Todd's Yamaha MX250

November 23, 2018

Bike build stories abound, alas, not in my personal history. Mine isn’t even one of fabrication (well, a little), radical style altercation, or ingenious “Frankenstein” parting from other bikes or manufacturers. It was a pretty straightforward deal, right? After all, I was purchasing an already proven flat tracker, and venturing only into cosmetically altering the appearance, and a simple re-build of the top end. Piece of cake. Sound familiar? The bike came to me unsolicited one day while sitting at the counter at See See Coffee. Thor asked me if I wanted to buy his old bike, his first flat track bike, as he and his lovely wife Tori were expecting their first child, and they could use the money. “Todd, I don’t wanna sell my first flat tracker, but I’ll sell it to you, because I know you’ll race it.” Hook. Line. And Sinker. He got me. “All it needs is a top end and it’s ready to go,” he exclaims, with that brand of enthusiasm reserved for any eight-year-old on Christmas Eve, and Thor Drake on any day. By no means am I implying that he duped me, but instead, that he said the things I wanted to hear, and the timing was perfect. I was searching for the perfect replacement for my first flat tracker, the beloved RD200 that zipped me around the frigid oval at Salem the previous winter for my first season of racing, and truly, I was honoured that Thor considered me to carry on the racing legacy on the bike. With that, we worked out a deal that aligned with the value (well, market value) of the RD. With that, we’re extracting the bike from the two-level bike storage that he and business partner George share just up the road. We only had to move about 16 motorcycles, set up a ramp to the loft upon which it was parked, and angle it just so to get it out. No sweat.

 

The next thing I know, I’m unloading it at my garage. Within a couple of days, my pal Korry (@k_fitzpatrick) and my next-door neighbour Steve Hust (an old Sidewinders racer from back in the day) helped me, descending upon the bike for disassembly like vultures upon a carcass in the middle of a Texas two-lane highway. They made quick work of it, and within a half hour I had a frame and swingarm that needed prep for paint, and the rest of the parts.

 

It was a proven winner (the original owner won races on it in central California in the late '70s/early '80s) having propelled Thor, Tori, and Emily to victory in various classes at Salem. It’s a ’74 Yamaha MX250. The frame is stock, although modified by de-raking the headstock, and “plugging,” thus lowering the position of the motor and foot controls in relationship to top of frame. It had high shouldered Akront 19” wheels front and rear, a Barns quick-change hub on the rear, vintage tracker bars, and a custom fibreglass seat/tailpiece that wears the scars of more than one meeting with the track. It was red and white, adorned with various stickers affixed by Thor and Co. It was cool, but I had a different look in mind.

 

I asked the mechanic who’d prepped my RD200 for racing, along with my XS650, for inappropriate road bike, if he’d be onboard to help me with the engine and any fab required to build this thing and get it race ready for races at The Wild One [See See's replacement for DQUSA] in the Summer. It was Spring, and he agreed remarking 'We’ve got plenty of time'. Casey Him (@gandhcycles) is a knowledgeable and skilled mechanic, unafraid of tackling any moto project, especially a vintage 250. He races a ’67 Ducati in the same class at Salem, and is a Triumph (anything British) guy, from way back. He also agreed to allow me, with permission from Eric, the owner of Cycle Heap, the shop where Casey worked as a mechanic on customer bikes, to hang around while he did a lot of the work, contributing in the process in whatever capacity I was able. What could go wrong…

 

After all, it was Spring, and The Wild One wasn’t until July… 'Plenty of time.' If I heard that once, I heard it a thousand times, immediately following my question 'Are we gonna get this thing done in time?' (Picture: Bart Simpson greeting the mailman at the door day after day 'Were’s my spy camera? Where’s my spy camera?')

I left him alone long enough for me to do all of the stripping, grinding, sanding, priming and painting of the frame, swingarm, tank and seat. It should be mentioned that the seat was going to be a project akin to the one highlighted in an earlier blog entry. That is, I was going to have to make it, until… Korry, without question offered up a beautiful fiberglass bullet of a seat. A seat he made for his first flat tracker. It was fantastic, and perfect, as it was built for the same frame: an old MX250! Not only that, I’d coveted it since I first saw it. All I did was mention that I had to build another seat for this bike, and he offers it up asking 'You wanna run my old seat? I’m not gonna need it.' I was floored, and honoured. I’m learning to not be shocked by Korry’s generosity and willingness to help. He truly is as good as it gets. (more on that in a bit)

Originally, the plan was to powder coat the frame. Alas, the process of getting it down to bare metal proved too time consuming or too expensive (sandblasting services aren’t cheap!), so I did what I could with wire wheels and chemical stripper. The old tank (aluminum and cool) revealed several significant dents full of bondo. Again, I did what I could. The new color scheme would reflect my ilk for dark green, combined with white. My jacket is a green Langlitz that my kids can fight over after I’m gone. My helmet is white, and the two pair quite nicely in my book. Instead of applying decals to the bike, I decided to paint those I wished to display, by using die-cut decals negative stencils, if you will. You probably wouldn’t, but I did. Each of them represents people who I cherish, and their respective vision and enthusiasm for the sport that I share. Depending upon the night, they may or may not wish to have their logo on my bike. Tough luck.

 

Thor threw in a new tyre for the front wheel as part of the deal, so it’s Shinko shod up front, and the old Maxxis on the rear for now. Time keeps going by, and I keep bugging Casey… ‘Are we gonna get this thing done in time?; He has a look that comes very naturally when pestered with this line of questioning, and it very clearly says ‘Nothing to worry about,’ without him muttering a word.

 

We’d torched out the stock swingarm bushings in the teardown, with plans of easily finding bronze replacements. That ‘easily’ part really didn’t apply to any part of this build. At one point we resigned to buying a hunk of bronze from the remnants room at a metals supplier in town, and turning our own on the shop’s lathe. No luck. That cheap remnant wasn’t to be found, and we needed to get the frame together for our roller. As luck would have it, Casey dug around in the shelving of bins at “The Heap,” and found an old RD350 swingarm with bronze bushings in it, as it goes, they fit. At last, we had our roller.

After splitting the cases breaking down the engine, after a cringe-worthy beating on the crank to free it from the cases, it was decided that all was needed was a new piston, rings, and bore of the cylinder to get power plant for the green machine race ready. I know most people in these racing circles refer to the engine as the ‘motor’, but I can’t shake the image of my high school shop teacher with great emphasis and a little ire in his voice telling the class ‘Motors are electric… your car, motorcycle, lawnmower, go-kart, or whatever you dump gas into to make it go ‘vroom,’ are powered by an engine!’ So, engine it is for me. I do keep in mind that this was the late ‘70’s and electric cars, bikes, and lawnmowers were still considered Jetsons stuff, saved for the future. Parts were on order at cost (thanks to Thor at SEE SEE) and upon receipt of them, I dropped them with my cylinder at Charlie Brown’s shop for the bore. Charlie Brown is a local legend among machinists for motorcycle engines. His ‘system’ is a thing of wonder to behold, and his skills, superb. He said to me ‘You’re lucky. I just finished with all my 125s, and I’m starting 250s tomorrow.’ He turned my cylinder around in five days. Korry’s stuff had been in his shop for over two months. Timing…

Our deadline was looming. I knew not to ask, but did anyway… same result… the look, and some instructions to clean something in the solvent tank, and paint something to ready for assembly. The livery is green (Krylon Forest Green, if you care) and white, and if it isn’t one of those, it’s black or it’s natural metallic color (wheels, spokes, forks, etc.). The pipe is white because I always liked how those old hot rods in the ‘50s looked with white pipes.

 

This is about the time I get a text from Casey asking me what I did with the CDI. ‘The what…?’ And with that, the odyssey of the missing CDI began. Remember those vultures descending upon the bike to tear it apart? None of them remember seeing the CDI. The space where it took place has been scrutinized like a crime scene from the set of Dexter, short of bleach, blacklights, and police caution tape. Sworn testimonies have, been taken, and the case has been filed as unsolved. Korry, whose bike will most certainly not be ready for DirtQuake at this point, without hesitation and in typical Korry fashion, offers his for me to use. His is an aftermarket part manufactured in England by Rex’s Speedshop. ‘Just order one for me to replace it,’ he humbly suggests, and I do so, post haste. He brings it to the shop, which it should be noted is NOT just down the street from where he lives, and it provides the spark needed.

Casey gets everything connected, new reed kit, carb and filter, fuel line, throttle and clutch cables… All systems go… and… she fires! It sounds to me a fire breathing, two-stroke dragon! It’s Thursday, and the race at Castle Rock is the following day. Casey tells me he’ll heat cycle it, and do some break in, and final tuning in the roadway in front of the shop. ‘What time you wanna be on the road tomorrow?’ he asks. I tell him I’ll be at the shop to load her up at three to be northbound traffic on I-5. It’s an hour to Castle rock with no traffic, but this is a hot weekend in the summer, alas, people are going places on Friday afternoon…

 

Friday arrives, and I can barely concentrate at work. All I can think about is racing that bike, in addition to racing my XS650 in the ‘Inappropriate road bike’  class at The Wild One. All packed with Jenny driving the Mazda and me on the XS, we roll up to the shop at about 3:15. The bike is on the lift with the top end removed! My heart sinks as I can tell by the looks on everyone’s faces, something isn’t right… ‘It had what I’m calling a mild seize,’ Casey tells me. He was frantically replacing the piston rings to get it back together for me to get it on the carrier and up the freeway to Castle Rock…

Did I mention that it was 104 degrees at that time in Portland, and by the time the bike was put back together, made a few heat cycling passes back and forth in front of the shop, and onto the back of the car, it was 5:00? Traffic was jammed up everywhere! As we sat still in traffic, the old air cooled XS reminded me how much it hates the heat, and died. I pushed it out of traffic and into the shade I could find at the no-tell Motel where Sandy Blvd, Killingsworth, and the 205 meet to wait… I instruct Jenny to go ahead, and I’ll meet her there. Casey responds and heads up to meet me in the van to take the XS to Castle Rock. By the time he arrived, the bike had cooled enough to start, and I jumped on splitting lanes all the way to Castle Rock to keep the wind in her fins! I made it. Jenny made it. The Green Machine made it…

I registered for ‘Vintage Open,; as there wasn’t a Vintage 250 class. All of the crew started showing up right before practices started. The Bike came with a 38mm Mikuni, and it proved hard to get it tuned correctly. We tried. Trust me, we tried. There were glimmers of that power I was seeking, alas, it just didn’t go like I wanted it to GO! I raced in the heat and main, finishing last in both races. At one point Jimmy Hill (@hillsack) and a very fast pro named Rickets passed me in tandem flanking me one on each side in the middle of turn 2. They seemed as though they were traveling at twice the speed I was. Oh Well. I raced the next day and finished third in the main, and celebrated all of the shenanigans unique to a weekend of Wild One festivities.

With a total of 18 laps on the engine to that point (four in practice, a six lap heat, and an eight lap main), I made plans to race at a regularly scheduled event at Castle Rock in September. Trying as I might, I was only able to rally one other rider for a 250 vintage class, and again was forced to ride among vintage open riders on built 500+ cc thumpers…all of which are really fast. In practice, I rode well, but the bike still didn’t feel like the rocket under my seat I’d imagined. Coming out of turn 4 with the throttle twisted all the way open I suddenly experienced that very unsettling feeling of instant absence of power…I drew the clutch lever in and the bike had gone quiet. Coasting down the front straight in silence, I put my hand in the air to signal other riders of my demise, and steer for the exit gate. It swings open, and I leave the track dejected and completely unaware of what actually occurred between the cases.

Chris (@theironsociety), Scott (@Scott_Rounds), and Mike Noon, a racer from Seattle were all at the track that night to offer support, as they knew the trials I’d already experienced getting this bike on the track. Scott, an experienced rider who has 20+ years racing at tracks all over the North East of the US, was there with his Yamaha TT 540. It’s a fast bike which is set up for flat track, and a history of winning races. Scott offered it up to me to ride in a vintage open class, if I wanted, knowing how dejected I was about my bike. I took him up on his offer, and entered in the 50+ vintage class. Practice was my first time on the bike, and although the suspension was too soft, as it’s set up for Scott and he probably gives away a good 60lbs to me, it felt amazing to ride. Power at every centimetre of twist in the right grip, and what feels like an unlimited ability to accelerate and corner at my command, were phenomena unfamiliar to me in my limited experience with small displacement two-strokes to date. The race went great, and although I finished last to a field of experienced riders, I felt a bit victorious crossing the finish line at the end of my first race on a big bike… that is, for about 4 seconds.

The exit gate, a heavy steel structure cased in plywood, doubles as the wall separating track and pits, which swivels on a post to open and provide entry and exit on respective sides once rotated 90 degrees. This configuration requires a hard 90 degree right turn between turns 1 and 2 to exit the track. You need to slow pretty rapidly after your race ends to negotiate the turn, and exit the track. I’ve managed to do this several times in the past without incident, but this time was different. I was unable to find the brake on the TT, and was instantly  slammed into the side of the gate. I landed on my feet, left arm draped over the side of the wall, with the bike nowhere within my line of sight. In shock, and barely able to breathe or speak, I limped back to my area in the pit. Scott saw the bike careen off of the wall and retrieved it, assuring me it suffered no more damage than an additional dent in the tank. It was a doubly devastating night at Castle Rock, and the start of a painful and enduring healing period, as X-rays taken a few weeks after revealed two broken ribs. My left leg suffered the force of the weight of the bike pinning it to the wall. I limped for weeks. 

 

I told Casey about the bike and my mishap, and he was very concerned on both fronts. Firstly, he’s my friend, secondly, my trusted mechanic. Upon viewing of what was evident in the cylinder and crank case, he immediately owned the responsibility to make it right. He took the engine from me, and assured me I’d have a race bike like I’d not yet ridden in green and white, ready for the Salem season opener, just over a month away… (to be continued)

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