Custom-Built Race Winner

Gregg Bonelli reveals Arthur Kowitz's Bighorn Monocoque roadracer

Nick’s Note: Gregg Bonelli was there when this amazing motorcycle came together, and he was there again, decades later, when Arthur Kowitz displayed it at the AHRMA round at NJMP two weeks ago. Bonelli strings together words that not only describe the bike and its history, but the beauty of a builder’s world. Enjoy.

Arthur Kowitz Monocoque Custom Motorcycle, Custom Roadracer
The Bighorn Monocoque Special: Race WinnerGregg Bonelli and Nick Ienatsch

It was the best of times for American road racing, at least in my opinion. It was possible to build a race bike yourself and do well enough with it to be noticed despite the overpowering presence of factory teams.

The egalitarian element on the board of the AMA had dictated that 200 models of whatever machine the factory wanted to race had to be produced for sale. That meant none of the exotic foreign specials to compete against; no Honda six cylinders or eight speed Suzukis to race against. Grand national racing machines had to be based on showroom models and use the stock cases and other parts. Any special race parts had to be available for sale to the public through the parts departments of dealerships so, in theory at least, you could build a competitive machine yourself, or buy one.

The factories resisted in a number of ways: not making enough race parts to sell, or having different ones for themselves. That cost Suzuki a national road race win at Road Atlanta when their bikes were disqualified for having non-production cylinder heads, which was a shame, but we were mostly glad to see it. There were rules, and by God and the AMA, they were going to be the same rules for everyone.

Harley-Davidson found other means to get around it, like cataloguing aftermarket parts as if they would sell them through their dealers if you ordered one. I suppose in some cases it may have actually happened but the brakes and parts I tried to get for my 250cc Italian-made Aermacchi that carried the HD brand never arrived.

Of the novice bikes out there from the late '60s into the early '70s, Yamaha was the brand to beat. I tried to beat them in several ways, as did a number of others, but finally the price of used ones came into my budget range and I got one for myself. That left my sympathies with the giant killers, but my ass on the giants when race-time came. I did well enough to get points and move up to Expert, all thanks to various models of Yamaha production road racers. It was hard won insight that has served me well since: have respect for builders, whether they are in well-funded overseas factories or in a two-car garage out behind someone's house. Good ideas, well done, can come from anywhere.

One of those giant killer wannabe's was Kawasaki. Team Green made fast bikes of various displacements and here and there you would find a dealer supporting a fast rider that did well. In my part of Florida, there was a dealer who was also a racer; Arthur Kowitz had enough competitive drive and practical know-how to make history. Like a lot of things we do in life, it was a matter of timing and opportunity.

My part in this began after Ted Henter, a local Gainesville, Florida rider, beat John Long at Laguna Seca to win the Novice road race national event. John had the chance to ride a factory Kawasaki 350cc Bighorn which they were developing for the lightweight class and their expert rider, Yvonne Duhamel. John led most of the race, but the machine failed to finish while Ted was running second on another Bighorn special, this one built by Arthur Kowitz who had combined an A1R chassis with the dirt bike motor to make a competitive special. It was fast, but not especially pretty, and I was asked to make a gas tank for it to improve its visual appeal.

That took me over to Arthur's shop where the machine sat on a work bench in the back. The A1R was a tube-framed conventional machine with nothing like the featherbed tube loop that Yamaha had copied from Norton at some point. It was rather a bridge between the swingarm, the shock mounts, and the steering head, heavily gusseted in the swing arm area and bearing the looping rear set mounts that had somehow become the norm.

They said it handled well and that the factory brakes were top notch, which was a necessity as one of the rules to be dealt with required brand consistency in components. If you built a Suzuki special for grand national racing, it had to use Suzuki brakes, a Yamaha had to use Yamaha brakes and so forth. Factories serious about doing well made sure that real racing brakes were listed in their catalogue of parts. This A1R on Kowitz’s bench had a lighter motor. The tank had been of aluminum with a high tunnel inside but sometime in its life it had been shortened by a foot or so to accommodate a large rider. This yielded an unpleasant truncated appearance not unlike the second place finisher in a demolition derby. To improve things, I brought a pull off of a mold I had and we carved it up until it fit properly.

The Bighorn motor was narrower but taller and proper alignment was accomplished by the simple expedient of putting on a chain and sighting down its length. New tabs were welded in as necessary to locate the engine in place and voila’: a hot rod motorcycle was born. It may not have been as fast on a long straight as the original, but it had a CDI ignition, plenty of torque and weighed significantly less.

Our fathers had put Ford V8 motors in Model As by the simple expedient of turning the motor mounts around. Lighter chassis + bigger motor = more speed. That simple formula was exercised far and wide and anyone interested in performance learned it sooner or later. Exactly how the Bighorn born in the back of a small shop in Florida wound up in the winner’s circle at Laguna Seca in 1972 is a story for another time, but its rider, Ted Henter, had outlasted John Long who led most of the race. Long was riding a factory effort which validated Henter’s accomplishment and certainly got everyone’s attention. One result was the call for a more professional appearance, hence the new tank. While I was making that a reality, an after- hours bench racing session at the shop turned the project in a completely different direction.

Arthur Kowitz Monocoque Custom Motorcycle, Custom Roadracer
As anyone knows who has run a dirtbike on a roadrace track, gearing is one of the toughest issues to solve. Kowitz had some inventive machining to get the Bighorn gearing to run the speeds needed to win.Gregg Bonelli and Nick Ienatsch

If you’re going to hot rod, you may as well do all you can. If a better opportunity for more power or less weight becomes available, that means you take it, regardless of what you had planned. In the course of a normal conversational do-over back in the work room the talk turned to chassis design, then material choice, then construction. If you have a mild steel tube frame you want chrome moly, if you have chrome moly you want Mig welding instead of brazing, but most thinking along those lines stops there.

Kowitz is an Air Force veteran, however, and had begun riveting aluminum things together back in high school. His shop also sold OSSA and so the photo of Santiago Herrera’s GP machine, with its welded monocoque chassis, hung on the wall. Someone thought they should make one of those for the Bighorn motor. Only Arthur thought they actually could.

The monocoque Bighorn’s moment was brief but its dominance on the track was undisputed and several riders found success in its saddle. Arthur got the urge to race himself, not just build, and took the shop Z-1 to a superbike national event at Pocono, which he won, thereby becoming an Expert after only one race as a Junior. He no longer needed a novice ride and neither did any of the rest of us.

By this time, Yamaha had introduced the TZ series of machines that would dominate the world’s racetracks, so the era of air-cooled specials managing to win national road race events was over. The Bighorn special sat in the back of the shop, its shiny appearance fading as it slowly degraded into non-operational status. It was finally sold without much fanfare to a non-racer who put lights on it and tried to ride it on the street as a café racer. That was not a good idea and it was stored for the next forty years before its caretaker realized he should return it to its maker. Miraculously, the Bighorn race winner was back with its builder.

Arthur Kowitz Monocoque Custom Motorcycle, Custom Roadracer
Arthur Kowitz got his bike back, but also a time-capsule of all the engineering drawings, Kawasaki speed-kit parts, exhaust system dimensions… “All the engineering work I did back when I was a kid was still with the bike.”Gregg Bonelli and Nick Ienatsch

Builders are touchy people. Whether they use calculations or imagination, their creations are reflective of their thoughts in a way that those who only ride can barely understand. If you ride a perfect lap, or sing the national anthem beautifully, it’s appreciated in its own time; but if you made the motorcycle that's sitting before you, it’s something else. Whether you designed it, or machined its parts or spoked its wheels, you have a visceral bond to it that leaves a mark. It takes time, and you only have so much time to get it right. They are time and distance machines after all, and whether your effort will stand the test of time or was just a waste of effort haunts all innovation.

Arthur Kowitz Monocoque Custom Motorcycle, Custom Roadracer
Kowitz moved the clutch actuator and spent many hours getting the jetting right on this 350cc two-stroke, but up-close we can all see the effort expended in the interest of winning races.Gregg Bonelli and Nick Ienatsch

Watch a great rider handle the machine he is about to ride and you get the sense that it’s just one of many for him. He may have his favorites, but they are to him what a violin is to a virtuoso. For the builder, however, the accomplishment stands alone and each move and mark endures as long as the machine itself. When you run your hands over the sleekness of your favorite bike’s lines and savor the perfection from every angle, you can only imagine what its creator must have been thinking. If it’s well done, if the craftsmanship excels, if it works in ways that transcend its physical presence: that is art.

Art, after all, is about the message it imparts to the viewer all by itself. It speaks to us. It may whisper or scream, it may cause us to ponder, and rarely, very rarely, it may move us.

Imagine a hand-made motorcycle lighter and stronger and faster than anything in its class. Now imagine that it was made with aluminum and rivets, each one placed perfectly to marry the forces it must carry without failure. When you run your hand over them, realizing you lack even a rudimentary understanding of how to go about it yourself, you have to know the man who made it feels something entirely different when he does the same.

That man, the man who made the motorcycle, has a depth of satisfaction that is reserved for those who do such things. And occasionally, once in a great while, there is such a man among us. We are lucky. Arthur Kowitz is such a man.

Arthur Kowitz Monocoque Custom Motorcycle, Custom Roadracer
Together again. Man and bike have stood the test of time and Kowitz wasn’t just attending the NJMP AHRMA round, he was racing in two classes. Plans for the Bighorn Special? “I’ll probably get it all cleaned up and just enjoy it.”Gregg Bonelli and Nick Ienatsch

More next Tuesday!

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