FLASHBACK: RIDING JOHN NATALIE’S CHAMPIONSHIP-WINNING CAN-AM DS450
The pivotal moment of the 2011 ATVA championship season didn’t come on any motocross track. It didn’t happen when John Natalie won in Kentucky, Maryland or Michigan. It happened in a pasture against a backdrop of fire, lightning and chaos, and it had nothing to do with ATVs.
It was a little past the halfway point in the season and John Natalie was looking good. He had won three overalls, and his only competition was his Motoworks Can-Am teammate Chad Weinen. It looked like the rest of the year would be an in-house shootout. But, a sudden conspiracy of events changed everything. “We had been riding and a storm was coming,” remembers John. “Then I got a call; my barn had been struck by lightning and was burning. We had two horses in that building and more in another nearby, and we had to work fast.”
In the confusion that followed, two horses were lost to the fire, but John managed to save six others. That was tragedy enough, but in the process, he took a kick to the arm. “I knew it was broken immediately,” he says, “but we had to finish the job and take care of the horses; I could go to the hospital later.” He knew that his season and his best chance at a National Championship in years was in jeopardy. To make things worse, Weinen crashed hard a week later, so the most dominant ATV racers of the year were both injured. It was a new season.
A lot had been riding on John and Chad. To understand fully, you have to go back a few years when Can-Am first invaded the Pro ATV racing world. The established teams were in control, and Motoworks had a long way to go in developing the DS450 as a pro-level racer. First, just getting on the podium was considered a victory. The real breakthrough happened late in the 2010 season. “We had made some steering changes, and the machine just clicked,” says John. He won the Pennsylvania round against the overwhelmingly powerful Yoshimura Suzuki team. Weinen followed up with another Can-Am victory. Can-Am and Motoworks had finally arrived, and everyone expected a real battle in 2011.
But it wasn’t to be. Suzuki dropped the QuadRacer 450 from its line because of problems with the EPA, and that meant the whole Yoshimura Rockstar ATV racing program evaporated overnight. No one was more upset than the Motoworks team; they were robbed of what would have been an epic Can-Am-versus-Suzuki showdown. But oddly enough, the disappearance of their fiercest rival placed even more pressure on the Can-Am camp. Now they had to win.
The unlikely double injury was devastating. Chad was out for the season, but John‘s injury was manageable. “The doctors told me that with a surgically implanted plate, I might be able to ride the next round, but there would still be a 20 percent chance it would break again. For the race, I decided not to take any pain medicine; if something were going wrong, I wanted to feel it happen. I wanted to win a championship, not ruin my life.”
So John rode to a sixth-place finish in Ohio. Two rounds later, he won his fourth race of the year, and Can-Am clinched its first ATV National Championship shortly thereafter.
So the history book will show that John Natalie and Can-Am won the National title the year after Suzuki pulled out. It won’t show the drama or the heroics. And it won’t answer any questions about what might have been. Had the Motoworks team finally come far enough? Could they have stared down the Yoshimura team?
As it turns out, we had the opportunity to address that question. At the end of that year, we compared Josh Creamer’s championship-winning Suzuki with John Natalie’s upstart Can-Am. At that time, they were close, but the Suzuki still held an edge. A year later, we got the chance to ride Natalie’s quad once more, after a year of race-hardening and trackside development. Had the gap closed?
“We made some changes to bring more low end out of the motor,” says Casey Greek, the Motoworks crew chief. “Also, the machine you rode last year had the older steering geometry. That was a big change.” Much of the motor development happens in Southern California at Motoworks, but there’s a healthy interest from Rotax and Bombardier. Motoworks developed a new piston, which prompted other changes. After the engine builders come up with a new configuration, the quad spent some time with factory technicians who worked to optimize the EFI system. The programmable ignition is perhaps the most exotic component on the bike—everything else is basically a prototype for the performance kits that will be sold to the public.
“The Hinson clutch was another big step forward,” says Casey. Most of the other teams have been using a Hinson BTL clutch since 2008. This is a slipper clutch that dramatically reduces engine braking. It hasn’t been available for the Can-Am because of the unusual layout of the Rotax clutch. It’s frankly an archaic design that needs heavy modification to be raced at any level. At first, Motoworks designed a new basket that at least gave the clutch a normal feel, but it wasn’t until last year that the team sponsored the development of a more mainstream clutch design. That allowed the BTL clutch to be used, and the riders loved it.
For the 2011 season, the race quad used all the same major chassis components. Holtz made the A-arms and steering stem, Precision made the steering damper, and Rath supplied the nerf bars. All of that was in place at the outset of the racing season, while development continued in two areas—tires and suspension. After starting off on Goldspeed rubber, the team switched to DWT, with good results. Motoworks and DWT were joined at the hip, and that allowed the race team to experiment and develop tires to its own needs. As far was suspension is concerned, Fox came up with some upgraded metal coatings and valving that worked well.
DAY AT CAHUILLA
So one year after riding the 2010 quad that John Natalie used to win Can-Am’s first National race, we regathered to ride his championship winner. We had Justin Jones on hand as our token pro rider, and the Cahuilla motocross facility was prepped just for us. No matter how many times we do this type of thing, we’re still humbled by the experience. There we were, at a perfect track, with the top race team in the world. They roll out one of the most exotic racing machines on the planet, pour gas in it and ask if we want any personal adjustments. It’s like leaving your own body and assuming the identity of someone else—someone much more important and talented.
The great thing about riding a fast quad on a good track is that it quickly erases most other thoughts. Self-consciousness pretty much goes out the window. Most things feel very normal and comfortable. Natalie’s quad uses a thumb throttle, and it even has a key. The ignition switch is well hidden, but it still made us wonder if they keep a spare on hand. (What if Josh Upperman decided to get funny and toss Natalie’s key into the bushes on the start line?)
On the track, Natalie’s bike is nothing but fun. It makes power everywhere—it’s a screamer and a tractor. The powerband is so broad that you can do long sections without shifting and still keep up a decent pace. To go full speed, you still have to tickle the shifter somewhat, and it takes a few laps to take full advantage of the slipper clutch. We’re conditioned not to bang down gears too early—no one wants to hear a normal motor scream like that. But once you understand, you can use the motor for more controlled cornering. The BTL doesn’t eliminate engine braking; it just makes it more gradual and controllable. The key to getting through a corner at race speed is in getting the quad to drift sideways as early as possible on the entry. That way, you’re ready to straighten and accelerate by the time you reach the apex, when other riders still have to do all their turning. The smooth engine braking makes this so much easier.
As far as handling goes, the Can-Am quickly awakened memories from last year. The Motoworks race quads are super friendly. They are, perhaps, a little larger than most racers, but that makes them feel spread out and comfortable. Even the suspension, which you might expect to be stiff for someone who goes John Natalie‘s speed, is cushy. We have to confess that the steering change that came late last year was somewhat lost on us. We would have to ride the new quad back to back with the 2010 version to understand.
The same holds true when it comes to comparing this quad with the Suzuki we rode last year. Without riding them both on the same day, we just can’t say which is faster or better. We know that the Can-Am gained power, especially on the bottom. We also know that it still has the same motor characteristics as last year. The Can-Am puts its power to the ground in a very tractable way; it builds power rather than drops it on you. We remember the Suzuki to be more explosive and fierce. But which one is faster? They’re closer than ever.
That conclusion was reinforced in New England this year. Yoshimura allowed Dustin Wimmer to race the Factory Suzuki on a local level, where he was matched against Josh Creamer on a Factory Can-Am. The two traded wins every week. In the end, Creamer managed to get more holeshots on the Can-Am, but had more mechanical trouble. Wimmer won the New England Championship.
But, the big prize goes to John Natalie, and for us, there are no lingering questions or asterisks. He rode a heroic and gutsy season, and his team made it possible with hard work and organization. Those are all the right ingredients that make a champion.