It started with a casual comment at the dinner table sometime in 1992. Nick Ienatsch was our guest that evening and somehow the subject of racing came up (imagine that). Nick had almost won the AMA 250 GP championship in 1991. But a late season crash while leading the series dashed his hopes for that number one plate. The aftertaste of a victory almost-at-hand was still on his tongue. And the lack of a sponsor and inability to contest the 1992 season still stuck in his craw.
"I’m an opportunity waiting to happen", he volunteered, apropos to nothing in particular. "Excuse me?", I said hoping I wouldn’t be expected to know what he was talking about. "Well, you know. I have a shot at the 250 championship...and I write about it in the largest all-streetbike magazine in the country..." "Hmm. You’ve got a point there", I say, feeling relieved that, not only do I have a grasp what he’s saying but understand the implications for a company willing to step up to the plate. "Man, I wish we could get involved in racing at that level. We’ve sponsored a number of teams on the national level with product. Maybe one day we could make the leap." "Maybe...", he said.
Be careful what you wish for...Wouldn’t you know. Nick and Steve Biganski went gunning for the title again in 1993. Yamaha had loaned them a TZ250, Laguna Seca was history, and Road Atlanta loomed ahead. And their entire race budget was spent. "Hey, we’re racers, not business men". In the meantime I’ve filed away the idea of our own roadrace team, bringing it out occasionally to give it a good mental massage. "Hey Nick", I say (we’re at dinner again). "Why don’t we start a road race team and call it Team Zero Gravity? We’ll get you through the rest of the season on a low key basis and see if it’s something we can handle." "Okay", came his unexpected reply. After all, I was just kidding. Right? Wrong. Next day I’m on the phone lining up chain, bodywork and airline tickets. My first race as a team manager was the Road Atlanta round of the 1993 AMA Superbike series. Hot and muggy, the Atlanta air was charged with race gas fumes and new possibilities. We’d bummed a ride for our bike and gear with Fastline Racing. And we’re a road race team! Team Zero Gravity. Let’s just get through this year and see if we can hang...
Zero Gravity Race Team 1993
New beginnings...our inaugural run was not to be a podium event. Jimmy Filice was to dominate, of course, our bike a bit sluggish with the jetting not quite there. Road Atlanta, lush and green, heavy with moist, hot air, earth the color of terra cotta--a perfect environment to initiate a new race team manager. I’d never heard the term "E-brake". But as the rental car spun seemingly out of control, me in the back seat thinking we’re all gonna die, Nick and Steve laughing their asses off...as Nick would say,"This is livin’".
I stayed home for the next three races, after all, our company was only in its fourth year and in need of constant attention. We bummed more rides for our equipment, Nick and Steve flying to the races. And an occasional local helper would help flesh out the team rostrum. Nick fought his way from fifth to third by the last race of the season. Sears Point was crucial. Can we hang on to third place? It was not a cinch by any means. But Nick road brilliantly finishing on the podium to clinch the national number three plate. We were ecstatic! And I was hooked. Hey, we need a new tent, and a better paint job for our bikes...and graphics. 1994 here we come.
|Jimmy Filice||1||Chris Taylor||6|
|Chris D’Alusio||2||Rich Oliver||7|
|Nick Ienatsch||3||Mike Sullivan||8|
|Jon Cornwell||4||Takihito Mori||9|
|Danny Walker||5||William Quinn||10|
Zero Gravity Race Team 1994
We’re beginning to look like a real race team. Shirts, caps, tent, "bold new graphics". And it looks like we may add a second rider. Chris Taylor had shown promise on the Southwest Motor Sports team for 1993. At 18 he looked to be following in the footsteps of Colin Edwards. Unfortunately, by the second race (Phoenix) he decided he wanted a team that wasn’t quite so "grass roots". So he moved on to Dutchman Racing. Such are the growing pains of a new team.
The season started off slow, Nick finishing sixth at Daytona, fifth at both Phoenix and Pomona and then fourth at Laguna Seca. But hey, we’re in third place in the points and only three points away from Chuck Sorensen then in second! Things aren’t all bad. In fact, we’re gunning for second! And for the next three races we finished on the podium, 2nd at Mid-Ohio, 2nd at Brainerd and 3rd at Sears Point. We’re pushing but we can’t seem to pass Sorensen in the points. He just seems to get faster each race. We’re down to the last race. Road Atlanta. If we finish ahead of Sorensen by two positions, we have second place for the season. But it wasn’t to be. Chuck ran a flawless race and finished 2nd to Nick’s 5th, Nick ending the season in 3rd behind team mates Rich Oliver and Chuck Sorensen (1st and 2nd respectively).
We gave it our best and came within points of second. It was a great season and we’d made a name for ourselves in racing. Nick wrote articles in the August and December ‘94 issues of Sport Rider Magazine. Now It’s time to plan for ‘95. More power, lighter components, more sponsorship...
|Rich Oliver||1||Chris D’Alusio||6|
|Chuck Sorensen||2||Mike Sullivan||7|
|Nick Ienatsch||3||Jason Paden||8|
|Danny Walker||4||Chris Rankin||9|
|Al Salaverria||5||John Cornwell||10|
Zero Gravity Race Team 1995
Sponsors seem to be more interested in us for some reason. Our biggest sponsor (besides Dunlop and Yamaha’s back-door help) was now Splitfire Sparkplugs. They’re riding high with success in Supercross, Drag Racing and now Road Racing. We’re featured in their magazine ads each month in several different publications. Hey, this is cool. Now where were we? Oh yes, racing...
In a press release dated February 27, 1995 Zero Gravity announced the signing of Nick Ienatsch to again contest the AMA 250 Grand Prix. As a footnote, the press release noted, "The team will unveil at the Daytona Race Zero Gravity’s new "Double Bubble" windscreen, an unusual looking windscreen designed to reduce frontal mass while providing enhanced aerodynamic flow over the rider’s helmet and shoulders." It must have worked because Nick’s trap speeds (160 mph) were fastest in the class. He finished fourth narrowly missing a trip to the podium. Pomona was even better with a second place finish.
The real excitement started at Laguna Seca. Nick crashed in turn 3 of the warm up lap! Somehow Nick and Steve were able to get the bike back to the pits and take advantage of a 20 minute rain delay. A half dozen mechanics and friends pitched in to repair the bike and we were back on the grid at the re-start of the race. And, incredibly, Nick finished on the podium in third place! What a high! Next three race finishes were 5th, 4th and 3rd at Mid Ohio, Road America, and Louden, respectively. And we’re in second place in front of Sorensen by 14 points.
After a 4th place finish at Brainerd, the real surprise came at the St. Louis round. A showdown between Jimmy Filice (entering competition late in the season) and Rich Oliver netted an Oliver crash in about the seventh lap of the race! And Nick’s fourth podium finish of the season (3rd place behind Filice and Sorensen’s, 1st and 2nd) put us well within striking distance of first place! But wait. Oliver received 15 points for that race even though he crashed! It seems there were fewer than usual entries and several crashes. And as luck would have it, Oliver was able to take advantage of the AMA point system. As it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered. The last round, Sears Point, Oliver ran a flawless race and won easily. And Nick rode well enough to finish second in the points. What a year! Is a championship next...?
|Rich Oliver||1||Greg Esser||6|
|Nick Ienatsch||2||Bobby Keith||7|
|Chuck Sorensen||3||Jason Paden||8|
|Mike Sullivan||4||Jeff Vos||9|
|Randy Renfrow||5||Mark Foster||10|
Zero Gravity Race Team 1996
They say nature abhors a vacuum. Next thing I know I receive a call from Martin Adams, owner of Commonwealth Racing and spokesman for the new Smokin’ Joe’s Honda racing team. We talk about sponsorship among other things. And then he adds, "We’ve got this new kid we’d like to develop but don’t have room for him on our team. Honda gave him a couple of bikes but I don’t see how he’s going to be able to race the full season." "Well," I say, putting two and two together, "we seem to be a team without a rider...And you’ve got a rider without a team..." "Uh-huh". A meeting was set up that same day with Honda’s Ray Plumb, Ben Bostrom and myself. We came to terms and started work the next day. Biganski was not interested in racing "street bikes" so the hunt was on for a new tuner.
For a while it was "the Ben and Glenn Show". We participated in several test sessions before the first race at Daytona and quite often found ourselves (Ben and me) doing most of the work. We tried out different tuners at each test in what I called "working interviews". And Ben spent countless hours setting up the second bike (the first had been set up by Honda the year before for John Kocinski to ride one race at Daytona. It sat out the season after that). Hiring a tuner is a tough proposition. It’s a marriage of personalities between rider and tuner. And it has to be right for things to work. Fortunately our "working interview" at Daytona paid off in the form of Mark Lucas, then ending his stint at Chafong racing. The race went okay considering Ben crashed in the rain and the entire event was postponed for a week due to monsoon conditions. Ben settled for 10th place as we re-grouped for the next race--and rest of the season.
Second place at Pomona? Take a huge parking lot at the county fair grounds complete with ruts, telephone poles and pot holes, add truck loads of hay bales lined up to form a "race track" with lots of left turns, add a few grand stands and Camel banners and what do you have? An AMA race venue that is made for a young flat tracker-turned-roadracer. Ben showed his stuff that week-end when he passed Honda’s Steve Crevier late in the race to finish an easy 2nd place in only his second AMA 600 supersport race ever. "I love this place", Ben enthused hardly able to constrain the grin that was stretching itself across his face. "The bumps and pot holes are fun--just like a dirt track." But once Mark and I stopped jumping up and down and came back to earth (we beat every factory guy but one!) it occurred to us that--yeah, we got second, but what about when he has to turn right? So it was off to the Streets of Willow race track out in the Mojave Desert, a small, tight track (fast lap times are less than a minute) with lots of right turns and elevation changes. Eighty laps later he was only a tenth off DuHamel’s best. Okay, we’re off to Laguna Seca.
When a boy becomes a man...The Laguna Seca round proved a turning point in the riding career of Ben Bostrom. Though he talked big before the race, he later confessed to being a bit intimidated by the factory riders. Even so he got off to a great start in the 600 supersport race, riding smooth, effortless...hey, he’s in second place! But it happened so early in the race his brain had a chance to kick in..."Hey Ben, you don’t belong up front with the factory guys. You’re a "B" team rider, remember?" Though the mind chatter ultimately relegated him to a comfortable fifth place position where he cruised to the finish line, the turning point for Ben was the realization that, "these guys (the factory riders) aren’t so fast. In fact I can beat those guys. Well, except Miguel...". His outlook was indelibly altered from that point on. And it’s off to Homestead to conquer new ground.
The rest of the season was peppered with highs and lows, the lowest had to be the start at Homestead. Ben struggles with the management of time. He claims it’s an inherited family trait. Nonetheless, deep in conversation with Bill Bartels (and nowhere to be found by his team), he realizes that the warm up lap for the 600 race has already started. Dashing to the grid he leaps onto his waiting bike only to be halted by the start official. They would not let him start the race in his front row grid position. "If you don’t complete the warm up lap, you start from the rear". They came down hard on him for some reason. I later watched the AMA act more leniently with other riders in the same situation. But Ben was never late for a race again! As it happened, he charged from last place to 11th at the checkered flag, putting in lap times that could have won him the race! And the high point of the season? That had to be breaking the lap record at Louden International Raceway by more than a half second and earning the pole position in the process.
But in between high and low was a race season which far exceeded our goals and expectations. As we entered the season we had no aspirations of "running with the big boys." The factory riders are seasoned pros with the best equipment and unlimited budgets. Our goal was to finish top 10 and to prepare Ben to be picked up by the factory Honda team. By mid-season we had revised our goal to top 5. And after the Louden race we were actually in 5th place. Going into the last race (at the new Las Vegas Speedway) we were in 3rd! No way, is this really happening? Believe it! And we could actually pull this off if we do well in this race. But the points race was very close, at that juncture. Gerald Rothman was breathing down our backs. But even if we finish one position behind him we’ve still got 3rd locked up. And Ben is fast at this track. Real fast. But what’s this? Ben’s hurt? In Harley practice? No way! But, alas, it’s true! He was hurt pretty badly, though thankfully no bones were broken. The swelling in his lower back twisted his torso in violent pain. He could not walk without help. "Ben, don’t worry about the points," I say, resigning myself to whatever position in the final points standing is dealt us. "You’re in no condition to race." But, of course, he raced. I almost cried when the lead pack came in view of the signalling area in the first lap. Ben was leading the race! The pain he must be enduring...I couldn’t imagine it. Yet there he was in first place. It wasn’t to last, though. The hard braking necessary to remain up front finally took its toll. The pain was too great. He began to slow. And the fast guys passed him one by one. Ben finished the race in 7th place. Gerald Rothman won. Hey, fourth place in the final points standing ain’t bad--for a rookie, and a fledgling Supersport "B" team that started life with a phone conversation. Hey, this streetbike racing is pretty cool. We just might get the hang of this...
Results - 600 Supersport:
|Miguel DuHamel||1||Andrew Stroud||6|
|Thomas Stevens||2||Matt Wait||7|
|Gerald Rothman||3||Steve Crevier||8|
|Ben Bostrom||4||Mike Smith||9|
|Doug Toland||5||Jason Pridmore||9|