Motocross and supercross bikes of the early ’80s— handbuilt exotics in one of the greatest motorcycle arms races ever seen on dirt.
When factory motocrossers were hand-built exotics
IIn January 1982, David Bailey stood in an airport hangar next to a wooden shipping crate, anxiously waiting to see what was inside. His mechanic, Paul Turner, jammed a crowbar into the seam of the lid. The wood cracked and splintered and the nails squeaked as they bent to reveal the contents: a “works” motocross bike. The smell, the look, the unpainted pipe, the red plastic, the blue seat that drifted high up onto the aluminum gas tank— the image of the moment is burned into Bailey’s mind. It was rolling exotica: a handmade motorcycle composed of rubber and plastic—and metals most people had never heard of.
The subframe was removable, the cone exhaust was unpainted and hand-formed, the airbox was aluminum, the swingarm extended, the silencer stubby, and the welding job on both was of masterful quality; the “lowboy” fuel tank transitioned from red to black and dropped all the way down to the engine cases, giving it a low center of gravity; the left-side kickstarter disappeared into a niche molded in the fuel tank.
“It was coolest thing I’d ever seen, and it was mine,” Bailey says of the unforgettable day he saw the first Honda Racing Corporation motocross bike made specifically for him. “There was never a bike quite like that one. You mean to tell me I get to ride this thing? Are you sure it’s OK?”
What Bailey really couldn’t wait for, however, was to hear how it sounded. For him that was the equivalent of being 8 years old and wondering what was in the biggest box beneath the Christmas tree. As a kid in the early 1970s, he traveled to the Trans-ama races with his father, “The Professor” Gary Bailey, a professional racer and instructor. At those fall classics, where Europe’s best schooled America’s best, Bailey always ran straight to Suzuki, where World Champion Roger Decoster was pitted. He wanted to see the simplistic design and hand-formed parts of the one-off RN Suzuki and hear Decoster ride away. Then he’d run to the next big name and ogle that bike.
“I wanted to have what they had,” he says, remembering his boyhood desires. “What do I need to do? It was a big part of my motivation as a young rider.”
Bailey was a 19-year-old support rider for Kawasaki in fall 1981 when Decoster called. Decoster had retired a five-time world champion and joined Honda as an adviser. He offered Bailey a position with the team that, only a couple of weeks earlier, had taken four riders to Europe and shocked the world, becoming the first Americans to win the Motocross/ Trophee des Nations.
Honda had a radical and completely new race bike coming out in 1982, a result of the company’s 10-year all-in commitment to off-road motorcycle racing with the ultimate goal of annihilating Kawasaki, Suzuki, and, especially, Yamaha. Bailey accepted and didn’t even ask about money (a whopping $12,000). The bike was so good, in hindsight he claims he would have paid them $12,000 to ride it.
When it fired up in the hangar, he couldn’t believe
how the motor cracked. “Raspy, crisp, a bark that sounded sharper than anything I’d heard before,” he says. The damn thing was intimidating and exhilarating. Each new works model had unique developments and sounds.
Four years later, the “works”-bike era of priceless, unobtainable machinery ended. In 1986, production regulations were enforced, limiting the custom parts on race bikes. Major pieces such as frames and swingarms had to be the same as found on production bikes. Crankcases, cylinders, and heads had to be of the same casting and material as the stock bikes. And so on.
The production rule has been in effect twice as long as the works era existed in America, but the nostalgia isn’t lost. A few bikes avoided the crusher, which was their company-mandated fate. Mechanics often absconded with them and hid them away. They’ve resurfaced as collector’s pieces in museums.
In the nascent days of American motocross, the best place to see a works bike naked was in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn. Nobody remembers exactly why, but that was the accommodations brand of choice for race teams while traveling. As a result, white hand towels from Sacramento to St. Petersburg ended their lives as shop rags. The American Motorcyclist Association even
held its tech inspection in the parking lots instead of at the racetrack. Hundreds of people would randomly show up to watch the mechanics at work. The teams couldn’t hide; the colorful box vans marked their presence.
“It almost reminded you of the circus coming to town,” says Keith Mccarty, who spun wrenches in the 1970s and ’80s for championship riders such as Tony Distefano and Bob Hannah before moving into management at Yamaha. People wanted a glimpse of a works bike.
While the gawkers were in awe of the trick pieces and parts, none of which appeared on the same-model bikes in their own garages, the mechanics of the era worked in a constant state of development. Yamaha mechanics were given boxes at the beginning of each season filled with parts, such as extra cylinders, clutch covers, and the pieces of a custom exhaust pipe, which had to be welded together. To be effective, the mechanics had to be skilled fabricators, possess some engineering acumen, and get the race truck to the events.
Mccarty once made a major rear-suspension modification to Hannah’s 1977 Yamaha YZ250 in the middle of the National Motocross season. Between rounds, he worked with Joe Zappa in Atlanta to marry the shock from a production bike to the OW works frame. This
required a major frame modification along with changes to the production shock body. “You could control the damping better,” Mccarty says. “It had better characteristics than the works one, which was very complex.”
The field development never stopped, even in midseason, and mechanics were constantly handed or shipped new parts to try. That’s where the fabrication skills came into play. “We joked that ‘works’ meant it didn’t fit,” says Dave Arnold, a Honda mechanic in the 1970s, who became the team manager in 1981. “Every mount and fitting would have to be changed or altered when replacement parts came in. The bike you started the year with was very different than what you ended the year with.”
Mccarty enjoyed employing gimmicks and decoys on his motorcycles, just to make other teams anxious. He once rigged a Schrader valve to the airbox of his bike. It served absolutely no purpose, but he fiddled and pumped air into it, to give the impression he had something nobody else did. “Since we did a lot of winning, everyone else wanted to know what we were doing,” Mccarty says. “That’s the stuff that would eat at people, and they’d ask themselves, ‘Why don’t we have that?’”
The rapid pace of development was breakneck in the 1970s and early 1980s. Major modifications were implemented every year: single shock rear suspension, reed valves, power valves, cartridge forks, disc brakes, and water-cooled engines, which weren’t even allowed until 1980 for fear of loose hoses and hot liquid. At the end of
1979, Suzuki’s Team Manager, Mark Blackwell, went to Japan to build a bike specifically for stadium racing. The supercross series was still young, but Suzuki had zero championships and only four wins. Its top American rider, Kent Howerton, also came over, and Suzuki began a marathon development session. They burned daylight at the track and ground until midnight in the shop.
“We cut steering heads off frames, there were guys cutting exhaust pipes and rewelding them, swingarms were modified, cylinders, engine compression, gear ratios,” Blackwell says. “We did a year’s worth of normal development cycle in 10 days—it was crazy, absolutely crazy.” A high-level engineer observed from a cheap lawn chair, arms folded, saying very little but the message was clear: “Give these guys whatever they need.”
When they were finished, they had a bike with a shorter wheelbase, a lower seat height, crisper steering, and quicker acceleration that was easier to slow down. The team won four supercross races in 1980 and 10 of 12 in 1981, finishing first and third in the championship.
The rapid development, however, didn’t always create harmony within the companies. The race bikes were absolutely nothing like what consumers were buying. Blackwell remembers the pressure of being asked to advance technology yet keep the cost of racing from getting too high.
In May 1980, the Suzukis of Howerton and Darrell Shultz rolled to tech inspection of the High Point National draped with horse blankets. Underneath were the first RM models in America to feature a single shock with rising-rate linkage, which the other factories were already employing. Suzuki’s version, however, used a floating linkage on the shock’s top and bottom and a set of pull rods connecting the system to the swingarm. Howerton won both motos, and Shultz finished third overall.
This created a headache for the sales department, which was concerned about the number of twin shock RMS still sitting in dealer showrooms in spring 1980.
even ran a bike test on the twin-shocked 1980 Suzuki RM250 two weeks after its High Point MX coverage. In 1981, production RMS featured single shocks, a system that became known as the Full Floater.
With OEM race budgets hemorrhaging cash, a recession looming, and Honda winning nine of the 15 championships between 1982 and 1985, the works-bike era eventually hit a boiling point. In a November 1984 meeting, the decision to enact the production rule was finalized; Yamaha team manager Kenny Clark was the catalyst. As a company, Yamaha was already racing what it sold. Late-1984 product ads trumpeting the 1985 YZ motocrossers mocked the stark differences between the other brands’ race and production bikes.
“The two are about as similar as fish sticks and lobster,” the ad said. “Motocrossers that not only
perform at least as well as anybody else’s factory bikes. But do it for $98,000 less,” another line read, jabbing at the estimated (and exaggerated) cost of a works bike.
Arnold says it felt like a corporate war, and it wasn’t only about motocross bikes. “It was ego-driven; it wasn’t just sales-driven. It was about Honda and everyone putting a stake in the ground to say ‘We are the smart guys.’”
When the production rule went into effect in January 1986, it was widely believed that Honda wouldn’t dominate without its works bikes. “Kenny Clark said straight to my face: ‘You’re going to lose. It’s over,’” Arnold remembers.
“It can do nothing but help the sport and benefit the customers,” Clark said in the October 1985 issue of Motocross Action. “They say no factory bikes will hurt progress. I think we made a fool out of that statement this year.” (Yamaha won the 1984 250 National Motocross title.)
By 1985, Honda was running exhaust valves with electronic servos; engineers gathered data between motos via laptops. Laptops! Bailey used to make sure his competitors were looking when he flipped the servo switch. They always shook their heads.
“The race for Japanese factories to develop and showcase superior technology was relentless, but it was very expensive and ultimately could not be sustained,” Arnold says. While the ogling at the Holiday Inns across America may have become less interesting with the death of works bikes, there is no doubt that the consumers were the ultimate winners of the production regulation; they eventually wound up with better motorcycles. And Team Honda? Embarrassingly good in 1986. Between the four major championships (250SX, 125/250/500MX) they won them all and claimed nine of the 12 top-three positions in the standings.
“In a way, all the factories needed the production regulations,” Arnold recalls. “The factories could limit spending and put their egos back in check, almost an excuse to not be at war with each other.”
OPPOSITE: Kent Howerton wrangles his Kawasaki, in typical aggressive style, around the track in Orlando, 1984. ABOVE CENTER: Kawasaki Mechanic Tom Morgan in Buffalo, 1984—back when they brought most of a bike out to the track in case something needed a swap.
OPPOSITE TOP: Rick Johnson in Orlando, 1984. By this point, Yamaha was already moving toward production bikes—a Simons fork was the big difference here. BELOW: A start in 1983, with Glover (No. 6), Hannah (No. 12), King (No. 17), Holley (No. 49), Ryan (No. 56), and Kehoe (No. 32).
TOP RIGHT: Roger Decoster (left), former world champion and then-honda team manager, imparting the knowledge and will of a champion to David Bailey. TOP LEFT: Most of Honda’s “dream team” in 1984: Lechein, Hannah (No. 6), and O’mara (No. 5).
TOP: Bob Hannah doing his typical thing, flamboyant and on the edge, in Anaheim, 1984 LEFT: Three-time 125cc champion Mark Barnett on the full-factory RM250 Suzuki, attacking the 1984 outdoor national in Gainesville, Florida.
BELOW: A factory Honda in Pontiac, Michigan, 1984—with the seat removed the shock was exposed, one of the biggest differences between production and factory bikes. RIGHT: Kent Howerton with his mechanic and the works Kawasaki— Gatorback Park in Gainesville, Florida, 1984.