Old-School Thrills

If you want a really fun weekend of classic motorcycle racing, consider a weekend trip to Ontario.

Are we living in the golden age of motorcycles? Motorsports technology has never been safer and more reliable. Today’s bikes have features such as throttle control, traction control, ABS and cornering ABS, automatically-adjusting electronic suspensions, and centralized computers to control all these electronics. 

Yet despite the complexity of today’s bikes, they are incredibly reliable and require relatively little maintenance compared to the bikes of yesteryear. One could certainly make a strong argument that we are in a golden age, even if sales don’t reflect it. 

Then why are so many manufacturers including vintage styling in their modern bikes? Triumph, Indian, and Harley Davidson are producing bikes that look like they are from another era. Scramblers are hugely popular right now, as are cafe racers.  If our technological heads are in a golden age, many of our hearts are still sometime in the last century. 

If the sound of a carbureted engine quickens your heartbeat, you’ll want to check out the VRRA (Vintage Motorcycle Road Racing Association). According to the organization’s constitution, “The VRRA is established for the purpose of encouraging the preservation, display, demonstration and/or racing of vintage motorcycles and enhancing the enjoyment of riders and spectators.” I heard about it from someone I recently met in Vermont who races in this series. He travels to Ontario four times a season to participate. If you want a really fun weekend of classic motorcycle racing, consider a weekend trip to Ontario. 

There are four races per season and they are held on different tracks, so your border crossing will be determined by the particular track. If the race is at Shannonville Motorsports Park, you probably want to cross on Interstate 81 at the 1000 Islands Bridge. Once on the Canadian side, take the 1000 Islands Parkway and Highway 2 west, which takes you right along the lake to the track. If the race is at the Calabogie Motorsports Park, take the same crossing but head straight north up to beautiful Perth. After a rest stop there, you can follow Highway 511 all the way into Calabogie. Finally, if you’re going to the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, just east of Toronto, the best option is to cross at Niagara Falls and ride through beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake. From there, you pick up the 403 that takes you around the western tip of Lake Ontario to the 401 and across the top of Toronto. 

I rode down to the CTMP from Montreal Saturday morning, arriving in late afternoon. Practice and qualifying had just wrapped up for the day, so I was only charged a whopping $15 at the gate for Sunday’s races and camping trackside overnight—the best deal in town.

After pitching my tent and setting up, I wandered over and introduced myself to Keith and Tony, who are regulars. They come every other weekend for a race of some kind. Two weeks ago, it was the superbikes. They also came for the Nascar Truck Series, and other races throughout the season. They seemed like seasoned spectators, with their ExpressVu satellite dish set up and Nascar on their widescreen TV protected under a tarp. Keith was just making a fire and cracking a new can of beer.

“We’ll show you around the park,” he offered—“if you can keep up,” he added with a  smirk. They climbed on their mopeds and lead me over to the pits. Unlike professional motorsports, here the pits are open and you can wander through, looking at the bikes and chatting with the riders. Unless they are scrambling to prepare for a race, most are more than happy to talk with you and provide an autograph. There are children riding bicycles and dogs off leash and people barbequing their dinners, drinking and laughing. The VRRA is clearly a community among itself, and everyone is friendly and loves to talk about bikes. And there are a lot of amazing bikes. By the end of the weekend, I had over 200 photos!

One of my favourites is of a BS that someone had just rescued from the quintessential local barn for $100. The tank is speckled in a layer of rust, and there is still hay stuck in the center-stand. The new owner had already figured out for which racing class the bike was destined.

Somehow, the work involved in restoring a bike like that to racing condition relieved me of the mild anxiety I was currently feeling over a small oil leak I’d recently discovered in the lower gasket of my f650GS. It put my problems into perspective. “Just torque it down,” the BS owner said when I explained the problem. “I torque my head gasket down three or four times a day,” he added. “It’s the heat that makes the bolts loosen.” I had been thinking I’d have to remove the head and replace the gasket, a much bigger job. There are some very experienced mechanics here, and they are happy to share their knowledge with you. 

I got lost for hours looking at the beautifully restored bikes and chatting. But eventually the sun set, and the Checkerboard Floors provided the evening’s entertainment. Sometimes a cover band is just the thing, and we were treated to covers of the Tragically Hip, the Rolling Stones, Tears for Fears, and even Michael Jackson, while parents and children danced with inflatable dinosaurs and a particular skunky smell wafted through the crowd. (Remember, our American friends: it’s legal up here, but just don’t try to bring any back.) I was having a lot of fun, and that’s even before I’d seen any racing. 

Checkerboard Floors

The next morning, the first race up was the sidecar class. I climbed the hill that looks out onto Turns 8 and 9 behind my campsite, and used my hard case as a seat. The PA announcer gave final call to the riders, and I could hear them warming their engines on the starting grid out of eyesight across the infield. Then there was the unmistakable roar of engines red-lining as they headed off down Mario Andretti Straightaway. About a minute later they came through the S-turn where I was. The passengers climbed from one side to the other, hanging off so far their helmets were inches from the ground. I turned to the stranger standing beside me and said plainly, “This is awesome!” She smiled and said, “Yes, it is.”

After lunch, a light drizzle started. It’s an ordeal for these riders to change tires at the last minute, so there were a few spills through the afternoon, but fortunately no serious incidents. I rode down to Turns 3 and 4 to watch the riders come through there at speed, and then further down to Turn 5, the hairpin at the end of the straightaway, which didn’t disappoint. Someone came in hot and low-sided. It’s all part of the action. 

There are about 25 classes and about a dozen races, each six laps in length, so the races are short and the action constantly changing. Some races have three classes in them, so it can get a bit confusing for both the spectators and the PA announcer to keep straight who is leading which class, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just exciting to watch these amateur riders race their hearts out. Okay, it’s not MotoGP, but sometimes smaller and simpler is better, whether we’re talking a motorcycle or a racing event. I love that you can get close to the action, the bikes, and the riders, something not possible at a larger event. The VRRA is built on the hard work of volunteers and the sweat, tears, and sometimes a little blood, of the riders whose passion for the sport is on display. 

If you are nostalgic about spoked wheels, carbureted engines, and polished steel gas tanks, or want to experience motorcycle racing from a bygone era, then plan a weekend ride to a VRRA race in Ontario (events for 2020 are yet to be announced, so bookmark this page and check for updates). I guarantee you’ll have a good time. 

About Kevin Bushell

Kevin started riding in 2015 and quickly took to off-roading and adventure touring. He has travelled extensively across Canada and the northeastern states. In addition to writing about his travels, he writes poetry, and his book Invisible Sea—a collection of poems on the theme of flight—is published by DC Books. He is an English teacher at Vanier College and lives with his wife and border collie in Montreal.

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