I’ve heard a lot about the upcoming speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats here in Utah, but I hadn’t yet come across anyone in the closed track motorcycle racing world until just recently. With a world class facility, the Miller Motorsports Park , just a couple hours drive away, and some of this nations greatest racers coming here next month for the Bonneville Vintage GP, I knew it was time to talk with an expert. What I didn’t expect was that I’d leave the interview wanting to get out on the track and experience racing too!
I hope you enjoy my interview with AHRMA Racer Dennis Donahoe.
Utah Cafe Racer: You’ve been into motorcycles since you were 16, and racing since 2009. What are you using for competition?
Dennis Donahoe: A 1967 Norton Atlas.
UCR: Sweet! What all have you done to this bike?
DD: This bike has got quite a long history. I just acquired it in December of 2012, so I’ve only had it for a little over seven months. It’s got a racing cam, and this is because a normal Norton will peak-out at 6000 RPMs, and I can now run it up to 8000 RPMs before I start losing my horsepower. It’s got titanium racing lifters and valves, and any weight loss when you’re talking in the motor results in more horsepower, so any easier the motor can move it’s just better for it. There’s an oil overflow, and there are safety wires on all the lines so nothing can come loose. You don’t want any fluids spilling out on the track.
DD: My friend Jesse Seary originally built this bike up just for racing. He was my mentor for the previous four years while I was racing my Norton Commando, and he really helped me along. When he retired due to illness, I told him that I was buying it because I didn’t want to race someone else on his bike. He’s from Vancouver, in British Columbia Canada, so I had to drive up there to get it in December.
DD: I’ve also changed up the gears on it, because the traditional Nortons are really difficult to work on. It’s got a special hub on the back so I can change my sprockets out. I’ve got steering dampeners, Maney racing heads, and a magnesium 5-speed close ratio racing gear box which is super lightweight, and the gears are super tough. You’re just not going to slip a gear on these, and there’s only one guy that makes them and he’s in New Zealand.
UCR: Wow, that’s quite a list! What is your top speed on it?
DD: My last race was in Willow Springs, CA and I only have a tachometer because you don’t need a speedometer for racing, but my helmet cam has a GPS based speedo and it saw me hit 113 mph down the straightaway. On a stock 1967 Norton, they would do 106 mph downhill on a good day. I’ve thought about taking it out to the Salt Flats, putting a bigger sprocket on, just to see what she’ll do, but I’m worried about getting salt and crap everywhere. But you know, it’s so close to home, it really makes you want to try.
UCR: Which organization is it that your race under?
DD: It’s AHRMA – American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association
UCR: And they hold races all over the U.S. ?
DD: Correct, there are thirteen races they do all across the country, from coast to coast.
UCR: Is there a big finally, or last race?
DD: In Daytona at the end of the season.
UCR: And are you going to be heading out to that?
DD: One day, it’s a long way to go. I usually stick close to home and do the races in California and here. Otherwise, it’s a bit hard, gotta make a living you know.
UCR: I understand that.
DD: I race in the BEARS class, which is a 750s class. It’s another acronym, which stands for British European American Racing Series. So, any 750 twin, or in that general ball park, so there are a lot of BMWs, Ducatis, Nortons, and Triumphs. No Japanese bikes.
UCR: No Japanese bikes? Why is that?
DD: To make it fair. It’s hard to compete against a four or three cylinder. So, this class is just for twins.
UCR: So what is your advice for someone who wants to get into racing but doesn’t have a clue where to start?
DD: For one, go to the races. A perfect opportunity would be the races coming up this Labor Day weekend ( August 30th to September 1st, checkout www.bonnevillevintagegp.com for more info ) . They start out from all classes you can think of; CB 160s, Sidecars, 200s up to 750s, then they do the Grand Prix and the super modifieds, and they even have modern bikes at the very end, so this is like a history of racing all under one roof.
DD: This year, they’re even starting up an Electric Superbike class…
UCR: Oh hell yeah!
DD: .. and those guys are just insane. Another group that follows AHRMA around is the modern-day sidecars with the Suzuki 1000 GSXR motors that are just scream’n down the track, and it’s usually their wives or girlfriends who are hanging off the side, the ‘monkeys’ they call them.
UCR: Holy shit, why is that?
DD: Well, you can look at it as a ‘family affair’ maybe..
UCR: laughing – Right on!
DD: So, go check it out because you will get interested.
UCR: Alright, so now that I’m interested, what do I do next?
DD: Find an old Honda, like 1974 or earlier CB200, strip it down to just the motor and what makes it go. Modify the suspension and brakes, a new chain and tires, and just go race it. Start out small and work your way up.
UCR: And how do you learn how to race?
DD: Get out to the Miller Motorsports Park ( www.millermotorsportspark.com ) for Apex Trackdays. You go out there and you’ll spend $200 and it’ll be the best money you’ve ever spent. You’ll need leathers, leather boots and gloves, and a full face helmet. You’ll have to take the Glycol out of your radiator, if you’ve got one, and run regular water with what’s called a ‘water wetter’ so the pure water won’t screw up your motor. An antifreeze spill is really bad, because it’ll make a slippery spot on the track.
DD: So, for $200 you’ll do a track day, and you’ll take whatever bike you’ve got out there and race. It’s an 8 hour day, and by the time you’re done you’ll be mentally exhausted. They do three groups; beginner, intermediate, and advanced. There are three 20 min. session for each group, and instructors will be out on the track with you making sure you’re safe, then you come back off the track for 40 min to re-hydrate, eat, and get more instruction, but it’s really casual and laid back. So, 20min on, 40min off.
DD: There is also an advanced rider training for $240 a day which is 20min on the track, 20min classroom with a white board of the track and everything, then you refresh for 20min and you’re back on the track. That is a busy day. You’ll have instructors riding in front of you, behind, following you through corners and giving pointers. It was that class that really got me hooked.
DD: It’s a totally different experience being out on the track. There’s no distractions, no dogs running out in front of you, no kids wandering into the road, a nice clean track with an ambulance standing by, and the focus is you; the motor, you, and your brakes. It’s soo addicting.
DD: Really, it’s a whole ‘nother world than the street and it’s a really great time. I know that if people went out and tried it they’d get hooked, because it gets in your blood.
DD: This same organization will give you a racing certification which covers what the different flags mean, the rules of engagement, and that’s only $50 more, and once you’re got that you’re racing.
DD: With AHRMA, they make you wear an orange vest for your first two races just so that everyone around you know that you might need a little more space and could be unpredictable. After your two races, you are out on your own.
UCR: Wow man, you’ve got me totally pumped to try it!
DD: That’s how I did it. With racing, it’s expensive, and like any hobby you’ve got to budget yourself out for a season and make sure you do maintenance during the winter.
UCR: I think you’ve answered all my questions, is there anything you’d like to add?
DD: There are a couple things about this organization I want to say; you’re racing with a bunch of older guys, and when I first got out there I thought I could just get out there a gun it and blow all these old retired guys off the track, and my first year out at the track blew my mind. I was 35 years old, and some of these guys had 35 years of racing experience. We’re talking retired AMA racers, and AMA Superbike racers. And the attitude is just awesome.
DD: The pits are open to the public, so you can get out there and get up close to the bikes, shake racer’s hands, take pictures and talk with them. I’ve also see situations where guys will go out and race, come in, take parts off their bike and install them on another’s just so they can race, and do the same when they return.
UCR: So really a sense of community then?
DD: Exactly, it’s just such a brotherhood and friendly family out there. I remember one year there was a guy named Denny from Sarasota Springs, Florida who’d been racing for forty years, so since the 60’s, and the bike he had, had 13 number one wins at Daytona, it was a CB200 that he’d bored an extra spark plug hole into the head just so he could get an extra fire. Just to sit there and talk with him in the pits was just incredible.
UCR: I can’t wait to go try this myself! Thanks for your time.
DD: No problem.
If you’d like more information on how to get into racing, contact Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org .