Ex-pro Chris Wheeler talks the new bike, Suzuki, Loretta’s and more
Ex-pro Chris Wheeler talks the new bike, Suzuki, Loretta’s and more
By Dustin Pipes
Chris, what is your role here at Suzuki?
Chris Wheeler: My role is the MX Manager for Suzuki Motor of America. I handle pro racing as well as amateur racing. Basically anything that falls under the dirt side of Suzuki Racing’s umbrella.
How long have you been with Suzuki?
So, officially as an employee I started at the end of 2010, but prior to that I was a contractor for Suzuki, a consultant basically working with product planning department, R and D before that. Basically, I started racing for Suzuki’s amateur program in 1995, and during that time I raced for them for four years. During that time, I started working with the R and D department at that time. I was maybe 18, 19 years old. I just slowly turned into one of their test riders. Me and Rich Taylor basically did it from that point and all the way to just recently until I came into the manager role.
RM Army member Chris Wheeler is a busy man these days.
So, you have been testing the new bike for a while as well?
Yeah. So, this bike has been in the works for a few years, obviously. I think the first time I rode the 2018 450 was two years ago. They obviously started Japan with the concept and they get the initial designs going and they start the development in Japan. Then they get it to certain points then they bring it to the US and then we do a bunch of it. It keeps going back and forth. So, I started I think January of 2016 maybe was the first time I rode it. Then I rode it periodically throughout 2016 through to the beginning of ’17.
Is there any part of the bike that you mainly focused on trying to make better as compared to the previous models?
Well, we do. It’s a whole package. Our goal and our philosophy at Suzuki is of course handling, cornering ability. We really focus in on the chassis. We feel like all the riders have different sizes and abilities and everything. You’re going to take a bike and maybe adjust the suspension to your liking. You may put an exhaust pipe on it and tune the engine a little bit. But the chassis is the hardest thing to chase. So, we really make sure that it is always a Suzuki, and we’re known for our cornering and our handling abilities. So, we never want to lose that. We want to always keep improving on that. I feel that this model absolutely does that.
All the people, all the feedback… For me it’s interesting because I ride it and I ride it and I ride it through all the iterations and sometimes you get confused because you’re doing so many changes, you got to go back to the old model to reference where you’re at. I always like getting comments, so for me to be out here listening to everyone’s feedback or their initial impressions is great for me. But knowing that it’s still a Suzuki, it still turns like a Suzuki and handles like a Suzuki, it’s a little bit improved in this area and that area, is very important to us.
What would your thoughts be about people saying that the bikes haven’t changed very much within the past five or six years, in terms of the older models?
I get both sides of it. It’s frustrating just because the plastic molds have been the same for 19 years. Even the footprint of the sticker on the shroud that comes on the production has been the same size. But I know all the testing and different adjustments to the frame and engine and suspension that have gone through the years to match. A big thing we do is we really want to make sure the balance of the bike is good at all times. So, we’re always fine-tuning, tweaking on the frame. When you make changes to the frame it’s a big deal. It has a big effect on how the bike handles. That’s where we focus a lot of the stuff on feedback. So, it is frustrating. Sometimes someone may focus, “Oh, the forks weren’t perfect for our setting.” But they missed the frame, the chassis. It’s worth more points if you’re putting in a rating scale. The bike is 100 points as a whole, and you say, the clutch is worth three points. The shock is worth ten…
The motor is probably the least thing you’re worried about. In terms of a pro rider, you’re going to worry about frame and suspension and handling.
Exactly, but it’s the balance. We’re really focused on the balance. So, this year we made sure – and we always do, but this year was making sure the chassis continued as it is, the engine complements the chassis. Like some bikes, they’ve got such a big hit that it throws off the balance of the chassis so that most guys can’t really get comfortable with that and suspension. So, our goal is to keep that balance. I know I keep saying that, but that’s what it is. So, I think that chassis is worth the most points. Sometimes I think we have a really great chassis. Sometimes I don’t think we get the credit because they see the plastics. The consumer sees the plastics and the first impression visually you’re like, “Oh, it hasn’t changed, so it can’t be good.” But if you look at a lot of the pro guys, they want to be on the bike.
Before he was the racing manager, Wheeler was R&D and had a lot to do with this bike.
I’ve been on the bike for a long while now and I actually loved last year’s bike, the ‘16s, the ‘15s. I went into this weekend not too sure how I was going to like the new bike just because I’ve ridden the old frame. I’m just so used to it. I was blown away with the ’18, with the way the chassis is, the way the rear sticks. You don’t knife in the corners like you do sometimes on the old frame. With that being said, the guys in Europe have been on it for the whole season. Have they helped in anything with the development?
Yeah. It’s data taking from everything. Obviously in Europe, their rules are different where it’s open. It’s the works full rule. There’s no production rule. So, they’re always testing things, with Japan iterating from the race level. So, Japan is getting feedback from them. But we also take obviously from the US our production testing. We listen to the race teams and all the stuff that’s going on here. Like this year, or years past, with the Yoshimura Team, the RCH Team, we’re just constantly taking in comments and feedback of flat corner situations, ruts, all of the above, and it’s feeding over. There’s input from all angles, some a little bit more than others.
You guys are going back to spring instead of the air. How’d you guys come to that, going back to spring?
A bunch of different reasons. It was a pretty interesting discussion just because we were listening to the end consumer, and really when we made changes we tested everything. We tested the ’17-style triple air fork. We tested a couple other versions. It came down to the new chassis design with the way it fit, the way it worked and balanced, and the new shock, the BFRC shock. That’s what we do. We’re just constantly trying to find the best balance for the new chassis. On some end, it’s a benefit because I think the air fork in certain situations is really good. For the end consumer, it’s more work to chase it. Some days it’s spot-on perfect, and some days it’s not.
With the temperature changes…
Yeah. I’m a fan of the air fork. I think in certain areas it works better than the spring, and spring on the other. For the end consumer, I think the spring fork is cool. It keeps it simple. Listening to the guys, some guys are liking the plushness of it. It just depends on riding style, but overall I think there’s been a lot of positive comments about that fork already. It’s been really, really cool.
So, you still got to kick the thing. You can’t just start it with a button. What’s your thoughts on not having that on there? Just trying to save weight or what’s that process? I didn’t know if you guys were trying to save weight or just didn’t want to have it in the works for this year.
We did a study basically, and too much button-pushing with your thumb could lead to carpal tunnel, arthritis, those types of things. We want our guys to be able to hold onto the handlebars and ride for long days. I don’t know. It’s not a good thing to get carpal tunnel in your thumb (laughs)!
What does the future hold for Suzuki?
You’re here at the intro. You just saw the 2018 bike. We do have stuff in the works that I can’t talk about with new models, but you saw the race team partnership with the JGR thing. You got to tour the facilities yourself and see how their organization works. We’ve launched the RM Army this year. We really are building the infrastructure, the ladder for riders to get on Suzuki early and climb up through the ranks, basically. Get into it from amateur all the way up into each level of racing, and give a way to connect all information and learning from all areas. I was just at Loretta Lynn’s and I came here and now I’m going back to Loretta Lynn’s tonight to finish out the last day, but I’ve been watching a bunch of guys out there.
Brock Papi getting a moto win.
Yeah, he’s going into the final motos 3-1 I believe. So, we’ve got some good guys right now on board and we’re looking to maybe add a couple more and strengthen that pipeline to start winning races.