Staying the Course – VRRA Vintage Festival Racing

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by RHM
March 1 2012

As I begin my ascent of the steep hill that leads into the notoriously tricky Moss Corner, my bike stalls for the third time. Stranded in the middle of the track, I let loose a vicious stream of profanity that is drowned out by the roar of the continuous parade of bikes flying past me. The bike is reluctant to restart, and my curses quickly turn into prayer; surely it’s just a matter of time before a passing rider will be transfixed by my presence and find me an irresistible target. The archaic machine finally fires to life – just as the corner marshals begin to frantically wave their bright yellow flags – and I resume the task of reacquainting myself with a track I haven’t ridden in over 25 years.

My first laps of the Mosport International Raceway aren’t auspicious ones. While I preoccupy myself with being scared shiftless, Mojo contributor Sam Longo and photographer Hugh McLean are strolling leisurely amongst the throng of visitors attending the annual VRRA Vintage Festival. They’re working on another feature for the magazine, but having signed up for track duty, I’m the one stuck on a hot racetrack dressed in a black, full leather suit. The relentless summer sun is slowly baking me like a calzone in a pizza oven, and every sweating pore of my body now wills the practice session to end.

My pretentious-sounding complaints hide the fact that I’m actually enjoying myself. It turns out that the Vintage Festival is as much a social event as it is a race weekend, and its party-like vibe makes me feel like I’m crashing a backyard barbecue whose guests swill cold beverages with oil-stained hands while sharing a laugh. Although the racers here range from 16 to 70 years of age, the bulk of the VRRA’s 225-plus members are in the 40-something crowd. The diversity of machines on hand is matched by the diverse group of riders; there are father-and-son racers and even an all-woman endurance team who call themselves “Three-A-Breast.”

I’m here on an invitation from Steve Hoffarth and Paul Morton, two prominent VRRA members who have been tasked with media liaison duties and who admirably mask any regret they might harbour about having to babysit me for the weekend. While I carry on a conversation with Hoffarth, a trio of Rudges rumbles by us, the cacophony from their open exhausts vibrating the ground under my feet as though we are on the receiving end of an artillery barrage. Dumbfounded by the sight of these rare machines rumbling toward the track, I simply sputter, “There’s something you don’t see every day.”

Hoffarth is an unabashedly enthusiastic VRRA member. “The neat thing about the VRRA,” he says while taking me to the team he’s arranged for me to race with, “is that your bike is always competitive, because you’re racing against similar bikes in your class.” The bikes might be competitive, but those who ride them are another matter, I sarcastically point out. Hoffarth gives a knowing laugh; he can afford to. As one of the fastest guys on track, he holds the lap record for his class at Mosport.

We finally arrive at the headquarters of BFI, a team thrown together at the last minute by Andre “Frenchie” Fournier, who then drew the short straw and got stuck with me for the upcoming endurance race. “It looks like a cinder block on wheels,” I inadvertently blurt when I first see the bike I’ll be riding. Fournier hears my comment, and his beaming smile quickly disappears. The 1985 Suzuki GSX-R750’s red seat had been painted black and cracks in its fairing stitched together with wire. Although its ugly mug closely resembles that of Frankenstein’s monster, I’m secretly relieved that I’ll be riding a semi-modern sportbike instead of a priceless one-of-a-kind machine .

Supreme Sunbeam

You would be hard pressed to find a finer performance motorcycle if you were shopping for wheels in the mid-1920s. Although Sunbeam produced motorcycles between 1912 and 1957, their single-cylinder racing heritage was firmly established in the company’s early years, as they trounced the competition in the 1920 and 1922 Isle of Man Senior TT running their side-valve engines. With a little more R&D, they also went on to win the 1928 and 1929 Senior TT by utilizing their new state-of-the-art overhead valve singles.

John Cooper’s 1926 Model 2, pictured here, falls squarely in the middle of those historic TT years. This “Flat Tank” 350 cc, side-valve single was rated at 2-3/4 horsepower and was as sophisticated as it got for its time period. The Model 2 was the more desirable sport version with foot pegs and slimmer fenders, verses the Model 1, which had footboards and larger, valanced mudguards.

A high-tech element of the bike was “The Sunbeam Little Oil Bath Chain Case,” a feature that was proudly lettered on its primary case and heralded as a technological first. Sunbeam owned that and other patents, including one for hairpin valve springs, which was considered an innovative development at the time.
It was probably a good thing that traffic was light in the early days of motorcycling, as the operator was kept very busy. Besides dodging pedestrians, horses, carriages and early automobiles, the array of levers that required attention on the handlebars was rather intimidating. Besides having to manage the brakes, clutch and three-speed gearbox, a rider had to deal with levers for the choke, ignition advance and throttle. In addition, a hand-primer oil pump had to be operated and an adjustable oil feed controlled by monitoring a glass drip gauge mounted atop the tank. Apparently, riding back then took knowledge, courage and commitment, and that was just to get the bike started.

Cooper is no stranger to vintage racing and competes in a number of different classes, but this particular bike was purchased purely for pleasure. Its age, originality and beautiful patina made it another outstanding top Mojo pick.

While I watched, John masterfully fettled all the levers and coaxed the beast to life. Then, with a slight gnashing of gears, he chuffed away in a calm, contented cloud of white smoke. Given the choice of motorcycles during that time period, perhaps using real horsepower would have been a simpler and greener solution, but not as nearly supreme as cruising the boulevards on your very own personal Sunbeam.

Mello Blue Vello

Velocette produced motorcycles from as early as 1904, churning out large numbers of their machines before the factory closed its doors forever in 1968. The British firm produced both two- and four-stroke engines, but are perhaps most famous for their 350 and 500 cc singles, which included a few famous racers such as the 348 cc Model KTT overhead cam of 1927.

The late ’40s vintage 350 pictured here was the vision of current VRRA road racer Neville Miller of Ottawa. Built over a number of years, this eclectic combination of pre and post-war Velocette parts was tastefully combined to recreate a formidable and iconic road racer from the past. Miller replaced the hydraulic front fork with pre-war girders and used a later-generation front wheel that retained a larger drum brake. He also made use of a magneto ignition and flat bars, which added credence to the bike’s racing pedigree. The dry sump engine has a modified lubrication system to better cool and lubricate the overhead cam, as can be witnessed by the additional external copper piping. The original, wet, primary side of the engine now sports a beautifully fabricated open aluminum primary cover. Despite its lack of suspension, the rigid rear end does provide an elegant backdrop for the large chrome Brooklands-style silencer. It should be noted that the term silencer has been used with a rather reckless auditory abandon.

I chose this beautiful Velocette as one of Mojo’s top three because of its superb workmanship. Any backyard mechanic can throw a bunch of vintage parts together and call it a race bike, but few can pull it off with this fine degree of care. With its lovely shade of blue paint, which is highlighted with subtle gold stripes and the Velocette logo, this Mellow Blue Velo really stands out from the crowd. Not only is it a well-executed tribute to the racing Velocettes of past decades, this motorcycle was built to do battle within the VRRA’s vintage racing arena. Nicely done Mr. Miller, nicely done indeed!

The Underdog

Honda’s four- and six-cylinder racers are considered legendary. Piloted by talented riders like Mike Hailwood and Jim Redman back in the mid-sixties, these machines solidly placed Honda at the top of the class with their technical innovations and convincing wins, such as the 1966 Lightweight TT Championship, which was won on the now-famous 250-6.

This 1974 CB350 Racer is a tribute to those glory days. Built and raced by VRRA member Steve Canellos, this CB350 clearly mirrors the underdog status of those early multi-cylinder bikes battling against a world of proven singles and twins. Even though today’s vintage racing scene is flooded with well-built 350 Honda twins that seem to dominate their classes, Canellos craved something different, and chose instead to explore the underpowered four as an unlikely template for speed.

Recent VRRA rule changes allowed Canellos to use a Honda 400-4 bottom end, which has the advantage of a close-ratio, 6-speed transmission. The fuel tank also originated from a 400-4 model. The area left open from removing the engine’s alternator is beautifully showcased by a polished aluminum plate, which has been engraved with “Canellos Racing.” This modification resulted in a lighter crank and a total-loss electrical system. Gary Wolf, legendary racing craftsman and exhaust guru, did a magnificent job of sculpting the compact 4-into-4 exhaust system. Mikuni smooth-bore carbs are used to feed the engine’s four tiny pistons, which are supported by Carrillo rods. The latter addition was a necessary evil, due to the bike’s elevated 14,000-rpm red line, which it required to produce competitive power.

To help the tiny air-cooled engine shed the heat of battle, an exceptionally large oil cooler was installed under the front number plate. Aluminum rims, upgraded suspension components, clip-on bars and larger brakes were other touches that completed the bike’s racing transformation.

The original 350-4 of the early seventies was not particularly well received in Honda’s showrooms. Its main claim to fame was that it ultimately evolved into the highly collectible 400-4 Super Sport. However, in this particular case, Canellos’ multitasking talents have finally given the 350-4 a chance to shine. This bike’s underdog status, coupled with its outstanding race-bike metamorphosis, made this yet another superb Mojo choice. Perhaps one day with a little luck, sweat and perseverance, it might even find itself in the Period 2 Lightweight winner’s circle.

Eager to repair the damage from my ill-mannered comment, I allow Hoffarth to introduce me to the team. Sharing saddle duties with Fournier and me is Ray Harrison, who seems reserved – or more likely has just been put off by my crass description of the bike. The scuttlebutt is that Harrison is an extremely fast racer, and I surmise that Fournier has enlisted a ringer to compensate for my lack of talent. I assumed that an overall victory in the race is as unimaginable as retrieving a bar of soap from the floor of the men’s showers, but Fournier and Harrison’s confidence is giving me hope. My only real concern is to avoid a major embarrassment. The final member of our motley crew – arguably the most important one – is Leigh Shea. He’s the acting mechanic and appears certain that the bike will serve us well.

Studying the cobbled-together Gixxer, I ask Fournier about the team’s name. “You mean BFI?” he says mischievously. I suddenly begin to worry about what’s he’s about to say. “Officially, BFI is an acronym for Brute Force Ignorance,” he claims seriously. Then, without missing a beat, Fournier adds, “but after looking at you guys, I think it really means Bunch of Frickin’ Idiots.”

It’s Fournier’s fifth season of VRRA racing. The 47-year-old chief operating engineer claims that he was a “nut-case” street rider prior to discovering vintage racing. “It was a real eye opener,” Fournier says with a laugh. “I saw all these guys with grey hair and thought it was going to be a piece of cake, but by the first turn of my first race I found out I was in way over my head.” He almost quit racing right then and there, but instead he soldiered on and even committed to racing a regional Suzuki SV650 series to increase his track time. It ended up being too much of a good thing. “I wasn’t looking forward to racing anymore; I’m a one-man crew, and it all became too much work.”

Fournier now limits his racing to VRRA events, citing their use of different racetracks and the camaraderie of VRRA members as the big draws. “When you’re in your forties you don’t take racing as seriously, and with the VRRA, it’s an affordable hobby. With regional racing, everything was more expensive, especially the tires.”

The race atmosphere that Fournier enjoys so much is evident when you walk around the VRRA paddock. There’s an underlying feeling of nostalgia, and you can sense the strong emotional connection many of the racers here have to their machines. Often, these motorcycles revive memories of bikes previously owned or dreamed about, or models that were raced by boyhood heroes.

Fournier chose his Suzuki for more practical reasons, primarily reliability, something I’m hoping will prove itself during the race. The VRRA’s rulebook only allows for the use of parts that were available during the time period of your bike’s race class, which means most of the machines being raced are frankenbikes that have been assembled using an often wild collaboration of components. The BFI bike is no exception. Entered in the P4 class, it makes use of parts originally available between 1985 and 1990. Its stock, flat slide 34 mm carburetors were swapped for Mikuni race carbs, and the airbox was removed in favour of individual K&N filters. Mild port work was performed on the engine and at the rear, an Öhlins shock suspends a 17-inch rear wheel that is fitted instead of the original 18-inch to allow for a better selection of tires.

With the conclusion of the practice sessions, a good cross-section of the VRRA’s various race classes take their place on the starting grid for the endurance event. The premise of the race is simple: cross the finish line in first place at the two-hour mark and you are the overall winner.

Our team decides to divide the race into three 40-minute stints. Harrison, our lead hitter, is immediately involved in a heated battle for first place, and before long he’s increasing his lead over the rest of the field with every lap. In the pits, the rest of us are giddy at the prospect of actually winning this thing. At a little over 40 minutes, Harrison pulls into pit lane; he’s been riding hard – maybe too hard for an endurance race – but he has chiselled out a substantial lead for us. The added pressure of maintaining first place has my adrenaline pumping, and I’m determined not to lose the team too much time during my session.

The pit stop is supposed to be a splash and dash, so Fournier adds fuel as Shea gives the bike a quick inspection. As I move toward my mount, I notice a puff of smoke rising from the left side of the bike. “Did anyone see that?” I halfheartedly ask no one in particular. No one says anything, so I hop aboard, assuming some gas had spilled onto the engine. Roaring onto the track, I decide to take it easy for a couple of laps to see how the Gixxer is running.

Within a couple of turns I realize that the tires have passed their prime, and despite my slower pace, the bike is sliding in turns. Barely into my second lap, things get a lot worse. As I fly through a high-speed sweeper, my left foot mysteriously flies off the peg, and before I can resettle myself, the right foot slides off too. Looking down at my boots, I’m instantly crestfallen; both of them are covered in oil.

Avoiding the racing line, I limp back to pit lane, where Shea and Fournier work frantically to find the source of the leak. Stepping back to give them more room, I bump into a stern-looking track marshal. “You were speeding when you left pit lane,” she says wagging her finger at me. The fact that our bike doesn’t have a speedometer is of no interest to her. “You were going 48 km/h and it’s a 40 km/h zone,” she adds. When I point out that our race is likely over, she walks away; we clearly have bigger problems to deal with.

After cleaning up the oil that had collected on the engine case and not finding a leak, the team sends me out again. I trundle at an extra-slow place down pit lane and rejoin the race, more worried now about finishing than winning. However, within two laps my boots are covered yet again. Team BFI is officially listed as a DNF one hour and 23 minutes into the race.

Everyone feels terrible for Fournier. Despite his considerable effort to campaign an endurance machine, he didn’t even get a chance to participate in the race. If he’s bitter about the experience, it doesn’t show, and he maintains his magnanimous disposition by offering us a shot of tequila as the team collectively laments its bad fortune. “Just a drop to make a toast with,” I politely request. Instead, Fournier hands me a half-filled tumbler of the Mexican hooch while Shea cuts off my impending protest with a wink. “Relax, that’s called a French Canadian shot.”


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