Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Honda RS750, Factory AMA Grand National Flat-Tracker

Bubba Shobert's Championship Honda Flattracker
There were a few years back in the Eighties when America's dirt tracks were ruled by a bike that didn't sport an orange and black paint job and wasn't made in Milwaukee... Although it was red, white, and blue, it came from the Land of the Rising Sun, and in the hands of  Ricky Graham and Bubba Shobert for four straight years it totally dominated that most American of motorsports, AMA Grand National flattrack... the awesome Honda RS750.

In the early Eighties, Honda decided to get into AMA dirt track racing. A couple of seasons of campaigning a bike based on the CX500 V-twin (hate to digress here, but was there ever an uglier bike on the market?), the NS750, yielded mediocre results, even with Number One plateholder Mike Kidd at the controls. Honda then decided to get really serious and build a dirttracker from the ground-up. And "getting serious" meant beating Harley-Davidson and the mighty orange-and-black XR-750... Rumor has it that Big Red bought one, shipped it back to Japan, and tore it down to the last nut and bolt to get a complete understanding of why and how the XR worked so well on the dirt. Out of that effort came the RS750. It wasn't just a clone, there were significant differences between the two, the biggest being Honda's use of overhead cams and four valves per head, versus the pushrods and two valves per head of the XR.

The RS750 debuted in the 1983 season, with supremely talented and fiercely competitive Dirt Track Hall of Famer Hank Scott in the saddle. As you would expect with a brand-new from the ground-up machine, that first season was mostly an exercise in shaking out the bugs, though Scott did win one race at his favorite venue, the DuQuoin mile.

The following season, Honda hired 1982 AMA Grand National champion Ricky Graham of California and Texan Bubba Shobert. Randy Goss, piloting an XR-750, took the Number One plate from Rickey Graham that year, but Ricky Graham took it back in the 1984 season on the Honda, beating teammate Shobert by one point. The following three seasons, Shobert in his turn blew everyone else off the track on the RS750 you see above, which is on display at the AMA Motorcycle Museum

In 1988, the Honda began losing its competitive edge when the AMA changed the rules to require carburetor restrictor plates that limited horsepower. The loss of horsepower made the XR-750 more competitive against the RS750. The official line of the AMA rules committee was that limiting horsepower would make campaigning a dirt bike cheaper by saving wear on rear tires (one of the most challenging aspects of dirttracking for the rider is to avoid burning up the rear tire before the race is done, especially on mile tracks).

The rules committee soon followed up with another rule that required Big Red to load an extra 15 pounds on the technologically superior RS750. Thereafter the Honda really did lose its competitive edge and Honda decided to put its racing dollars and energies elsewhere, but what a wild ride while it lasted. Once again Honda had shown its technical prowess and savvy, this uncanny ability to jump into some new racing arena and dominate it within an astonishingly short period of time, and to do it even in a sport that Harley-Davidson had dominated for decades. 

So, why did the AMA change the rules in a way that brought the Honda down? More cynical observers said that H-D lobbied the AMA adopt rules that would take away the clear technical advantages of a competitor that was beating them at the game they'd ruled for so long. Remember that at the time Harley, with its new Evo Big Twins, was just climbing out of years of financial turmoil and near-bankruptcy, and the disaster that was AMF ownership and management. Harley needed the good publicity that a bike in the winner's circle brings... "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" as the saying goes. Maybe the cynics are correct about the AMA rules committee being in cahoots with Harley... if so, well, they wouldn't be cynics, would they? They'd just be... correct.

Cobra RS750 Tribute
Well, it was pretty cool while it lasted to see two heavyweight manufacturer's, two very different companies with very different images and cultures, duke it out on the mile and half-mile. The RS750 is definitely not forgotten, however. We've included here a pic of the RS750 tribute bike from Cobra, the popular aftermarket accessories company, which is based on the Honda RS750 Shadow.

Sidenote: We were dissin' the CX500 here, but gotta say that this CX500 cafe racer from the Copenhagen-based Wrenchmonkees shop is very cool.

While you are at it, check out this four-part video series about Ricky Graham's astonishing, miraculous 1993 AMA championship season, in which he won an unprecedented twelve dirt track races. 


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