This week’s selection from Greg Primm’s Classic Steel collection is one of my personal favorites, the 1986 Honda RC250 Factory racer.
The ’86 RC250 was the first of Honda’s Factory production race bikes. With the stock CR250R being such a strong starting point, Honda had a huge advantage over its racing competitors in ’86.
1986 was a significant year in American motocross. This was the first year for the AMA’s new production rule. Prior to ’86 there was virtually no limit to what the factories could do to their race bikes. As long as it was above the weight limit and below the displacement limit, pretty much anything went. In the seventies, virtually all the Japanese factories had gotten in on this incredible spending spree, building one of a kind race bikes for their riders. In the early eighties, that started to change as some of the manufacturers decided to start pulling back on the astronomical race team budgets. In 1984 Yamaha did away with their “works” bikes entirely and declared that they were going to race stock bikes for the ’84 season. This was at a time when Honda was spending a reported $250,000 a piece on some of its HRC race bikes. This incredible discrepancy between the haves and have not’s led to the proposal of the production rule for AMA motocross.
1986 was the first year for Honda’s complex but very effective Honda Power Port system. The HPP system gave the stock CR250R motor an incredibly wide, smooth powerband. The 1985 works Honda’s had used an electronically controlled prototype version of the HPP but the ’86 production-based version actually ended up producing a more manageable spread of power. The Factory motor looked very stock from the outside, but internally it was 100% HRC. With different porting, reshaped exhaust valves, a works piston and HRC crank the RC250 shared little with the stock CR in terms of performance.
The AMA production rule meant that all the teams would have to race production-basedmachines in the Supercross series and AMA Nationals for the ’86 season. All the Factory team race bikes would have to start out as off the showroom stock machines. Some minor modifications would be allowed to things like porting and suspension, but the basic frame and engine cases would have to remain like the stock machine. Since this would put an end to the exotic HRC Honda works bikes, it was assumed by many that this would even the playing field for the other teams. As it turned out, Honda actually became even more dominant on the production bikes.
Factory riders could choose from a never ending list of works parts to customize the bike to their liking. The small aluminum boot guard was fabricated because Johnson tended to get his boot stuck in that area. Foot pegs, control levers, brake pedals, seats and sub frames could all be modified to improve the comfort of the rider. RJ preferred this HRC pipe for outdoor races as it provided a very hard hitting high revving style of power. For Supercross, he used a custom Pro Circuit pipe for more bottom end power.
Going into the ’86 season Honda made the wise decision to sign 21 year-old Rick Johnson to the Factory team. Johnson had been with Team Yamaha since turning pro at 16, enjoying several productive seasons and even capturing the 1984 250 National Motocross title for the yellow brand. Johnson had always been fast, but somewhat inconsistent in the early part of his career. The move to Honda would signal the next step for the kid from El Cajon, as he would transform himself from one of the fast guys to THE FAST GUY. Riding his production-basedCR250 Johnson would capture the ‘86 Supercross and 250 National titles. The only title that would elude his grasp was the 500 National which he would lose to his Honda teammate David Bailey. Team Honda would completely dominate the ’86 season, sweeping the top three spots in the Supercross series and capturing all three National Motocross Titles.
RJ switched back and forth in ’86 between these 43mm conventional Showa forks and the upside-down versions. Johnson liked the stiffness of the USD forks for supercross but thought the damping was not as good as the conventional units. The forks themselves were full works units with special internals and magnesium sliders to cut weight. The front brake was a works Nissan unit using a sand cast magnesium caliper mated to special works rotors. The rotors alone were said to cost $1000 apiece.
The switch to production-basedbikes came at just the right time for Big Red. The early eighties had seen Honda turn out a very inconsistent run of production machines. While their Factory race bikes were without equal, their production machines often left a lot to be desired. One year they would be the class of the field, while the next they would bring up the rear. 1986 turned out to be the watershed year for Honda as they came out with a lineup of machines that completely dominated the competition. The production CR’s started out head and shoulders better than the competition and with a little HRC massaging, was practically unbeatable.
This rear disc was the biggest visual difference between the RC250 and a stock CR250R. The works Nissan caliper and carrier were sand cast magnesium units. Because the production rule prohibited the use of works swingarms, Honda had to modify a stock one to accept the rear disc brake. Wheels were lightweight magnesium front and rear.
The ’86 RC250 used the production Honda frame mated to works suspension front and rear. At some races, Johnson experimented with works Showa upside-down forks while at others he went back to the conventional Showa cartridge units. For supercross, Johnson ran a slightly shorter shock to lower the rear of the bike and aid movement. The motor, while based on the stock Honda Power Port mill, featured different porting, reshaped exhaust valves and a custom piston. The crankshaft, was a HRC part and was perfectly matched and balanced to the cases. The resulting motor was incredibly smooth while also being blazing fast. Johnson could switch between pipes based on track conditions. For Supercross he usually ran a custom Pro Circuit pipe which provided excellent bottom and mid-range power. Outdoors he preferred to run the HRC pipe which provided a brutal hit and a screaming top end. The transmission gears could also be altered for durability and to fine tune the gearing for supercross or outdoors. The most noticeable visual difference from stock on the RC250 was probably the custom fabricated rear disc brake. Other than that, Johnson’s RC250 looked very close to a stock CR250R.
The bodywork on the RC250 was all production parts with the exception of the Technosel seat and a $300 HRC front number plate. In my opinion this is still one of the best-looking dirt bikes ever produced.
Each team rider started out the year with two Works machines prepped by HRC in Japan. From there they could alter things like the seat, foot pegs, bars and minor controls to customize the bike for each rider. Although all the team’s bikes started out virtually the same, they could end up very differently by the time the mechanic was done tweaking everything. It was this endless fine tuning and attention to detail that really separated the Factory bikes from the production machines. Even though, in theory, everyone startedthe season on an even playing field, Honda always went that extra step to give all of their riders an advantage over the competition.
RJ was a much better rider on the Honda than he had been on his Yamaha. Something about the new team and bike transformed RJ into a winning machine. He would dominate motocross for nearly four more years, until an unfortunate accident with Danny Storbeck would leave him with a damaged wrist and no hope of regaining his former glory.
In some ways the production rule actually ended up helping Honda. The ’85 RC250’s while incredibly trick, were acknowledged to be hard to ride beasts. The test riders had loved them in preseason testing but found the machines hard to handle on the track. The switch to the production machine yielded a much easier to ride machine and proved unbeatable on the track. RJ would go on to capture a total of six AMA SX and MX titles on his production Honda’s. It would probably have been even more if not for him sustaining a broken wrist while holding a commanding lead in the ’89 Supercross series. Even though the injury would eventually end Johnson’s career, a continuous string of riders would wait in the wings to take his place at the front of the pack. After the advent of the production rule, Honda captured nine out of the next ten Supercross titles. Ironically, the rule that was supposed to derail the mighty Honda team seemed to propel them to even greater success.
This is a picture from one of the greatest races of all time, Anaheim 1986. RJ and David Bailey put on a battle for the ages, swaping the lead back and forth numerous times on their RC250’s. You can see RJ is running the USD Showa forks while Bailey chose to stay with the 43mm conventionals on his Honda. You can also see that RJ has chosen to run a Pro Circuit pipe on his RC250. At the time, this was a huge deal for Mitch’s company and it really helped establish Pro Circuit as a major motocross brand.
The Honda RC250 you see here was actually David Bailey’s works bike. Of the two RC250’s that RJ used during the ’86 season; only one remains. The first one was crushed by Honda in Japan and the second one is currently owned by well-known collector Terry Goode. Since Bailey’s bike was virtually identical to Johnson’s, Honda merely switched out the number plates when the bike was presented to him as a retirement present.
This works Honda was given to Rick Johnson as a retirement gift from Honda. Each team rider received two Factory bikes at the start of the year for use during the season. One of RJ’s bikes was crushed and the other was sent to Europe for testing before ending up in the hands of collector Terry Goode. Since both of Johnson’s bikes were already accounted for, Honda actually took one of David Bailey’s bikes and swapped out the plates to make it a RJ replica. Since all the ’86 RC’s were so similar there is virtually no way to tell the bikes apart.
1986 signaled the end of an era in American motocross. The age of the ultra-exotic Factory machine was over, replaced by stock looking bikes that hid their secrets below plain looking wrappers. As the bike that took so many legends to motocross glory, the ’86 RC250 will always be remembered as the greatest of these first generation production racers.