Often referred to as one of the most outlandish forms of motorsports, vintage motorcycle sidecar racing exists today as a close-knit community of dedicated enthusiasts. The thrill of a two-person team throttling around the track on a heavily modified machine keeps the spirit of vintage racing alive in more ways than one. Just one look at these rigs excites even the most seasoned motorcyclist. For those unaware, a typical outfit consists of a custom racing frame built to accommodate a sidecar. These quirky bikes sit very low, with a driver and passenger pair strategically maneuvering around the track by working together through variations of speed, timing, and passenger positioning.
Sidecars have been around since the early 1900s and used in both World Wars. Racing in Europe started in 1914 but didn’t make its way to the United States until 1949. The sport has been through some structural changes since then, but at the core, these competitive machines remain mostly the same. Organized racing still takes place around North America, with a number of the folks involved living in Western Pennsylvania. The two rigs we’re featuring belong to local brothers Mike and Sean Stivason, who currently participate in the AHRMA championship series (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association). Racing weekends take place all over the country, with different sidecar classes categorized by a number of factors. Without getting into too much detail, the main difference is how the rigs are set up as far as the chassis, engine, brakes, tires, and so on. All classes race on the same weekend, and oftentimes the Formula Modern rigs will run at the same time as the vintage rigs.
Mike Stivason with his BSA A65 (left) and Sean and Susan Stivason with their Yamaha XS650 (right).
Mike’s BSA A65 is a 650cc four-speed with a Fidderman chassis that was originally built in England in the 1970s. It’s been modified throughout the years, but the original chassis won the AMA National Championships in 1976 and 1977, as well as second place in New Zealand. Mike pointed out some of the unique elements of his BSA racer, “The motor has a pair of Amal concentric carburetors, flowed head, Kibblewhite Black Diamond valves, RD valve springs, forged pistons, H-beam connecting rods, ARD mag, and a close-ratio transmission.” He has won the AHRMA SC1 championship in both 2018 and 2019 with passenger Dave Kiggins, also from Pittsburgh. Mike started with Kiggins this year, but due to conditions around the pandemic, made a switch to his current passenger, Kayla Theisler. Together, they took the 2020 SC1 Championship. For 2021, Kiggins will be racing his own XS650 SC2 rig that used to be owned by Dutch Stivason, Mike and Sean’s father, who is currently racing a Harley Sportster rig.
Sean’s Yamaha XS650 has a big bore 750cc engine on a Paul Whittaker chassis—rumored to be the last chassis he made. Sean races with his wife, Susan, as the passenger, and together they won the AHRMA SC3 National Championship this year. When asked about what it was like racing as a married couple, Sean sees it as a benefit because he trusts her. “You have to trust who you have on the outside of the rig,” he said. “I’ve been faster on every track with her.” Susan explained that moving around on the passenger side is kind of like an L-shape with three positions. “You go out to the front, the back, and over the back of the bike. You have to move at the right time. Sometimes the driver has to slow the bike up to allow the passenger to get into position. It’s very strategic.”
When it comes to preparation, Sean explained that they normally discuss the track while driving to the race so it becomes a mental note by the time the two arrive. They take it slow in the first practice, then steadily increase speed to get into the groove and understand the track conditions. That’s when Susan is figuring out when and what position she needs to be in.
Mike added that most people don’t realize that the driver might control the steering mechanism, but the passenger is the one that turns the rig. “The passenger is ten times more important than the driver. If they’re not in the right position, then the rig will be unstable,” he said. “Normally, the passenger will stay tucked in and as low as possible if you’re on a straightaway. When attacking a corner, they put the weight forward to bring you in like a pendulum swing. They are only going to move as fast as they can, so as a driver, your amount of throttle, clutch, and brake control has to match what they are doing. If you don’t throttle or clutch at the right time, the rig could lose control.”
Another factor that comes into play is passing, where strategies depend heavily on the type of bike and class. For instance, Sean’s 750cc Yamaha has a lot of top-end, so they’re able to get around on straightaways or corners. On a vintage rig like Mike’s BSA, passing takes place mostly in the corners. Knowing how to slide around turns is a benefit when getting past competitors.
The love of this sport and motorcycle racing, in general, was something the Stivason brothers grew up with. “Along with our dad, Dutch, we’ve always raced vintage stuff. The first time on a sidecar was fun because there was an excitement of doing it as a team,” Mike said. “It’s a specialized sport, and nothing will put a bigger smile on your face. That’s why it’s starting to become more popular again. It’s something different.”
For those that want to learn more about sidecar racing, the brothers first recommend looking into AHRMA. Anyone can join and receive their magazine, rulebooks, and information on race weekends throughout the country. Those who want to get involved or ask questions are more than welcome to get in touch with Stivason Vintage Racing through email or social media. As Mike put it, “The entire sport is very friendly and always willing to answer any questions or help others when needed. Everyone supports everyone. The bond within the sidecar community is amazing.”
Photo by NVUS Images.
Photo by Etech Photo.
Photo by Etech Photo.
Photo by Tom Macconnell.
Photo by Tom Macconnell.
1964 BSA A65
Owned by MIKE STIVASON
1972 YAMAHA XS650
Owned by SEAN STIVASON
STIVASON VINTAGE RACING