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Honda X4 Low Down

When American Honda dirt track racing

By Despain

Much of the history of dirt track motorcycle is written in orange-and-black. For example, riders have won 43 of 55 titles the 1954 creation of the Grand Championship. But for a brief and spectacular in the mid-1980s, Honda painted the track world bright

A popular theory holds Honda invaded the Harley-dominated realm in order to punish the Company for its pursuit of a tariff on motorcycles. But the tariff was imposed in and by then the Honda dirt program was approaching full So why DID Honda go dirt tracking?

It was a of event expedited by coincidence and luck.

In 1979, bike Jerry Griffith, former of Kenny Roberts, father-in-law of Chandler, and a dirt track fielded a 500cc Honda for rising star Jeff At famed Ascot Park, down the road from Honda headquarters, Haney his class and caught the eye of Honda’s McKay, head of racing and a big track fan.

Hoping to Griffith more horsepower, provided a CX500 engine, powered a docile shaft-drive model that carried its transversely, a la Moto Guzzi. turned the engine 90 degrees to put the Vee in with the wheels, grafted on a and plugged it into a dirt frame.

Though still under-powered, the oddity scored one huge At the San Jose Mile it was spotted by Shoichiro Irimajiri, a race-savvy hitter who would eventually run entire American operation and who designed the CX500! (Coincidence and luck indeed.) When he saw Griffith had done with his Irimajiri was hooked.

He sat on the bike to get his taken then greased the for the NS750, a racier maximum version of Griffith’s handiwork, by Honda’s legendary Japanese works HRC. In 1982 at Downs, where Harley-Davidson was Scott Pearson rode the NS to first dirt track win. But thanks to Griffith’s meeting with Irimajiri, Big Red was warming up.

When former National Champion Gene contracted to help develop dirt track program, visited HRC he was startled to see, on a big listing all the company’s racing American dirt track right up there with Prix road racing, a program for one of the most powerful organizations in the world. And HRC’S contribution was a proper dirt engine, a successor to the cobbled up though chance again a key role.

Griffith remembers, “First sent me an existing V-twin of like a Yamaha Virago, but I Romero it was a step backward.” on a subsequent trip to HRC the two Americans a Paris-to-Dakar race bike, covered with mud, by a three-valve V-twin with a big It’s not clear whether prototype became the Dakar-winning or perhaps the eventual “Africa (any Honda genealogists in the but for purposes of this discussion it matter; Griffith and Romero had the basis for the all-conquering RS750.

in ’83, developed over laps by Hank Scott and Ted and raced by such notables as Kidd and Terry Poovey, the new had the same bore and … as venerable XR750 but was a technological forward. (Romero admits to Honda an XR750 but denies copied it. Griffith concurs, to the multitude of differences, notably crank pin and rod arrangement, overhead and four-valve heads.) But the first RSs had engine sumping the most “We’d see the smoke and real make bets,” Romero “how many laps it blows up?” At the low point Hagerstown, Maryland every RS in the exploded along with a NS750 for good measure! Werner (Harley-Davidson factory was laughing at us,” Romero “although who laughs last, best!”

Indeed, two months later Scott won the DuQuoin, Illinois and by the end of ’83, change was in the wind. HRC all the bugs and delivered the second-generation Romero describes Toshiro McKay’s racing successor at Honda, gathering his men for a pep talk: he told us to study the strengths and of the opposition and then massacre Kezuka-san did not say so, but apparently money was no

When Romero requested clamps with 55, 60 and 65 degree he quickly received two sets for bike with offsets 55 to 65 degrees — in one degree His test mules bore telemetry, measuring for example and rear wheel speed to throttle position, an unheard of of sophistication.

The pay-off came in ’84. in a dedicated dirt track in Indianapolis, Honda’s assault included newly-hired riders Graham and Bubba Shobert, a separate team for Chandler, run by

The operation was modeled after of a Romero hero, legendary racing team owner Penske. “We showed up week prepared to win,” recalls. “Each rider had two a primary bike, an identical bike, and a spare engine, all ready. We never ran the engines than one race. Each the spare would go in the bike and the race engine would go for a complete rebuild. I told if we didn’t win the championship, he needed to me.”

The result was overwhelming. series champ Randy seeking H-D’s tenth crown, finished 60 points the Hondas as Graham edged 285 284 in a thrilling season’s finale. then titled in ’85, 75 points in front of H-D’s Parker, who was actually third privateer Ted Boody’s RS750. repeated in ’86, humiliating 313-217.

From there it was

For 1987 the AMA imposed weight and restrictions on the RS750, outraging management. The result was a close battle, Shobert edging 228-221, but at year’s end Honda down its dirt track Gary Smith, Honda’s on the AMA board of trustees at the time, the widely-held view that the AMA the Honda to protect an old friend: my gut,” Smith says, convinced Harley was behind it.

Romero sees it differently. was nothing left to prove,” he out, “plus it was a typical deal, test the waters, go full boat, dominate the and then jump off. their method of operation.”

the fact remains that 1984-1987 Honda fielded the impressive team in the history of dirt track racing. the surviving RS750s enjoyed success in the hands of privateers, notably the late Ricky who in 1993 wrote a fitting chapter to this story. On an owned and tuned to perfection by Johnny Goad, Graham won a 12 races in a single season, the inimitable Honda dirt its fifth and final championship.

the Author:

Dave Despain five years as an AMA Novice tracker (“OK, I wasn’t good but I DID have a lot of fun,” he then ten years as a member of the AMA During his AMA tenure he ventured the TV business, making his debut as analyst on the 1975 ABC “Wide of Sports” broadcast of the Daytona

In 1981 he left the AMA to become a TV reporter and his credits include “Bike Week” and a variety of racing shows. He currently Speed’s Sunday Night Tunnel,” TV’s only racing fan phone in show. For years including the entire run of the dirt track team also served as public announcer at AMA dirt track

To contact Dave Despain, despain123@gmail.com. To learn about Tunnel with Dave click here and here .


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