Josh Herrin was running out of time. After 6 seasons on the best Yamaha 600s money could buy, the former mini-bike star had racked up 14 AMA Pro Supersport and Daytona SportBike wins, including the 2010 Daytona 200. But the biggest prize—a national title—had eluded him. Stepping up to a factory SuperBike 2 years ago, Herrin finished 4th overall behind Graves Yamaha teammate Josh Hayes and Suzuki riders Blake Young and Roger Hayden. One more shot was guaranteed, but without a top result, the Georgian might be looking for work. In the first of 2 SuperBike races at last year’s Daytona season-opener, Herrin trailed fast-qualifier Hayes into turn 1, shadowing the 3-time class champion for 4 and a half laps. “I think he’s just content to follow,” drawled 5-time Daytona 200 winner Scott Russell on the TV broadcast. But Hayes had cooked his clutch, and with 10 to go, Herrin was flying solo. Russell voiced what every race-watcher was thinking, “Can he still run that pace without the tow of Josh Hayes?” The answer? No. After matching Hayes’ times those first few circuits, Herrin slowed more than a second per lap, allowing second-place Martin Cardenas to close the gap. With the Yoshimura Suzuki rider hugging his rear tire, Herrin was missing his marks and fighting his bucking R1. Cardenas drew even several times, but Herrin eked out a 0.135-second victory, his first on a SuperBike. In race 2, Hayes dropped out with a blown engine, and Cardenas got the win by 11 seconds. Herrin finished second, narrowly holding off Larry Pegram on a third Yamaha. First and second looked good on paper, but the spotlight that weekend was on 20-year-old Cameron Beaubier, who won the 200 by 22 seconds, the first of a dozen victories on his way to a Daytona SportBike crown. As the season rolled on, the writing was on the wall: Herrin was out, and Beaubier was in.
“It’s been a long time since someone has had enough pace to ride away from me,” Hayes admitted. “Josh is doing the right things. He just waited too long to decide that’s what he needed to work on.
Yet 6 months later at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Herrin was AMA Pro SuperBike champion. Capitalizing on Hayes’ misfortunes—Daytona mechanicals, 3 jump-starts, and a crash—Herrin won 4 races from 14 starts and never finished worse than sixth, defeating the perennial number-one plate-holder by 15 points. “It’s been a long time since someone has had enough pace to ride away from me,” Hayes admitted. “Josh is doing the right things. He just waited too long to decide that’s what he needed to work on.” Hayes said the turning point for Herrin was a post-Daytona test at New Orleans Motorsports Park. “We started discussing this very thing: trying not to follow. When you’re trying to do laps and can’t, you get impatient. So you have to follow somebody to get the time. Otherwise, you’re going to be starting at the back of the grid.” Herrin used the test as an opportunity to do laps alone. “Fitness aside,” Hayes said, “he had some really bad habits—what a racetrack is, how to navigate your way around it quickly, how to be consistent by hitting the same spots, and never making mistakes. “Once Josh decided, ‘This is what I need to work on,’ he made significant improvements. Miller Motorsports Park was a prime example: He made fewer mistakes than anyone in our lead trio, and he won the race.” Herrin admitted fitness had never been a priority. “I’ve raced motorcycles since I was a little kid. I have the body for it. If you play basketball, you know what it takes to do a whole game. So until I got to this level, I didn’t have to do much work. “I wondered if it was possible to not be tired at the end of a SuperBike race. So I went home to Georgia with a couple of my buddies, and we did a lot of bicycle sprints.” Herrin noticed an immediate difference. “Before, my heart rate would spike at the beginning of a race. I would do well in the beginning, but in the middle, I’d lose the pace. Once I calmed down, I was able to charge again. Now I’m not tired, and I am able to try my hardest at the end of the race. Knowing that I could lead 15 or 20 laps by myself and not get tired was a big thing mentally and physically.” Win or lose, fit or not, Herrin was still out of a job. Hayes was staying, and Beaubier’s promotion to AMA Pro Road Racing’s topmost tier was a done deal. But Herrin had an overseas option: compete in the Moto2 World Championship with Caterham Racing, a series newcomer based in Oxfordshire, England, and headed by former Air Asia execs Tony Fernandes and Dato’ Kamarudin.
“Since I was a little kid, my goal has been to go to Europe,” Herrin said. “My manager, Bob Moore, had been trying to find me a Moto2 deal since 2012. We had an opportunity to go 2 years ago, but we decided it would be better to stay in America.” Number-one plate in hand, Herrin listened as Moore laid out his plan: Caterham would be well funded and respected because of its Formula 1 project. Series rights-holder Dorna was playing a role, too—the championship needed an American. “Everything was falling into place,” Herrin said. Herrin knew he was jumping headfirst into the deepest, darkest corner of the pool. When fellow American Kenny Noyes won pole for the inaugural Moto2 race at Paul Ricard in 2010, 27 riders were on the same second, 10 within half a second. And nothing has changed. Yet Herrin believes Moto2 will be a good fit. “You learn the tracks. You learn the atmosphere, the people. You ride with guys you’re going to race in MotoGP.” Moto2 is a spec Honda-engine class, and Herrin is clearly identified with Yamaha. The Herrins are a Yamaha family. Younger brother Zach races a Yamaha. But unless he went straight to MotoGP, Herrin would have to ride something other than a Yamaha. “It’s big for Caterham to know Yamaha believes in me,” he said. “After we signed the deal, one of the main guys from the team flew to California to meet [Yamaha Racing Division Manager] Keith [McCarty].” Herrin shook hands with his new crew for the first time last fall. “Everything was so different,” he recalled. “England was freezing, and I instantly hated it. But once we got with the team, I felt like I was home. We gelled right away.”
Teammate Johann Zarco—a former 125cc GP race-winner and Moto2 veteran—and Herrin each have 2 mechanics and their own crew chiefs. “My crew chief, Mark Woodage, worked with Noriyuki Haga and Alex and Sam Lowes,” Herrin said. “He was Josh Hayes’ crew chief when he raced World Supersport. Mark also worked with Jason DiSalvo in Europe. He knows a lot and is well respected. “WP is doing the suspension, and the team has a partnership with Suter—they’re not just buying chassis.” Caterham GM Andreas Leuthe, a former 500cc Grand Prix rider, has close ties with Suter. Another ex-GP rider, Johan Stigefelt, is team manager. “Caterham is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory,” Herrin said. “They have everything you can think of—a wind-tunnel, paint department, sticker department. The only thing they don’t make for their F1 cars are bolts.” At the first test in Jerez, Spain, Herrin was a wreck. “A couple sponsors were using that test to determine their level of support,” he said. “Also, I wasn’t getting enough sleep. It should have been relaxing—get used to the bike, having fun—but my lap times were horrible. “I’ve never been good at testing or practice. Last year, with the exception of a couple tracks where I felt really comfortable, I was always a second off Josh, and that was on a bike I knew. “Going from an R6 to the R1, I didn’t really change my riding style. Maybe I should have—not lean off the bike as much, not get on the gas as hard, go into the corners a little slower, get on the gas sooner. But I couldn’t ride like that. Whenever I got into race mode, I always went back to ‘normal.’ I couldn’t go quick riding the way somebody else wanted me to ride.” At the second test, in Almeria, the team put on a tank extension, changed the seat, raised the footpegs, lowered the handlebars, and Herrin said the bike was “way better. I rode 130 or 140 laps, and I was only 0.8 seconds off everybody else.
“To be within a second of the world’s fastest guys at a track I didn’t know on a new bike with a new team was really good. I felt confident this is the right move for me.” Off-track, Herrin was making adjustments, as well. “There were pig’s legs and other weird stuff hanging from the ceiling in the grocery stores,” he laughed. “At restaurants, the fish had giant, piranha-like teeth.” Over the long winter break, Herrin had time to digest his experience in Spain. “The thing you have to remember is a Moto2 bike is a purpose-built racebike—like riding a 250cc GP bike with a 4-stroke motor. It’s light and nimble but really quick out of the corners. You can go deep on the brakes. “I can do things with this bike that I couldn’t do on either the R1 or the R6. I can put the bike where I want it; before, I was so gung-ho, tank-slapping all the time. Powerwise, they’re pretty similar—Sam Lowes’ lap time on his World Supersport-winning R6 was only 2 tenths off his Moto2 bike—but you get more lean angle from a Moto2 bike.” Herrin was surprised Moto2 bikes are so loud. “I went out a couple times without earplugs,” he said, “and I went deaf. My ears were ringing at the end of the day.” Dunlop is the spec-tire supplier for Moto2, and sizes are the same as Herrin used on his SuperBike. “Last year, the American tires were about what the UK tires were the previous year, which is an advantage for me. I have more knowledge about these tires than most of the guys in Moto2. At the first test, my fastest laps were with 38 laps on the tire. At the second test, I had 20 laps on the tire.” Traction control and other electronic aids are off limits in Moto2, but data can be recalled and studied. “On the SuperBike,” Herrin remembered, “I got on the brakes, let off the gas, did my downshifts and pulled in the clutch all at the same time. They wanted me to get my braking done and then do my downshifts. I couldn’t do it. I was afraid that I was going to grab the brakes and tuck the front—just wipe out under me.
“I always thought data was stupid—it wasn’t going to help me race. But these things are given to you as tools, and you need to use them.”
“The Caterham guys showed me Zarco and Thomas Luthi’s brake pressures. They said, ‘You really need to get on the brakes first.’ I did it, and it was like riding a bike without training wheels. It seems small, but it was a huge thing for me. My brake marker went 25 or 30 feet farther. “I always thought data was stupid—it wasn’t going to help me race. But these things are given to you as tools, and you need to use them.” At the Moto2 season-opener last month in Qatar, Herrin improved every session: 2:04.527, 2:02.785, 2:01.851. After first practice, he was 31st, then 29th and finally, 18th. In qualifying, Herrin only mustered a 2:02.258—27th quickest. And in the race, Herrin and Zarco were out on the first lap, down in the turn 7 gravel trap in a cloud of dust with Alex De Angelis and Xavier Simeon. Zarco and Simeon rejoined the race and were credited with 23rd and 24th, respectively. “It felt like the old AMA days with Danny Eslick,” Herrin said. “The biggest difference is there’s not just one fast guy. There are 20 Josh Hayeses—young guys who don’t care if they land on their head 10 times during a race weekend.” This weekend at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, Herrin will make his first official Moto2 appearance on US soil. “This is a new chapter for me,” he said. “I need to show I’m serious. I need to make an impression. This is my shot.”