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.
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.
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.
In a divine bit of inspiration, Randy suggested checking out the motocross pits. Although I argued there was little hope of finding anything but racers’ own bikes here, Randy’s instincts were better, and soon after arriving we found a neat little 125cc Rickman Six Day Enduro. With a handmade English mild-steel frame, fiberglass bodywork, a steel gas tank, and an air-cooled, radial-head Zündapp 125cc engine, it was a little jewel. It was nearly all there, and with a Mikuni carburetor conversion seemed like a 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 it was the closest thing to right we had seen. Randy bought it for an even $2,000. We had a bike.
The Rickman meant racing in AHRMA’s Classic 125 Vintage Motocross class, and looking at the rule book revealed there were only two common bikes that shared the same class and which we were likely to find — a Yamaha AT1 Enduro and a Suzuki TS125 Duster. “Oh no,” I thought, thinking of a rattly Duster we had seen earlier. After returning with Randy’s Rickman, we began another lap around the swap meet, and I felt despondent that I’d end up with that rattle-can Suzuki.
Shuffling along the second-to-last row, dispirited in the heat and humidity, I looked up and could scarcely believe my eyes. To my right, just unloaded from a trailer, was a red 125cc Rickman Zündapp Motocross. Incredulous, I blinked, blinked again, and then floated toward it as if lassoed by some strange gravitational force. A cardboard sign indicated it was for sale, along with a spare bike, for $2,300. I found the seller, Scott Lochbihler, and asked him about it. “It used to run — three years ago,” Scott said.
Randy hustled to the Hagerty Motorcycle Insurance tent (Hagerty generously hosted our adventure) and returned with some premix, which we dribbled into the carburetor 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 intruded — the red Rickman was attracting a crowd, and fast. 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?” Happily, the wolves never intruded, and I was able to strike a bargain of $1,900 for the Rickman and parts bike.
As soon as we’d propped the Rickmans on their work stands in the Hagerty tent, reality set in: 1) Both needed significant attention, including new tires and tubes, new chains, oil changes, fuel-system servicing, brake adjustments, safety checks and plenty more; and 2) 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 three days to get the bikes race-ready, we’d have only two. We dug in.
Early Friday morning we tore the front wheels off, cleaned the brakes and levered off the hardened old tires, replacing them with new 80/100-21 front 100/100-18 rear Dunlop Geomax MX3S knobbies we’d shipped ahead of time. If finding two nearly identical Rickmans was a miracle, correctly guessing the exact tires we’d need ahead of time was another. We were scoring with Lady Luck. Another windfall was that Regina Chain had sent 428-series Professional Cross Supermoto chains and a chain breaker, and after we cut about four links off they fit perfectly. Progress!
As afternoon faded into night, pin-striper Chastin Brand hand-lettered a cool “Hagerty Special” retro logo and script onto each tank — in gold for Randy’s enduro and sky blue for my motocrosser. They looked awesome. Behind our work area, a poor guy in his pup tent had enough of us by 10:33 p.m., so we shut down our loaner generator and lights, stumbled to the truck, and hit our motel for a quick six hours of sleep.
Race day. Saturday dawned gray and ominous, as the hurricane began spiraling into Birmingham. It was now official: Saturday’s programs would run, but the Barber Motorsports Park would close down afterwards. With Sunday’s sprint MX races out, we were committed to Saturday’s hour-long cross-country instead. The course was deep in the woods, and no one seemed to know where it went, exactly. 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. And I had never raced in the woods.
Arriving at the track at 7:15 a.m., we set to work prepping the bikes: a thorough nut-and-bolt check, adjusting and lubing the cables, and trying to hydrate in the warm and humid conditions. With temps in the high 80s with humidity to match, it was fixing to be a tough day down in Alabama.
Preparations came down to the wire, and Randy and I made the riders’ meeting just after race director David Lamberth started speaking. Each lap was 3 miles, give or take a bit, he said. 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. So thick were the woods here that it was quite impossible to ride straight. Add in the insufferable weather, 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 CamelBaks, and while we had hydrated as much as possible, neither of us had one. We had come to Alabama for a pair of five-lap motos, after all. Further, we had no idea how far the Rickmans would run on a tankful of gas. I was cautiously optimistic they’d go the distance, although in matters of ignition, spark plugs and mechanicals, I couldn’t guess. We were about to find out.
The event used a dead-engine start with a half-dozen riders per row, beginning with Experts and 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 said 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 Zündapp started first kick, but my bike, possibly owing to its older Bing carburetor, required at least four stabs, and I was nearly the last from our row into the woods. I could see Randy getting away and didn’t think I could keep up, but one at a time riders made errors, and I caught Randy on a rare uphill that was wide enough for two bikes. Luckily, I was able to zap by, then put my head down and fly.
The course was relentless, most of it narrow single-track. The woods were so thick we couldn’t sight too far ahead, and it was easy to miss a turn, clip a tree, or stall on a root or rock while scrambling uphill. I overshot several turns, even stalling the bike once afterwards, but the few positions that cost I eventually made back.
After the flurry of the initial lap, my Rickman settled into third position and Randy’s settled into a steady fifth. The laps unwound, and we were beginning to memorize the course, to learn our bikes, and to manage our physical condition. There were a few problems, though — neither bike was jetted well; mine stumbling rich on the bottom end, and Randy’s had virtually no power anywhere except shrieking on full throttle. Plus, his fork started to seize almost immediately, and by race’s end travel had been reduced to just an inch or two. He was getting beat up.
Two-thirds of the way around the course, and 3-1/2 laps into the five-lap race, in an uphill woods section, my engine temporarily starved and I knew it was running out of gas. I initially hoped it was just a plug fouling, but it soon happened again on a dusty straightaway, and this time the engine stopped for good. The Rickman’s motocross tank was just too small. Too bad — we had been on track for a podium.
As soon as the bike stopped, I felt in trouble physically without the cooling airflow. Clearly dehydrated, my heart rate and temperature climbed, I felt dizzy and my cognitive function began to erode. I tried to flag down 2-stroke riders. One stopped, however, he said he didn’t have enough fuel and sped off. Then 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. The engine started.
Relieved, I slowly continued on, but in 1/4 mile the engine stopped again — this time down in a deep glen — and would not restart. I leaned the Rickman against a tree and, after waiting over an hour for the promised sweep vehicle to come, began hiking out. Doing so, I noticed plenty more things in the woods. The rich duff, spider webs, tangled roots, rotting 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. Every hill was an effort; 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.
To cool down I removed my top clothes and body armor, all but my undershirt. A few storm sprinkles arrived, and that helped. I was a long way from the finish, but knew I had to keep going, up and down hill, twisting and ducking under branches and scrambling off course when bikes approached after the Post Vintage race — the last event of the day — started. Finally, I encountered race director Lamberth on his ATV, riding the course backwards in search of missing riders. He took me to the motocross pits, where Randy and his friend, Deborah, who had been frantically searching for their lost companion, were waiting. Randy, who had heroically finished — his own bike’s larger enduro tank virtually empty — begged some water from campers and we sucked it down eagerly.
Back at the Hagerty tent, I mixed up more premix and headed back to find Lamberth, who had promised to take me to the bike. It was not easy to find, but my description of course landmarks, together with David’s intimate knowledge of the woods, ultimately brought success. His Honda Recon’s headlight peered through the gathering dusk as I filled the Rickman’s tank, and amazingly, it started first kick. Thanks to David’s rescue I quickly returned to the tent area and helped pack up, then joined Randy in delivering the bikes to a transporter waiting to take them to Hagerty’s Traverse City, Michigan, headquarters.
Like ending a “difficult” date, after handing my bike to the truck driver I quickly spun 180 degrees, started walking, and didn’t look back. Sweaty, dirty, sore, tired, hungry and still thirsty, I needed more water, dry clothes, fish tacos and a cold cerveza way more than I needed to say goodbye 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. And not on those of some storm’s named Nate.
In the meantime, this is Hurricane Rickman, out. MC
Originally published at Hagerty