Author Catterson impersonating high-school hero Marty Smith (right), but looking more like
Brrrrrrzzzzzz... I'll never forget the sound. Except I had: I'd forgotten the noise my Honda CR125 Elsinore's constant-mesh transmission made when I downshifted. I hadn't forgotten its light handling and pipey powerband, nor the sweet smell of premix coupled with freshly overturned earth. But I have to admit it smelled better than I remembered after decade of inhaling acrid race gas and adobe dust.
I was at Broome-Tioga Raceway in upstate New York, reliving my youth by riding a surviving example of my very first motorcycle as close to my home town as I could. Truth be told, I owned a 1975 model, with a red stripe atop the gas tank instead of the green of the first-year '74 like the one I was riding now. Not that that mattered, because owner Greg Bastek (former Old Bike Journal editor and all-around vintage fast guy) had painted his Elsie red to replicate the factory Hondas, as many of us did back in the day. We all wanted to be #522 too, like our mutual hero Marty Smith, the long-haired SoCal surfer boy and two-time AMA 125cc national champion who was arguably the first true motocross rock star. I remember the Schoolboy class at Bridgehampton Raceway started at #522 and went up from there, my high school friend Tim Stearns running #527. Funny I can remember that but not my cell phone number...
Of course, Tim had an understanding father who rode and raced with him (a Cooper and a Yamaha YZ250, if I recall correctly), whereas my parents were dead-set against me owning a bike. Though I'd previously ridden some Tecumseh-powered contraption at my cousins Rick and Tim Wapinsky's house in rural Pennsylvania, I didn't discover motorcycles until my aerospace-engineer father got transferred to Southern California in '73 and took us with him. Living in Orange County when it still lived up to its name, I was fortunate to ride various friends' mini-cycles though the groves and along the railroad tracks. When we moved back to Long Island a year later, I naturally wanted a bike of my own. And while money wasn't too much of an obstacle, my dad's best friend John Wrobel was. A fireman by profession, he'd seen a few too many gruesome motorcycle accidents and had once been involved in a bad one himself. So it was an uphill battle.
I was a devout reader of Popular Cycling magazine-gotta love Brad Zimmerman, who went on to work at some rag called Motor-cyclist-and in one issue they ran a story that told teenagers how to convince their parents to let them get a dirtbike. It was a good story, too, with all the usual bullet points about how owning a dirtbike keeps kids away from alcohol and drugs; how parents could use it as leverage to ensure good grades; how motocross was a wholesome family sport; etc. And it might have worked, had it not been for the fact that that very issue contained a tribute to racer Jim West, who died from internal injuries sustained while competing in a Trans-AMA race at Saddleback Park. My dad-like countless other dads, probably-took the magazine into the bathroom and read it from cover to cover. So instead of advancing my cause, it set me back even further! If only I'd torn out that page...
Like many teenage boys in the '70s, I had a paper route. And so I vowed that if my parents wouldn't buy me a dirtbike, I'd save enough money to buy one myself. But it was slow going, and as the years (only a few, though it seemed like many) wore on, and my dad had accompanied me to spectate at various MX races and seen that it really was a wholesome family sport, he finally broke down and said he'd match whatever money I saved.
I probably should have gotten a mini-cycle of some sort, like the Yamaha MX100 I'd lusted for in '73. But by now it was '76, I was 15, tall for my age and looking to make up for lost time. My peers all rode 125s, and I wanted one too. The Honda Elsinore had won every comparison test I'd read and every AMA national championship since it was introduced three years earlier, and I would settle for nothing less.
So I did the math: I figured I could buy a used '74 or '75 Elsinore for around $500. (They only cost $835 brand new, mind you.) Scouring the ads in the back of PopCycle, I determined that I could get a Bell RT helmet, a set of Scott goggles with face mask, some Full Bore boots and gloves, plus a Gold Belt kidney belt for $180. That brought the grand total to $680, so I'd need to save $340, which I eventually did. In due course I found a '75 CR125 for sale in the Newsday classifieds for $500. Raced for a single season by a local expert, it had its lower shock mounts moved forward like the '76 model did, increasing rear wheel travel from the stock 4 inches to 6. Likewise, a Goki fork kit increased front wheel travel from 7 inches to 8. It had one of those trick DG radial heads, too.
My first ride was painful. All of the gear I'd ordered had arrived except my gloves, and with a sun-baked, hard-packed surface at the Commack sand pits, a worn-out rear knobby and ham-fisted throttle control, I spun out the piston-port two-stroke so many times that my hands looked like hamburger!
Over the next few years, that little red-and-silver motorcycle taught me a lot. I learned how to ride chasing my high-school friend John Graziano on his Suzuki TM125, and how to wrench working on my bike in auto-shop class with fellow Elsinore owner Bill McDonagh.
Perennial racer Greg Bastek trusted me with his authentic and well-used '74 Elsinore, upgr
Original classified ad clearly states "new sporcket & chain."
Two years passed before I ever raced. I still have the AMA slip showing the date as September 24, 1978 (and the entry fee as $7!). The Long Island Sports Committee put on an annual race at Long Beach-picture a sandy supercross track, though not as jumpy-and you didn't have to be a member. I signed up and was issued #Z-the last letter of the alphabet and roughly indicative of where I finished. I'd never ridden on beach sand and didn't know to lower the tire pressures. I recall winding the poor little engine out in each gear, shooting a roostertail with my overinflated rear knobby and bogging the engine each time I tried to upshift. I fell a few times, and called it quits in both motos when the leaders came around to lap me.
Fast forward three decades and I'm looking at Greg Bastek's Elsinore in the Broome-Tioga pits and wondering how I ever fit on one. My original idea for this story was to ride my first bike where I first rode it, but the Commack sand pits are a movie theater now, Bridgehampton Raceway is a golf course and the Long Beach city fathers would no doubt frown on me terrorizing beach-goers. Turns out there aren't any motocross tracks on Long Island anymore, so I was going to have to ride elsewhere. When I mentioned my dilemma to Metro Racing proprietor Don Miller, he suggested I enter the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) National at Broome-Tioga, and even knew where I could borrow a bike.
Thing is, AHRMA vintage rules state that bikes must have no more than 4 inches of rear wheel travel. And it didn't occur to me until I sat on Greg's bike that I'd never actually ridden an Elsinore with stock rear travel. Fortunately, we wouldn't be racing on the jump-infested national motocross track, but on an old-school grass track adjacent to it.
Practice was enlightening. The grass was wet and slippery, which required exacting throttle control and scooting far up on the gas tank in corners. Throttle control I'd acquired since I'd last ridden an Elsinore, but scooting forward proved problematic as I had a tough time getting my knees under the handlebars. The fact that the 30-year-old seat foam was packed down helped in this regard, even if I could feel the seat rails by moto's end.
The races went pretty much as I expected. I signed up for the Sportsman 125 Expert class and ended up going 4-4 for-you guessed it-fourth overall. Conditions were perfect in the first moto, and I was able to keep the leaders in sight, even trading third place with a Yamaha YZ125 rider a couple times. The second moto was dusty and slick, and I let the leaders go as I busied myself trying to avoid losing the front end.
Team portrait: That's me in the period Honda gear, flanked by bike owner Greg Bastek (in M
Of course I'd gotten more or less accustomed to the bike by then, and riding around by myself like that, my thoughts drifted back and forth between the present and the past. When I was a kid, the CR125 was more motorcycle than I could handle, and it was a steep learning curve trying to tame it. But now, it felt like a mini-bike-in fact, at 180 pounds it's the only motorcycle I've ever raced that I've outweighed! The suspension felt primitive at best, the rear end kicking up over square-edged bumps, and the drum front brake required a strong pull to achieve anything remotely resembling stopping power. Fortunately the track was mostly fast and flowing, and with such a low center of gravity, the little Elsie slid really well on the gas.
The funny thing about racing is, as soon as you get the green flag you just want to see the checkered-especially when you're winning! But this one time, I was genuinely sorry to see the race end. Riding dirtbikes always makes me feel young, but for those 15 or 20 minutes I really did feel like a teenager again.
The day after I got home to L.A., I got an email from Greg: "Great meeting you and hanging out at the races last weekend. Hope your trip home was smooth. Make sure to stay in touch if you're ever Back East again.
"By the way, the left-side numberplate is missing off the 125. Any idea where it could have gone?"
I don't think he believed me when I told him I didn't take it as a memento.