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Month: August 2018

The Definitive Guide to “Vintage Motocross”

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…

Much about what is defined as Vintage Motocross is about drawing a line in the sand. No, not a line for a rubber band starting gate, but a line to determine what IS and what ISN’T Vintage Motocross. This can be a cause of controversy and division, as some people hold to an immovable definition which excludes certain technological advances. Makes sense. At a certain point it’s not Vintage motocross anymore, it’s just motocross. On the other hand, club sizes and race attendance tends to drop over time as there are fewer of these 40+ year old motorcycles available to race, not to mention fewer old-timers who remember racing these bikes. Nostalgia often limits itself to ones youthful personal experiences. As the baby boom generation ages there will be fewer and fewer people who remember racing these old bikes. This causes some to want to continue moving the line to attract more racers. But more on that later. Let’s first review the different eras of motocross technology as they relate to generally established vintage motocross classes.


PREMIER CLASS – When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth  [Pre-1968]

Different organizations may call this different things. The America Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) calls it Premier and limits it to pre-1965 bikes. Cal Vet MX calls it Premier and it is pre-1968. Pacific Northwest Vintage MX (PNWVMX), as well as other clubs, does not have a designated class here. So for some clubs most of these racers will just race in the Vintage Class. However clubs will often have some special class, such as four-stroke 150cc, to attract a broader range of motorcycles.

During this era the Open Class was completely dominated by four-stroke bikes made by BSA, Monarch, Husqvarna, Crescent, and Lito. The 250cc Class was where the two-stroke revolution started with lightweight and powerful bikes from European manufacturers Maico, Jawa, CZ, Husqvarna, and Greeves. This two-stroke fever would spread to the Open Class over the course of the late 60’s. The Premier Class is distinguished from the others by a dearth of Japanese machinery. This is before the Japanese Big Four started building dedicated MX bikes, so any Japanese bikes here will be converted trail bikes like the Yamaha DT series.


INTER-AM CLASS – Two-Stroke Comets = Four-Stroke Extinction  [Pre-1972]

Not all vintage racing organizations have this class, and some call it something else. PNWVMX calls it Inter-Am. Cal Vet MX calls it Classic, which is somewhat confusing as that term is in some places being adopted for the larger overall sport, since “Vintage” is a specific class. It is for bikes that were manufactured before 1972, or sometime just before the traditional cut-off for the “Vintage” class of 1974. The bikes here are primarily European brands like Husqvarna, Monarch, CZ, and Maico, but this is the time when the Japanese MX motorcycles first emerged. In 1968 the Suzuki TM250 was the first Japanese purpose-built MX bike for sale to the public, although only 50 were shipped to the USA. That same year Penton bikes started production. By 1970 a new TM250 would make Suzuki the first of the Big Four to the mass market with a MX bike. Yamaha came out with an MX250 and MX360 in 1972, predecessors to the YZ series. It wasn’t until 1973 that Honda introduced the Elsinore 250.

This time also marks the transition from large displacement four-strokes weighing in excess of 320 pounds to nimble and light two-strokes a hundred pounds lighter. From 1957 to 1964 the 500cc FIM World Championship was dominated exclusively by four-stroke bikes from BSA, Monark, Crescent, Matchless, Husqvarna, and Lito. In 1965 CZ cracked the top 3 in the 500cc class with a 360cc two-stroke machine. Paul Friedrichs would go on to win three consecutive championships in 1966-1968 on that bike. By 1970 two-strokes would take the top three spots in the 500cc class for the first time. The 250cc class was dominated by two-strokes from the beginning in 1962. The players were CZ, Husqvarna, Jawa, and Greeves. BSA 250cc four-strokes were still competitive that first year, with Jeff Smith and Arthur Lampkin taking 2nd and 3rd place. But after that it is all two-stroke.


VINTAGE CLASS – From Europe to the USA  [Pre-1974]

This class is where it all began. This is the time when the top European motocross racers came to the USA to compete against the Americans and the sport exploded in popularity. The AHRMA calls this “Classic” and the years are a little different. Most other clubs have this class, although the years may vary slightly. Some use pre-1975 as the cutoff. Also, many modern motocross series will schedule a Vintage exhibition race to attract more riders and spectators. This class is the meat of the Vintage/Classic/Historic Motocross scene.

If you look at motocross bikes through 1973/1974 you see the peak of European brands such as CZ, Maico, Bultaco, Montessa, and others. By the time the mid-80’s come around most of these brands are all but dead, or alive in name only. You also see the full involvement of the Japanese brands with iconic bikes that were very well-received. Kawasaki was the last of the Japanese brands to release a dedicated motocross bike, but they had a lot of success prior to that with the Green Streak and Centurion. With the Kawasaki KX, first released in 1974, all four of the Big Four now had purpose-built MX bikes. So in the Vintage Class you generally see Maico, CZ, Husqvarna, Bultaco, Ossa, Penton, Hodaka, and more going against the first generation of the Suzuki TM, Yamaha MX/YZ, Honda Elsinore, and Kawasaki KX. If you started racing in the early 70’s, like I did, these are the bikes you remember seeing at the track when you were young.

So why is the cutoff for the Vintage Class held hard at 1973-1975? As I mentioned earlier, this was the first generation of Japanese MX bikes going up against the established European brands. The primary technology distinguishing factors are air-cooled motors, drum brakes, no shock linkage, and limited suspension. Some clubs require rear shock travel to be no more than 4″ and fork travel to be no more than 7″. Although bikes would continue with air-cooling and drum brakes after 1974, suspension travel and power increased exponentially from 1975 on.


TRANS-AM CLASS – Filling the Gap  [1975-1976]

Again, not all clubs have this class. However, many do have some type of class here as this allows a filler between the Vintage and Evolution classes. Vintage generally ends at 1973/1974 and Evolution doesn’t start until 1977 or so. The qualifications tend to be the same as Vintage Class, as far as brakes, air-cooling, no linkage. The difference being no suspension travel limitations. This is a time when suspension travel increased greatly, but most other technology was still evolving.


EVOLUTION CLASS – The Evolution of Modern Motocross  [pre-1981]

The Vintage, Evolution, and Revolution are the big three classes in historic motocross racing. Many clubs/series will just focus on these three. The main distinguishing factor is the elimination of suspension travel limits, just as with the Trans-Am class. Some clubs call this “Post Vintage” and this is the limit of how far they will go in regards to classic motocross. The cutoff is generally 1981.

The very first water-cooled motocross bike was released at the end of this time period. This bike was the Yamaha 1981 YZ125. By separating classes into pre-1974 and pre-1981 you end up with competitive racing and a fairly level playing field. While the changes in technology from 1974 to 1981 are limited primarily to suspension travel and handling, radical changes would come post 1981. At this time we still have drum brakes and air-cooling. But it was longer and more sophisticated suspension that would make a big impact to race speed and track development.

This class is dominated by Honda CRs, Yamaha YZs, Kawasaki KXs, and Suzuki RMs. This is true of the 125cc, 250cc, and Open classes. But Husqvarna, Maico, and KTM were producing some excellent bikes into 1981 which are capable of winning Evolution Class races.


REVOLUTION 1 (REVO) CLASS – You Say You Want a Revolution…  [pre-1987]

The Revolution Class is so named due to the radical changes in motocross technology that occurred in this time. Water-cooled engines, disc brakes, shock linkage, and power-valves propelled this revolution. By now the European brands, with the very notable exception of KTM, had all but disappeared from the scene. KTM started gaining momentum during this time and helped fill some of the holes in the Euro offerings, but the Japanese Big Four ruled the off-road motorcycle racing world.

During this time Supercross had grown to the point of eclipsing the outdoor Nationals. This is when the high-flying aerobatics that are a huge part of modern motocross became prevalent. With water-cooling engines could become more powerful. Radical suspension technology using complicated valving, inverted forks, shock linkage, and even air allowed motocross racers to do things that were previously impossible. This truly was a revolutionary time.


REVOLUTION 2 CLASS – Where do we go from here?  [pre-1997]

So after the revolution, now what? Well things didn’t stand still in the MX world, that’s for sure. Bikes continued to develop and improve. Yet in the ten years from 1987 to 1997 the changes were much more evolutionary than revolutionary. Suspension travel can only get so long. It’s hard to ride a bike that sits four feet in the air. Engine power can only improve so much. Ever hear a KX500 owner wish he had MORE power? Of course not. A 1987 motocross bike could be raced competitively against a 1997 motocross bike. But the gap from 1997 to today is very significant.

A 1997 YZ 250 would not do well against modern 250cc bikes. So this class exists to offer bikes of that era an opportunity to compete on a level field. There are those in the Vintage MX community who are very against the idea of opening up the sport to this modern of a bike. Like I said earlier, at a certain point it isn’t Vintage anymore. But this isn’t Vintage, it Revo 2. Here we introduce the idea of coming up with new terminology to describe this subset of motocross this sport we love so well. The entire umbrella under which everything sits under should be either “Classic” or “Historic” Motocross. This would be a difficult change for most. Vintage describes it better and sounds better, but if time periods are going to continue to expand the Vintage Class, pre-1974, needs to be preserved. If you have Classic Motocross, with Vintage, Evolution, and Revolution racing classes you would have most of the bases covered and it would all be easily explainable. Classic Motocross is old mx racing with different classes. Vintage Class is the really old stuff, Evolution Class is the kind-of old stuff, and Revolution Class is the newer stuff. Very simple. We’ll see how far that goes. And we’ll have to see where we go from here…

PNW Vintage MX – Northwest Challenge 2018

VINTAGE MX @ WASHOUGAL
August 18th-19th, 2018

Where can you find more smoke than at a Portland, Oregon cannabis festival? Where will you hear more missed shifts than at a 60’s Volkswagen Beetle parade? Where can you distinctly smell the assorted brands of two-stroke pre-mix oils wafting by you and recognize them, all while amazing yourself that these things still exist in your memory? And where can you have more fun than a barrel full of Maico’s? It must be Vintage Motocross at Washougal, Washington!

This is an annual event hosted and managed by the PACIFIC NORTHWEST VINTAGE MOTOCROSS club. Each year they host a series of seven races in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The Washougal event is two days packed full of an amazing number and variety of classes all celebrating “the good old days”, whenever those days may have occurred. While the first day is focused on the older bikes, especially the Vintage classes, the second day is mostly the Evo and Revo classes. If you can name the brand and model of motocross bike from just about any era it was there on full display. CZ, Maico, Husqvarna (the Swedish/real one), Bultaco, Montessa, Penton, Hodaka, Monarch, and others all joined in with the Japanese Big Four and KTM’s. I especially enjoyed those racers who went all out and outfitted themselves with leathers, Jofa face guards, and vintage jerseys. Very cool.

While the races used to be held on a grass field, fire danger has prevented that from happening the past few years. Now it is on the world-famous motocross track. The first day saw significant changes to the track that most of us know from racing there or watching the Nationals. Horsepower Hill was cut off about a third of the way up and sent off to the left. The part of the track way up the top, and to the left, was removed. The infamous Washougal Whoops were also left out on day one. However, everything except the top left part of the track was added back in on day two. This made for some great passing opportunities and exciting races. There was definitely something for everyone. An impressive eighteen classes on day one and twenty on day two went as smoothly as can be expected, though the whoops did claim their fair share of victims.

A very big part of the weekend was raising funds for a charity to support JAN BABENDERERDE, an important and beloved member of the classic MX community who suffered severe injuries while racing. Jan had old friends, seldom seen acquaintances, and perfect strangers coming up to him all throughout the two days. Some just wanted to say hi and to see how he was doing. Most of them wanted to give him a hug. Some weren’t sure if they should, while others just jumped right in. I am sure he appreciated the sincere outpouring of love that was evident. The track announcers did an excellent job of reminding everyone of the charity, even though they did it with varying pronunciations of Jan’s last name. All kidding aside, it’s always good to hear Brian Barnes’ voice and see him out there doing what he does best.

If you want to know who “The Man” was over the course of the weekend, it was definitely Tommy Weeck. He rode a variety of bikes in several classes, including a Husqvarna CR125 from way back in the day. He rode that Husky to a 1-1 finish in the Pomeroy Cup race. He pulled ahead of the pack in each of his races and squeezed every last ounce of motocross capability out of his various well-aged bikes. It was a sight to behold. There were other local legends in attendance as well. Ryan Huffman won the 250 Vintage Expert class on a Husqvarna. Warren Reid and Scott Burnworth were other recognizable names lining up to do battle on Ryan’s Washougal course.

As much as I enjoyed watching the Pros, there was joy in seeing all these old bikes, and old riders, out there doing things that bring back good memories. Maybe those memories were from the late 60’s. Maybe they were from the 70’s, like mine are. For some maybe even the 80’s and 90’s. This was a place to relive ALL those memories, as well as make NEW ONES. However, the TRULY AMAZING THING that struck me is that this racing and these bikes appeal to YOUNG PEOPLE as well! Something about the simplicity of the bikes and the ease of repair engages them. Something about the atmosphere, that is more mellow and inviting than a modern-day motocross race, welcomes them. Something about their fellow racers who aren’t just out to win, but there to have fun together as a larger group, appeals to them. They are able to latch on to the NOSTAGIA of vintage motocross without ever having lived through it! Think about that for a second. In the same way that classic rock and roll has spanned and bridged generations, classic motocross is doing that as well. This bodes well for the future of the sport and is a very good sign for those of us who know and love the mx bikes and mx culture of our youth. WHENEVER that may have been.

CLICK HERE TO SEE EVENT PHOTOS

HEROES: JIMMY WEINERT

Like Tony Distefano, one of his primary rivals, Mitchell Nelson Weinert was the son of a motorcycle dealer and started racing from a young age. Also like Distefano, he got his start on a CZ before signing with a Japanese brand. Early in his career he split time his time between dirt track oval racing and motocross, just like another rival of that era Jim Pomeroy. But don’t confuse “Jammin’ Jimmy” Weinert with any other racer. He was a breed all his own.

His nickname, “Jammin’ Jimmy,” or “The Jammer,” came from then-editor of Cycle News Gary Van Voorhis. During a Florida winter national race, Weinert got a bad start and quickly moved up in the field. As Van Voorhis described it, “He jammed his way to the front.” The next week’s headline read “Jammin’ Jimmy” and the nickname stuck. A serious crash on the dirt track convinced him to stick to motocross. Good decision. Jimmy Weinert is a larger than life personality, one of many that arose in the burgeoning motocross scene of the 70’s. Never one to back down from a challenge, he had a reputation as a tenacious and intelligent racer. Off the track he was the life of the party and always went out of his to make people laugh. He was well-known in the pits for his guitar playing and singing and prank-playing.

In an eleven year career he racked up an impressive total of 22 AMA National Motocross race wins and three AMA National championships. Weinert became the first American to beat the international riders in the Trans-AMA Motocross Series in 1973. That victory marked one of the turning points that brought American motocross up to par with the then-dominant Europeans. For that reason alone he is an American Motocross Hero and deserves all the respect due.

I took this picture at Sears Point in 1977.

Marty Smith – Hangtown 1976

I took these two photos at Hangtown in 1976. If you know your moto history this was a pivotal moment in the lives of two legends.

Marty Smith was all but crowned 125 National Champion before the season even started in 1976. He was the James Dean of American MX in the mid-70’s, a star unlike any other. Marty was the two-time 125cc defending champion and wasn’t expected to have much competition, but some guy named Bob Hannah came along and turned everything upside down. In the first moto Hannah, coming from last place, rode an absolutely insane race, and was on the verge of disaster the whole time. When he passed Smith nine laps later the mantle had been passed, and Marty would never win another 125 National.

I took these now historical photos during the second moto. Hannah got a much better start and they had a great battle for quite a few laps until Hannah started to pull away. This is the moment on the back straightaway where Smith’s Honda, and any hopes of being as fast as Hannah that year, went up in smoke. Well, make that steam. After several futile jabs at his kick-start lever he walked slowly back to the pits all alone. Remember it like it was yesterday.

HEROES: TONY DISTEFANO

I was never a fan of the CZ. I can’t dent that they were very fast. But they just seemed poorly made and the transmissions were crap. Plus, who could ride a bike made by “commies”? Also, being a native Californian, I trusted no one east of the Mason/Dixon line. My favorite racers were either West Coast guys like Lackey, Pomeroy, “Magoo” Chandler, Smith, and LaPorte or Texans like Howerton, Wise, and Stackable. So how did I become a huge fan of a CZ rider from Pennsylvania? To know the answer to that question is to learn about the life and times of the one and only “Tony D”.

Tony was a racers racer, if you know what I mean. His father owned a motorcycle shop and Tony grew up around bikes. He not only raced, but he always worked on his own bikes, even after he turned pro. After rising through the local ranks as an amateur he began his pro career on a CZ as a privateer in 1973 at the tender age of 16. In only his second year he would lead the 1974 500cc AMA National MX Championship for most of the season while living in the back of his van and welding his CZ frame back together with coat hangars. A late season injury allowed factory Kawasaki rider Jimmy Weinert to win that title instead. Although this would be just a short setback it was a foreshadowing of the extraordinary bad luck that would strike him at various points in his career and life. But not before he dominated American motocross like few before or since. In 1975 Tony would change to factory Suzuki and would go on to win three consecutive 250cc National Championships. His dominance in the golden age of American motocross was something to behold. He would also win the Inter-AMA series in 1975 against the best Europeans.

I always liked racers with style. Brad Lackey and Jim Pomery were the head-down, hard-charging type, who would always hit stuff head-on and fast. Bob Hannah and Danny “Magoo” Chandler were the crazy, feet-off-the-pegs guys, who always rode on the edge. Then there were guys like Danny LaPorte, Marty Smith, and Kent Howerton who just had style for miles and always looked good. Tony Distefano was none of those. Although he was incredibly fast, he had no style whatsoever. Bob Hannah would say “Tony rode a bike, basically like a sack of potatoes”. He gained what he earned through sheer hard work and determination. Something about that spirit made him quite endearing. I was an immediate fan.

I would follow Tony’s every move through issues of Motocross Action Magazine and Dirt Bike Magazine. He always seemed to be smiling or laughing in photos. His humility, down-to-earth personality, and sense of humor contrasted greatly against the backdrop of his dominance for those few short years. On the track he was a bulldog who wouldn’t let go. He was the very first racer to come out with his own line of motocross gear. “Full House” it was called. As Marty Smith would later say, “no, that was some pretty dorky clothing”. Jody Weisel just called it “horrid”. And yes, everyone knew it didn’t look good. However, there was nothing like it, just like Tony. It was also not very form fitting, which only made him look fatter than he actually was. And he didn’t really look like a motocrosser to begin with.

And that bad luck I was talking about earlier? He left team Suzuki after becoming disillusioned with the life of a professional motocross racer. In an epic case of stupidity Suzuki engineers allowed Tony to race Supercross with a known defect in the factory triple-clamps. In a well-known crash at the Dallas Supercross these triple-clamps would break off as he landed from a double. It was a bad crash. He had the track doctor sew up the gash in his face so he could watch the rest of the race from behind the starting line. A knee injury later that year made it look like his best years were behind him.

After a brief stint at Can Am he would attempt a comeback in 1979 on a Pro Circuit Husqvarna at the Anaheim Supercross. One week after an excellent outing at Anaheim, while working in his shop, he would injure and lose sight in one eye. Several surgeries later he did his best to come back and race again. He even got into the top 10 in the 500cc Nationals on a privateer Maico. He then started a motocross school and had a great reputation as a teacher.  Tragically while out practicing, he hit a tree root on the side of the track and was paralyzed in the ensuing crash. Amazingly, one year later, he was back teaching his motocross schools from the seat of an ATV. Never one to feel sorry for himself he always takes things in stride and makes the best of what life has given him.

But above all that, Tony is just a guy. Just a guy who would gladly talk to you from the back of his van in the pits, as long as you had something interesting to say and he wasn’t too busy. Just a guy who wanted nothing more than to beat everyone else at the game of motocross, and have fun doing it. Just a guy, who would rather do his celebrating at the bank than at the track. Just a guy who was as nice and funny and down-to-earth honest as they come, but who would tear your heart out if you dared line up against him on Sunday. And that’s why I will always love Tony D…

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