Regardless of our skill level, we had the bike, the gear and first-class transportaion just like any other factory rider. Actually, the factory backing ended with the Precision Concepts XR650R and we had to scrounge up some matching gear and loaded our trusty vans for these desert voyages. Still, it was more than we could have hoped for.
Factory stardom. Only a remote few ever achieve such lofty status, and for those that do, their time is often very short. The cutthroat world of competitive off-road racing has no room for a bunch of computer-hugging journos like us, and yet we achieved the highest honor attainable by virtue of a cool idea and a willing cast of supportive motorcycle enthusiasts.
Once we caught the desert bug, the notion of wailing through sandy washes and dodging cacti was something we couldn’t get out of our heads. To top it off, Dana Brown released his film Dust to Glory, bringing the intensity and charm of the Baja 1000 to life. So to make a go of it, we enlisted the help of American Honda to provide a 2006 XR650R. From there we sent it off to Precision Concepts, the SoCal-based shop that prepares every single off-road bike for the factory Honda teams.
Precision Concepts started out in 1994 when owner Bob Bell took the experience he gained working for a Yamaha dealer near San Diego and began his own operation. A former District 38 racer of both desert and motocross during the 1970s and ’80s, Bell knew a fair bit when it came to setting up bikes, particularly suspension. He opened the doors to PC in San Diego’s suburb of El Cajon.
With business growing, Bell and his wife, Diane, soon enlisted the part-time help of a young, energetic Eric Siraton. Originally confined to the tasks of removing and disassembling suspension, Eric put in his time during his first couple years with Precision Concepts through 1996-97. It was shortly thereafter that the company began their association with the man that would carry them to the top of the desert racing world. Or rather, they would carry him.
Our bike was reduced to it’s individual elements at the Murrieta, CA race shop before we even got to throw a leg over it. Even the motor was stripped apart for inspection. No stone is left unturned with factory Honda.
Johnny Campbell, whose illustrious career was just beginning to take flight, began working with Bell on developing his race bikes. Already with ties to Honda, Campbell’s racing success increased immediately with his new partners, and a year later the two companies were teamed full-time with Honda’s factory race program. The birth of this dynamic duo and their subsequent dominance of the sport spearheaded by Campbell eventually morphed into their current symbiotic relationship. Precision Concepts grew to the point where Bell was able to pack up a few tools and open another shop in Murrieta, CA which is where our bone-stock XR began its transformation.
From the moment I walked through their door, I knew that we were in for a real treat. Sitting in the entryway was Campbell’s 2004 Baja 1000-winning bike complete with lights and the dirt it acquired on its last ride. A trip into the actual workshop revealed a whole slew of Honda motorcycles in various stages of modification. In one corner, all by itself was a KTM 525 looking every bit as nasty as the clan of red machines. Bell was quick to point out that PC offers full suspension modifications for all brands of off-road bikes, but Hondas are their main focus, especially when it comes to motor work. Siraton is now the man in charge of engine building at the Murrieta shop, having tagged along for the move. Bell elected to stick to his main interest in suspension, which is where most of their business comes from. Diane, of course, made the move as well and the original trio is now joined by Robert “Goody” Goodnough.
Regaling me with tales of desert racing lore and the promise of a championship-winning machine, I gladly ate up their valuable time and disrupted their work for an entire half-day. By the time I left, sans XR, I was completely confident that working with these guys was definitely the right idea. Let’s face it, if it’s good enough for Honda, it’s good enough for you and I, that’s for damn sure.
Tucked away in a dingy Mexican garage somewhere in Ensenada, the Precision Concepts XR650R holds a striking pose in the streaming sunlight. From the moment we laid eyes on it we were in love with the sheer beauty of our factory replica.
Las Vegas to Reno – Race Test Part 1
After dropping off the stock bike and hanging around the PC shop for an afternoon, I never got to see the bike again until the MCUSA crew arrived in Nevada for the Vegas to Reno desert race. When I did, all I could say was “Wow.” Actually, I said quite a bit more than that, but the amount of expletives that ushered from my excited mouth would require far too much censoring to put into print. The bike was awesome. Not only mechanically speaking, but also visually. The factory replica graphics were simple and clean, possibly even boring to the casual observer, but it gave the XR more upscale distinction than any flashy color scheme.
Like on many factory motocross bikes, teams run graphics that are similar to stock in order to help promote the manufacturer. Off-road racing is no different and on the PC bike stock radiator shrouds were used along with stock graphics. The black Honda wings extended onto the oversized IMS fuel tank in the same manner as the stock version but created a stark contrast against the opaque whiteness of the enlarged fuel cell. An anodized blue triple clamp, rear fender sticker kit, Precision Concept decals, meaty Dunlops, a Renthal Gold chain and sprockets, wave-rotor front brake, full system Pro Circuit T-4 exhaust, red shock spring and hand-painted engine cases were enough to keep us stealing glances at the bike all week. With Campbell’s prominence in desert racing, more than a few racers and fans took note of our apparent rip-off. The ones who took the time to find out were impressed to know that it had more in common with Johnny’s bike than simple aesthetics.
In its full glory, the PC bike was a real beauty. This was the setup for our warm-up race in Nevada, but the Baja 1000 version was only slightly different.
Like any father, Bob Bell wouldn’t send his own flesh and blood hurtling through the desert on anything less than the best possible machinery available. Through years of testing on his own and with the factory Honda squad, he and his crew have been able to develop their own engine and suspension specs. Each can be tailored for specific desert races and accommodate differences in elevation and terrain type. As a result, Bob’s son, Robby Bell, has been able to develop his skills on highly-tuned equipment. The payoff has been great considering that he and teammate Kendall Norman are now Honda’s “B” team and poised to take over for the dominating duo of Campbell and Steve Hengeveld.
Having knowledge of bike setup specific to the Las Vegas to Reno course is just one more example of how well these guys have their act together. Not surprisingly, our bike ran flawlessly, whether cruising in fifth along dry lake beds or rapped out in second and third on its way to the top of a mountain range.
Riding the bike was completely different than the stocker. Granted, everything was different being in the Nevada desert under race conditions and with my accompanying mental state of fear/dread accented by the slightest twinge of excitement. Right off the bat it was obvious this bike produced way more power, as was confirmed on the dyno. The difference was very noticeable from the seat.
“When you crack the throttle open, get ready for some mind-numbing speeds,” tester Joe Wallace says. “It still doesn’t hit nearly as hard as a 450, but for desert racing I’m not really sure you want it to. Out there the key seems to be smooth and fast.”
Reading the dyno chart alone could tell you that this bike was made for the desert. This kind of riding is wide open and the PC bike does it better than anything else. The difference between our race bike and a stock configuration was huge.
That’s exactly what the PC bike is, cranking out a peak of 53.5 horsepower at 7200 rpm, over eight ponies more than stock output. While the original bike can move right along on at top speed, it’s nothing like riding the factory bike. After Siraton went through every internal piece by hand, installed an HRC power-up kit, tweaked the jetting, uncorked the emissions, installed a full-system Pro Circuit exhaust and bolted on a 47-tooth rear sprocket, the wind speeds alone will almost rip your helmet visor off. They clocked Campbell’s bike at 112 mph just before handing us the same machine. Top end is really where the motor shines and it rewards high-rpm use and shifting.
Considering the weight of this bike, wheeling over obstacles takes some planning ahead. You can’t just hoist the front end with upper body strength. Throttle application and body positioning are key to lightening the front end, so with the increased top end it was much easier to lift the 21-inch Dunlop 742 over obstacles at high speeds. Thankfully, Precision Concepts installed an oversize wave rotor on the front brake so that we were actually able to slow the monster down. Braking performance was improved drastically with better response, power and feel at the lever.
The other area our modified bike really excelled over the stocker was in the suspension department. The fork was drastically improved on sharp impacts and was much more stable at speed. Several of us hit 100+ mph on the Nevada and Mexican lake beds, and the front end never wandered at all. What had started as a casual riding, under-sprung fork was transformed into a whoop-eating, rock-gobbling, abuse-loving piece of art. Even the exterior was transformed with a set of carbon-fiber fork guards.
The rear shock was built to handle some serious abuse, utilizing the shock body from a Honda CR500 and was fully revalved. Hammering through sand whoops is one area where we experienced problems with the stock unit compacting after several hits and then spitting us off when the travel was completely used up. Bob Bell must’ve done something right because we didn’t experience anything like that with our race bike.
After all the work was done, Bell made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want the suspension components to ever leave our sight. If the bike was stolen and we could find only one thing, it had better be that custom-built, factory shock. It was clear that he didn’t want to give up any trade secrets the PC team had discovered through countless hours of desert testing with Campbell and Hengeveld.
Our good buddy, Tom Watson, who operates his own suspension modification company called Watson Performance, later oogled over the craftsmanship when he joined us to race Baja. But, out of respect for his fellow tradesman, never delved into the interior setup. The value of having your suspension set up properly for a particular racing application is astounding.
The main issue for us would be that the type of riders that would be using the PC bike varied in several ways. Our riders varied in skill level from novice to expert and had major discrepancies on the weight scale. MotorcycleUSA owner president Don Becklin was easily the lightest rider at 150 pounds, while several others topped the 200-lb mark. Obviously, suspension performance would be a compromise, but Bell was aware of the situation before gutting our Kayabas and working his valving magic. Trusting in his expertise, we headed to Nevada to race and all we had to do was bleed out any pressure in the fork and set the race sag no higher than 96mm for our lightest rider. No sweat.
Riding in the desert doesn’t reward riding while sitting down thanks to the number of whoops, g-outs and unforeseen rocks. Perhaps that’s part of why the XR is so well suited for this kind of riding. Moving forward on the seat is troublesome in stock form, so trying to scoot up on the 3.4 gallon IMS is impossible. The stock ergonomics are comfortable during the occasional smooth section with a wide, cushy seat, but the footpegs are high and bars low in stock mold. That makes for a challenging combination when trying to stand up and ride. PC replaced the wimpy footpegs with IMS Pro Series units for added grip and a wider platform. The difference was huge and made it much easier to find your way back onto the pegs and get in control when rough terrain blasts your feet of the pets.
Deep sand, rocks, whoops, you name it and the best way to navigate most obstacles is standing up. A few modifications made that an easier task on our race bike, but covering long distances on the pegs was still no walk in the park.
Unlike the new motocrossers and 450cc off-roaders, the XR650 still comes with cheesy, weak steel handlebars. To address the reliability issue and to make standing more comfortable, Precision Concepts slapped on a set of Renthal Fatbars and a Scotts adjustable steering stabilizer. The riding position on the factory bike was much more comfortable than the stocker, but a rider still feels slightly hunched over when standing.
“The Renthal handlebars and the IMS footpegs were major ergonomic improvements,” said MotorcycleUSA’s Joe Wallace. “I did have a problem getting used to the steering stabilizer. Basically, I never really got the feel for it.” However, manipulating the bike with a rider’s body took much less effort with the new layout and improved suspension.
I hit quite a few rocks that would have sent me to the ground if riding a stock XR. Being that it is difficult to imagine a worse terrain, the fork did a good job over everything, but it was great through the deep sand whoops and gravel washes fraught with hidden dangers. When a 300+ pound motorcycle finds a buried rock at high speeds, it doesn’t just hit the rock, it plows into it mercilessly. This is when Bell’s genius becomes apparent. While the bike didn’t handle every rock with the greatest of ease, it certainly did much better when riding at speed. The fork worked much better at absorbing sharp impacts and resisting deflection with some momentum behind it, and was leaps and bounds above the stock equipment.
Almost as numerous as the rocks were the whoops. Stock suspension settings allow the bike to wallow and push the front end in sandy whoop sections and bottom out on the bigger ones. Not so with our PC bike. Traction on the front end was better and it tracked straighter through these sections. We would get into heavier whoops in Mexico where the results were the same.
These were our two bikes to race in Nevada and it’s obvious just by looking at them that the 917 bike is a nasty desert steed. The clean-cut look, modified suspension and altered cockpit made the PC 650 our bike of choice. It was too bad, so sad for our guys on the almost-stock 918 bike.
Out back there was a big improvement also. The shock never bottomed on g-outs and tracked really well. In Nevada, fast roads looked as smooth as glass in spots but were always filled with small grooves from the tires of riders ahead of us. Either the front or back end was going to wander through these sections, and a smart rider would opt for the latter during high-speed work. To lighten the front, simply accelerating hard and moving the body back towards the rear fender caused the shock to squat and power the bike straight ahead. This technique worked well in the whoops, and the abundance of power on tap actually made the suspension work better.
I didn’t catch much air during my 189-mile portion of the race, which makes me a puss or a genius depending on who you ask. However, I felt confident at the time that the factory shock would handle most normal jumps with ease. We later tested the jumping capabilities during photo sessions in Mexico and the bike responded very well. It’s no freestyle weapon, but only our heaviest riders mentioned bottoming on high-speed hits.
After giving the bike to our third and final rider, our initial test of the PC bike was soon to be over. Becklin took a nasty spill that left him with six broken ribs and the bike with enough damage to call it quits. The thing probably would have made it to the finish, but none of our exhausted riders wanted to risk another 100 miles against the approaching trophy trucks.
The high- and low-speed adjustable Scott’s steering stabilizer eradicated any high-seed wobbles and made us feel comfortable enough to plow over things we would normally go out of our way to avoid.
We had a team that rode another XR650 that had been slightly modified by our staff with bolt-on accessories. My hat is off to those guys who rode stock suspension from Vegas to Reno because I can’t imagine how terrible it must have been for them. It has been shown time and time again that a PC-prepped XR650R is the best machinery available for this application. I wouldn’t choose anything different, with the exception of some minor suspension adjustments. We couldn’t ride as fast as Campbell, so if there were some way to drop the suspension down a bit more to our level then that would’ve been ideal. The bike was abused by three riders who all used the same setup and seemed to suit all of us, though we’re not quite sure what caused Don’s accident.
During the race, the motor had been lugged a couple gears too low and revved a bit too high, but it worked well enough in any situation to get a trio of desert beginners through virtual hell. The suspension was far superior to stock and the motor was seemingly indestructible. We doused an airbox fire with sand, stalled out and crashed in silt, bounced the cases off boulders and cart-wheeled through the brush, yet I was still able to ride it back to the van at the end of the day.
This is our final rider swap in Nevada. The PC bike had survived around 360 miles of torture up to this point and was running strong. It wouldn’t last much longer, but our problems and dismal results were by no means the result of inferior equipment.
Our DNF was a disappointing outcome in our first experience with the PC machine, even though it was through no mechanical fault. Still, we finally got a real taste of what desert racing was about and what kind of machine it takes to be successful. Knowing that Precision Concepts would fix our XR right up, we took all the positives we could and high-tailed it back to Oregon to prepare for Mexico. The Baja 1000 was going to be twice as long, and twice as rough.
Baja 1000 – Race Test Part 2
During the time between races, Precision Concepts performed a 34-point inspection and maintenance procedure on our bike, way more than the spoke tightening and tire change it would have gotten from us. Despite showing considerable wear after only 400 miles in Nevada, PC stuck to its guns with the Dunlop 739 rear and 742 front tire combo. If it’s good enough for Honda…
Racing in Mexico was even more of a challenge in bike setup because we had twice as many riders. Our optimism was high, however, since the XR650 owns Baja racing. Our bike was the exact machine that has now taken nine consecutive overall victories in the hands of Johnny Campbell. We had the ultimate bike, race experience and a week of pre-running under our belts, but we soon found that this would be a different kind of test compared to our Nevada excursion.
During the prepping that PC did before Baja, they took the time to make sure we had the full experience by giving one side of our bike the Mexican colors while keeping the red, white and blue on the opposite engine case.
Things were going great initially. Our first riders all adapted to the bike and were able to go much faster than during our pre-running on stock XRs. Their findings were the same as our previous reports: great motor, improved ergonomics and handling, and stellar suspension that could be even better if set up exclusively for them. As the sun set, however, our testing schedule turned into an endurance test. From that point on, roughly 400 miles out of the full 709, we simply rode the living crap out of that bike.
Changing the air filter for the last time at Honda Pit 9, our once-beautiful bike had been reduced to a rolling jumble of hacked electrical wires and a disintegrating motor. Failed attempts at fixing a faulty lighting system resulted in the exposed wires protruding from every direction, and the motor had a knocking sound that was growing ever louder. We had boiled out most of the radiator fluid while overheating in the sand washes and the clutch was nearly finished. All this and still 300 miles to go.
Mexico proved to be the ultimate test locale for our PC bike. Johnny Campbell has used this same machine to win the title nine consecutive years, so there’s no denying that this is home to the XR650. We put in over 28 hours of hard running on the poor thing and didn’t take a bit of care with it. With the exception of a fluke defect, it took every ounce of abuse we could give.
To make a long story short, the bike held up all the way to the end despite running full-tilt-boogie for the final 150 miles. Things were pretty slow through the night sections, but once the sun rose so did the rpm. Though probably not making the full 53.5 ponies at that point, our speedometer climbed like a Himalayan pack animal and we finished the most punishing race of our combined experiences. Our Precision Concepts XR650 had been worked nonstop for over 28 hours. We finished, barely, but just that was a huge testament to the Honda’s reliability and PC’s excellent craftsmanship. As it turned out, Precision Concepts had a hand in building the top-six finishing motorcycles in the 2005 Baja 1000.
Following Baja, we took our bike back to PC to find out what was making that awful racket in the engine. Siraton wagered that it was going to be a problem with the cam bearing, a very dangerous and rare occurrence. Sure enough, he had discovered, diagnosed and repaired the faulty bearing in just 90 minutes. Luckily, he said, the race wasn’t a true 1000 miles; otherwise the entire head would have ended up grenading. It was lucky in more ways than one because, despite the copious amounts of support, it’s doubtful that Siraton would have been able to spare a couple days out of his hectic schedule for a complete rebuild.
“Honda wants to win,” says Bell of their dedication. “They never show up at a race to get second.” It’s that meticulous preparation and tireless testing that have pushed Honda (and PC) to the forefront of desert racing in the last decade.”
Precision Concepts has been there every step of the way. The fact that every off-road factory bike used by Honda comes out of Precision Concepts was enough to make believers out of us without even riding our bike. What we found was that a PC race bike is truly phenomenal in its range of capabilities. A stock XR650R can get schlubs like us through a 500-mile desert race, even the Baja 1000, but it simply won’t do the job for the most highly skilled professional racers on the planet. The PC bike has been developed by those riders to do just that, and yet it simultaneously serves the needs of much lesser riders.
Not only do the guys at PC do excellent work in the shop, but they bust their butts in the field as well. Bob Bell and his crew are passionate about what they do and the level of pride that they take in their work won’t allow them to let others take over at the races. If you’re at a desert race anytime soon and witness the factory Honda squad performing a pit stop like they are here, chances are the PC boys are right in the middle of it with greasy hands and dusty grins.
With their combination of enthusiasm, reputation as bike builders, unparalleled support and, above all, the performance of our machine, Precision Concepts is a company that made us proud to be associated with them. Not one to boast or brag, the soft spoken Bell still carries plenty of pride and conviction about his company’s product. “We deliver the best possible bike anyone could ever ride,” he says.
If you’ve been paying even the slightest attention to desert race results over the past decade, you’ll know he speaks the truth.
For a full price list of the parts and labor on this beauty, click here. Otherwise, cut to the chase and give us your thoughts on our experience as factory riders.
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