At AHRMA's yearly vintage-fest at Grattan, Michigan, we finally get our Formula 750 racer on track--though not without a hefty dose of last-minute hijinks and a little help from a man named Solo.
A race engine coming apart at speed is not a pretty thing. A technical writer I know once described the sound of a fragging engine as that of stepping on a large and very dry beetle. The experience is all the more disturbing when the engine in question is positioned just a foot or so from one's crotch.
I know a little about this.
I'd just completed the opening lap of the Formula Vintage event aboard Motorcyclist's Dresda-Honda CB750 vintage racer/project bike (see "Formula 750 Flyer," November 1996) during day one, Saturday, of the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association's (AHRMA) 1996 double-national at Michigan's Grattan raceway. I had a decent lead, too, though that was a bit of a surprise since perennial vintage champ Kurt Liebmann--who I'd barely beaten just 30 minutes earlier in the F-750 race--was also entered.
Anyway, as I arced the Honda onto Grattan's nearly half-mile-long straight at redline with this big lead and the thought that I was gonna win my second race of the day, the 750's engine broke dramatically right in front of the pits. I'd yanked in the clutch lever as soon as I heard and felt those first sickening whack-whack noises, though as I rolled quietly past the scorer's tower and saw oil coating my left boot, I knew we were in trouble.
I leaned the bike against the guardrail, hopped over and took a seat on the grass. Jack Seaver, the architect of this whole Formula 750 business, trotted up a minute or so later, out of breath and looking even more harried than usual. He didn't say anything right away; he was hoping, I think, that it was something simple, like an electrical glitch. But after I shook my head and pointed to my oily boot, Seaver got the picture and began pushing the dead Honda back to the garage.
Sitting there with the other bikes roaring past, I thought back to all the hard work and headaches it had taken to get here. The crazed effort to finish the bike for Daytona (AHRMA's season-opener); the frustration of not being able to compete there (due to an arm-busting crash prior to Daytona's vintage program); then the agonizingly long three-month wait to heal until the Grattan event. And all for this: one measly race, a single win, a fragged engine and a whole Sunday's worth of racing about to be forfeited. Damn.
Thirty minutes later, with the cam cover off, the news was not encouraging. The engine's tacho-drive bolt had come loose and lodged itself under the camshaft, which had pounded it into the head at 10,000 rpm, blasting a hole in the casting, shattering the engine's cam towers and bending several rockers. Ugly. We'd probably be able to fix the cavity with JB Weld, but to race the following day we'd need parts: a pair of cam towers and several rockers, at the very least.
Worse yet, it was late Saturday afternoon by that point, and none of the area's Honda shops or boneyards were open. I scoured Grattan's KOA-style pits, hoping someone had an old CB750 engine tucked away in their van or trailer. But no one did. I even got on the track's PA system, asking for help. Nothing. Just like that, our weekend--which had shown such promise early on--was done.
Back in the garage, our whole ragtag crew of friends and acquaintances was coming to grips with the fact that we were finished. This was a huge bummer, not just because we'd have likely won more races the following day, but because we'd miss much of the scene that weekend: Grattan's campground-style atmosphere; the late-evening campfires, beers and storytelling; the friendly competitiveness and help-your-neighbor attitude in the pits; the between-race tweaking--the whole juicy scene. Yeah, we could hang around and watch, but it wasn't the same unless you were in the game for real. Even the AHRMA-sponsored barbeque that evening didn't help ease the pain.
A bit later, with the food and beer mostly gone, a skinny, crusty-looking guy with a whitish-grey, ZZ Top-esque beard turned up at the entrance to our garage. He looked to be in his late 40s or early 50s and, like most of us, was nursing a beer. "Which one of you is the magazine editor?" he asked, slurring his words just a little.
"I am," I said, taking another swig on the bottle and wondering just how many beers this guy'd had.
"Heard you're lookin' for some Honda parts," he said, "single-cam CB750 parts." The garage went silent in a hurry. "Well, I got plenty, and you're welcome to 'em. But I want to say something first...."
Before I could digest all of this, our bearded visitor launched into a sermonlike assault on me and the whole motorcycling press. All motorcycle magazine editors were the same, he said, all evil, all elitist, all "on the take" from the Japanese manufacturers and not to be trusted. We criticized perfectly good motorcycles in print, he added, to the extent that some great bikes were forced off the market. None of us knew anything about what made a particular bike good. He finished with this: "I've had my say here. If you people want it, I've got a pretty good 750 Honda down on my farm. It's a ways from here, so if you want it, we'd better get going."
I took most of what he said personally, of course, and was about to tell him where he could stick that beer of his when Seaver popped up beside me. "Just ignore him," he said quietly. "If he really does have the parts we need, we might be able to run tomorrow." I flashed back to Obi Wan Kenobi, telling the storm troopers guarding the entrance to Mos Eisley Spaceport that these weren't the droids they were looking for. "Look," Seaver added with a grin, "it'll be an adventure." Taking this old codger's crap was the last thing I wanted to do. But I did. I wanted to race the next day.
Ten minutes later, I found myself in Seaver's van, Jack, myself and our "friend" heading southeast toward the Lansing area. The guy mentioned his real name, but it was his nickname--Rocky Solo--that stuck with me. He said he was a postal worker, a long-time motorcyclist and a bit of a collector. He was also a major-league wiseass, messing with me for much of the 100-mile trip and wanting to stop for beer every few minutes. I ripped him back a few times (which made me feel better), but at about the halfway point I was seriously considering whacking him on the head once we'd gotten the bike (if there even was a bike) and leaving him behind.
Two hours later, we arrived at Solo's home, a shoddy farmhouse with a few ramshackle barns in back. As we pulled into the uncut rear yard, Solo pointed at the bike, which was visible only by its left handlebar sticking up through the knee-high weeds. It turned out to be a CB750, sure enough, a forest green one, probably a '72 or '73. It was laying on its right side, stuck in the mud, weeds and grass growing though the frame rails, Michigan muck squashed into the cylinder block. It took all three of us and a 12-foot piece of lumber to lever it up out of the mud and jam it into the van. It was a mess, which was obvious even in the fading light.
"It looks like junk," Solo said, "but most of the top-end parts are new." I figured he was full of it. The thing was totally roached, missing a slew of components, and if there were new parts in the engine then I was Kenny Roberts. Of course, there was always the possibility the guy was right, that the bike's parts would allow us to race the following day. So I kept my mouth shut. Again.
But before we could leave, Solo insisted we take a look at his collection. Spending time with this geezer was the last thing I wanted to do, but Seaver figured we owed him, so we headed off toward the first barn.
Surprise number one: Inside were hundreds of old bikes, most from the '60s, many of British origin, most of them rusty and decrepit. But he had some gems packed in there, too, real rare and obscure stuff that Seaver went bananas over. Solo seemed to have a story for each one, which he took his time telling. "Kept every bike I ever bought," he told us. Turned out the guy did know his bikes.
As we were walking through the last barn, I spied an old picture frame lying on one of the dusty workbenches. The black-and-white photo inside was of a young soldier cradling what looked like an M-16 in his arm, an ammo belt slung around his shoulder, standing with four or five similarly attired Asian soldiers, the look on each of their faces.
It was Solo. Suddenly, I got it. The hostile, pissed-at-the-world attitude, the dark sense of humor--it all made sense. The guy (as I was to find out later on the trip back to Grattan) was an ex-Marine, a Vietnam vet, and not an R.E.M., either, but a search-and-destroy grunt, a hardass, a guy who'd survived the ambushes and booby traps. He'd been pretty rude and had some bizarre opinions about life, but knowing a bit of his background softened my outlook some. (I also promptly forgot about working him over.)
While we'd been retrieving Solo's bike (which Seaver and I named Swamp Thing on the way back to the track), bike-owner Harlan Hadley and Eugene Klymenko (who'd built the Honda's cylinder head) had gotten the engine ready just in case our little parts hunt proved successful. We arrived back at our hotel at around midnight, got everyone together for a quick meeting, recounted the whole crazy recovery story, and decided to get some sleep and get cracking at first light. Luckily, my two races weren't until Sunday afternoon, so we'd have some time.
The following morning and early afternoon were a blur--a manic thrash to get the bike fixed and back together in time for the first event. We dug into Swamp Thing first to retrieve the engine parts we'd need, Steven Spitz cutting away various frame braces with a blowtorch to get at the top end easier. We lifted off the valve cover and, sure enough, the parts were like new, just as Solo had said. Surprise number two. The guy's reputation jumped yet again. Fresh valvetrain parts in hand, Klymenko went to work on the motor.
Ten feet away, Hadley was busy re-brazing the frame, which had cracked near one of the steering-head braces. The sight of the totally stripped frame laying upside down on a milk crate while Hadley applied the torch just an hour or two before my race was not calming.
By noon, our garage was a mess: Engine and chassis parts were scattered everywhere, folks were running around in a panic, and groups of racers and racegoers were standing in the doorways to see how the thrash was going. It all reminded me of our original "Cardiac Kids" experience at Daytona '95, when we'd gotten our Drixton-Honda racer ready for the 500 Premier event at the last possible minute after some major engine problems.
Two hours later, the bare frame began to morph back into an entire motorcycle: first, wheels and suspension, then the engine, then the bodywork. With less than 30 minutes left before my first race (Formula 750, and a rematch with Liebmann), the bike was together. But would it run?
Klymenko fitted the Dresda with the kickstart lever from Swamp Thing. There were probably 30 or so people crowded around the garage doors now, folks that'd been following the rebuilding process all day long. No surprise there; PA announcer (and AHRMA head tech inspector) Jack Turner had been hyping the goings-on in our garage all afternoon. Klymenko kicked once, twice...and it fired! An actual cheer went up. I was stunned. I think everyone was. The thing worked; we were actually back in the game. Who'd have thought? I looked for Solo among the crowd, wanting to thank him. But he was nowhere to be found.
The Formula 750 race that afternoon was even more thrilling than the previous day's close race, with me and 54-year-old Liebmann trading shots right up until the final lap. After getting the lead in the second corner and slamming hard for the entire first lap, I'd looked behind me (which my Dad always told me not to do), expecting to see old man Liebmann a ways back. But he was right there, just two or three bike lengths back--and probably laughing at me. Jeez, the guy can ride, I remember thinking. Here we go again.
Liebmann put his very fast Karl Berwer-prepped CR750 Honda racer into the lead a couple laps later with a hairball, late-braking move entering turn one; I almost ran into him. Now it was my turn to follow. He had a couple spots on Grattan's ultratight circuit figured out a bit better than I did, and as I followed closely, I learned both where and why. This bit of two-wheeled espionage allowed me to get back by him a couple laps later, and I made it stick, winning by about 10 bike lengths.
Our Dresda-framed CB750, sort of an English-framed--and thoroughly modern--version of Honda's famed CR750 production racer, had handled Grattan's twisty circuit surprisingly well. It was light (just 368 pounds without fuel), flickable, stable, had killer brakes, was surprisingly fast (nearly 82 rear-wheel horsepower), and was amazingly easy to ride at the limit, especially with the sticky Dunlop KRs mounted. Considering its vintage, the bike worked a lot better than I'd expected.
Between races I'd wanted to gear the bike a tooth taller so I wouldn't run into the rev limiter at the end of the front straight and between some of Grattan's tighter corners. Seaver grabbed the tools necessary to swap sprockets, but Klymenko, knowing the engine could be spun just a bit faster, simply told him to bump the bike's Dyna-built rev limiter from 9500 rpm to 10 grand. One flick of the the screwdriver and bang--instant gearing change.
My next race was Formula Vintage, which the folks at AHRMA had designed as an ultimate vintage shootout of sorts. The event combined the fastest machines on the track: bikes from the Formula 750, Formula 500, 500 Premier and 750 Sportsman classes. By including F-500 machines, the class also allowed two-strokes--giant-killer 350cc TR3 Yamahas, for instance--to compete, which made the race a bit of a throwback to the earlier days of AMA roadracing and the epic battles between the Honda, Yamaha, Triumph and BSA factories. That was Gene Romero, Dick Mann, Gary Nixon and Don Emde territory.
At the start, I was again able to beat Liebmann to the first turn with a slicing inside move, though another bike (which I figured to be one of those hellishly fast TR3s by the high-pitched whine it made) had beaten us both to turn one. I assumed I'd be able to zap the smaller bike right away, but as I followed it, I began to wonder. It was not only fast, but the guy riding it was a wildman, an expert for sure. I had to ride over my head just to keep up on the first lap.
I pulled alongside the mystery bike on the front straight (the 750 had just a bit more steam) and was shocked to find that it was a Honda CB400F! I remember actually doing a double take as I went past. Once by, I foolishly figured I'd seen the last of him, but as I braked as deeply as I dared for turn one at the beginning of lap two, the 400 rider blew past me, flicked the bike into the turn and--while laying down a nasty black streak--began to pull away.
I knew right then I was in trouble.
This guy--Dave Rosno, AMA Pro racer--was clearly going faster than I was, especially now that his tires were warm, and if I didn't boost my speed right away, I was gonna lose both him and the race. The next two laps were totally hairball, both of us chattering and sliding through the corners, him trying to get away, me trying to just stay close. But by "going to school" on him, like I had with Liebmann, I learned a couple of his better lines and was able to hang on. Barely.
I got by him two or three more times on the front straight. But each time, Rosno--who's about 80 pounds lighter than I am, and whose bike was probably another 50 to 80 pounds lighter--would outbrake me and lead at the exit.
This happened again two laps from the finish, but this time I was ready. When he whipped by me, I squared the corner off, got on the throttle early and got a stronger-than-usual drive off the turn. We hit the next corner side by side, but because I had the inside line (something I learned from Daytona '95), I had him. And I think he knew it.
I led the next two laps...riding harder than I ever had in my life, my forearms pumping up and my grip on the clip-ons weakening by the second. Rosno's heavily modified, 500cc Honda was right on my tail the whole time--I could hear him back there revving the hell out of the engine--but I was able to keep him behind me. I won by just three or four bike lengths. Liebmann finished third, 10 seconds back.
It was the best race of my life. And it felt good.
After Motorcyclist's CB750-based vintage racer fragged its valvetrain on Saturday, our rag
One lap into Saturday's Formula Vintage event, our Dresda-Honda CB750 project racer munche
Rocky Solo's Swamp Thing, just before we raided it for the valvetrain parts that would eve
We got our CB750-based racer running just in time for Sunday's Formula 750 event, which wa
While Hadley brazed the cracked frame (the result of the rider's 225 pounds, no doubt), Kl
My race with Dave Rosno (271, who was riding Steve Spencer's 500cc Yellow Peril Honda) in
Just as Solo had said, the rocker arms and cam towers in the old Honda's head were in perf
Old guys, young guys, big guys. Liebmann (left), Rosno (right) and I whoop it up in our ga
Grattan's ultratight layout was perfect for the lightweight--yet scary fast--Honda CB400F,
Though Grattan was the Dresda-Honda's very first race, it performed far better than we'd i
With its lush grass and many small lakes, Grattan looks more like a golf course than a rac
Sitting there, brew- and sweat-soaked, I remember thinking that we'd achieved a whole lot more than we'd expected: We'd won every race we finished; we'd proven that, here at Grattan, at least, our project bike was indeed the "ultimate Formula 750 vintage racer"; and, maybe best of all, we'd bounced back from severe adversity, which is always highly rewarding.
Solo never showed up for the celebration that evening. But I think he was there--in spirit, at least, if not physically. I never did get a chance to thank him for donating Swamp Thing to our effort, but I think winning those races the way we did was probably thanks enough.