Yamaha is on a Mission

Jan. 25, 2007 By Jeffrey Banks

          Yamaha is on a mission to boost its sales with higher visibility in competitive circuits, and they’re using big moves to make it happen. So far their 4-stroke machines are having a rough start, but the company is putting the resources and the talent into this investment that could lead to a big payoff.
          In May they signed US snocross champion Robbie Malinoski, who had just won the World PowerSports Association title. He became the second rider of Boss Racing, next to defending All-Japan Super Class champion Yuji Nakazawa. The men ride new Nytros. They’re the only 4-stroke machines on the jumps and curves of the short snocross tracks, and each day is filled with testing and tuning.
“I know that the whole year is geared toward research and development,” Malinoski said, “but I’m coming into each race at least to earn a podium finish. The sled has a lot of power already.”
          At the WPSA opener in Duluth, Minnesota, the riders couldn’t break out of the pack. Malinoski crashed during practice and barely got back on the track for heat rounds. He didn’t make the final. That race was a qualifier for the X-Games in Colorado, and Nakazawa finished seventh, two spots too slow to qualify.
          What he learned in Japan is being applied here, said Yamaha Snowmobile Race Manager Greg Marier.  “Basically the idea was to do the develoment in Europe and Japan and come into the US. This is the premier class, the national series.”
          When racing success comes in the states, Marier says it will naturally be followed by increased sales. “For Yamaha, of course, we build 4-stroke snowmobiles ands we’re looking at growing that market, which is growing in sales. So our goal is to increase the expectations and interest in 4-strokes.”
          He compares the plan to Yamaha’s introduction of the YZ 400 F into motocross. “It’s quite a challenge to take 4-stroke technology and compete against the best in the world on 2 strokes,” he said. "We have  a goal for each weekend and each race. That part of it, we have the Boss racing team heavily involved, and we have engineering people form Japan. Chassis people involved from our side, also, so it’s a group effort to improve the program.”
          Garry Querel is manager of Boss Racing and it’s all-Canadian crew. Nakazawa is the only one not from Manitoba, but he’s right there with them to get more speed from the sleds. What we saw in Duluth will look different in late January. “We’re coming out with a new chassis and a little bit different engine,” Querel said.  “Little different body work. It’s going to be a different sled than we debuted. This is the second prototype. The first was a test mule. We learned a little bit at Duluth and we’re planning to move forward. We learned more about the engine characteristics and some suspension stuff. We had different chassis configuration.” 
          The all-important engine is a Nytro-based, 3-cylinder 973cc 4-stroke powerplant. Engine mount location has moved as they decide the best location for balance and handling. The front suspension, bulkhead, and side panels are a derivative of the Phazer design. The rear suspension uses a developmental torsion spring design. The ergonomics are fully adjustable, giving the drivers the opportunity to provide their feedback on what the ideal should be.
          “We need more testing to get the whole package. The clutching sorted out. The traction sorted out,” he explained.
          They’re the only 4-stroke in the series, which runs from Colorado to New York and Canada.  “It’s a challenge to have that 4 stroke compete with the 2 strokes, and it’s even a bigger challenge to win,” Querel admitted. “Right now we think we’re probably at the performance as the 2-strokes. We’re able to run a bigger cc because the rules allow that.
The weight of 4 storkes is getting lower. The power is getting higher. It’s just a matter of time.”         
          He thinks the thin air in the mountains of Colorado will be an advantage. Since he won last year’s championship, Malinoski was invited to the X-games. “Air is air,” explained Querel. “If you have no air then you have to do clutch and engine mods for the altitude, and we think with the four stroke we won’t have to do much with the rest.”
          Why does the front look so skinny? “It was more for aerodynamics and general appearance. First we put out a sled that we could do more R & D with, you know? We want it to look good this time. Everything’s fiberglass now. The initial prototype we took was a canvas-style hood. Now we have a carbon fiber hood. It’s going to look more like a snowmobile now.”
          The Yamaha under Jimmy Blaze looked like a BMX bike when he broke a world record Dec. 21. That was for his daredevil backflip in a jump that reached 103 feet before he landed.
          That Salt Lake City, Utah, stunt brought more attention to Yamaha, which also brought the best racer into its cross country program. That doesn’t get the attention or television coverage snocross does, by Yamaha is trying to grab a win there as they also compete in enduro races and grass drags.
          With three consecutive points championships in the United States Cross Country Snowmobile Racing Series, Corey Davidson of Holt, Minnesota was just the guy to grab a win for Yamaha. When he left Polaris to join their team last year, he managed to finish third. That year worked the bugs out so he could win it all, but this year he’s out with a broken leg, injured during practice on a dirt bike weeks before the big opener.
          “That’s why I’m pretty bummed out, Davidson explained. “I ended up getting third in the points and I won two races on the stock sled and two races on the mod sled. I felt I did really well.” Now Travis Hjelle from Thief River Falls is on his Apex RXT, riding the 100-500 mile races that are closer to European racing, with about 12 miles in each lap.
          Davidson says it’s tricky to race a 4-stroke after learning on a 2-stroke. Like his colleagues in snocross, his team had the only 4-strokes out there. “It’s harder to go faster when it gets rough and you’re heavier and you have more power,” he said. “The weight is a factor on the rider, you know?” It’s easy to get tired sooner with more machine to push around.
          “For starters, if you’re on the 4-stroke, more weight and more power, you’ve got to be smarter, I would say, because you’ve got to have stuff kind of planned out on that thing. It’s so fast and so powerful, it’s easy to get yourself in trouble. The 2-strokes, they’re a bit lighter and they’re a little bit more nimble to handle in the air. The lighter sled will handle better through the air - throw it around. You can handle the machine instead of the machine handling you.”
          In just the second racing weekend of a 4-stroke snowmobile, Yamaha’s newest machine has won a major victory and made history in the sport.
Yamaha introduced the 4-stroke Nytro to snocross racing last November in Duluth, Minnesota and last spring the team signed North America’s top snocross racer to lead its new Yamaha team to victory. But in Duluth Robbie Malinoski and his Japanese teammate couldn’t break into the finals. Six weeks later, the season’s second race in Brainerd, Minnesota saw the debut of two new prototypes, and Malinoski ran away with the Pro Open victory.
“It’s kind of a spin-off of what we had in Duluth,” explained the racer from Humboldt, Saskatchewan. “We had a new sled that we released for the weekend and raced and it turned out pretty good. The 4-stroke, it’s so much power and torque, and so responsive. There’s definitely a reason why the bikes have switched over to 4-strokes. I see the same thing happening here. It’s just going to take some time.”
          Without a doubt, he said, there’s more power in the heavier 4-stroke than the other machine’s he’s ridden. His adjusting to the power and weight is responsible for the win, not the new fuel injection.
“When I switched from 2 strokes to 4 strokes (on a dirt bike), I felt like I was so much slower on my 4 stroke until I learned not to worry so much about stopping and turning and just keeping on my gas again, keeping the overall speed of the machine up,” he clarified.
Manager and Boss Racing team owner Garry Querel says the only prototypes are ridden by his team. “It’s just for our guys. It’s a 3-cyclinder, fuel-injected prototype. Whether it’s going to be a production sled, that’s not for me to say,” he said, though, “Most manufacturers, what they race is what they bring out.”
          There’s more power in the new engine, he says, “But the sled runs so much cleaner and crisper and more responsive than the old engine. That last sled we ran was a 975 carburetor and this is 1040 fuelie.”
          The win at Brainerd International Raceway on January 14 was a big one, Querel stated. “I think we caught everybody by surprise. They didn’t expect us to win one so quickly.” Querel has owned his snocross team for three years. He spent the first two with Polaris after getting back into the sport. He spent years as an oval and drag racer, with major championships in both.
          Some of the competitors point out that the snow at Brainerd was so light that the jumps were pounded away as soon as they were groomed into shape. With less jumping, they say, the extra weight of the new Yamaha was less of a liability. “It worked really good on that track with the dry, sugary snow,” said TJ Gulla, who rode his Polaris to the first Pro Open victory in the double points weekend. “If any track is in favor of it, this track was. That’s when I think the Yamaha will struggle, when it gets really rough and holed out like Duluth was.”
          Still, “He rode his butt off, that’s for sure. That sled is big and heavy and he rode it really well.”
Ryan Simons was teammates with Malinoski before he won both the Pro Stock and Pro Open championship of the World PowerSports Association in 2006 and switched teams. He’s glad to see his best buddy doing well again. “I check it out lots. It’s cool. Considering how long they’ve had to work on it, and the circumstances, they’re doing well. If anybody can ride it, it would be him. He’s strong. He’s one of the strongest riders out there.”
Its weight isn’t so apparent to the eye, Simons explained, but its sound is very unique. They know Malinoski’s coming by the pitch.
          It could be Yuji Nakazawa, too. The Japanese champion isn’t doing as well on the vastly different American course, but he’s got the same machine and is showing promise. Querel says there may be more changes soon. “We’re not stopping here. We want to win more races so we’re going to work hard to develop new stuff.” Does that include a totally new machine? “It’s hard to say.”
          In the cold races at Brainerd, their crews were hard at work to tweak and adjust, he said. "During our heat races, the front end was lifting ... everything was freezing and busting because of the extreme cold temperatures, so we determined a new setup for the final."
As for the Nytros, “We’re just going to keep them for future development - practice sleds. They‘ll probably end up going back to Japan.” They won’t be backup sleds. They built backup fuel-injected prototypes. “We don’t have a bunch but we’re doing ok for the season.”

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