The goal was to beat Harley-Davidson at its own flat track game, one the folks in Milwaukee understood well because they'd been playing it for decades. The challenger stepping forward in 1980 was American Honda, and at stake was the most coveted trophy in flat-track racing, the AMA's Grand National Championship, at the time called the Camel Pro Series.
But as the saying goes, before you can run you must first learn to walk, and Honda had a lot of walking to do before their flat track entry eventually made its first run at a Camel Pro Series title in 1984. Actually, the path to victory began with a crawl: Honda was starting with a bike based on the most pedestrian of its street models, the CX500, with its liquid-cooled V-twin engine positioned laterally in the frame. If the David vs. Goliath metaphor comes to mind, join the crowd.
The story began in a nondescript shop in Des Moines, Iowa, where an engineer named Mike Thomas successfully rotated a CX500 engine 90 degrees in a racing frame for flat track racing. Honda eventually hired veteran race mechanic Jerry Griffith to make the little 500cc racer competitive, but with only 50 horsepower it wasn't a threat to Harley's 85-horsepower XR750.
The Honda flat tracker's carburetors were positioned on the left side, splayed front to rear, with the rider's leg resting between them. The exhausts exited from the right, and with the race engine rotated 90 degrees, a chain-and-sprocket final drive replaced the roadster's original drive shaft. The little Honda showed up at various race tracks in 1981, each time getting thoroughly trounced. Mickey Faye and Jeff Haney were initially tasked with riding the bike, and as the program gained steam, seasoned racers Hank Scott and the late Ted Boody also helped with development.
Griffith and company, with help from speed gurus Jerry Branch, Kenny Augustine and others, found ways to increase displacement approaching the allotted 750cc, but overheating problems persisted. For 1982 Griffith turned the cylinder heads 180 degrees, splaying the carbs out to the right and putting the exhaust on the left, and that bike became known as the NS750. In the hands of hard-charging Scott Pearson it actually won a race, the 1982 Louisville Half-Mile. Griffith credited Pearson for the win, however, citing a one-groove track that worked in Pearson's favor; he essentially mastered the hole-shot to the first turn, charging out front and keeping challengers at bay the entire 25 laps.
Despite the win, Griffith realized they were flogging a tired — and slow — horse. Needing help, he convinced American Honda to hire former GN Champion Gene Romero to run the team, freeing Griffith to develop the engine and chassis, and with help from Honda's vaunted HRC division in Japan, they eventually sired the RS750, an engine with pedigree traceable to a special Paris-Dakar race engine.
Students of AMA flat track racing know that the RS750 proved unstoppable, winning Grand National titles in the hands of Bubba Shobert (four) and the late Ricky Graham (two). And to think that it all started with a simple street engine that today is a collectible among Honda enthusiasts.