I’m not really that into motorcycle competition, with certain noticeable exceptions.
With that out of the way though, I did have the experience of attending a recent motorcycle competition whose extraordinary enthusiasm, dedication and frankly, downright weirdness only served to underscore just how deep the love of motorized two wheeled motation cuts in the rugged, frankly mad individuals that share it.
And no, I’m not talking about the Iron Butt Rally.
Just after I first moved out of Baltimore to Frederick County, Maryland, in the late 1980s, I was making a visit to one of our local motorcycle shops, and saw a poster displayed in a place of honor.
“Barabara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic. July 4th. Frederick Fairgrounds.”
There was red, white and blue. There was fireworks. And there was a Harley Davidson XR sliding sideways at full lock, with a roostertail of dirt pluming out behind.
It looked like a total blast.
And, unsurprisingly, it totally was.
I’d called up a riding pal of mine from Baltimore, an artist who was occasionally known to make use of Yamaha XS650 engines in his work.
He told me there were quite a lot of them available due to a counterbalancer that, well, didn’t. I will have to defer to his expertise in that regard.
I also packed up my then young son, and we headed up to the fairgrounds.
We learned a lot that day.
One, most scary, hairy, leathery bikey 1%er looking people are total teddy bears.
Two, there’s a reason it’s easy to get a spectator spot right on the outside rail at the exit of turn three.
Three, there’s also a reason that the race control team all have hearing protection.
Finally, that there was an obvious reason that Rodney Farris, who just ran away from everyone that day, had “Hot Rod” sewn on the back of his leathers. Someone, it seemed, had neglected to tell Rod that the same thingee that one pulled on to open the throttle could also be used to close it. Oh, well.
Net/net was that we had a great time, and were totally hooked on flat track racing. And nothing about being baked in the sun, deafened and rubbed raw from being pelted with ground-up limestone Harley XR roostertails was going to change that.
We attended more than a few runnings of The Fricthie over the next couple of years, but somehow got out of the habit.
This year, though, was different.
Monday, the 29th of June saw me catch some absolutely evil gastrointestinal flu bug. By Wednesday, both my wife and daughter had it too. As a result, anything we might have normally done for the July 4th Holiday — camping trip, back yard barbeque, etc — got scrubbed cause we felt too bad to even consider it.
By Friday, I felt about 72% human. Sweet Doris from Baltimore asked, mid-afternoon, what we were doing for the 4th.
“What about The Fritchie?” I asked.
D had been on somewhat of a motorsports kick, and she immediately endorsed the notion.
I hit my computer to get some details.
The primary promoter for the race was Richard Riley, the proprietor of Fredericktowne Yamaha, and one of the nicest, most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met in the business. Richard’s shop has custom-ordered most of my gear and a fair bit of my parts, in addition to mounting way more than my fair share of tires over the years. Can’t say enough about what a friendly and helpful team he leads at Fredericktowne Yamaha / Triumph.
Richard has made it kind of a personal quest to shepherd the Barabara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic through its hundredth year. The Fritchie, it seems, is the Oldest Running Dirt Track Half Mile race held in the US — this year would be the 93rd running.
That it would make it this long seems like a long shot — The Fritchie is a regional race which has to compete with AMA Nationals, both at Hagerstown, MD and DuQuoin, IL, that are held on the days before and the days after our local race. The Big Guns of the AMA Grand National Championship have to focus on points-bearing races, so the Fritchie usually has a field made up of guys from the region — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania.
This year’s promotional materials claimed #1 Plate Holder Jared Mees was going to be there. If I had any doubts, that sewed it up for me.
The last thing I remembered thinking before I drifted off to sleep was not to forget the package of foam ear plugs that I usually reserved for rock shows.
At 3 a.m. that morning, I woke up to a clap of thunder, and the sound of rain hammering on my roof.
I got out of bed and walked into the bathroom to look out my back window. All of my customary gully-washing, toad-strangling adjectives seemed inadequate for what I was seeing out that window.
I went back to bed, slow-thinking that this would all pass by morning.
When I woke up, it was still hammering down outside. The drainage swales that are graded into the lot around my house looked a lot like the Olympic whitewater course. The heat races were scheduled to flag off at noon, making it hard to see how anyone could possibly race on a ground limestone track today.
By about 11, the rain let up, and my weather reports were indicating a few hours without precip, and a possible afternoon thunderstorm line, which is completely normal for any day in July in central Maryland.
So D and I hopped in the truck, and headed for the Fairgrounds.
Upon pulling up to The Great Frederick Fairgrounds, we were greeted by my good buddy Drew Alexander, who was working the gate and taking 20s. This was a good omen, as fun always follows Drew around like a puppy.
As we got up close to the track, Richard was on the track PA system talking about how he’d made the decision in the early morning, based on weather reports, to keep the event on, requiring a great leap of faith for the teams that had driven in in that blinding rain starting early that day.
Richard was starting to seem like somebody with God on his side, because conditions were cloudy, cool, and the guys coming off the track during open practice were all saying that track conditions had never been better.
The racing, as it always is, turned out to be stellar. One of the Expert Twins heat races had something like 6 lead changes before finally being settled. The new Kawasaki 650 vertical twin-based machines were, frankly, cleaning the clocks of folks who were still running the traditional Harley XRs. But the action on the track was tight, competitive, and well before the main event I had managed to shout myself hoarse.
And oh yeah, I forgot my earplugs, again. I guess that’s why they invented Ibuprofen.
Was the racing the whole story, though?
It never is.
Richard had arranged the day to honor Eddie Boomhower, an old racer and dealership race team owner who, despite 80 plus years, a new hip and cane, was nattily dressed and regaled the crowd with tales of the race and heroic deeds in days gone by. Boomhower is as much loved for his dedication to the racers his shop supported and in some cases, outright rescued with parts and whole motorcycles required to get to the start line, as he is for his racing exploits.
A new feature during this year’s class was a Boardtracker class. Because, near as I can tell, there hasn’t been a functioning board track race course in the United States since about 1930, anyone that wants to race one of these motorcycles has been all dressed up with nowhere to go. Most boardtrackers are unfairly confined to museums, so even seeing one running is a special treat. Seeing five or six of them whose owners were not only willing to put them at risk by riding them in the anger of competition, but in the filthy conditions of a track comprised of finely ground limestone, is such a rarity that I still can scarcely contain myself.
The bikes that showed for this class were gems. An Excelsior-Henderson Super X. A beautiful Indian with 10 inch straight pipes that dumped straight down at the ground beneath the motorcycle. The Indian even appeared to have prehistoric exhaust power valve, with the copper wire linkage in plain sight leading up to the butterfly inside the front header. A pack of HDs. Great vintage Firestone tires, with their tread patterns made up of the repeated words “NO SKID” formed in rubber. Not a single brake, or throttle in the whole bunch — speed control, such as it was, was accomplished just like in a World War One vintage airplane — if one needed to slow beneath WFO one shorted out the ignition with a bit of spring copper taped to the handlebar.
Anyone who thinks that history is arbitrary would have been frustrated here. Just as in 1913, the Excelsior-Henderson ran away from the field, followed by the Indian. A full three quarters of a lap back were the pack of Harleys, all within 3 bike lengths of each other. What was then, is now.
There was also a vintage class running. This class was awash in beautiful Trackmaster framed Triumphs and Nortons, with a few Yamaha 2-strokes thrown in for aroma. It was as if we’d gone through the wormhole right back into the world of Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday. If you believe that the racing wars of 1970 were never settled, today was a chance to fight that fight all over again. If you are a Triumph man, Joey Alexander carried your flag to victory again today.
In the 250 Amateur class, something extraordinary was going on.
It’s a darn good thing that flat track racing is not Disneyland. In that amusement park universe, one is awash in signs that say “You Must Be This Tall to Ride”. Brandon Newman, age twelve, looked to be about 43 inches tall, and would have come up a full hand’s width under the required height line.
Altitude is clearly for the weak, based on what Brandon showed all of us this Saturday.
His dad, who was working his pit, had modified the bike with what looked to be a few 1x3s and quite a bit of red duct tape, to raise the pegs high enough to provide Brandon with solid purchase when he was on board.
And getting on board was no trivial task, when you’ve got what looks to be a 25 inch inseam.
For most racers, coming off the line is a two step process.
1) Jam the throttle to the stops
2) When the yellow START light comes on, dump the clutch.
For Brandon, however, this process required a third step, namely hopping up to get fully astride the bike, before executing Steps 1) and 2).
In the chaos of a flat track start, the time that it takes for that third step is decidedly non-trivial.
In his heat race, most of the racers were fully up to race pace at the exit from Turn 2 onto the back straight. For Brandon, the Step 1 delay meant he wasn’t really rolling until the entry into Turn Three.
If you were another competitor in 250 Amateur, or even the 450 Amateur with whom they shared the track, that was absolutely no solace whatsoever.
Because once Brandon got rolling, he was smooth, fast, and treated everything else on the track like they were stationary orange cones on the MSF Training Range.
In his heat, Brandon won his class, so it was on to the final.
In the 250 Final, someone was suffering from too much adrenaline and not enough attention.
At the start light, someone on the row behind Brandon went for the big holeshot. Problem was, he was launching while Brandon was still hopping aboard. Holeshot managed to centerpunch Brandon’s bike and they both went down like a ton of bricks.
Instant Red Flag.
Dad was over the pit wall in a flash.
Holeshot pretty quickly realized his mistake, and helped extricate Brandon from the heap of motorcycles, determined neither of them had any broken human parts, and executed a theatrical handshake that drew a round of applause from the crowd.
Dad Newman, meanwhile, was frantically picking the bike up — the rider was too small to manage same — and straightening some dramatically restyled clutch levers, brake pedals and other odds and ends. Fortunately, Dad’s mechanic chops are as good as Brandon’s rider chops. After a few frantic minutes, Brandon and the bike were back on the line, Holeshot managed to adjust his launch line a tad to the right, and all was good with the world.
Brandon, predictably, proceeded to just cruise around everyone on the track for yet a second time, and take home the class trophy.
I’ll go out on a limb here and predict this is someone you’re likely to see with a Grand National Expert Number as soon as he’s old enough for the regulations to permit it.
In Flat Track, it’s all about making and winning The Main. Today’s Main Event would pit Jeremy Higgins, a 23 year old freshly minted National Plate holder riding a 650 Kawasaki, against Dannny Koelsch, a 45 year old who had just come out of retirement, riding the traditional Harley XR.
Problem was, the Whistlepig had other ideas.
As the Expert Twins riders were released from staging onto the starting grid, a Teen-aged Groundhog — referred to in these parts as a Whistlepig — sprinted into the middle of the track, right in front of the start line.
From a tactical standpoint, this is not a good battle for a small mammal to pick.
As someone who should have two groundhog silhouettes painted on the fairing of my K-bike for kills — kills confirmed by my screaming passengers — I can tell you this does not end well.
So, with small giggles from the crowd slowly turning to hysterical laughter, we were treated to the entire course control staff being out-maneuvered by one very freaked out groundhog.
Richard Riley — working the PA and trying to fill the unplanned gap — related a tale of the DuQuoin mile, where a similar incident two years ago had resulted in the untimely demise of one racoon. A year later, the accused in that Racoon-icide had been presented with a Daniel Boone-style coonskin cap during the pre-race Riders’ Meeting.
I’m not aware of any method available to make stylish fashion accessories out of Groundhogs, so we were going to require another solution.
Under significant stress, the track control team had ganged up on the little feller, and had used sheer numbers to corral him. In victory, one of the corner workers — receiving a huge round of applause — carried the groundhog by the tail across the track and into the center of the infield.
The corner worker sat Whistles down in the grass — whereupon he sprinted, as fast as 3 inch long legs can go — right back toward the track.
Hysterical laughter ensued.
Fortunately, the Frederick Fairground’s primary purpose is to hold the fair for our still actively agricultural county every fall — replete with facilities to care for horses, cows, swine and every other farm animal under the sun.
While the corner team was replaying their Whistlepig Roundup Game, some thoughtful individual sprinted off to one of the nearby display barns to get a plastic horse watering tank. After much consternation, Whistles was recollected, and subjected to the minor indignity of being confined under the tank for the 5 minutes or so it would take to complete the main event.
With the Offender thus confined, it was time to race.
The main was kinda anticlimactic. Higgins got the holeshot and that was all she wrote. The suitability of the Ninja 650 Twin engine for flat track, right out of the box, is one of those surprises that keeps the sport interesting. An XR can be tuned to be faster, but it’s work where the Kawi is just gas-and-go. Koelsch, having made maximum effort in the heat, had come up with nothing left in the tank, and came in a fairly distant second.
After having not been to the Fritchie for more than a few years, I’m awfully glad I was there. The weather and conditions were perfect, the racing excellent, and the crowd, as always, was a people watcher’s feast. My thanks to Richard Riley and team for promoting and running a perfect event — one that really is the high point of every Fourth of July in Frederick Maryland. If you’re anywhere in the MidAtlantic region, don’t wait until the 100th to check it out.