The Longest Hour: Racing Rickman Dirt Bikes at Barber

John L. Stein and Randy Pobst buy a pair of Rickman dirt bikes at the Barber swap meet, fix them, then race them the same weekend.

| January/February 2018

The challenge sounded easy enough: Find two race-eligible dirt bikes at the Barber swap meet, fix them, and go racing. What could go wrong?

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 10-time pro car-racing champion Randy Pobst and I experienced at Barber Motorsports Park last October, during the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) vintage races. 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: Race, finish, and if possible, earn a podium.

Mission impassioned

Randy and I hit the Barber swap meet first thing Thursday. The area is simply huge, with rows of vendors, massive parts caches, and hundreds of bikes from ragtag to restored. What we needed for the AHRMA vintage motocross class was a pair of pre-1975 models, the latest allowable in the series. We didn’t care what they were, but we did want to enter the same class, to line up at the gate together, to look each other in the eyes and growl, “Game on, brother.”

Our first lap of the swap meet revealed numerous possibilities but no clear winners. Here was a first-year 1974 Kawasaki KX450 — a monster with a reputation for squirrelly handling. Alas, it had no compression whatsoever. Two Honda CL175 scramblers were mighty appealing, but they’d be badly outgunned by real 250 MX weaponry. A pair of BSA and Triumph 250cc singles looked good, 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 long shots. Honda Elsinores — both 125cc and 250cc — presented themselves, but poor overall condition, sloppy swingarm bushings and missing parts nixed them, too.

Most prevalent were early- to mid-1970s Japanese trail bikes like the Suzuki TS125 Duster, TS185 Sierra and TS250 Savage, 175cc Yamaha CT1, CT2 and CT3 models, and Kawasaki’s 125cc F6, 175cc F7 and KE250. But finding a reasonably matched pair of the same displacement proved tough. As the afternoon wore on, things seemed bleak.

bike on highway

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