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Mr. Tate goes vintage racing

Words: Larry Tate   Photos: Colourtech Motorsports Photography, unless otherwise stated

VINTAGE BIKES, VINTAGE RIDERS

Reality bites.

Photo: Larry Tate

The older you get, the faster you were: a pretty common joke among members of the racing group known as the Vintage Road Racing Association, or VRRA. Not always true, though, as anyone racing with the VRRA crowd for the first time will quickly learn. Just because you have a few years’ experience doesn’t mean you’re slowing down any.

VINTAGE RACING 101

The VRRA was started in 1980 by a small corps of vintage bike enthusiasts who wanted to do more than just shine and show their bikes. It has since developed into a well-known group of restorers, tuners, and racers with links to all the major Canadian and American sanctioning bodies. It’s the only motorcycle club in Canada devoted solely to classic and vintage road racing (including machines from the 1940s to the 1980s) and is one of the oldest such organizations in North America.

VRRA is a non-profit club operated by volunteers. There’s money in the kitty, but it’s used strictly to offset the costs of running events, paying track workers and the like. The vintage scene can be charged with politics and personalities, but anyone who’s belonged to any kind of volunteer organization regarding anything from aardvark preservation to zither restoration can relate to that. By and large, I think the VRRA does a bloody good job of maintaining a venue for folks to restore, maintain, and race old motorcycles.

Colin Fraser (mid-pack) on his KZ1000 gets his vintage fix.

Photo: Larry Tate

The VRRA racers are also among the best in North America, although the racing is clearly not as serious as the national superbike series or the regional RACE or ASM events. Generally speaking, as national superbike series organizer Colin Fraser said while competing at the Quinte TT, “Vintage racing is a little more adult, a little more respectful and conscious of getting home in order to get to work Monday morning.”

But he races a fair bit in vintage events in the U.S. as his schedule allows, and he added, “Don’t think it’s just riding around. The competition up here is HARD. It’s definitely tougher up front than it is racing at AHRMA (the biggest U.S. vintage racing group) in the States.” Coming from a guy who won his vintage superbike race at Daytona this year – in the rain – you have to believe he’s not kidding.

And despite the jokes about age, shrinking leathers, and the like, competitors range from 16 to 75 years of age – you don’t have to be an old fart to like old bikes. Really.

FREE RIDE



For a number of reasons (not all of them related to talent), any kind of serious racing is out of the question for me any more. I’m delighted with the occasional guest appearance in an oddball class (last year’s Canadian Thunder Guzzi Experience, for example, was a freakin’ hoot), and I also do a few track days now and then, mostly instructing Wolf BMW customers or employees of BMW Canada on which end of the motorcycle is the front. Free bikes and free track time (or mostly so, anyway) – doesn’t get much better.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when Bondo purchased a KZ1000 with the intent of entering it in VRRA’s new-ish big-bore P3 Heavyweight class (at least I think it’s P3 Heavyweight; I confess that making sense out of the VRRA class structure has so far eluded my analytical capabilities). Anyway, Steve-o invited me to ride it with him at the August 22 Mosport two-hour endurance race.

VRRA has three big events in Ontario most years: the Quinte TT (formerly Spring Fling) at Shannonville in June, the Vintage Festival at Mosport in August, and the Runway Romp in North Bay in September. Mosport is the biggest and oldest event of them all, and the legend of the track itself only adds to the luster. I hadn’t actually raced there since my very first road race, back in, um, mumble mumble – let’s just say it was on a first-year Yamaha RD350LC and let it go at that.

NORTH BAY OR BUST

Bored-out CB550 is Team Biohazard’s bike of choice (note blatant Avon plug in background).

Photo: Larry Tate

Well, April and May and June and July came and went, and other than the luvvly gummy tyres (that would be English for “tires”) that Avon was kind enough to supply, parts for the Kawasaki simply weren’t appearing. Finally early in August Bondo called and said, “It’s hopeless, it won’t be ready, try and find another ride if you can. I’m looking, too.”

Rats.

Cue Max Burns, lover of apple pie, explorer of back roads, and expert on cottage septic systems. Oh, he also writes a motorcycle column for that paper bike mag out of Toronto, and has been an acquaintance/friend of mine about as long as many CMG folk have been alive. Max dropped me an e-mail saying he’d heard about my ride falling through and why didn’t I call his friend Ralf Borowski up in North Bay, who was trying to get a team together?

So I called Ralf, he said cool I have a bike and now I have a team (Team Biohazard, which later appeared ominously prescient), and the deal was struck. Again, good deal for me – show up with my riding gear and $50 for my share of the entry fee, and I’m racing. Thankfully, Ralf’s bike was even riding on Avons. Gotta love it. He planned to show up Thursday, get the bike tidied and tech’d, and be all ready for Friday’s first practice session. Excellent.

Oh, er, by the way Ralf, what kind of bike is it? “A 1977-ish CB550, bored out to 590. It’s been sitting around for a couple of years, but I raced it at St-Croix last month and everything seemed okay.”

TIDIED, TECH’D & TESTED

Tech went the usual sort-of okay way it does. “Looks good, except for this and this.” What? It’s been raced like that for years! Nobody ever said anything before! “Read my lips, looks good, except for this and this.” Actually, just a couple of bits of safety wire and some silicone and we were fine. Then Ralf remembered that St-Croix gearing wasn’t going to be perfect for Mosport, so let’s throw on the smallest sprocket in the box.

Good plan. It only took about 20 minutes for Ralf, Eugene (the third rider, and almost Ralf’s size) and me to dislodge the old sprocket from the hub, the two big guys standing on the wheel and heaving while I tapped every bit of metal available with a hammer. Seems whatever was used to lube the thing last time had turned into glue.

Finally, ready for practice. We’ve already missed the first session, but the endurance bikes can go out any time so we’re not too badly off. Ralf goes first (“hey, it’s your bike, your treat”, meaning, “hey, it’s your bike, YOU find out if something we haven’t noticed is completely f*cked”).

Spin – Pain – Shift.

No problems, except that Ralf fears it’s now geared too long. We all look at the hub, decide in unison we’re not going through that again, and it’s my turn. The thing goes okay, doesn’t stop (I mean, okay for what it is, but really, I’m glad they finally invented brakes for motorcycles in the last few years), and the carbs aren’t happy except wide-open at high rpm, but Mosport is pretty much wide open and the tyres are good so what the hell?

I’m not sure about the gearing, either which was hard to tell with no tach. So it became a guessing game; spin it until you think it’s getting close to where it’ll hurt something, then shift. Poor Honda.

The other thing is that the suspension, with springs suitable for the owner’s 248 lb, was just a tad stiff for my 165 or so. First time into T-1 at speed I nearly chattered myself right off into the tunnel entrance under the track. Fortunately the thing stayed up and my leathers dry, and I was a lot more circumspect through there afterwards.

FUN & GAMES

A CB550 duel.

Ralf does the first 40-minute session, no problems. We refuel, likewise, and it’s my turn. As usual, I feel like I’m going quite a bit quicker in the race than in practice, and in fact the gearing feels about right now; catching top just about at the crest of the first hump on the back straight. I passed a few people, kept my head well down when the superbikes went past (bit scary, that, on occasion), and was having some fun when the gearbox started acting up a bit, enough to spook me.

I nearly ran at least one guy off the track when I missed a gear (fortunately, we met up afterwards so I could apologize and he was fine with it), and I nearly had a stroke when I caught a neutral in the middle of T-8 (“shift UP,” I’m desperately thinking, “shift UP”). Then a red flag comes out and I’m parked at Moss Corner with a dead engine (carbs won’t idle; I forgot).

It starts fine, though, so back to the grid for the restart, where I promptly stall it again (slow learner). Get a push start, get back in place, unzip my leathers to cool down, realize that we’re about to start RIGHT NOW, try to get the leathers closed with the left hand while blipping the throttle with the right and the other left hand gets the clutch in … sigh.

Bondo on Zenon’s CB350 (apologies for the shite quality).

Photo: unknown

After a few more laps I start thinking it’s about time for me to be called in (what, me getting tired? No way). I notice that the timing clock is easily readable, and now become convinced I’m due in any second. Then I see Bondo up ahead (he’d gotten a last-minute ride on VRRA guy Zenon Tutko’s very nice Honda 350) and immediately start praying I don’t get called in until I get him.

Steve’s riding the wheels off Z’s 350 but I catch him on the straight, only to be immediately stopped by another red flag. I almost went into the pits, thinking we’d save a bit of time switching over, but decided I didn’t remember the rules well enough to know if I’d just screw us up, so back to the grid I went.

The grid marshall starts peering suspiciously at me, I look down and find a pretty sheen of oil all over the left side of the bike, including my boot.

Oops – off the track I go and it’s the end of race for Team Biohazard.

Team Biohazard (and another Avon plug).

Photo: Ralf’s dad

Although Eugene didn’t get his shift – which was a shame – he still got a trophy. Some other poor souls apparently expired before we did, and we were credited with third in class after completing only two-thirds of the race. C’est la vie.

To cap the weekend, I was offered a very nice CB350 to use next season. Now, how to convince my Social Director that the reason I’m suggesting a holiday in Nova Scotia next July is to visit her brother’s new home? Nothing at all to do with that great vintage Atlantic TT at Shubenacadie (coincidentally, about half an hour from bro’s new house).

Oh no, she’d never see through that …

THANKS TO:

Big thanks to Avon for the tyres, Ralf for trusting me with his bike, Steve Bond for accommodation at the Bondo B&B, and all the VRRA volunteers who made the weekend happen.

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