Last weekend’s 40th Anniversary Celebration of Monster Energy Supercross was really a celebration of what hasn’t changed in the sport. Only a few teams and brands went with a retro look, meanwhile the 20 plus champions on hand were there to prove one thing: Supercross stars were, and still are, bad asses. Always have been, always will be. Supercross, then, now, forever!
Only during a walk through the pits did I really see a totally different element of the sport. Honda had Donnie Hansen’s 1982 full-works RC250R on display, and up close, it’s a stunning piece. True works bikes no longer exist in supercross. The AMA requires production-based machines, which means the big pieces—frame, engine cases, and swingarms—have to match what we buy at the dealership. We can all talk about the days of full works bikes and what that meant. We can look at old photos and videos. But seeing one of those bikes up close changes everything. Hansen’s bike features something totally absent from today’s race bikes: the human element. You could tell this bike was crafted by hand. Not a single part had rolled down an assembly line. This bike had a soul to it.
You can see a hand-welded swingarm. You could see hammer marks in the hand-made tank. Deep down, it wasn’t as much art as science. Some of it looked cobbled together, but that’s because every part was designed to work right, first, and get on the track, second. Polishing the edges wasn’t needed; this was about winning races.
Tracing the history of this bike, you’ll see it links various major pieces of American motocross history. Development truly began after Team USA’s landmark victory at the 1981 Motocross and Trophy des Nations. It kick started Honda’s years of supercross dominance (the ’82 title was their first, they’d then win 13 of the next 15) and even ushered in the production rule. This bike was simply too good.
Luckily, the Honda team manger from those days, Dave Arnold, still hangs around at the races helping GEICO Honda’s effort. I pulled Dave over to Hansen’s bike, turned on the recorder, and started asking questions.
Racer X: This bike, was it anything to do with a production bike? Or was this entirely the work of you guys? How similar was it?
Dave Arnold: It wasn’t the work of totally us guys. This was an ’82. I had just come back from being Roger DeCoster’s mechanic in Europe in ’80. In the late ‘70s I probably would say that we [Honda] were a little bit behind the curve. Suzuki had a works team in Europe, and Yamaha, too, and their chassis and developments were probably a little bit ahead of us at the time. So Honda jumped in and did this full HRC [Honda Racing Corporation] deal. When I came back from Europe, they made me the team manager, and the first thing I was supposed to do was hire [Suzuki rider and 1981 Supercross Champion] Mark Barnett. But the whole deal fell through. So Japan was kind of pissed because they were ramping up their big effort, and not just motocross, but road racing and everything else. So it was kind of a 10-year commitment. So by not getting Barnett, by us having, I don’t want to say average riders, but we weren’t a championship-level team at that point in time. So Japan gave us sort of their second-hand equipment from the Japan Nationals. And Yamaha and Suzuki—Hannah and Barnett and Glover and all these other guys—were more dominant than Honda during 1981. But at the end of ’81 we sent a team to Europe for Trophy des Nations and we won. We started to win some Nationals. I think that got us some recognition from Japan, so in came a big effort for 1982. They gave us these works bikes. Donny Hansen was on the team, [Johnny] O’Mara, [David] Bailey, I think [Danny] LaPorte. But these things were unbelievable. It was like light-years ahead of the competition. In America we were probably doing a lot of the chassis development, the geometry, the suspension, things like that, but Japan came with the lower CG gas tank, which had a vacuum pump….
Oh yes, the famous low boy tank and the fuel pump. Even the 1982 has that?
This bike has that. All the weight of the gas tank is closer to the center of gravity on the bike, but the tank goes below the carburetor, so they had a magnesium vacuum pump that would run off crank case pressure, pump gas back up to a sub-chamber and then gravity feed to the carburetor … it was the type of thing that would be hard to do right on a production bike but was good for what we were doing. Then on the other side of the tank there’s an air inlet through the front number plate, which is a screen. It’s kind of like sport bikes, and even though the speeds in motocross are less than road racing, it allowed fresh, cool air to pressure the air box. This thing was unbelievable. It was really ahead of its time. It handled really well. It was fast. We were just developing water cooling and things just came together. These guys, once they got this equipment, that started the whole steamroller effect with O’Mara winning the 125s and Donny winning the Supercross Series, the Motocross National Series. Then we went back to Europe again at the end of the year and won the des Nations again.
How much of it was made in Japan? How much of the stuff did you guys make in California?
I would say that it was very much a joint effort back then. But obviously this thing is so exotic and most all of the exotic stuff came from Japan.
This swing arm looks hand-crafted.
That’s all HRC. That, the magnesium cases and the hand-formed gas tank. Another feature this thing had, they used to have sub-frames and air boxes, this bike had a monocoque tail section, which combined the two and gave you the biggest air box volume possible. It was awesome, this bike. Most all that stuff was handcrafted by Japanese fabricators. We were still messing with frame geometry and link ratios, suspension settings. The whole exotic of this thing, it directly was HRC in Japan.
Compared to an ’82 CR250R you would buy at a dealership, are there similarities at all?
At that point in time they were so much into future development there was very little connection. Of course there was some, but most of this stuff played out when they went to production regulations in ’86. There was a pretty big gap between works equipment and production equipment through the early ‘80s. Then in ’85 we received a lot of pressure because of production regulations coming in ’86. Yamaha kind of thought we had a structure that was so catered to the exotic stuff that we were never going to be able to win with production base. In reality, this stuff led to such high level understanding and development that when they released the ’86, it was the most dominant year Honda ever had. They won every championship worldwide in Europe, Japan, and the United States. So, that was probably the pinnacle, even though we had a lot of winning throughout the ‘80s into the ‘90s. This thing really started it all.
Without any rules to hold you down, were you literally changing frames, changing wheelbase and all that stuff? Because you could do whatever you wanted.
We were probably changing too much stuff. It was our nature to do that. We were cutting frames apart. We kept development going throughout the ‘80s really. It wasn’t just with the frame; it was with almost every dimension on the bike. Even in ’81, not everybody had bought into water cooling. Yamaha still had a radiator on the handlebars. There was additional weight, and it affected the center of gravity of the bike, it was heavier weight feeling, and ergonomically less friendly. Of course there was a power advantage, but we had to kind of get the ergonomics and the handling of the bike right. We were still running air cooled bikes in supercross in ’81. We even went to Motocross des Nations with air cooled bikes.
In the sand and all, right?
In the sand, and it wasn’t pretty! Those things were detonating their brains out. We had bikes apart Saturday night in Europe. The development of water cooling, this was a huge step forward. This 1982 bike is not close to the 1981 and light-years away from ’80.
How far did it come by the ’85? Was it pretty significantly different than this?
It was not significantly different. They started to do some stuff with power valves after this. This one here didn’t have an exhaust valve or an intake valve. So probably the focus after this, this was more of the chassis exercise, probably after this they started playing with power valves, exhaust valves. They had twin exhaust valves, single exhaust valves on some of the bikes, the 500s going to Europe. Then they had an electronic system on the ’85 works bikes. And nobody carried laptops. So we engineers changing the opening speed and closing speed and the rates. Then all of that was technology that was applied to the mechanic system in 1986. We probably didn’t give it as much credit as it deserved. Mickey Dymond won the 1986 National Championship with that on his 125, and that thing was a rocket ship. So it wasn’t like a totally inferior system.
I know the change to four-strokes is an obvious change everyone knows today. But if you look deeper, the thing that sticks out to me is the emphasis on rigidity. Today’s forks are upside down, they’re much bigger, the frames are these big aluminum pieces. Stiffness started to become this huge thing 15 or 20 years ago. Was that something that people were even thinking about then?
I think it’s all been brought on by supercross. I think that, of course the manufacturers, they know what chassis rigidity they have and the whole balance with rigidity with the forks and swing arms and sub frames. But the style of tracks became more and more and more technical. The jump faces got steep, the jumps were farther, the G forces created just kept going up. So the developments of stiffer steel frames went even throughout the McGrath era in the ‘90s and that led to aluminum. If they never got that stiff with steel we probably wouldn’t have gone to aluminum. They just kept progressing. And of course you’re chasing it with suspension, but suspension and chassis work hand in hand. It’s just the evolution of things, it all kept going further and further. But these bikes, that as a special time.