Smashing Fun with 50s!
I can hear another bike closing in on the straight as I do my best to get under the paint and hide behind the small, angled numberplate. By the sound of the screaming engine behind, I know it is another factory Honda, and he’s carrying a couple hundred extra rpm on me as he sniffs out the slipstream. With eyeballs the size of saucers I anxiously search out the last brake marker before grabbing a handful as I sense his front wheel enter my peripheral vision.
But I’m on the best line entering the turn that leads onto the main straight, and he doesn’t have enough room to take the inside without taking me out. As I silently express my gratitude for his ethical sportsmanship, I bend my sleek racer into the corner with only the merest shove of the skinny clip-ons, scything a graceful curve around the apex. The tach is just above 12,500 rpm as I apply throttle, right about where my factory Honda starts its singing powerband. A moment later I hear the tune of another velocity stack, though this one is a lower moan, letting me know that my rival didn’t carry enough corner speed to keep the revs in the narrow sweet spot it thrives on. Safe again, at least for the moment, I carefully watch the tach to time my shifts down to the last 100 rpm as I continue my search for racing glory.
Indeed, a day at the racetrack on Honda’s new, retro-styled Dream 50R can make even a mediocre rider feel like a GP hero, as we found out earlier this month when Honda invited us for a day of flogging its pair of competition-only mini roadracers.
This press intro for the Dream 50R and NSR50R was one of the most unusual I had ever been to. A new-model introduction at a racetrack, in this case Adams Kart Track in Riverside, Calif., wasn’t anything new; being sent out on dedicated racebikes that have less peak horsepower than a riding mower was.
I was surprised to notice a high level of excitement inside me as I entered the track and saw the lineup of diminutive racebikes. Having recently returned from hammering 160-horsepower literbikes around Laguna Seca during our Superbike Smackdown track test, it seemed odd that the thought of riding these puny little things would excite me you know, that twinge of anticipatory uneasiness that is so intoxicating for speed junkies.
In this case, it certainly wasn’t big velocities that would provide the excitement our terminal speeds in miles-per-hour perhaps barely exceeded the number of cubic centimeters in the engines.
But the excitement I feltand what Honda is banking on you feeling is the pure joy of taking a racing machine to its limits, regardless of how low they may be. That concept is proven true every week as thousands of riders pour money into their XR/CRF50s. Even we are not immune, as we’ve hopped up some dirt 50s for our own mini madness at MCUSA.
Honda successfully marries mini fun with racing replication on the NSR50R. It’s a real racebike, only smaller.
The NSR50R is the clear choice for wannabe racers, as its simple but rugged construction, considerably lower price and slightly more powerful two-stroke engine makes it better suited for thrashing on the track.
The $3599 machine is a spin-off from Honda’s mass-production road model similar to the Yamaha YSR50 but never imported here. None other than HRC, Honda’s racing arm, is responsible for building the little zinger. The NSR’s bodywork is a replica of HRC’s dominating NSR500 that Mick Doohan rode to five Grand Prix titles.
It’s loaded with features beyond what a simple toy would offer, like its Showa suspension, fully adjustable at the single-shock, remote-reservoir rear; the fork is adjustable only for preload. The GP-inspired twin-spar steel chassis has enough strength for Big Kids (read: fun-loving adults), and chunky 12-inch Dunlop TT91 GP tires (100/90-12 front; 120/80-12 rear) provided more grip than we were able to ask of them. With an assortment of aluminum bits such as the handlebars, footpegs and wheels, the NSR’s claimed dry weight is kept to a reasonable 161 pounds.
With height (36.8 inches) and length (62.2 inches) measurements closer to “A Bug’s Life” than “Faster,” the mini NSR won’t intimidate anyone. The 49cc reed-valve two-stroke engine is claimed to crank out a whopping 7.2 horsepower at 10,000 rpm, about the same power as claimed by Yamaha for its YSR. (It actually later dynoed at 7.3 hp at the rear wheel, much more than a YSR-Ed) Liquid-cooling and a moderate 7.2:1 compression ratio aids durability.
Starting the little NSR is akin to the way Doohan brought his NSR500 to life the time-honored bump start. But in this case, there’s no frantic pushing or acrobatic jumping on the seat, as moving the 39mm piston through its 41.1mm stroke to light it off is almost easy enough for a toddler.
The engine feels a bit lethargic to pick up revs off the bottom until you realize its low-end power only begins at 9000 rpm. One thousand revs later and it reaches its peak, but there’s thankfully 1500 rpm of over-rev to play with, giving a powerband only about 2500-rpm wide. Let it drop out of that zone and you’ll feel like paddling it back up to speed, Flintstone style. A 6-speed transmission helps keep it on the boil.
Corner-speed becomes everything on a bike with this little power. The grip from the Dunlop donuts is tenacious, even if feedback is weak, allowing knee-dragging angles of dangle. Indeed, even the high-mounted footpegs could be forced into the pavement. As you’d expect from a bike this small, changing lean angle takes little effort. A 24.5-degree rake combined with a stubby 42.7-inch wheelbase (about an inch longer than the YSR) makes it quicker to turn than an “Apprentice” cast member. Countersteering is purely optional. Having just 70mm of trail is likely to blame for the lack of front-end feel.
Disc brakes mounted front and rear have an easy job of slowing the petite racer, which is good to know when barreling in hot into a corner and realizing you won’t get any engine braking help from the teeny two-strokin’ motor now that’s a slipper clutch!
The NSR50R is eligible for competition in most mini roadracing organizations, including the CMRRA’s Formula 50 and Stock/Production classes. As it’s already equipped with fuel and coolant recovery tanks, all it needs is a bit of safety wire and you’re literally off to the races.
Silver Dream Racer
It might be a bit harder to find a class to race Honda’s other new 50. Or is it an old 50? No matter, as Honda expects most Dream 50 owners will use the $5499 bikes for nostalgic or display purchases, not for race duty.
Too bad, as the Dream is slightly more rewarding to ride than the NSR, even if its limits are a bit lower. Imagine taking a mountain bike with a narrow handlebar and shrinking it down one-third in size and you’re pretty close to what a Dream ride feels like; its height is just a bit taller than the NSR. Add in a double-overhead-cam, HRC-built 50cc screamer that revs to 14,500 rpm and you’ve got one fun mountain bike!
The Dream was built to commemorate Honda’s early racing history that began in the 50cc class. The factory RC110 debuted in 1962, and it spawned the commercially available Cub Racing CR110. The single-cylinder CR featured gear-driven double-overhead cams, a dry clutch and an 8-speed gearbox. The new Dream uses lower-tech chains to drive its cams, yet it is able to rev 1000 rpm higher than the 13,500-rpm CR110. Power is directed through a 6-speed gearbox.
Like the NSR, the Dream has been offered for sale in Japan for several years, and an entire cottage industry has been built around it. HRC has built a huge list of go-fast parts for the Dream since Asian enthusiasts seem willing to throw everything they can get at their racebikes.
But even in stock condition, the Dream impresses with its pure racebike design and trick bits. A lovely oil catch tank created out of aluminum contains crankcase blow-by, and aluminum fenders are used front and rear. Despite the use of a period-spec steel frame, Honda claims the lithe Dream weighs just 157 pounds dry. As with the NSR, the Dream is a product of HRC, and they’ve been kind enough to pre-drill the oil drain bolt to satisfy racing regulations for lockwiring critical fasteners.
You won’t find a convenient kickstart lever on the Dream, let alone a wussy electric starter. Cranking it over is via the Hailwood method of bump-starting, usually quite easy on the Dream despite the big 11.7:1 compression ratio. Acceleration is as limp as a scuba diver’s Kleenex until the revs climb into the five-digit range. It starts pulling at 12,500 rpm before falling off 2000 revs later. Honda claims 7 horsepower at 13,500 from the 49cc engine, but it sounds like much more when the giant open velocity stack ravenously sucks in air for the open 20mm carb as the 40mm piston goes up and down 240 times each second.
The beauty of racing a tiddler like the Dream is that the rate things happen for the rider is much easier to digest than on a more powerful bike. As a result, extracting the maximum from the bike, and especially the engine, is more gratifying in a way than something like turning the throttle to the stop of a CBR1000RR for a few seconds before having to frantically grab the brakes to scrub off the 100 mph you just piled on.
The Dream handles like nothing else I’ve ridden. Honda didn’t provide rake and trail numbers, but it will suffice to say you’ve never ridden a motorcycle that turns with less effort. Genuine Showa suspension does a reasonably good job at damping wheel movement, and 2.50-18-inch Bridgestone Battlax BT39SS tires are used at both ends. With the seat’s classic bum-stop coming up a few inches shorter than the Dream’s 70.5-inch overall length, there’s actually enough room for a full-scale adult to fit.
A combination of a strong front disc brake and a super-skinny tire is my excuse for testing the Dream’s crash worthiness. Entering one of the corners at Apex and grabbing the brake lever with the finesse of a steroid-injected bodybuilder put me on the ground faster than you could say Ruben Xaus.
Thankfully, damage to our frail little bodies was limited to a bent triple clamp and bruised shoulder, and both of us were back in action in no time. A similar spill in, let’s say, Turn 1 at Willow Springs, would’ve been much more painful to both steel and tissue, underlining the relative safety of mini racing.
The danger levels of mini racing may be reduced from full-sized racing, but not the fun factor. As is the case with racing 50cc dirt bikes, all you need for laugh-out-loud giggles is another rider on a similar bike.
Mr. Duke dons the retro gear and looks the part of a true blast from the past when paired with the retro-cool Dream.
The Big Race
To make sure the point was not lost on the six battle-hardened journos in attendance, Honda decided to divide the group into two for a little tag-team endurance racing of the miniature kind. Each rider would get a four-lap stint on each of the two bikes, giving us 24 laps total to battle it out. Before we could make each bike swap, we’d have to answer a Honda-related trivia question or would have to sit for a five-second penalty. Pre-race timed laps determined how the teams were split.
I was teamed with Cycle World’s Mark Cernicky and freelance motojournalist Mark Gardiner. Considering Cernicki’s supermoto championships and Gardiner’s Isle of Man race experience, we had a strong chance of winning against Cycle News‘s Scott Rousseau and Sport Rider‘s Andrew Trevitt. But the opposing team also had a ringer in the form of Doug Toland. For those not familiar with the name, Toland is not only a former World Endurance champion, he’s currently one of Honda’s R&D testers and one of the riders who spent a previous day at Apex breaking in the 50s.
Toland’s experience paid off as he clobbered our guy Gardiner in the first stint, giving the other team a lead that we would chase until the end. Gardiner was just coming into the pits as the other team’s next rider was entering the track. I might as well have been chasing a ghost by the time I got out on the track, so big was the other team’s lead. Having the fresh memory of Dream metal screeching against pavement, I rode cautiously but still managed to make up a bit of ground.
By the time I came to a stop at the end of my four laps, the other team was just beginning to push their rider back onto the track, held up by guessing the wrong answer to their trivia question. Cernicky, our next rider, will race anything with wheels and he does it to win. There was more than one quick intake of breaths at the outrageous entrance speed he displayed in front of us as he methodically decreased the gap on the “bad guys.”
Now on the NSR, our team lost a bit of ground against Trevitt when Gardiner struggled getting the little two-stroke into its narrow powerband out of a corner that led onto a long straight. Worse, my next stint would put me against the formidable Toland. He was a full straightaway in front of me when I set off in chase. I knew I wasn’t going to gain ground on a rider of Toland’s caliber, but I vowed not to let him gain too much ground on me.
Racing the NSR around the kart track evokes feelings similar to that experienced on a full-size racetrack and bike. A botched corner entry is soon followed by another chance to get it right, and when you do it’s thrilling in a scale out of proportion to the size of the machine underneath. As I entered the main straight for the last time, Toland was now exiting the next turn instead of entering it, and I was proud not to have lost touch with such a skilled pilot.
At the end of my fourth lap I blazed into the pits with as much speed as I dared, spurred on by seeing the other team still in the pits but beginning to push their last rider, Rousseau, away. I passed the NSR off to Cernicky after quickly answering which year Nicky Hayden won his AMA Superbike championship (2002) and sent our pit bull out hunting.
Rousseau had a healthy 15-second lead, but Cernicky was riding like a man possessed. The Cycle News guy was doing pretty good against the Cycle World rider, but Rousseau briefly went over the limit on his third lap and ran wide exiting a corner. Dirt-tracking his way back onto the tarmac, the error cost his team precious seconds to the charging Cernicky. Now making ground hand over fist, Cernicky caught and passed Rousseau on the final lap to give our team the win by about five seconds.
Handshakes and pats on the back were passed around among big smiles, and the great thing is that it was happening on both sides of the pits. Afterward, we kicked back and rehashed the fun we had, just like “real” racing.
In fact, it was real racing, with all its attendant excitement and competition but without much of the danger. Had we crashed, there would probably have been tears of laughter from all the teasing instead of tears of pain from a full-size get-off. And not only are the speeds and danger at a low level, so is the cost.
It makes me thinkâ€¦ Since the Oregon Donor team in Medford is having all the fun on our project CRF50, it would only be fair if I represented the California office with some 50cc roadracing. How ’bout it Honda? I’m ready for my factory ride!
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