A year after an unplanned exile from both America and racing, Isle of Man resident Neil Hodgson was back in the scrum on an American racetrack during a shortened test session at Daytona International Speedway last week.
The former World Superbike Champion was one of the factory riders taking part in the annual three-day Daytona December Dunlop tire test and had nothing but good things to say, despite only a few hours of track time and lap times that were nothing to brag about.
The feeling of being back in racing was something that he couldn’t “even explain it enough. It’s what you do, it’s what I do. So it’s like everything feels normal.
“Team’s great, which helps as well. I mean the Ducati team was great. These boys, I get on with everybody and it’s that family sort of atmosphere.
“It’s completely different from what I thought. I thought it’d be a bit more hostile here, the Honda empire, a bit more corporate, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
Neil Hodgson passed on a number of opportunities on the world stage to sign with the American Honda team. The signing took place very quietly in the middle of the summer, with Hodgson contracted to team with Miguel Duhamel in contesting the 2008 AMA Superbike Championship.
The pair will also race Honda CBR600RR’s in the season-opening Daytona 200 Formula Xtreme race, Neil Hodgson’s first ever race on a middleweight.
“Lovely. What a great bike, absolute superb bike,” Hodgson said of the FX Honda.
“If you were going to get a street bike, you’d get that bike. The CBR600R is like beautiful. Just enough power, but not too much power. Does everything right, really.
“Much nicer to ride than the Superbike. You don’t have to fight it, you know what it mean? Physically, it’s not very demanding.”
Neil Hodgson first rode a 600 for three laps during a test in 1998. The next time came nine years later during a test at Buttonwillow Raceway in California in October, then again during a test here at Daytona late in October.
It was then that Hodgson crashed the 2007 Honda CBR1000RR Superbike, a minor spill caused by too hard a front tire.
A light mist hung over the Speedway on Friday, keeping everyone off the track until late in the afternoon. The likelihood of any on-track activity was so remote Neil Hodgson went shopping with his father.
The team had to summon him back to the track once it became clear the track would go green.
It was after 2.30pm before anyone took their first tentative laps and the track was shut down at 5.00pm. In between, Hodgson spent much of his time on the FX bike, with only a few shakedown laps on the all-new 2008 Superbike.
The motorcycle was so new they had to tape over the speedometer before he went out. The bike is far from being race ready, with only three HRC kit parts at the moment. One of them is the low slung exhaust system which has a distinctive 30-inch canister.
“Steady away, really,” said Hodgson.
“I felt very wooden going out like that just near the end. I don’t know.
“I think because I’ve been doing a lot of motocrossing and you get on one of these things and it just feels a bit different.
“It’s early days, I wasn’t trying to break the lap record or anything. Just having a go on the new Superbike really, because it’s the first time we’ve really ridden it properly. (I rode the street bike version.) Obviously it’s really early days.
“They were saying just don’t even try and push because we don’t know too much about it yet. Just quietly creep up on it, so that’s what I did.”
His best lap time was in the 1:43 range, which was well off the low 1:37-pace set by Yoshimura Suzuki’s Ben Spies.
Neil Hodgson’s best lap time from the Daytona 2006 Superbike race was a 1:38.520.
Hodgson added: “That’s how much I was pushing. That’s not because the bike’s shit, it’s because I weren’t pushing.”
When Neil Hodgson first tested the Ducati Superbike at Daytona, almost three years ago now, he said it was one of the most foreign experiences he’d ever had.
“I’m not afraid to say, it’s scary as hell,” he said at the time, even though he’d race there years earlier.
“I said to my mechanic, in Barcelona I did 212 mph last year, and on a scale of one to 10 of scary, that was one, and going around the banking is 10. It’s f**cking incredible. Enjoyable in a way because there’s a rush.”
The track eventually grew on the Brit and he found the Honda experience wasn’t much different from the Ducati, other than a quirk of the Ducati 999’s handling.
“It’s surprising, actually,” he said.
“I found jumping on that four-cylinder in general is not a massive difference, really. The bikes nowadays, they’ve got such linear power. In the older days the Ducati had that and maybe the fours didn’t quite the same.
“But nowadays, with the electronics and everything, they’re an easier animal to ride, really.”
One positive is the handling of the Honda. The Ducati felt like it wanted to twist itself into a corkscrew during mid-corner transition.
“Just nothing I’ve ridden, apart from the Ducati, does that. That 999 felt like it had that slight hinge in the middle. Everything else, especially the 600, they’re a pleasure to ride, really.”
Following this test, Neil Hodgson will fly back to his home on the Isle of Man. Then he’ll return to the U.S. in the New Year.
Honda has at least three tests planned for January, 2008, including one at Dunlop’s wet weather testing facility in Huntsville, Alabama and another at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Neil Hodgson has already found a house near idyllic Laguna Beach, where he lived with a view of the Pacific Ocean during the two years he raced for Ducati.
“Yeah, I love it. Like I was saying, America’s grown on me. I liked it the first time I came, but then got a bit homesick, I was ready to go home.
“And the second time it wasn’t quite the same. And then this year, because I’ve been backwards and forwards loads, I’m like, I could live here full time now. So, I love it.”