Vintage Motorcycle Racing with the Honda CB160

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Chris Page's Honda CB160 racer.
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Chris Page (#47), Mike Polkabla (#167) and Bobby Hawbaker (#290) play for the camera on their Honda CB160s at Miller Motorsports Park, Tooele, Utah, at last year's Bonneville VintageGP.
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Vintage motorcycle racing with the Honda CB160 in Washington.
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Juaning Higgins and his latest racer, a Honda CB175.
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Honda CB160 racing pioneer Tim Fowler.
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Vintage motorcycle racing with a Honda CB160.

Roaming around the outside of the track, a muffled buzz growing louder and louder, I could swear a swarm of killer bees must be heading toward me. Then I remember; oh yeah, this is vintage motorcycle racing with the Honda CB160.

I had barely noticed them in the past, hiding far away from the bustling pits of modern road race bikes at the local Washington club races in the Pacific Northwest. The modern-day bikes and racers had taken main stage with their monster trailers, color-coordinated leathers and custom painted helmets, parading and prancing in front of the spectators. But around the corner, hidden under the trees on the dirt section of the pits was a little sideshow: the Honda CB160 racers.

Watching them reminded me of how, when I was a kid, my buddies and I would set wooden stakes in the dirt to make a racetrack. One person would throw their hand up in the air, and the race was on. I remembered what fun it was to race without the pressure or expectation of winning. It felt good, and it’s exactly what these riders get to feel every time they race.

In this case, the riders are a loose group of racers including Group W Racing from Washington and the Flying Circus from Oregon, who exist for no other reason than to just have some good clean vintage motorcycle racing fun.

Honda CB160 vintage motorcycle racing
The Honda CB160 vintage motorcycle racing phenomenon started out more on a dare than a marketing plan. Back in the late 1980s, British Columbia racer Karl Rader got tired of listening to riders gripe about the high cost of racing. So to prove a point, Karl grabbed a 1960s Honda CB160, took off the lights, safety wired it and raced it in the 250 class, finishing mid-pack. The message was delivered: You don’t have to spend a lot of money to race or have fun.

In 1990, Tim Fowler was working a race when Karl and some other riders buzzed by him on their 160s. “That could be interesting,” Tim thought, so he got a broken CB160 from Karl and set about on his first racing career. “For a long time there were just two or three of us who would pit together,” Tim recalls. “It was like a big secret that we were getting away with something because we would get placed in the back row of a modern class or wherever there was a slot for us. If we were lucky there would be two vintage day races for us in Oregon and Washington and a few club races for our season. Then it just sort of caught on as the vintage guys got tired of blowing up and fixing their bikes. We gave the Oregon racers one bike in 2001 and they came back with nine race-ready CBs the next year. Joe Pethoud from Vicious Cycle in Portland took 22 junked CBs and made nine fast race bikes. Now we were having grids grow to 10, 12, 15 racers and then up to 30 bikes.”

To go road racing on a modern bike with protective gear, tires, fuel and accessories, a novice racer will spend $40,000 a season — to start. The expectations from sponsors, friends and the rider for top results are high, and the pressures weigh down on you before you even put rubber on the track. 

An alternative is the diminutive Honda CB160, the mini-bike of vintage motorcycle racing. Forget 40 large, because around $1,800 will get all the parts you need to build one yourself; $1,500-$3,500 will get you a nice, good running 160 while a ready-to-go-vintage-racing 160 will only set you back $4,000-$7,500, tops. Better yet, they easily last three to five years with little more than basic maintenance and fresh tires every season.

In the Northwest crowd, there’s a basic gentlemen’s agreement that one doesn’t spend too much money or go nuts about winning. The more the merrier, and they are a merry group of racers. Then again, how serious can you be with a top speed of 82mph, 12-14hp for a spec motor and a weight of about 200 pounds, where a passing technique on the straightaway is to draft the racer in front of you, then grab the bike with your hand and pull yourself into the lead? (Yes, you should probably know the racer you are doing this to very well.)

There’s also the freedom to have a junker bike or to modify it with carbon fiber intakes, under-the-seat pipes and fancy paint and chrome. On the track it doesn’t matter, as groups of the bees swarm together to create a race where none existed before. 

There is no typical Honda CB160 racer. Rather, it’s an eclectic group of people and passions. Juaning Higgins from Portland, Ore., began racing three years ago at age 29, starting off on a 160. “The racers aren’t out there to chop your line off and take you out. When you’re elbow to elbow and tire over tire, you become one machine through the corner with your fellow racer. There is a lot of trust and honor with these guys who are there for fun and excitement,” Juaning says, explaining why he races the little Honda.

Walking around the pits, you’ll see racers chilling in their lawn chairs or working on their bikes, just like at any other race track. What is different, however, is that the riders are helping fix each other’s bikes so that everybody can race. That’s something you don’t see very often in modern racing.

“The racing is great and the crowds seem to like it,” Tim says. “It still is pretty much a Northwest sport, but with more interest and participation from California now. I think the 160 class is popular because it’s cheap, fun and we all pit together and fix each other’s bikes. It’s a lot of fun with no pressure. We started off not modifying the engines at all, but that changed over time. We kept them stock because we weren’t good tuners and it took money. I never cared if I won anything or not. I just wanted to have fun — go out and battle the guys and win a corner or two against them. I would slow down on the straightaway if I got too far ahead so we could bunch up again and hold it open through the sweepers and then stuff each other in a hairpin.” They’ve also resurrected the Le Mans start for certain races. Granted, it’s more of a laugh than anything else, as riders hope no one trips and crashes before actually getting on their bike.

At the end of the day it’s the search for fun that permeates these racers. Whether you’re looking for an inexpensive intro to vintage motorcycle racing — or you’re a grizzled veteran tired of the expense of modern racing — CB160 racing may be for you. MC

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