Let me tell you about the Alabama woods. When you’re riding through them at speed, they’re a beautiful moving kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. Tree limbs, leaves, vines, ivy and ground cover all appear and then whip past in a blur. The trail, cut deeper and wider by lap after lap of racing motorcycles, emits a moist, fragrant smell of fertile earth. Streaks of sunlight and their alter ego, shadows, dance and flicker like an old silent movie: nature’s own oscilloscope. And the still, humid Southern air creates a refreshing cooling flow through your hot, sweat-soaked gear as you hit the powerband in first gear, shift to second, third and then tap it out in fourth on the straightaways.
These are the sensations that professional driver and Motor Trend-designated hot shoe Randy Pobst and I experienced at Barber Motorsports Park last October 7, during the 10th round of the 2017 American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) vintage cross-country series. Our mutual passion for old bikes, set ablaze by our shared desire for competition, is what attracted us to the weekend at Barber. But what brought us to the start line, and then shot us into the woods aboard our two race bikes, was pure serendipity. Two men. Two English 1974 Rickman dirt bikes, found in the event’s swap meet. And one mission: Finish, and if possible, earn a podium.
The inspiration goes back to 2015, with Hagerty’s Swap to Street Ford Model A build at the Hershey Swap Meet. Hagerty employee-volunteers canvassed the event for a rolling chassis, a workable engine, and a body, then proceeding to burn the midnight oil for days getting the vehicle drivable. After doing so, they headed northwest through sun, rain, wind, and cold on their way back to the company’s Traverse City, Michigan, headquarters. And they almost made it, until electrical troubles proved insurmountable. (With electrical gremlins now banished the truck still runs, by the way.)
Watching the resulting video instantly made me think of repeating the act with motorcycles at America’s biggest vintage weekend. And so, Randy and I hatched a plan: Stuff our pockets with cash, head to Birmingham, Alabama, and hit the swap meet the second it opened for move-in on Thursday in hopes of finding two salvageable vintage dirt bikes that could be turned into safe, viable motocrossers by Sunday.
Randy and I arrived in Birmingham Wednesday evening, and I was jumping around like a kid waiting for Disneyland to open as we approached the swap meet area first thing Thursday. Bike building has been in my blood since adopting my first basket-case Ducati 250 at 18 years old.
The hunt is on
The Barber Vintage Festival swap meet is laid out in a neat grid, with narrow paved walkways bisecting flat, grassy zones marked with chalk lines, like a football field ready for the big game. And big it was: row after row of vendors, massive parts caches, and hundreds of bikes from ragtag to restored, all on offer. And so, we started walking, poring over the machines and parts—some neatly organized and others haphazardly scattered—on each rectangle of lawn. Down the first row and up the next we went, looking for good candidates. What we needed for the AHRMA Vintage Motocross class were a pair of pre-1975 models, the latest allowable in the series. We didn’t care whether they were 1958 or 1974, 100cc or 650cc, British or Italian or Japanese. But we did want to enter the same class, to line up at the gate together, to look each other squarely in the eyes and growl, “Game on, Brother.”
Our first complete circuit of the swap meet produced numerous possibilities but no clear winners. A first-year 1974 Kawasaki KX450 showed promise—it’s a monster of a bike with a reputation for explosive power and squirrelly handling. Alas, it had no compression whatsoever, and we had little hope of finding a piston. A pair of early-1970s Honda CL175 scramblers was mighty appealing, and while they’re legal in AHRMA’s Classic 250 class, they’d be badly outgunned by real 250 MX weaponry. A pair of BSA and Triumph 250cc singles also looked compelling, except for low compression on one and a seized fork on the other. With just 72 hours to convert them into racers, they both seemed like longshots. We saw various Honda Elsinores, in both 125cc and 250cc form, but to a bike they all seemed the proverbial “ridden hard and put away wet” mounts, with sloppy swingarm bushings and important parts missing, like shift and kickstart levers.
The most prevalent likely choices seemed to be early- to mid-1970s Japanese trailbikes like the Suzuki TS125 Duster and TS250 Savage, 175cc Yamaha CT1, CT2 and CT3 models, and the Kawasaki 125cc F6, 175cc F7 and KE250. All might work, but finding a reasonably matched pair of the same displacement proved tough. As the afternoon wore on, things started to seem bleak. Randy seemed content chatting with the dozens of folks at the stalls and on the asphalt promenade. Some recognized him as the racing superstar he is. Others did not. He was genuinely happy to be there, on an adventure, and away from the pressure of his Motor Trend TV show and trying to set lap records. Me, I began to sulk. No bikes meant no racing, and no story.
Two little unicorns
Disappointed and flummoxed by the lack of just the right bikes in the swap meet—which, it deserves pointing out, was still filling up as vendors arrived—I agreed to accompany Randy across the Barber complex to the motocross pits. Here, there seemed little hope of finding anything but racers’ own prepared bikes. But Randy’s instincts were sound, and soon after arriving we found a neat little 125cc Rickman Enduro model. Comprised of a handmade English bronze-welded chrome moly frame, hand-laid fiberglass bodywork, a steel gas tank, and an air-cooled, radial-head Zundapp 125cc engine, it was a little jewel. Operationally it was nearly all there, and with a Mikuni carburetor conversion already done, seemed like a strong purchase possibility. It even ran, although the cracked tires, a leaking rear tube, little fork damping, and an inability to run without the carburetor enricher on were question marks. But so far, apart from a swap-meet 1974 Suzuki TS125 we’d found with low compression, a rattly piston and a rattle-can paint job, the Rickman was the closest thing to right we had seen. Randy brought the asking price down from $2,200 to an even two grand and made the purchase. We had a bike.
The Rickman locked us into AHRMA’s Classic 125 Vintage Motocross class, and the rulebook revealed there were only two common bikes which we were likely to find at the swap mpa that shared the same class—a Yamaha AT1 Enduro and a Suzuki TS125 Duster. “Oh s#&t,” I thought, thinking of the rattly Duster we had seen earlier. And so, after returning with Randy’s Rickman, we began another circuit of the swap meet rows, hoping that some eligible and worthy bikes would appear. They didn’t. We found a pair of later AT2 and AT3 Yamahas— so-called “reed valve” bikes not allowed in the Classic class—but not much else. Despondent at the idea that I’d end up with the rattly, rattle-can Suzuki, I found myself shuffling along the second-to-last row, growing dispirited in the heat and humidity.
When I looked up again, fate was staring me straight in the eyes. To my right, just unloaded from a guy’s trailer along with two burned-out Moto Guzzis and an old Honda three-wheel ATV, was another red 125cc Rickman Zundapp MX. Incredulous, I blinked, blinked again, and then floated toward it as if ensnared by some strange gravitational force. Could it be the same bike Randy had just bought? No, Randy’s had lights and the larger enduro fuel tank, and this one didn’t. A cardboard sign indicated it was for sale, along with a spare core bike, for $2,300. I found the seller, Scott Lochbihler, and asked him about it. A former race bike, it had been idled when its young rider found sponsorship on another machine, and was now unneeded. “It used to run. Three years ago,” Scott said. “But there’s no gas in the tank now.” A broken fuel line indicated that even if there were, it wasn’t going to reach the carburetor anytime soon.
Randy hustled to the Hagerty booth and returned with a small bottle of gas and some two-stroke oil. We quickly proceeded to brew some premix up right there in the proverbial sink, and then dribbled some into the spark plug hole and carburetor bowl as if feeding a baby bird. One kick. Two kicks. A cough. Six kicks. Finally, the long-asleep Zundapp engine started, its staccato exhaust barking crisply out the pipe. “Yes!” I thought. But then another thought hit me: the red Rickman was attracting a crowd, and fast. Bargain hunters began crouching down to examine it, and the core bike too. I had to act quickly. Reflexively, with the swap-meet wolves circling, I ducked under Scott’s E-Z UP, turned his lawn chair away from the crowd, invited him to sit, and engaged him with a string of questions like, “So what’s the history of this bike?” and “What do you think it might need to race this weekend?” Happily, the ploy worked, the wolves never intruded, and I was able to strike a bargain of $1,900 for the Rickman and parts bike.
“What do you think were the odds of finding two Rickman Zundapp 125s for sale within an hour of each other?” I asked Randy while pushing bike No. 2 to the Hagerty tent. “About like finding two unicorns grazing in the Alabama woods, John,” he answered. I had to agree.
The big thrash
Reality intervened as soon as we propped both bikes onto their work stands in the Hagerty tent, for two important reasons. First, both bikes needed signification attention, including new tires, tubes and new chains, oil changes, fuel-system servicing, lubing cables, brake adjustments, straightening various bent pieces, and plenty more. Second, rumors swirling around Barber were that the entire Sunday program, including our motocross races, would be cancelled due to the arrival of Hurricane Nate, which was tracking straight toward Birmingham. So, instead of a luxurious three days to get the bikes ready for a pair of five-lap MX sprint races, we’d have only two days to prepare them, and ourselves, for a grueling hour-long cross-country race.
We dug in.
First thing Friday morning, we tore the front wheels off both bikes, cleaned the drum brakes, and levered the hardened old tires off. Or rather, I levered the hardened old tires off. Back in high school, some masochistic personality defect had drawn me to become the go-to guy for changing friends’ motorcycle tires, and the same was now happening in Alabama. “Ok, where are your tire irons,” I asked Randy. It was his toolbox, after all.
“You mean tire iron, singular,” he answered. “I only have one.”
“One tire iron?” I asked. “How is it that you only have one?”
“I think I loaned one to an ex-girlfriend,” he said.
That’s the affable Randy Pobst. One tire iron short of a full toolbox, and replete with a mysterious ex-girlfriend who may or may not still have that essential drop-forged steel lever in a kitchen drawer. The one that we now needed, badly. But there was no use arguing this point. “Ok, then give me your lonely, solitary tire iron and the biggest honkin’ screwdriver you have.”
With various Hagerty visitors helping by standing on the tire bead, one magical tire iron and one king-sumo screwdriver levered all four old knobbies off the 43-year-old Rickman wheels. Then four new Dunlop Geomax MX3S tires spooned on—80/100-21 front and 100/100-18 rear. If two nearly identical Rickmans found at Barber was one miracle, guessing at shipping the exact tires they needed there ahead of time was another. We were scoring with Lady Luck. Another windfall was in the chain department. The last bike I had resurrected (“A $50 Yamaha and a Dream that Wouldn’t Quit,” May 2017) had broken its old drive chain on the first test ride, and so I knew we definitely needed quality chains on these race bikes. Fortunately, Regina Chain had sent 428-series Professional Cross Supermoto chains—purposely over-length at 120 links—and after we cut about four links off with the handy Regina chain breaker, they fit perfectly. Progress!
As afternoon faded into night, pin-striper Chastin Brand, working out of the Metal Rescue tent next door, hand-lettered a cool “Hagerty Special” retro logo and script onto each bike’s tank, in butterscotch for Randy’s enduro and sky blue for my motocrosser. They looked awesome. With a loaner generator humming behind a nearby tree, floodlights lit up the Hagerty tent well into the night. Randy’s car racer friend, Deborah Inskeep and her dad Jeff, volunteered to shoot video and stills and to help with the bikes. They took on the exacting job of trimming our Fastlane MX racing graphics to fit the unusually sized vintage Rickman fiberglass side panels. No small task, the custom-fitting took a couple of hours and looked great.
Behind our work area, a poor guy in his pup tent had enough of us by 10:33 PM, so we shut down the generator and lights, stumbled to the truck, and headed to our motel for an all-too-brief six hours of sleep.
Ready, set, race!
Race day. In contrast to the sunny and amicable Thursday and Friday weather, Saturday dawned gray and ominous, as the outer bands of Hurricane Nate crept north into Birmingham. And the word was now official: Saturday’s programs would run, but the Barber Motorsports Park would be closed down afterwards. With Sunday’s MX races out, we were committed to the Saturday cross-country instead. This created many new potential problems. The course was deep in the Alabama woods, and as it differed every year, no one knew exactly where it went. And from our bike-building standpoint, the entire Saturday planned as a test and tune day would now be compressed into a single one-hour race instead. Talk about flying blind. Despite over 500 car races, including two GT class wins in the Daytona 24 Hours, Randy had never raced a bike.
Arriving at the track at 7:15 AM, we set to work finishing up the bikes: a nut and bolt check, adjusting and lubing the throttle, clutch and brake cables, mixing 32:1 Pro Honda HP2 oil with 93-octane pump gas, and trying to hydrate in what had become a swamp-like heat. With temps in the high eighties and humidity to match, it was fixing to be a tough day in the woods.
Preparations came down to the wire, with Deborah using a hacksaw to shorten an exhaust baffle for me while I was pulling on my helmet. It was then installed moments before I wheeled the bike off its stand. Randy hopped aboard his Rickman, and we rode out of the tent and across the Barber complex to the riders meeting, arriving just after race director David Lamberth started speaking. The course was three miles, give or take a bit, he said, and was marked by orange arrows: one arrow indicating a gentle turn or straight ahead; two arrows depicting a moderate turn; and three arrows warning of a sharp turn. When we set off on a sighting lap after the riders’ meeting, I learned just how necessary these arrows were.
From the starting area, a landing in a clearing of trees, the course dropped suddenly downhill to the right and then picked up a winding trail. The woods were so thick here, that it was impossible to ride straight. Instead, you had to constantly weave around trees in a style reminiscent of speed-skiing moguls, with unyielding wood instead of snow to punish any mistake. The pre-hurricane weather proved almost insufferable, and Randy and I both finished the sighting lap with the same thought: How are we going to race this course for an hour? Half the riders wore water-filled backpacks, and while we had hydrated as much as possible before the event, neither of us had one. We had come to do a pair of sprint motos, after all. Further, we had no idea how far the Rickmans would go on a tankful of gas. My only clues here were that the engines were only 125cc, and that a few years before, I had ridden my modern 250cc four-stroke MX bike for three hours at a near race pace before it ran out. I was cautiously optimistic that we’d go the distance, although in matters of ignition, spark plugs and mechanicals, I couldn’t guess.
Into the deep
The event used a dead-engine start with four to six riders per row, beginning with Experts, ranging through our Intermediate class and then extending back to Novices. Rows were flagged off 30 seconds apart to keep the 100 or so riders from bunching up too much in the narrow woods. Beside me, Randy’s mind was whirling. “While I’ve raced cars for 30 years, this was my first motorcycle race,” he’d say later. “I felt an intoxicating cocktail of fear and excitement lining up with guys who have done it many times before. It felt like diving into dark water, not knowing how deep or how cold it might be.”
Happily, Randy’s Mikuni-equipped Zundapp started first kick but my bike, possibly owing to its iffy old Bing carburetor, required at least four stabs at the start lever, and I was bringing up the rear as our row went into the woods. I could see Randy getting away at various points and did not think I could keep up. It amazed me how inept I felt in the first minutes aboard this strange bike and in this strange new environment. But as other riders made errors, I worked my way into the pack and finally caught Randy on a rare uphill that was wide enough for two bikes. Due to a last-minute carb adjustment made on the line, the engine performed well and I was able to zap by, then put my head down and fly.
Most of the course was a relentless, narrow single-track that only gave relief in the form of some merciful shade. Still, the woods were so thick we couldn't see far ahead, and it was plenty easy to miss a turn, clip a tree, or stall on a root or rock while scrambling uphill. I blew a few turns, even stalled the bike once after doing that, but the few positions that cost I eventually made back. Happily, the Dunlop Geomax tires were like dirt scalpels; they gripped everything from mud and sand to hard-pack and loam, and never slipped. I only lost the back end once and never the front.
After the flurry of the initial lap, my Rickman and I settled into third position and Randy settled into a steady fifth. Lap after lap unwound, and we were beginning to memorize the course, to learn our bikes, and to manage our physical condition. There were a few problems. Neither bike was jetted well, with mine stumbling rich on the bottom end, which required high revs and clutch slipping to circumvent. Randy’s bike had a light-switch powerband, with virtually no power anywhere except when shrieking on the full throttle. Plus, his fork started to seize almost immediately, and by race’s end had been reduced to just an inch or two of travel. He was getting beat up.
Stuck, and stuck good
Two thirds of the way around the course, and 3 ½ laps into the five-lap race, in an uphill woods section, my engine temporarily starved and I knew it was running out of gas. Though I held out hope it was just a plug fouling it soon happened again on a dusty straightaway, and this time the engine stopped for good. The Rickman motocrosser’s gas tank was just too small. Too bad. I had been running third in class and on track for a podium.
As soon as the bike stopped, without the cooling airflow from moving, I felt the physical toll from riding in the heat. Clearly dehydrated, my heart rate and temperature climbed, I felt dizzy and my cognitive function began to erode. Eventually though, I tried to flag down two-stroke riders but only one stopped. He said he didn't have enough gas and sped off. Potentially stranded, I got the idea that gas from the right side of the tank could be sloshed over to the left side, where the petcock lived. This worked and the Zundapp engine started.
Relieved, I slowly continued on the course. But 1/4 mile later the engine stopped again—this time down in a deep glen—and wouldn’t restart. I leaned the Rickman against a tree and, after waiting over an hour for the promised sweep vehicle to come (it never did), began hiking out. In doing so, I noticed plenty more things in the woods. The rich duff, spider webs, tangled roots, ivy, rotting branches and logs, broad white mushroom crowns, and ants and beetles. It really was the deep woods, and I had only the vaguest idea where I was. With my heart rate already up, every hill made we wonder if that was the one I’d collapse on. I was hot and thirsty and my boots felt like lead weights. After reaching a clearing, I stared at the dirt and saw in script the name "Stein." I looked again and again and it was clearly there. So weird. I was hallucinating.
Although I had no water, to cool down I took off my top clothes and body armor, all but my old marathon undershirt. A few storm sprinkles arrived, and that also helped. I was a long way from the finish but knew I had to keep going, up and down hill, twisting and turning, ducking under branches and scrambling off the course when bikes approached after the second, “Post Vintage,” race started. By now it had been over three hours since chugging the last of the Gatorade and leaving the Hagerty tent. Finally, near the start-finish area, I encountered AHRMA’s Lamberth on his ATV, riding the course backwards in search of missing riders. He took me back to the pits, where Randy and Deborah, who had been frantically searching for their lost companion, were waiting on street bikes. Randy, who had heroically finished—his own bike’s larger enduro tank virtually empty—begged some water bottles from friendly campers and we sucked it down eagerly, then rode to the Hagerty tent.
There I gulped more water, mixed up a two-gallon can of premix, and headed back to find David, who had promised to take me to the bike. Despite my reduced mental state, my description of landmarks on the course together with David’s intimate knowledge of the woods, ultimately paid off. His Honda Recon’s headlight peered through the gathering dusk as I filled the Rickman’s tank, and amazingly, it started first kick. I rushed back to the Hagerty tent and helped pack up, before Randy and I delivered the bikes to a transporter waiting to take them to Hagerty’s Traverse City, Michigan headquarters.
Quite honestly, after handing the bike to the truck driver I turned 180 degrees, I started walking and didn’t look back. Sweaty, dirty, sore, tired, hungry and still thirsty, I needed dry clothes, fish tacos and a cold cerveza way more than I needed to say good-bye to that lovely little Rickman. But we will meet again soon, hopefully in a nice, short motocross race. Only this time, it will be on our terms, not on some storm’s named Nate.