Friday, April 30, 2010

Daingerous Liaisons: Corsa Moto Classica

Dain Gingerelli spends a day hanging out at the intersection of Pit Road and Memory Lane.

Vintage motorcycle races, I’ve come to realize, are like homecomings and reunions for anybody who has been in the sport as long as I have been. Whether you’re there as a grizzled racer or serious spectator, chances are that you’re going to also catch glimpses of your past life on two wheels while attending an old-bike race. That happened to me while watching the racing from the sidelines during this year’s Corsa Moto Classica, an AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) event held every spring at Willow Springs Raceway near Rosamond, California.

Willow, as Southern California road racers have been calling the nine-turn track since about the first race held there in 1954, has probably been the scene of more motorcycle road races than any other course in America, if not the world. Kenny Eggers won Willow’s first AMA National in 1954, and the track has hosted races ever since. Indeed, I saw my first-ever motorcycle road race there in 1968, and a few months later I experienced my first on-track crash in Willow’s turn 3.

My brother, Alan, and two best friends, John Lassak and Brad Von Grote, joined me for this year’s Classica, and we spent Saturday lost in our own time capsule. It was about the time that we spotted a pristine Honda Super 90 in the pits that I realized how much turf I’ve covered during the 45 years I’ve enjoyed so far in this sport. See, the first bike I ever owned was a Super 90, a bike I bought in Japan when my father—a career U.S. Navy man—was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, in 1965. Alan and I bought new CS90s (the domestic models were called that) and had them shipped back aboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk (perks of the trade, if you will).

I put nearly 10,000 miles on that little bike during my final two years in high school, and the black beauty that Alan and I admired in Willow’s pits was exactly like the bikes we owned 45 years ago. According to the owner, his bike even had the rotary-shift transmission unique to Japanese models, with the shifting pattern down-down-down-down through the first four gears, and then down again to find neutral. You downshifted to a lower gear by tapping up on the toe lever like you do to upshift on a bike today, or by jabbing the back half of the pedal with your heel.

A crashed bike that we noticed in the pits reminded me of my first-ever crash that took place in turn 3. I had raced my 1966 Suzuki 200 X-5 twice at the end of 1968, and my Willow race was the first of the 1969 season. It also was raining big-time that day, and when I went out for practice I made it as far as turn 3 before crashing. The world’s smartest 19-year-old grabbed a handful of brake, prompting the front tire to slide on the slippery asphalt. Before you could say “world’s smartest 19-year-old,” I was tumbling on the tarmac, with no damage to my bike or me (there certainly was no risk of cerebral damage).

A few months later I earned my first race trophy at Willow Springs. We had Le Mans-type starts back then (admirably, AHRMA’s 160 class perpetuates that tradition today) and the two guys on either side of me boxed me in when one of them stalled his bike. I was dead last, but needled my way through the field to finish third. Somehow the promoter lost the trophy, so I never got it; I had to wait until June 1 when I won at Orange County International Raceway to take home my first cheap trophy during my days as an amateur road racer.

The Classica’s Saturday-morning bike show turned the clock back for us as well. Alan and I were near tears when we passed by the CB77 Super Hawk (we traded our CS90s in for new 305s in 1967) entered in the show. And the CBX farther down the line brought back memories of the six-shooter that I rode to Bonneville in 1979 when I was Sport Editor at the old Cycle Guide. The story line for that road test was simple—I’d ride the CBX to and from the Salt Flats to set what we termed the Ride It Up/Ride It Back Record. It was all for fun, and the stock Honda—a 1980 model—posted a top speed of 130-plus mph.

Another memory from my early days at Cycle Guide stood before me when I gazed at one of the nicest Ducati 900 Super Sports I’ve ever seen. No doubt, it was probably in better shape than when it originally left Bologna, Italy. In any case, this was the same model that lost in a two-bike shootout we conducted at Willow Springs for CG’s October 1979 issue. The winner of that shootout, and bike we declared as the best-handling bike in the world, was the 1980 Honda CB750F. I’ve got more to tell about that tale, but it will have to wait for another post at another time because that’s a story in itself.

Yesteryear also caught up with my buddy John Lassak at the show. Basking under the Mojave Desert sun was a pale-yellow 1988 Aprilia 250 road racer that he owned and tuned for Alan Carter during the 1989 AMA season. John spent the next dozen or so years tuning for various 250-class riders, among them Rich Oliver, Miguel Duhamel, Kurtis Roberts, and Randy Renfrow. I don’t rank myself with those racers, but for the record I was the first rider that John ever tuned for; he put “worm ports” in my Suzuki 200’s cylinders—in effect converting the two-stroke engine from a three-port to a five-port intake—and it was enough to give me the American Federation of Motorcyclists class championship in 1969. Yeah, big time, Daingerous Dain…

Not all of the bike show entries were restored classics or racers. There were a few custom bikes among the mix, and the single-cam Honda with metalflake paint reminded me of a photo session I had in Modjeska Canyon a few miles from my home in Mission Viejo. I was photographing a custom Honda 750 that had a slightly stretched frame and a supercharged engine. The photo feature was for Street Chopper Magazine. During the photo shoot the owner asked if he could do a burnout. I said sure. He fried the rear tire, but at the last second it hooked up, launching him and the bike over the 20-foot embankment (well, he probably called it a cliff). The tow truck had a pretty tough time plucking that bike out of the weeds that day.

Finally, while strolling the pits I came across a nice-looking Honda 160 that was entered in the 160 race. Turned out that the bike belonged to Thad Wolff, who co-rode my Yamaha RD350 in the 1978 Ontario Six Hour race. This was another Lassak-tuned bike, and Thad and I won our class and finished sixth overall in a field of 125 bikes. Right behind us (second and seventh) was an even faster RD-powered TR3 that my brother and Dick Fuller rode (they experienced handling problems in the final half hour of the race). The year before my brother and I had ridden my same RD350, finishing first (in class) and fifth overall. It was good to see Thad again, talk over old times and watch as his stock-powered 160 got blown in the weeds. “Things haven’t changed,” Thad told me with a smile. “You just can’t win with stock engines out here.”

I guess it’s true what they say: While things change, they still remain the same. That includes the racing, even if they are old bikes. —Dain Gingerelli


  1. Very cool, Dain. Nicely done.


  2. Just to bring a tear to your eye, I'll send you a photo of my pristine ’67 CB77 305 Super Hawk over your email.

    D. Randy