Rather than enjoying the holiday with my family and friends, I spent last Christmas in the basement of my parents' house on Cape Cod. That trip was my only opportunity to disassemble and ship my father Todd's vintage Honda CB350 racebike to California in time for the AHRMA National at Willow Springs in April.
The bike had been mothballed for nearly a decade; dad last rode it to victory at Daytona in 1999. His grid positions and jetting notes were still scribbled on the tank in black magic marker. Although the TSA was suspicious, the megaphones, headers, fork and shocks flew back to Los Angeles with me as carry-on luggage. UPS took care of the rest. I was finally going to put dad's racebike back into action, and fulfill my dream of riding a "Henning Honda."
Dad initially raced modern bikes, but with a wife, three kids and a mortgage, he couldn't afford to buy the latest model every other year. So he turned his attention to vintage racing, where competitors campaign the same machines year after year, allowing time for refinement rather than regular replacement. Honda's 350cc and 450cc twins were plentiful and cheap, and he knew they had untapped potential.
Dad started by prepping the bikes with existing go-fast parts, but dissatisfied he began designing and developing his own. He poured himself into the project. Years of late nights in the shop and long hours on the dyno paid off: Dad's engines became almost unbeatable. His hand-built Hondas (once referred to acerbically as "junkyard dogs" by a competitor) defied the odds and consistently beat exotic, high-dollar, former factory racebikes. Two decades later, Todd Henning Racing components are still sought after for their unmatched performance and reliability.
Through simple Pavlovian conditioning, I was imbued with a love for motorcycles. As a kid I went with dad to most of his races and absolutely loved it. Several times a year he would bail me out of school (my teachers approved; they thought it was good experience) to go to places like Sears Point, Daytona, Willow Springs and Roebling Road. As if road trips and roadraces weren't enough excitement for a youngster, dad always inserted perks like go-karting, canoeing or bungee jumping along the way.
Going...going...gone! After four laps of heated battle, Rick Carmody gifted me the Sportsm
Dad's life philosophy was summarized in four words on the back of his leathers: "I Think I Can." As if through osmosis, that attitude was bequeathed to me at an early age. Even as a kid I was impressed by dad's perseverance, drive and determination. And I aspired to be like him.
The emulation started with a cardboard numberplate on my bicycle. At age 8, I abandoned my Honda Z50 and taught myself to ride my brother's Yamaha YZ80. I had to call dad at work to get an explanation of clutching basics, so I could replicate the howling upshifts he made at the track. After all these years, I'm still hopelessly attracted to naked bikes, a penchant I can only attribute to exposure to dad's unfaired, Sportsman-class machines.
I was still young when my father got hurt. I'd just entered middle school and my new instructors weren't as enthusiastic about my extended absences. So I wasn't there when dad crashed during the last lap of the Premier 500 race at Sears Point, and I'm grateful I wasn't there when the paramedics loaded him into the helicopter, doubtful he would survive the flight to the hospital. The crash ended his racing career, nearly ended his life and cut short his role as a father. His recovery took years, and although his bodily wounds eventually healed, the damage to his brain is permanent and will inhibit him for the rest of his life.
Fast forward 10 years. Dad's accident had a dramatic impact on our family, but it didn't stymie my passion for motorcycles. As an adult, the Honda racer had more appeal and significance than ever before. To me, that motorcycle embodied my father's character; it was the lens that had focused his energy. Riding it would be the ultimate way to reconnect with who he was before his accident. It would be my tribute to his racing career and the time we shared enjoying it.