Many of us have dreams of traveling all over the country and racing motorcycles. Walt Sipp lives that dream. Heís a 28-year-old professional road racer sponsored by Blue-Springs Harley-Davidson. Walt recently took the time to meet me at Worth Harley-Davidson North in Gladstone, Missouri, to talk racing.
CC: How did you get started in motorcycle racing?
Walt: I started riding little dirt bikes in the California sand as a kid. I was born in Kansas City, but my family lived in California for a while. After we moved back to KC, I didnít start playing with motorcycles for a long time. I raced cars for a while before getting into motorcycles. In about 1996 I bought a house and didnít have the funds to race cars. After a while I decided I couldnít stay away from racing, so I got into motorcycle drag racing. I ran in the Super Stock Buell class in the American Drag Bike Association (ADBA) when it first started. My rookie season was pretty successful with a fifth place finish in the nation, even missing two races. We made two final round appearances, and we made the semis at every race we entered. After two seasons of ADBA racing, I decided to get into motorcycle road racing. Taking the advice of a friend, I enrolled in road racing school. I really wanted to see what that was all about. The school was required in order to become a licensed road racer. I went to school on Saturday and finished second in my very first road race the next day.
CC: Where was the school?
Walt: It was at Blackhawk Farms Raceway near Beloit, Wisconsin. Itís kind of the home track for the Championship Cup Series (CCS) Great Plains Region. It was pretty cool, and I liked it a lot! The only remaining race in the 1999 season was at Heartland Park, south of Topeka, Kansas. The race at Blackhawk was my first and only road race as an amateur. I competed as a professional at Topeka in the North American Sport Bike Series (Buell Lightning Series) and finished ninth out of about twenty riders.
CC: Sounds like you got off to a great start! At that time were you racing a bike that you owned and prepared yourself?
Walt: Thatís right. Actually, I pulled the lights off my 1998 Buell S1 Lightning the week before I started racing it. It was my street bike that I rode to work and back every day. It had about 20,000 miles on it. I made lots of road trips on that bike. People started calling me ďIron ButtĒ because not many people take an S1 with that little bikini seat and ride it all over the place.
CC: Tell us about the following season.
Walt: Before the start of the 2000 season, I crashed while testing for Daytona. The front wheel flung the wheel weights off causing a bad wobble that pitched me off the seat. I was pretty banged up in that accident. Because of my injuries that was the end of my racing season. I sprained my spine, which sounds like a weird thing to sprain, but I landed in a sit-down position at over 90 mph and it kind of compressed my whole spine. Walking was difficult for a long time, and my only motorcycle was destroyed.
CC: Were you able to ride in 2001?
Walt: Actually it was a pretty good turnaround. We built another S1 that we bought directly from Buell. It was an ex-development bike of theirs. I finished fifteenth in my first AMA pro race, a Thunderbike event in Colorado. I was fifth in Topeka in a CCS regional race and a third in another race. That was my first season with Blue Springs Harley-Davidson as a sponsor, and things just kept getting better.
Because our first foray into AMA racing went so well, we decided that would be a good series for us to go after in 2002, since they had a lot of Midwestern events that we could get to pretty easily. Daytona, Florida and Laguna Seca near Monterey, California are on the schedule too. There is just something about Daytona that makes you want to race there, and Laguna Seca is my favorite racetrack in the country, so they are definitely worth the extra miles of driving to get there. That was our first full season of AMA racing, and we finished thirteenth in the nation. At the end of that season, I still had only about 15 races under my belt. In 2003 and 2004 we ran the full season in Formula USA as well.
CC: Please talk about your 2004 season.
Walt: We ran eight Formula USA races last year. Daytona is the first race of the season, and I have never really done well there. Iíve had some good runs, but bad things have happened. At Daytona a rider doesnít have a mediocre day. You either have a good day or a bad day with no in-between. I just havenít gotten to the upside yet. When we arrived at Daytona, the temperature was in the fortiesónot exactly prime road racing weather. Thereís no grip in the track, and a riderís body and mind donít function as effectively. I managed to fall during my first practice session on the track. I had the tires up to full temperature on the tire warmers before I went out, but they donít hold their heat. At Daytona, you really heat the right side of the tires on the high bank, but the left side cools off. I lost the front end in a left-hand turn and did enough damage that we decided to pull out the backup bike and use it for the rest of the weekend. That didnít work out. I blew the head gasket on that bike at about 145 mph on the out-lap of qualifying and was unable to post a time. That meant that I had to start dead last on the grid. The motor on the backup bike was beyond repair, so we had to spend the rest of that night getting the crashed bike ready to race. Our fifteenth place finish wasnít bad considering the circumstances, and we posted the fifth fastest overall lap time of the race.
Round two was at Road America in Wisconsin. At the time, it was my second-favorite track. I hadnít been back there since 2002, so it was good to get back. Itís a fast 4-mile course, the longest in North America. I love the layout and have a lot of fun there. The weather was cold again, and after the Daytona incident I was a little gun-shy. Due to morning fog, the race was shortened from 12 laps to 5. I thought I could have improved on my ninth place finish with a few more laps.
Before the next race, I did a private test at St. Louis to shake things out with the bike and with my head. It was good, hot day where I could remember how to ride again. I felt ready when we headed to Colorado for an AMA Formula Extreme race. In the second practice session there, we broke second gear in the transmission. Thatís a short, tight 1.3 mile track, so second gear is pretty important. All of the other gears were fine, and we managed to qualify twenty-fifth in a field of twenty-seven riders. We finished twenty-first in the race.
The next weekend we were at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia. We ran fast in practice and qualified seventh. I normally get good starts, due in part to my drag racing background. I started that race on the second row. I took the lead into turn one and maintained it for the next couple corners. I gave up the lead, but was involved in a tight battle for the first three positions for several laps. Later in the race, tires became a problem. On a dry course, Iíll run slicks. If itís damp, a cut slick or DOT tire gives better grip. Before the race, the weather varied between dry and damp, so I selected DOT tires. Unfortunately, it became hotter and dryer as the race went on, and my tires didnít hold up. The bike just wouldnít hold the line. It was sliding badly coming out of corners and pushing the front going in. I think we ended up in sixth place. It was our best run of the season, but again we thought we could have done better.
New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire, was the location of the next event. I donít particularly enjoy that track. There are some safety issues with the course. Loudon is tough because there are so many local riders. They have their own series with fifteen races, all on that track. The local guys all know the track inside and out. They know every bump. There were over fifty bikes on the starting grid. I felt good about qualifying fifteenth. I thought we were fast enough to crack the top ten. At the start of the race I got run into and bumped off the course into the grass. I stayed on two wheels, but I was pretty much dead last by the time I got back on the pavement. After that I didnít have my head on straight. All I could think about was passing as many bikes as I could right away to keep the leaders from getting away. I was kind of riding in crazy mode. On the first lap I moved from the back to about twenty-fifth. On the third lap I was up to twelfth. I was passing bikes right and left. I was overtaking a couple of riders approaching turn one, and I didnít even realize where I was in the race. I went into the turn too hot and crashed, so that was how the weekend ended.
The worst part was that we had another East Coast race the next weekend at Virginia International Raceway. We didnít really have time to get the bike back in good shape for the race, but we managed a twelfth place finish.
During the long break before the next race we built a 2003 Buell XB9R Firebolt. Our first race on that bike was at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Thatís a great facility and is now my second-favorite track.. They also have an outstanding motorcycle museum there. I went down there and tested one day before the event just to kind of shake it out and start getting the motor broken in. Riding a new bike on an unfamiliar track, I still finished eighth, so that was a pretty decent run. When we got home, we found that we were down on power, running at about 100 horsepower. We found a few things we had overlooked when we built it, but we didnít have time to get it corrected before the race at Las Vegas. Fortunately, Vegas is a course where rider skill takes precedence over horsepower. I qualified fifth, my best ever, and finished fifth in the race. We were in the top three for much of the event. There was a mid-race red flag due to a crash, and some oil was spilled on the track. Late in the race, I got into the oil and slipped enough to let a couple of riders by. We were happy to be showing competitive speed, even though we were down on power.
The final event of the season was the Race of Champions at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Miami, Florida. This race brings out the best of the best! When we were preparing the bike, we found some missing horsepower, so we were really optimistic. We qualified fifth again which was exciting considering the quality of the competition. Going into the race, we were happy with our speed. Again, we had some bad luck. About four or five laps into the race, another rider started to lose his bike in a turn and slid into me. Neither of us crashed, but my brake lever was bent. After that I had only about thirty or forty percent of normal braking power. We still finished sixth overall. I thought we could have had a podium if it hadnít been for the braking problem, but thatís the way it goes. Thatís racing. Overall, we finished eighth for the season, and we learned a lot of things that will help us in 2005.
CC: What are your plans for the upcoming season?
Walt: Weíre going to run the full Formula USA season that will be at least eight rounds. We also hope to do between one and three AMA Formula Extreme races. Weíll definitely race in Colorado. We may do the Laguna Seca round with the Moto GP Series. Weíll definitely do it if they run Formula Extreme class there. Thatís great exposure with crowds of fifty- to sixty-thousand spectators per day. Our goal is to continue to grow our relationship with my current sponsors and maybe find some out-of-market sponsors to get the development money we need to run at the AMA level full time.
CC: The season starts at Daytona?
Walt: Itís the start of Daytona Bike Week. The course has been reconfigured this year, and theyíve taken some of the speed out of it. Lap times will be quicker, but the course is not as long. Itís the kind of course I tend to do well on. It will be more of a ďriderís courseĒ with a really technical infield, but there will still be big speed, as much as 165 mph in a draft. Thatís smokiní on an air-cooled twin! The Superbikes will top 190 mph.
CC: Please tell us more about your Firebolt.
Walt: We now have it set up with custom ram air, Ohlins front forks, Penske rear shocks, a Marchesini magnesium rear wheel, and lots of Screaminí Eagle parts. It started life as a 984cc XB9. Itís currently a 1,169cc so itís a short-stroke, big-bore motor that turns 8,000 rpm. It now makes about 120 hp at the rear wheel and 95 ft lbs of torque. Buell does a lot of development work on motors in their factory, and ours it one of those factory-built motors. For the chassis we used carbon fiber and titanium everywhere we could and reduced the weight to about 395 lbs.
CC: Who are your current sponsors?
Walt: Weíre celebrating our fourth year with Blue-Springs Harley-Davidson as our primary sponsor. Itís pretty awesome to have a local sponsor thatís into the sport enough to support national-level road racing! Dave and the rest of the guys at Blue Springs really support me well. They have a good group of mechanics that help me out between races. Other sponsors are Monode Marketing Products up in Ohio and Lockhart-Phillips motorcycle products. I wear KBC helmets and Sidi Sport boots. I run exclusively EBC brakes, Sprocket Specialists sprockets, and D.I.D. chains. Those guys help me out a lot!
CC: What are some of the rewards and drawbacks of racing motorcycles professionally?
Walt: The reward for me is just the competition. The biggest high for me is pushing myself, trying to lower my lap times, and just getting better. Itís hard to imagine the rush if youíre on the outside looking in. The fact that we are recognized as probably one of the top five Buell racing teams in the country is a huge plus. Itís cool that people all over the country know who we are, me as a rider and Blue-Springs Harley-Davidson as a sponsor. I canít say enough good things about the dealership and Daveís support of our sport. Concerning drawbacks, we donít get as much publicity in the Formula USA series that AMA does, but it still takes big money to go there. If our sport could get more big-money out-of-market sponsors like NASCAR racers have, the development money would be there to achieve the great potential the Blue Springs team has. To me the biggest drawback is that as much as I love racing, I canít do it full time. Between races, I work at a real job. When there are East Coast races on two consecutive weekends, weíll drive back from one, work three days, and leave for the next one. That doesnít leave much time to get the bike ready.
CC: How do you manage to get away for the racing trips?
Walt: The place of business where I work is very flexible with me scheduling vacation days, so I burn through my vacation days based on the race weekends. It makes it kind of tough sometimes for my family because we donít get to take the normal family vacations. But my family supports me a lot.
CC: Does your family go to the races with you?
Walt: My wife goes to a lot of the races. My daughter will be four in February, and she likes to go to the races. She cheers her daddy on whenever she can. She loves to watch the races on TV or video.
CC: Who serves as your crew chief?
Walt: Right now my crew chief is my brother-in-law Chuck Light. He travels to all of the events with me and gives me lots of support. Another super-big supporter is Andy Surber. Heís a local and regional racer, so when heís not at his own races heís helping us. Itís just awesome to have that kind of support!
CC: Is there anything else youíd like to tell our readers?
Walt: I would just like to remind them that itís important that if they enjoy racing, they need to support the people that support the sport. There are a lot of business that help out racing teams all over the country, and there needs to be something in it for them too.
CC: Thanks for your time and good luck in the upcoming season. Weíll keep in touch.
On my way home from my interview with Walt, I stopped in and had a visit with Dave Worth at Blue Springs.
CC: Please tell us about your dealershipís relationship with Walt.
Dave: When Walt came to me a few years ago to talk about sponsorship, he seemed like a kid that really had the passion and competitive spirit to do well in road racing. He came across as being a really nice guy, and when I watched him ride I could see that he was a talented young man. I thought weíd put a little effort into it and see what we could do. The first year was a small effort, but weíve increased it every year since. Weíve seen the success grow every year with the time weíre putting into it. We want to be known as a dealership that supports the sport of motorcycling. There are a lot of people out there that want to race motorcycles and canít find the help they need. We want to do our part. Waltís a great guy, a family man. Itís been a good relationship so far, and Iím sure this year will be great!
CC: Thanks for your time and your support of motorcycle road racing.
Walt provided photos taken at V.I.R., Barber, St. Louis, and Heartland Park Topeka. Some of those are included below. Walt can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Story by Stripe
Photos provided by www.superbikepics.com, picsofyou.com and sliderphoto.com.