Memory can be a funny thing. For years I had wrongly remembered that the Yamaha RD125 had a 6-speed gearbox. In fact it doesn’t. 5 speeds is all it ever had. Having a 6-speed gearbox made the original version of this story pretty funny, but it’s still interesting, I think.
While I was having success racing my Ducati 750 Sport at AFM club races in 1976, my partner Virginia was racing a Yamaha RD125, a nice little air-cooled, two-stroke parallel twin with a 5-speed gearbox. It was a good bike for the 125cc Production class, quick and reliable if you didn’t mess with the motor too much.
Near the end of the season Virginia took a tumble in Sears Point’s turn 11 and hurt her knee. Because she was going to miss the last two races of the year, one at Sears Point and one at Riverside, she offered to let me race her bike. I said, “Sure, thank you very much.” So at two events I would be racing bikes that were wildly different. A tiny two-stroke with right foot rear brake and left foot shift lever that was pressed down to shift down; and a big four-stroke with left foot rear brake and right-foot shift lever that was pressed down to shift up. I could imagine making the wrong move on the Yamaha and jamming on the rear brake instead of up-shifting, or shifting down a gear when trying to use the rear brake. I would need to keep my head clear.
On race day morning at Sears Point I was asking VA about what gears to use in which turns, and where the shift points were, and so on.
“You weigh more than me. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. Just remember to up-shift when it gets to F-sharp.”
Huh? I put my hands on my hips and looked at her, waiting for her to realize what she had just said. She looked puzzled for a few seconds then burst into laughter as it dawned on her.
Virginia, you see, has an uncommon talent called perfect pitch. She can hear a tone and recognize what note it is. “That’s the G above middle C,” or “That’s a B-flat.” So when she says to shift up when it gets to F-sharp that’s exactly what she means. The problem is that advice doesn’t help most of us. I was going to have to watch the rev counter to figure it all out.
The morning practice went fine, but I still hadn’t quite figured out which gear to use where. At least I didn’t confuse the shifter lever with the brake lever.
Because I was new to the class I was gridded somewhere near the middle, 3rd or 4th row if I remember correctly. I didn’t slip the clutch enough at the start so I got off the line slowly. The lightweight race included 125cc and 200cc Production and also 50cc and 100cc GP classes, so it was a good size field that zipped past me as I staggered off the grid. I finally got rolling, picking up speed through the hill section. I got through turn 5 pretty well and crested the hill for the Carousel at a good speed.
Have I mentioned the entry to the Carousel is blind? When I topped the crest and leaned left I came upon three 50cc GP racers side-by-side going a lot slower than I was. There was no way I was going to be able to stop without crashing and I couldn’t go around the outside without running off the track. I tucked my knees and elbows in as tight as I could and aimed for the gap between the middle and the outside rider. To my relief I got through clean and got away from those three.
I was trying to figure out what gear to use in each corner. Going into turn 11, the slowest turn on the track, I down shifted into first gear. I discovered that if the bike got into first it wouldn’t shift up to second gear until it had slowed down a lot. Pulling in the clutch lever didn’t help. The rear wheel had to be turning below a certain very slow speed. I had to get off the racing line and slow down until I could get into second gear, and then try to catch up. It happened again in turn 4. This is no way to win a race, I thought. I realized I needed to know what gear the bike was in and to avoid first gear at all costs.
I don’t know if this sticky first gear was a peculiarity of Virginia’s bike or not. I’d like other RD125 racers to tell me if their bikes did the same thing or if they could use first gear during a race. Guys?
Heading up to turn 7 I up-shifted until it wouldn’t up-shift anymore. Now I knew I was in top gear. I started actually counting my shifts up and down. From top-gear braking into turn 7 I down-shifted three times, saying out loud in my helmet, “four, three, two.” Then accelerating through the esses I up-shifted and said, “three, four … five” as I got back into top gear. My riding smoothed out. Still counting gear changes, I picked up speed and began passing some of the other 125 Production bikes. On the last lap I came up on Greg, another RD125 rider, going into the last turn. I was right behind him exiting the corner, but he got a really good drive out of the slow turn and easily beat me to the checkered flag.
Once I got a handle on the shift points I was having fun. When I got back to the pits I was told I took second in class. I was surprised.
“You mean Greg got the win? I was right behind him at the checkered flag!” I said to Virginia.
“I know,” she said. “I thought you were going to catch him.”
“He got a lot better drive out of turn 11, and beat me to the finish,” I said.
A week later we went to Riverside for the season’s final race. Again I bogged at the start, but I began counting gear changes almost from the beginning, avoiding the early lap problems I had at Sears Point and keeping away from first gear.
A SoCal rider named John with a strong 125cc dual-purpose bike kept passing me between the slow, second gear turn 6 and turn 7. I’d draft him down the back straight and pass going into turn 9 to lead across the finish line but the next lap John would pass between turns 6 and 7 again. Oh boy, a real dice! It was fun. This happened several laps in a row, until the final two laps when I was able to keep in front the entire circuit.
After the checkered flag I sat up and looked back. There was John, not very far behind. I waved and he put his hands together as if he were choking something, a racer signal for “the motor tightened up.” Later we got together in the pit area to swap stories about what a fun dice it was. John first congratulated Virginia on how quick her RD125 was. I asked him, “Were you catching me going into turn 6 or coming out of the turn?”
“Coming out of the turn, definitely,” he replied. I told him about the first-gear problem with the bike and how I would count to keep track of what gear I was in.
“By the start line I’m in fifth, then fourth for turn one, third for the esses, down one more to second gear for turn six, then counting up as I up-shift between turns 6 and 7, …” I thought it was a pretty good story. We had a good laugh about it.
Thinking about it now I’ll bet the counting gears helped me keep the differences between the Ducati shift pattern and the Yamaha shift pattern clear. I didn’t mix them up once during the two races.
I got the class win at Riverside that day, to go along with my second place at Sears Point. Maybe two-strokes are OK after all.