Dean Adams Paul Dean Dave Despain
Tosh Konya Dick Lepley Steve McMinn
Mark Mederski Bill Silver Randall Washington

When American Honda went dirt track racing

By Dave Despain

Much of the history of American dirt track motorcycle racing is written in orange-and-black.  For example, Harley-Davidson riders have won 43 of 55 titles since the 1954 creation of the Grand National Championship.  But for a brief and spectacular period in the mid-1980s, Honda painted the dirt track world bright red.

A popular theory holds that Honda invaded the Harley-dominated roundy-round realm in order to punish the Motor Company for its pursuit of a tariff on imported motorcycles.  But the tariff was imposed in 1983 and by then the Honda dirt track program was approaching full speed.  So why DID Honda go dirt tracking?  It was a chain of event expedited by coincidence and good luck.

In 1979, bike builder Jerry Griffith, former partner of Kenny Roberts, father-in-law of Doug Chandler, and a dirt track legend, fielded a 500cc Honda single for rising star Jeff Haney.  At famed Ascot Park, just down the road from American Honda headquarters, Haney dominated his class and caught the eye of Honda’s Dennis McKay, head of racing and a big dirt track fan.  Hoping to find Griffith more horsepower, McKay provided a CX500 engine, which powered a docile shaft-drive street model that carried its V-twin transversely, a la Moto Guzzi.  Griffith turned the engine 90 degrees to put the Vee in line with the wheels, grafted on a sprocket and plugged it into a dirt track frame.

Though still under-powered, the resulting oddity scored one huge success.  At the San Jose Mile it was spotted by Honda’s Shoichiro Irimajiri, a race-savvy heavy hitter who would eventually run Honda’s entire American operation – and who also designed the CX500!  (Coincidence and good luck indeed.)  When he saw what Griffith had done with his creation, Irimajiri was hooked.  He sat on the bike to get his picture taken then greased the skids for the NS750, a racier maximum displacement version of Griffith’s handiwork, built by Honda’s legendary Japanese race works HRC.  In 1982 at Louisville Downs, where Harley-Davidson was undefeated, Scott Pearson rode the NS to Honda’s first dirt track National win.  But thanks to Griffith’s chance meeting with Irimajiri, Big Red was just warming up.

When former Grand National Champion Gene Romero, contracted to help develop Honda’s dirt track program, first visited HRC he was startled to see, on a big board listing all the company’s racing projects, American dirt track listed right up there with Grand Prix road racing, a priority program for one of the most powerful racing organizations in the world.  And HRC’S next contribution was a proper dirt track engine, a successor to the cobbled up NS750, though chance again played a key role. 

Griffith remembers, “First they sent me an existing V-twin sort of like a Yamaha Virago, but I told Romero it was a step backward.”  Then on a subsequent trip to HRC the two Americans spied a Paris-to-Dakar race bike, still covered with mud, powered by a three-valve V-twin with a big crankshaft.  It’s not clear whether this prototype became the Dakar-winning NXR750 or perhaps the eventual “Africa Twin” (any Honda genealogists in the house?) but for purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter; Griffith and Romero had found the basis for the all-conquering RS750.

Unleashed in ’83, developed over many laps by Hank Scott and Ted Boody and raced by such notables as Mike Kidd and Terry Poovey, the new bike had the same bore and stroke as H-D’s venerable XR750 but was a technological leap forward.  (Romero admits to selling Honda an XR750 but denies they copied it.  Griffith concurs, pointing to the multitude of differences, notably V-angle, crank pin and rod arrangement, overhead cams and four-valve heads.)  But the first RSs had problems, engine sumping the most visible.  “We’d see the smoke and real quick make bets,” Romero laughs, “how many laps ‘til it blows up?”  At the low point - Hagerstown, Maryland – every RS in the fleet exploded along with a spare NS750 for good measure!  “Bill Werner (Harley-Davidson factory mechanic) was laughing at us,” Romero recalls, “although who laughs last, laughs best!”

Indeed, two months later Hank Scott won the DuQuoin, Illinois mile and by the end of ’83, change was in the wind.  HRC fixed all the bugs and delivered the second-generation RS750.  Romero describes Toshiro Kezuka, McKay’s racing successor at American Honda, gathering his men for a pep talk:  “Basically he told us to study the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and then massacre them.”  Kezuka-san did not say so, but apparently money was no object.  When Romero requested triple clamps with 55, 60 and 65 degree offsets, he quickly received two sets for each bike with offsets from 55 to 65 degrees - in one degree increments!  His test mules bore state-of-the-art telemetry, measuring for example front and rear wheel speed relative to throttle position, an unheard of level of sophistication.

The pay-off came in ’84.  Based in a dedicated dirt track facility in Indianapolis, Honda’s assault force included newly-hired riders Ricky Graham and Bubba Shobert, plus a separate team for Chandler, run by Griffith.  The operation was modeled after that of a Romero hero, legendary auto racing team owner Roger Penske.  “We showed up every week prepared to win,” Romero recalls.  “Each rider had two mechanics, a primary bike, an identical backup bike, and a spare engine, all race ready.  We never ran the engines more than one race.  Each week the spare would go in the bike and the used race engine would go back for a complete rebuild.  I told Kezuka if we didn’t win the championship, he needed to fire me.”

The result was overwhelming.  Defending series champ Randy Goss, seeking H-D’s tenth straight crown, finished 60 points behind the Hondas as Graham edged Shobert 285 – 284 in a thrilling season’s finale.  Shobert then titled in ’85, finishing 75 points in front of H-D’s Scott Parker, who was actually third behind privateer Ted Boody’s RS750.  Shobert repeated in ’86, humiliating Parker 313-217.  From there it was downhill.

For 1987 the AMA imposed weight and carburetor restrictions on the RS750, outraging Honda management.  The result was a close championship battle, Shobert edging Parker 228-221, but at year’s end Honda shut down its dirt track program.  Gary Smith, Honda’s representative on the AMA board of trustees at the time, shares the widely-held view that the AMA restricted the Honda to protect an old friend:  “In my gut,” Smith says, “I’m convinced Harley was behind it. Romero sees it differently.  “There was nothing left to prove,” he points out, “plus it was a typical Honda deal, test the waters, go racing full boat, dominate the competition, and then jump off.  That’s their method of operation.”

Regardless, the fact remains that from 1984-1987 Honda fielded the most impressive team in the history of American dirt track racing.  Thereafter the surviving RS750s enjoyed continued success in the hands of privateers, most notably the late Ricky Graham, who in 1993 wrote a fitting final chapter to this story.  On an RS750 owned and tuned to perfection by Virginian Johnny Goad, Graham won a record 12 races in a single season, giving the inimitable Honda dirt tracker its fifth and final championship.

About the Author:

Dave Despain spent five years as an AMA Novice dirt tracker (“OK, I wasn’t very good but I DID have a lot of fun,” he recalls), then ten years as a member of the AMA staff.  During his AMA tenure he ventured into the TV business, making his debut as expert analyst on the 1975 ABC “Wide World of Sports” broadcast of the Daytona 200.  In 1981 he left the AMA to become a full-time TV reporter and his credits include “MotoWorld,” “Bike Week” and a variety of auto racing shows.  He currently hosts Speed’s Sunday Night “Wind Tunnel,” TV’s only national racing fan phone in show.  For many years – including the entire run of the Honda dirt track team – Despain also served as public address announcer at AMA dirt track Nationals.

To contact Dave Despain, click despain123@gmail.com. To learn about "Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain," click here and here.