Rising costs in the world of amateur motorcycle racing have reduced grid numbers and threaten the sport's future.
I’ve been thinking about inflation in racing for the last few months. Over the winter, my friend Chris Van Andel ran for a second term as President of the American Federation of Motorcyclists race club. When he lost, I figured he might want a chance to speak freely, and I interviewed him about his experiences and his thoughts on the future of club racing.
The AFM might be the healthiest race club in the country. It’s based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the economy is buoyed by the continued strength in the tech sector and the fact that the region’s housing bubble barely even deflated. But Van Andel made it clear that even the AFM was hit by the ’08 economic downturn. In the years leading up to the recession, the club membership flirted with 1,000 riders, and there was a worry about what they’d do when they ran out of three-digit race numbers. Now, about half that number of people are racing.
Last month, we got the news that the other major California racing club, the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club, had a falling out with the Willow Springs race track. It’s effectively ceased to exist.
Flouting the ‘law’ of supply-and-demand, the cost of going road racing has steadily climbed even while participation and racing opportunities have tanked. When I asked Van Andel what he thought the biggest threat to US racing clubs was, he cited the rising costs born by amateur racers, noting that even 600-class riders have to spend many hundreds of dollars per weekend on tires alone.
It wasn’t always so expensive.
At the three ‘Big Kahuna’ AMA Superbike rounds this year (the first of them is Road Atlanta, next month) fans will also see parade laps by past champions on vintage race bikes presented by Historic Moto Grand Prix. If the bikes on display seem skewed towards the Yamaha
marque, that’s because the organizer, Bill Brown, was an AMA privateer during the stretch of about 10 years when the TZ750 utterly dominated the AMA’s Class C (aka F-1) premier class. It was introduced in 1974, and won every Daytona 200 until 1982.
Introduced in 1974, The Yamaha TZ750 changed the AMA racing scene and provided amateurs with an affordable yet competitive race bike.
When the big TZ was first introduced, it was tempting to riders because it was immediately competitive in what was then the AMA’s premiere racing class. It was also scary. The rest of the paddock - everyone from tuners to tire suppliers - were just as afraid the TZ would prove that their knowledge and parts were no match for a 750cc four-cylinder two-stroke. Looking back on that period, Kevin Cameron recently wrote, “Wobbling, weaving and shredding their tires,… these 750s were proof that skinny, hard-rubber tires, door-closer shocks with three inches of travel and broom-handle frames were finished.”
In its own way, though, the TZ750 was a great leveler. Yamaha had to make 200 bikes available to meet the AMA’s homologation rules. The first ones were sold for less than $4000, and even toward the end of the bike’s production run when most of its handling problems had been solved, it sold for less than $10,000. If you correct those prices for inflation, early versions of the TZ750 sold for just under $20,000 in today’s money, and much improved later versions sold for the equivalent of about $25,000. That, to reiterate, was for a race-ready machine that, with a little luck, would put a determined rider on the podium in the AMA’s premier class.
Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to win the AFM’s 600 Supersport class on a bike built for $20,000. If you wanted a realistic shot at the box in one of the AMA’s premier classes, you’d spend that much on your electronics package alone.
You might think that the alternative to spending many thousands of bucks converting a modern middleweight sportbike into a racer, and then spending, say, $1000 per weekend to race it, is to set your sights on a lower-cost class. But in fact, no matter how low you set your sights, the costs of racing seem to climb a lot faster than the Consumer Price Index.
Consider the fastest-growing amateur racing class that I know of: AHRMA 200 Grand Prix used to draw a handful of obscure Italian Singles. But last year, nearly 60 bikes showed up for the fall Barber classic. That’s thanks to a huge influx of ‘60s-era Honda
CB160 and CL175 Twins - a vintage racing phenomenon that started up in the Pacific Northwest, but which has now swept the US and is rejuvenating AHRMA road racing even while grids in the larger displacement (and budget) classes dwindle.
Jon Munns (above, right) races in classes up to 250GP. His AHRMA 200GP championship-winning Honda is tidy but not fancy. He sinks his budget into the motor, because it's a class where even a couple of extra ponies make a big difference.
In the late ‘90s, about a dozen Washington Motorcycle Road Racing Association members got together and settled on cheap, plentiful, Honda CB160s as the basis of a new vintage racing class called F-160. (The CB160 was sold in the U.S. from 1965-’67, then superseded by the CL175 scrambler, which was also deemed eligible.)
It wasn’t long before racers in the Oregon Motorcycle Road Racing Association noticed how much fun the Seattle F-160 guys were having. They asked for technical advice and a sample rulebook, so that they could set up a similar class in Portland. The two clubs’ home tracks are only a few hours apart and a rivalry would make F-160 racing even more fun.
The WMRRA racers went one better; they offered to give the OMRRA guys a built-up F-160 bike as a model, as long as they promised to field at least ten bikes the next season. As for a rule book, it fit on one page. One of the rules was: “No protests.” If you’re getting the idea that sportsmanship and camaraderie really flourished up there, you’re right.
Guys bought two or three rusted-out donor bikes for $100 to $500 a piece, then combined the best bits of each one. Since no one had figured out a viable way to take apart the pressed-up cranks, everyone raced on 45-year-old big end bearings, but the little Twins were almost unburstable. It was common to race an entire season on one set of tires and to go a couple of years between top-end rebuilds. At the time, few performance parts were available, so you could field a competitive machine for about $3000, and basically race it forever for the cost of gas, oil, and entry fees.
Back in 2008 Chris Page, who was one of the first guys in Portland to build an F-160 bike, told me that if I wanted to come to Portland, I could ride his bike in one of their races. I’d ridden the track a few times over the years and always liked it. And, Oregon’s always been a cool place to visit. The first time I rode down the coast, I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read, “Welcome to Oregon, now go home.” Even back then the locals knew that eventually a bunch of rich Californians would discover it, drive up prices, and ruin their little piece of paradise.
Anyway, racing Page’s CB160 was the most fun I’ve ever had on a motorcycle. With about 16 horsepower on tap, the drafting was reminiscent of a team time trial in the Tour de France. In spite of spindly forks and skinny tires, mid-corner speeds were as high as those of modern sport bikes. Considering that the housing bubble had just burst and the economy was in free fall, it seemed like the perfect way to race on a restricted budget.
A few years ago, the Seattle and Portland F-160 racers traveled en masse to an AHRMA race at Miller Motorsports Park, where they put on a demonstration F-160 race complete with Le Mans start. They all entered the 200GP class, too. Everyone in AHRMA realized that guys racing the little CBs were getting a way better return of fun per dollar spent.
By the beginning of the 2011 season, bikes inspired by the F-160 formula had turned 200GP into AHRMA’s largest class. Two of the guys I raced with in Portland, Jon Munns and Eirik Nielsen (who race out of Vicious Cycle, a hip bike shop up there) finished first and second overall, beating the likes of ex-speedway world champion Billy Hammill; it was seriously competitive at the sharp end.
I was surprised, though, when Chris Page told me that he’d decided to convert the bike he had loaned me back into a street bike. “The problem,” Page explained, “is that all the guys who’ve built bikes for the AHRMA 200GP class are still entering local F-160 races, and none of the old bikes are competitive against them.”
Jon Munns confirmed it. “The days of F-160 ended as soon as the California guys got involved,” he said. “They were never F-160 racers, they were 200GP racers. So they went for full engine builds.”
Back when I raced in Portland, the guys at Vicious Cycle were happy to let me watch them build a ‘race’ CB160 motor. But when I called Munns and Nielsen to find out what it took to turn an F-160 class racer into a championship-winning 200GP machine, they were circumspect.
Here, Munns (No. 55) is dicing with Canada's Paul Germain at Miller. On a more flowing, technical track like Barber, his lap times on his Honda 175 are almost as fast as his times on his other race bike, which is a highly-developed Sportsman 350-class Honda Twin.
They would go as far as to tell me that it was essential to begin with a five-speed CL175 ‘sloper’ motor, which are not as easy to find to begin with. They also admitted to removing “a lot” of weight from engine internals, gas-flowing heads, and experimenting with different pistons and valve sizes.
But here’s the kicker: Munns told me that it had cost him $5000 to build his last motor, and that it was impossible to run at the front without a mid-season rebuild. That might be cheap by national championship standards, but the presence of those 200GP-spec budgets has spoiled the once charming F-160 scene in Seattle and Portland.
Welcome to Oregon, now go home indeed. Maybe they were right to think that when the larger world discovers a good thing, they ruin it for the locals. As for my friend Chris Page, who introduced me to the F-160 scene in Portland, he’s the current Vice President of OMRRA, and is focusing his attention on OMRRA’s Ninja 250 class, which features a conspicuously restrictive set of technical rules which will probably ensure that the class is both competitive and affordable.
I’m guessing it won’t be more than a year or two before even those costs start climbing though, because motorcycle road racing is particularly susceptible to inflation whether demand (i.e. grid size) increases or decreases.