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.