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Project NSR First Race

Thursday, December 23, 2004
MCUSA’s NSR  67  had a tough time hanging with the XR100s that boast double the displacement and three times the torque.
MCUSA’s NSR (67) had a tough time hanging with the XR100s that boast double the displacement and three times the torque.
Blame Charles Darwin. As humans, we all have an innate will to win. And while most of us don't have the lofty aspirations (or the skill and commitment) to be the best in the world at any given task, we all feel a surge of satisfaction when we emerge victorious in a challenge, no matter if it's something as simple as winning a game of bingo or beating a sibling at Monopoly.

And as motorcyclists, that urge is perhaps stronger than in the general population at large. We may or may not enjoy blowing the doors of Dodge Vipers and Chevy Corvettes, but I believe most of us at least take some pleasure in knowing that many of our humble little cycles can. Racing isn't necessarily something that you do. Rather, it is a mindset that draws upon a human's natural urges to be competitive.

But no matter how deep our levels of skill, commitment, aspirations or pocketbooks, there's several bike-related ways of feeding a competitive urge. Many motorcyclists don't even watch motorcycle racing, much less ever considered becoming a racer, but I've found a relatively inexpensive, relatively safe way to do it and I'm hooked.

It all began last May when American Honda invited MCUSA to test its new-for-'04 mini roadracers. While the skinny-tired retro-racer Dream 50R tugged at our heartstrings, the much cheaper and more purposeful GP replica NSR50R was a true racing tool. Designed by Honda's HRC racing arm, the two-stroke NSR50 was ready to race right out of the box.

Which is just what we did last month when we joined up with the California Motorcycle Road Racing Association at the Grange kart track in Southern California.

We picked up our trick little Honda, ran it around Grange at an open track day to acclimatize ourselves with it, then went racing the next day. It was more fun than you could imagine and cost less than a fancy dinner out.

The CMRRA was formed in 1993 to promote the sport of mini road racing, and current MotoGP star John Hopkins is the most famous graduate of CMRRA competition. Other alumnae include AMA Pro racers Jason Perez and Chris Ulrich, as well as newcomer Josh Herrin who you'll see competing in '05. More than 100 racers have garnered points in this year's CMRRA race action.

Unlike full-size racing in which racetracks always seem to be far away, the mini kind takes place down at the local go-kart track. And while we chose to race a purpose-built GP replica, there are also classes for bikes like Honda XR100s and semi-exotic road-racers with 80-85cc motocross motors.

48 looks intent on keeping his spot.
Honda's XR/CRF line of dirt bikes can be turned into race-winning road racers.
But the CMRRA's whole reason for being at first was to give the cute little Yamaha YSR50s a place to race. But since the air-cooled YSR's are decidedly low-tech in comparison to my liquid-cooled NSR, the CMRRA doesn't allow them to compete head to head. So we signed up for Formula 50, Formula GP and the Vet Modified class. Racing is further divided up into Beginner, Amateur and Expert divisions. In a moment of rare self-confidence, I decided to skip the Beginner class and jump into the Amateur ranks, as I didn't want to be known in the paddock as the cherry-picking magazine guy.

First race of the day was the Formula Extreme class that consisted of a mix of modded 2-stroke GP racers and supermoto-ed CRFs. Next up was the Formula GP Expert class that contained just four riders, and one guy on a Honda CRF150 had an obvious power advantage over the 2-strokes. Amateur 80 GP followed before the Formula Thunder class, most on Honda XR100s, boomed out onto the track.

Then while the competitive Expert Stock class was racing, I made my way to the pre-grid for my Formula GP race. I was surprised to feel a bit of the jitters as I waited for my turn on the track. My stock 49cc NSR was going to have difficulty keeping up with the modified up-to-70cc two-strokes, never mind the 185cc 4-strokes that are also allowed.

The burlier powered bikes in this class stormed away from the start line, although I managed to put one rider behind me by the time we got into Turn 1. An Aprilia RS50 was directly in front of me, but he had some extra grunt on my NSR out of the corners. I stayed as tight as I could for a lap before I forced the door open through the S-section the next lap around. By this time the lead group had pulled out a gap and there was no way I was going to catch them with just 7.3 horsepower. As they slowly slipped away, I gapped the duo behind me. Now, seventh place out of nine riders isn't gonna get me a factory ride, but by most accounts I did fairly well on my power-disadvantaged NSR.

I caught my breath in the pits as I regrouped for my next races. On this day's race schedule, the Formula 50 and Vet Modified races would be held back-to-back, meaning that as soon as one race was over I'd have to ride through the pits and immediately head back out onto the track.

The Formula 50 class allows up to 72cc two-strokes and up to 125cc four-strokes without many restrictions on modifications, so this was going to be another tough one. Again, it was Honda XRs up front. I managed to keep third-placed XR-mounted Alan Mortenson in sight, but I had to settle for fourth place at the checkers.

Justin Ducat  83  and Bryce Kornbau  2  had several good scraps at Grange this weekend.
Justin Ducat (83) and Bryce Kornbau (2) had several good scraps at Grange this weekend, demonstrating the range of machines and riding styles.
The Formula 50 class allows up to 72cc two-strokes and up to 125cc four-strokes without many restrictions on modifications, so this was going to be another tough one. Again, it was Honda XRs up front. I managed to keep third-placed XR-mounted Alan Mortenson in sight, but I had to settle for fourth place at the checkers.

With no time for a post-race check of the bike, I rode back out for the start of the Vet Modified race. I was looking forward to this one, as it would be my best chance at scoring a strong finish. Of course it didn't turn out that way.

After riding around inside the top-five, the NSR's engine began to cut out when I was leaned over in mid-corner. Blaaahhhh! is not a desirable response when you need to be back on the gas to balance the chassis. After enduring several more scares during the next lap, I pulled out of the race to inspect the bike, scoring the dreaded "DNF" designation. After checking for fuel, I theorized that the problem might stem from the ignition. I didn't find any problem with the spark plug or the wiring, so then I began to wonder if perhaps the carburetor jetting might be off. I did some more fiddling and then rode the bike in the pits to see if I could duplicate the problem. When it ran fine, I assumed I'd somehow fixed the trouble. The second Formula GP race would be its test.

It wasn't long into the race that the bike began to cut out again when it was leaned over. I pulled off the track and sat dejectedly on my stricken machine that was quickly losing its luster. I looked down at the fuel petcock to make sure it was in the "on" position, which it was, and then, while the pack streamed past to put me a lap down, I felt emotions of relief and self-loathing at the same time when I noticed something new.

Unlike most racebikes that have only an on/off fuel tap, the NSR, which was sold in Japan as a street-legal machine, also has a reserve position. Although the fuel tank clearly had fuel inside, enough gas had been burned to lower the level to the reserve section. After mentally kicking myself several times, I turned the petcock to the reserve position and the bump-started the engine back to life. But by this time I was more than a lap behind and I had to soldier on to an eighth-place finish.

Duke valiantly tries to keep a more powerful Honda XR100 behind.
After getting spanked by Alan Mortenson's XR100 in the first Formula 50 race, Duke managed to get revenge in the second.
I was feeling bitter when I rolled into the pits at the end of the race. But when I began to tell my new racing friends what the problem was, I couldn't help but share the laughter at my rookie mistake. After all, I was racing to have fun, so to overlook what was a comedic blunder of the first order like mine was just detracting from the humorous situation.

Now with a fresh tank of fuel and the petcock firmly set to "reserve," I went out with a new attitude for the second Formula 50 race. After looking down the barrel of Mortenson's XR100 muffler in the first race, I was proud to be able to show the NSR's stinger to him this time around. The NSR got eaten up on the straights, but it really shined in braking and corner-entrance speed, and I held on to finish in third spot. Not too shabby and easily my best performance of the weekend.

With no time to celebrate, I headed back onto the track for my final race of the day, the Vet Modified class. By this time I had added a couple of extra shifts to my lap to maximize the limited acceleration of my NSR and I had dramatically increased my speed through turns 3 and 4. Although I didn't have the pace to keep up with the heavily modified NSR of winner Rick Dondero or the XRs of podium finishers Jim Spicher and Dave Oventhal, I had a very satisfying race and ended up in fourth position. I managed to earn a creditable fifth-place overall in the class despite my DNF in the first race.

After packing up our pits, we went over to the timing and scoring trailer to see where we ended up in the other classes. I was initially being disappointed with my ninth-place combined score in Formula GP; after all, I posted a 7-8 result. But because my finish in the second race was so poor due to my fuel error, the overall scores of Bryant Kornbau (9-6) and Jeff Marquardt (8-7) beat me out even though we were tied in points. After a moment of reflection, I realized that my overall finishing position in no way detracted from the huge amount of fun I had on the track. And I did score a third-place overall in the Formula 50 class.

Duke Danger says the NSR50R fits like a glove. Well  he sure looks right at home on the little Honda ripper.
The NSR50R is a purpose-built road-racing machine, complete with front and rear disc brakes, coolant overflow catch bottle, quick-release bodywork and raspy little two-stroke motor.
With a huge grin factor, I was anxious to attend the CMRRA's season finale at the Willow Springs kart track in early December but, alas, I had to fly to Spain to ride the 2005 Kawakaski ZX-6R. (You hate me, don't you?)

But this doesn't mean we're finished with the Project NSR. We'll be heading to the races again the first weekend in January, this time at Willow's kart track. After racing the bike in stock condition once more, we'll open up our little racer in the search for more power. Dondero, the winner of the day's Vet Modified and Formula GP classes, says his NSR has about double the horsepower of the stock bike and he still has yet to overbore the little screamer.

Stay with us as MCUSA brings you more stories from our mini racing career. But be forewarned: Don't try mini road-racing yourself unless you're prepared to devote several weekends a year out at a racetrack. It's addictive.

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