Michael Candreia: 1976 Honda CR125 Elsinore - Way Back Machine

Remembering The Good Old Days

Way back in 1975, the AMA 125cc Motocross Nationals came to St. Charles, Missouri, not far from my home in St. Louis. The buzz around high school and the local bike shops was like a beehive as my friends and I made plans to go see the Pros race.

As I did before all of my own races, I got up early, had something to eat and then sat on my front doorstep waiting for the guys to show up. Starting our hour-or-so trip to the track, my excitement level was akin to when I saw my first Playboy. When we finally arrived, the line to get in was l-o-n-g. People were honking and yelling, letting everyone know they were pumped for the race. We got in and walked around, checking out all the factory teams' bikes as the riders got ready for practice.

There was nothing more exciting than to be at the starting gate later in the day, hearing all of those bumblebee-sounding 125cc two-strokes revving up and smelling that smell as they took off. To see all the top Pros racing their works bikes, and how fast they went around the track ... they were like jets flying close to the ground! One of our local Pros raced a Honda CR125 that looked just like AMA champ Marty Smith's, and he'd smoke anyone around by half a lap. But next to the factory guys, he wasn't even in the same race!

I raced for a few more years, until I had to move away to California with my mom. A dozen or so years passed, until I woke up one Sunday morning with nothing planned for the day. I looked back at all the good times I had racing and asked myself, "Why did I get out of motorcycles?" I immediately got back into riding, and then started to race. Not long afterward, I started collecting vintage motocross bikes. I came across this 1976 Honda CR125, just like the one Marty Smith raced back in the day. The motor was locked up, various parts were missing and half the plastic was gone. But it had a rare Red Line swingarm and I got it for just $100.

As I restored it I got more into it, and the bike took on a life of its own. Scouring eBay regularly, I found, bought and bolted on all the trick period parts: Webco head, Pro-Tec chain tensioner, 32mm Mikuni carb and a one-off custom expansion chamber. Though I wanted the bike to look like it did when it was new, I couldn't resist upgrading it with a few modern parts. I worked for N-style at the time, so made a one-off gripper seat, had the numberplates carbon-wrapped and velcroed on one of the custom Renthal crossbar pads I'd made for former Pro racer Casey Lytle. Speaking of Renthal, they were kind enough to make me a batch of aluminum rear sprockets. I bolted on some Renthal handlebars, adjustable Works Connection levers and perches, and a set of Works Performance shocks. The finishing touch was a pair of black Excel rims with stainless-steel spokes and nipples, fitted with new Dunlop 733F/756 knobbies.

The trickest part of all, though, is the optional mud guard bolted to the downtube in front of the cylinder head. These parts are rarer than rare, so I pulled out my checkbook fully expecting to write the seller a check for $500. Instead, he ripped up the check, told me the part was not for sale and then gave it to me for free!

It took me about two years to build this bike, and I had a lot of fun doing. But I don't think I'll ever ride it-it's just too nice. Now, when I look at it, I can still see the factory guys sitting on the starting line and smell that two-stroke exhaust in the air. Those really were the good old days!

Marty Smith won the AMA 125cc Motocross Championship on a Honda Elsinore the first two years it was held, in '74 and '75. In '76 he lost the title to Yamaha's Bob Hannah, but won both motos of the USGP at Mid-Ohio.
Motorcyclist Test Fleet Manager Michael Candreia built his 1976 Honda CR125 Elsinore to be an Evolution-class racebike, not a period-correct showbike, so updated it with some choice modern parts.
The '76 Elsinore was a replica of the works bike Marty Smith raced the previous year. It was the first equipped with forward-mounted shocks, increasing rear wheel travel from 4 inches to 6.
Marty poses with his son Tyler and Michael's CR125 at SoCal's Glen Helen Raceway circa 1998. Marty still teaches motocross schools today and Tyler is a professional racer.
Vintage motocross enthusiast Walt Hackensmith drew this cartoon of Marty Smith, along with others from that era. He offers posters and downloads at www.hackensmith.com.