My alarm is set for 4:45 a.m. With a stop for gas and grub, I’ll need two hours to tackle the 90-ish miles to Willow Springs race track from my Venice beach hotel. At 1:38 I stab at my phone nervously to check the time and make sure I haven’t overslept. This happens again 30 minutes later. By 3:45 I’ve given up. I’m filling the coffee maker with water, canceling my alarm and praying a shoddy night’s sleep won’t come back to haunt me mid-corner.
I need to be sharp because I’m riding my first track day — something I’ve put off for too long. Instead of doing this sensibly, on a small, nimble and forgiving bike, I’ve opted for a ballistic wasp: the Yamaha XSR 900. Maybe the Yamaha will be sharp enough for the two of us? No need to worry now. I need to get to Willow first.
Introduced last year, the XSR 900 is Yamaha’s answer to the hipster/modern/classic niche dominating much of the moto scene. Sitting in the garage under a flickering fluorescent bulb, waiting for me — and the sun — to finally rise, my 60th Anniversary Edition yellowjacket looks excellent. There are vintage touches. The brushed aluminum at the subframe, headlight ears and radiator guards is purposeful, with a custom vibe that extends to the sculpted seat, classic round headlight and cheeky LED unit out back. But, unlike the ubiquitous modern classics from Triumph, Moto Guzzi or Scrambler Ducati, the demeanor of the XSR is decidedly more neo than retro.
The triple-cylinder engine fires with a sportbike growl. The reverb bouncing off the parked cars in the garage fills my helmet with a mellifluous sound. I slam down my visor and the XSR and I enter the world that can only exist at this ungodly hour — a traffic-free Los Angeles.
Engine: 847cc, four-stroke, inline three-cylinder
Torque: 65 lb-ft
Weight: 430 lbs
The upright riding position, wide, flat bars and 25-degree rake are spot on for negotiating the right angles of city life. I’d imagined lane-splitting to be a breeze, but I’m alone on the road. The only time I feel any discomfort is on the freeway. With no wind protection in stock form, my body serves as a sail for every stiff breeze unless I’m tucked. The seat, however, is comfy and supportive for the entire trek.
It’s at the track that the XSR comes into its own. The engine shares the same cross-plane crankshaft architecture that makes Yamaha’s R1 such a formidable weapon: it absolutely loves to rev. After two low-speed sighting laps around Willow’s nine turns, the proverbial flag drops and I let loose. The start-finish straight disappears, 132 mph showing on the tiny, round speedo. Then I’m on the brakes setting up to flick in for turn one. They provide excellent feedback and by the end of my first session, I’m pushing deeper into every corner before throwing out the anchor.
Willow’s most technical section, turns three, four and five, link two lefts and a right through a series of elevation changes that test both my nerves and the XSR’s ability to transition under different load angles. I’m not the fastest through here, but it has nothing to do with the bike — the Yamaha is a willing dance partner for seasoned pros and noobs alike. And when I set the mental goal of nailing triple digits through turns eight and nine before day’s end, the ballistic wasp obliges with nary a wiggle from its stinger.
With the sun starting to set over Piute Peak in the distance, my race leathers are swapped back for a jacket and riding pants. We were given the option to trailer the XSR back to LA, but even after 150 miles of tire shredding at the track, the extra 90 to get home feels like the second best decision I’ve made this week. The best was starting up the Yamaha XSR 900 in the first place.