Factory For The Weekend – Racing The 2020 Honda CRF450RX
Story by Ryan Nitzen, Photos by Mark Kariya
If you’ve raced a dirt bike, odds are you’ve dreamed about being a factory rider. For many of us, these dreams completely consume our wellbeing and become a daily goal that ultimately leads to a unique type of obsession. Ride, train, rest, repeat; it’s a grind that many have experienced and a type of sick initiation that shows one’s true dedication to be the best in the sport. However, for many riders, the end goal of becoming a factory racer slowly fades away and finds its place to die next to our other childhood dreams. Factory or not, we still ride and race for the rush, the competition, and the comradery of the sport; a bond that only other motorcyclists can understand. For a more detailed riding impression, check back to the site to read our “First Impression”.
But sometimes those smoldering childhood dreams get a fanning that reignites our internal fire. That’s exactly what happened when Jason Abbott from Honda invited us to race the 2020 CRF450RX with the JCR Honda Team at the Ridgecrest round of the AMA National Grand Prix Championship. Being a factory Honda racer for the weekend on a JCR prepped CRF450RX? There was no way we were missing this. We jumped at the opportunity and immediately began preparing for the grueling Viewfinders Grand Prix.
The weekend was going to be an entirely new adventure for me. My experience as a grand prix racer is limited to say the least and having support from a team has been virtually non-existent. Add in the new CRF450RX and a fresh set of gear from Fly Racing and we were definitely in uncharted territory. Oh, and did I mention we were pitting with JCR Honda and current NGPC Champ Trevor Stewart? No pressure right.
We were greeted on Friday afternoon by Johnny Campbell and company at the JCR Honda pit to learn more about the team and our rides for the weekend. Being in the presence of a legend like Campbell was inspiring to say the least and listening to his heartfelt stories had us feeling motivated to race. Johnny was once just a kid on a ‘90’s CR250 racing Baja on his own budget and working his way through the ranks. After catching the eyes of American Honda, he earned 11 Baja 1000 victories, eclipsing the previous record set by none other than thee Larry Roeseler. Campbell now works closely with the development team at Honda for their RX, L, and X models while also running the JCR Honda Team, Honda’s factory effort in the west coast off-road scene.
Let’s get to the machinery. For 2020, the Honda CRF450RX has received many of the same changes as it’s fraternal twin, the CRF450R. The bike boasts the all-new Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC), revised gear-specific ECU mapping, updated off-road suspension settings, new rear brake pad material, and a lower battery position. To combat the conditions of off-road racing, the bike comes stock with a larger 2.2 gallon fuel tank (compared to the 1.6 gallon tank on the CRF450R), an 18 inch rear wheel, a sealed o-ring chain, and a forged aluminum kickstand. Despite some of my initial thoughts, this bike comes race ready in stock trim and is the same machine that JCR team rider Trevor Stewart piloted to the NGPC Championship in 2018. The team made a few minor adjustments for our race. Acerbis handguards, a 2.4 gallon IMS Tank, heavy duty tubes, a DID ERT Racing Chain, and a full set of JCR Team graphics were added to the bike to ensure our finishes in the 45 minute Saturday race and the 90 minute long Sunday race.
It’s a rare occurance to see a mud race in the middle of the desert, but that’s what we awoke to on Saturday morning. The course was ripped deep, thoroughly watered, and fast; wide open 450 fast. The morning’s unclassified race was our first chance to test the bike. With the wet and slippery conditions we opted for the smoother map two and the second level of HSTC. The power was strong yet linear in its delivery and was a warm welcome as I made my first tracks on the course. I’m usually a bit uneasy when it comes to riding with a big tank, but the cockpit on the RX was comfortable right away and the IMS tank was virtually unnoticeable as I moved front to back on the machine. The balance of the bike was superb and the chassis / suspension combination handled everything we threw its way. The course featured fast sweepers, motocross jumps, deep sandy rollers, and tight flat corners. After coming off an ‘18 450R, I was pleasantly surprised with how fast I was able to adapt to the “off-road” model.
As I finished up the two laps of practice, I headed back to the truck to make some adjustments before the afternoon race. The track was already getting roughed up with braking and acceleration bumps which would only get worse as the day wore on. My race would be the last of the day so I opted to soften the bike up in hopes of absorbing the bumps and saving some energy for the 45 minute duration. The Honda crew gave me two clicks of compression to the fork and the shock, gassed up the RX, and we waited for the afternoon moto. [Ed. Note – I was very jealous seeing the Honda crew pressure washing his bike and boots after the muddy mess while I was getting sandblasted by my own pressure washer and bike!}
While we were sent to Ridgecrest for a new bike test, we couldn’t help but enjoy ourselves at the NGPC event. Hanging with the whole JCR Honda Team felt like family from the get-go and there was never a shortage of friendly smack talk to go around. As we cruised around the pits it was clear that the NGPC Series really embodies the family friendly aspects of racing and seeing so many friends and families experiencing a weekend together solidified our faith in the moto community. Hats off to the entire NGPC crew and the Viewfinders MC for their hard work during the weekend.
And then it was race time. We geared up in our new Fly Racing gear and topped off the IMS Tank and headed to the start line. The RX also sports the selectable HRC Launch Control which is said to “provide a steady stream of torque for excellent performance on race starts.” Once the bike is on, put it in neutral, and hold the start button for three seconds. A purple light flashes in the “map” button screen and you’re good to go. I selected my preferred map (map 2), traction control (HSTC 2), start settings and it was go time.
The CRF450RX helped me get off to a great start, staying in the dirt around the outside of the asphalt start line to avoid any carnage. I came around in a top five position and let the 450 power eat all the way down the first asphalt straight. Once in the dirt, my group gave chase to the leaders, trying to hold a steady pace and not blow all the energy reserves on lap one. The RX was the perfect bike for the job and having the HSTC light on during the race was a boost of added confidence in the overwatered sections of the track. The 45 minute race would mean four laps on the Viewfinders course, each one a little tougher than the last. I held down third place in the heavyweight intermediate class for most of the race and charged my way up to pass second place on the final lap. In our final run through the infield, third place hucked the wall jump over my head and cut over just in time to seal the deal at the finish chute. Good, hard, clean racing and nothing like a 45 minute race coming down to less than a second at the line! Johnny Campbell and the rest of the Honda crew greeted me back at the truck with smiles and high fives all around.
The pre-race changes showed through as the race wore on and ultimately lead us to make more changes once the race was concluded. We aimed at making the bike softer for the bumpy terrain but actually made it too soft. This led to the bike riding too low in the stroke and we weren’t feeling the plusher initial part of the stroke. As a result, the bike felt harsh and discomforting that led to premature fatigue in the latter part of the race.
For day two we went the opposite direction; stiffening the suspension to sit higher in the stroke and slowing the rebound to gain some rider comfort and aid in bump absorption. The technicians also lowered the forks about 1-2mm to gain some high-speed stability and reduce the front end diving due to slowing the rebound. Another change we made was adding more bottom end “hit” to the engine. Map two really smoothed out the power on day one and made the bike very easy to ride, but seemed to lack some of the 450 grunt in the deeper sand. For Sunday’s race we would switch over to map one and accompany it with HSTC two. Jason from Honda advised us that this was his preferred “sweet spot” for both power and control. After some post-race debrief with the team, the grills were fired up and so was the weekend’s Straight Rhythm Race. With the day’s competition over, we were wide open on smack talk and bench racing. As said before, the comradery of these events is next level.
With most of the jitters out of the way it was time for Sunday’s main event, the hour and a half long pro race. The guys and gals in the JCR pits finished up all the bike changes and had it ready to ride by the time we got to the truck early on Sunday morning. I was anxious to see if I had bitten off more than I could chew by signing up for the 90 minute race, but was hoping to stay calm and ride at a steady pace for it’s duration.
With a days experience on the HRC launch control, I was ready to pull a good start. The mapping definitely aids in power and control off the start line, assisting the rider with a smooth delivery down the straight. It was so good in fact that I nearly beat everyone to the first corner but had to brake so hard that I almost blew the first turn! After the long asphalt straight away I was once again in a top five position and looking to do battle with the front runners.
The changes we made to the bike for Sunday’s race were noticeable right away. The suspension held up much better in the choppy braking bumps and felt like I was riding over them, not into them. The bottoms of the sand rollers had big square-edged curbs that the rear end soaked up with ease, never bottoming or kicking. And map one delivered heaps of power whenever and wherever I wanted it while HSTC two kept the rpm rev’s in control. These changes allowed me to carry more speed around the outsides of the fast course better than any other point in the weekend. I felt like I was hanging off the back of the bike as we battled for position in the sand whoops and the loamy outside corners. I could put the bike wherever I wanted; maintaining a confidence inspiring blend of stability and nimbleness.
And then disaster struck in the form of a flat tire. I had just begun my third lap battling for fifth position when I felt the rear tire go flat and started skating around the track. For a moment I forgot I was with the JCR Honda Team and was gutted thinking my race was over. As I dishearteningly limped the bike back to the pits, I was greeted by an eager pit crew, wheel and tools in hand. They yelled to jump off the bike and quickly hoisted it onto the stand. I handed the bike to the experts and was back out on course with a new rear wheel in under a few minutes. My hopes were back up and my race was far from over.
While the race win being virtually out of reach at this point, I thought to myself, “What would Johnny Campbell do?”. There was no way I was going to DNF this race in front of the whole Honda crew. The pit stop gave me a chance to rest so I was more than ready to finish the 90 minute moto strong. Confident in the bike and my abilities, I began to piece sections together and click off laps that took were similar to those before the flat. In the end I crossed the line 13th out of 19 riders, even after losing about 6 minutes with the flat tire excursion. The fist bumps and high fives at the finish line made it all worth it.
So how was being a factory rider for the weekend? It really was everything those childhood dreams thought it would be. I felt like the center of attention all weekend; the star rider for the team. I rolled into the track each morning with only my gear bag, knowing the rest of the team had my bike dialed for a full day of racing. The sag was set at the beginning of the day and the bike was washed after every time it saw the dirt. I don’t even think I took my bike off the stand one time the whole weekend! There was food in the pits after each session and enough smiles and motivational talks to last the whole season. [Ed. Note – Still very jealous.] And the bike completely exceeded expectations. It proved to be a full blown race machine, keen to tackle the toughest off-road conditions while still handling the motocross portions with ease. A few simple clicks on the suspension and the mapping switches and you’ll feel like a factory racer too; ready to take this red rocketship to the top step of the podium. If you can’t make it as an elite level pro, you might as well relive those childhood dreams by riding what the series champ rides, the 2020 CRF450RX.
A huge thank you goes out to the entire JCR Honda Team for their hospitality and making this weekend better than expected. Special thanks especially to Jason Abbott, Chris Jonum, Johnny and Faye Campbell, Brad and Traci Stewart, Ray and Laurie Conway, Gage Day, and Trevor Stewart. As mentioned, stay tuned for a First Impression on the bike’s handling to get an in-depth review on the new CRF450RX.