By Scot Harden
SETBACK AFTER SETBACK
Motorcycle Racing Can Be A Very Humbling Experience
I realize now that the title of this series is a little misleading. It isn't just about motorcycles; it’s also about people, places, and experiences from my life. The motorcycles are just the conduit to sharing these stories, and it's only logical because motorcycles have been such a big part of my life. I hope they aren't too boring, but I'm doing this as much for myself as you.
1975 began with a lot of promise and expectation. The training program I had adopted from the Husky Training School was making me stronger and more fit. I was winning local races overall and doing well at the big events too. I started the year by winning Moapa to Vegas for the second year in a row on my MAG 250CR, and I was about to get my new support bike from Husqvarna the 1975 360CR “Heikki Mikkola” Replica. Little did I know that Moapa to Vegas would be one of the few highlights from all of 1975. As I mentioned before, the 1975 360CR was quite revolutionary by Husqvarna standards. First of all, it was much lighter and better handling than the old 400CR, and since this would be my first full season campaigning the Open Class, it came along at the right time. By 1975 I felt ready to take that next step to win one of the major off-road events like the Parker 400, Mint 400, Baja 500, or 1000. Little did I know that 1975 would be a very tough year and that results would be few and far between. Things went south from the start. At my first local race on the 360CR, I was leading overall by a comfortable margin when the bike seized in the first big sandwash. Locked up solid, very disappointing, but part of racing and only made me more determined the next time out. After honing the cylinder and replacing the piston, I showed up for my next race, again taking the overall lead and again seizing the bike on the very first high-speed road. This time, however, I caught it early and pulled the clutch in and coasted for a while bump starting the bike before it came to a stop and taking off again only to seize again and put me out of the race. This would be a recurring theme throughout 1975 as I seized the 360CR in practically every race I road. In fact, I only finished 3 or 4 events in all of 1975, all as a result of seizures. Try as we might, we couldn't solve the problem. I sought advice from everyone I could find, including the service department at Husqvarna. We tried different jetting, different oil, tested for air leaks, timing, you name it, we tried everything, but I couldn't get the 360CR to stay together. In addition to the problems with the 360CR, my other support bike, a 1975 CR250, was also experiencing strange electrical gremlins that popped up at the worst possible time. At the start of 1975, I had teamed up with Andy Kirker to campaign a 250CR in Class 21 at the SCORE events. Andy was every bit as fast as I was and rock-solid as a rider. We made a perfect team, but unfortunately, we experienced ignition problems at Parker and DNFd. That was too bad as I think Andy and I could have competed for a Class 21 win that day. Later in the year, we rode the Baja 1000 together, my first 1000, and again we were doing quite well with Andy putting in a spectacular ride in the first half of the race. He ran as high as 3rd Overall at one point behind the factory Husqvarna and Al Baker Honda teams. Just before the halfway point at Punta Prieta where I was to get on the bike for the night half, we sucked some dirt into the motor in the silt beds along the Pacific coast, causing the ignition to start crapping out. Andy lost some time cleaning the air filter but still got the bike to me in a great overall position, (I think top 5 or 6) but the bike would barely run at all, and after taking off at night the bike only made it a few miles before it stopped altogether. After changing plugs, it eventually restarted it, but would hardly run, and we were forced to withdraw. This was my fourth big race, third in Baja after the 1974 and 1975 Baja 500, and between all of them, all I had was four DNFs to show for it.
Speaking of the 1975 Baja 500, my DNF there was truly spectacular. I had been lobbying Husqvarna Desert/Off-Road Team Manager Rolf Tibblin to give me a shot on one of the factory Baja off-road teams, which consisted of him, Mitch, AC and a revolving group of other top riders including Howard Hutsey, Mickey Quade and Billy Grossi. My shot finally came at the 1975 Baja 500, where I was teamed with AC on the lone factory Husqvarna entry. AC’s regular partner Mitch Mayes was in the process of switching to National Motocross full time, and AC needed a partner. I had done well at the Mint 400 a few months before, and with my other results had at least showed promise. Of course, there was the question of experience and how I would handle the pressure. Husqvarna entered only one factory team at the 1975 Baja 500 because as it turned out, Husqvarna had blown the entire 1975 Desert/Off-Road budget at the 1975 Mint 400 a few months earlier(only to get beat by Jack Johnson and Mark Mason on the Valley Cycle Yamaha; more on that in a moment). In any case, I was ready, or so I thought to take that final step, and with AC as a teammate, well, you couldn't ask for better. I had the assignment of starting the race and riding the first half. The start was just outside of Ensenada on the highway to Ojos Negros. The first 15 miles up to the “Pepsi” stand was all paved. I was worried as hell about the bike seizing in this section and did everything I could to prevent it. I babied it from the start, hitting the choke and the kill switch to load the motor with fuel and keep it cool. And yet despite my best efforts, it locked up solid three or four miles off the start. I pulled in the clutch, coasted, and broke the piston free and took off again. The bike seized three more times before I hit the dirt at the Pepsi stand. I had to ride very slowly while the piston and rings freed up and got passed by several riders. I babied it into Ojos Negros, where I felt I could start opening it up all the while thinking about how pissed I was the bike had seized again. Riding pissed and focused on other things isn’t recommended, especially when you are riding off-road through whoops at 80 mph. Distracted, I hit one sideways and swapped massively, eventually coming off the back of the bike. I slid for what seemed like forever on my back and butt but was completely unhurt. I jumped up to grab the bike but saw that it was hanging in the barbed wire fence that paralleled the course. Worse yet, the front forks were snapped in two, as in disconnected from the bike. That was it; I was done. I felt so bad because not only had I let the team down, I had let AC down. It also didn't help my reputation with the folks at Husky, as it took me another two years before I would get another shot on the factory team.
The only bright spot in 1975 came at the Mint 400, where I teamed with the legendary Max Switzer. Max was my hero and a few years older than me but still fast as hell and rock steady. Better yet, he offered to build the race bike, which suited me just fine since I was having so many technical problems. Not official members of Team Husqvarna, both Max and I, were getting support from Husky, and I needed his steady hand to help me change my fortune. We rode steady and finished 3rd Overall, second open bike that day. The only bright spot from 1975. The bad news from 1975 continued with the BLM cancellation of Barstow to Vegas. Combined with the Energy Crisis of '73 and cancellation of the 74 Mint 400, clearly much larger forces were at work in our sport. In a lot of ways, 1975 was a real test. It showed me that there was a lot more work to do if I wanted to be successful at off-road racing, and the difference between guys like myself and the guys at the top like AC, Mitch, Rolf, Jack, and Mark was quite large. Oh yeah, regarding the seizure problems on the 1975 Husqvarna 360CR. The factory knew about it for most of the year, and the factory race teams were running "orange dot" pistons and cylinders that were correctly matched. It was my first big lesson in factory technical secrets.