The Privateer – Mike Morgan

Goshen Indiana, known as the Maple City, combines an abundance of cultural activities with small town values, and is the home of RIM Racing and Engineering. This privateer operation currently competes in the AMA Formula Xtreme series with rider Mike Morgan. For some, the idea of being a privateer in the big world of AMA racing would be too challenging, but RIM’s level-headed approach has helped to keep Mike Morgan in the series for the last few years.

Recently we had the opportunity to talk with Mike about life as a privateer racer.

Mecca of Speed: Mike, tell us how you got involved in motorcycle road racing.

Mike Morgan: Racing came about after my parents got me a dirt bike. My Dad rode dirt bikes, so I begged and begged and begged, until I got my first one. I was about ten at the time, maybe a little younger. I did a lot of trail riding and worked up to a bigger bike. I thought it was fun, but then I wanted to start taking jumps.

From there I started hanging out with a couple of local guys that were racing dirt bikes. Then I got a bigger bike so I was able to hang with those guys more. Then I started racing 125 CC dirt bikes.

As I got older it was more important to me to hang out with my friends. My parents didn’t push racing on me, so it went by the wayside.

Then I wanted a street bike, so I took the MSF safety course. Then I had to do a lot of talking to convince my parents I wasn’t going to kill myself riding on the street because I was responsible and level-headed.

Once I was riding on the street, I decided sitting on a street corner talking to all my friends was fun, but I had raced motocross and I knew what a motorcycle was capable of doing. It’s a lot more fun turning both directions on a racetrack then getting arrested trying to have a little fun on the street. I started going to a few track days and got my racing license. That was five or six years ago.

Mecca of Speed: You currently race in the AMA Formula Xtreme series; do you race in any other series?

Mike Morgan: Not any more. I am focused on the Eastern region AMA races with the exception of Daytona.  We race at Road America, Barber, Road Atlanta and Virginia. There were two Mid-Ohio rounds last year, but they dropped that event from the schedule this year.

Mecca of Speed: Formula Xtreme is unique, that they have multiple displacement motorcycles running in the same event. Can you tell us about the motorcycles racing in Formula Xtreme?

Mike Morgan: The Formula Xtreme class is almost like a downgraded Superbike series. In Superbike you can do a ton of changes to the motorcycle and they are 1000 CC.

In the Formula Xtreme class, they pretty much allow the same modifications but the motorcycle is a 600 CC based machine. You can change the rims to aftermarket magnesium rims. You don’t have to retain anything stock in the front fork, or the rear shock. You can do a ton of engine modifications. Different bodywork is allowed as long as it’s close to the OEM bodywork mold, so to speak. You are allowed to seal up holes in the bodywork you don’t want, or do minor modifications.

As you see Moto GP go to smaller displacement motorcycles to try and keep the speeds down, you can see a progressing in the Formula Xtreme series, driving it to almost be a new superbike class, to an extent. That probably won’t happen for a long time. I could see them first putting more restrictions on the current Superbike class.

Mecca of Speed: Many fans are accustomed to Superbike teams that arrive in a transporter and an army of mechanics and engineers. You are one of the many privateers in the Formula Xtreme series. What does your team consist of?

Mike Morgan: We are considerably smaller then a Superbike team. There are more people here (Road America) this weekend then I have ever had at a race. On an average weekend I might get the odd friend to come help, but they are not necessarily a trained mechanic, or know how to work on bikes, but every little bit helps.

When I come in off the track I have to delegate authority on what needs to be done. When the pro teams come in, they get off the bike and talk to an engineer like I’m talking to you know and tell them “I don’t like this, this, and this.” Then a teammate with a laptop may walk over and say “ok that is why this is happening.” Then he tells the suspension guy and he replies “ok, we can change this, this and this.” The crew chief becomes the pinnacle of the operation and delegates what needs to be done to a complete team of professional individuals.

By comparison, I do 90–95% of my own work. I work on the engine, the chassis and everything in between.

When we take delivery of our motorcycle in the late fall or early winter it’s stripped down to the frame. The engine is pulled out and the suspension is taken off; it might be sent off for someone else to work on, but when it comes back you are on your own. What ever they put inside the suspension is normally as good as it’s going to get for the fallowing race weekend. You can work with the adjustments on the outside, but that is only going to get you into the ballpark.

Tonight, the pro teams will pull their suspension apart if they don’t like what is inside of it and completely rebuild it. Like most privateers, I don’t have that option here at the track. We get a setup that works for us, go to the track and work with it all weekend.

Mecca of Speed: So there is a definite disparity between a fully backed factory team and what they have to work with compared to the average privateer, which is going to translate into a difference in a rider’s performance on the track.

Mike Morgan: Most definitely, a couple of my friends have said, “A happy rider is a fast rider,” and they’re right. If the bike is not moving around and you feel you can get on the throttle earlier, or brake harder, and the engine runs better because you did R&D at the shop on a Dyno, you lap times are going to drop, period. There are no two ways about it.

If you have an unhappy rider because the bike is not handling well, or they have no confidence in it, then they are going to go slower.

Mecca of Speed: So it’s a David and Goliath situation.

After a hard weekend where you go down, or have a mechanical failure and you return home with a damaged motorcycle, what motivates you to tear everything down and start over so can battle Goliath again in a few weeks?

Mike Morgan: A lot of it is the love for this sport. Being out there and knowing you can be somewhat competitive. Knowing you can qualify with the pro teams within the parameters that they allow.

It’s a natural high. When the bug bites you, it sticks with you. I tell people this is my addiction. I don’t drink a lot, I don’t do drugs. I can walk through a casino in Las Vegas with million dollars and won’t spend a penny of it because I know where it’s going to go. This is my release, my passion. I would love to get paid to do this and be on the bike week in and week out with a team of two or thee other people. A rider, a mechanic, and another to handle other issues to the point where we can show up at the track, everybody gets along and has fun. It would be phenomenal to have sponsors support. People ask me why don’t you get this or that. It’s never from a lack of wanting, everyone wants a lot of stuff, but it takes a lot of hard work.

My wife and daughter sacrifice time for me, after they are in bed at 10:00 PM, I go out and work on the bike. It’s a lot of hard work, but in the end it’s still fun.

Mecca of Speed: Your wife and daughter come with you to the races, your consistent team.

Mike Morgan: Yes, yes they are.

Mecca of Speed: Your daughter is four years old. What does she think when she sees Daddy put on his leathers and goes out on the track?

Mike Morgan: He’s going to go ride around on his motorcycle. She likes coming to the races, there are plenty of other kids at the track. The guys that are professional and follow the series to every race bring their families and motor homes. It’s their home away from home. You can see how that is justified. You don’t have to buy a half a million dollar one, but something to have the creature comforts of home. My daughter enjoys coming to the racetrack, seeing the other kids and being outside like most kids.

Mecca of Speed: Would you say someone who comes to an AMA event for the first time might be surprised at how much of a family atmosphere there is?

Mike Morgan: Most definitely. We were at the riders meeting this afternoon and it was announced there will be a chapel service held tomorrow morning, Sunday morning. Either one of the riders will volunteer their pit area or a specific area will be set up.

It’s a very family orientated place.

I’ve been surprised at how many people on the pro teams know all the other people on the other pro teams, or have worked for one of the other pro teams. They may go from Yamaha to Suzuki, and call that home for a few years and may wind up staying there for their entire career. Or they jump over to Kawasaki for a year, and then go back.

Almost all the truck drivers know each other and the mechanics know the other mechanics. I’m sure if they need something they can walk over and ask for some assistance, but they are pretty self-sufficient. They can pretty much build a bike out of their transporter.

Mecca of Speed: It’s pretty impressive when you look inside a transporter.

Mike Morgan: Yeah, there are lots and lots of parts inside one of those.

Mecca of Speed: I don’t think I’ll own that many tools in my entire life.

Mike Morgan: It is amazing. The teams see each other, week in and week out. We have been doing more and more races and I think we show our faces a little more then some of the other privateers, so they get to know us a little bit.

I can walk down the pit lane and say hi to 20 or 30 different people on various teams, which is nice. It’s not just about I need something, or want something. I want to get to know these people. Have some fun and some good friends. When we are 50, 70, or 80 we’ll be able to sit around and reminisce because this isn’t a sport you get to do when you are 60 years old.

Mecca of Speed: What is your personal street bike?

Mike Morgan: I don’t have one.

Mecca of Speed: You don’t have one?

Mike Morgan: I can’t afford another one so this is it. This one cost a small fortune, so the only time I’m on a motorcycle is when I’m at the racetrack.

Mecca of Speed: You have ridden on the street in the past. Looking at things from a racing point of view, do you think there are things you have learned racing that would translate into becoming a better street rider?

Mike Morgan: Most definitely. Being on a racetrack really allows you to understand what a motorcycle is capable of doing. A lot of people get into panic situations because they are not put into a given situation on a dally basis.

Maybe you are going a little too fast into a corner, the corner is tightening up and you are still on the brakes. Most people will grab the brake even harder instead of gradually letting off the brake, leaning into the corner and coming out on the other side. A lot of people get in that panic situation, latch down on the brake lever and wind up tucking the front end and sliding off the road or into another lane.

Even getting out and doing a track day lets you explore that limit in a very controlled environment, which is nice because you know each turn is the same turn you went through a minute and a half ago. After being on the racetrack, I can go out on the street and see the gravel on the street from someone who pulled out in front of be and be able to brake harder and faster and still be able to look in the rearview mirror and see if there is someone behind me.

Tires only do two things really good: either brake or turn. But they don’t do both really good at the same time. There is a compromise, so you don’t try to do both at the same time.

Mecca of Speed: Do you have any pre-riding rituals before you go out on the racetrack?

Mike Morgan: Not really. I try to be calm, have everything in order and not be in a hurry. Then I go out and do the best that I can.

It’s important to not be too anxious.

I walk down the paddock and see all the semi trucks and teams with millions of dollars in motorcycles and it can be intimidating. But at the same time I’m going to go out, have fun and hopefully get noticed before I have to retire.

Miss Morgan: I usually find him a four-leaf clover.

Mike Morgan: Yes, my wife is pretty good about finding four leaf clovers. I mean she finds a lot of them, not just the occasional one. I’ll usually carry one in my leathers and if I have a close incident, I think all the luck is used up in that one so I get another one.

Mecca of Speed: I presume the supplies for a race weekend such as leathers, fuel and tires are self-finance.

Mike Morgan: This year I did pick up Komodo leathers as a sponsor. They supply me with leathers, boots and gloves. Last years suit was considerably more banged up then the one I have now.  Komodo’s contribution has helped out a lot. Anyone who supplies me with a part or necessity so that I don’t have to turn around and pay for out of my own pocket allows me to put that money into better parts or and extra set of tires for a weekend.

Racing boils down to a type of controlled experiment. The person that can use the same supplies consistently and take every possible variable out gives them one less thing to worry about. The pros are always on new tiers, using the same fuel, a fresh engine and suspension components, removing a variety of variables, that I don’t have the option to remove.

Mecca of Speed: What is your goal for this season?

Mike Morgan: My goal is to finish in the top 20 more. I was able to do that one time last year, finishing 18th at Mid-Ohio.

Mecca of Speed:  In closing, looking at what you have learned during your racing career so far, what advice would you pass on to someone considering starting a racing team?

Mike Morgan: Don’t try and do every single track day or race you can enter. You will go through more money and burn your self out. You have to run on a budget. I’ve seen more people come and go in this sport because they tried to do too much. For example, you have to ask yourself, do I really need to change that set of tires, use that fuel or enter 10 races on a weekend, which you can do on the club level. You can do it if you have bottomless pockets and there are people who do. That will make you better quicker, however that is not the reality for most people.

Go out and have fun, be consistent and race the clock, not the guy you are next to. The experience will come from track time and riding with other people.

Doing some of your own work is very helpful. Not relying on mechanics to change a tire or chain. The little things will help you in the long run because someone else is going to charge you to do it.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time on this busy weekend.

Mike Morgan: Any time, thank you.

Content credit Mike Morgan and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.