Al Luddington has been Miguel Duhamel's long time crew chief while riding under the American Honda racing banner. The partnership has yielded 6 AMA titles (including this year's Formula Xtreme) and Luddington has 9 total chamipionships with Honda.
This season the American Honda Superbike team made a big change in their program by opting not to campaign HRC leased bikes. Instead, they have built and developed their bikes inhouse in the USA in partnership with US aftermarket suppliers. The 2005 season turned out to be a struggle, punctuated with a few glimmers of good things to come in the future.
At the penultimate round of the AMA Superbike championship at Virginia International Raceway Al took 15 minutes out of his lunch to chat with us about the American Honda AMA road racing program. Following is an excerpt of our conversation with Al.
Lets start with what attracted you to Honda, from the very beginning.
They have the best effort, they always have the best effort [and] they've got the best stuff. They seem to be more passionate and dedicated to racing than using it for a sales tool than anybody. And they have a long history of winning.
Where did you start, did you jump straight into the racing arm, or did you start in the production side and move into racing?
In regards to Honda I started right into racing. What I did is I went to MMI in 1984 after a little lack of discipline in college didn't get me too far. And I went to work for a dealership up in the Northeast where I grew up and they had a harper guy that was racing out of our shop and I asked if he needed a hand with his bikes. We became quite successful -- we won a lot of races as privateers, (the rider was) David Sadowski. He got picked up by Vance and Hines Suzuki and about halfway through the year they called me up and said "Hey, we need a mechanic. Are you interested?" I came to California with a Toyota Pickup with a toolbox in the back and that's how I started. Spent a couple of years working for Vance and Hines they switched over to Yamaha, and then I looked around after, there were some personalities and what not as there always is in racing ‘cause its all about egos and Ray was pretty much running a one man show over there at Honda and they were planning on expanding a little bit and I said "Hey Ray, you need some people?" And we spent a day out in the woods riding dirt bikes talking about it and what not and I joined on. That was 1991.
So lemme jump into the technical questions here since you don't have much time. How exactly is American Honda's racing arm organized? Its always been a big thing that Honda integrates its engineers from its production program and R&D into racing and they move back and forth, how exactly does the program work?
Well there's two distinct programs. We typically run a 600 program and a Superbike program and they're kind of set up a bit differently. The 600 program, typically we run everything ourselves. And that's carried over to when we decided to go FX racing which are modified 600's. All that stuff's handled by us, all the development, all the testing, all the R&D and of course we have a great basis to start with in the production bike which is a great bike.
[On] the Superbike side of things, its gone back and forth over the years. When I first started out we were on the RC30's and we did most of the stuff ourselves. As we started to get more favorable results there was a little bit more backing involved from HRC - Honda Racing Corporation.
When the RC45 came out they quoted a price, which, I don't know... that's not my department... for a fully supported program. So we had the riders in place we could make this program happen and this is with Kevin McGee and Mike Smith as the RC45 went along, we got more and more involvement that we had with what they call the full works package. So basically what we did there is we went over to Japan every winter and we built bikes which they supplied all the parts for. Our engine guys learned how to build and service the engines And we brought the R&D package here and used it to race with. That went all the way through the RC45 years, the RC51 years, and the first year of the CBR1000RR which was last season.
Now, for a lot of reasons American Honda decided that we want to be able to back all of this stuff ourselves. So we're back to doing it ourselves which is a tough nut to crack, it's a lot of work. And you don't really realize how much work it is until the parts aren't coming in. And you're like ‘Uh-oh, we've gotta build rearsets' and ‘Uh-oh we need to build handlebar holders! Uh-oh we need to build triple clamps and on and on and on and on and the quality of the HRC stuff is so high that we had a bit of a problem finding vendors that could offer us the same quality stuff. In other words we didn't wanna go backwards. We wanted to find people that could make stuff as good a quality or better quality than what we were receiving from Japan.
Fortunately we're in Southern California with some of the machine shops and enthusiasts and stuff that we were able to find a couple of vendors to handle that kind of stuff for us. So now our Superbike program and our FX program are very similar and very aligned.