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Roebling road by F Melling Daytona on a Shoestring Daytona, FL,Mar 6, 2001

Daytona on a Shoestring
The bare bones of the Suzuki T500 proddie bike Frank Melling raced in the  Daytona Formula 500 class cost just $300...
and he comes home with a trophy

Post race barbecues are dangerous things. Iíd been riding Eric Kalamajaís T500 Suzuki Production racer at Roebling Road in Georgia and it was the end of a wonderful day. Iíd won the Production class at Roebling but, better still, the bike had gone very well in the Formula 500 class competing against full-blown race bikes.

The air was sweet and warm, the company good, and as we relived the dayís fun, the trouble started. The bike had been flying at Roebling Road and the paddock had been buzzing at the sight of a road legal bike mixing it with serious race machines. Now, what if we could do the same thing at Daytona, the big one in classic racing?

The problem with classic racing at top level is that it is incredibly serious - and a long way from the old Clubman ideal of riding your bike to the meeting, racing and then riding it home again.

But Ericís T500 Production racer is fully road legal with lights, electric horn, posi-force lubrication - everything except the indicators. So, what if Eric rode the bike the 750 miles from his shop in Pulaski Virginia, I raced the bike at Daytona, and then Eric rode it home? Well, Daytona was many months away and paddock dreaming is a long way from reality.

A month later, Eric e-mailed to tell me that he had started work on the T500 Production racer for Daytona and it was at about this time that my stomach started to work over time.

Gassing up the T500 on its trek to Daytona

The problem is that I am not really a serious road racer. I like riding in club meetings but ten laps round Ty Croes is one game - the banking at Daytona is most distinctly another.

The encouraging thing was that if any classic bike was going to do the job, it was the T500. Suzukiís big two-stroke twin began rolling off the production lines in Hammatsu in the late summer of 1967. The bike was a revelation at the time and was greeted with a high degree of scepticism by the motorcycling world. After all, everyone knew that you couldnít make a large capacity two-stroke sports tourer. The experts were united in the belief that a big bore two-stroke would be never take a high mileage and would be incapable of standing the abuse which riders of large capacity machines regularly hand out to their bikes.

In truth, Suzuki probably felt this way too because they over engineered the T500 to almost paranoid standards. Quite simply, you couldnít break a T500 and, if you could manage the petrol bills, the T500 was capable of fantastic mileages without a spanner ever being laid on it.

The fact that the T500s were built to battleship specifications means that 34 years on they can still be raced with safety, using the original engine and cycle parts.

Eric Kalamaja owns Sundial Moto Sports, which has a reputation for building some of the most sophisticated two-strokes in American classic racing but, for "Project Daytona", we jointly decided to keep to the true spirit of Production racing. What we had in mind was a bike in the mould of a DBD Gold Star or Triumph Bonneville.

There was also the budget to consider. The T500 Proddie racer was not going to be the plaything of some rich enthusiast but a true Clubmanís racer built down to a price rather than up to a specification.

The donor bike was no problem. For $300 Eric found an early 1967 T500 and the frame and motor were in remarkably good condition. I wanted to use the same production racing barrels I ride with in England on Martinís Crooksí T500 Suzuki and, although he is a top-class tuner in his own right, Eric agreed. The barrels we use in England come from Terry Shepherd and donít offer much increase in outright bhp but do give a huge jump in torque. Terry thinks that a T500 with production racing barrels probably gives somewhere in the very low 50s in terms of bhp, which is not much of a gain compared with the 47bhp produced by a standard motor. But the pulling power is dramatic. Think good Triumph TR6 and you are in the same area.

It took very little work to turn the cheap T500 into a 130mph racer that was
still perfectly at home in town traffic

Just how softly this motor is tuned can be gauged by comparing it with Terryís best T500 racing engines, based on the air-cooled TR500 Suzukis. These motors will give nearly 80bhp at 9,500rpm with the ability to rev up to 10,500rpm.

By contrast, the proddie racing motor stops dead at 7,200rpm but it will pull from zero compared with the 7,000 rpm needed until the race specification power plant gets on song.

The T500 runs hot when ridden very hard and there is nowhere in the world where the bikes are under more pressure than Daytonaís banking. To prevent pinking, Eric used a pair of the Crooks-Suzuki production racing cylinder heads. These are sand-cast and also have a cast in squish band giving a noticeable boost to mid-range power.

To go with the barrels, a pair of Dave Swarbrickís production racing expansion chambers were fitted. Again, the pipes donít offer a huge increase in bhp but do let the motor breathe a lot more freely and boost the torque whilst being quieter than standard road silencers. Noise tested, the Swarbrick pipes produce only 87dba which is about the same level as a modern road bike.

They also offer the giant advantage of increased ground clearance. Standard T500 silencers are so well engineered that when they ground out, which is an all too common occurrence in the heat of battle, they will lift the rear wheel of the bike completely off the ground and that is seriously dangerous.

Daytona, we decided, was not the place to be riding with the rear wheel dangling The T500ís other weakness is its front brake. From standard, the Suz. comes with an 8" tls drum that is simply not up to the job of repeatedly stopping a 425lb motorcycle from high speeds.

Fortunately, Eric had a second-hand front end from the later GT500 Suzuki and this has a disc brake. Itís nothing to write home about - but far better than a drum that wonít stop the bike in the paddock.

The rest of the bike came from bits hanging around Ericís workshop. A very second-hand Dunstall tank, painted in the old Heron Suzuki colours because Eric is big Barry Sheene fan, went on along with some home made rear sets, a second-hand pair of ace bars and a racing seat found in the loft. And that was it - except for one thing; the throw over panniers for Ericís ride down to Daytona!

To be honest, Eric didnít ride the whole 750 miles. Six inches of snow on frozen roads in Virginia meant that a Proddie racer, even a torquey one, was not the ideal vehicle so the T500 rode on the back of the team truck until the sun came out further south.

Not that it came out for long! On Sunday, the heavens opened and I was treated to a full Disneyworld Florida storm with rain coming out of the sky like a power washer and huge bolts of lightning providing the lighting effects.

 Everything was rushed so the bike ended up being presented to scrutineering with the panniers still in place but Gordon Smith, AHRMAís chief scrutineer was incredibly helpful and, much to the amazement of the hard-core racers present, our road bike was passed ready for action at Daytona.

Pannier check by scrutineer Gordon Smith


The only thing which remained was to replace the road tyres with a pair of Avon racing boots and we were ready for the speed bowl.

The Daytona international speedway is unique in many ways. From the militant discourtesy and hostility of its staff to its two incredibly steep banked turns, there is no mistaking where you are.

You never can never forget that this is a famous circuit and, after 29 visits to the "Restrooms", I was beginning to feel that this was perhaps one race too far for a middle-aged amateur, a 50-year-old who had grown a little too soft writing about the action instead of being a part of it.

Fortunately, British classic star Les Trotter offered to show me the way round in practice and I was very grateful for the chance to tuck in behind this most fluent and graceful of racers.

Not only did Les give me a guided tour of the infield, as the twisty bits are called, but he also helped me place the bike on the ultra steep banking. This is the most intimidating feature of Daytona and, as you creep higher and higher up the side of the banking, the wire safety fence looks increasingly threatening and the track seems to become ever narrower.

The first practice session went satisfactorily in that I wasnít frightened absolutely to death and the bike was running like a silent, frictionless turbine.

By the end of the second session, I couldnít keep the smile from my face. Eric had done a superb job on the motor and it was pulling a full 7,200 rpm on the banking which, on Daytona gearing, equates to around 130mph - and thatís not half bad for a 492cc road bike which had been ridden to the meeting.

Then, on the very last lap, everything changed. Coming off the north banking the motor locked and I coasted in to the paddock. At first, we thought the motor had just tightened and then Eric poked a screwdriver down the plughole and down it went - to the flywheels. A tiny piece of grass had got into the carburettor float bowl, jammed up against the main jet and it must have taken just a few seconds for the piston to melt.

Itís difficult to describe just how disappointed I felt, not only because I travelled so far to be at Daytona but more importantly, I felt sure we could compete on our Cafť Racer.

A melted piston was quickly replaced

But the despair was premature. Eric and Les, who is a superb mechanic as well as a fine rider, stripped the barrel off and Lesí sponsor Kevin Fletcher donated a new piston. With a few minutes to spare before the first race, the bike fired up and I completed the meticulous running in process - 100 yards down the paddock and back again. That was it!

Les Trotter helps with the rebuild

The grid for the Formula 500 race was huge but I was in a reasonable position on the third row. The start was exciting as a rider behind careered through the pack causing a multiple pile up but I only felt a nudge in the mudguard. Then there was another shunt at turn three but I escaped from this too with no more than a bruised leg.

Close combat racing is the ultimate test of a bikeís handling and, despite its 58" wheelbase, the T500 managed the cut and thrust of the infield very well. The problem came on the banking. With a brand-new piston in one pot the poor motor would only rev. to 5,500rpm and I was certain it was going to seize.

Rider and after rider came past as I buried myself in the tank and carried on with the accelerated running in process. On the banking the g-force flattens you hard against the tank and it is difficult to focus over the bumps. The advantage is that so much concentration is required that thereís no cognitive space for anything else - like wondering if the bike is going to last another lap!

Now, it was down to racing. Watch for the rider in front to brake and then keep it nailed until a one-to-one with Saint Peter looks imminent and then sit bolt upright and hard on the brakes.

At this point, you only take note of the bike if there is a problem which distracts you from racing. The truth is that there wasnít one on the T500. I could ride round the outside of opponents or dive underneath them. The big, heavy road bike was not, by any stretch of the imagination, flickable but it was rock solid stable and utterly trustworthy.

By lap four, the piston had worn sufficiently for another 1,000 rpm to be on tap but this was still 1,500rpm less than it was capable of doing. By the last lap, I had the next two riders in sight and was longing for another half-hour for the motor to get fully run in!

When the chequered flag fell, our T500 Proddie racer was in eighth place - a truly incredible result for a road bike racing in Americaís top classic meeting.

First lap action and Gary Smith (CB500 Honda) heads Frank Melling (T500 Suzuki),
Eric Kalamaja (TR500 Suzuki) and Richard Merhar (RD400 Yamaha)


What could have been achieved with a top-class rider, and the motor running at full strength, is food for thought but seventh and sixth placed riders were within spitting distance at the finish.

 So what has the Project Daytona proved? A number of things. First, the Cafť Racers are still a huge amount of fun. Next, you can go racing at the highest level without having to re-mortgage your house. Third, you can easily convert a T500 into a 130mph road burner which is docile enough for your Gran to use for shopping.

And finally, with a team like Sundial Moto Sports behind you, even a Clubman can go to Daytona and come home with a trophy.

 My thanks to Eric and all the nice people at AHRMA for a wonderful racing experience.


Top ten success for Kalamaja and Melling

Article and photos by Frank Melling. Race photo by Matt Benson.