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AHRMA Vintage Racing at Willow Springs: Modern Speed on Ancient Steeds

Willow Springs International Raceway is known as “the fastest road in the west” but when the AHRMA racing series arrives for the Corsa Moto Classica, speed is only one thing on the menu. Featuring motorcycles that could easily be on display in a museum, bikes spanning the centuries are instead displayed on the race-track, fighting for wins in wheel-to-wheel action.

From the hand-shift Harley’s and Indians that fought each other before World War 2, all the way up to modern V-twins and retro-styled bikes like the Triumph Thruxton, there is as much to see on pit lane as there is on track. The event features practice sessions on Friday, then moves to a doubleheader format Saturday and Sunday. This includes a concourse bike show and vendor area plus a motorcycle swap meet on Saturday.

What better person to pilot a retired race bike than a retired racer? Multi-time national champ Josh Hayes dips a knee into the gravel of Willow Springs’ turn 4.

The racing traditionally kicks off just before lunch on Saturday with the CB160 class. Yes, the little Honda’s that used to sit rusting away in backyards around the country are now highly tuned and battling each other like a swarm of bees. The race is unique because they do a LeMans-style start, with riders having to run across the track to their waiting machines, then push start them.

Battling for the most unique race of the weekend is the second act, featuring modern and vintage sidecars. Three-wheels, two people, and one mission, this is one of the only classes that send modern and vintage machines out in a single wave, which really shows you the speed difference that 60 years of engineering give you.

Modern racing sidecars bear little resemblance to the motorcycles they once were, but they require the same two-person team as the vintage outfits they spawned from.

Other racing classes run the gambit, with a fair smattering of Nortons and Triumphs and a growing number of 1980’s era Japanese race bikes. The sound of 2-strokes is beginning to dwindle with fewer and fewer of the 250 GP bikes attending, but it’s still great to see a few from the 1970’s thrashing through the gears with their tell-tale buzzing scream.

Some retro-styled modern bikes are welcome at AHRMA events, like this Triumph Thruxton.

The concourse bike show is also a place to find vintage machines that are either too rare or too original to risk out on the track. The show happens on Saturday only, in the same area as the vendor booths, near the start-finish line. The swap meet is behind this and mostly features parts from bygone companies like Parilla or Hodaka, with everything from frames to fuel tanks to rolling heaps longing for restoration. Walk too slow through this area and you are likely going to start having ideas of building your own race bike.

The swap meet is a fun place to start building your vintage racer. A frame here, a fuel tank there, and the next thing you know you’re out on the track.
The concourse show features bikes from multiple eras and ranges from perfectly stock examples to wild customs, and many customs build with only period correct parts.

Trackside camping is another treat because it’s very ad hoc. Instead of renting out campsites, race fans just string a hammock between the few trees on site, pitch a tent, or maybe show up with a sidecar that has a lean-to built into it. Plenty of other people just make friends with the racers and set a tent up between race trailers to get some shielding against the persistent desert wind.

Camping is ad hoc at Willow Springs. A great way to meet people is to walk around on Saturday night and chat up racers who are gathered around a campfire. The stories and the whiskey flow freely.

Another thing that only happens if time allows is the sidecar “taxi rides.” This year they used the lunch break on Sunday to let fans test their skill as a sidecar co-pilot. It already looks crazy enough from the stands, but actually climbing around on a racing sidecar gives a new understanding of the physical strength and timing needed to help the driver hustle around the track. Things are done well below race-pace, but for the uninitiated things are still happening plenty fast. Russ Brown’s own Randi Raige stepped away from the vendor booth and onto the track for the first time, saying, “I’ve always greatly respected this style of racing but I have so much more respect for it now! It’s no joke and takes everything you are physically capable of… it’s serious work!”

Randi Raige survived some high-speed laps as co-pilot of a modern sidecar outfit, crossing another adventure off her bucket list. Photo: Moto Wolf.

This was my first year attending the event and not actually racing, and I have to say I saw so much more by not having to spend my time spinning wrenches and swapping tires. One thing I was disappointed about was this year’s event not including other disciplines of racing. Because Willow Springs has many different courses at their facility, years past would see the AHRMA vintage flat track series over on the dirt oval and sometimes the trials riders would be out in the hills, competing around the offroad course. Finally being a non-racer would have given me the time to see all the action, so I hope AHRMA is able to coordinate their different series’ in the future.

You might expect this tank-shift, pre-WW2 Indian to be in the concourse bike show, but it was busy winning its class out on the track.

In fact, it’s a good time to mention that AHRMA is a national series comprised of many forms of racing. If you want to see the top vintage riders in motocross, trials, cross country, road race, and flat track, take a look at their schedule to find when they are in your area. Events range in size from small gatherings of racers to the massive Barber Vintage Festival in Alabama, which sees over 80,000 people walk through the gate during the 4-day festival. For those who are sorry they missed the Corsa Moto Classica, AHRMA road racing will return to the Southern California area August 16-18 at Buttonwillow Raceway, just north of Bakersfield.

A great way to go racing is finding the not-quite-classic bikes of the 1990s and early 2000s, such as this Ducati 748 piloted by Rick Carmody.

Vintage racing is a great way to get on the track in a low-buck fashion. Riding a bike with obvious limits builds confidence, and the ability to upgrade it as your speed increases is far easier than paying for ultra-trick race parts for a brand new motorcycle. From the small Honda CB160 to the not-quite-a-classic bikes like the Ducati 748, the pit lane is full of people out having fun on old machines. Still, even without an interest in racing, the AHRMA paddock is like a living museum of motorcycles that are actually being ridden in anger instead of being rubbed with a diaper and hidden away. The noise, the smells, the people, and the excitement are right there in a way no museum can recreate.

Vintage sidecar racer. Going fast with style.

Vintage sidecar camper. Taking it easy with style.
The concourse motorcycle show on Saturday featured about 25 different machines.
Randi Raige stood watch over the Russ Brown booth but took time off to passenger a modern sidecar racer on Sunday. That’s what I call getting into your work.

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