Wrenchin’ with Nixon

9

There was a point in my life when the shit I didn’t know vastly outweighed the shit I did know.

That probably isn’t earthshattering news.

Heck, I can even think of a few people who might opine that those days never ended, but we’re not going to get hung up on their negative vibe, man.

As a puppy motorcyclist — bright eyed, empty headed, and 22 years old — the things I didn’t know about motorcycling were manifold and encyclopedic in scope.

I didn’t know anything about motorcycling history.

Anything more complicated than Honda and Harley-Davidson were utterly wasted on me. Motoguzzi? FN? Sarolea? The Vincent? Aermacci? MV Agusta? Velocette? Huh?

I knew less about motorcycle engineering. Telescopic Forks? Roller and plain bearings? Overhead Cams? Twin Swirl Heads? Frame rigidity and controlled flex? Progressive linkages? Air cooling? Singles, Twins, Fours and Sixes? You talkin’ to me?

My knowledge of motorcycle competition was even more miniscule. To nothing and more than nothing we added nothing to a higher power. I thought that Glen Curtiss only made airplanes. Cal Rayborn? Kenny Roberts? Who? Geoff Duke? A movie star? Giacomo Agostini? Maybe an Italian restaurant?

Everybody’s got to start somewhere, and I started with a blank sheet of paper and the sound of crickets.

I hope I can be forgiven.

Its not like we Americans provide a great deal of public respect and adulation to what should be our motorcycle racing heros. Bike race winners aren’t on the evening news or the front page of the paper the way NASCAR and Indianapolis winners are. Even today, the number of American competitors in the Global MotoGP championships is a tiny minority, will the majority coming from Europe and elsewhere.

Why kill all these electrons to drive home the point of how dumb I was?

Don’t make me get ahead of myself.

***

How dumb I was starts to explain how anyone might think it was a good idea to buy a 1973 Honda CB750 Four that someone else has tried to hack and modify into an American Style Cruiser.

The bike had a Two Inch Overstock Extended Fork, Kerker Four Into One Exhaust, K&N Pod Air Filters, and a stepped cruiser saddle. It was working way too hard to be cool. That Honda — my first street motorcycle — was a magnificent motor wrapped in total, utter garbage. Every single one of those modifications had made the bike less ridable by degrading its handling and throttle response. It was pretty cool with the revs up in a straight line, but everywhere else it was a nightmare.

That nightmare was on big-screen display every time I entered a corner. The extended front end had moved the already high center of gravity higher and the weight distribution further rearward. The OEM shock absorbers, which were never that good to begin with, were no longer even phoning it in with 40,000 miles on them and under these less-than-optimum conditions. Once leaned in the bike was a pogoing, wandering mess on which it was absolutely impossible to maintain any kind of cornering line.

I may have only known one tick more than nothing, but if I wanted to survive the next year or two I knew I needed to get that motorcycle some shocks that worked.

So I went looking for some shocks.

***

In the early 80s, me and my Honda shared an apartment with some of my buds in Cockeysville, Maryland.

One day, while headed north on York Road, I saw a fairly loud red, white and blue sign out of my peripheral vision. I turned my head to see “Gary Nixon Enterprises — Motorcycle Parts and Performance.”

I ran up the road until I found a safe place to turn around, went back to the shop, kickstanded it, removed my helmet and went inside.

The shop seemed a little threadbare.

I remember lots of beige painted drywall, a few posters, a few fairly sparsely populated glass display cases. There was a set of red racing leathers on the wall, and then there was that guy.

My host was fairly small of stature, with greying red hair and a seriously square set of jaw.

He got up out of his chair and walked to the counter.

“Help you?”

His jaw didn’t seem to move when he talked.

I told him I was looking for some replacement shocks for my CB750.

He said he had just the thing, and named a price which I knew to be well below reasonable. I asked to see them, and he went back into the stockroom to fetch them.

While he was out of the room, I started to let my attention wander a little just to get a feel for the joint. There were pictures here and there of racebikes — local kids on dirtbikes, and some more serious-seeming road racers.

I looked back at the leathers on the wall. They were bright red, with ‘Nixon’ emblazoned across the back — in perfect 70s style, the ‘I’ in Nixon had a big star for the dot. Upon closer inspection, it seemed clear they had been cut off the original occupant.

There was one more thing that took a long time to compute. The leathers had a fairly large, abraded hole, pretty much right where the left buttock of the user would have been.

I was having a ‘Mr. Jones Moment’. I was pretty sure something was happenin’, but I didn’t know what it is, yo. The hardness, the perverse humor, the fairinged and sponsor stickered road racers in the picture…

“Some shit, huh? Was wearing those on the Kawasaki Triple, flat out on the front straight at Daytona, when the two stroke sumbitch siezed right up. Slid on my ass almost the whole length of the straight. Ha!”

His jaw, Gary Nixon’s jaw, definitely didn’t move when he talked.

There was a reason for that, which you can find told in any history of American Motorcycle Racing. This was Grand National Champion Gary Nixon, one of the most competitive, gifted and unlucky men ever to grab the bars and twist a throttle.

But to my younger self, whose Native American name was “Sound-of-Crickets”, this was just a friendly guy in a bike shop — a lively soul like many more I would meet around bikes. I had no clue this was the equivalent of buying your baseball bat from Mickey Mantle.

Cheep. Cheep. Cheep.

***

The shocks that Gary produced were Boge Mulhollands. Unbeknowst to me — OK, everything was unbeknownst to me — these were the best shocks made for that CB at the time. They were fully rebuildable, valving could be adjusted, and all the roadracers and canyon hotshoes of the day had these on their single cam Hondas. All I knew was that they cost a great deal less than the Honda dealer’s OEM shock, and they were going to do the job.

I paid the man, pumped his hand and thanked him for his help.

When I got to the curb, I looked at the bike, the box in my hands, my luggage rack and my collection of bungie cords. These things were heavy, expensive and I didn’t really like the thought of them rubber banded out there.

“Four bolts”, I thought.

“Easiest way, best way. I’ll just eat ’em here”.

I yanked out the tooklit and had the street side bolts yanked in two minutes. I pryed the former shock absorber off and replaced it with one of the Boges. Just as I was starting to tighten the first bolt, Gary came striding out the store’s front door.

“Jeeeesus Christ, kid, you can’t do that here. If my neighbors see this they’ll run my ass out of the neighborhood”.

Gary scanned left and right up and down the block, seeing nothing. He quickly checked my state of progress.

“Ah shit… gimme that 17”.

I passed him the wrench and proceeded to tighten my side back up with an adjustable I’d added to the stock kit.

Gary had his shock off in significantly less than the little time it had taken me.

We both wrapped up at roughly the same time. One chopped Honda now had two gloss black, serious business road racing shocks.

***

I can tell you that those Boges absolutely transformed that motorcycle. Given its extended wheelbase, it was never going to be a roadracer. Although I began to think of it as more of a streamliner railway locomotive, it did absolutely do exactly what it was told in corners from that point forward.

***

That was many bikes ago, but my understanding and love for cornering started that day, twisting wrenches in a parking space on the side of York Road with Gary Nixon.

As many years of riding and love for motorcycles has gone by, I’ve come to understand just who Nixon the racer was, and his importance and heroic stature in the sport we both loved. The original ‘Never Say Die’ competitor — fighting through staggering injuries, fickle motorcycle factory teams that didn’t do right by him, and even some bad race officiating that cost him a title he had won on the track.

I saw Gary many years later along with a host of other racers out at MidOhio, when BMW sponsored the ‘Battle of the Legends’ series. One of the other racers was talking to me and said, “BMW tells us that this is an exhibition. He..” pointing to Nixon, “…laughs at them every time they say that”.

Nixon was, without doubt, a legend and a racing hero. But that day, sitting on a curb, he was just another motorcyclist, no ego, no barrier, just a bud helping another bud out.

I’ve met lots of would be heros that turned out, upon familiarity, to be first class creeps

Gary Nixon wasn’t one of those.

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3 thoughts on “Wrenchin’ with Nixon

  1. Pingback: The Promised Land — Part 6 | Rolling Physics Problem

  2. Pingback: Some More Racing, Some More Customs, and The End of It All | Rolling Physics Problem

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