Finding a gate full of two-strokes is difficult these days, especially full-size and open-class bikes. Make a trip out to a vintage race and you’re likely to see more smokers in one day than you will all season at the regular motocross track. There’s plenty of thundering four-strokes as well, which we learned by heading down to wine country in Sonoma, California for the West Coast Moto Jam at Infineon Raceway. The Moto Jam is a motorcycle nut’s dream – a week full of multiple racing disciplines including AMA Pro Road Racing with Motorcycle-Superstore.com SuperSport, AMA SuperBike, Daytona Sportbike and XR1200, Eddie Mulder Flat Track, SupermotoUSA, TTXGP Electric Motorcycles and the AHRMA National Vintage Motocross. Other attractions feature a track day on the road course, LeoVince Grape Crusher Run and Donnie Hansen’s Motocross Academy.
Motorcycle Hall of Famer Brad Lackey is the force behind the vintage motocross which is dubbed the Nor Cal Classic. Lackey’s event is in its sixth year and is sanctioned by the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) – the largest vintage and post vintage racing organization in the U.S. Racing on Saturday and Sunday it’s a double-points event with Round 5 and Round 6 of the National series. One of the many bonuses is that Lackey runs a CZ versus Husky race on both days. This one-moto-per-day class pits the Czech bikes against the Swedish regardless of age, skill or displacement purely for bragging rights.
Generally speaking, in order to classify as vintage the bike has to be pre-1975 and can only have seven inches of front wheel travel and four inches of rear wheel travel. Anything newer typically features long-travel suspension and is classified as post-vintage. There’s a long list of exceptions and details, so for a full description of vintage and post-vintage rules, take a look at the AHRMA website. The Nor Cal Classic is a vintage-only event, something that Lackey would like to change to attract all of the post-vintage racers who get left out (roughly 250 vintage riders signed up for both days). MotoUSA has a lot of motocross bikes lying around the garage, but none of them are more than a year old. Lackey sourced a bike from Steve Machado Racing (Dublin,CA) and signed us up in the Sportsman 250 Intermediate division. Fresh out of excuses it was time to head south to the beautiful Sonoma region to discover what vintage motocross racing is all about.
My first real dirt bike was a 1977 Suzuki RM125 (post-vintage) so I’ve always had a soft spot for the old machines. The RM hasn’t run since I first started shaving but I’ve dutifully packed around for over a decade with the intent of riding it again someday. I had a few assumptions about the vintage scene, but you know what they say about assumptions. By the end of two days it was clear that only some of them were correct. First off, I was blown away at the quality of machines. Some of these bikes look better than they probably did on the showroom floor. Just because they’re old, and maybe a little more so, the men who own and race these machines take very good care of them. There are definitely well-worn bikes and some are showpieces only, but for the most part these guys are willing to get dirty.
Secondly, everyone likes close action, but rubbing is not necessarily racing in the vintage world. There’s something of an unspoken rule that you don’t knock anyone down. It makes perfect sense considering that the men are typically even older than their steeds. I was clued-in to that after I pinched a guy against the hay bales with just three turns left in my opening moto. I saw him dust off and pulled over at the finish line to shake his hand and apologize, but was dismissed with an irritated wave. It wasn’t exactly Tony D vs. The Jammer, but it was a last-lap battle and I had a quarter bike-length on him so I figured he should have let off. I probably should have realized that his bike didn’t have any better brakes than mine. I’m not exactly in the hunt for a season title and we both have to be at work on Monday, so it wouldn’t have hurt to give him a few extra inches – now I know.
Another ill-conceived notion is that vintage racing is only for old guys. There were a surprising number of younger riders at Infineon. Still in my late-20s, I definitely looked to be one of the youngest, but VMX seems to have a bright future as there were plenty of wrinkle-free riders. I was also surprised at how many matching sets of riding gear there were though the hodgepodge getups are aplenty and quite entertaining. I saw more OTG goggles in one weekend than I have in the past 10 years. These guys are keeping Scott in business.
I met up with Lackey on Saturday morning and he introduced me to Machado, who had several bikes prepped and ready to go. I was quickly welcomed into the inner circle and family and friends were offering tips and encouragement immediately. The chatter became silent when the CZ refused to start on its way to tech inspection. Five jaws simultaneously dropped. Steve Machado’s bikes always, always start. Lackey even returned, commenting that the CZ must really not want me to ride it. We tried new spark plugs, kicked the left-side start lever until we were blue in the face and then tried to bump start it down the hill, all without success. I was a little dubious as I rolled Steve’s CZ 400 down to tech and left him to tinker. When I returned, it was up and running, but everyone was staring at me like some kind of bad omen.
Herbert Schmitz (top and above, right) is a multi-time German National Motocross champion. Steve Machado (above, orange) was a speedy expert in his prime and now is a respected AHRMA tuner and racer.
By the time the weekend was over it was clear that Machado really is a tuning guru. His background is in suspension tuning for modern bikes, though obviously he knows about custom engine tweaking and immaculate restoration. Even the tech guy slobbered over the 250 and peppered me with questions about how I managed such clean modifications. Aside from a cranky introduction, the CZ ran flawlessly and was clearly faster than some of my competitors’ machines. Check out the sidebar for more information about the bike.
Lackey’s accomplishments are well documented and our crew had even more star power with multi-time German National Motocross champion Herbert Schmitz. The former champ was on hand to ride a big-bore prepared by the Maico Meister (Lackey’s former factory mechanic, Steve Stasiefski) in the expert division. Despite the racing credentials it was difficult to tell whether this was a race or a tailgating BBQ. Our pit was set up right next to the putting green and in the perfect spot to view road racing (we saw multiple crashes in Turn 4). More friends and family popped in throughout the day and the beer flowed early and steady for those who weren’t racing.
I did a pair of 10-minute practice sessions to get a feel for the old CZ, being mindful of the red stickers on the back of novice riders’ helmets. As an intermediate I was labeled with yellow and experts wear black so that we can keep an eye on each other out on the track. The CZ’s narrow, square-edged fuel tank gave me some concern and rightfully so. After a few turns spent feeling things out I picked up the pace, slid forward for a corner and promptly felt my testicles relocate north of my intestines. Once I could breathe again I spent the rest of the time figuring out how to corner without moving off the small seat.
It didn’t take long for some old timers to show me the fast lines. I was sticking to the course which was clearly cut into the grassy hillside, but the wily veterans hosed me by turning a chicane into a straightaway. Some of the hay bales had been moved back from the edge of the track and as long as the riders stayed between them it was all legal. Fortunately it was just practice so I chalked it up as a learning curve and headed back to the pits to wait for my first moto, Race 5.
There’s plenty of stuff about VMX that is a little off compared to what modern motocross riders are accustomed to, one of which is the starting procedure. The Nor Cal Classic uses a split rubber-band start technique. Riders line up behind a long line of surgical tubing, split in half, which is held in the middle by the starter. He stands with his back to the riders and crosses his arms to hide the release, then lets go of the rubber bands. There is no gate to physically hold riders back, so I learned again that getting a rolling start is completely legal. Fortunately the Machado CZ is a fast bike and I was able to snare third-place starts in every moto of the weekend.
My first day was to be marred by poor shifting. The CZ shift lever is way above the rider’s boot, and the throw is enormous. You basically have to try to knee yourself in the chin in order to upshift. Machado had warned me about the shifting process. He swore I couldn’t hurt the transmission and advised against using the clutch. I took that as meaning “don’t use it very much,” but I should have listened better. Using the clutch lets the engine fall off and in the rare occasions that I did find a higher gear, the bike instantly bogged. That led to fanning the left hand, which is really only possible for about half a lap before the monster clutch springs seize the forearm. The only time I was passed all weekend was when I missed a shift, so instead of landing a dual podium on Saturday I wound up with a 4-5 finish.
Then the rains came. It dumped Saturday night, and while the road racing circuit gives up at the first hint of weather like a fat kid in dodge ball (actually it’s a safety measure due to Infineon’s barrier walls), old motocross bikes made history racing rain or shine. Sunday morning was damp and the first practice session was sloppy, but by the time Race 1 took off, the course could not have been any better. Overcast skies kept the track perfect all day and only a few sprinkles fell during the races. It was cool, comfortable and tacky – perfect. The track was run in reverse, which made for fewer jumps and longer downhills. Since none of the bikes have brakes to speak of, the downhills played into my favor with the higher-compression cylinder giving some engine braking and the thinner, lightweight chassis letting me charge farther towards the corner.
I finally stopped abusing the clutch (which returned the favor and quit abusing me) and was rewarded with nearly perfect shifting in my first race. Machado wasn’t kidding – clutch off the start and don’t even touch it until the finish. Another third-place start, quick pass into the lead on the second downhill and then it was a battle to the checkers. My competitor kept me honest and I prayed for clean shifting. With only one or two bobbles that were quickly remedied by slamming down on the shifter, I was able to withstand the pressure and take the moto win. My antagonist, Patrick Leonard, also on a ’74 CZ, was right there, pulling even on the last lap, but I weaved and swerved my Czech bike enough to slow him down in the sections where he was faster. He offered a high-five and thumbs-up at the end of the race, much better than the irritated dismissal of Saturday. I couldn’t wait to get back out for Moto 2 and do it all over again.
Above: This duo had an epic battle in one of the expert divisions. Below: Steve Machado works his CZ 400 around the track on Saturday.
Unfortunately the battle never materialized and Leonard took the victory and overall win. It was the only time all weekend I got mixed up on the race order, but I showed up to the starting line after my class was already working on their second lap. The starter allowed me to join anyway and the CZ screamed up to third place. It was frustrating but I would have felt really bad if the guys in the pits had been keying off of my start and missed their races as well. Fortunately they realized the error and were able to scramble together in time for their motos.
Being that the CZ, at least in that configuration, had never been raced prior to the Moto Jam, it was a bummer to miss a chance at sending Machado home with a souvenir trophy. Not that he would have cared since he raked in his own collection, but still, it would have been nice as a way of saying thanks.
The road racing action was carried on a local radio station which made for a nice retreat from the cool temps when sitting inside a truck or trailer. It would have been better if the air time was also used to announce scheduling and let people know what was going on at the other events. This might have helped keep me from making the stupid mistake of missing that second moto start. Probably not, but knowing when the flat track main events were would have been cool also. Basically the Moto Jam faces the same challenge of every racetrack, getting the P.A. system heard over the sound of racing. In all, the scheduling worked very well throughout the weekend as far as I’m concerned. Very few fans filled the seats, but those that did were in for a smorgasbord of good times.
Several MotorcycleUSA and Motorcycle-Superstore employees were on hand for the various disciplines of racing. We provided coverage of the AMA Pro Road Racing, competed in the TTXGP and had a big vendor booth set up to interact with race fans. Throughout the weekend, my cohorts managed to stop in for a quick visit to our ragtag crew up on the hill. For as much flair and presentation at some of the other races, it only took a few minutes of hanging out at the VMX to appreciate the low-key, friendly atmosphere, great food, interesting characters and awesome racing. Most of them wished they could just skip the rest of the weekend and hang out in the dirt.
It’s hard not to like the AHRMA’s cast of vintage characters. We don’t
know the guy on the right, but his mustache is incredible.
Big thanks to Brad Lackey, Steve Machado and their entire crew of friends and family for welcoming me into their racing program for the weekend. Now it’s up to me to dust off that old Suzuki in the garage and show it a little love. Vintage MX just found another fan. Official AHRMA results show a 4-4 moto score for 4th overall. I’m not quite sure how that came about with Saturday motos (4-5) and Sunday (1-3), but it doesn’t really matter. The most important thing I took away from the Nor Cal Classic is a renewed enthusiasm for old bikes, greater appreciation for old riders and a burning desire to get more involved. At the end of the weekend I was more excited about racing than I have been in a long time.
The closest thing I can compare it to is racing pit bikes with a group of friends. It’s as competitive as you want it to be but without the pressure normally found at races. Speeds are lower than modern bikes, the track is appropriately fun and the overall danger level is much lower than modern machines. High budget, low budget, it doesn’t matter – everyone is there to have a good time, BS and enjoy the simple mechanical wonders that are vintage dirt bikes.