Yeah, I finished my Honda CL175 race bike at the 11th-and-a-half hour, and I fulfilled my biggest bucket list item (racing at Barber Motorsports Park) last weekend. But it wasn’t until the second lap of the sixth race on Sunday that I finally put it together on the track. Here’s how I got there, and it definitely wasn’t easy, suffering a multitude of setbacks during the build and heartbreak/high drama in that final race.
I was on the hunt for a nice, silver CL160 to restore and ride back in 2010. My pursuit soon shifted to a CB/CL350. Whatever I ended up with had to be ’69 or earlier and have knee pads on the tank. I found a basket case, 1969 CB350 in Waco and started a café racer build, which eventually stalled. My buddy, Mark Smith, had been trying to get me to accompany him to Barber for several years, but I had co-founded a music festival years earlier that downright consumed October. Fortunately, the motorcycle bug eventually trumped the guitar pickin’ bug, and the decision was made to abandon the music festival and do Barber. But I thought, “If I’m going there, I’m racing there.” The hunt was on for a 1968 CL175 due to a seed that was planted 20 years earlier reading about some folks up in the Northwest having a blast racing Honda CB and CL160s. I already knew the CL175 was a CL160 on steroids. I found one on eBay, grabbed my wife, Sheri, and headed for Penryn, CA, to pick it up at my buddy Travis’s place.
The ad read: “Will run with a battery and a little attention.” The tearstained teardown uncovered years of rider and wrencher abuse. The only parts I could use: front hub, frame, engine cases (and they were broken), swingarm, brake panels, fuel tank (with 8 dents). Pic on the right was taken just before dismantling. The new build was on by May of 2014, but as the weeks started clicking off, I realized I couldn’t realistically get this bike built in time. Attention shifted back to the CB350 since it was closer to ‘finished.’ I had to get to NOLA in March of 2015 to qualify for Barber. The 350 build moved from café racer to roadracer, and my son Joe and I finished it the day we left for NOLA. It ran perfectly; I came back with a second and a third in 350 Sportsman.
With that under my belt, I resumed the CL175 build. I spent hours, days, nights and weeks researching ‘how to do this and that.’ David Ecker sent me Denny Poneleit’s book, “Second Place is Not an Option.” I thought I had enough time and cash flow, but ran out of both. I had to sell my prized 1974 Honda CR125M Elsinore to fund the final stretch of the project and didn’t get the engine parts to an out-of-state machinist until August 1st. I did all the frame mods and welding myself, including the added ‘infrastructure’ for the high-exit megaphone. I ordered the rear shocks on August 1st. Everything else in the build was advancing except the intake manifolds and exhaust system. I was using a vertical (later model) cylinder and cylinder head. The intake and exhaust port angles are way different, and this created a double challenge. The other challenge I faced was my attention to ‘sanitail’ (a merciless combo of sanitary and detail). My wife and kids just call it ‘OCD.’
AHRMA 702 Mark Hunter steered me in the direction of AHRMA 404 Jeff Henise for the excellent HPI CDI ignition system which eliminated building a stator plate. Jeff machines this plate, and it fit like it came from Japan in ’68. The HPI oozes quality. Thanks Mark and Jeff. I shopped several machine shops with 2 different sets of drawings for my intake manifold designs. They all shot me down; too complex, they said. I ordered a box full of pipes and cones from Columbia Mandrel Bends and Cone Engineering. I found an 80-year-old helicopter pilot/machinist at the airport 2 miles down the road who carved out the plates for my intake manifolds on September 25th. Luckily, I discovered Zac at Full Custom Fabrication, Cedar Creek, TX. He bent the 32 degree sections I need for my exhaust system and tigged the intake manifolds on September 29th. He’s a master welder/fabricator, and a truly nice feller.
It took me 3 days to build the exhaust system the week of September 28th. It was my first attempt at fabricating a complete system and one of the hardest projects I’ve ever undertaken. I did get lots of oohs and aahs from those who really appreciated the design, effort and final result. And it worked pretty well too. The engine was still in 100 filthy pieces and I’m now working every night until 3 or 4 AM, livin’ on caffeine and determination, realizing the near-insurmountable deadline was squeezing me tighter every day. I did all the paint work myself this same week, and that consumed way more hours than I thought it would. The GFTP body parts were thick with flaws, pits, wrinkles and other irregularities, not uncommon for parts of this nature. Putty and primer. Putty and primer. In the back of my nearly blown and wearied mind I’m thinking about engine assembly, hoping it would go without a hitch. I saved all this engine stuff for last because I’m a master Honda engine guy and needed a ‘gravy job’ to make up for all the grief. I order all my parts through American Honda (I work for this outfit). Penny Oslin places my orders, and I wore her out, weekly. Thanks Penny. I had all the stuff I needed to finish it, almost.
Here’s ‘all the grief.’ I mentioned the challenging condition of the fiberglass gelcoat. The seat foam pad I ordered came with expired adhesive that had to be removed. The TIG welds on the right crankcase cover AN fittings were porous (ol’ Honda buddy Travis-the-welder forewarned me). He also did the first-rate welding on my home-made oil catch tank. The exhaust studs arrived the day we left for Leeds. The upper shock bushings were too small. The rear brake shoes were too big. Les Barker bored my oil pump but told me he couldn’t get it to my desired clearance. (I measured it before installation. It was perfect Les, right at 0.04mm.) The Kibblewhite valve guide OD was beyond standard; I had to make a tool to machine them down before installation. The valve guides were not concentric with the seats. Took me 4 hours to perfect them on October 3rd. I lost my oil filter cover and didn’t realize it until October 2nd. David Ecker Saturday-delivered one from his CB160 stash and saved the day. But I ordered (smaller) vertical oil pump cover o-rings by mistake and had to ‘improvise.’ The NOS oil pump screen I purchased from the excellent folks at Northeast Vintage Cycle (hondanuts.com) didn’t fit and set me back another 30 minutes. By now, I have no more ‘30 minutes’ to spare. The worst of the following setbacks came out of the box of engine parts I received from the machinist in California. I had already cc’d the combustion chambers. The piston dome volumes were measured only to discover a lower-than-claimed compression ratio. I now had to find someone to mill my cylinder head 0.12mm. The cylinders were not bored to spec; I had to hone way too much meat to get them to the final size and finish. I misplaced my 60-grit hone stones and emergency-ordered a new set. I struggled, but the bores are within 0.01mm of perfect. 4 of the clutch basket bolts he installed were at a severe angle, but I had to use them anyway. When I’m sliding the cylinder down over the pistons for the final assembly, the cylinder would not bottom on the cases as it had when I checked piston deck height. The outsides of the liners were contacting the cam chain tensioner pivot. By this time, maybe 2 AM, my left ankle mysteriously began stiffening and swelling. I’m nearly in tears with this cylinder misfit; I had to remove the pistons to find the problem. I head back over to my metal/welding shop to grind the liners with the cylinder under one arm and a crutch under the other, in severe pain. I endured, and the engine didn’t blow with the ‘used’ piston pin circlips I had to reinstall. It took 2 crutch-assisted trips to the shed to grind enough clearance for cylinder fit. The cylinder guy did send me a spare, already bored and honed to try and make up for all the problems. Nice gesture.
I get the mill together and the cam degreed, and final bike assembly consumed the entire day on Monday. We busted it off Tuesday afternoon only to discover oil oozing from the oil cooler fitting welds on the clutch cover. I’m collapsed in the middle of the driveway, looking up to the sky for some divine intervention. We were supposed to be on the road by now. I called Dale Delfavero. He works in the Special Tools Department at American Honda and has a pile of CB160 parts. He shipped me a clutch cover for arrival at the hotel near the track on Thursday morning. We might still salvage this effort. Dave Ecker also said he would bring me a cover from Oklahoma if I needed it.
Tuesday found us engulfed in yet another major setback. With all the final bike massaging and loading, we realized there was no room for the mo-paig. (I had a somewhat hillbilly motorcycle training student back in the ‘80s who referred to mo-peds as ‘mo-paigs,’ and they’ve been called mo-paigs around here ever since.) We crafted a planter box-looking wooden mount for the mo-paig that sat on the spare tire across the trailer tongue. About midnight, I went to the weldin’ shed to grab some eye bolts to secure the planter box. The lock had been cut and all my welding equipment stolen. 3 hours later, the cops were finished with us and left with the 220-volt electrical plug the low-lifes disconnected to run off with the welder. Maybe there’ll be fingerprints? I had no time for sleep that night. The sun came up as we loaded the last of our stuff, and we headed out for the 13-hour drive to Barber.
A little about the author before we get to the Barber segment of the story. I overhauled the engine in my ’51 Olds Rocket 88 at 17 in 1968. Worked on my first Honda, a buddy’s CB350, in 1970 right before I bought my first new Honda, an SL350K1. I immediately immersed myself into European Style Motocross which led to riding enduros, trials, flat track and hare scrambles. I roadraced locally in the CRRC and at the Austin Aqua Festival from ’79 through ’85. I went to work pulling wrenches at the local Honda shops in Harlingen and Brownsville, ’72 through ‘83. American Honda grabbed me in ’84 and I worked as a motorcycle tech rep and technical training instructor for 6 years before transferring to their Marine Division in ’91. I’m still a Honda Marine tech rep covering 5 southern states. I have several Honda motorcycles; my daily rider is a pristine, restored 1978 CX500.
Fortunately (and I did enjoy lots of good fortune to go with the bad), the engine oil leak prevented running the bike more than a couple of minutes. Exhaustion and lack of sleep caused me to leave the inside o-ring out of the oil filter cover. I always wipe the cam lobes with STP oil treatment during assembly, and that saved the brand new cam and rockers during their period of marginal oil flow. There would be two other JK-induced foul-ups.
Thursday morning 350 Sportsman practice revealed 2 things: I had the CB350 (Ol’ Red) geared perfectly; the track had me perplexed and intimidated. I had never ridden here before, and the elevation changes and hidden apexes were messin’ with my mind. I lost the ass-end of the 350, nearly high-sided, did a major tank-slapper, but gathered it in (my motocross riding days paid off here). I had one other trip into a gravel pit when I missed a downhill braking marker into a hairpin turn. Kept the shiny side up though. The CL175 clutch cover did not arrive until 3 PM. Not enough time to get it swapped and make the final practice so I had to pay another $$$ to practice on Friday. A nice guy (forgot his name) knew I needed a clutch cover. He showed up with one he found at the Swap Meet for 10 bucks right about the time we had the other one installed. Sheri was awesome, keepin’ my spirits up, my gear on and off and the food and beverages comin’. My son Joe did all the heavy liftin’ and bike prep. My pal John Miick showed up to be my ridin’ coach again and also combed over the CL, finding a few loose fasteners in the process.
We pitted between some mighty sweet and helpful people, Leah and Wes Orloff and Denny and Lola Poneleit. Across the street were the friendly and gracious Steve Sharp and his wife. I’d met Denny at NOLA, briefly, but the next 4 days would be absolutely cool sharing space with a Honda wrench and rider of his caliber. I enjoyed my track time dicing with Leah on her vert CB175. She’s fearless, Wes is fast on his beautifully prepped Honda CB450s, Denny and Lola are precious. John and I picked guitars and sang for about an hour, and that wrapped up a long Thursday.
Friday’s practice on the 175, now dubbed ‘Little Silver,’ was ugly. My first time on the bike was a thrill, and the oil leak was stopped, but the bike was over-geared and running lean, even with 110 main jets. Maybe the folks who advised against the PE24s were right? I slowed for a yellow and the engine stalled. I returned to the pits, head hung low, on the disabled-bike trailer. Back in the pits, I found 2 full float bowls, but being the diagnostician I am, I checked for fuel flow from the tank. Not a danged drop. The fuel lines were routed, just like they were from the factory, under the carbs and up and over to the carb barbs. I had installed inline filters too. I reconnected the lines, turned the fuel on one more time and opened the carb drains. As Karl would say, “It ain’t got no gais in it.” I removed all this plumbing and routed the lines direct; I just barely had enough line to make the distance on one side. This fixed the fuel supply malady, and a re-gear fit the bike to the track like a glove. By the 4th practice, Little Silver was happy, but I’m still trying to improve my corner speed, and I know I have a long way to go. The CL is running strong and the spark plug color is nice. It’s pulling 9500 RPM to the first brake marker on the front straight. We drain the break-in oil and find no sparkles, throw in some D10HS plugs, adjust the valves and the now-clackety cam chain, and it’s ready for battle tomorrow.
Race 3 on Saturday in 350 Sportsman was an eye opener and eye closer. The comp in this class is stiff; I’m mid-pack early, mostly because I can’t see. My face shield fogged and I was riding with one hand to keep it slightly open. Damn. Come this far, with a perfect CB350, and my helmet lets me down. A red flag sent us to the grid where I sat, wishing I had a piece of duct tape to secure my shield. Well, right there on my gas cap was just what I needed. My grid position was scrawled on a piece of duct tape. The race resumed, but I never made it better’n 11th place. The next race was the Le Mans start 160 class on the CL175. I was worried about this one because we had little time to practice bump staring the bike, and my push-off ankle was stiff, sore, painful and weak. But I’m only running 5 degrees of idle advance, so she should bust right off. I mustered what I thought was enough running speed at the green flag. Little Silver didn’t bust right off because I couldn’t hear what the engine wanted in throttle opening with all the other open-exhaust racket on the grid. These little twins are LOUD. I’m away in dead last. I rode a half lap before I saw any bikes in front of me. What a thrill, though, to move through the pack in just 4 laps. I quickly realize my motor is pulling all the bikes I encounter. Sure is fun riding with a slight power advantage. I finished in 14th place out of 32. The 200GP race was fun. Not coming to grips with the ‘required’ corner speed left me in 14th place at the finish, almost overtaking Louis LeBlanc at the finish. Draftin’ is fun on these little bikes.
The mo-paig pit bike came up lame and running very rich. Joe already had the carb off for cleaning before we left town which involves dismembering the frame and engine. We found the float cracked and full of gasoline. After it was drained and cleaned, we put a ‘daub’ of Hondabond HT on the crack and let it cure in the sun. Ran like a champ the remainder of the weekend.
The next day would be better on the CL175. Even with a clear face shield, I could only manage 14th in 350 Sportsman out of 30 riders. I just couldn’t push it for some reason. This was an emotional race too; Ol’ Red is officially retired and will be converted back into a street-going café racer. But it now has some cool DNA: laps around Barber Motorsports Park. There was an unintentional DNA exchange though. The bike returned to the pits a gram lighter, and a tad uglier. The left ‘Honda’ emblem disconnected itself from the fuel tank during the race. The current versions of these emblems are spendy and rare and they are not the correct color. I’ll deal with it. The Le Mans race starting drill was improved over yesterday after we practiced some. But I slipped during bump start practice and strained my right thigh muscle. (Danged 64-year-old body wasn’t cooperating this weekend.) I was not able to lift my right leg up onto the footpeg without help from my right hand. I reset the idle at 2000 RPM to facilitate a throttle-less engine start. The green flag flew and the bike fired right up. But in the process of throwing my defective body parts over the seat and rear fender, I almost threw it down. I recovered and started through the gears, looking down to make sure my tach was working correctly (it had been bobbing and bouncing). I looked up just in the nick of time to see a stalled rider directly in front of me. I held it pinned and pushed as hard as I could on the left handlebar, just missing the rider. My guardian angel was with me. This was yet another exhilarating trip up through the pack. The motor was pulling strong and I managed a 7th place out of 31 riders. Better than that, my corner speeds are coming up and my confidence improving as I master the apexes of the track and dice with faster riders. It was a wild ride through the field and a most satisfying experience.
I’m chompin’ at the bit now for the 200GP race, the last of the weekend. I’m gridded 42nd and know I have my work cut out for me. I gotta show good here. At the end of the warm-up lap, the AHRMA official starts toward me with ‘that look’ on his face. This is never a good sign. The front belly pan bolt had fallen out and my pan had a fist-sized hole in it. He motioned me to climb the wall and exit the grid; I knew my day was done. I’m nearly in tears because I knew that screw was too short to engage the locking device on the nut. I had forgotten to replace the 12mm screw with a 14, and I had several in my parts supply. Aarrgghh. I watch the start, and then go back to my hunched-over, tear-shedding position. And then, I look up at the race and see a rider tumbling head over heels. Oh no! Poor fellow. Bad crash. I hope he’s okay. I realized this would bring out a red flag. I grabbed my disabled bike, bumped it to life (no bump-start issues this time with the adrenaline flowin’) and sprinted to the paddock, just slightly over the speed limit. Once there I saw the car was all locked up, and my heart sunk again. I ran over and found it was not locked. Safety wire and duct tape, with the assistance of one guy near Denny’s pit area, and I’m back to the grid just as all the bikes were leavin’ for the warm-up lap. I’ve made it back to my row and position, but I can’t get the AHRMA guy’s attention to inspect my repairs. Should I go or should I stay? I go with the green flag, and I’m glad I did. I looked for the black flag pointed my way on every lap. But I also started with the fast guys and hung in there in the top 10 or 15 all throughout the race. Running with this pack served an important and valuable purpose: it defined the corner speed I needed to be sure I was pushing the bike toward its limit. By the end of the race, my chassis was chattering. I knew, if there was no chatter, that I was probably not going fast enough through the turns. But turns 13 and 14 sealed the deal for me. The turn 12 apex is hidden as you approach, and this was slowing me down enough that 4th gear was almost too high to ascend the rise into turn 14. By the time the race was over, I was doing 13 and 14 in 5th gear! I finished in 9th place out of 48 (officially 32nd because I missed the first lap). I finally put it together on the track. I can’t wait for NOLA next year, a track that suits my riding style and abilities a little better than Barber. But I also can’t wait for Barber next year either because I think I finally know the track and have the confidence to push the bike closer to its limits.
Well, now there’s someone else who ‘can’t wait to get back here.’ My son wants to build a 175 so he can get his own share of the thrill of roadracing. His first stated build requirements were interesting though, but not surprising. He said he wants a fast and reliable bike, but it doesn’t need the ‘sanitail.’ Well, all right then, let’s just see what we can do. And I want him to be involved as much as possible. He’s a talented tech.
Barber’s beauty and organization cannot be overstated. The AHRMA folks are also like family and I appreciate the enormous effort they put out so we can race our motorbikes. I blew the checkered during practice on Thursday. They tore my tech sticker off and told me to go see Tony. Oh man, I didn’t want to be ‘that guy!’ I was properly chewed out, paid a fine, and learned a lesson. The other competitors (and their families) we have met at 2 races are special. The 160/175 guys, Steve, Keith, Greg and all the others were so supportive and friendly. And thanks to all the folks who came by my pits and checked out the freshly-minted CL175. I really appreciated the comments regarding the build. One guy walked up to it and said, “Now that’s art.” That made all the sleepless nights and build challenges worth every minute.
But it wasn’t until we were packin’ up and ready to split that the profoundest (I know, that’s not a word) comment of the weekend was uttered. This ol’ scraggly (but proper-lookin’, and I know, ‘cause I was a hippy back in the day) hippy guy wandered up to our pits after dismounting a nice 1972 Honda XL250 Motosport. I owned and motocrossed the heck out of one of those bikes, and even graduated from Gary Bailey’s School of Motocross riding one at Rio Bravo Park back in 1972. He walked up to me and asked if I’d seen a guy out here with an FZ750. He’d sold some parts at the Swap Meet and was trying to deliver them. We talked about FZs and XL250s for a few minutes, and then he turned to go start the XL. He looked back with the coolest, most memorable and dazed smile and said, “This place makes you smile a lot, don’t it?” That about sums it all up.
Many thanks to the following:
Joe's Motor Company
945 Wesley Ridge Dr.
Spicewood, TX 78669