How the Honda Off-Road Team turned the CRF450X into a winning Baja racer

  • AUTHOR
    Courtesy of Red Rider Magazine
  • POSTED
    Dec 14, 2009
  • POSTED IN
    Offroad

It’s hard to imagine a better bike for Baja than Honda’s venerable XR650R, which won the Baja 1000 in its first try back in 1999 and was undefeated until last year. Hey, nothing lasts forever, especially in racing. At the 2006 Baja 1000, the Honda team rolled out the 650’s replacement—a modified CRF450X—and posted Honda’s record-setting 17th victory in this grueling race. For the 450X, it was the beginning of a legacy.

What does the Honda team do to transform a stock CRF450X into a Baja winner? Surprisingly little, especially considering the unforgiving terrain of the Baja 1000 and the fact that team riders Johnny Campbell, Steve Hengeveld, Robbie Bell and Kendall Norman are capable of inflicting severe punishment on the bikes they race.

Reliability and rideability remain the key goals, with outright power a more minor consideration. In fact, in preparing the latest CRF450X for the Tecate SCORE Baja 250 (which happened to be the very same machine employed to win the BITD Parker 250 at the beginning of the year), Precision Concepts opted for the mellower power-delivery package. (Had the San Felipe race taken place as originally scheduled by SCORE, the harder-hitting, high-output-motor package was ready to go, but on the hard-packed surfaces of the western and central portion of the Baja peninsula it generates too much wheelspin and excessive tire wear.)

Precision Concepts begins by replacing a few of the top-end components. A 2002 CRF450R cam replaces the stock unit and necessitates the use of a 2007 CRF450R head that’s been ported by KMY Motorsports to retain the excellent high-speed power while smoothing and broadening the initial hit off idle. The entire exhaust system is from Pro Circuit, capped with a T4 race muffler.

Most of the rest of the engine remains stock, though Hinson provides both its clutch cover and clutch basket for additional oil capacity. Pro Honda Oils HP4 10W-40 non-moly oil goes into the gearbox, while HP4 with moly lubricates the engine. In addition, HP Coolant fills the standard radiators.

While the electric starting system remains in place, a 1X International starter-switch modification eliminates the clutch-lever-engagement requirement (one less step to take) and replaces the standard start button with another kill button (saves a few ounces).

A Renthal 997 Twin-Wall handlebar seems to suit all riders and sits in a BRP top triple clamp, with a Scotts steering damper and bolt-on locating post helping eliminate headshake. The grips are straight off an XR650R, and Works Connection’s Elite clutch perch with integral hot-start lever provides a smooth-operating, strong, integrated assembly that’s unlikely to break in normal spills. On the right side, a 2007 CRF450R front brake master cylinder gives slightly greater deceleration capability. Two more vital items mounted on the handlebar are the plug-in for the Push To Talk communications system—the rider carries a Vertex FM transceiver in his fanny pack and ear buds tucked underneath his helmet—and the Garmin Foretrex 201 GPS in a 1X International mount. (The GPS is primarily for rider reference so he doesn’t exceed the 60-mph speed limit on highway sections.) The rider’s hands are protected by Acerbis Uniko handguards with spoilers.

Another item that may surprise you: The stock CRF450X chassis remains unchanged for the team’s Baja bikes. Some subsystems are tweaked for the specific high-speed demands of Baja, starting with the suspension. Showa works forks and shocks replace the stock items, the biggest difference being titanium-nitride coatings on the works shock shafts and fork-tube lowers for reduced friction. The actual suspension valving is done by Bob Bell of Precision Concepts after extensive testing with the team. For the Baja 250, the valving was the same as for the 1000, keeping in mind the higher speeds, which demand quick suspension response. “It feels kind of wallowy at low speeds,” Bell concedes. But the setup soaks up rocks and hits at normal race speeds, thanks in part to lots of blow-off in the valve stacks and the fine polish work he does to the piston bands.

Interestingly, though the spring rates remain close to stock, the actual springs are not original to the X, at least in front. The 0.47-kg/mm fork springs, for example, are from the CRF450R simply because they’re 5mm shorter, so not as much preload is required—something Robby Bell and Norman have come to prefer. For the Baja 250, this was a 5.48-kg/mm spring. Had the race been held in San Felipe’s more whooped-out terrain, a 5.56-kg/mm spring would’ve been installed.
Other features include a 3.2-gallon IMS fuel tank with the dry-break quick-fill system, IMS stainless steel footpegs and a CRF450R left-side footpeg bracket to coincide with the kickstand’s removal. Since Precision Concepts removed the odometer and the rider relies on the GPS for speed and other info, a CRF450R front axle and wheel spacers replace the X components. In addition, Moose Racing front brake pins with their 8mm hex heads replace the standard Allen-head pins for faster pad changes. In back, a 1X International wheel spacer kit and rear-brake caliper hanger modification lead to quicker wheel changes.

For tires, Dunlop’s 80/100-21 D742FA is stuffed with a Dunlop mousse foam insert, though the rear 110/100-18 D739AT runs a heavy-duty Dunlop tube with tire pressure set to 14 psi. (On the heavier XR650R, they usually ran 16 psi.)

A D.I.D 520ERV3 X-ring racing chain connects the Renthal sprockets. Set up for the Baja 250, it was 15/47 (coincidentally the same as the XR650R’s Baja gearing) and resulted in a 114-mph top speed on paved surfaces. A BRP chain guide and works chain slider keep things in line there.

While the original number plate/headlight assembly is run during daylight hours to keep the original profile, it’s simply an empty shell. The actual light is ditched, and a stainless steel screen is riveted in its place.

A “brake snake” cable helps keep the brake pedal from harm, and Eric Siraton of Precision Concepts also removes some of the inner teeth from the pedal. That way, there’s less chance of punching a hole in the clutch cover should a rock or a crash succeed in bending the pedal. Another crucial protective piece is the durable works plastic skidplate. Johnny Campbell fashioned the original one by riveting an XR650R’s plastic skidplate over the standard one; he called it “the morph.” The works skidplate from Japan mimics those contours and provides the added protection desired but remains light and doesn’t adversely affect handling (bolt-on aluminum skidplates can stiffen the frame too much and in the wrong places, according to the team’s testing).

If you wanted a Honda Off-Road Team Baja 1000 replica CRF450X, you could build one. Or Precision Concepts could build one for you. The real question then would be: Are you able to ride it to its potential? If so, a Baja 1000 win could be within your grasp.

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