Two of the most unusual motorcycles of the early 1970s came from Spain to America with an unexpected mission—to win short-track racing everywhere from local races to the Grand National Championship Series. The notoriously high-strung temperamental pair were the Bultaco Astro and the Ossa Stiletto TT, both based on successful 250cc motocross racers.
The Spanish took torquey motocross powerplants and tuned them to within an inch of their lives, and often beyond. Dirt Bike magazine attempted a shootout between the Astro and Stiletto TT, but was never able to keep them running simultaneously. “Faster than a speeding bullet, the 1971 through 1973 Astros had a lifespan about equal to a gnat trying to bench press a hippo,” according to Dirt Bike founder Rick “Super Hunky” Sieman. “[Ossa] made a hot version of the MX model, much like the Bultaco Astro, called the TT Stiletto. It, too, blew up with monotonous regularity.” With a close-ratio transmission to best exploit the narrowed powerband, these were undiluted competition motorcycles.
The Astro was the racebike of choice for non-Japanese factory riders competing in the Grand National Championship when their brands—Harley-Davidson, BSA, Triumph—stopped offering a suitable short-track platform. The Bultaco Astro adopted its name from the Houston Astrodome, where it was successful on the dirt track built on the domed stadium floor that also hosted TT Nationals.
By 1975, Ossa had thrown in the dirt-track towel, leaving Bultaco as the sole surviving builder of showroom racers on the genre—a 250 and a 360. The Bultaco M146, better known as the Astro 360 built from 1974 to 1976, is the granddaddy of them all.
Justin Young is a connoisseur of iconic dirt bikes, and a racer since he was 10. “I rode through high school and was a regional fast guy,” Young recalls, “but without much support and college approaching, I sold my racers. I had a few jobs after college, but as a motorcycle lover, I wanted to be working with bikes, and I landed a job working for Harley-Davidson Motor Company. I did lots of road, and some dirt bike, riding, but missed racing.”
“I picked up the M145 (the predecessor of the Astro in this story) and a 600-kitted Honda in a Cheney frame and later a 600 Wood Rotax,” Young continues. “I got a Pro-Sport license and rode when and where I could. During this time, I raced that bike in Minnesota, Texas, Florida, and California. The Astro was always in the battle for the podium. I think I had enough points to turn expert, but it takes lots of cash and more time than I had to keep going. So, I just kept having fun.”
“I guess I have ridden about everything except road and drag racing,” Young says. “As a kid, we’d ride our [Honda] XR75s at trials events, hillclimbs, motocross, and flat tracks. Whatever was going on, we were there. There’s a stack of driftwood in the office and attic. When I look back, each and every one is a great memory and reminds me of the community of motorcycling. From being a kid at the local track, to riding at bigger events as a pro, it’s always been fun.”
We took a close look at his 1981 Maico 490 Mega 2 a couple of years ago, which Young has since raced at Diamond Don’s Annual AHRMA International Vintage Motocross in Texas, along with other vintage events. It stands at the pinnacle of two-stroke European motocross machinery. This time, Young decided it was time for him to return to dirt-track racing, and that meant hunting down the elusive M146.
“The big Astro!” Young exclaims. “I had been looking for a long time, when Ronnie Jones, a friend who knew I had been on the hunt, said he just picked up a barn fresh 360. It took more than a few phone calls, but I managed to talk him out of it. This one is built as a racer that you can ride today, but it maintains the original look of an Astro.”
“In 1997, I took the Astro to Daytona Bike Week,” Young continues. “The Astro took carried me to a Vintage National Win at Municipal Stadium over George Richtmeyer Jr. who had been winning all weekend. In fact, it was working so well, I signed it up in the Pro Sport 250 class the following day. The other racers were younger and had never seen anything like it—compression release buzzing while I cleared it out to hit the track. The fans, on the other hand, were cheering so loud for the Astro that I could hear them through my helmet. All of these trick 250s, and one old Astro battling it out in Daytona. I finished just off the box that night, but the crowd dug it, and I considered it a victory for the Bul.”
The Bultaco Astro and its riders still cast a shadow over modern proceedings, as Young tells us. “We had short tracks every Wednesday night and would travel to regional events on the weekends,” he says, recalling the 1970s racing scene. “One of our local legends was Dan Deubler. Dan and his family have been Bultaco riders and a flat track family as long as I’ve known them. His grandson Scottie Deubler, an accomplished rider, is now a broadcaster and one of the voices of American Flat Track. Dan’s influence on the local pros had more than a few of them on Astros, and I was always blown away by the performance and great looks of the bike.”
“At that time, every pro needed an Astro if they were going to be a contender,” Young remembers. “It was an off the showroom flat-tracker that handled great, looked great, and had the strong but smooth power delivery that was a requirement for a podium finish.”
Young’s 1975 Bultaco Astro 360 should have a long life. It is a cult motorcycle from a beloved brand with a devoted following. “Astros still have a big racer and fan following,” Young says, “so I was able to access parts and support from a bunch of great folks like Charlie Roberts, Hugh’s Bultaco, Banke Performance, and others. The end result speaks for itself. It’s a clean race-ready bike. Most recently, I was back on the dirt track at the AHRMA National at Henryetta, Okla., put on by [two-time World Motocross Champion] Trampas Parker. I finished 2nd in my class.”
Still photography by Thomas Hayden