The Grand Prix des Frontiers | Beyond Borders

Trials and tribulations at the Grand Prix des Frontiers

By Ari Henning, Photography by Patrick Bodden, Catherine Brennan, Etienne Photography, Thierry Dricot

I nurse the bike off the track for what must be the fifth time. In two days of practice every session has been cut short due to mechanical troubles, and this time it’s terminal. Lionel and Patrick run up, exasperated, and ask what’s gone wrong this time. I hang my head in despair and point a gloved finger at the belly pan, where the bike’s muffler disgorged a smoldering pumice of expensive alloys. After 6000 miles of travel and the efforts of a half-dozen people, this is how it’s going to end?

It all started two years ago, when I threw a leg over my father Todd’s Honda CB350 for the AHRMA vintage roadraces at Willow Springs (“Legacy Racing,” MC, November 2009). The success of that outing opened the door to further opportunities, including a trip to Belgium to pilot an exquisite CB350 owned by Frenchman Lionel Regnat and prepared with many of my father’s performance engine parts. News of the trip spread throughout my dad’s old race team, and before long the list of attendees included my father, my wife Loren, the former mechanic/logistics team of Dave and Cindy Smith, plus Heritage Racing founder (and Motorcyclist contributor) Patrick Bodden. Everyone was eager to join in the excursion, enticed by the prospect of a leisurely trip to the European countryside to participate in some grassroots racing. How were we to know the merde would hit the fan with such force?!

The 17th running of the Motos Classiques was held in Chimay, Belgium, in conjunction with the Grand Prix des Frontiers, so named because of the circuit’s close proximity to the French border. The village of Chimay is internationally renowned for the beer brewed nearby by Trappist monks, but for one weekend in July it’s all about racing—something that’s been taking place on the town’s streets since 1926. The grass and gravel paddock is packed fence to fence with camper vans and motorcycles from every conceivable country of origin.

Spectators’ bikes line the roadways in town and their tents dot the hillsides overlooking the front straight. The bucolic setting, the large number of families with children in tow, the friendly locals and the profusion of local beer give the event a county-fair atmosphere.

Gathered together in the pits, we’re all in awe of the machine Lionel has constructed. It’s a meticulously prepared work of art featuring all the best parts: handmade frame and swingarm by Terry Baker, Works Performance shocks, magnesium Fontana front brake, aluminum gas tank, billet bits from Italy and engine parts from Todd Henning Racing. Finished off with titanium fasteners, it’s easily the most magnificent machine present.

Drama begins as soon as I sign in. According to the schedule, I’ll have just one 15-minute practice session to familiarize myself with the bike and the track. Lionel talks the race director into letting me run in one or two of the other practice groups, but I’m still dismayed by the limited amount of track time. Eager to get on course, I head out on foot to survey the track in the warm evening light.

The Circuit de Chimay is one of the oldest venues in Europe, and still comprises public roads normally travelled by the area’s farm tractors and dairy trucks. Although it never gained the FIM sanction that would have put it on the world championship calendar, the course has played host to battles between legends such as Barry Sheene, Giacomo Agostini, Johnny Cecotto, Gary Nixon and Phil Read.

Safety concerns saw the original 6.5-mile track shortened in 1996, resulting in the current 2.8-mile rectangular configuration. There are two chicanes thrown into the 1.1-mile left leg and three long bends break up the downhill, 1.2-mile right leg. There is no rhythm to speak of; it’s all about horsepower, bravery and pinpoint braking. The majority of the course is lined with hip-high Armco guard rails, but hay bales and brightly painted tire barriers serve to shield telephone poles and mailboxes near town. During the races people lean over the walls as you speed past, and between heats run across the track. Corner workers stand smoking and sipping coffee in the grass.

My initial impression of the bike during Friday practice is excellent, but we quickly run into problems. Although Lionel had run-in the bike at a track day a month before, the rigors of race practice quickly set the bugs crawling. The electronic tachometer is acting erratic, and the lightened and balanced crank makes judging engine rpm difficult. The second lap out my boot slips off the left footpeg as I transition for a turn, and when I look down the side of the bike is glistening with oil. Then, when I go to make the four-gear downshift for the final turn, the shifter slips on the shaft. We diaper the leaking oil seal, tighten the shifter pinch bolt, and take the slack out of the brakes as someone runs off to check the schedule for the next available practice group.

I get another crack at the track a couple hours later, but oil is still spraying from the crank seal and the throttle cables are catching on the fairing when the fork compresses under braking, lifting the slides as the fork rebounds and powering me into the turns! It’s all I can do to keep from crashing. I’m permitted to ride in several other sessions, but they all end with me throwing up a hand and coasting off the track. Friday’s practice is a wash, but there’s still a five-lap qualifying session on Saturday, so I maintain a sliver of hope for learning the track.

Fed up with the interruptions, we all agree that quick fixes won’t do; we need solutions. Lionel abandons the dry ignition and installs a stock sealed stator cover. David and my dad search the swap meet for a replacement shift shaft with decent splines. The race engine has no accommodation for a stock cable-driven tachometer, so a rev-counter is out of the question. We work to within minutes of my qualifying session, but as I hurry to bump-start the bike the engine turns over as if there’s no compression. I’m totally baffled; did a spark plug come loose? As I look over the bike, I notice that the shift linkage is pointing up; it had been pointing down before. It got flipped and the shift pattern is reversed. I’m in sixth, not first! By the time I shift into first and fire up the engine, the last of the riders are disappearing around Turn 1. Riding angry, I begin charging through the pack, elbowing one rider out of my way and passing another on the curbing.

With three laps to go, I finally get an un-interrupted run down the back bends known as the Barnyard Dash. It feels fantastic to finally hit this section at something close to race pace, wedged behind the bubble in top gear arcing from wall to wall, ripping past the riders who don’t have the nerve to keep it pinned. But with no tach to reference and a deceptively smooth-spinning engine, my excitement gets the best of me and I push the motor too hard. That’s when it happens: I’m wide-open in sixth when the engine loses power and the exhaust note switches to a sick, hollow burbling. I pull in the clutch and throw up a hand, glancing back through a cloud of smoke to see if any of the riders I’d just motored by were about to ass-pack me on what is the fastest, most dangerous part of the track. When I roll back into the hot pit, I’m beside myself. Patrick and Lionel run up, spy the mess in the belly pan and we all fall silent.

Ever indomitable, David, Lionel and Patrick remove the still-hot engine for an autopsy. Meanwhile, I walk off so the team won’t sense my anguish. I head to the timing office, where the qualifying results have just been posted. My lap time would have put me on the second row for the 25-bike race.

“Decent time, but it won’t do me any good now. I just blew my engine,” I say to a tall man examining the same timing sheet.

“Oh, what bike do you ride?” he asks delicately.

“A Honda 350 twin.”

“I have a spare motor if you like.”

I’m totally stunned by his statement, and have to replay it in my head before I can respond.

“Seriously? For a CB350? That I can use?”

“Yes.”

Within an hour we’ve yanked the grenaded engine and Ron the Dutchman’s spare motor is being hung in Lionel’s frame. It’s lightly modified with a standard five-speed trans-mission, but at least it will have a tachometer! Ron offered the engine without condition or stipulation, and without even knowing my name. His benevolence humbles us all. Lionel’s engine is loaded with specialty parts, and nothing is a direct swap. Everyone on the team pitches in where they can. One person affixes the ignition coils and another fits clutch plates as someone on the other side of the bike sets timing while someone else bolts up the headers. It’s a beautiful melee. Passersby stop to observe our activities in amazement. Every so often someone steps out of the fray to wipe the oil from his hands and the sweat from his brow, and another person kneels down to take his place.

Evening rolls around and we’re still working on the bike, grateful of summer’s 16-hour days. It’s Saturday night, and the smell of a hundred barbeques fills the air as a Police cover band begins to rock and the kegs of Chimay are tapped in the circus tent at the other end of the paddock. It sounds like a proper party, but we ignore hunger and exhaustion; our goal is singular.

We put the bike on the rollers at 9:30 p.m. and the donor engine barks to life. I throw on my leathers and head out onto the road to do a jetting run. The patrons at the local pub cheer and pump their fists as I roar by at wide-open throttle in the twilight; some of them had no doubt seen us toiling away in the pits hours earlier. We work on the bike until after dark, and by 11:00 p.m. it’s ready.

Sunday morning I’m gridded behind pole in the second row. I get a good launch, but it’s a quarter-mile sprint to Turn 1 and three riders motor by me on the way there. The donor motor is way down on power compared to Lionel’s and the final gearing is several teeth off.

The one thing I still have going for me is that massive Fontana front brake. It’s as powerful as a modern single-disc setup, and I use it to late-brake my way through the ranks. I overtake one rider in the first chicane, and set to work closing the gap to the pack in front. At this point I’ve stopped hanging off the bike because the aerodynamic penalty is too high. By the time we enter the downhill back straight my prey has pulled too far ahead for me to catch his slipstream, and I’m stuck in fifth gear turning 8000 rpm—way below the engine’s 10,500-rpm power peak. I late-brake into the final turn and halve the 10-bike-length gap between us, and then slip by the rider on the inside heading into Turn 1.

There are two laps remaining when the clutch lets go. I release the lever after a downshift and it remains at the bar. Clutchless upshifts are the norm in racing, but downshifting requires deliberate throttle blips and a forceful foot, and my corner entries suffer as a consequence.

One more rider comes into view. I gain on him at every turn, but his power prevails on the straights in between. I stay hard on the gas through a bumpy bend that apexes at a storm drain, and the shocks pack up and the back tire chatters across the tarmac. This time down the back bends I hold fourth gear, and the bike inhales the stretch noticeably faster. I arc the machine through the turns using every inch of the road, hugging so close to the Armco that the spectators pull their arms in as I fly by. Later, my dad tells me he noticed a 3-second improvement on that lap, although my best race time was still 3 seconds slower than my qualifying lap.

With one lap to go we start to hit traffic, and the rider ahead of me gets held up by two backmarkers trolling through the first chicane. Late-braking into the second chicane brings him within striking distance. I show him a wheel on the outside in the following turn and he runs wide, pressing against my elbow as he drifts over to push me off the track. It’s a classic racing move, and I have to roll off the throttle to keep it on the pavement. He’s too far ahead of me to catch his draft going through the bends, but he knows I’m close and the pressure gets to him. He blows his entry to the final turn, and I glide across his bow, toe scraping the pavement as I race toward the waving checkered flag to a fifth-place finish.

For the first time all weekend there are smiles on everyone’s faces as I roll into the hot pit. Considering all the challenges we’d faced, a fifth-place finish isn’t half-bad, and everyone agrees that the trip was a success.

I’ve since been replaying the track in my mind and keeping in touch with Lionel, who is rebuilding the blown motor and assembling a backup for the 18th Annual Motos Classiques. Here’s to a less eventful 2011 effort with an even happier ending!

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