The following article is reprinted from the June 2000 issue of Cycle World. For complete photos and cutlines, purchase a copy at your local magazine store today.
Ride Like a Mann
Thirty years after, a Honda CR750 Four goes back to Daytona
By Don Canet
At Daytona, you can often sense the presence of another bike in your slipstream. Particularly if you're out front, punching a hole in the wind down the home stretch off NASCAR Turn 4.
It was here, on the flats headed toward the tri-oval finish stripe, that my Honda CR750's wailing engine began to labor. Was I giving tow?
Unlike Earnhardt's Chevy, racebikes don't have rearview mirrors, and in a 150-mph windblast, sneaking a glance over one's shoulder isn't wise. Moments later, my suspicions were confirmed as Adam Popp, reigning AHRMA Formula 750 class champion, brushed by into the lead. It was a textbook slingshot pass, exploiting the Daytona draft-albeit a lap too soon, heh, heh, heh...
My last-lap strategy may as well have been spelled out in bold type on the tailsection of Popp's Honda.
Thirty years earlier, Dick Mann rode a works Honda CR750 down this very stretch of asphalt to victory in the Daytona 200, the first time a Japanese marque had won the Great American Race. I was aboard a re-creation of Mann's winning machine with high hopes of replicating his result.
In some respects, the CR750 is a great-granddad of the RC51 ridden to a close second place in this year's 200 by young Nicky Hayden. As with the current kitted Superbike, back in 1970 Honda developed a plethora of exotic engine and chassis parts that converted a production CB750 road bike into a fire-breathing CR racer. Just five of the kits were distributed to the private sector, however, making true-to-form CR750 racebikes a rare and wonderful ride to come by these days.
My rare and wonderful opportunity had its origins in Assen, Holland, site of my last vintage-racing foray ("Match Race Revival," December, 1999). Was it the heady Dutch beer? Jet lag? The endless succession of busty, steintoting St. Pauli Girls? Or was it the prospect of hearing the Honda's quartet of open megaphones howling on the high banks'? Whatever the case, it was amid this golden, misty haze that CR750 guru Mark McGrew-owner and crew chief of Minnesota-based M3 Racing-proposed running a Dick Mann replica at Daytona to commemorate Honda's historic win there. This would be a sweet offer in any racer's book. It was especially sweet having just raced a Gold Star 500 Single against much faster multi-cylinder classics. The nimble Beezer was a fine ride, but there's no denying that throwing a leg over a more modern, much more powerful 750 Four-with disc brakes no less-had great appeal. The fact that M3 bikes have been dominant in the hands of Popp, the team's lead rider, was icing on the cake.
While the modern-day 200 miler is no place to race classic bikes, AHRMA's Formula 750 class is. The class rules permit pre-1973, fully GP-kitted four stroke machines of 600-750cc, and up to four cylinders.
This year's F-750 Daytona field included several bikes representative of those Mann had run against three decades ago. Works BSA and Triumph Triples, various Nortons, a handful of Honda Fours and a couple of examples of the ubiquitous Harley-Davidson XR750. Even a pair of legends from that era were present: Gary Nixon, sporting new leathers aboard the Heritage Racing Honda 750, and Yvon Duhamel, getting his first go on a Team Obsolete Harley-Davidson XR-750 after the ex-Mann BSA
Rocket Three (winner of the '71 Daytona 200) he was to ride binned a piston. Add to this the CR750 of my teammate-for-the-week Popp and a number of other historic racing notables, and we had the makings of a good race.
By contrast, 30 years ago "Bugsy" Mann was pitted against the likes of Mike Hailwood, Ron Grant, Cal Rayborn, Kel Carruthers, Nixon, Duhamel and young Gene Romero, to name but a few. The lead of Cycle magazine's 1970 Daytona coverage suggested the star-studded 200-miler "was shaping up to be the greatest motorcycle race ever. Super Colossal. The Big Show." In a bizarre turn of events, though, it seemed like the Bermuda Triangle's sphere of influence encroached upon the mainland and almost scuffled the show, as a myriad of mechanical maladies eliminated most of the front-runners, including all of Mann's Honda teammates. All the while Dick played it cool, running steady in the top three, saving his machine with the knowledge that it would be running on borrowed time if it were to finish at all. But finish he did, top of the box in victory circle.
AHRMA kicks off Bike Week each year with a Friday roadrace at the airport circuit in nearby Deland. The course, laid out on inactive airstrips and taxiways, is best described as a series of drag races from one corner to the next. My first experience aboard the M3 Honda Four was less than endearing the rear tire became coated with engine oil each time I went out. Daytona veterans McGrew and crew came well-prepared, however, and swapped out the engine for another in preparation for Monday's run at the Speedway.
Ah, the rigors of racing. Just look around the AHRMA paddock on race day and you very seldom see a lone rider tending to his machine. A skillful crew is needed to keep these classics rolling to the line. My bike had its share of wrinkles to sort in the morning practice sessions leading up to the race. Our first practice was cut short due to a misfire caused by a weak battery. The following 12-minute session revealed the bike's final gearing needed to be several teeth taller. Upping the pace in the final round of practice introduced cornering-clearance concerns as the pipes and fairing grounded easily in every corner of the infield and chicane.
Chalk it up to the wonders of modern rubber compounds used in the period replica Dunlop KR race tires, allowing lean angles and cornering speeds only dreamed of in 1970. Final preparation for the 10-lap main would include raising the bike .5-inch at both ends.
With Popp starting on pole, I figured my sixth-row grid position might pose a serious handicap. But a solid launch off the line and good use of some gaps in the pack had me into third place as we headed out of the infield onto the banking for the first time. I was beginning to think that maybe my bike had a bit of "Bugsy" coursing through its veins.
A shuffle through the chicane and the order was Popp first with my Number 2 Honda in trail as we completed lap one. My M3 teammate continued to lead the charge over the next few laps as I became increasingly familiar with my bike's behavior at full race pace. The Honda's stability on the banking was better than I would have ever imagined, never displaying much more than a minor wiggle rounding the bowl. The biggest moments came when climbing onto the banking; the abrupt transition from the flat infield would bounce the wheels clean off the ground. Standing on the pegs with my butt an inch off the saddle helped absorb the impact.
McGrew's efforts at providing me with as close a replica as possible meant slowing for corners with the original kit calipers and rotors. This is another area where modern bikes have improved dramatically. Ten laps in and my right forearm was pumped. Two hundred miles of this? Dick really was The Man!
Thanks to its narrow rims and tires, steering effort wasn't any heavier than on a modern Supersport bike, but I didn't tempt fate trying to snap it into corners, either. Smooth inputs were the order of the day. Bend it in easy and no deep trail-braking. Keeping the revs above 7000 rpm ensured strong drives out of corners, with another 3000 rpm of megaphonic song available before redline.
The mid stages of the race were extra dicy as Dave Rosno made it a trio of Honda Fours swapping positions at the front. There was a lead change with every lap, sometimes several. Sparks were flying, tires were sliding, brakes were squealing, bikes were smoking. They tell me the crowd cheered as we lapped the course under Daytona's previous vintage-bike record.
It seemed history might repeat itself as I maintained a lead during the final laps, just as Dick had done. Then, I felt the dreaded tow and Popp squeaked past just as the white flag was thrown. One more lap. If it's going down to the wire, I'd rather be sitting in second, the cat-bird's seat. When bikes are evenly matched at Daytona, it's best to be the hunter rather than the hunted in that final sprint down the home stretch.
Popp, running big Lockheed brakes, set a feverish pace through the infield. I scrambled to remain in his wake as we mounted the West Banking. Then the gremlins that had waited three decades extracted their toll upon bike Number 2. The upshift into top gear resulted in a false neutral-a broken spring in the shift actuator rendered the lever limp. Popp was gone by the time I finally ratcheted into gear, then I had to roll through the chicane stuck in fifth. A good bit of clutch work got the Honda on the boil again and to the finish in the runner-up-spot.
All in all, not a bad trip down memory lane. But I know who was the better Mann.