For a brief period in the 1980s, Honda brought its corporate muscle to flat track twins.
For the many years Harley-Davidson XR750s dominated the bare earth battleground that is flat track racing there were relatively few legitimate competitors within the racing oval. Ironically though, there was a respectable span of consecutive titles denied XR750 teams. Indian won three straight in the 1950s, while
Yamaha and Triumph each managed two in a row. Yamaha was the only manufacturer who did it during the XR750 reign.
What was it that caught Honda’s eye in the late 1970s? What drew Honda to the most American of motorsports? It could have been the success its factory teams were having in many other fields of racing, and at the time flat track was enjoying a boom. The early to mid 1980s were good years for Honda in the sales room, while Harley was having challenges. Like Indian Motorcycle today, Honda invested heavily in topnotch talent to further level the playing field.
Initially, Honda built an engine from one of its existing platforms settling on the CX500 mill. It had the architecture of something Moto Guzzi might have built: an opposed twin with cylinders mounted perpendicular to the frame. While it didn’t work as a flat track motor in that configuration, few things fire up Honda more than a challenge.
The solution was to turn the engine 90 degrees and now here was a V-Twin, which had been a winning formula for the other factories. The results were better but still no championship. It was a stopgap measure until Honda could design a purpose-built engine. What better place to look for a template than the very engine that was consistently a proven winner: the XR750.
Honda built its own version but added four valves per cylinder and overhead camshafts. The resulting RS750 motor produced more horsepower and revved higher than the XR750. It debuted for the 1983 season and won only a single race, but this was just a warm up as the RS750s piloted by Bubba Shobert and Ricky Graham would win championships from 1984-87 and returned for a final encore win in 1993, long after Honda had dropped its factory effort. Those four consecutive years were the longest stretch of non-Harley wins since 1946.
As of the 2019 season, there was one team still racing a RS750 but it seemed more a labour of love, a throwback to the sport’s grassroots nature before flat track racing became the domain of big teams with big budgets. The lone RS750 rider is the son of Mark McGrew, a former American Honda staffer.
It took Honda many years to return to flat track racing and the company is now a force in the Singles category while leaving Harley, Indian, and Yamaha as the only competitors in the premier SuperTwins category for the 2020 season (should it eventually come about).
With success in the Singles class, the recent win at Dakar, multiple winning years in MotoGP, and epic domination in Trials, it’s easy to imagine Honda returning to Twins competition with a new engine, eager to take on the challenge of knocking Indian from the top of the pedestal, where the American factory now seems entrenched.
Honda likes to win. Winning is good for business and even better for morale. You have to think the idea must be tickling the back of someone’s mind.