Vintage race daze
Flat out and heading toward turn nine at Road Atlanta, I’m not sure what’s giving me the most concern: The fact I’m displacing families of potentially rare spiders or the likelihood of anything falling off this 1985 Yamaha FZ750 as we approach the far side of 140mph.
With my mind flip-flopping between images of environmentalists with protest banners pacing up and down outside my apartment, and my shiny custom Joe Rocket leathers getting seriously scuffed, I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
It had all seemed like a great idea when former AMA racer Bill Brown called and asked if I’d like to participate in a vintage motorcycle racing exhibition at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga. We were slated to run during the big classic car meet known as the Historic Sportscar Racing Mitty Challenge, or just “the Mitty.” Setting the bait, Bill buttered me up with promises of “slow parade laps to let the car guys see some motorcycles.” My ride? A very cool 1985 Yamaha FZ750 with a big-bore engine, “just like Eddie Lawson rode when he won the Daytona 200,” Bill said. What he didn’t tell me was the bike looked like it was parked in Bill’s yard around the time Eddie was putting his trophy on the shelf.
A little preparation
On arrival in the pit area before the race, I learn the practice session has degenerated into a quick spin around the parking lot in first and second gear. This at least clues me into the fact the Yam’s brakes are about as useful as Pope Benedict’s family jewels — even with four fingers molesting the brake lever the Yamaha FZ750 has trouble stopping from 20mph; Bill doesn’t seem even a bit worried.
In the interest of public safety (well, mine really) I decide a pre-race inspection might not be a bad idea. This at least raises my confidence level from negative to zero, as all the important pieces on the FZ750 seem to be lock-wired properly. The copious amounts of duct tape also seem to be doing their job, and there doesn’t appear to be any fluids leaking. Checking out the rear end, I think of asking Bill if we should put some lube on the chain. As rusty as it is, I’m not sure if it would help.
Examining the rear tire makes me think Bill is taking this vintage thing a little too seriously. Wrapped around the narrow 18-inch rim is an old, oversized Metzeler ME88 touring tire, circa the late 1980s. Harder than a marble statue, it’s good to see that it’s worn nearly flat in the middle, with the edges bending outward at an interesting angle. “It’ll probably spin in the lower gears with all the power from the big-bore motor, so you better be careful coming out of the turns,” I hear Bill say as he catches me scrutinizing the beast. “Thanks,” I murmur, adding this to my mental checklist of things to pay attention to.
Shooting around to the front to see what wonder of modern science might be wrapped around the other rim I’m surprised to see a Pirelli race-compound tire. Shame it’s worn out. Pressing on regardless, I decide to hop on the bike and familiarize myself some more with the bar, peg and lever positions.
Popping the Yamaha FZ750 off the race stand, firing it to life and pulling out of the pit, the next area of attention becomes glaringly obvious. Making a tight right turn, I immediately find my fingers jammed between the fairing and the bars. I instantly wonder if a blood blister could be considered enough of an injury to retire me from the race. Looking up to see Bill’s indomitable smile and twinkling blue eyes again, he nonchalantly mentions he’ll fix this before I ride the bike again. “Again!?” I squeak, “I haven’t even lived through the first ride, yet.”
Never to be deterred, Bill proceeds to inform me of his plan to turn the Yamaha FZ750 into a full replica of Lawson’s Daytona winner and have me enter it in a proper race. In all fairness to those who don’t know Bill Brown, he is not the raving nutter I make him out to be. In fact, he owns a well-sorted collection of rare and mostly very fast race bikes, so when he finishes the FZ750 pictured here, I can guarantee it’ll not only be a head turner, but also a race winner. In the right hands, of course.
It’s soon time to get our leathers on and put on a show. My warm up lap has evaporated, and Bill is trying to convince me not to worry as it’s only a few exhibition laps. Watching Yamaha’s Steve Liberatore hop on one of Bill’s personal race bikes, Yamamonster, a lovely little fire-breathing 180 horsepower vintage racer, the BS smells stronger than the high-octane race fuel that’s burning in the air. Yamamonster consists of an old FZR750 race frame holding a tweaked, 1,040cc Yamaha FZ1 engine. The sight of Bill peeling tire warmers off the slicks doesn’t help the butterfly mosh pit inside my stomach. Then Bill slips on his leathers and rolls out his 2005 Canadian Superbike-spec Yamaha R1, and I know I’m really in trouble.
Within minutes the rest of the gang is lined up, and I’m feeling like Oliver Twist at a private school birthday party in Laguna Beach. Gazing around with envy at the selection of neatly scrubbed race-compound tires, freshly painted bodywork and modern suspension bits, I feel hopelessly under-equipped. Listening to the interesting mechanical noises from under the gas tank as I blip the throttle, there is no one to hear my whining as I ponder my fate on mismatched vintage rubber with an almost total lack of brakes.
Lining up on the starting grid on the front straight, things just get worse. There is a sizeable crowd for the event, and they seem to all be lined up on the fence to watch. A commentator is actually announcing the race, which is drawing even more attention to us, and I wonder how I can get him to explain the slight handicap I’m racing under. Picking a spot toward the rear, I slip my trusty-rusty into gear and wait for the signal to go.
And they’re off …
Dumping the clutch and juddering off the line in a cloud of exhaust smoke and strange noises, I am completely alone by the time the telegram goes out to the brakes that turn one is approaching. Completely left for dead by the other riders, I gingerly ease through the turn before gently applying some throttle. The Yamaha FZ750 turns with all the agility of a double-wide on the back of a semi. By a mixture of extreme body language and some judicious leverage on the bars, it makes the turn before heading up over the hill. The gearing is wicked short, sending the tach needle instantly into the red and forcing some hurried upshifts to avoid grenading the engine. By the time I’m wobbling my way down through the esses, the last bike in the lead pack is exiting for turn five. I’m alone.
Having an internal word to get a hurry on to see if I can hang with the tail rider in the group ahead, the message translates to the rear tire spinning, the bike going uncomfortably sideways, and the Bayly shorts changing color. “Wrong move,” I think to myself, before continuing on at my snail pace while attempting to get my heart rate out of the cardiac arrest zone.
This crazy game of cat and mouse with the throttle, lean angle and where to put the hopeless brakes into action before the turns is actually more fun than I could ever have imagined. Once I set my marks, the remaining few laps speed by as I actually get to look around the beautiful Road Atlanta track, though I’m wishing I could peel some of the duct tape off and get rid of the large white letters on my back that spell out my name. Watching the response from the enthusiastic crowd soon eliminates such thoughts though, and I just concentrate on getting home in one piece.
Just like royalty
There are some tense moments (like getting all crossed up when I try to put too much power down going under the Toyota Bridge), but not all of them are life-threatening. Knowing that Bill Brown and the gang will be coming past, I make sure to stay on line, and on the last lap I think I make Bill’s day.
Heading into turn 10a, sitting up and doing my best Lady Di wave to the crowd, the peloton passes by me wheel-to-wheel at high speed. Although Bill would go on to win this race that wasn’t a race, I’m sure his ability to pilot his hyper-fast R1 is compromised due to laughing at my crazy waving routine.
Taking the checkered flag dead last feels as good as a win. Having never ridden such a pile, it has without doubt been a unique experience I wouldn’t change for the world. The old FZ held together, it didn’t spit me off, and we both made it home in one piece. Bill and the boys put on a spectacular show for the car guys, and the whole race was a great success.
As my first introduction to vintage racing, it has me hooked and wanting more. My world now involves long conversations with Bill Brown about racing brakes, trick radiators and all the cool stuff he is doing to the Yamaha FZ750 for my next race. MC