Honda's 2005 CRF450R - Everyman's Motorcycle

On rare occasions, a motorcycle comes along and blows away all competition, while also inspiring the imagination of a generation of motorcyclists. As its popularity soars, it comes to dominate a broad range of racing venues and everyday uses that even its designers could not have imagined. One such motorcycle was the BSA Gold Star, a legendary machine that enjoyed success over an incredible 26-year span. And the next legend in the making? None other than Honda's four-stroke motocross sensation, the CRF450R.

How does a great motorcycle become an icon? It begins with a production-based heritage that spans diverse racing formats. In 1937, the heavily massaged racing-only 500cc Empire Star, the predecessor to the BSA Gold Star, first appeared on the scene and it promptly won the coveted Brooklands Gold Star. BSA, sensing an emerging market, immediately set about developing a production model. One year later, BSA introduced a 496cc pushrod single-cylinder sports machine that came ready to road race. After World War II, the Gold Star came into its own as a road racer, often beating the Norton Manx, AJS 7R and Matchless G50 in the capable hands of racers such as Phil Read and Derek Minter. By 1955, 33 of the 37 starters in the Clubman's TT at the Isle of Man were riding Gold Stars. While road racing was the most visible success of the bike, the ubiquitous Goldie competed and won races in such diverse venues as the ISDT (International Six Days Trials), Grand Prix motocross, grass-track racing and Trials competition.

The qualities that made the Gold Star such an adaptable platform in its era are the same traits that endear Honda's CRF450R to racers and weekend riders today: a broad powerband, neutral handling, superb brakes, a comfortable riding position and exceptional durability. In fact, since its introduction at the end of 2001, Honda's flagship motocrosser has already competed in GNCC (Grand National Cross Country), 24-hour endurance races, desert racing, flat track and Supermoto.

A stunning string of motocross and Supercross victories form the basis for the CRF450R's popularity. Honda's first four-stroke motocross bike faced tough competition in its first year-in the form of Team Honda's own Ricky Carmichael, who was then mounted aboard a CR250R two-stroke machine. But RC's own teammate Nathan Ramsey gave the CRF450R its first Supercross victory that year in the Houston Astrodome on April 13, 2002, as he beat Carmichael to the checkered flag. The next year, Factory Connection Honda's Kevin Windham ended Carmichael's unprecedented streak of 26 consecutive outdoor motocross victories when he rode the CRF450R to back-to-back victories in New Berlin, New York, and Washougal, Washington, in late July. During the 2004 Supercross season, Windham piloted the big CRF to five victories and 13 podium finishes en route to second overall in the series. As this story goes to press, Carmichael, returning from knee surgery and riding the CRF450R for the first time in outdoor competition, has won every moto-16 wins-and captured the overall victory in the eight races held so far during the outdoor motocross series' 12-race season. In fact, the 450R is so popular in racing circles today it has become the bike of choice for many of Honda's support-team riders.

From its inception, the 450R was destined to succeed in off-road competition as well. In 2003, five-time GNCC champion Scott Summers emerged from his retirement and rode a CRF450R to a fourth-place finish at the GNCC event held in St. Clairsville, Ohio. Summers, who rode Honda XR600Rs during his championship seasons, found the CRF to be a willing and capable racing partner. So how did he go about transforming the hard-charging motocross machine into a potent off-road weapon?

Preferring a bike producing a plush ride and plenty of torque, Summers made subtle but important changes to better suit his style, and the tighter off-road racing format. To calm the motocrosser's frenetic power, he installed a 17-ounce flywheel weight. Because the CRF450R features relatively tall gearing befitting motocross use, Summers replaced the stock 48-tooth sprocket with a 50-tooth sprocket, and mounted a smaller, 17-inch rear wheel-all the better for woods use. A specially designed exhaust header and quiet muffler (Summers advocates responsible riding) improved torque and low-rpm power delivery. He also recalibrated the high-quality stock suspension for off-road riding, while a well-padded soft-density seat and wider handlebar completed the package.

Competing in nine of the 11 races during the 2004 season, Summers collected four finishes in the top five, including second place at round three in Washington, Georgia. In similar trim and with the addition of a lighting coil and lights, the CRF became the weapon of choice for use by two enthusiast magazines, which achieved good results in 24-hour endurance races. With additional time and tuning talent, the CRF will surely chalk up additional successes in this class of racing as well.

The versatile CRF450R also earned laudable results in the wide-open spaces found in desert racing. For Honda's Off-Road Racing Team, the CRF is once again fine-tuned to suit the riding style of two riders, seven-time Baja 1000 winner Johnny Campbell and four-time winner Steve Hengeveld, also winners of three consecutive Baja 500s. In addition to his long-distance duties, Hengeveld currently campaigns the 450R in the 2004 AMA District 37 Big 6 Grand Prix Series.

User-friendly power and traction coupled with bulletproof durability count for a lot in desert racing. With the power improvements incorporated into the 2004 model, the team leaves the engine in its stock configuration, even down to the muffler (unless event regulations require spark arrestors or noise restrictors). The stock suspension capably handles high-speed desert work with only a few adjustments, and the addition of a steering damper minimizes the constant shock from ruts and rocks. A larger, 3.5-gallon dry-break-equipped fuel tank provides the range needed to reach gas stops after 100-mph dashes across the flats, and aluminum skid plates protect the bottom of both the liquid-cooled four-valve SOHC Unicam™ engine and the rails of the aluminum frame. Handguards help keep the rider's hands safe from harm, and an adjust-on-the-fly clutch lever assembly replaces the stock unit-an important concession for coping with clutch wear over the course of a multi-hour race. As would be expected, gearing options vary according to course conditions, but the ultra-high desert speeds can't faze the CRF450R. With four of the races completed in the six-event Grand Prix series, Hengeveld has captured one overall win and two second-place finishes, an auspicious beginning for the CRF in desert racing.

Success breeds even more success, so it wasn't long before the CRF450R emerged in AMA Flat Track Championship competition. Team Honda's road racing wunderkind Nicky Hayden rode a CRF450R to victory at the 2002 Peoria TT and the Springfield Short Track and TT races-when he wasn't campaigning Honda's mighty RC51 in the AMA's Superbike series, that is. (Hayden later won the coveted Superbike championship, launching him into the World MotoGP series.) For flat-track use, the major changes to the stock motocrosser include lowering the bike with a modified front fork and rear shock, and the mounting of 17-inch front and 19-inch rear flat-track rims and tires. The stock motor is so strong and torquey it requires only minimal tuning.

In August 2002, full-time flat-tracker Johnny Murphree announced he would ride a modified CRF450R in AMA short track and TT races. Murphree, who finished the 2002 season in second place, rode the CRF in four of the 2003 series' 17 events, capturing two third-place finishes and a second in Chillicothe, Ohio, on Memorial Day weekend. Murphree finished 2003 in the runner-up position once again and, in the 2004 season, he has ridden his Honda to second place in round four at the short track event at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

It is only fitting that the AMA's exciting new racing series, Supermoto, has attracted the world's most exciting racing bike. In fact, in just two short years since the series' inception in 2003, Honda's CRF450R has won a championship and become the bike of choice for nearly 60 percent of entrants. A fusion of Supercross, motocross, dirt-track racing and road racing, Supermoto competition features hybrid four-stroke motocross bikes on purpose-built tracks that typically include 70 percent asphalt (for high-speed racing) and 30 percent dirt (with turns, jumps and rollers).

While original cylinders, heads and crankcases must be used, the rules permit material to be added or removed, concessions that give engine builders leeway to port and polish heads, bump compression ratio and perform other substantial racing modifications. Frames can be strengthened with gussets, brackets can be relocated, and steering head angles and shock mounting points can be altered. Unique attributes of the Honda works bike include a shortened subframe, an aluminum reserve transmission oil tank welded to the bottom cradle of the CRF's aluminum frame, and a slipper clutch. The slipper clutch, an anomaly in dirt bikes, has become a common addition to Honda's factory road race machines because it eliminates rear wheel chatter under hard braking by allowing the clutch to freewheel in corner entry. To handle the variety of surfaces and traction, the CRF suspension is dropped 1.5 inches, and 17-inch rear and 16.5-inch front road racing rims and tires are mounted. To handle braking duty, larger brake rotors and pads are fitted, along with an oversized front master cylinder.

From the outset of the 2003 AMA Supermoto season, the CRF regularly appeared in the winner's circle, earning first-place finishes three times in the hands of AMA motocross and Supercross champion Jeff Ward. And at season's end, the overall 2003 Supermoto series championship went to 1998 AMA Superbike champion Ben Bostrom. Of the top 10 finishers in the final points tally, five rode CRF450Rs. In addition, Bostrom won the inaugural Supermoto event in the X Games, a television spectacle that introduced millions of viewers to this rapidly growing, high-intensity sport.

Supermoto attracts some of racing's most well-known personalities, and many have been riding CRF450Rs in 2004, including Ward; multi-time AMA motocross and Supercross champions Jeremy McGrath and Doug Henry; motocross stars Kevin Windham, Mike Metzger, and Brian Deegan; flat-track star Johnny Murphree, desert racing star Steve Hengeveld; and 2003 Supermoto stars Chris Fillmore, Steve Drew and Troy Lee. And don't be surprised to see road racing stars Ben Bostrom and Jake Zemke enter AMA Supermoto events when their regular racing schedules permit them to slip away.

It is high praise indeed that the top competitors from so many racing disciplines have chosen the CRF450R to carry them to victory. What other venues await this burgeoning bike legend of the 21st century? Like the versatile BSA Gold Star, with the Honda CRF450R only time and talent limit the imagination.

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