by Paul Harris on 12/22/2008
Billy Mackenzie is Britain’s reigning MX1 champion – the 23 year old Scot won his first title in 2007 and brought the number one plate with him to the crack CAS Honda squad for 2008. Completely dominant domestically, the three-time Grand Prix winner was an absolute shoe-in to retain his crown despite missing round five through injury, coming back for another couple of wins at the legendary Foxhill circuit before a big crash running second at the Czech Grand Prix left him to limp through Brampton in a brave effort to salvage points. Heading into the Hawkstone Park finale, a win in the first moto would be enough to clinch it from KTM’s James Noble and, as he did in every round when he started the race fit, Mackenzie made short work of taking the lead, fighting his way past the young Ray Rowson and clearing off for the moto and championship win.
That, however, is just where it starts getting interesting….
Earlier on in the summer, rumours had been circulating that, if he had the title in the bag, Billy Mac would wheel out a CR500 at Hawkstone; it was seen as a joke, a light-hearted quip – surely even the maverick Mackenzie wouldn’t seriously consider riding an old warhorse of a 500. But the rumours persisted – there were even pictures on a motocross forum of an old steel-framed ’98 CR500 that would allegedly be converted into his Hawkstone race bike. It seemed hard to believe, not only that he would race a 500, but especially that he would race an old steel-framed ’98, surely CAS would build him a shiny aluminium-framed hybrid? But when we got to Hawkstone, there it was, all CAS-liveried up and ready to go under the factory Honda awning – the excitement grew, but it was still hard to believe it would actually happen. Was it all a big prank? Surely he wouldn’t…
I wandered down to the pits as the second MX2 race ended, just to see if the miracle would happen – as I approached the CAS Honda pit, an unmistakable gruff, barky CR500 exhaust note sent the hairs on the back of my arms aloft. As the number one plated two stroke was ferried up to the startline, reality struck – it was on, and Billy Mac would forever cement himself a place in the hearts of fans who remember the days of mighty large-bore two strokes. The sighting lap was a thing of beauty – Billy was alone in the field in not having ridden his second moto bike, so while everyone else pottered around, getting warmed up and checking how the conditions had changed, Mackenzie came out and just pulled the trigger, charging around on full loud to see how it handled – with the four strokes on a relatively muted tickover, and the CAS Honda pinned wide open, the whole crowd could hear for the first time in years a 500 motocross bike being ridden at the limit. It was a truly incredible moment, not least because of Hawkstone’s place as one of the ancestral homes of British 500GP motocross.
The race itself started promisingly – despite being pushed out wide by a plethora of 450s (plus Mark Eastwood‘s CR250), Billy Mac came round at the end of lap one in sixth place before sprinting past Jordan Rose and the fallen Mark Jones to take fourth behind Rowson, Brad Anderson and Tom Church. The bleach-blond Scot was pushing hard, comfortable in fourth whilst maybe lacking the pace to push for a podium position, but ready and waiting to pounce on a mistake should any of the leading three make one…
… When the metaphorical wheels fell off.
Just over a third of the distance in, the big number one Honda slowed and pulled out of the race. Had the CR500 not been up to the task? Had it all been a short-lived joke? Did the authorities just not want a two stroke to be competitive? It was, it seemed, none of the above – the bike had been dismantled and the frame powder-coated as part of the race prep but on reassembly, the engine mounts had been tightened up against new paint, rather than against the metal of the frame. With everything running at race pace for the first time, the bolts were more than capable of lunching the power coat, giving themselves enough room to spin free under the impetus of the vibey motor, leaving Billy no choice but to pull out before the whole engine made a bid for freedom.
On paper the whole exercise may not have been the resounding success we hoped for, but there must surely be a lesson to be learnt in that a current GP rider can compete at national level in the Open class aboard a ten-year-old bike with ten-year-old suspension and ten-year-old handling – and that’s not to mention the lack of development on the CR500 in the last years of production. Just imagine what that glorious torquey motor could achieve in a modern frame with modern suspension….