Mo­tocross and su­per­cross bikes of the early ’80s— hand­built ex­otics in one of the great­est mo­tor­cy­cle arms races ever seen on dirt.

Cycle World - - Contents - By BRETT SMITH

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.

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