Aaron Frank: 1971 Honda CL175 - Formula Fun

Small-Bore Slicing And Dicing With Washington's Group W Racing

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Studio 819, Brandon Bones

According to Arlo Guthrie's anti-war anthem, Alice's Restaurant, the Group W bench is where you sit if you "may not be moral enough to join the Army after committing your special crime." While there aren't any father-rapers in Group W Racing (I don't think), there's no shortage of doctors, firefighters, deep-sea fisherman, former big-bike racers and other Type A-plus adrenaline junkies. And, just like the misfits in Guthrie's song, the raggedy Group W crew has more fun than anyone else in the paddock.

Group W is a loose collective of Pacific Northwesterners that race Formula 160s with the Washington Motorcycle Road Racing Association (WMRRA), though the membership roams as far as Southern California, Canada and Utah to compete. Their bikes are exclusively vintage Hondas, either late-'60s CB/CL160s with sloping cylinder heads ("Slopers") or early-'70s CB/CL175s with vertical cylinder heads ("Verts"). A heavier, full-cradle frame negates a 175's slight displacement advantage on the track.

Group W ambassadors Michael Bateman and Tim O'Mahoney invited me to join them at their home track, Pacific Raceway (formerly Seattle International), for the annual Sounds of the Past event. I was bribed with a ride on a gorgeous, metalflake-blue '71 CL175 built to an identical spec as O'Mahoney's metalflake-green 2008 championship-winner. "The motor is basically stock," he told me, before describing a seemingly endless list of modifications: decked head, aftermarket valves with stronger springs and keepers, oversized carbs fed by a bored-out petcock, electric ignition, undercut transmission, total-loss charging system, etc.

Honda's air-cooled twins are so simple that even a meticulous F160 racebike like O'Mahoney's can be built for less than $5K, and most machines on the Group W grid cost far less. Because you can only pump so much air with 175cc, the performance differential between a "dumpster-fresh" 12-horsepower stocker and a highly tuned, 18.5-bhp mini-superbike is negligible. Aerodynamic strategy and the courage to run wide freakin' open everywhere is ultimately worth more than a few extra ponies.

Ka-Boom! A shot from an antique, black-powder cannon kicked off Saturday's main event, a LeMans-start, 10-lap money race. I qualified sixth of 26, between Mick Hart-former factory-supported Laverda racer and Canadian national roadracing champion-and Cody Wood, a fearless, 98-lb., 13-year-old. Hart went on to finish second behind O'Mahoney (who lowered the class lap record), while I recovered from a botched push-start to finish sixth.

Sunday morning was spent shrinking the 6-second gap that separated me from the race leaders. First, O'Mahoney fine-tuned my aero tuck, even suggesting I hand-shift on the straights to avoid sitting up. My other problem was a lack of corner speed in the fastest parts of the track. I finally just swallowed hard and followed him full-speed into the right/left/right Turn 5/6/7 combination. The tiny, 2.5-inch-wide Bridgestones slid like mad and the spindly stock fork chattered like a jackhammer, but the little Blue Meanie magically stayed up on my knee. Just like that, I was on pace!

As proof of that, I won Sunday's first race by a scant .040-second (!) margin over NorCal's Mike Polkalba, after a dramatic draft pass. The second race was epic, with just .364-second separating Polkalba, me and O'Mahoney (in that order) at the line. Our best laps were within .119-second of each other and we swapped the lead at least 20 times in five laps, charging three-abreast into every corner, bumping, rubbing and drafting to the finish. Racing doesn't get closer than that!

Count me as a full-on Formula 160 convert-and I'm not the only one. Cheap, easy and impossibly fun, F160 has effectively taken over vintage racing in the Pacific Northwest. There were more of the little Hondas registered for SOTP than all other vintage classes combined, and owing to their high corner speeds, F160 racers swept the 250cc and 500cc Vintage podiums as well. And the field continues to grow: Group W founder Tim Fowler showed up Saturday morning with yet another dilapidated CL160 chassis strapped to his trailer. That went home on Sunday with the latest convert, a racer who had struggled all weekend with a recalcitrant Norton 750.

The Group W bench gets more crowded every year.

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