A bunch of grown kids riding mini-sized roadracers fulfill racing fantasies inexpensively and with relatively low risk.
It's true; I have the best job in the world. I can test ride virtually any bike I choose, and the most it usually takes is a phone call to set it up. Lots of times I don't even have to ask. But after riding machines as exciting as the latest literbikes and even Aaron Gobert's championship-winning R1, the bike on which I had the most fun this summer has puny 12-inch wheels.
Yep, Honda's diminutive NSR50R is the delivery device that provides major doses of two-wheel grins. I knew we were onto a good thing after riding the HRC-developed roadracer
at its press introduction last year, and this was confirmed after taking part in my first race
last November. The little two-stroke screamer happily ate up the thrashing I was inflicting on it, and doing it at a mini-sized budget.
The great advantage of racing a small bike such as the NSR is that the danger and cost is mini while the grin factor is huge. In my experience, racing a mini is even more fun than competing on a big bike because tension levels are so much lower. In full-size racing, the fear of wadding your $10K bike is second only to the omnipresent reality of your fragile mortality. In mini racing, the risk is only slightly above playing X-Box.
"Meow," you might scoff, as your backroad heroics on your Gixxer Thou are legendary in your herd. That may be so, but until you've proved your prowess on a racetrack, you can't ever really know how quick you actually are. So plough in a couple grand of race mods to your steed, shell out $350 each weekend for sticky tires, plus entry fees, and put your shiny baby in harm's way on the track.
Sound daunting? Yeah, that's because it is. But that's not the case with the mini racing. Recent NSR owners tell tales of getting the trick little Hondas from dealers for less than $3000, a tankful of premix last all day, and tires should last an entire season.
A quartet of NSRs led by Radly Baird (320), Justin Ducat (83) and Scott Gilbert (119). Their combined ages don't amount to that of the author (67), but he would go on to take second-place overall in the Formula 50 races.
After regaling my co-workers with tales of my exploits on the NSR, I convinced Editorial Director Ken Hutchison to join me at a CMRRA race last June. While most mini events are held at go-kart tracks, this one would be held at the full-size Streets of Willow circuit near Rosamond, CA. The Sunday sprint races would use a shortened version of the 1.8-mile track, while the endurance race on Saturday would run the full distance!
I knew how Hutch's weekend would go when he pulled into the pits wearing a broad smile on his flushed face after his first practice stint. Ken was soon running only a few seconds off my pace, despite his lack of experience on the NSR and his 40-some-odd extra pounds.
Kenny and I teamed up, naturally, for the two-hour endurance race, and I had perhaps the most epic battle of my somewhat limited racing career during my first stint. The clash was provided by a young rider on a supermoto-style XR100, which had a definite power advantage over our NSR50. He would pull me up the Streets' hills and down the straights, but I had higher corner speed on my side.
These dichotomous performance characteristics resulted in a swap of positions on nearly every lap, sometimes more than once. I'd hold him up on the straights and he'd be in my way in the corners in what was 30 minutes of unrelenting competition. I vividly remember passing the XR is the massively cambered bowl turn at the Streets and looking back at my youthful competitor, playfully urging him with hand gestures to stay behind me, but he ruefully shook his head tucked in behind his dirt bike's number-plate to let me know the combat wasn't going to stop. We ceaselessly passed and re-passed each other until it was time to hand off our steeds to our partners and, after passing off the NSR to Ken, I reflected back upon the wonderful dice I'd just had with the faceless young racer.
It didn't matter if our top speeds wouldn't warrant a speeding ticket - the racing excitement was as intense as anything I'd experienced on a full-sized racebike. And it didn't concern me that my competitor was young enough to be my son! I was out there giving it my all, timing my shifts to the last 100 rpm and blazing into the bowl turn in sixth gear, just breathing the throttle for a moment before twisting the throttle as far as it would go as I sailed around at a dizzying lean angle. Losing a tenth of a second from a mistimed shift or an early brake application resulted in an immediate loss of position, so my nerves were as tight as a banjo string for 1800 consecutive seconds.
An eclectic mix of racers and mini machinery head into Turn 1 at the Streets of Willow.
I was out there, in the moment, living an adrenaline-fuelled existence and challenging my riding skills as much as I dared. I was hard-wired to my machine, working hard to extract the utmost potential out of the sweet little NSR. This is what racing is all about!
Some might say that you can get the same experience, only better, by racing a "real" motorcycle, like a 600 supersport, and that may be true for some people. But I'd argue that mini roadracing has the edge in terms of a fun factor. If I were pushing a 600 to its limits like I was on the NSR, the consequences of a mistake would be geometrically higher. Yes, it's not impossible to get hurt racing a mini, but serious injuries are exceedingly rare, giving a racer the confidence to stretch the bike's performance envelope.
And not only are bikes and danger levels small, so is the cost. Even though the endurance race featured a mandatory fuel stop, we might've been able to get through our 100 miles of racing on just one tankful of 1.95 gallons. In addition, I've since gone on to race three more events on the same tires!
Entry fees, too, are minimal. At CMRRA events, I can race three classes for $90, which buys morning practice time and two races for each class. You can't even buy one full-size race tire for that, something you'll have to purchase a pair of each race if you want to be competitive on a bigger bike.
Another perk of mini racing is the friendly paddock scene, as fellow racers are glad to help with advice, spare parts or some BBQ grub. At the Streets, our stock 42-tooth rear sprocket was too short for its long straights, but we were able to borrow a 40-toother from all-around good-guy racer Jeff Hawkins. It aided our bike's top speed quite a bit, which in turn helped us beat Hawkins on the track. But at the end of it all, there was no animosity, just kudos for a job well done and the establishment of a new friendship.
Kenny's chief antagonist during his four sprint races was this guy, 10-year-old Benny Solis Jr.
Sunday's sprint races were every bit as fun and exciting as the endurance race. Racing the Formula 50 and Formula GP races in the Beginner category, Kenny had his hands full trying to keep pace with riders that had more mini experience. Despite spotting many of his competitors more weight than he'd care to admit, Hutch put in a solid performance in his first time out, bagging third place overall in both his classes.
"Racing the Honda NSR50 was an absolute hoot!" he said afterward. "I had so much fun on that little bike - more than I could have ever expected."
Hutch had his greatest on-track battles with a rider one-third his age and weight, fast 10-year-old Benny Solis Jr. Solis was also riding an NSR, but without the burden of an extra 100 pounds!
"It all came down to the white flag lap," Hutchison vividly recalled. "Solis was in third place and it took a few laps for me to finally track him down. I knew I could get him in the final turn so I took him on the inside and got my first and only good drive up the straightaway. He caught up to me in the first turn but I managed to hold him off, and from there the third-place finish was mine!"
As for me, my two second-place finishes in the Amateur Formula 50 class gave me the runner-up spot overall. And a 4-3 result (third overall) in Vet Modified wasn't bad considering I was on a stock bike racing against much stronger machinery. I had some real scraps out there, including a couple of last-corner, last-lap passes, allowing my competitive juices a chance to gush without risking life or limb.
Ken, his first time in the mini scene, said he was impressed by the family atmosphere at the track. "Ten-year-olds do it, grandpas do it, girls do it, moms do it, fat guys do it," he noted about the diversity of racers.
When all was said and done, both Kenny and I had ridden the bajezzus out of the NSR50R, won second place in the endurance race, and scored four overall podium finishes in our sprint classes. Not bad on one set of stock tires and less than $10 in fuel.
"I was so proud of Benny Solis Jr.," Hutch said about his young, pint-sized competitor. "The kid never gave up! When I had a chance to talk with him and his dad between races, the most important thing that came from the discussion was that they feel this is a perfect way for them to hang out and do something they both enjoy."
At the end of our two days of racing, Ken and I discussed the merits of mini roadracing. And since it was new to him, I asked for his take on the whole experience.
"There are a couple things about racing that scares off many people: Danger and cost. In mini racing, the biggest cost is out of the way once you get your bike. Tires seem to last an eternity and a couple gallons of gas lasts forever.
"And the danger level is not as high because the speeds are much lower than a full-size bike. But, the fact is, it's still so much fun because speed is relative. Everyone else is going about the same speed, so it helps you to work on line selection, gear selection and carrying speed through turns. It is almost a perfect training program for anyone who hopes to be a racer one day or would like to hone their skills, especially on the fun and easy-to-ride NSR50."
Talk about Ken and Duke's mini racing experience in the MCUSA Forum