Insight: Sergio Avanto

Insight Sergio Avanto

September 28, 2011 4:30pm
I first crossed paths with Sergio Avanto when he was working as Factory Yamaha’s chassis and suspension guy, and I was working for Nick Wey at Moto XXX. We were one of the top privateers that year and Avanto was always happy to lend his opinion on bike set-ups. Then when I got a job at Yamaha working for Tim Ferry, he was there for a week or so before he headed over to Kawasaki to do the same job there.

Avanto left the racing gig for a while to pursue other industry jobs with Fox Suspension. We reconnected when he hired Ferry to test for him there, and I did a magazine test with them. A year ago, I received a phone call from then-L&M Yamaha team manager Larry Brooks asking me about Avanto. Soon after, Sergio was employed by L&M as their suspension guy.

A real live engineer, Avanto was brought in to help with set up, more specifically, James Stewart’s machine. A trying 2011 season saw Stewart win some races but fail to win the title. Now separated from the L&M crew, Avanto and I sat down for a wide-ranging conversation on all things from some of our past stories to what exactly happened in 2011. One of the more thoughtful, well spoken and smarter people in the industry, Avanto opened up to Racer X about the 2011 season and what’s next for him.

Racer X: Sergio, thanks for doing this and before we get too far into this, can you give the readers your background?
Sergio Avanto: Well, I started at Factory Yamaha and was there for two years. I worked with Jeremy McGrath, David Vuillemin and Jimmy Button. Then unfortunately Jimmy got hurt. They picked up Tim Ferry and then you came over shortly after that. But then I went to Kawasaki and was there for seven years, basically when James was on 125s all the way to the end of 2008 when he won all 24 motos that outdoor season. Which was a cool way to end it. At that point I was a bit burnt out on racing and wondering what else I could do when I found some opportunities at Yamaha to go back there and be a chassis engineer. So I did that for a month or so and then the economy was hit bad and everything I was working on was canned. I ended up working for Fox Shocks, which is up in Santa Cruz, and it’s beautiful there.

Avanto began working with Stewart at Kawasaki.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

So I worked with their motocross program, their RC-3 shock, and we worked on getting the average guy set up with his suspension. I was working on that and James was struggling that year with his bike. We started talking, and I’m not sure but I think in our conversations, he probably got a sense of comfort because we worked together for so many years. So when he says he needs this or that, I have an idea on how to satisfy his needs. He was working on his 2011 supercross program and I guess he felt there was a hole there so he called me. He made an offer and it took some back and forth, because I was happy at Fox, but I looked at it like an opportunity to work for one of the fastest guys in the world and I couldn’t pass that up. So I started in October and it was a little bit late for the development but we made it work.

And the rumors are that you’ve left L&M Racing.
Yeah, I came down to work with James Stewart when he was a member of L&M Yamaha team before the start of last year. And now that things between them seem to be ending and the relationship is changing, that meant that my tenure at the L&M team was over. I wasn’t under contract with them, but it was over because James' time with the team seems to be over and I was employed by JSE.

What I did for James was try to help elevate the motorcycle. That’s what I do, I have a mechanical engineering degree and I tried to help James understand, or guide him, to make the motorcycle do what he wants to do. I’m still with James right now but I’m not sure what’s next because, and you understand Steve, it’s a huge commitment each week to go to the races. The travelling is hard for me, I’m a little freaked out by airplanes. Ask anyone who has sat next to me on a plane, I’m a Hispanic guy so I’m kind of dark skinned but when that plane starts jumping around, I turn into a white guy!

So the season really didn’t really go the way you guys wanted it to, I’m sure, and then suddenly at the Atlanta SX Larry Brooks was gone and your role changed a bit. Can you talk about that a little bit?
One of the things that people don’t know is that when I came over, I was hired as the technical lead alongside Larry Brooks who was team manager. Larry and I were working on a separation of power and how this relationship was going to work the whole time. I understand and still understand that it would be hard for Larry to relinquish some control from the team he helped build from the ground up. But we went into it the best we could. I know I messed up some times and could have done some things better and I’m sure he would say the same. I will say that on the eve of him being let go, he and I had come to a common goal of working together. At least I felt that way.

Avanto (right) has left L&M Racing, but continues to work with Stewart.
Photo: Simon Cudby

I basically took over the development of James Stewart’s motorcycle. I took the engine, suspension and chassis testing over and interfaced with Factory Yamaha on all that. I leaned heavily on them to make sure we had the best bike on the track. I think that’s where it was difficult for Larry because he has a history of getting right in there and being hands-on. I’m not saying that was wrong but I do think that where the motorcycles are now and where they are going, it demands certain expertise. For example, I’m an engineer and have a degree but I looked to an EFI specialist to help out in that area. I understand the ins and outs of fuel injection and all that but in no means am I an expert. So taking over the development of James’ motorcycle and moving it to a more forgiving motorcycle was the first step. Going into Anaheim, the talk with people was how stiff the bike looked but the funny thing was we were never super, super stiff. We were always soft. We started racing and felt okay but then we hit Phoenix and the whole speed sensor thing broke. [Note: On the Phoenix TV broadcast, which played the JGR radio transmission, they accused the L&M team of “pushing the limits” with wheel sensors, which led some to believe L&M was using traction control].

I think looking back, that’s where the cart started going off the plan. That threw me for a loop, I had no idea that people were going to flip out. We were clearly legal and every team understands the rulebook and knows how far they can go. That’s our guideline and for example, if the weight limit says 220 pounds is the limit, we’re going to try and come in at 221 and not 270. We looked at the rule and we knew we had the ability to look at the EFI and program it better. If you know that with a carb you would jet your bike to come out of a corner properly, then this is the same thing. Only EFI is more precise. Putting that sensor on is a continuation of the development that we started with the company GET and at Anaheim we had put it on Kyle Regal’s bike to make sure it could withstand the punishment of a supercross track.

Then it came out that we were cheating and everything went from there. I’m friends with Jeremy Albrecht and the JGR guys, I respect them a lot and I have a hard time thinking that they would think, knowing my work, that I would cheat. Or that James would cheat. That’s when things started feeling like they were out of our control. Things were happening outside that were starting to affect us. When you’re called a cheater that hurts bad. When you’re a competitor and you’re trying to win using your skills as a rider and as a team, that hurts also. We had a cloud over us, we’re considered cheaters and no one gives you the benefit of the doubt. When you look at that speed sensor thing, part of it was to show the other teams that we’re on the cutting edge, we’re moving forward and when Larry and I talked about putting it on there, that’s what racing is all about. So we did it.

What happened that night, what they did to James on the podium, whether you like him or not, was completely wrong.

What happened that night, what they did to James on the podium, whether you like him or not, was completely wrong.

From there things went worse when Brooks was let go, did that turn the program more chaotic?
I don’t really know what happened between Mike Kranyak, James Stewart and Larry. But one day in the shop Mike and James were talking to Larry in the office and then they came back and told us that Larry’s not going to be traveling with us that coming weekend. That’s what we were told and we were told to go back to work. I’d have to say him leaving absolutely did affect me. He did a lot of work as the manager and now that work still had to get done. Some of that fell onto my shoulders. Him leaving didn’t make things chaotic in the technical sense because the crew working on the motorcycle were moving forward and things were set. But did him leaving add pressure to the team? Absolutely.

I wasn’t brought into the team to supplant Larry at all, I was brought in by James to help out and make us all winners. I was thrust into the manager role because of that change and it wasn’t some sort of grand scheme. I didn’t want to be manager, but I was forced to do some of that stuff.

Stewart washed out the front end on more than one occasion in 2011.
Photo: Simon Cudby

The season went south from there, James was fast but there were also a lot of crashes that hurt you guys. And I have to be honest, from where I was sitting I’m not sure all those crashes were his fault. As it was your job to set the bike up, was this frustrating?
Absolutely it was. 2011 was probably the most challenging I’ve been around. The conversations that we were having in the truck, and let’s face it, everyone was having in the paddock and on the message boards, was that we were the fastest in practice—by a lot—and it wasn’t translating into main event wins. He’s killing them in the heat races, jumping things that others couldn’t do and put yourself in my shoes. You’re sitting there in truck and the evidence is mounting up that something’s wrong but he’s fastest in practice and winning heat races. But you’re tasked to going in and finding the solution to a problem that isn’t always clear. Is it the rider? That’s the thing you look at, maybe it’s James Stewart. None of these things are clear and are the issue. You can argue what it was but we would go and see if he could hold the same lap time for all twenty laps and he was. It was becoming more and more evident that we were failing.

We didn’t win the championship and that’s what I was brought in to do. I can only say that it was a complete failure, a professional failure on my part to not be able to get the motorcycle to do what he wanted it to. So as a racer, are you expected to go down that road again, with the same things intact, and expect a different result? You can’t. That would be insane. For him as a racer and for us doing everything we could with the people involved, there’s no doubt in my mind that you have to do something different. Some type of major change to get some fresh ideas in there is required.

You’ve worked for a few teams and a lot of great riders. I take it that 2011 was your most frustrating year as a race team member?
Without a doubt it was. Before that it was the year that McGrath first lost the title to [Ricky] Carmichael. That was also up there but I have to say, that’s why I respect McGrath so much. During that season, I think it was Pontiac, I went in to talk to him about his suspension and he looked at me and said, “It’s not you, it’s me. The bike is fine,” and that says a lot. He recognizes what it was. We could see that there was nothing wrong with the bike. What I saw that year was RC coming into the turn on the gas pre-apex of the corner and Jeremy would get on the gas at the apex. We hadn’t ever really seen that before Ricky. So that year by the time we got to the eighth or ninth round and it became evident that the speed wasn’t there.

Now fast-forward to 2011 and it’s clear that James has the speed, he has the skill and something is broken in the main event and how do we address it? That’s why it’s so frustrating because I believe that he should have won the title and it’s our fault that we couldn’t make him happy with the motorcycle.

There are a lot of people that worked with James in the past that think he asks the motorcycle to do things that it simply can’t do. He’s so good that he doesn’t understand that you can’t hit a whoop section wide open in fourth gear. You’ll end up going over the bars! Do you agree?
I disagree strongly. And it’s the position I’m in as an engineer. When I hear a rider say that he wants to do something like go into the whoops in fourth wide open, I ask myself--‘Why can’t he do that?’

It was a frustrating year for Stewart and the entire L&M Racing Team.
Photo: Simon Cudby

And I suppose you ask that question because you’re smarter than me!
I could have asked that same thing when he was first scrubbing in that photo at Budds Creek. Why would a guy want to do that and how can he do it? When I walk a track, I’m a former racer and rider like most people and I’m sizing things up and wondering what I can jump and what I can’t. You know, the regular things that us riders would do. Then we go back to the truck and talk to James and he’s pointing out quads and things like that. So if I can’t bridge that gap, who’s to say that he can’t blitz the whoops in fourth wide-open you know? I have no idea; maybe it’s in the suspension. Anyone who knows suspension knows that its infinite, the possibilities of set-up are amazing and go on forever.

In F1 they had this thing, it’s outlawed now, that was a dampener and simply speaking it was a spring and a mass and it was tuned in to the natural frequencies of the corner. Basically when the wheel made contact with something, this thing sensed that and the mass made it go the other way so that the wheel makes contact with the track at all times. And it dropped the lap times significantly, and the next weekend, they outlawed it.

So if we could get something like that on a motorcycle, why not be able to go into the whoops wide-open? We just haven’t gotten there yet as a group. It’s absolutely possible with what they’re doing with cars and the relationship of the wheels to the ground but to say that anything can’t be done, I think that’s a mistake.

So L&M letting you go from the team, you were okay with that or did you want to stay?
No, I knew it was coming. I worked for James Stewart and not L&M. So when they weren’t together, it was time for me to go. I’m still working for James right now. It certainly stings though, no doubt about it. Basically to go through what I did all year with the guys and then for them to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go,’ and show you the door, that’s tough. I recognize what they’re doing and with James not being part of the program, I knew it was happening. It didn’t seem like it was going to work out with them and that’s the way it is. I’m not sour at all.

I heard you say that James' forks aren’t stiff but honestly, watching it for myself and listening to others who are suspension guys, it seems like his set-up was very stiff and if he wasn’t 100 percent accurate, the bike would make him pay for it. Much like RC’s low in the back set-up that provided him great corner speed but hurt him in the whoops. Was it a case of getting the good but with some bad?
Well, as you know there are different stages to a fork and one of the pet peeves of a suspension guy is people saying that. What part of the fork is too stiff? What stages of the fork are too stiff and at what velocity is the fork too stiff? [Laughs] All of those things are different areas and have different settings. What I’m talking about is the initial push on the fork, that’s softer. Now you have to have progression and controlled bottom-out, but I’m saying it moved a hell of a lot more than it ever has before on his Kawasaki. That’s a position thing also, it looks tall out there but that tallness was a case of the rear being soft. Now of course, both ends on his Kawasakis are scaled down differently but I would say that it’s not as harsh.

Stewart has yet to announce where he will be riding in 2012.
Photo: Simon Cudby

The reason I, and many others in the pits that are not engineers, would say this is because he washed the front end out a few times. And, if you watch his Daytona crash, it looked like the back end just collapsed. If he clips the downside of a jump, it looks to me that if he doesn’t ride the bike 100 percent perfectly it looks like it gives him a ton of feedback into his body and his arms. Agree?
So what you’re saying is there is a fine line between him being perfect and crashing because the set-up is too stiff?

[Pausing] It’s hard to say to be honest because there are so many things that are different. Let’s take Anaheim 2 and those two quads that he did. He did one going into the home plate area and one coming out of that turn. I’m talking about the one going away from home plate and it was huge. The reason that he was able to do that so cleanly was because the rear end was so soft. So when he clipped it, it didn’t push the front end down violently. If he had tried that quad with a stiff set-up and clipped it, and you have to clip it to measure it out, then that would have transferred everything to the front and it wouldn’t have been pretty. So we had the setting that we did and it helped him there and in multiple places during the season. I think the setting contributed to some of his crashes but there were times that it helped elevate him one or two seconds faster than his competition so we were like, ‘What do we do? Where do we go?’

One of the things that not everyone understands is that you don’t always lose the front end from being to stiff, you also lose the front end from being too soft as well. The situations that he was in, he was loading the front tire and when you load it too quickly, the tire can’t hold it, the traction goes and the front end washes out. But then if you load it too slowly, it never digs into the ground and it starts to slip. Watching the videos, it could easily go both ways but I feel that we were loading it too slowly. So we were too soft. We weren’t getting the wheel digging in enough and I think that after a few races, we were losing it there, but on other sections of the track, we were winning. It’s a trade-off, like always, as you know as a mechanic.

Avanto has worked with stars such as Stewart and McGrath over the years.
Photo: Simon Cudby

Would you say that James is the most dynamic rider you’ve ever worked with?
Yes, definitely! But he’s also the rider that I have the best relationship with over the years. Other riders you see at the track and in testing but that’s about it. With James, I’ve seen him since he was a kid, I’ve seen him grow up, seen him with his first girlfriend and all that. We have a different relationship for sure.

I can’t let you go without asking about working with Tim Ferry, first as the Fox Shocks guy and then recently when Timmy went to help James and you set up the bike.
Honestly, and I’m not saying this because you guys are friends, but that guy is incredible in setting up a bike. He’s so good at thinking about what a bike is doing and what it needs, I hope he does something like that in the future. James can ride the bike and pull up to Ferry and I sitting there and while he’s telling me something about what the bike is doing, Timmy can relate that in a riders sort of way and tell me what James is trying to tell me what the bike is doing on the track. I heard all this stuff about how it doesn’t matter what Ferry does because he doesn’t go James' speed on a track but that doesn’t matter, he doesn’t have to go that fast. He knows what the bike is doing under him and can realize what it would do if he was going faster. Great test rider, for sure.