After a beer-fueled debate with friends about the worst bikes ever, Anders Carlson was the proud new owner of a 1974 Honda CB360 with plans to go racing. What could go wrong?
Good times usually beget the worst ideas. At our 2013 annual ride to southeast Wisconsin, a beer-fueled debate broke out about the worst bike people had ever owned.
Post-Meriden Triumphs, “free” Japanese barn finds and bikes made of “unobtanium” were all mentioned, but Kris Baustert outdid everybody with the tale of a 1974 Honda CB360 so reviled he named it “Hellbitch.” It stranded him three times and his wife once. Broken down between Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, Hellbitch and his wife caught a ride home in a windowless van filled with chains from a stranger who turned out to be a carpenter and a good Samaritan. On cue, everyone chimed in with their own tales of CB360 woe. Worst bike ever, they all said. It replaced the beloved CB350, using a bigger engine with less horsepower and no parts compatibility. The cam chain tensioner design was awful and cam chain guides would fail, taking the cam chain for a ride to the bottom of the crankcase: It was an IED.
“But if you fix them, they’re not that bad?” I asked. Kris told me to buy Hellbitch and suggested an unprintable place to park it. Sensing a bet, I said, “Tell you what, I’ll fix it and race it.” Great laughter followed, as the CB360 isn’t legal to race in any class where it would be remotely competitive. But the idea had legs. I’d fix the unfixable, race the unraceable and do the unthinkable. She supposedly had good compression, and even had the “:” recall mark stamped on the engine case, indicating the bad cam chain guides were replaced. A bet is a bet, so I bought Hellbitch.
The most important thing in racing is finishing. Modifications come at the expense of reliability. The search for extra horsepower can push an engine past its abilities. My approach is to leave my engine safely underpowered. This bike is going to be a faith-based initiative — I’m praying it doesn’t blow up. Regardless, plenty of work goes into the first track day. The wiring harness is removed in favor of a total-loss electrical system, leaving only three wires — battery to “on” switch, to kill switch, to coils. A lithium battery saves 5 pounds. I bump the main jets from 100 to 110 and ditch the air filter. The front fender gets chopped, Avons get fitted to stock rims, and that’s it. Someone threw out their Ducati bodywork in my alley, so hello, classy belly pan.
Blackhawk Farms is a 1.95-mile, seven-turn track in South Beloit, Illinois. It’s perfect for sorting out problems before my first race at Road America. But my third lap finds me creating a new problem when I shift down instead of up, burying the tach into redline with immediate consequences: I grenade the engine. “Grenade” is no exaggeration. Limping to pit lane, I find chunks of metal exiting the left carb. These metal bits later fill two mason jars. The autopsy reveals the piston was forced into a death match with the intake valve. Then the connecting rod beat the winner to death.
There are three weeks to rebuild. When you race crappy bikes, people simply give you spare engines. But they’re free for a reason. One’s stuck and the other has cobwebs inside. I manage to put together one-and-a-half engines by 3 a.m. the night before leaving for Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Once at Road America, I finally safety wire the bike, but discover the clutch gasket has failed, making my bike the Exxon Valdez II. Total loss ignition meant removing the stator, so there are no marks to time the engine. Back on it goes. I fire it up but discover the oil slinger is filled with cobwebs turned sludge. Everything has to be safety wired and gasketed again. Everything that can go wrong, does.
I miss Friday practice, but there’s a silver lining. Missing practice means I might make it around the track once. I’m told one lap equals a race “completed,” enough to qualify for the AHRMA date at the Barber Vintage Festival in Leeds, Alabama, in October. I shoot for Saturday, but the tappets need adjusting. The stator cover and shifter come off and need to be safety wired, again. At this point, I just want to complete a single lap so I can qualify. Like early rocket science, there’s one chance to light the fuse to take off. Or blow up.
Sunday brings my final chance to “race.” I stuff myself in race leathers, attach a kickstarter and go. Unbelievably, it starts on the first kick and even sounds OK. My friend Steve times it by cupping the exhaust and letting me know when it’s “about right.” A scraping noise says it’s not. How long will it last? I’ll find out quickly.
Waiting in the hot pit lane, the throttle sticks open. Can I race with a wide open throttle? Can I just upshift to slow down? We leave the pits. I just need one lap, but as I’m thinking about this I run out of gears. The engine redlines, then quits. A throttle return cable locknut has jammed the throttle open. In fixing lots of big problems, the small ones get overlooked. Two blown engines in two-and-a-half weeks. Beer me.
The second autopsy isn’t bad, just a bent valve and cracked guide. But the only chance to qualify for Barber is five days away at Grattan Raceway in Michigan, and there’s no time to rebuild. Jason Koschnitzke offers me the CL175 from my first season racing, and I’m in business. I race conservatively just to finish, but am treated to Isle of Man TT race legend Dave Roper borrowing the CL175 for a Superbike Lightweight race. His usual ride’s out of commission, so a mutual friend suggests the Honda. His first lap on the 175 is a full five seconds faster than me. Much respect, Mr. Roper.
Alas, a 2014 trip to Barber isn’t in the cards. A new job means no time. But in March a new race season begins taking shape with my wife pitching in. Her decisiveness counters my slow pace. She tackles gearbox rebuilding 101 and we build a serviceable 6-speed box. Changing strategy, I decide on Kibblewhite valves, springs and guides. This won’t help performance much, but it will make things more bulletproof. The bike should redline nicely, plus an oil passage mod means better oil flow to the head. Add a mild port and polish job to the head, and we own one out of three Honda CB360s on Earth able to “competitively” race.
Also working for my cause is Brenden Macaluso, founder of Common Motor Collective in Houston, Texas. A champion of the CB360 since 2013, he makes pattern parts and sells them online. This includes the infamous cam chain tensioner and guides, copies of the post-recall ones. Digging my quixotic cause, he sends me enough free gaskets to equip a factory team and the then-secret prototype cam guide. Racing will prove whether the CMC prototype is up to snuff.
The CB360 curse works in mysterious ways. A day before my track day at Blackhawk Farms, I break my elbow bicycling to work, causing me to miss the Road America and Grattan races. I consider a Barry Sheene strategy of racing crippled, but my spouse threatens divorce. Someone suggests the Vintage Road Racing Association race at Mosport, in Canada, which fits into my recovery schedule. Maybe I can hang onto a bike by late August.
A few illicit test rides around Chicago show a strong engine, with good tune above 5,000rpm. I stick a taillight and plate on the 360 and hightail it 7.5 miles to a friend’s place without a hitch. The indifference of Chicago cops makes for an uneventful run — I pass two cops with nothing but a number plate for a headlight.
Plenty of people are sick of helping me haul crappy motorcycles around the Midwest. Fortunately, race veterans Matt Joy, Karsten Illg and Rex Wagner aren’t among them. We depart from Karsten’s Framecrafters shop with a giant pickup and trailer for the 12-hour trip to Mosport. We’re hauling Matt’s trick Honda CL175, Karsten’s Superbike Lightweight Yamaha RD400 and Rex’s enduro Honda Hurricane 600. And the lowly CB360. The first of several hundred CB360 jokes comes from Karsten. “There’s no room in the trailer so we’re strapping the 360 to the roof.” No respect.
Arriving at glorious Mosport, now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, we’re instantly impressed. Everything’s new, clean and beautiful. We register, but I’m unable to talk my way into the Period 2 Lightweight or Middleweight class. I’m put into Period 3 Superbike Lightweight, meaning I’ll race against GP class race bikes with 50cc to 150cc advantages. I need the official result to qualify for Barber, so I don’t have a choice. The trip’s wasted if I’m disqualified. So I’m the backmarker.
The 360 has made it around a track exactly two-and-a-half times without catastrophic engine failure. I’ve hauled this bike 580 miles into another country to see if it can finish a race, so I’m nervous about Friday practice. A first slow session begets a better second run, and nothing blows up. A third run ends coasting with a dead engine downhill on Turn 3, but only because I forgot to switch the fuel tap to reserve in time. Looks like CMC’s parts are holding up nicely.
Mosport is a 2.458-mile, 10-turn track built in 1961. It’s hosted famous racers from Mario Andretti to Mike Hailwood and was recently widened from 28 feet to 40 feet. It’s a fast track, so some riders don’t drag a knee all weekend. Turns 5a and 5b are the only turns approximating a hairpin, with Turn 10 providing the only other chance to grind a peg or two. The rest is frightening sweepers and blind carousels. Sixth gear might come in handy.
I help the Framecrafters crew score their endurance race on Friday, then prepare for Saturday’s race. Karsten’s RD goes down not once, but twice. He still paces the pack with first and second place finishes on Saturday and Sunday. Racing in his class, I witness this personally since I’m 30 seconds a lap behind. Matt’s CL175 finishes second on Saturday, and sees a possible Sunday win turn to second when the race is red-flagged. Watching Karsten and his crew fix his RD400 is inspiring — they’re all business. But Karsten finds time to put inappropriate stickers on my bike when I’m not looking. “Long length,” indeed.
I’m dead last Saturday and Sunday, but the bike holds up. It pulls freely and doesn’t leak — much. I post a 2:12 lap on Saturday, trimming it to 2:09 on Sunday. I dice it up with an older gentleman calling himself “The Flying Fossil” on a Yamaha TZ250. I catch him in a corner or two, but he’s faster on the straights. I graciously help him avoid last place both days. Poutine, a Canadian dish of fries, gravy and cheese, becomes part of our post-race routine. It seems to settle my rear suspension, so maybe it’s best before racing? Either way, Matt and I harness the power of poutine and qualify for Barber. Summer’s looking up.
Returning home with a month and a half to prepare for Barber, I really should improve the suspension. Matt says my bike visibly shimmied in corners due to the terrible setup. “Setup” implies I did anything to the suspension, which I didn’t. I never checked fork oil or found shocks made after the Ford administration. So this 360 has tons of potential, meaning it’s profoundly uncompetitive.
Time constraints rule out suspension upgrades, but I redo the top end and solve oil leaks with some success. Changing the rear sprocket would help, but time runs out. I’ll be running illegally in the Novice Historic Production Lightweight class. This is where the 360 actually belongs, but it’s too new (1974) for the class, which is limited to 1972 and older. My opinions aside, AHRMA doesn’t consider the 360 to be “like or similar” to the 350s, which of course date back to 1968. So they don’t count for Lightweight Production. A rule’s a rule, so I ignore it and decide to disqualify myself if I get a podium finish, so as not to ruin other racers’ honest efforts.
People think I’m a pioneer of CB360 “racing” but the honor goes to Thomas Sanders. After a year of trading 360 tips, we finally meet at Barber. He raced his 360 at Barber in 2014, in Superbike Lightweight, a class unsuited to the bike. He also raced Roebling and Daytona, finishing well behind faster bikes. A bent valve takes him out of Barber this year, but he’s of good cheer. I ask him what class he would have raced, and he replies Novice Historic Production Lightweight. Unlike my sneaky, cheating method, Thomas gets a variance from AHRMA to race in the class. Nicely done, Mr. Sanders.
I’m no longer worried about grenading the engine, but my gearing isn’t ideal. I can’t put down speed fast enough to use sixth gear. A review of Barber makes clear why: There are elevation changes, a frighteningly fast chicane, two double-apex turns and another called the “Alabama Roller Coaster” that features a left-hand esse before a right-hand sweeper — going downhill.
The real challenge isn’t the track; it’s everything leading up to it. Race morning goes as follows: You haven’t slept much, but you’re wide awake. There’s an hour to caffeinate, suit up and eat. Last night’s beer works through your sweat glands as soon as leathers touch your skin. Anything fixed the day before is broken again. Also, everyone else is totally prepared and you’re not. Battery charged? Got gas? Good tire pressure? Let’s hope so, because your race call just blared over the loudspeakers. Stop. Do one thing at a time. Don’t forget your back protector. Or your lanyard. Or your starting spot. Is it written on your tank? There it is. Now start your bike. Did you put on your leathers? Bump-starting your bike is much harder now. Second call over the loudspeakers. Your bike starts and now you’re a sweaty mess. Where the hell’s your helmet? There it is, 10 feet from your bike. Yell at someone to get it, now put it on. Third and final call. Gloves? Also somewhere else. Find them and ride to the hot pit lane.
It’s 8 a.m. and you’re on hot pit lane. Two-stroke fumes fill your nostrils while your visor fogs over. Take the warm-up lap, remember your lines and don’t hit anyone. Take your spot on the grid, then lift your visor and breathe slowly to clear it. Wait for the signals. The countdown starts. Get your revs up and visualize your gap. Look for the flag again. As the green flag drops, pick a line, drop the clutch and hit your gap until you see the checkered flag. Do this until 8:19 a.m., when it’s all over.
Sharing the track with Production Lightweight is the GP250 and Class C Foot and Handshift riders. With 58 riders taking the grid, the real challenge is not hitting other riders at the start, never mind picking up positions during the race. We start in three waves, with lightweights second. Our grid has 17 racers, and in short order we’re mixing it up and making the most of our five to six laps. Saturday gets me 11th place. Sunday’s race goes less than smoothly. The start features a three-bike pile-up, with an extra warm-up lap to compensate. Otherwise it’s an identical result — 11th place. That’s like four No. 1 finishes in two races.
Being done by 8:30 a.m. has its advantages. You’re free to watch races, eat unhealthy food and day drink. I visit the Motorcycle Classics crew, but their show doesn’t feature a “Just Showed Up Without Asking” category, so my CB360 gets just a participatory ribbon. I’m touched, regardless. I take Sunday afternoon to visit the museum and commune with this motorcycle Valhalla. Would you believe the museum features a CB360? Take that, CB360 haters. Leaving the museum, my bike’s missing. Someone has stolen a bike mostly useful for detonating near enemy targets. Turns out I parked in a “No Parking” zone and museum personnel moved it. Sorry, Mr. Barber.
It’s a drama-free weekend until fellow pit-mate Chris Steele high-sides his CB160 fighting for real estate in Turn 7. He’s out cold on the track for 30 seconds of eternity. He comes to and walks into the ambulance on his own, to cheers from the crowd. He nets a boring Sunday night in the hospital, and we spend one last night in Birmingham with Detroit friends. The next day Chris is out of the hospital, and our drive back to Chicago and Milwaukee is a blur of gas station sandwiches, energy drinks and highway hypnosis.
The whole saga is less an accomplishment than a punch line to a 2-year-old joke. Racing a CB360 isn’t much fun and the race results were awful. But it involved beer, trailers, late nights and fellow race addicts. And I won a bet that was as much about pride as pointlessness. Two years after the idea was born, a bonfire “awards” ceremony takes place during our 2015 southeast Wisconsin ride and I win the coveted “Raced a CB360 Without Blowing Up” award. It’s a $4 beer sign, covered with stickers of half-nude men and one that says “Certified CB360 Hater.” It’s the only award I win, but it sums everything up perfectly. Does winning a stupid bet make you, in fact, stupid? Stupid like a fox, I say. Life is measured in good friends and meaningless awards. If that’s not winning, I don’t know what is. MC