by Mark Swart
Why do racers who came up in the 80s and 90s get so misty-eyed every time we think about 125s? The answer is simple for this age group; we grew up in a sweet spot of history and technology that could easily be called the Golden Age of The 125.
Of course 125 two strokes were around long before my generation, but by the mid-80s a seismic shift was underway for 125s. This shift was driven in part by Supercross. In the early 80s, riders who wanted to race indoors jumped straight into the deep end of the premier 250 Class. Sensing a need for a better development system, promoters added 125s to the Supercross schedule as two separate regional support series. This is a format that we still follow to this day. Eddie Warren and Todd Campbell became the first East and West 125 Supercross Champions that year, and the stakes went up quickly as factories began to provide more and more emphasis on the class over the next few years.
At the Motocross Des Nations in 1986, Johnny O’Mara made the “statement heard around the world” for 125s: he hunted down 500cc World Champion David Thorpe’s full works RC 500 on a U.S. spec, production based CR 125. Charging the turns and out-braking the world champ, the O’Show ran through the pack to pass every other 500cc rider on the track except his teammate David Bailey. The ride was even more incredible because O’Mara hadn’t raced a 125 full-time for years, and the bike was borrowed from Honda’s 125 National Champion Micky Dymond. This historic ride opened a lot of eyes to what 125’s were capable of in the right hands.
Expanded Supercross exposure for 125’s meant more star power in the class. I’ll stand by the argument that Damon Bradshaw was the first true superstar of 125 Supercross. Groomed by Yamaha from a young age, this phenom skipped the “paying dues” mid-pack seasons when he turned pro and went straight to the front of the 125 SX class. Thanks to the production rule, kids my age got to see Damon and other pros running 125s in the big show that looked like almost like ours. If I had a dollar for every kid on a YZ 125 who wore Fox Zebra pants in 1989, well, let’s just say I could buy a lot of Fox Zebra pants! Money talks and the 125 rider demographic became a true consumer force, due in part to Damon’s star power.
As the 125s achieved a more serious role on the professional scene, they also provided a manageable and natural progression from the 80cc bikes in terms of weight and power, and were more friendly for beginners. A new 125 in 1990 cost right around $3,000. By this point the manufacturers’ priority on their development was on par with 250’s, sharing many of the same components and appearance.
The 125s rise to glory became unstoppable with the demise of Open Class bikes in professional racing. Suzuki pulled the plug on their RM 500 in 1984 and Yamaha essentially ceased development of the air cooled 490 in the late 80’s. That left Kawasaki and Honda with legitimate 500cc race bikes, but in an effort to play nice with all of the manufacturers (and also mirroring changing consumer preferences of the time), the AMA killed the National 500cc MX class after the 1993 season.
The transition was complete and 1994-2004 became the true golden age of the 125. For the next 10 years they provided a platform for up-and-coming stars such as Ricky Carmichael, Kevin Windham, Travis Pastrana and James Stewart. Iconic images of 125s such as Bubba’s first scrub, Brian Deegan’s ghost ride after a SX win, or even Pastrana jumping into San Francisco bay at the X Games will never be forgotten.
However, the writing was on the wall for these exceptional machines in the early 2,000s when manufacturers developed 250 four strokes to run in the 125cc National class. Given a 100% displacement advantage it only took a few years of development before the 250F took over. Fittingly, the true swan song of the 125 came in 2004, as James Stewart (possibly the best 125 rider to ever live), decimated a field made up mostly of 250Fs. A 125 would never win another professional championship after 2004.
My Generation of racers lived through all of this, and on top of it we cut our teeth riding and watching these “angry bumblebee sounding” machines ourselves. No wonder we still love them, and our ears perk up when we hear one to this day. It is no wonder that two-stroke classes, vintage racing and “Dream Races” have popped up. Today’s fuel injected, electric start, four-stroke machinery is amazing, but I feel bad for the young racers of today who will never experience 125 life. Coaxing a 125 out of a turn and over a big jump is an art and an entirely different riding experience than ‘point and shoot’ four stroke power delivery. They are lighter and easy to control when they get out of shape on the track. Anyone who can ride a 125 without smiling even a little may not have a soul!
But this isn’t about the debate between two-stroke versus four-stroke. All I know is that when I ride a 125 nowadays it makes me feel young again. I move around a lot on the bike and hang off the back looking for more speed and traction, charge into turns faster and let off later, and often hear myself laughing out loud at some of the stuff it lets me get away with. Kids might see an old guy on a slow bike making a lot of noise and going nowhere, but for me and most other racers my age, the 125 is a two wheeled time portal to my youth. I may have newer and faster bikes today, but if I have it my way, there will always be a little 125 in my garage for the days I want a reminder of what pure joy on a track really feels like.
(Author’s note: As of 2018, the Pacific NW Vintage Motocross club added multiple 125 classes for years 1982 and up. This should help preserve older 125s in our region as race bikes for years to come. It also provides an inexpensive gateway to racing for those interested in starting, or returning to, the sport!)