The Pits – Part 2

Having seen a small herd of custom motorcycles I didn’t expect to see in the Barber Vintage Festival’s Racing Pits, it was finally time to ogle some racing iron.

You know how they say “Birds of Feather Flock Together”? Well, the weirder the bird, the more this is likely to be true.

And to the normal motorcycle enthusiast, there is nothing weirder than racing sidecars.

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The Number 1 Formula 1 Racing sidecar shown here is the Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage Race team — piloted by Bernard Juchli and passengered by Kevin Kautzky.

Folks that are fans of Jay Leno’s new car show ‘Jay Leno’s Garage’ don’t need to be introduced to Bernard — who is Jay’s Chief Mechanic and restorer for his superb and massive collection of cars and motorcycles.

Diehard sidecar fans are likely light-headed from laughing at my use of the term ‘passenger’, when everyone knows the person who doesn’t have the handlebars in their hands is called ‘The Monkey’. Big Dog Racing’s Monkey, Kevin Kautzky, kind of breaks the monkey mold. Most Monkeys are like jockeys or crew coxwains – teensy weensy diminutive personages designed to maximize power to weight and minimize wind resistance.

Kevin ain’t no little girly-man-monkey, no sir. Maybe my own lack of stature is affecting my perception, but in his leathers and racing boots he must be a muscular six-foot six or six-foot seven, at least. Sizing him up I could visualize him wanting to make the chair’s tire stick at speed and being able to make it stick.

When I saw the Big Dog rig out on the circuit later, what I had imagined was easily confirmed.

***

Pitting with Big Dog is the Formula Super2 of Steve Stull and Heidi Neidhofer. Since once can safely assume that sidecarists are rugged individualists, it is not surprising that Steve and Heide eschew the conformist “Monkey” designation and prefer instead ‘driver and co-driver’.

Their Super2 bike mates the same liter class four cylinder engine of the Formula One machines to a shorter, lighter chassis. Where the Formula One feels like a cruise missile, Super2 comes across all aerobatic biplane.

Co-driver Heidi does conform to the more typical physical profile of they-who-doesn’t-hold-the-handlebars — more of a dead-serious-gymnast’s compact strength compared to Kevin’s pro-cornerback build.

The lighter, shorter and theoretically more agile Super 2 should be able to really embrace and exploit the Barber Circuit’s tighter, more technical sections.

And again, when I sat on the crest of Ace Corner later in the afternoon during the sidecar heat race — sitting in a spot where I could see the Carousel and the next two corners, Steve and Heide were like two manifestations of a single mind — Heide a constant smooth blur of motion on the rig, and Steve constantly on the gas and setting up for the next corner.

I’ll admit I was pulling for Bernard, but Steve and Heide were doing things with their rig in the corners that were rearranging the two-wheel limited perceptions of my mind. Their racer was carrying so much speed and exiting so hard that I found myself just giggling insanely just watching them and their chair as it just walked completely away.

***

In sidecar racing, one just really can’t get around ‘The Monkey’.

Their skill in controlling the traction available at the drive and cornering wheels is really what makes the whole unlikely thing go.

The sidecar chairmen and chairwomen have balls and skill I will never have.

Wandering down what seemed to be Sidecar Row in the Barber paddock, I came to something I had been expecting to see.

Unlike two wheeled roadracing, where the manufacturer had only experienced limited success, in sidecar racing BMW boxer twins had been utterly dominant for roughly three decades.

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Sitting out front of the Blue Moon Cycles’ shelter was this classic BMW kneeler racing sidecar. The motor in it looked like it could have been borrowed straight out of my Toaster.

One of the friends of the shop saw me deep in thought contemplating their kneeler, and walked up to chat.

“So will we see this out there running in anger today?”

“Oh, no man. His Monkey passed away last year. After 30 years together, I mean how could you?

He don’t race no more.”

You can not get around ‘The Monkey’.

***

Guys that race an old motorcycle must possess a certain level of inner strength and determination.

The older the motorcycle, the stronger that inner steel needs to be.

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If you’re racing a mostly unrestored 1913 Indian Scout — look at the surface rust on the frame and forks — you’re titanium.

If, in addition to your 1913 Scout, you are running 8 or 9 Nortons — motorcycles with a somewhat deserved reputation for a certain fragility when under stress — well, man, you’re Superman.

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***

I’d been watching a race over the pit wall as I wandered around the paddock. The class seemed to be basically ‘Classic UJM’, with air cooled transverse fours and twin shock rears. If you are a person of a certain age, these are your motorcycles.

You know who you are.

In that class, one guy was clearly smoother, faster and more in the groove than his competitors. He lead from the start, and smoothly stretched his lead so he came across the line completely alone.

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This guy, moto-writer Nick Ienatsch, was that guy.

“Ya gave me a great bike — all I had to do was not mess it up.”

He was visibly having a hell of a time, and was clearly as fast in the flesh as he is on the page.

***

Some people go GP Racing.

Other people like to ride pit bikes in the Paddock.

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Some people like to do both.

***

There are lots of people that think that the Archetype and Highest achievement of the Racing motorcycle is the Classic British Single.

A lot of those people make the trek to Alabama for the Barber Vintage Festival.

The Classic British single take a lot of different types — Norton Manxes and Internationals, the Velocettes and Matchlesses — but they all share an elemental form that is the motorcycle reduced to its absolute minimum: a single cylinder, two wheels and a place to hold on.

Being a guy that thinks about simplicity and complexity, I got no gas with people that are willing to put themselves on the line to demonstrate that these simplest possible motorcycles are somehow a higher expression of what motorcycling means.

These are motorcycles that speak loudly to me. I can feel every power hit of these big singles as the grips grow wider in my hands closing in on redline. I can feel the front tire lifting free of the track on tight corner exits, and power wheelying coming across rises in the pavement.

These are hard motorcycles for hard men. The very notion of refinement — something that might temper their essential mechanical brutality — seems utterly alien standing in front of a Norton Manx.

***

The American Historic Racing Motorcycle Racing Association’s (AHMRA) Number Plate Registry identifies number 14x as belonging to Randy Hoffman.

I didn’t get the chance to talk to you, Randy, but if i had, I would have told you something you already know — that you have absolutely exquisite taste in motorcycles.

This 1938 Velocette KTT Mk VII is just beautiful — almost as narrow and light as a bicycle, except this bicycle has a substantial single cylinder engine, a girder front end, and a shapely fuel tank with perfect black paint and gold pinstriping.

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Single cylinder Vincent Comets are extremely rare in the United States. Rarer still are The Grey Flash, a single cylinder in full racing trim – essentially a one cylinder version of the famous Black Lightning. This one is a head-turner.

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The overwhelming impression one comes away with is that this Grey Flash is almost made of more air than metal — there’s almost nowhere where one can’t see straight through the motorcycle.

The tale that Vincent historians tell is that Phil Irving was busy at the draftsman’s table and accidentally superimposed two blueprints for the Comet’s engine on top of each other and realized that there was already the space required to install a second top end in the space behind the cylinder on the Comet’s crankcases. This flash of insight produced the Vincent Rapide’s V-twin, and changed the course of motorcycling history.

Looking at this Grey Flash, I can’t help but think of my son Finn’s new Buell Blast. Feel free to scoff. Everybody else does. Faced with a completely different problem, Eric Buell removed the rear cylinder from a Harley Davidson Sportster’s engine, and ended up in nearly the same place.

One approach was additive, and one was subtractive, but the two motorcycles — with their inclined singles and monoshock rears, are startlingly close to the same elemental solution.

***

Motorcycle enthusiasm can require sustained financial commitment.

Duh.

People will tell you — why are unknown people always telling us things? — that because of that hierarchy of self-imposed enthusiasm taxes — that the finest kind of boat, or the finest kind of airplane, is somebody else’s boat — somebody else’s airplane.

People have told me — there they are again — that the same sort of logic applies to owning any performance Velocette motorcycle.

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Looking at this one, though, it looks like any price would be totally worth it.

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One thought on “The Pits – Part 2

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

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