My cousin Craig was a major influential factor in forming my lifelong obsession with motorcycles and ultimately my vehicle-based illustration career. When I was a young kid a visit to his house was magical, with the garage always filled with the latest motocross hardware, gear and parts strewn everywhere. I would stand in the doorway just staring in awe. Back home my pull-start Briggs and Stratton powered mini-bike just didn't cut it anymore in the woods of Northern Jersey. Craig and family answered my prayers when they unexpectedly showed up one morning with a brand new, beat-to-death, eight-year-old Honda CT-70 tied to the back of the family truckster. This very bike would launch a lifetime of riding and an endless stream of bikes for Both Craig and myself (several of which Hatch actually bought--Ed.). Despite the fact that both of us have been riding our entire lives, we have never had the chance to ride together.
This event was just the catalyst to get cousin to California and make it happen. Me in my mid 30s and Craig in his 40s, we weren't getting any younger. This was it.
Invite secured, Cuz on the plane, one problem left, "Bring your own bike." I have my own trusty Yamaha WR-400 but needed another ride. A call to my buddy the influential John P. Burns would lead me to a beautiful brand new Yamaha YZ-450F; we had hoped to be able to report on the new 250F, but dirt bikes are hard to come by and this spankin' new bike would definitely do. The plan was to meet Johnny boy at Elsinore MX track, ride a few laps and transfer the big YZ back to Hatch HQ. Having had the great fortune of attending the YZ launch in Texas earlier in the year I was somewhat familiar with the monster YZ. The Vet track at Elsinore was just my speed and I had a blast chasing younger Sprog Burns and Street Boy Johnny, when John was actually moving that is--but JB will have to tell you about that part.
Ordinarily I know better than to ride dirt bikes, but I've had this little Yamaha TT-R125L for a year or two now, which I've been riding almost weekly in pursuit of the man-cub at the local "MX Park," and so how different could the 450F be? Certainly bigger and more powerful, but now that my moto-hair plugs have somewhat taken root, how tough could it be eh?
The difference has to be like transitioning from Piper Cub to F-16. I know I'm not in great shape, but are you telling me Hatch is? Look at the man. Mainly the problem is I'm too short. I know you need the eight feet of suspension travel for landings, given this thing's remarkable vertical leap, but I for one would sacrifice a little suspension travel in exchange for not feeling like Hannibal crossing the Alps aboard an elephant. I love throwing my TT-R on its side into corners, but that definitely ain't happening for me on the 450, mainly because the ground is so far away. And I'm sure I'd learn not to stall the thing with practice, but every time I got sort of going in my brief interlude with the bike, I would stall it. It's remarkably easy to start, hot or cold, but in order to do so I would first have to push it to a berm or a stump or a crate to stand atop in order to start it again.
What a fantastic motor. When I think Yamaha single, I'm thinking about my old SRX-6 (XT600 to you dirt people). It's hard to think these two engines sprang from the same loins. Apparently the thing revs beyond 11,000-some rpm, but it starts shredding knobs at about 250 rpm in this massive wave of torque, aided I suppose by gearing that tops out at what? 80 mph maybe? It's like riding some bellowing tyrannosaur through the underbrush in a Jurassic Park movie.
Anyway, by the time I'm on it and moving, I'm already tired. Stall it once, push, climb back on in these big stupid boots, restart, I'm really tired... I can do like half-a-lap and I have to rest. I tried to "break through the wall" once, and was too weak to roll off the throttle approaching this one big jump. I thought for a moment I was going to jump completely out of Lake Elsinore MX Park. My eyes mos' popped out de sockets. Amazingly, though, the bike acted as if that was the first thing I'd done all day that remotely approached its capability. I think it needs a bigger track, preferably one with guest docks every couple of turns I can pull up to to rest.
After all those years kicking Hatch's butt on paved tracks, he has his revenge. Not for long, though. I am quite certain I can take his WR400 on my TT-R125 at the vet track. Yes, quite. Bring it on Hatchquatch.
Fresh from the airport, truck laden with Cousin Craig, two bikes and gear, etc., down we headed from the Santa Barbara magic garden through the burning flipped cars and general carnage that is Tuesday morning rush hour in Los Angeles, finally pulling into Glen Helen fairly early. We cleared the alert Orange entrance gate and slipped into a spot at the end of the pits. The truck next to us was none other than the great 500 GP champ Kevin Schwantz--whose school I also got to write about for MO, putting on his gear next to a brand new Suzuki RM, most appropriate. Walking around to the back of the truck I spotted the Hayden Brothers suiting up just feet from our rig, next to them the staff from MX Racer. This was going to be a great day indeed.
Geared up we headed over to the massive Dunlop rig to check our tire pressure. The crew was very helpful and made us feel like we were factory for a day but without the chance to win appliances. A stop at the Yamaha truck to make some adjustments reinforced the feeling as we headed onto the MX track.
Craig immediately pulled away on the big YZ, further demonstrating his well-deserved 125-250 Pro expert status and over 20 years of moto experience. I spotted a yellow flash hurtling by with the graceful style that could only be Kev Schwantz. Now I have had the opportunity to follow him on the street and in the dirt. Cruising around Glen Helen trying to learn the track we proceeded over what seemed like an endless parade of tabletops. I slowly followed Craig over what appeared to be just another table but it was actually a double jump, a realization which hit me as I was hanging motionless in no-man's land smack between the double humps and falling like a stone, no harm done, now I know. The track was an abbreviated version of the National track, and the giant uphill loop was closed off, although the downhill portion of that loop was rumored to be part of a special section. We hit a few more laps on the famed track and prepared for the storied Ten-mile mountain loop.
PAGE 2 A quick stop in the pits to fill my new ultra-comfortable hydration system made by local Santa Barbara boys Chase Harper ( http://www2.motorcycle.com/cgi-bin/redirector?www.chaseharper.com/), and I was set. Weather was perfect of course, hovering around 65-70 as far as I could tell, with bone dry conditions. We idled through the endless carnival of factory team awnings, industry names and TV crews in the pits, and headed up into the mountain. Craig Hatch took the lead; I soon learned how he was going to play it all day. He was hauling major ass on the Biggest YZ and was spreading a roost so huge and thick I could only navigate by the edges of the canyon walls and the ribbon of blue sky above as we climbed the massive third-gear, serpentine, sand-laden mountain. The trails were marked with color-coded arrows according to difficulty in a very clear and well thought-out manner. A brief meeting with Ken Faught in the pits revealed the existence of four special sections marked off the main trail throughout. At his suggestion we would hunt them down.
The AMA Pro Says:
Early one morning I was checking my email and I got one from Hatch Illustration. This usually means that my cousin is about to test some great bike or meet some famous person in the motorcycle industry. He knows that drives me crazy. Well not today, this one read, "I'm only going to ask you once, 24 hours at Glen Helen." Great motoheads think alike, I knew exactly what he meant. My heart started racing just like it does before the gate drops in a moto. I couldn't wait to get back to him and ask about the details.
The day finally came when it was time to fly out west, still not really sure what motorcycle I might be riding. But that was okay. Just getting a chance to spend some time in California with my cousin would be good enough. When I landed Jimbo was waiting at the terminal and the first thing he said was I got your bike. A brand new Yamaha YZ450F. I felt like a factory racer walking through the airport with my gear bag over my shoulder and a nice new Yamaha, prepped and ready to ride.
My first concern with the YZ450F was getting the big beast started. A close friend and racing teammate at Monmouth Cycles had the YZ426F, and me being a shorter rider, I would always have trouble getting it started, especially when it was hot. Not to worry. The 450 fired off on the first kick and I had no compression release to deal with. Now it was time to head out on the track and see what other improvements Yamaha had made.
The first part of the ride would be the motocross section. The power from the engine to the rear wheel was very smooth from the bottom of the throttle clear through to wide open. Having raced motorcycles most of my life it was nice to get away from the light-switch power band you get from most two-strokes. One thing I noticed right away was that I didn't have to shift very often. That's because Yamaha went from a five-speed transmission to a four-speed. I wasn't sure how that would be when it came to doing a big jump for the first time. After getting comfortable on the many tabletops it was time to do the step-up and then the big double. Third gear, as it turns out, will get you over just about any big obstacle. Way over...
Next it was off to the mountains and tight trails. I have to say this bike was doing everything well. The tight trails were a little bit tough; the wide motocross handlebars make maneuvering though the trees a little tricky. That's when I made a mistake and stalled the beast in the tight, sugar-sand switchback section. Now what's going to happen? Will the beast start hot? Or is it going to be a seven-mile push back to the truck? I propped myself against a tree so I could have my left leg on the peg and my right leg ready for a full hard stroke on the kick starter. I pulled the hot lever on the left handlebar, and to my surprise it started right up. I had a smile from ear to ear Yamaha had tamed the beast.
The entire event was like a dream come true for me. Getting out west for my first time, being involved in the 24 Hours at Glen Helen, meeting all the nice people that make this event possible. Thank you Yamaha for letting an old motocross racer from New Jersey come out and test a bike, sniff. What's my next assignment?
We spotted the #1 special section arrow and after a few hours of being severely spanked by my faster cousin I finally found his Achilles heel. It was massive down hills and we were staring straight down the famed Glen Helen MX mountain loop. If you think it looks big on TV, you have to see it in person to appreciate how brave and talented the Pros actually are attacking that hill in anger, simply amazing. I grabbed a handful of gas and hurled down, it was about half way with speed gaining that I questioned why I approached such a monster down hill with a healthy dose of throttle. Surviving to the bottom I thought the hardest part of loop #1 was over until I rounded the corner and spied the near vertical boulder field that offered my only return to the main route. The trail was strewn with helmet-less, beat-faced riders taking a break to analyze the quagmire. This was not a good sign; I kept my momentum and made it to the top to report my findings to thy elder cousin. At this point I was glad I had my hydration system strapped on and it worked quite well keeping me from the dreaded cottonmouth. The Dirt Rider boys had done a great job; I was having an absolute blast.
A catered lunch break and brief walk around revealed the magnitude of the talent at the event. I spied Malcolm Smith, sandwich in hand, at a nearby table. Jeremy McGrath whizzed by on a KTM with a very cool American flag waving proudly from the back of his helmet. Mike Metzger had his bikes on display fresh from the Winter X-games, no doubt, with studded tires and all. Helmet great Troy Lee was suited up and hanging with McGrath, all while the Motoworld on-air talent roamed the pits conducting interviews and gathering it all for posterity.
Lunch partially digested, it was back out to the main loop. Craig set the pace in his point and roost style. The first part of the loop was a wide sandy affair slowly winding up, then back down into a tight valley that wound though brush, slowly getting tighter, including a brief wooded section and a two-foot long section of actual mud and moisture, then back into the open. Every so often I would come across some hardy soul stationed in the thicket shooting photos. I met a few groups of riders along the way telling of how far they had come and their different motorcycling affiliations-- amazing how friendly everyone was all day long. We had a brief chat with a fast guy wearing a video unit on his back and a camera on his head, but after a brief stint he realized we weren't Steve Hatch or his brothers and went on his way.
After trying my very best to stay on the rear tire of my YZ-mounted cousin we approached one last monster uphill with large groups of bikes gathered at the bottom that resembled circled wagons of the old west. Was this a sign, should we scope out the situation first? Nope, we hit it hard and fast and had a blast bouncing and roosting our way to the top and eventually winding back down to the pits.
I took a break after multiple laps of the mountain to watch and photograph Craig lap the MX track and relished the time we had to finally ride together and at such a prestigious event no less (said Jim in his best James Bond accent). As night began to fall the teams scrambled to hook up their lighting systems and a more serious tone swept the pits. The people that came to play all day, including us, packed up to leave the star-studded teams to ride into the night and get on with the business of testing the bikes throughout the night, 24 hours indeed.
Our long day ended with a visit to the nearby shop of Amsoil Honda, busy preparing Travis Preston's championship 125 machine in anticipation of the San Diego Supercross. Thanks To Craig's endless connections, we found ourselves taking in the Supercross that Saturday sitting in the riders section, again surrounded by all the biggest names in our sport. This was a fitting end to a stellar week no doubt. For Craig it was back to the Jersey snow and for me back to staring at a computer screen and planning my next big move. I would like to thank Yamaha for providing the mighty 450F, Motorcycle Online for persuading Yamaha it was a reasonable thing to do, and Ken Faught from Dirt Rider for a truly memorable week in February.