The Phillip Island Classic

Racing 1980s superbikes in Australia

Phillip Island Classic
The Phillip Island Classic offers a unique glimpse into 1980s superbike racingRussell Colvin & Steven Duggan

Billows of smoke drift across the track, plumes soon brought to life and given color by the yellow sparks dragging parts as 40-year-old air-cooled superbikes rip some of the finest tarmac in the world. The race to Turn 1 is on, and yet I can’t see a thing—my vision blurred by the streaks of motor oil that coat my windscreen. This racing time travel at the Phillip Island Classic in Australia is just about as far as I can get from modern-day superbike racing, and yet it remains beautiful, two-wheel art being played out at 170 mph.

The Island Classic is a unique event. Like most vintage race gatherings, there’s a massive variety of motorcycles and classes, but the headliner is the International Challenge that brings together national- and world-level racers and puts them on classic 1970s and ’80s-era big-horsepower, air-cooled superbikes for intercontinental bragging rights among competing countries based on a team-structured points system. The motorcycles vary, but the prominent platform is a Suzuki XR69 chassis—the 1980 steel-tube chassis responsible for bringing grand prix technology to superbike racing. These bikes are burly, heavy, brutal and fun, while also being tremendously different from a current-day superbike. And they are wicked fast.

How fast? International Challenge race winner Aaron Morris, on a 1982 Suzuki Katana, lapped just 3 seconds slower than 2018 Phillip Island Grand Prix Moto2 race winner Brad Binder—1:36.730 versus a 1:33.822. Peak speeds are equally impressive, with the fastest retro superbikes hitting 174 mph, just shy of the typical 176-mph of a Moto2 bike. On 420 pound superbikes that weigh some 100 more than a Moto2 bike.

Impressive, sure. But it also represents a serious effort to develop the chassis to handle this pace. Dennis Curtis of CMR Racing Products, Team USA's chassis supplier, has modified the original XR69 chassis using modern engineering and advanced developmental software to take advantage of the International Challenge rule package. To exploit the rules to maximum potential, it meant tweaking the geometry of the chassis to utilize the capabilities of Dunlop K448 and K451 racing slicks—the current spec tire for the MotoAmerica championship—by increasing load on the front tire's contact patch to improve steering and grip.

Suzuki XR69 chassis
The International Challenge is a hodgepodge of antique and modern-day machinery. My racebike was comprised of a Suzuki XR69 chassis, a highly modifed Yamaha FJ1100 engine, and the latest Dunlop racing slicks.Russell Colvin & Steven Duggan

Developmental work began when Curtis got his hands on an original XR69 frame built by legendary U.K. frame-builder Harris Performance. The Ontario, Canada-based CMR maintained the 4130 chrome-moly steel-tube design for its positive flex characteristics, but altered weight bias by repositioning the engine farther forward and extending the swingarm to increase wheelbase. How much have the two been changed?

“I can’t give too many specifics,” Curtis says. “That’s the racing business.”

Oh, secrets! What we do know is that the steering head has been lowered roughly 20 millimeters to fit an early-2000’s conventional Yamaha YZF-R6 front end—and that a single Öhlins superbike shock with a custom Phillip Island valve spec handles damping needs.

"Current-day literbike riding experience means little on these 'old' XRs."

And while the oil-and-smoke generator you might expect in a Suzuki XR69 frame would be an engine from the same maker, crammed inside this XR chassis is a big-bore 1983 Yamaha FJ1100 engine punched out to 1,250cc and worth 160 air-cooled horses at the rear wheel. Period correct? Not exactly, but it makes budgetary sense for vintage enthusiasts and offers better reliability than the original Suzuki GS1000 powerplant—though some teams do run Suzuki engines. Built according to Island Classic rules, the FJ is packed with race-spec cams, high-compression pistons, a slipper clutch, and 38 mm Mikuni flat-slide carburetors.

Despite updating the XR69/FJ-hybrids with a modern approach, current-day literbike riding experience means little on these “old” XRs.

Don’t believe me? Four-time AMA superbike champion Josh Hayes, on hand to race in the International Challenge, will be the first to tell you: “There’s nothing about modern superbikes that I found relevant to these platforms because the whole ideology of how to ride them was so much different. You sit so far in the back of the classic bike versus over the front of the modern bike where you can actually get weight onto the fork…but it’s incredibly stable and turns really well, and I found myself tipping in earlier than I do on other motorcycles because that’s where it’s happy.”

Knee down, ripping the XR over Phillip Island’s famous Lukey Heights.Russell Colvin & Steven Duggan

He figured it out quickly, taking victory in race three of four in the 2019 International Challenge—his first foray into vintage racing.

Throw a leg over one and you’ll be quickly reminded that these are based upon 1980s machines. A long, low reach to the handlebars comes as a result of a period-correct elongated fuel tank and narrow bars hinder ability to lean your body into the corner. The footpegs are set forward, and a barebones cockpit reminds us that these bikes are of a different era. The experience is raw, and yet so rad.

The feelings are similar at 170 mph. The XR’s chassis feedback is unlike anything I’ve experienced on modern-day equipment. It’s happiest at maximum lean angles, presenting an absurd amount of feel from the contact patches of both tires and begs you to push limits a pinch more all the time. Mid-corner steering is equally impressive and the chassis makes imperfections in the tarmac seem nearly nonexistent, soaking them up with only subtle reactions felt through the controls.

John Reynolds, American Mark Miller, and Michael Neeves
A poor start meant picking through a field of adept riders. Ahead is former British Superbike champion John Reynolds, American Mark Miller, and fellow journo Michael Neeves.Russell Colvin & Steven Duggan

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the XR69 chassis is its overarching sense of stability. On a modern superbike, there’s a certain uneasy, sort of loose or wallowing feeling that comes with braking late and hard on a modern-day chassis. It forces you to be patient as the chassis regains composure before you can comfortably flick it into the turn. But not on the XR. A firm squeeze on the brake lever smoothly pitches weight forward with zero nervousness and all confidence. Chassis guru Curtis says it’s thanks to superior amounts of lateral rigidity at the steering head and swingarm pivot.

International Challenge
“This is a team challenge. Do not take unnecessary risks passing your teammates, don’t even get close to them,” said Team USA captain Dave Crussell on the eve of the International Challenge... Clearly, those words were forgotten by Steve Rapp and I.Russell Colvin & Steven Duggan

The torquey, carbureted FJ power delivery, however, will quickly take you back to the ’80s. A long-pull throttle pairs perfectly with the flat-slide Mikunis, helping with precision and smooth power delivery. But that’s if you keep the feeling in your hands after six laps of utter vibration. Brakes are also a throwback, with a major handful at the front lever not resulting in expected slowing on the XR or other bikes in the class. All you have to see to truly understand the challenge is to observe—with startling regularity—riders sailing beyond apexes in Phillip Island’s second-gear Honda and MG corners, into the weeds. And despite the great feeling tipping in to the corner and at max lean, there is a tankish-feel from these 420-pounders that is vastly different from a modern superbike’s. The fast, side-to-side transitions at Phillip Island are strenuous on the XR. Ask about arm-pump and the blisters on my hands.

I had the opportunity to compete in the Island Classic because Dave Crussell, captain of Team USA’s charge to conquer the International Challenge, had enlisted me to compete aboard one of his personal XR69/FJ-hybrids.

In fact, he was so passionate about a strong American showing at the 2019 event that he also drafted Hayes and AMA Superbike veterans Steve Rapp and Larry Pegram to race his fleet of XRs, while former AMA and World Endurance champion Jason Pridmore, plus Mark Miller and Dale Quarterly, competed on separately owned XR platforms. It was an honor and career highlight to represent the USA alongside this caliber of riders, to say the least.

The XR69’s cockpit is small in comparison to modern sportbikes. An elongated tank and cramped seat limit body position changes.Russell Colvin & Steven Duggan

That degree of passion spreads far beyond Team USA’s pit, which is what makes the Island Classic so special. The racing is cutthroat and rubbing paint is standard, but everyone involved is there for love of the sport, not money, fame, or ego. Competing nations are the first to lend a hand fixing bike issues and the first to congratulate success. It’s a change of pace from current professional racing paddocks, and quite honestly, rejuvenating in the common spirit.

Team USA came up just short of capturing its first International Challenge victory in 2019. A wicked high-side crash in the opening race forced Pridmore out with a broken leg, while mechanical gremlins plagued the team in the final two races. Regardless, planning for Team USA’s return to the 2020 Island Classic has already begun.

“It’s really addictive to be around people with a common enthusiasm for the thing that we love in this world,” Hayes says. “I felt fortunate to be a part of it.”

Yeah, exactly.

Platform: 1983 Yamaha FJ1100
Displacement: 1,250cc
Claimed horsepower: 160+ HP
Frame: CMR Racing Products Suzuki XR69 Replica
Front Suspension: 2000 Yamaha YZF-R6 conventional fork w/ GP Suspension cartridges
Rear Suspension: Öhlins TTX shock
Front Tire: Dunlop KR448 120/70-17
Rear Tire: Dunlop KR451 180/60-17
Claimed Dry Weight: 420 lb.