WE RIDE A. J. CANTAZARO’S TEAM OHLINS’ YAMAHA YZ450F

February 20, 2012
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There are only three reasons why anyone would want to start an expensive and time-consuming AMA National race team. 

(1) Winning. The thrill of victory. There’s no greater feeling than winning. Garnering victories and championships is addictive (just ask Mitch Payton). 

(2) Exposure. Professional motocross is the breeding ground of media exposure. It has a very large fan base, and fielding a race team puts your name smack dab in the public eye. 

(3) Testing. Products improve when they are pushed to their breaking point. The grueling motos of the AMA Nationals allow a company to test its products under the most rigorous conditions possible.


Ohlins Racing and A.J. Catanzaro teamed up at the eleventh hour to race the last year’s Nationals. It was an excellent pairing, evidenced by Catanzaro’s top 20 finish at the Steel City round. 

Enter the Ohlins Racing team. Formed just before the start of the 2011 AMA Nationals, the Swedish company decided to construct a racing effort at the eleventh hour. Why? Exposure. Ohlins wanted to reach a wider audience than is possible through their website. For a suspension company, there’s no greater stage than the AMA 250/450 Nationals. Having committed to go racing, Ohlins didn’t have any delusions of grandeur. With a limited budget and a very short startup time, Ohlins understood that winning races was out of the question. So, they set more realistic goals. Team Ohlins wanted to get the benefits of Pro-level testing and the exposure of racing, and for these pluses, they were willing to accept top-20 finishes. In fact, they would be happy to get a top-20 finish.

Catanzaro’s powerband was mellow and detuned at low end,  but came to life as testers dared twisting the throttle.

Committing to start a race team is the easy part. Actually getting it on the road is much harder. After Ohlins dreamed up the idea of forming a race team, team manager Stacey Berger called up Rusty Reynolds at Triangle Cycles in Danville, Virginia. The two parties had worked together in the past, and Rusty was the man designated to make the Ohlins race-team dream become a reality. Opting to race Yamaha YZ450Fs in the AMA 450 Nationals (because they offered more bang for the buck, incredible reliability and better engine support), Ohlins signed A.J. Catanzaro, Garret Toth and Michael Clarke to the new team. Since they got a late start in forming the team, they also got a late start in going to the opening rounds of the 2011 AMA National series. 

Yet, even with an abridged outdoor series, the team had several bright spots (such as Catanzaro’s finish of 19th overall at Steel City) that were mixed with bad luck (A.J. was sick for several Nationals, and Garret Toth broke his tibia at Pala). 

  The Ohlins team has built a close relationship with GYTR. Catanzaro’s engine is chock full of GYTR components. 

 
Instead of blowing through their budget, Ohlins focused on quality parts, not flashy ones. The stainless Yosh pipe is proof

 
Believe it or not, National-level suspension is available to consumers. The Ohlins shock is worth the money. 


Our favorite part of Catanzaro’s bike was the super plush suspension. It felt like we were riding on pillows. 


After the final 2011 AMA National at Pala, the MXA wrecking crew met the Ohlins gang to test A.J. Catanzaro’s Team Ohlins YZ450F. In the past, MXA has had good luck testing Ohlins components?and we have a long association with former GP racer Stig Pettersson, who is a main player in Ohlins’ interest in going racing. Not only would we test A.J.’s race bike just two days after Pala, but Catanzaro would come along to field any questions we had about his bike. In most cases, MXA bike tests are lonely affairs, held on private tracks, in the middle of the work week and far from prying eyes. It’s hard to get the bike’s rider to come and hang out for what is typically a boring test period. A.J., however, was happy to help. 

SHOP TALK: DISSECTING THE MACHINE

The Ohlins Racing Yamaha YZ450F wouldn’t have been possible without the support of several aftermarket companies. Although Ohlins is footing the majority of the bills for their race operation, it is the support of other companies within the industry that got the whole program off the ground. Yamaha’s GYTR division was instrumental in helping the Ohlins race team. As Yamaha’s official aftermarket power-equipment supplier, GYTR (Genuine Yamaha Technical Racing) is a top choice among most Yamaha-piloted race teams. A.J. Catanzaro’s YZ450F engine uses a GYTR cylinder head, high-compression piston, cams, valves and valve springs. Other GYTR parts include the clutch cover, timing plugs, oil-filler cap, axle blocks, chain guide, front-brake line holder, sprockets, chain, braided front-brake line, skid plate and radiator braces. 

The Ohlins crew focused on selecting products that would withstand the rigors of the AMA Nationals while improving performance. Need examples? The Excel A60 rims, matched with Talon hubs, proved to be nearly indestructible?even after the hardest landings or harshest square-edge bumps during the Nationals. Larger ICW radiators increased the cooling effect, while CV4 radiator hoses improve the flow of fluid. 

Other aftermarket items on Catanzaro’s YZ450F were a Braking Batfly oversize rotor, Sunline shifter, Hammerhead rear brake pedal, Yoshimura stainless steel exhaust (Ohlins elected to save money by using stainless instead of titanium), No Toil air filter, Lightspeed rear brake caliper cover and rotor guard, Dunlop Geomax tires, MGX Unlimited graphics, Acerbis plastic and an SDG step seat. Oddly enough, Catanzaro uses the stock Pro Taper bars that come on the YZ450F, along with Renthal soft-compound half-waffle grips. 

The engine and accoutrements are all necessary items for professional racing, but the main reason behind the Ohlins Racing YZ450F is the Ohlins suspension. Ohlins invested a significant amount of time and money in research and development on their forks and shock. The goal? The Swedes aspire to produce the best motocross suspension that money can buy (and since they used to supply the Yamaha factory team with its works suspension, they have a good handle on what is required). Interestingly, anyone with deep pockets can purchase the exact fork and shock setup that Catanzaro and his teammates used during the AMA Nationals. 

We say deep pockets, because Ohlins suspension is not, and never has been, cheap. The Ohlins FXF fork retails for $2950, while the shock is $1079. Professional racers need suspension capable of handling insanely rough sections while maintaining consistent fluidity and action over the course of two 35-minute motos. It’s a tall order. But with different spring rates, shims, oil heights, pistons, coatings, tube diameters and bottoming cones, the fastest riders in the world can navigate the nastiest tracks. 

What’s the difference between Ohlins suspension and the stock Kayaba SSS units on the YZ450F? As Stacey Berger said, “Our fork tubes are shaped differently for more rigidity, and the inner tubes are DLC-coated. The bushing and seal tolerances are a lot tighter than what OE [Original Equipment] would be. Not only that, the Ohlins FXF forks are a lot more rigid. The forks have much greater bottoming resistance and are really plush throughout the stroke. We’re able to get that feeling by using several different spring platforms to allow the oil to flow more freely.” 

Catanzaro doesn’t have the typical build of a 450 Pro. At only 135 pounds, the 18-year-old is slim and relatively tall. Most 450 riders are heavier and stockier. A.J. said, “I like the suspension to have a progressive feel. Lots of forks are soft initially and then stiffen at the bottom of the stroke. I don’t like that feel. My forks and shock have to be balanced. I don’t want the bike to ride like a chopper.” 

To help A.J. achieve his perfect setup, Ohlins shortened the shock by 3mm. This eliminated the need to run a longer shock linkage. Amazingly, Catanzaro’s valving wasn’t much different from the stock Ohlins settings on their off-the-shelf model. In fact, only a handful of shims were changed to suit the National riders’ tastes. 

Stacey Berger did admit that the selection of suspension settings was calculated by racing reality. “Being a first-year team, we didn’t want to give the riders too many options. We didn’t want to chase too many variables at one time.” We were impressed by his candid response. We often hear horror stories from team managers about riders who change their settings so much and so drastically that even the box-stock settings would have been better. The Ohlins team didn’t give their riders as many options to lessen confusion. We think it was a good strategy. 

TEST RIDE: GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

Catanzaro whet our whistles before we even swung a leg over his bike by saying, “The suspension is super good. You can flat land or case any jump on the track. It is very forgiving. I’ve never had suspension that’s been so dialed in for me.” 

Levers: We were excited to give A.J.’s bike a spin, but not before adjusting the levers. Pro racers have their own little peccadilloes about lever placement. Catanzaro pushes the blades to a 45-degree downward angle to the ground. We couldn’t help but grab a T-handle and raise the levers. We also had difficulty adapting to the location of the hump in his step seat. It was smack dab in the center of the seat, and most of our test riders sat on it instead of in front of it. 

Suspension: Somewhere on the first lap, every test rider understood that A.J. wasn’t blowing smoke about how plush his Ohlins suspension was. Despite the fact that all of our test riders outweighed Catanzaro by at least 30 pounds, the forks and shock were as plush as a pillow. Our National-level test rider mentioned that the forks went through the stroke too quickly, but that’s to be expected due to the difference in rider weight. 

Also, to test Catanzaro’s flat-landing statement, we purposely over-jumped and mistakenly under-jumped several obstacles. The Ohlins unit handled impacts with ease, and the YZ450F didn’t skip a beat. Slower test riders reveled in the realization that they could hold the throttle on longer-entering turns, as the suspension soaked up the chop and settled down with absolute control. The fore-to-aft balance on the Ohlins Racing YZ450F was much better than on the stocker. Testing A.J.’s bike left test riders wanting to test Ohlins’ suspension that was set up for their skill level. 

Engine: The MXA wrecking crew has a lot of experience testing GYTR engine components on the YZ450F. We are impressed with GYTR’s quality control and workmanship. Plus, we have firsthand experience with the amount of R&D they put into their products, because MXA’s Dennis Stapleton raced with GYTR engines in 2011’s AMA Nationals. Although not altogether different from MXA’s GYTR engines, Ohlins tamed the powerplant a bit for a more metered delivery. 

Catanzaro’s engine felt mellow and detuned at low rpm, but very strong in the midrange. After spinning a few sessions on the bike, we tracked down A.J. and asked him why he avoided going with a powerband that spit fire. His reply? “I’m 135 pounds and raced a 250F in Supercross, so when I jumped on the 450, I wasn’t used to the immediate hit. The bottom-end power nearly ripped my arms out of their sockets, so we softened the power at low rpm.” It was a wise choice, because the Ohlins YZ450F was very pleasant on the bottom and yet surged through the midrange. 

CONCLUSION: WHAT DO WE REALLY THINK?


Although MXA test riders range in weight and skill level, they all raved about the suspension and metered powerband. 

This is a real-world race bike. If you think about it, the biggest difference between a factory race bike and a privateer’s race bike is that the factory bike has works suspension. It is the works suspension that allows the factory rider to take advantage of all the attributes of his 450cc engine. Too many young National riders go all out in building a fire-breathing engine, but don’t focus on getting works-like suspension. We can’t blame them, because it is easier to make a 450 faster than it is to make it absorb every bump on the track. A.J. Catanzaro was lucky enough to get a ride on a team that focused on the suspension first. And while the Ohlins parts may seem expensive, they are close to half the price of a Showa A-kit.

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