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7th April 2005

Classic Racing: When Old Gits Go Racing Again

Ray Johnston has decided which classic class he's going to race in, and which bike he's going to use. Now he just has to build the thing...

I'd found a suitable candidate to take racing in the Classic Superstock series, with its 1989 cut-off date. I had fond memories of the old GSX-R1100 we'd raced - called Tyson - so started work on a 1988 1100J with a view to getting it ready for the track in seven weeks or so.

I started stripping off the bodywork, to find that most of it was held on with self-tapping screws, insulting tape or nothing at all. Usually bombproof, the motor sounded OK but had done over 40,000 miles and I wasn't too confident of how well it had been maintained over the last 15 years. I dragged the engine up to Brian's workshop so that I could 'strip it under his expert supervision'. What happened of course was that he shoved me aside and leapt straight in up to his elbows, every now and then muttering 'it's all coming back to me now'.

Within an hour the motor was in a hundred pieces scattered over the bench. Surprisingly it all looked pretty good in there, so our shopping list for Derek Loan over at Spares Direct was just for stuff like a new camchain, rings and a gasket set. We decided to get the head skimmed to bump up the compression ratio, and also slot the camshaft sprockets to enable us to play with the valve timing. Graham contacted John Carpenter at Mistral Engineering to do the work. They had worked closely together in the old days, so it was nice to complete the circle again.

John also put us on to a fully programmable MBE ignition system that is a lovely piece of kit. It sets the advance depending on revs and throttle position and could be remapped in situ by laptop. This meant that we could write and store umpteen different maps and download one in the paddock to suit the circuit or weather. Graham's a bit of a boffin on the 'puter, so this little toy would keep him quiet for a while.

Graham also remembered that in '87 when they first bolted on a set of 17-inch wheels to Tyson, the once stable chassis became nervy and vicious. Changing just the wheels reduces the trail on the front end which is what causes the problem. On the advice of handling wizard Gareth Evans at Reactive Suspension, we would be junking the stock 1100 forks (and the anti-dive nonsense) in favour of some modified Bandit 1200 legs which are simple and strong. We could use Bandit yokes too which would have the correct offset for the smaller wheels, but Graham suggested getting some adjustable offset ones made. These would allow us to change the trail to suit the track or to complement changes to steering head angle and ride height.

Adjustable Yokes: Carefully engineered to allow the handling to be completely ruined...

We decided to use Bandit calipers and wheels too - although not especially light they would fit easily with just a small mod to the rear spacers, and would be readily available at breakers. I ended up getting three complete sets with discs for little more than one new set of bare dymags. Gareth supplied a Penske shock for the blunt end, and also some reassurance that my middle age spread would actually help the handling! He works closely with the Suzuki BSB team and recalled that when the late David Jefferies had stood in for the injured Karl Harris, it was much easier to set up the bike for the portly DJ than sparrows like Harris and John Reynolds - I'd been calling my increasing waistline a 'steering damper' for many years - here was scientific proof at last!

Brian had the motor built in no time, apart from delays caused by senior moments when we would go the toolcab, and then forget what we went there for! Putting things down and temporarily losing them was also a nuisance; we never did find the bag with the new piston circlips in - I expect they'll turn up in Brian's airing cupboard or somewhere! We also entered the strange twilight world of suppliers where time sands still - the promised ten days for bodywork and yokes grew into four or five weeks, and we kicked our heels as the days rolled by and nothing could be done.

We used this time to complete the shopping. A trip to Mick Berry at Essential Rubber yielded armfuls of slicks, wets and inters and a very modest bill (I think he felt sorry for me and my mid-life crisis!). Our old chum Dave Wellington at Rock Oil London pitched up with fifteen litres of their lovely synthetic race oil (and some ordinaire for running-in) along with some super sticky Ferodo race pads, and I got into big trouble by telling my wife the true price of the new 40mm Mikuni flatslide carbs I was admiring in the lounge - why didn't I just say 'yes that's it' when she got to 120?

40mm Mikuni Flatslides: Carefully engineered to allow the carburretion to be completely ruined...

With a week to go we got the yokes back, and a frantic build got under way. It's only at this stage that you find out that various bits have to be modified to fit, or to avoid hitting some of the other bits - Brian had the angle grinder out a few times! The bodywork arrived on the Tuesday before the race weekend; lo and behold, not only did it not fit the chassis, the various panels were so poorly moulded they wouldn't even fit each other properly. We also had to glass-in an oil catch tank to the belly pan, as the fairing was a road pattern one, and not the race version we had been promised - thanks guys!

Glucosamine sulphate: Carefully engineered to allow old gits to cripple themselves without realising it?Neighbour and spraygun pilot Mark Howells sprayed it all in Tyson (London Taxi) black, and spent hours buffing it to a lovely gleam despite me telling him that if it was too good I would only crash first time out and destroy it.

Meanwhile, we'd been busy finishing the rest of the bike, often having to stop while Brian fabricated bits from scratch to solve one problem or another.

Somehow it all got done and on Friday evening we rolled Son of Tyson out into the quiet cul-de-sac alongside Brian's house. With no starter or alternator it was going to be a push start job. The first couple of attempts resulted in a locked rear wheel - caused by the combination of high compression ratio, cold oil on clutch plates and slick tyre on wet road.

Brian's neighbour Pete was dragged away from his supper to help push, and the extra muscle did the trick.

The motor burst into life - the raucous snarl from the race exhaust reverberating off the houses and driving terrified cats and children indoors, while those big gasping Mikunis threatened to inhale any small creature that came within range.

A quick tweak on a couple of loose bolts, and we threw the bike and all the other kit into a borrowed van and I set off home. On the way I collected the bodywork from Mark, who had also got into trouble with his missus for using the kitchen as a drying room - the freshly painted fibreglass suspended above the Rayburn for a couple of days!

I tried to help by explaining to Maggie that ovens are routinely used to put bike bits inside - she didn't seem too impressed by this and I beat a hasty retreat to leave Mark to his fate! Our final eve-of-race preparations consisted of a gargantuan feast at the Taste of China washed down by a few Tsing Tao beers - all in the cause of team building...

Coming soon: Ray and his mid-life crisis take to the track...

Photos by Phil Gregory

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