? Simple: “It’s one of those special places.”
“The first time you go through that tunnel, and you pop out on the other side, it’ll take your breath away,” James says. “You can barely see from one side to the other, it’s so big. It’s hallowed ground.”
Of course, he’s got family history there, sort of. His godfather, Trev Deeley, raced at Daytona back when the event was held on the beach. And James will point that out, if you ask him about the race’s detractors. They poo-poo the event because it’s an ASRA-sanctioned 600 event now, not a full-bore litrebike race in the MotoAmerica series.
“It’s about the race itself, because they weren’t riding superbikes on the beach, I can tell you that,” says James. He points out the “astronomical” improvement in motorcycle horsepower over the past couple of decades.
“It is fun riding a superbike around Daytona, but it’s scary also, because you’re spinning the tire in fifth and sixth gear, and that’s the biggest problem,” he says. “They haven’t made tires that can handle Daytona.”
A while back, he brought Steve Crevier’s old Buell 1190 out of storage and down to Daytona, just for kicks, and the results were predictable.
“I would do eight, nine laps and I’d have to come in because the tire would chunk. It wouldn’t matter if we ran a soft or a bowling ball, whatever it was would come apart on the banking because it couldn’t handle the stresses.”
So James is headed back on his R6 this year, although he says it’s the last time. Maybe, maybe not. We’ve heard that before.
The Background Guy
Ken McAdam, the big boss behind Ontario’s SOAR racing series, is also going down to the 200 this year, but not as a racer. He’s doing sprint races during the Bike Week festival, and will be a crew chief during the 200. Ken’s experienced at Daytona himself, with starts at the Speedway back to the mid-2000s, although he was away from it a few years and has never raced the 200, just the shorter events.
He agrees with James: The Speedway is a very special track, but it’s not just decades of history that bring him down. “It’s a completely different animal than any other racetrack. You can do well other places, and you’ll bomb there, and the other way around,” he says.
“It makes Mosport look like a go-kart track; it’s insanely fast. Whatever you’re on, you’re doing whatever it will do, and you’re holding it there wide open … The banking is six stories tall, you’re running at the top of the bank and you’re almost horizontal. You’re fully pinned, and the G forces are pressing you into the tank … Your bike is always moving, it’s never settled down, it’s not like you’re going down a highway flat out, the bike’s always walking and moving while you’re doing it … the banking—everything’s about how high you can get up onto the banking, and how much speed you can carry.”
The race requires a very different approach, he says; you don’t hang off the bike as you approach the banking, you sit straight up and let the bike climb the hill.
“Basically, the road turns sideways on you. As you’re looking at it, it just turns vertical.”
And even though he never ran the 200, he has had some pretty decent competition at Daytona; he ran the AMA-sanctioned MotoST endurance series in his earlier races there, against some of the best roadracers around.
“The first year I was down there, I had six world champions on my grid,” he says. “I still love the place, there’s nothing like it, You get goosebumps when you go through the gate.”
So even though McAdam’s not entered into the main show, he’s helping others learn the track. This year, he’s crew chief for Alex Coelho, who’s entering the 200 for the first time.
Alex Coelho ran at the Daytona Speedway for the first time last fall, as a birthday present to himself (the best kind of present!). He ran managed a couple of second-place finishes in ASRA-sanctioned races. Those results, and the appeal of the unique track, were enough to bring him back for the Daytona 200.
He says he expects “a race of the fittest; a 200-mile race is not to be taken lightly.” But he figures he’s got a good crew to help him with is pit stops, and he’s been training hard to last the duration of the 57-lap event.
He’s been working hard on his ZX-RR 636, with engine refresh, stripping away unneeded weight and ceramic bearings for the wheels, all aimed at getting a higher top speed. He’s left the suspension settings alone after his positive results last year, with only a refresh of the components to make sure it’s all up to snuff.
He says he’s keeping it realistic, and not expecting to run up front, as it’s only his second time at the Speedway, Still, he figures last October’s results were good, and that he can improve on them.
“I think I can break into the top 15-20,” he says.
Canadian race fans from both the car and motorcycle world know Pat Gonsalves from his years behind the mic at CSBK events, and other racing at CTMP, Shannonville and other Ontario events. Gonsalves also spent years announcing the Daytona 200, and has been making the trip every year since 1974.
Even then, there was a lot of heritage at Daytona, with decades of beach racing preceding the switch to the Speedway in 1961.
And the Canadian connection was also already well in place, as Canucks like Billy Matthews and Trev Deeley had been strong competitors in the event’s past, with Matthews being particularly successful. By the ’70s, Gonsalves was watching top roadracing competitors from all over the world at Daytona, but even then, the race had changed considerably from its early days of riding the beach, timing the event’s start to coincide with the tide.
For that reason, Gonsalves figures the complaints about the current race — that it’s just not a legit event — don’t make sense.
“Of course it’s evolved and changed over the years, including the type of motorcycle that was run,” says Gonsalves. “Regardless of when it was run, you always had a high echelon of riders that were either factory-supported, or semi-factory supported.” At this point, he says there may not be any official factory rides, but a lot of the top teams are still getting backdoor help from the OEMs.
For years, Gonsalves was an announcer at the 200, and got to see some of Canada’s greatest successes at the track, when Miguel Duhamel was dominant at the event, and other Canadian racers put up great races as well, guys like Rueben McMurter and Steve Crevier. And yes, he figures the history of the event was a key draw for Canadians, even decades back, but he also mentions the prize purse. A decade ago, it was almost a quarter-million US dollars; now, it’s in the $175,000 range. That’s a drop, sure, but it’s still legit money for a mid-winter race.
Maybe that, in a nutshell, is the best way to look at the 200. Sure, it doesn’t have Agostini or Dick Mann anymore, but some of the top racers from MotoAmerica still show up: Kyle Wyman, Josh Herrin, and Josh Hayes are all on the entry list. There are still fast guys running the 200, along with dedicated club-level racers, riders like Ontario’s Pat Barnes, who’s running the event as a 60th-birthday present to himself, working out all winter long to get in shape for the race.
Maybe, just maybe, an event that attracts both the winning pros, and the most dedicated amateurs, who are there out of a pure love for racing, could be the best kind of event there is.