Feature – Honda CBR125R Challenge

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Don Empey And Uwe Wachtendorf
May 1 2012

The long, uphill climb of Mosport’s Mario Andretti Straightaway is normally a breathtakingly fast section of racetrack. Not today. Straining underneath me is a 125 cc, 4-stroke motorcycle, and it takes an eternity to cover the section that makes up 30 percent of the track’s length.

By the end of the first practice session, I’ve given up any hope that I’ll be able to keep up with the Honda kids. Not even my desperate attempt at maintaining speed through turns by remaining in a full tuck and betting everything on the bike’s skinny tires helps to keep the competition in view.

In the absence of power – the Honda CBR125R I’m on is lucky to produce 12 horsepower – aerodynamics, weight and drafting are everything, and I lose out on all counts. In terms of race-ready weight, a CBR125R weighs around 250 pounds, only 15 more than I do. Some of the other racers lining up on the grid weigh less than 100 pounds. Then there’s my physical size. Canadian Superbike (CSBK) Championship Race Director Colin Fraser, a man who never shies away from calling things as he sees them – and can’t resist sticking a fork into something that’s well done – takes one look at me aboard the little Honda and quips, “You’re about as aerodynamic as a refrigerator.”

The disappointment of my poor showing lifts the moment I roll back into the paddock at Honda Canada’s support truck. I’m not here to compete, I reason, but to observe and experience firsthand a small miracle that Honda has created in Canadian road racing.

The Honda CBR125R Challenge support series is wrapping up its fourth and final season at the final round of the 2011 CSBK Championship. Warren Milner, a former senior manager for Honda Canada, and Kim Moore, an Advertising and Press Relations Supervisor at Honda Canada, are on hand to oversee its conclusion. The pair were directly responsible not only for the creation of the race series, but for the introduction of the Honda CBR125R to Canada as well.

“The CBR125R was released in Germany while former Honda Canada President Hiroshi Kobayashi was working there, and it sold extremely well,” Milner explained. “So when Kobayashi came to Canada, he asked what we thought of the bike. After a trip to Germany to look at it, we immediately knew that we had to have it in Canada too.” Milner realized that the CBR125R would rekindle what had been lost for years: small-displacement motorcycles should not only be cheap to buy and insure, but also a fun experience for young and new riders alike.

The bike’s introduction to Canada was spearheaded by a massive marketing effort that included its promotion in various lifestyle magazines. Honda realized that to succeed, the bike needed to be embraced by new riders. Honda even worked on getting dealers onboard, as Milner put it, “to make sure the bikes didn’t end up at the back of their showrooms, covered in dust.”

Honda also saw the potential of a race series built around the CBR125R. According to Milner, “it gives the street version of the motorcycle credibility. The latest generation of riders might not see the bike as being cool, but racing changes that.” Although the creation of the Honda CBR125R Challenge may have helped Honda to sell motorcycles, its role in Canadian road racing is of far greater importance.

Honda saw that there was also an opportunity to support and nurture road racing in Canada by providing a viable development ground for young talent. As a result, the series existence may be ensuring the longevity of the sport in Canada into the foreseeable future. “The CBR125R has done the same thing for racing as it’s done for the street,” Milner said. “It gives those new to the sport an opportunity to ramp up to the cost of racing bigger bikes.”

Breaking into the racing scene, especially at a national level, can be a logistical and financial nightmare. The young racers here, most of whom, ironically, are too young to drive a car, are reliant on their parents’ participation. To ease the burden on families, Honda provides unparalleled support of the series, handling the shipping of each racer’s bike to an event and offering mechanical assistance. The resulting atmosphere surrounding Honda’s race trailer is infectious; both a mentoring station and a community centre, the teenage riders enjoy a camaraderie that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the CSBK paddock.

It becomes clear that the development of junior racers is only one aspect of the Honda CBR125R Challenge. And there are parents here who would argue that it’s the smallest. “Many parents have actually thanked Honda for transforming their kids,” says Kim Moore. “The CBR125R Challenge not only develops racing skills, it builds character too. We’ve heard from more than one parent that racing has built their kids’ confidence and brought them out of their shells, both on and off the track.” Over the past four years, Moore has watched many of these youngsters grow as individuals and has also seen how “problem kids” have been positively influenced.

Now into her third year of the series, 16-year-old Leah Vignale (#33) grew up watching road racing. Uninterested in traditional sports such as baseball and soccer, all it took was the CBR125R that she saw at the Montreal bike show to ignite the idea that she could become a racer too. Her parents, Julie and Mark Vignale, are justifiably proud of their daughter. “We agreed to go in as a family – and go out as one too,” Julie tells me. “Racing is a huge commitment. The bike and parts are one thing, but the big expense is travelling, so we’re very grateful for Honda’s support; it was brave of them to start the series.”

Both of Leah’s parents agree that motorcycle competition can be a good influence on a teenager’s life. “Racing teaches kids how to interact with each other,” Julie points out. “Leah was introverted before she started racing; although she’s still a modest person, she’s more outgoing with friends now. She worked hard to make it happen, and it’s been a part of her development as a person.” Mark adds, “She’s grown so much personally, and yet is realistic about her future in racing. She knows it will never pay the bills.”

Garrisoned in a remote corner of the track, it takes me a while to find the Lingelbach family so that I could chat with Don and Lydia, who have two sons racing in the doubleheader finale. Initially a street rider, 19-year-old Scott (#99) started as a race spectator, but his determination to buy a CBR600 at the age of 16 foretold that he would rather participate than watch from the sidelines.

Scott’s 17-year-old brother, Brian (#88), is like-minded and looking forward to his first race in the series. Two years ago, he spent a day at Mosport’s development track on a CBR125R, and more recently took a course to get his race license while being hounded by his brother and father who were on the track at the same time. A huge fan of Canadian racing, Brian’s parents surprised him by having Superbike superstar Jordan Szoke show up at their house on his birthday. “Jordan is so down to earth and approachable,” Don commented, “and he was great with the guys in giving them advice.”

The Lingelbachs appear to be a closely-knit family, with racing woven into their fabric. Lydia and Don claim the family atmosphere at the track is a major reason why. “It’s a good family thing to do and they’re good kids,” says Lydia. Don agrees. “This is a fantastic environment for young people to be in. I’ll do what I can to support them, but both Scott and Brian have been paying their own way. What Honda is doing with this series is providing these guys an opportunity of a lifetime.”

I’m really impressed by the attitude and disposition of these three teenagers, and I agree with their parents that they really are good kids. Polite, articulate and good-natured, they never display any of the brooding indifference that many their age fall victim to. It makes me wonder how their parents manage to reconcile safety concerns with allowing these kids to experience the thrill of racing. As many of us know, the track can be a dangerous place.

Leah’s mother confesses that she can’t watch her daughter race. “After Leah suffered a concussion from a highside crash, I don’t exactly look forward to it. Mark is the opposite. I’m here because if something ever happened, I’d want to be here.” Realizing that I’m racing too, Julie admits she’s not too keen on the media being allowed to join in. “During the last lap of Leah’s first race of this season, a journalist in the race ran wide and pushed her off the track. She partly dislocated her shoulder in the crash, and it’s still aggravated now.”

Mark Vignale is equally torn. “It’s a conflicting experience; I want her to be safe and I want her to do well – it’s tough, really tough to watch her crash. But Leah is emotionally tough, and I was happy that she wanted to get back on a bike after a crash; it was all up to her.” Julie sums up the situation well. “It’s a humbling sport. You have to always be on your game – there are consequences if you make a mistake.”

The Lingelbachs are a little more pragmatic in their approach. “The track is a safe environment,” Don points out, and adds, “it’s public roads that are really dangerous.” Scott nods in agreement. “The track is a fixed environment, and medical help is already here if you need it.” I turn to Brian, half expecting a different response, but he’s equally afflicted by youth’s sense of immortality. “I have no fear of racing, but I am afraid of getting kicked out.” Brian has already crashed twice this weekend, and the series has a strict ‘three crashes in one weekend and you’re out’ rule. Scott is dismissive of his brother’s misfortune. “I’m into double digits when it comes to crashing this year,” he laughs. Don just shrugs. “The first year, you say ‘Oh no, oh no!’ whenever they crash, but by the second year you get used to it.”

Hanging in the air and on the top of everyone’s mind is the rumour that 2011 would be the final year for the Honda CBR125R Challenge. Both hosting the race series and making the motorcycle available in Canada are substantial costs for Honda. “The CBR125R wasn’t supposed to be a money-making venture,” confided Warren Milner. “It was an investment into the future of the sport.”

That investment appears to be paying dividends, as the series’ graduates have already populated the ranks of higher-spec classes. Raphaël Archambault was the inaugural Honda CBR125R Challenge Champion and immediately followed that success with two more championship titles in the Suzuki SV650 Cup and Amateur Sport Bike classes. Archambault competed in his first season as a pro last year, finishing sixth overall in the Pirelli Pro Sport Bike series behind another CBR125R Challenge alumni, Bohdi Edie, who finished in fourth place for the season. Edie, who had finished second in the CBR Challenge’s second season, had done well in the Amateur 600 class before moving up to the pro class.

Likewise, 2009 CBR125R Challenge Champion Steven Nickerson has also continued to advance his racing career by finishing third in Amateur Sport Bike in 2010, and making it to the second round of cuts in the 2011 Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup tryouts.

However, the result of this weekend’s racing will arguably create the biggest splash since Honda created the series. While Leah Vignale would finish the 2011 season in fifth and Scott Lingelbach in third, Stacey Nesbitt would become the 2011 Champion. At the age of 14, Nesbitt is the first female rider in the world to win a national road-racing championship in a mixed gender series. Her potential to eclipse every record set by a women racing in Canada had everyone wondering: “Where will Nesbitt go from here?”

Honda answered that question when they announced the creation of the national CBR250R Challenge series, which will run this year with Nesbitt holding the Number 1 plate. In hindsight, the CBR125R Challenge did everything it was supposed to do right from the start. Concurrent to its growth at the national level, other race series featuring the CBR125R have sprung up and begun operating regionally. Well established, these regional 125 programs can potentially operate as a feeder network for the new CBR250R national series, a situation that would have made Honda’s decision to upgrade an easier one.

Even with double the power, the CBR250R is unlikely to change the effect of climbing Mosport’s back straight on my race results, but at least I’m already used to the view from the back. However, it’s Mark Vignale who deserves the last word on the experience of CBR Challenge racing. “Honda’s racing program has been really good,” he said. “It brings families, not racers, together. It might not be cheap, but it is cheap racing.

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