If We Can’t All Finish First, We Shouldn’t Race At All

“He’d stood by his personal theory, but belief did not trump reality.”

Kork Ballington
Kork Ballington raced seven world championship seasons, competing in the 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc categories on Yamaha and, later, Kawasaki machinery. Seen here in 1982, the South African won back-to-back titles in the 250cc and 350cc classes in ’78 and ’79.Gold & Goose

In response to my telling the story of my late friend, Ron, and his mystery oil, “One Motorcyclist’s Response To Fad And Fashion,” a reader wrote, “I’m dismayed by what appears to be a theme of stereotyping, deprecating, and scapegoating those different from yourself.”

Ron wasn’t riding on the street, where Pep Boys oil might work okay. He was running his 250cc Kawasaki A1R in regional roadraces in the US and Canada. These were races in which oils intended for the lower-performance engines of chain saws, mowers, or outboards had been found to whisker plugs, stick rings, or seize pistons. It wasn’t a matter of opinion or of being different; it was a matter of trial and error. Of experience.

Because racing hands out failure in its democratic way, it compels humility and a willingness to consider the experiences of others. At Daytona in 1973, the Kawasaki B-type cylinders were raised up on thin riser plates with a base gasket above and below. We were all having trouble with those base gaskets pushing out, causing air leaks and seizures. A spectator—a regular motorcycle shop mechanic—told us that the gasket cements we were all trying one after another were acting as lubricants, letting the gaskets squeeze out under head bolt pressure.

“Try it with just the bare gaskets,” he said. “Those black Japanese gaskets are designed to bond to the metal, but they can’t if you put gasket goop on ’em.” Although we were skeptical, our own ideas weren’t working so we tried it. It worked.

Experience likewise reduced the variety of oils that made it to the podium. Buttery-smelling Blendzall was found to be an excellent racing oil but wasn’t widely available. Castrol R worked well in shorter events but could gum piston rings in 200 miles at Daytona. That company’s later answer was Castrol 747, a part-bean, part-synthetic with a strong additive package that worked well in high-power two-strokes. Another oil found to work well was Yamalube R. It kept rings free but in rainy weather its heavy loading of detergent could form sludgy stuff that caused throttle sticking. Yamaha’s own factory testing revealed that Bel-Ray two-stroke oil had the least negative effect on fuel octane but also that it wasn’t top choice for rolling bearings.

Ballington wore glasses for much of his roadracing career. “It was very difficult,” he admitted after retiring from the sport. “On hot days, they would slip down my nose.” The 31-time race winner was named a MotoGP legend at Phillip Island in 2018.Gold & Goose

I got a strong lesson in subjectivism versus experience from a customer who had bought an A1R racer from our dealership, Arlington Motor Sports. Popular sports movies push the idea that if a player just believes hard enough, he can overcome all obstacles. Our customer would test that concept. He went out in first Novice practice at Daytona and seized, so he came to me with the seized piston.

“What main jets are you running?” I asked him.

“I got 190s in there now.”

“That’s not enough fuel for the length of time you’re on the gas here at the speedway. Go up to 210s and you’ll be okay. Clean up the bore and fit a fresh piston.”

He went on his way. After second practice he was back. Same result. Seized.

“Did you jet up to 210s?” I asked him.

“No, I figured seizure comes from heat and heat comes from friction. So I added more oil to the gas to cool the motor off so it wouldn’t seize.”

I explained how fuel mixture affects engine operating temperature, and that in air-cooled engines it’s advisable to run a bit rich so as to have a margin against seizure. I also explained that adding more oil, by displacing some of the fuel, actually makes the fuel mixture leaner, causing the engine to run even hotter, the pistons to expand more, and therefore to seize. No lubricant is strong enough to prevent seizure when the piston expands to become bigger than the bore! Then I again urged him to jet up to 210s but with his original gasoline-to-oil ratio.

Ballington trails Kenny Roberts and Randy Mamola at Silverstone
Ballington (9) made 24 starts in the 500cc class. Here, he trails Kenny Roberts (1) and Randy Mamola (3) at Silverstone in England. The Americans were second and third, respectively, while Ballington, after qualifying 12th on the lone Kawasaki, failed to finish.Gold & Goose

Next morning after first practice he was back with a third seizure.

“Did you jet up?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “I just don’t understand it. I put in more oil to reduce friction so it wouldn’t seize. But it seized anyway, even quicker than before. Now I’m out of pistons so I’m leaving to drive back home.”

I told him we had more pistons that he was welcome to, but he wasn’t interested. He set off on his 1,200-mile journey. He’d stood by his personal theory of seizure, but belief did not trump reality.

In an article I wrote for Cycle magazine, I gave the complete specifications—port timings, pipe dimensions, primary gear details, the works—for the homemade 750cc H2R racer we had built for 1972. A few years later, I ran into a man at the races who told me he’d built a bike from those specs.

“How’d it go for you?” I asked.

“Really great, but it seized every time I ran it so I kinda lost interest.”

Now I was curious, so I went through the specs with him, item by item. When we got to compression, he said, “Of course I knew that 6.7:1 you wrote in your article wasn’t on the level; you were just saying that to protect your rider. So I started out at about 9:1.”

I told him that 6.7:1 was the highest compression anyone on the team had found it possible to run, even with good race gas, and we had plenty of detonated pistons and wrecked engines behind us to confirm that number. But this man, investing skill and resources in a complex project, let it all go down the drain rather than give up his subjective certainty that 6.7:1 was a wrong number.

In the early ’90s, I had a conversation with Kork Ballington, who won four world championships as a Kawasaki factory rider. He told me that he and his brother, early in his racing career, had also built a bike from that Cycle article.

With some apprehension I asked him, “How’d it go?”

“It went well enough to get me noticed,” he said.

I was delighted to hear it. Racers, like Ballington and his brother, are pragmatic.

A wide variety of oils will work okay on the street, and their users are welcome to believe what they like about them. In the more difficult conditions in race engines, pragmatism rules, so only a few lubricants made it to the podium.