The Japanese motorcycles you could buy back in the “dinosaur days” of motocross in the late 1970s were evolving at a fast rate, and works technology was being incorporated into the production bikes you could purchase at your local dealer. As mentioned earlier, every year there was one or two standout bikes that would dominate racing. Make the wrong choice and you would struggle all year with poor starts and poor finishes.
Pity the poor fools that bought off brands like Ammex (yikes) or Carabela. There was plenty of variety through the 1970s, Husky and Maico mixed it up with bikes from Spain, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and even Mexico. But the tide was turning on these old bikes and in their place in the winner's circle was, increasingly Japanese made.
The 1979 Suzukis were very similar in appearance, to the bitchen' factory race bikes of the dominant team on the world championship Grand Prix circuit, Suzuki. With great riders like the highly revered Belgian Roger DeCoster, dentist Gerrit Wolsink of Holland, Gaston Rahier and Andre Vromans, both from Belgium, and world championships, race wins, and the trickest bikes at the time, Suzuki was on a roll.
So how could you resist the 1979 RM125? Underneath the stock shovel-shaped fenders (the first thing I changed on my bike) was, for all intents and purposes, the same as Roger D. was slaying the world champs on. The entire bike was newly-redesigned and they nailed it. Punchy, solid, fast and balanced would describe this bike.
I left mine mostly stock, with the exception of the aforementioned fenders (Preston Petty “Mudder” on the front, and an aftermarket reproduction 1978 RM125 rear fender), some mild cylinder porting (exhaust ports raised slightly and the intake shaped and polished), the head milled for more compression, grippy Metzeler tires front and rear, some Oury waffle grips, and little else.
The suspension and everything else I just left alone. This was the beginning of bikes that did not need a lot of modifications to win races. And in 1979 the gates were full of these little yellow Suzukis. Yes, you could still win on other brands, but my memory tells me this was “the” bike to have that year.
We used to race on Thursday nights at the old Bonneville Raceways, west of Salt Lake City. They had made a small motocross track on the interior of the stock car oval, supplied lighting and the racers came in droves to race like crazy in front of family and friends. There were ample bleachers for the spectators, a refreshment stand, and enough dirt, turns, jumps and straightaways to keep us coming back for more every week. The black and white picture above is me, sometime in 1979, racing at Bonneville Raceways, wringing the throttle for all the juice—and fun—I could get. I was plate number 23 that year, a number that has stuck with me by choice (and sometimes providence) ever since.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The Maicos of the early 1970s were some of the best motocross bikes you could buy at the time, the competition being bikes like Bultaco, CZ, Husqvarna, Penton (KTM), early Japanese models and others. All motorcycles from that era had flaws and limitations, but the Maicos were good all-arounders — with a tractable powerband, good handling, cool machined aluminum parts, and the legendary Maico forks.
As the 1970s progressed, the European brands pretty much kept pace with the fast-moving Japanese onslaught, albeit on more of a 2- or 3-year design cycle rather than a yearly one like Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki practiced. Long travel suspension went from 6 inches in the early 1970s to 10.5 inches by 1978. Lots of bikes had long travel, but the trick was to get the good handling and sharp cornering of the older, lower bikes combined with effective long travel.
Enter the 1978 Maico 250 Magnum. Maico had done a complete redesign of their motocross bikes for 1978, using features and parts that were just like the factory works bikes of Germans Herbert Schmitz, Adolf Weil, and Hans Maisch (son of the owner of the Maico factory "MAIsch-CO"). We had seen the factory Maicos up close and personal, on a post-high school graduation trip to Sears Point in Northern California to see the fall Trans-Am race. All the big heroes were there, the most electrifying being the cool Belgian, Roger DeCoster. Just his presence was enough to render 4 moto-crazy high school kids speechless and stupid.
We were all witness to much lawlessness and frivolity on this trip, but one lasting memory is seeing the Maico team that was there with American factory riders Steve "Short Stack" Stackable, and "Gassin'" Gaylon Mosier. Stackable rode a good race in the 500cc International class against some of the fastest riders in the world that day, but I will never forget the ride Mosier put in to hold off wild-riding Bob "Hurricane" Hannah in the 2nd moto. Both riders were swapping around the steep course, skidding in all the off camber corners and deflecting off every rut and bump. Hannah was closing fast, but Mosier turned the throttle wide open and executed some wild riding of his own to barely hold off Hannah at the flag.
The Maico I bought from Don Gibbs at Utah Sportcycle was for all intents and purposes the same bike ridden by the factory riders. At least the basic castings, frame dimensions, engine basics (excluding modifications like porting or boost ports) and most parts were the same. It had an all-new engine that featured some of the smallest engine cases we had ever seen. The clutch was housed in a compact, sand-cast side case, and used a double-row chain to transfer power. It used a piston port top end with radial cooling fins on the head, like the old Maicos.
The red frame was cromoly steel tubing, welded up in a double cradle configuration which allowed the exhaust to exit directly from the front of the cylinder, a feature that was thought to give more power. It had a banana-shaped steel swingarm that allowed the shocks to give long travel in the back with the bike sitting lower for better cornering and handling. The countershaft sprocket was positioned very close to the swingarm pivot, allowing for less free play in the final drive chain. This was a great solution to a problem with early long-travel bikes: the dreaded chain slap.
The famous Maico forks graced the front, the same sand-cast aluminum, leading-axle lowers as the earlier Maicos but with 10.5 inches of travel, machined triple clamps, and upsized 38mm tubes. The shocks were Corte Cossa (an Italian brand) and had remote reservoirs intended to provide extra cooling capacity for the hard-working dampers. A works replica lightweight aluminum gas tank, painted red to match the rest of the bike, some solid looking sand-cast aluminum conical hubs, Metzeler tires, and lots of machined pieces made for one cool bike.
The 1978 Maico was a very fast 250. One thing that helped hard acceleration was the fact that you could just shift through the gears without letting off the throttle or using the clutch. The shift lever, if nudged at the right RPM, would snick into the next highest gear with no hesitation or loss of forward momentum. The turning was exceptionally predictable and the bike could skate around corners faster than anything else at the time. Good stuff.
The magic of the 1978 Maico Magnum was that it melded the old handling traits, cottage industry feel, and raw-hewn "works" parts with the advanced performance being achieved by technology's march. In a time of rapid changes, Maico was defiant of the inevitable—at least for a few great years—before succoming to the tides of change and economics.
Friday, January 2, 2009
One of the unique things about racing 125s in the 1970s, was that choosing the right bike for that year was a lot more critical than it is nowadays. Witness the poor louts that stubbornly held onto their Honda CR125s too long. It was bad enough in 1976 when the RMs came into their own, but 1977 was Suzuki's time to grab another gear while the competition was fumbling.
Those of us who had jumped on the yellow bandwagon in 1976 snapped up the new 1977 models and never looked back. There was still a faction of Honda loyalists who had modified their bikes to the max, all sorts of innovations arose from the need to keep up. There were engine and suspension kits all over the place that summer (remember the "Skunk Works" suspension?), other makes toeing the line, pumped-up kids and their dads with trophies on their minds, and there was us, moving up the ladder of local Utah racing and living in a world of pre-mix, Metzelers, adrenaline and dust.
The 1977 RM125s were fast bikes in stock form, had evolved rear suspension with revised remote reservoirs, and a beefy front end that featured a well-damped leading axle KYB fork. This new front end created a more balanced ride and predictable handling, which combined with the solid mid-range motor and decent reliability, was a tough package to beat. We were loving it to the tune of trophies and upward mobility, moving up to Amateur and then Expert. Applying black numbers to white backgrounds was the first sign you had made it to the Experts.
The 125 Expert class at that time was loaded with talent, with some riders specializing in the little bikes, and other established pros racing 2 classes. It was not an easy time to be coming into the class with riders like John Greenway, Stan Wynhof, Jim East, R.S., Mike O'Driscoll, Johnny Archuleta, Dave Meacham, Cody Lewis, Greg Madsen, Randy Yates, Eldon Copier, and the infamous Danny Lechtenberg. This was the generation of disciples that followed in the boot steps of the pioneers of Utah pro racing like Bob Plumb and Gary Neff.
The established riders were not about to make room the the front for newcomers, as I found out in one of my first Expert races at Brigham City. The Brigham City track featured a fast start straight that was slightly downhill, sweeping into a scary-fast left up a gravelly hill. Since I had a fast bike, I was right at the front with Wynhof and Lechtenberg on either side of me. We came into that sweeper 3 abreast and 2 came out, you do the math. I ended up at the bottom of the pile-up (pictured at top) having learned a lesson about the top guys. I spent the rest of the race playing catch up (never did).
In the top picture you can see a stunned Johnny Archuleta (back, left), his Yamaha YZ125 is underneath Robert Borg's modified Honda CR125 (check out his cool Fox air shocks and aluminum swingarm)... we are all wondering what hit us. My bike was mostly stock, but had the head milled for more compression, stock pipe, and white fenders. I had Metzeler tires on most of my bikes, they were more expensive but worth it as they gave good predictable traction even when slightly worn. We are all sporting leather pants and open-face helmets.
That was a fun summer of racing, not too many responsibilities, good friends and sweet bikes. The rivalries we had with other riders added to the intensity, and we learned to respect the competition, at the same time figuring out ways to beat them. We learned to enhance our strengths and exploit their weaknesses—prepare, show up, ride wide-open and do it all over again next week.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Things were happening quickly in motorcycle development in the mid-1970s. New technology was being introduced at a rapid pace, all in the pursuit of motocross dominance enjoyed by companies like Honda (and various factories before them).
Sometimes manufacturers would even introduce new models midway through a calendar year, especially in the hyper-competitive 125 class, and we racers were always looking for the "next big thing". It was commonplace to purchase a new bike every year, and sometimes every 6 months, if you wanted to stay competitive. Such was the impact of the emerging mechanical juggernaut of the Japanese quest for sales, pride and company honor.
Of course, we local Utah racers eagerly lapped up the spoils of this technological arms race, laying down our bets on new bikes at dealerships like Honda of Salt Lake, G&L Yamaha, Suzuki of Salt Lake, Plaza Cycle, Utah Sportcycle and others. 1976 was a hard year to choose sides, with Honda fans loathe to give up their little silver bullets, Yamaha loyalists exploiting the monoshock revolution, and Kawasaki riders wringing out their rotary valve KX125s. But many of us were enticed by the new Suzuki RM125, which looked like a copy of the factory "works" bikes ridden by Gaston Rahier and Harry Everts in the World Championship Grand Prix.
It turned out to be a good call. Suzuki had indeed grabbed the 125 class high ground, and we could tell these bikes were something special the first time we fired them up and blasted through the gears. The fat expansion chamber gave off a throaty mid-range burst of power that could be milked to advantage over the winding power curve of the competition. The rear suspension was also superior to what the other manufacturers were offering, with beefy, remote-reservior shocks mounted on a stout banana-shaped swingarm and offering nine-plus inches of controlled wheel travel.
The bike certainly looked the part with a works-replica gas tank, single-downtube frame, the aforementioned banana swingarm, some wide serrated steel footpegs, and a roomy layout that felt stable and relatively balanced. The front fork was of the straight-axle type, and was plush within the parameters of 1976-era performance, but gave the bike a slight front-down stance, the "stink bug" that was left over from the 1975 model bike, which had rear wheel travel exceeding the capabilities of the front suspension.
Sometime late in the year I installed a Marzocchi leading axle fork on my bike, purchased used from our favorite hang out, PF Racing. Since the bike was designed with a straight axle fork, the steering was probably affected in a negative way, but I never noticed. It looked cool, and that was enough for me. And besides, that fork had been used by one of the shop's winning pro riders, the infamous "R.S.", Randy Sargent, who could be seen ripping up on the local pros every weekend at our favorite tracks. PF Racing was the dominant local team at the time, and we wanted to be part of it. It was an exciting place to hang out after school (and sometimes during school) and I met several of my cool friends at that shop.
PF was owned by a guy named Jeff Vombaur, commonly referred to as "V", who was caught up in the passion of racing just like we were. In some ways "V" was ahead of the times in Utah, bringing a Southern California (mecca to the motocross community) vibe to the local scene. He always had the top local pro riders, on the trickest bikes, and travelled to the races in his PF Racing Van (also referred to as the "V"). His love of moto and his contributions to the fun factor at the local races sometimes surpassed his business acumen, the result being bankruptcy and some angry vendors, oh well. The memories of that great time, the crazy people, the rowdy trips and the bikes, races, magazines—the buzz of it all are what matters to us.
"V" is no longer with us, but the feeling remains that we experienced a special time in history with great friends—a little on the edge and loving it—some trick bikes and maybe a six-pack of beer as we invaded small Utah towns, living the life of the crazy motocross racer of the 1970s.