A Garlicky Classic Bike Weekend in Northern California
by Mark Vayne
It’s spring in sunny California and a man’s interest is aroused by the pungent aroma of castor oil, garlic fries and 108 octane racing gas while his thoughts meander toÖ hand-shifted flathead motorcycles? If your passion is watching the old iron run, then the place to be was Sears Point Raceway in Northern California on the weekend of April 27th and 28th, 2001. Kicking off a week-long celebration of all things two-wheeled called Sonomafest, the AHMRA vintage racing weekend drew thousand of happy sun burnt riders and beer-dazed spectators.
The Sonomafest title is vexing because they lump all sorts of activities under this one broad happy-face banner. There are kickoff parties, sponsor parties, co-sponsored parties, plain ole’ parties, tours, CLASS rides, regular rides, all-women’s rides, runs, seminars, classic racing, superbike racing, extreme trials exhibitions, swap meets, spectator track rides, tributes, speeches, trophy presentations, special events, vintage motocross, bench-racing and bullshitting, vendors, food courts, yadda yadda yadda, so that it’ s a little hard to get your right hand around something this big. Everything happens between April 27- May 6 at Sears Point in Sonoma County. But the word Sonomafest always sounded like a celebration of kitchen utensil designers to me. Like maybe the top muffin tin guys and juicer consultants all huddled in a prayer circle around some organic vegetables and then everyone took a high colonic to really get things moving. Cool.
No matter, the classic bike scene is alive and solid in Northern California. Sears Point Raceway is a 2.52, 12-turn highly technical course about an hour North of San Francisco proper. Sears is currently in the middle of a 2-year major upgrade designed to make the track even more spectator-friendly and high class. They’ve literally moved heaven and earth, lots and lots of earth, to create 34,000 new amphitheater-style seats overlooking turns 2, 3 and 4, some of the best corners on the track. They also lopped off a couple of pesky hills so everyone could see the slippin’ and sliding through other areas of the track that were obscured before. Throw in new spectator overpasses, permanent garages for competitors, more tenant shops, increased runoff areas, a whole different configuration for entrance/exit and lots of other major upgrades and you’ve got one kick-ass race track. Sears is considered one of the most challenging venues around. You’re rarely going straight and sitting upright anywhere on the course, making for some interesting racing especially when the Nascar boys try to muscle their lardy Viagra-emblazoned cars around those 12 turns. The outright track record at Sears is an astonishing 112-mph average, set last year by Allan McNish in the brutal Audi R8 GP car.
The thriving classic motorcycle racing scene grows more colorful and diverse every season, but this particular far-West locale discourages some of the East coasters from making the commitment to fly/drive their machines and support crews out. Team Obsolete, the 800-lb gorilla of classic racing, was conspicuous by its absence. However the Rob Ianucci fashion look is catching on, and there were big loud guys with beer bellies, goatees and floppy canvas hats lumbering about everywhere. Some of the younger Inauccis-in-training had the goatees and canvas hats down cold, and were working on the beer belly thing by supporting the Coors Light and Bud tents overtime. Team Obsolete can afford to be picky about which events they support, owning some of the best and rarest old machines around. These include the fabled AJS Porcupine, Honda 4 cylinder 60’s GP bikes and more factory MVs in various permutations than anyone has a right to own. They were here a couple of years ago with single cylinder Matchless and Norton bikes, but not the exotics, and I for one would love to see their good stuff run.
This year’s featured marque at Sonomafest was Indian, the better to help celebrate the 100th birthday of that venerable brand. And Sonomafest was the clearly the right place to be for mechanical 2-wheeled eye candy. Besides the beautiful old race bikes, the range of spectator machines was awesome. The bike show area was crammed with rare and costly two-wheeled thoroughbreds, including the very last factory supercharged Vincent Black Lightening, a quartet of unrestored Indian racers from the 30’s and 40’s, a 500cc pre-war Guzzi Dondolino bursting with magnesium castings, a ’49 Harley WR flat tracker, an ultra-rare Matchless 680TCS, Triumph Hurricane X75, two perfect Whizzers, a bunch of minimalist speedway bikes all decked out in candy colored paint and purple anodized parts, various gorgeous and infinitely desirable Harleys and Nortons and BSAs and Triumphs and Ducatis and Beemers and Esos and Bultacos andÖ. well, you get the idea. Lotta great stuff. One particularly bizarre machine was the one and only ex-Kenny Roberts Yamaha TZ750-engined 4 cylinder 2 stroke water-cooled dirt tracker. It was actually fired up and ridden around the pits, and if you’ve ever had nightmares about being stung to death by killer bees, then stay away from this bike. Loud and irritating doesn’t even begin to describe the multiple-chain-saws-run-amok exhaust note. King Kenny’s final comment after wrestling it around some clay oval for a few laps was supposedly “Ö they don’t pay me enough to ride that thing…”
Yes, there were races. And some of the riders really raced, especially in the Premiere 500 class where various Nortons, Matchlesses, Triumphs and Hondas thundered their way around the course, showing us mere mortals where the proper cornering lines were. Earlier on the pre-1940 class was also a favorite of mine. This is where the rigid framed, hand shifted Indians and Harleys do battle, and Ralph Auger’s #467 winning 1939 BMW barely squeaked by the nimbler but slower 1939 #46 Norton single of Craig McLean, just like at the Isle of Mann back inÖ 1939? Were these men even born when their respective motorcycles rolled off the assembly line? Watching the BMW and Norton run neck-and-neck down the straight was awesome. Another fine pre-40 competitor was Yoshihiro Ohira from Japan, riding the #31X 1936 Indian hand shifter. Yosh was later seen wandering the pits in a daze, shaking his head in amazement at the sheer number of old Indians in attendance. Indians are highly revered in Japan, and he’d never seen so many in one place before.
In the Production Heavyweight race a couple of early 70’s round-case Ducati riders diced with a ’76 Triumph T-140 man, all three sitting mostly upright in a gentlemanly manner, the better to not fall off and make nasty with all those expensive new parts, hand-rubbed paint and acres of polished alloy and chrome. This is in fact my sole complaint about classic racing, that it is sometimes not much of a race. A Bultaco TSS sputtered by me at one point under half throttle, the rider obviously parading as opposed to really racing. Yes, yes, I know the point is to have fun, but have you ever seen Team Obsolete’s Dave Roper ride? This man races, with a capital “R” and watching him is bearing witness to the absolute limits of machine control, cornering, power-on traction and the nefarious forces of hard braking, much like attempting ballet moves at 100 mph. However, risk exists on a measurable sliding financial scale. Roper threw Team Obsolete’s GP Honda multi down the road last year, and this is a bike valued in the 6 figures. Highside your round case Duck and it’s an irritating and expensive rebuild, but hardly in the same league as the ultra-hyper-exotic and rare Honda.
Meanwhile back in the pits, there were dozens of eager vendors with acres of both shiny and dirty parts, and the swap meet area where you could find anything you needed for that restoration project, provided what you need is truly obscure, used, rusting, bent, puzzling, NOS, (New Old Stock) OOS (Old Old Stock), OS (Out of stock) or EAG (Expensive As Gold.) The literature vendors were also out, so if you simply had to have an original road test of your 1968 BSA Spitfire, then all it took was a few bucks and some rooting around in a box.
It was a mellow, happy, relaxed crowd and the atmosphere was measurably more genteel than at modern racing events. Folks smile and chuckle, competitors share parts and tools freely and clap each other on the back after the race. There’s a preponderance of middle-aged racers and spectators that complements the well-used motorcycles. You’ll see scraggly moustaches and granny glasses and tie-died shirts and worn leathers covered with patches from rallies and races long past, acres of frayed denim and faded Scott Flying Squirrel t-shirts but not many skin tight spandex pants or day-glow windbreakers with CHICKS DIG SCARS emblazoned in blinding colors down the back. Many of the tight-leather-and-halter-clad women had more womanly, voluptuous figures than the slender young creatures usually in attendance at superbike events. I wondered why some of the leading undergarment manufacturers don’t sponsor a female rider or two. How about “Maidenform: We Support Classic Female Racers,” or “Playtex Introduces the 18-Lap Bra?”
Wandering the midway and gawking at acres and acres of beautiful old motorcycles, I kept thinking of Team Obsolete’s absence, and in particular Rob Inaucci’s vision of classic racing. He proposes splitting the sport into two sectors: genuinely old machines with all-or-mostly-original parts, and old-looking new racers fabricated from vastly upgraded reproduction components. It’s possible to construct an entire 1962-looking Manx Norton from 100% new parts, and most of those parts are built to specs far superior from the originals. Tear down a Premiere 500 class engine and what you find are titanium H-section conrods, freshly cast engine cases with beefed-up bearing supports, forged high-tensile cranks, sculpted Teflon-coated pistons, special heads with sodium filled valves, wicked lumpy cams, belt drive primaries, slickity 5 speed gearboxes. Frames are specially brazed from lightweight cro-moly tubing. The Norton will look old, but be completely brand-new, and far superior as a racing tool than anything the works fielded in 1962.
A Norton actually running original-spec 1962 components and not suitably tweaked can’t begin to compete with this kind of relentless modernization, and Ianucci has a valid point. The point being that racers race to win, not to have their pants pulled down by a competitor’s bike that’s been thoroughly upgraded except in appearance. The flip side is that race bikes have always been extensively rebuilt and tweaked with stronger stuff, the better to go faster and stay together longer. Racing does indeed improve the breed, but in the process the linear code of mechanical genetics gets somewhat confusing. Are stronger connecting rods allowed so engines don’t explode at higher revs? Must metallurgical advancements be frozen at 1962-era specs so competitors are stuck with “original” style pistons that often seized, galled, broke or burnt?
I chomped my garlic fries and slurped a $5 lemonade as I pondered these, and many other questions. All around me the classic racing circus swirled and pulsed, the sounds and sights and smells familiar but still wonderfully exotic. It seems to me that classic racing has passed through a couple of growth stages, and perhaps was ready for more evolution. The first stage was “Gee, we have all these old race bikes rotting away in our garages and nowhere to run ’em. Let’s rent a track and have some fun.” Stage Two was “Gee, we need some kinda organization to oversee the fun, and someone’s got arrange for garlic fries to be available at the track.” Stage Three “Gee, we broke the engine and we need stronger parts, so maybe you can make us some?” So maybe Stage Four is to recognize that some people will gladly spend obscene amounts of money to win “amateur” races, while others prefer to run-what-they-brung in the most basic sense of the word. I hope there’s room for both strategies in the AHMRA and that events like Sonomafest will continue to grow and prosper in the future. The days of the running Norton Commando ratbike may be gone, but there are lots of wobbly rusted-out Kawasaki triples left in barns and basements to take up the classic bike slack.