The Day I Rode A Jap Bike

Road Tales by Kelly Ashton



LOVE POMMIE bikes: Norton and Triumph twins, AJS singles, Manx Nortons, overhead camshaft Matchless and AJS racers, Vincent V-Twins — love ’em all! Love American bikes too. Sideys, Sportsters, Knuckles, Pans, Shovels, Evos and Twin Cammers. Eight-Valvers and V-Rods — all good, mate. Quite partial to Italian bikes as well, and can honestly say I love Czechoslovakian bikes as long as they’re Two-Valve Eso or Jawa Speedway bikes.

But I’ll have to admit, I hate Japanese motorcycles.

Maybe I’ve softened my stance from a few decades ago and can now look at restored Honda Fours and Kwakka 9s and go, “Hmmm, they’re not that bad after all.” And I defy anyone to say the TZ750 Yamaha racer is not an impressive motorcycle even if it is a two-stroke. But, by and large, on the subject of Oriental machines? I’ll pass, thanks all the same. (The publisher of this very magazine, Skol, claims he’s never even sat on the seat of a Jap bike, let alone ridden one. And he reckons he never will. Even if I was a gamblin’ man, the Bugs Bunny would stay deep in the skyrocket, as the odds of Skol ever breaking that rule would be very long).

I did ride one Jap bike, even had a lot of fun, but in the Australia’s Funniest Home Video kind of way. It was a tiny, tiny TA125 Yamaha road racer and I was offered a ride on it at Amaroo Park so dutifully accepted.

The bloke who offered the ride was a mate, Barry Morgan. Bazza was one half of the Brothers Grimm sidecar racing team. The other half was little bro Dave Morgan, former editor of Ozbike, and together, they punted a 1959 XLCH Sportster outfit in Historic Racing events at tracks all over Australia.

Bazza and a mate of his, Graeme, had decided they wanted to own a genuine road-racer from the Post Classic era, so they pooled their resources and bought the little factory road-racer and restored it to brand-new condition. It wasn’t all plain sailing though — the first attempt involved hiring a car, hiring a trailer, driving from Sydney to Adelaide to pick up a ‘good condition’ TA125 which was a misrepresented and absolute pile of shit. After such a long drive, they bought it anyway, and it sat as a rusty pile of crap in the garage after they bought another, much better TA125. At least the Adelaide bike’s skinny little front-end with the Borrani alloy rim was genuine TA125, and that looks just great bolted onto to my Pre-unit Triumph Drag bike — thanks, Bazza.

When the born-again little factory racer showed up at the Amaroo Park circuit for its debut meeting, it looked better than new, and Bazza and Graeme had worked out a cunning plan whereupon Graeme would ride all the races on Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday morning, then hand over to Bazza for Sunday arvo’s races.

The fact that neither of them had ever raced a solo motorcycle before didn’t matter, and to be honest, Graeme really amazed at how well he was going for a first time out, up with the leaders all the way and riding like a demon.

All was going well until his last race when he decked it big time at Honda Corner. The little thing flipped and cartwheeled and generally self-destructed. Graeme didn’t fare too badly, but looked very sheepish and felt terrible for Baz who had very little bike left to begin his solo career.

The little Yam was a mess, with the fairing trashed, bark off everywhere and many appendages bent, broken or just generally rooted.

But that’s not how things end at the racetrack, and if there are still races to ride, things can be repaired, so everyone pitched in and got the bent little bike ready for the track again. Bits were bashed, things were straightened, parts were soldered, welded and belted again; cable ties, hose clamps and race tape was applied to various parts and the battered but not beaten Yam was presented to the scrutineers once more. It passed and things were looking good for Bazza’s solo debut.

But then it started raining, really raining, and Bazza wimped out. “I’m not going out for my first race on a wet track!” he avowed.

“Come on, Baz,” I implored. “We really put some effort into fixing it — you’ve GOT to ride it.”

“Nope!”

“Go on — you’ll love it. It’s more fun in the wet!”

“Nope!”

“Everyone else will be slow, slippy and ragged,” I offered. “You go out there and go smooth and consistent, and the fast will come naturally.”

“Nope!”

‘Come on!”

“Nope!”

At least he was consistent.

“If you think it’s going to be so much fun,” Bazza said, changing tack, “You ride it.”

“Okay!” I grinned, zipping up the leathers and grabbing the hat and gloves.

Now, you must understand that at the time, I was fighting my battle with anorexia, and my weight was down to a gaunt 120 kg. The bike weighed in at just 81 kg so you only have to imagine what the rider/machine combination looked like (and we’re still not at the Funniest Home Videos part yet).

As I straddled the skinny machine, I had to endure hurtful taunts from people I knew (try: “You’ll have to get that bike surgically removed from your arse when you come back in”) and uproariously laughter from people I didn’t know. The worst comment I heard was that me on the bike looked like a bull terrier getting friendly with a Chihuahua. Why are people so unkind?

Also, I was having real problems just getting my feet up to the footpegs as my knees aren’t of the bendy variety. Someone pushed the gear lever into first cog and after a few hurried instructions from Graeme and Baz, I paddled off and fired up the bike.

I don’t know the first thing about two-strokes but I did catch Bazza yelling something about, “No power under 10,500 rpm, none over 12!”

“Ten friggin’ thousand, five bloody hundred revs per minute?” I thought. “And that’s where it starts? Fifteen hundred measly revs later, it’s all over Red Rover? Sheesh!”

A nicely-tuned Pommie twin will start to give good power at 3500, and pull like a train all the way to 7000. A highly-strung 350 Manx Norton will give good power from five all the way to 7200 or more if you’re keen. And here I was on this little Yamaha trying to keep moving and keep the motor in the rev range.

“Reeeeee-puhh, reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-puhhh reeeeee-puh was the sound the horrible little thing made as the mongrel dropped in and out of the 1500 rpm power-band.

For some reason, I don’t think I got a warm-up lap, and soon found myself sitting on the back row of the grid and looking ahead at an absolutely full grid of bikes which ranged from 125 cc tiddlers like this one, up to 350 cc models. How do I get myself into these situations?

The 10-second board was held out, the rain was still coming down and I had a minor problem. Standing on the other side of the Armco in Pit lane was Craig Morris. ‘He’s a top rider and he knows Jap bikes,’ I thought, ‘I’ll ask him’. “Hey Craig! Which way to the gears go on this one?”

“Up for Up!” he yelled as he shook his head in pity. “And what are you doing on a Jap Bike?” he added, even though I knew he was laughing at me too.

There was no more time for idle chit-chat, as the flag was dropped and field roared away. Except for me.

I’d got a perfect start, dialled in 12 grand and fed the clutch in beautifully. And that’s where the problem started. It’s all to do with physics, tiddler bikes and fat blokes with bad knees.

First, the physics lesson: A motorcycle is a mono-track vehicle which doesn’t stay upright while at rest; it just falls over. It’s true, once on the move, they self balance and that’s because, broken down into its purest form, a bicycle is two wheels and a hinge between them. The two spinning wheels provide centrifugal force, and because they are joined to each other via the hinge, all manner of forces act with a whole mess of other forces and the motorcycle stays upright. As long as both wheels are turning and forward motion is happening, it won’t fall over until you get too cocky for your own good.

The problem I was having was the little Yamaha, after a blitzkrieg of a start, we needed to get out of first gear and into second, For a jockey-sized person with good knees, the spindly little legs will snake up and onto the spindly footpegs, and snick the toothpick-sized gear lever into second, third and so on. I had to first slide one bum cheek right over one way, drag the size 12 right boot up onto the size 7 footpeg, then stand up on that peg to hoist the left side size 12 onto the peg and at the gear lever.

Problems, problems, problems.

In first gear, there was just not enough road speed and the piddly little 2.5-inch wide tyres and wheels didn’t have the centrifugal force needed to keep the bike upright. The little prick of a thing kept falling over.

Reeeeeeeeee—topple, reeeeeeeeee-puhh—topple.

I had about three goes at trying to locate the gear-lever to hook second, but it was hopeless. I could see the entire field streaming away as one single clump of slithering bikes in a haze of whipped-up spray, so direct action was called for. Holding it flat in first gear, I reached down with my left hand and hooked up second gear. Yay! A hand-change Yamaha. Third and fourth gear were hand-hooked flat until I reckoned there was enough speed to stand on the right peg and bring the left leg up onto the pissy little left peg.

With 40-odd bikes and five laps in front of me, there was nothing to do but put the head down, the arse up and go for it.

I love wet weather racing because it’s all about going smooth and finding traction the other riders can’t. And if you’re one of those blokes who expect to be in the thick of things with the leading group at the first corner of a wet race, it was always interesting to crest Bitupave Hill in last place and dive into the Dunlop Loop, right into the centre of slow-moving and tentative pack. It’s funny, but about three-quarters of the racers were wobbling through corners they had nailed in earlier dry races. Not me — I carved through the field as they slipped, wobbled and dabbed their way through the long, downhill, doubled-apexed Dunlop Loop.

“Excuse me, look out, watch it, move over, hey, Bob — nice paint job! Whoops… get outta the way, I’m comin’ through!”

It was so cool. I’d exited the Loop and headed for the high-speed Mazda Curve at the head of the pack and was pulling away. Unfortunately, three riders who obviously liked a damp track as well had already made a break and were miles ahead of me and having a fine old time showing each other who was boss. It was a fairly lonely race, with a good buffer back to the pack, and little chance of making any ground on the three heading for the podium.

With the laps ticking away, race tactics came into play. While fourth place is also known as nowhere-th place, a good tactic while lying fourth — especially in the wet — is to hold your position, not fall off and say a quiet prayer to St Bastardus, the patron saint of riders who fall off while in the lead.

All was going to plan, until the last lap, when I fell off.

It was crazy. Coming into Stop Corner, a huge oil spill from an earlier prang had left a long line of slipperyness which speared straight across the racing line.

It had been there most of the day, and was covered with cement dust, but the rain had changed things. For four laps, I’d been fine, gingerly crossing the mess and hanging off the little bike as best I could to keep it as upright as possible.

For the last lap, things didn’t go all that well. I was leaning right off the bike, lugging it through the tight corner in second gear, when I decided to hang off even further. My huge clodhopper accidentally knocked the gear lever down into first gear. The motor, which was lugging through at a measly 10,100 rpm, suddenly zinged up to redline, making the bike do a sort of half donut, half wheel-stand before dumping me unceremoniously on the track. It was the slowest part of the track, but like the terrible accident when the tortoise ran over a family of snails, it all happened so fast.

I couldn’t have really hurt that Yamaha much more than it already was, because, well, it was still stuck between my legs and I hit the deck, not it.

More race tactics: If ever you fall at a slow corner, keep a good grip on the handlebars, pull the clutch in and give the throttle a couple of blips to keep the motor going no matter what.

We’d actually performed a neat 180 degree turn, so when I climbed back up (still with the bike stuck between legs) three things were very cool and another two were decidedly uncool. Cool Thing 1: engine still running. Cool Thing 2: clutch in. Cool Thing 3: bike already in first gear and ready to rock and roll! Uncool Thing 1: we were facing the wrong way. Uncool Thing 2: the pack had well and truly caught up were streaming through a very slippery Stop Corner with me in their sights. A U-turn through the traffic was out of the question, as I knew I had enough trouble just getting the thing moving in a straight line, let alone any fancy stuff.

The entire field was streaming past me, some blokes were sliding perilously close, some dabbing their feet down and all were grinning like their prayers to St Bastardus had been partially answered.

I just wish someone had’ve taken some video footage of my brutal solution to the problem: with most of the field swerving around us, the motor still running and the clutch still in, I heaved that little mongrel around by the handlebars. This might just work! Two more almighty shoves, pirouetting on the back tyre and the Yam was facing the direction of racing once more — without any crazy, dangerous U-turns. Once more, we were away and once more the Hand-Change Yamaha was hooked up to third gear before I could get both clodhoppers up on the pegs.

When both feet were firmly planted, I stood on the pegs and took the opportunity to look back over my shoulder in the hope there were still some riders behind. Fat chance. Yeah, well, when the flag was waved at the start of this race, I was running in dead last place and you know what? It doesn’t matter half a dog turd what exciting things happened between the start line and the finish line, because when the race was over, I was still in last place.

Back in the pits, I had no time to listen to the constant barrage of razzing and ribbing — it was time to jump on the Manx for the very next race. I’ve always maintained the rider who does back-to-back races is still ‘in the zone’ with an advantage over the rest of the field. And we did well.

A Manx Norton and a TA125 Yamaha are both specialised racing machines, but racing a Manx is so much nicer than racing a Yamaha. In much the same way that tormenting your mother-in-law’s Chihuahua and throwing a stick into the lake for a Labrador are both examples of playing with dogs, one’s a better experience.

I did have a brief ride on another two-stroke Yamaha race bike at Oran Park once, but that was a TZ750 and that’s a whole other story.

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