A Conversation with the 2015 NHRA Pacific Division Summit Racing Series Motorcycle ET champion.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE PHIPPS • MARCH 11, 2018 • PHOTOGRAPHS ON THIS PAGE ARE COPYRIGHT © FAMAMOCA LLC 2018 AND MAY NOT BE REPUBLISHED WITHOUT LICENSE
Don Caesar #731. Sonoma Raceway. 2018.
For readers who might not be familiar with you, let's do a quick rider bio.
I started racing roughly six years ago. Before that, I was actually a competitive golfer, believe it or not. I played at the Junior College and Amateur levels. Somehow, I went from the quietest sport in the world to the loudest.
I typically race the NHRA Summit Racing E.T. Series locally at Sacramento and Sonoma Raceways. My first full season was in 2014, and I had three event wins and finished second overall for Sacramento Raceway. In 2015, I won the NHRA Pacific Division Summit Racing E.T. Championship, covering the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Hawaii, and one track in Colorado. I was able to compete for an NHRA Summit Racing E.T. National Championship that year as one of the eight national finalists. In 2017, I finally won my first local track championship at Sacramento Raceway. I also won the track title at Sonoma Raceway that same season. It is very rare for any ET racer to win both Sacramento and Sonoma in the same year. I've had fifteen Summit Racing Series race wins locally and over twenty-five event wins in five full seasons of racing.
My fiancée Katy has been with me since the beginning as my one and only crew chief. This year, we have switched places and she is now running a car, a '73 Nova, in Sportsman at Sacramento Raceway and I have been building for her. I have taken this year off at Sacramento but am still racing my bike at Sonoma. It's been a fun adventure so far.
For the gear heads: Your bike.
The bike is a 2007 Suzuki GSXR 1000. I drove three hours to buy this bike specifically because it was the black and orange model. This is the only year they made it in this color scheme and it was difficult to find. It was originally a stock street bike and has slowly turned into a dedicated drag bike over the last six years.
It has an Evil swingarm from Evil Swing Arms in Lexingtion, North Carolina, extending the wheelbase to 67.5" which is 11.5" over stock. A re-valved shock set up for drag racing was done by Joe England at England's Speed Shop in Modesto, California. The ECU was flash tuned by Johnson Motorsports in Naugatuck, Connecticut to increase fuel, advance timing, and turn on the radiator fan sooner. We added a two-step rev limiter at 10,000 RPM. The bike has an air shifter that is activated automatically through my shift light. Vortex aluminum sprockets set up the gear ratio at 3.20 with a Shinko Hook-Up drag tire.
The air filter is removed as well as the secondary throttle blades. The bike has been lowered to the minimum NHRA ground clearance. The motor is still completely stock and runs on pump gas.
My best ¼–mile ET is 8.98, and best speed is 154mph.
Take us through your burnout routine.
Katy and I work together very closely as a team. You'll see this as she is lining me up and giving me the green light to stage, or as she is spotting my burnout.
Typically, she will back me into the water box to the point where my feet are about to hit water. Then, she will guide me forward until the wet side of the tire is on the ground. That is the most important part because I want to make sure that the tire will easily break loose. There have been instances where the tire has attempted to grab and jump me forward. This can become a very scary situation. I have seen a few riders crash their bikes during the burnout. To be honest, starting the burnout is the most nerve-racking part of an entire run for me. Once the tire breaks loose, it's simple. Get it hot, lean to each side to ensure the entire contact patch is warm, and roll out.
For the casual reader, someone who enjoys the sport but maybe doesn't follow it very closely, I think they may not realize just how much data collection there is in racing. You walk through the paddock for example, and there are weather stations mounted on roofs of trailers, drivers have data loggers in their cars. Talk a little bit about how you collect and use data, what you do with it.
I work for the State as a financial analyst so most of my work life is spent on Excel. I developed an Excel spreadsheet to track all my runs and relevant information. I'm able to use that and twist the data the way I want. I will typically do this at home to find areas of improvement.
While at the track, I try to keep it simple. As I said, I used to be a competitive golfer before racing existed in my life. I joke that I choose my dial-in by sticking my finger in the air and taking a guess, go by feel, shoot from the hip, etcetera. There's a website that updates weather data every hour. I'll use that, and keep an eye on the flags around the track, since wind changes will affect me a lot. I'll grab some grass or weeds and throw it in the air to gauge the wind. A lot of the high dollar racing operations have as much data logging as money can buy. I don't have a data logger on my bike or a high dollar weather station. It may put me at a disadvantage at times, but making things too complicated would take the fun out of it for me.
Talk a little about the business side of racing, about your experiences in drag racing. I wondered in particular if you might talk about your experiences with how riders find sponsors and how relationships develop and are managed. In a way it seems *duh* very obvious. But then I wondered how in your experience it actually works, what actually happens in reality and practice.
It seems a lot of people think of sponsors as people paying you to advertise their product and funding your operation. This does happen at the pro level and there are many in the Sportsman ranks that have something similar. But for most of us, sponsorship may mean more of a discount on someone's parts and possibly putting a sticker on their bike. There are contingency sponsorships that will pay you for winning larger events if you have their product and sticker on your car or bike.
But there isn't much out there for motorcycles at our level. Typically, it's more about support. A business or shop will support you with good service, and you will support them by giving them credit when credit is due. My bike isn't covered in a million stickers. I only have a few for those that have done something significant throughout my racing career and development.
For the most part, I have been self-funded with some discounts here and there. I have also been building the car that my fiancée is racing this year. All the help has come from our extensive drag racing family at the track. 90% of the support we get comes locally through friendships that have been established throughout the years.
Talk a little about the travel, traveling with your team and crew and parts, about being ready for repairs, also the difficulties readers might not be aware of.
Traveling is typically just Me, Katy, and the dog, Gracie. Katy attends nearly every race with me and is critical to keeping things running smoothly. I don't carry many parts other than a backup clutch and some odds and ends. I'm not one to be constantly working on the bike while at the track. I'll possibly adjust tire pressure depending on the day and that's about it. I really do try to keep things simple and have all the work done at home, days before a race.
Caesar with long-time Sonoma Raceway Drag Racing Manager Georgia Seipel. Click to enlarge.
Any humorous racing-travel stories?
Last year, we were coming back from Vegas and encountered 50mph headwinds that completely killed our fuel mileage. We made it to a small, nearly abandoned, mining town in the middle of the Nevada desert with the nearest gas station still twenty miles away. Our friend from our home track was traveling behind us and also had to stop. We had to siphon gas out of our pit scooters and generators in order for both of us to get enough gas to make it to the next town with a gas station. It could have been a really scary situation if we had actually run out of gas.
Talk about how racers develop and improve. At some level, do you begin to reach your potential as a rider and from there the improvements really become more about technology? You as a rider have reached a threshold and now it's about finding more consistency in the machine, or something else related to the machine. Or if it's always more about developing your talent, finding a way to improve mentally or physically. That it's always more about the rider than the machines.
Seat time is key. Most drag strips have street legal nights that anybody can come out to and have fun. People need to learn the fundamentals first, how to consistently stage, launch, etcetera. Learning the bracket racing game can take years to perfect. And there is always room for improvement. We are essentially not only trying to win a race, but trying to win by the narrowest of margins, as in less than a few feet at 150mph. This takes practice to judge and understand what it takes to win, and you'll continue to find new ways to lose.
My biggest advice to any new rider, get a mentor. I had two people that I watched and learned everything that they did. You have to listen and absorb everything they do and say. You have to apply that to your own racing and learn from your mistakes when you fail to execute.
I feel that I have reached the point where my biggest limitation is my bike. It lacks the consistency due to having an OEM clutch that I have to slide by hand. I have been saving for the last year for a major clutch upgrade that will make my bike much more consistent and take out more of the human element. That clutch is actually being delivered this week! That being said, a skilled rider on a bike that is not consistent will still have an advantage over a novice rider on a perfectly built bike.
Don Caesar #731. Sonoma Raceway. 2018.
Don, any racing-related injuries you've had to deal with?
I've been lucky to never experience an injury at the track. Although, the day before a race, I burned my hand on the exhaust to the lawn mower. So I had to race with second-degree burns. We laugh about it today. I was more irritated to pay the $1,300 ER bill. I do have a life-insurance policy to protect Katy in the event of the worst happening.
I have seen a few other riders crash on the track. My best friend and teammate crashed during his burnout, right in front of me. The bike hooked to the track and jumped forward. He had no real injuries fortunately. Like I said, burnouts can be the most vulnerable time to have an accident. Another friend nearly died in a horrible accident a few years ago. He lost control of the bike at the top end of the race track and went over the guardrail. But a piece of the wall caught him in the side and cut him open. It took roughly a year and multiple surgeries for him to fully recover. Since then, he has made a full recovery. He made a brief comeback to drag racing but did move on to other life adventures.
Any race in particular that stands out as memorable?
This would be my Division Championship in 2015. I remember this day like it was yesterday. Part of the race was run the night before because of rain forecast for the next day. After they shut down for the night, I realized we were down to four bikes competing for a chance to go to Pomona for the NHRA National Championship. Try having to sleep with that on your mind!
The semi-final round was first thing the next morning. I won that round and was still in disbelief. As we were getting ready for the final round, the clouds unleashed a complete downpour. We rushed back to the pits to get the bike in the trailer and had to wait four hours for the rain to pass. People were driving their trucks and motorhomes up and down the track to help disperse water and get it to dry.
After four hours of waiting the final round was on. I was completely late off the tree but Mikey Magallanes broke out, giving me the win. I completely lost it and broke down in tears. When I got back to see Katy, I got off the bike and feel to my knees. She called my Dad to tell him and I was on the phone with him, still in tears. A couple friends from our local tracks were giving me hugs. It was just an emotional roller-coaster for me. And I got the opportunity to race for a National Championship a month later and had the time of my life.
Caesar v Ed Bradell. From the 2018 NHRA Summit Racing Series at Sonoma Raceway, January 28, 2018.
Hard to say. Sacramento Raceway will always be my home and where it all started, and my racing family is stronger than ever there. Sonoma Raceway has the best racing surface and we put up our fastest times there. Samoa Dragstrip near Eureka, California is where I proposed to Katy last year and won the biggest payout I've ever raced for.
A track you haven't done but would like to?
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, Arizona. I attended my first NHRA event there and that's when I first fell in love with the sport of drag racing. I also went to college at Arizona State, so I love going back to the Phoenix area.
Talk about the psychology of a winning rider. Is there something that you feel the best riders do? Part of it is obviously the tree. But I wondered if you might talk a little about what you are doing, what your mental strategy is as the staging lights pop. Some riders look almost juiced on adrenaline, they look fidgety on the bike. What is your process right there, mentally? And how do you approach or prepare for the races as a day, how do you prepare yourself mentally?
Like I said earlier, I try to keep things simple. I think the best riders are prepared long before a race day. They have their bike figured out and understand what is needed to be successful. Reaction times are critical in our sport. The best are consistent on the tree.
For me, I take a golfer's perspective on things. I don't rush, I keep my staging routine the same every time. I'm probably one of the slower guys to be ready after the burnout. Katy makes sure I'm in the right spot and lined up straight. After that, I'll take a couple breaths and make sure I'm absolutely comfortable and calm before staging the bike. I feel that doing the same thing over and over again has helped me in the long run. I try to let my instincts take over after that.
Don Caesar #731. Sonoma Raceway. 2018.
Our thanks to Don Caesar. Caesar is the 2015 NHRA Pacific Division Summit Racing Series Motorcycle ET champion, and the 2017 track champion for Sacramento and Sonoma Raceways in the Motorcycle ET class of the NHRA Summit Racing Series. The interview was conducted via email and edited and condensed.
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