Some inventions, tools, and techniques have advanced the sport of motocross significantly since their inception. The Racer X staff explains some of those advancements in this feature, called “Next Level."
Aluminum frames are nothing new on full-sized Japanese bikes, and you’re far more likely to see an aluminum framed motocross machine from any Japanese company in the pits at any track than you are their steel-framed ancestors. This wasn’t always the case, however, and when Honda unveiled their aluminum-framed production 1997 CR250R, it turned the industry on its head.
To say that people were excited about this revolutionary new frame material would be like saying Eli Tomac and Chase Sexton had some decent races this summer. Yes, Kawasaki had already been building perimeter frames out of steel, and aluminum frames were already used on Japanese sport bikes on the street, but an aluminum framed motocross missile? In production!? C’mon! It was radical, to say the least, and Dirt Rider was so keen to test the new bike they flew to Japan, where the bike was already for sale, and returned with a disassembled bike in their luggage!
The frame understandably stole the show that year. The bike looked like the future and the spec sheet seemed to back that up, but interestingly enough, it didn’t live up to the hype on the track. In fact, the first-generation aluminum Honda is now regarded as a too-much-too-soon or before-its-time. concept. That first frame is now widely regarded as being way too rigid. That overshadowed it all. Other features, like a huge, single radiator, an early system of traction control, a potent motor, and a twin-chamber 47-millimeter fork were extremely exciting and likely would have been able to shine a little brighter if mounted to a better performing frame.
Recalls then-Honda test pilot Rich Taylor, “I was like, ‘Guys, you can’t release this, just give it another year. It’s going to get good, but it’s not ready yet.’ Sure enough, when it came out, we nicknamed it, ‘The Lead Pipe,’ because it was so gnarly to ride.”
As the story goes, now, there were aluminum-framed test bikes that felt great, but then the legal department stepped in in fear the frame might snap and cause a crash. The production bikes, then, were beefed up, and the handling went away. It ended up so bad that Jeremy McGrath, he of three-straight AMA 250 Supercross titles on steel-framed Hondas, went away, too. At the time, McGrath made up a bunch of stuff about licensing agreements and restrictions from Honda. The truth was, he just didn’t want to race that 1997 bike!
There was no going back, however, and Honda put in the work to continue to develop the frame, soon crafting it into a much more forgiving and able backbone for the venerable CR125R and CR250R. Years later, when Honda was ready to introduce its first 450 and eventually 250 four-strokes, they had a frame and handling combination that left the competition in catch-up mode. Then, the other Japanese manufacturers also started using aluminum to produce their motocross frames. The first Honda CR of this design was a little too burly for prime time, and Honda had to take some material and rigidity away. As they did that, the impact of this design would actually grow to massive proportions.
Main image courtesy of Racer X Archives.