The Stories You Tell

You are the stories you tell.

Or at least I am, anyway.

What one choses to relate really reflects the path one has chosen to get through this world and the direction one’s head was pointed in — to the heavens or at one’s muddy boots — while doing it.

Wheelying Sweet Doris around Mount Vernon Circle on our first date, or seeing the Biker Genie emerge from the walls of Saint Alfonso’s Canyon at sunset, I personally have a million stories, and haven’t even scratched the surface of them all yet.

Your stories describe the energy you are, and actually become you when your flesh and blood have finally left this earth.

 

***

 

The stories of groups of people — sports teams, military units, companies — are more complicated mythologies.

The legends of the Motorcycle Industry are manifold. Harley and Davidson out at work in the shed. Honda Engineer Kiyoshi Kawashima successfully using Honda’s first 4 stroke motorcycle engine to crest the Hakone pass. Burt Munro clipping 200 miles an hour at Bonneville on a 1920 Indian when the bike was over 40 years old.

If you happen to be Polaris Industries – the current owner of Indian Motorcycles – the story of Burt Munro is your most precious jewel.

Polaris — in purchasing Indian — had the unenviable task of trying to convince the marketplace that their company — and their motorcycles — were the continuance and legitimate inheritor of the Design, Performance and Competition heritage of the Springfield, Massachusetts Indians — a much beloved motorcycle that hadn’t truly existed since 1953.

That the Indian Legend still seemed to have enough heat left in it to draw buyers — to draw the faithful, the believers, after a 60 year dead — is one of the miracle stories of a brand that flat refused to die, even after having many, many chances to do just that.

But if you are Polaris — those legends of Indian — and especially that of Burt Munro — are the stories you absolutely must wrap around yourselves if people are to imbue you with the good will and dedication of a long-lost past to which — objectively — you are only most tenuously connected.

I recently had the opportunity to write about Indian and their Motorcycles, after a much-anticipated test of an Indian Roadmaster Motorcycle. Being a bit of a geek, I was doing all I could to learn about the history of the Marque — even having asked, without success, if there was a corporate archives or historian I could use to help with research. Having failed that, I resorted to Internet-based research, where Indian enthusiast clubs helped out tremendously.

While looking at the Company’s online history, I saw something that immediately struck me as odd. On the Indian Motorcycle Company’s History page “The Story of a Legend”there is a section entitled ‘Burt Munro’s Historic Ride’.

 

 

There are two pictures  — One of Burt Munro on his streamliner with the shell removed.  The other picture is of Hap Alzina’s Indian Arrow streamliner.

Burt Munro’s first visit to the US, and to Bonneville, was in 1962. He ran again there in 1966 and again in 1967. His 1967 Record Run at Bonneville is absolute legend, the subject of A Ripping Yarn and Barn Burner of a Hollywood movie – ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ .

The ‘Indian Arrow’ only ran once, in 1938, with its rider Freddie Ludlow. The Arrow was kind of a spectacular flop, becoming aerodynamically unstable at a single mile an hour less that the Harley Davidson-set record they had come to beat. Ludlow was born in 1895, and had been a Champion Boardtracker in the 1910s, so by 1938 he was 43 years old. An uncropped version of this same photo is on the AMA website at :  http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=51

These two pictures were taken almost 30 years apart. It’s easy to see from just the cars in the background and Ludlow’s leather helmet. Burt Munro didn’t come to the states until 1962. The second picture isn’t – as it is credited — Burt Munro – it’s clearly Fred Ludlow.

So some web designer somewhere was given access to a set of image files, was told to whip up an Indian History page, saw two old dudes on old motorcycles sitting on the salt and figgered well eff it, that’s close enough. And no one that worked on it, or that reviewed or approved it, or anyone that has looked at it since, knew enough or cared enough to get the story right.

And if they can’t get this story right, then the claim that this is their hallowed past – that they are ‘America’s First Motorcycle Company’, rings as hollow as hollow can be.

I’ve reached out to the company every way that a resourceful man can think of.

Three weeks after that, the ‘Definitely Not Burt Munro’ photo is still posted.

That, I guess, tells a story, too.

 

***

 

On July 2nd, 2018, Indian Motorcycle updated their corporate website’s history page. Where there had been two photos of Burt Munro and Freddie Ludlow, there is now a single picture of Burt.

It’s a much better picture of Burt.

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Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros — Part Three

What is a hero?

The very idea of a hero fills the heart and makes light and heat in the mind.

I recently witnessed a ceremony where awards for extraordinary heroism were awarded, and the presenter read from the award’s charter where they attempted to define the rare quality which they intended to honor.

Heroes, in their view, were perfectly normal people who were compelled to do extraordinary things in tremendously hazardous circumstances, with no concern for their own personal safety.

We might differ on details, but that seems as good an understanding of heroes as we are likely to get.

As a kid, I had heroes – Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Buzz and Neal, the version of Joe Leonard that smoked the STP Turbine Car around Indianapolis. They were men that went further and faster and to places where no man had gone before – all sporting Kodachrome smiles that belied the danger of the metal machines they all piloted, and that seemed utterly unaware of the not remote possibilities of their own deaths.

Anyone that lives the life of the motorcyclist understands instinctively that there is always danger.

The left brain part of me analyzes it, prepares for it, and does my level best, through focus, awareness, preparation and good decision making, to stay as far the hell away from it as possible.

Consider my application for Motorcycle Hero summarily rejected. I’m OK with that.

Calvin Rayborn, though, was entirely another matter.

San Diego born, and a motorcyclist by the age of 8, Cal Rayborn only knew one speed – and that was as fast as whatever he was riding would go. Cal worked as a Motorcycle Courier as a youth, and got in the habit of riding “as fast as I could, because that’s how you made money in that business.”

In an era when American Racing was centered on the dirt track, Cal’s lifetime of hustling a bike on pavement helped make him one of the most talented roadracers of all time. Don Vesco – another great who for a while tuned Cal’s bikes – recalled the young Cal, then known as ‘Slugger’, showing up for AFM Roadracing Events with his streetbike and basically wiping up the longtimers – even the ones with specialized racing machinery.

The Old Wise Ones at your local racetrack will always tell you that “It’s not the Bike, it’s the Rider, Son”, and there was no better illustration of that Wisdom than Cal Rayborn.

Rayburn’s record of 11 AMA National Race Victories and 3 Rounds of the 1972 TransAtlantic Match Racing Series was compiled on machinery that was by no means the best or fastest racing motorcycles available at the time. In fact, Rayburn’s entire career, both before and after he joined the Harley Davidson factory team, was characterized by winning consistently on motorcycles that conventional wisdom had identified as uncompetitive.

I’ve already had my fun at the expense of Harley Davidson’s KR racebike – a 1950s tech chassis powered by a 1930’s tech, iron barreled, side valve flathead motor. The KR was lawnmower tech gone racin’, and Cal won not one but two Daytona 200s on roadracing KRs – outriding and outlasting an ever increasing number of two stroke powered racers.

When you are a young motorcyclist, lots of folks will provide you with utterly wrong advice. A lot of that wrong advice is perfectly well intentioned, but simultaneously perfectly wrong. One of those gems of flawed wisdom is that if you break traction with the front wheel, you will certainly crash.

Rayborn was notable for being faster in the corners, and the tighter they were the bigger his margins – Vesco describes a style where Cal would carry far more speed on the corner entries than other riders, and then would drift the front wheel to scrub down to his apex speed. This is pretty common in current MotoGP racing, but in 1967 Cal might have well been from outer space. In the 1968 Daytona 200, Cal lost the front end of his KR doing that, and slid so far on the side of the bike that he wore through the knees of his leathers (way pre-pucks) and put a small hole in the KR’s belly pan before muscling the bike back onto its tires and winning the race.

Cal was faster and more consistent on slower motorcycles than riders equipped with the latest low mass 2 stroke missiles – a rider that made a mental leap past his own fear and into an unknown realm where Cal was getting everything out of it his bike could give, and everybody else was back there somewhere.

And winning with the Flathead KR wasn’t a fluke. When our British Racing Brethren organized a Series called the Trans-Atlantic Match Racing Series, they invited Cal and he knew he wanted to compete. The HD Factory Team refused to either contest the series, or to sponsor Cal. Cal eventually found and borrowed an Alloy Barreled XR roadrace bike, and in a country where he’d never been, and on tracks on which he’d never raced, and with a technologically disadvantaged, slower motorcycle he won 3 of the 6 rounds, and came home with a lot of new and dedicated British fans, who knew they’d seen a racing hero.

Cal’s Trans-Atlantic Match Race Harley XR

 

The Only This Special About This Bike Was It’s Rider

 

 

***

 

I came to my motorcycle enthusiasm later in life – later than 8 year old Calvin anyway – but when I started to really pay attention to Grand Prix racing there was only Wayne Rainey.

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not like there weren’t other talented racers on the track competing against him. There was enough talent to fill several GP grids – Freddie Spencer, Mick Doohan, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardiner, Kevin Schwantz. All of these men were talented, even gifted riders, but for those three years — 1990 – 91 – 92 – Wayne Rainey looked and raced like a superhuman hero. With his California Dude good looks, Hollywood smile, and Marlboro Yamaha matching leathers and motorcycle, Rainey just looked he floated a full foot above the ground, and like all he needed to achieve full SuperHero status was his own cape and a comic book. His behavior on the track was right in line.

Wayne didn’t arrive at the top shelf with no steps in between. Like many future champions, Wayne started early – riding at 6 and racing by 9. Figuring out early that his talent lay on pavement, Wayne ended up with a Superbike ride for Kawasaki, and competed successfully against racers like Mike Baldwin, and his Kawasaki teammate, Eddie Lawson. By his second Superbike season, Wayne brought home the Number One plate, and was rewarded for his troubles by having Kawasaki withdraw from racing – leaving him unemployed — as the American economy melted down.

Wayne’s Championship Superbike

Rainey bounced around in 250 GP and AMA Formula 1, looking for a bike and a team that he could take to the hole. And he found that team when he was hired in 1988 by Marlboro Team Roberts to ride in 500 GP. With Yamaha’s tire smoking YZR500 V4 2 stroke racer and Team Roberts, Wayne began winning consistently, and by 1990, Wayne started a run of consecutive Championships that was only stopped by catastrophe.

Races like the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix help to understand what an extraordinary racer Wayne Rainey was. In a 21 lap race there must have been 60-70 lead changes, with Rainey, Schwantz and Shinichi Itoh playing 3D Chess with GP bikes, taking positions and having them taken back by their opponents corner after corner. Itoh’s Honda looked to be up on raw power, taking the lead on the Suzuka circuit’s long straights, but in the curves the race quickly became a full on knife fight. Rainey stayed always within striking distance of the leader, and with two laps remaining, and showing off the tire spinning style of Team Robert’s namesake, simply put his head down, made a critical move and just walked away from the rest of the field. Like all heroes, Wayne knew when it was time to ride toward the direction of danger.

It’s a shame that masterful confidence and surety only seems to work for so long.

Rainey’s YZR500 – Missile By Marlboro

 

Mr. Rainey’s Office

 

***

 

In a place like this, there’s no shortage of heros. Like Nixon, Emde, Mig DuHamel, Malcolm Smith.

Not Nixon’s Bike, But a Pretty Convincing Replica

Don Emde – Master of Lightweights

Mig’s CBR600RR

 

Malcolm Smith Dressed For Any Sunday

A Better Look at Malcolm’s Husky

After this much stimulation, the brain oil gets overwarm, it starts losing power up top, and the next thing you know you’re on the crash truck for the day.

At least that’s how it went for me. After more heroes and quite a few heroines as well, I just couldn’t take it all in any more.

Then you come round a corner, and it all gets quiet.

Because there it is, the actual Hall of Fame.

The Hall

It comes off almost feeling like a church – a semi-circular wall focusing on a bronze of a pioneer Indian flat track racer. Around that wall are the small plaques commemorating the Hall’s Inductees. At the rear there is a video monitor that plays a collection of historical footage of the heroes behind the bars.

It’s a place of contemplation. Of reverence.

The company’s pretty good.

 

***

 

Telling this story I became acutely aware of how much more I was forced to leave out than I was able to tell.

Of things like the memorial wall, where the names of a few of my friends – who’ve gone to riding better roads — can be found.

Of stories like Dave Barr’s – who didn’t let the fact that he’d lost both is legs in combat in Viet Nam keep him from riding around the world on his Harley Davidson.

Or a million other objects – trophies, old photos, racing leathers, a flat track racer’s steel shoe.

Which is why you owe it to yourself, if you love motorcycles, to go to Pickerington and experience it all for yourself.

I’m always happy to tell you my stories, but sometimes you just need to make your own.

 

***

 

There are lots more pictures of our trip to The Hall — the entire album can be seen here.

Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros — Part Two

Perhaps the single, most emblematic form of American Motorcycle Racing is Flat Track racing. Although the earliest races are literally lost in the mists of time, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to visualize your great grandpa and my great grandpa — yours had his new Harley Davidson and mine his new Indian. — out at their local county fairgrounds on sunny Saturday afternoon. Riders being riders, they were checking out each others rides, maybe talking a little trash, and then looking at the horse racing track out behind them, looking at each other, and then getting a real funny look on their faces.

“So let’s go, eh?”

What may have started out as a spontaneous run-whut-ya-brung night at the fairgrounds quickly turned into national competitions that consumed the engineering energies of the Harley and Indian factories and riveted the attention of the nation. And like all proper arms races, it quickly went nuclear when competition moved from horse racing ovals to the banked wooden bicycle racing velodromes. The banked wooden surfaces made slowing down for corners completely unnecessary. And since big is good, huge must be better, so the quarter-mile velodomes were quickly replaced by purpose-built half mile, full mile and even two-mile highly banked motordromes.

Board-track racing was crazy fast, with average speeds over 100 mph becoming commonplace. Board track racing was exciting — racing was close, with bar to bar action in the corners the order of the day.

Unfortunately, falling on a board-track was also deadly. Splintered surfaces and hard fences at the outside of the tracks meant a get off had a fatality level that added up to a sustained and unacceptable level of outright carnage.

So, facing an onslaught of negative press that grew to overwhelming public outrage, motorcycle racing moved back to the dirt. Racing in the dirt was slower, perhaps better racing, and when people fell off, and they are wont to do, way less of them died doing it. And so flat track became Americas foundational motorcycle sport — with trackers barnstorming across the country — to places like Springfield, Peoria, Laconia, San Jose, Ascot and Lodi and a million other fairgrounds and small towns across this great country.

Heck, even Frederick Maryland, near my home of Jefferson, has the Barbara Fritchie Classic , the longest continually running Half Mile, having first been run on the Oval at The Great Frederick Fairgrounds in 1922.

AMA’s involvement with Flat Track Racing was foundational, deep and total. AMA did promotion, sanctioning and management of the racing series until 2008, when they sold their interests in this series — and others, such as Superbike, Motocross and ATV Racing — to the investment group that runs Daytona Speedway and NASCAR. The notion was to turn the business of Professional Racing over to the Pros, and return the AMA to its advocacy and amateur sponsorship roots.

But as a result of this intimate relationship between the AMA and Flat Track Racing, means that AMA has more keystone Flat Track racing motorcycles than anyone, not to mention racing leathers, boots, helmets, trophies and other ephemera that really give you a full 360 view of the sport and its finest practitioners.

 

***

 

There’s really no better place to start that view than with Joe Leonard and his Harley Davidson KR750. Joe is a red-blooded American’s answer to Big John Surtees — our only homegrown Champion at the highest levels of both two and four-wheeled motorsport. Strangely and somewhat irritatingly to two-wheeled enthusiasts, so successful was Joe as an Indy Car driver, that many fans weren’t aware of just how talented and successful a motorcycle racer Joe Leonard was. Successful to the tune of Three Time Winner of AMA’s Grand National Championship — in 1954, 1956 and 1957. Successful, despite having vision so poor (and so uncorrected) that Joe resoundingly flunked the vision test when he submitted to USAC’s physical to obtain his Indy car racing license.

His rival and eventual teammate Mario Andretti was reported to have ridden Joe afterwards – “Jose, can you see?”

Joe, ever the light-hearted soul, had come back with something to the effect that “As long as everybody was behind me, it didn’t matter.”

Successful, despite having raced on a machine that was the technological equivalent of a Stone Axe — the Harley Davidson KR750. The KR 750 was perhaps Harley’s first, furtive steps in the direction of internal combustion modernity — and they were baby steps, at that. First conceived in 1950 as a response to the first waves of British and European twins being imported into the US, the KR was designed to be lighter, more modern motorcycle that could be purchased at any dealership and raced by anyone who had purchased one. To this end, the Street model KR had hydraulic forks, a rear swingarm and twin shocks, Harley’s first unit construction engine, and a four speed transmission mated to a hand-operated clutch. That was a far as modernity went, though. In the engine bay the story was still more Briggs and Stratton meets the Age of Steam.

The KR’s motor was still a cast iron cylindered, side-valved flathead. It made up for lack of breathing and rpm potential with extra displacement and tremendous torque at lower engine speeds. The KR was easy to work on, and robustly built — things tended not to break. The race versions of the KR – in the interest of weight – dispensed with the rear suspensions, and had rigid frames. With a fairing, the KR was a surprisingly good roadracer. On the dirt track, they were simply dominant.

With a little help from their friends at the Sanctioning Department of the AMA, who set the racing class rules so that 750cc sidevalves competed against Overhead Valve engines of not more than 500ccs, Harley’s humble Everyman Racer began a 15 year rip of being the most successful racebike in America. Joe used to relate how his mechanics would gripe — because Joe was not a small guy — how “they were giving up 8 horsepower” because of his size. Joe, accordingly, became somewhat maniacal in trying to get as much of it back as possible by drilling as many holes in his motorcycles as physics would allow — take a good look at the engine cases of his KR.

 

Iron Barrels, Flatheads and An Awful Lot of Holes

 

Under the wrist of Joe Leonard – who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998 – if you were racing in the Grand National Series between 1954 and 1961 — it was a bike that was winning everywhere.

More amazingly, the KR didn’t stop winning when Joe Leonard made the jump to Indy Eagles. For an engine that shared its architecture with your lawnmower, the KR just kept hooking up on corner exits and winning for nearly a generation.

 

Might Have an Engine Like Your Lawnmower, But It’s Still In Front of You, Pal

 

Mert Lawill was no slouch of a rider, either. He too, could win a Grand National Championship — on this bike in 1969 — given a lawnmower to ride. Of course, since Mert was no slouch as a designer, or fabricator, either, his KR was developed to its absolute limits. Mert was enough of an engineering minded development rider that his racing KR had been modified to include a dual shock swingarm rear. His personal touches abound – the shape of the fuel tank and tail section are unique to Mert’s racer, the engine mounting plates and swingarm fabrication are all art in metal.

When Mert – who was also inducted to the Hall in 1998 – stopped racing motorcycles, he kept right on outdoing himself, first designing and building the archetype of the full suspension mountainbike. After revolutionizing mountainbike design, Mert adapted its parallelogram rear suspension to a custom short production run motorcycle called the Lawill Street Tracker. The machine work on the Tracker — from the swingarm, to the drive pulley, to an oil tank that masquerades as a racing number plate — is pure jewelry. If one was going to buy any of the Harley based XR replicas that the market provides — the Lawill is clearly the one to have. More recently, Mert has been designing and fabricating prosthetic limbs for motorsports enthusiasts and for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Every bit of it is immediately obvious as artwork in metal.

 

***

 

Even something as simple as your lawnmower will eventually fail, and by 1969 — a motorcycle that some characterized as obsolete when it was introduced in 1954 — the KR was well and truly finished as a competitive racing motorcycle.

It’s not like it was a smooth transition.

AMA decided to level the field by eliminating the equivalency formula that had allowed the flatheads to survive. With all racing motorcycles now allowed 750 ccs, regardless of valve configuration or operation, Harley had to make more power, and now, or racing was going to become known by its new name of losing a lot. They needed overhead valves, and they needed more revs to make power competitive to that of the Trumphs and the BSAs.

Harley, being Harley, did what they had always done — they looked around to see what they already had that could be adapted to task. The problem with the KR wasn’t really the frame, or even the running gear — the setup on Mert’s KR, with Ceriani forks and his swingarm transplant — wasn’t bad, so they kept it, and went looking for a motor.

HD had a motor — the 1000cc plant from the XR series Sportsters. So the racing department fabbed some shorter connecting rods, sleeved the cylinders down to get the motor down to the required 750cc, and used the Sportster’s cast iron cylinders and heads.

When Racers nickname your new racebike “The Waffle Iron”, it probably isn’t intended to be complimentary, and it wasn’t. The first few years of iron headed XR racebikes — making RPM and making power — which was new for them — overheated, seized and blew up with startling regularity.

The XR was initially so unreliable, that Mert — HD’s Factory Top Gun — who was defending his 1969 Grand National Championship, was forced to fire his Iron Head XR and put his supposedly retired KR back into the game.

You May Have Trouble Catching These

XR Version Two Point Oh — which went to a still shorter stroke and, more importantly, all aluminum cylinders and heads, figured out how to use thermal energy to make forward motion, instead of the prior explosions. It took a couple of years to get the bugs out, but once the ‘Motor Raid’ had done its little extermination thing, the XR750 went on to all but own – with one brief exception – Flat Track Competition though 2015.

Just Fuggedddaboutit

Another XR, another Number 1 Plate

Not all XRs spent their time sliding sideways in the dirt — some of them took up flying. Evil Knievel’s XR was basically a stock tracker save a front brake and footpegs that had been widened slightly to provide a little more leverage for body english while the bike was airborne.

Evel Jumpbike Replica

Why do you think Evel needed these?

 

***

 

Owning the dirt for decades didn’t mean a few folks didn’t take a run at Harley-Davidson. Honda, in particular proved that willingness to invest and do a little R&D meant that you could beat them, too, even if rules changes meant you might not be able to make it stick for very long.

Honda was confident that if they had their own V-twin flattracker, they could win with it. Like Harley, they looked around to see if they had one available, and their available choice was, well, a little weird. The only V-twin Honda had to work with was the CX500, which, it must be observed, was designed to be installed in a transverse orientation, and whose appearance has been compared favorably with that of an industrial water pump. On the positive side, though, the engine was water-cooled, had 4-valve heads, and did have an entirely deserved reputation for indestructibility — even bored out to 650 cc and turbocharged the CX just laughed it off.

Your CX 500 Don’t Look Like This

Honda had to slice up a lot of metal to make their tracker — the transverse motor was rotated 90 degrees to bring it in-line, and cases and transmission were reworked to replace the street bike’s shaft with a chain. Intake runners needed to be changed so that carburetors didn’t end up in spaces unfortunately required for important parts of the rider.

The engine had one more surprise — designed as a low to midrange rpm powerplant, its cooling system was intolerant of extended high rpm operation — the waterpump would cavitate, and the resulting air bubbles in the water jackets would spot boil, and power from the engine would plummet, usually at the times one needed it most.

Honda was absolutely right that if they had their own V-twin flattracker, they could win with it. The NS750 just wasn’t that motorcycle.

The Honda men internalized one of the essential wisdoms of racing — “Don’t get mad, get even.” — and went back to the well to design the RS750.

The RS turned out to be everything the NS was not. But most importantly, with a guy named Bubba Shobert at the bars, it was a winner – blowing 3 straight Grand National Championships in 1985, 86 and 87. The RS was so dominant that it attracted the unwanted attentions of rule makers, who mandated restrictor plates and ballast to keep the Grand National Championship from turning into a boring Honda RS parade.

To see flat track dominance like that, you’d need to fast forward to 2016, to when Indian Motorcycle decided that the route to their future led through the past — the days of the 1920s Indian Wrecking Crew at the intersection of the Motordromes and the return to the dirt. Indian decided to build a bike to go back to the oval, and to win.

Take a Good Look, Because You’ll Only Be Seeing The Back of this Bike From Now On

The way back started with this prototype unit for Indian’s FTR 750 — 3d printed parts and all. The eventual product has been dominant — basically running all the podium positions in every race of the 2017 season, and winning team rider Jared Mees the Grand National Championship. 2018, so far, doesn’t look to be any different.

Indian is hoping — 98 years after Shrimp Burns helped Indian dealers sell bikes to peformance-minded riders — that at least some things never do change.

 

 

Part Three can be found here.

Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros

Most motorcycle trips inevitably involve riding a motorcycle.

Me, though, I’m a bit of a different drummer dude. If there’s a weird way to do something, that’s more than likely the way that I’ll embrace.

 

***

 

Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I were way overdue for some quality road time. Road Time, for us anyway, is just an opportunity to unplug from the routine of home, work and family, burn some gas, get loose, see some stuff we’ve never seen, and spend some time enjoying each other’s company.

In an ideal world, Road Time involves my K1200LT, but the world is sometimes not ideal.

Fortunately, the backup plans are not exactly suffering, either.

One day, more or less out of the blue, Sweet Doris came to me and said, “Greggy, I know you’ve always wanted to visit the AMA Hall of Fame Museum. What say you take a few days off and we take a little camping trip?”

Regular readers of Rolling Physics Problem are familiar with reading statements about the reasons for my undying love for this woman.

This would be another one of those.

Sweet Doris, it seems, had been browsing the Rand McNally Road Atlas maps of — well, pretty much anything and everything west of here — looking for flimsy excuses for a several day wander. Unsurprisingly, she’d found a few.

Coopers Rock, West Virginia was one — a Civilian Conservation Corps-built series of campgrounds and hiking trails built around a spectacular mountain overlook just west of Morgantown. Arthurdale, West Virginia – a new deal era Homestead Project community — was another, where people from impoverished mining communities were given a small farm and taught agriculture and other trades and crafts to allow them to be self-sufficient. Buckeye Lake, Ohio, an man-made lake that has been a boaters’ and vacation destination since 1830. And the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio — about a 15 minute drive from Buckeye Lake.

It looked like a great setup — a cluster of interesting destinations without a great deal of road mileage between them, the opportunity for some hiking and bicycling to undo way too much desk time, a bucket list motorcycling destination, and a map of craft breweries in close proximity to our likely campsites.

After a quick and wholly satisfactory Friday conversation with my manager at work, I went out to the garage, filled up the small water tank in the galley of my homebuilt teardrop camper, closed up the galley’s clamshell lid, and pushed the trailer out of the garage where it could be hitched to our Ram Tradesman work truck.

Saturday morning, we got up, had a cup of coffee, threw some saddlebag liners with a few changes of clothes and toothbrushes in the teardrop’s cabin, and fired up the truck’s small block V8 and headed west.

 

***

 

Bikers will tell you that it ain’t the destination, it’s the journey, but it’s my story, so this time, it’s the destination.

Now it isn’t like the journey wasn’t without some of the little jewels that the road always provides.

The road west from Jefferson always takes me out I-68, and one of the unbridled wonders of the US Interstate Highway System, Sideling Hill.

The Mountain Inside The Mountain

Sideling Hill is an exposed geologic syncline — the highway cut opened up folds of rock which look like an inverted mountain concealed inside another mountain. The geology geek in me loves to see the mountain laid bare, but that isn’t really why I love this place.

Paul Mihalka was a rider’s rider — a BMW Million Mile Badge Man — and a humble gentleman of the highest order. Paul was prone to taking motorcycle rides that would render the likes of you and me dull, lifeless and inert. A weekend ride to Montana for a slice of pie, and back at work on time on Monday. That sort of thing.

When the Spirit moved Paul, and he was leaving for a ride, he thought it good fortune to watch the sun rise over Sideling.

So Sweet Doris and I might not be much on the Dawn part, but every ride past Sideling has Paul riding along — it feels like good luck for us, too.

 

***

 

Cooper’s Other Rock

It isn’t much of a run from Sideling to Morgantown, and before long we were setting camp at Cooper’s Rock.

Quite

State Parks have rules, so Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I were quite something after 10 pm, though we’re not sure quite what.

 

***

 

After 2 days at Coopers, and a fascinating visit to Arthurdale, we beat feet for Ohio, and set camp again at Buckeye Lake.

Our campsite was about a quarter-mile from Buckeye Lake Brewing, which has to be the absolute finest use I have ever seen for a recycled 1950 vintage white tile Texaco Station. For a small brewery in a very small town, Buckeye can stand toe-to-toe with any brewery anywhere — we sampled everything they made and there wasn’t a bad brew in the lot.

 

***

 

The next morning, after a slightly slow start — which might have had something to do with some Legend Valley IPAs with pink grapefruit juice ice cubes — we rolled up to Pickerington, Ohio, and The AMA Hall of Fame Museum.

AMA’s facility sits in a very suburban location, just off the interstate and behind some typical commercial big box sprawl, in its own green and forested little campus, backed up by some high density townhomes — a most unlikely site. After turning through the campus’ brick gateway, and winding up the rolling driveway, one enters into a very corporate looking office complex — 70s architecture, with a lot of natural and dark woods, cathedral ceilings, clerestory windows — all very anonymously, painfully, boringly normal. The only hint that something a tad less bland might be afoot is the standing seam metal roofed shed at the far end of the courtyard — a covered motorcycle parking area which this morning contained a silver BMW R80ST and a classic white Harley Electra Glide Authority Model.

As Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I walked through the treed parking lot, which featured some well landscaped garden seating areas, we came up on the Hall of Fame’s sign, which telegraphed AMA’s good taste in art, which would be front and center for much of our day.

The First of Many Trackers

We didn’t even manage to get through the entrance hall before the excitement started.

“Oh, look, Greggie! What a perfect camping motorcycle.”

I had to admit, with minimal consideration, that the brand new customized Ural Gear Up that AMA was raffling off was the perfect camping motorcycle — between the substantial cargo capacity of the sidecar itself, both motorcycle and sidecar had beefy luggage racks, deer melting rally lighting, multiple jerry cans for fuel and water, serious bash plates, two wheel drive and some chewy looking knobbies. Now I know, from some painful experience gained by some of my moto-writing cohorts that the Ural is not a go anywhere machine (Right, Abhi?), but with some common sense about its limitations, it will go a lot of places, and while going there will carry nearly as much camping gear, cooking equipment and cold beer as my pickup and teardrop camper combination.

“I’d love to have one of these.”

“Well, Hon, if you see that nice lady over there, and give her a few five dollar bills, I’m sure she’ll sell you a few chances to win this one.”

So we have a few chances to finally exceed the upper motorcycle storage limit of my garage when the drawing is held on The Hall of Fame’s next Induction Ceremony one weekend this September.

Fingers crossed.

 

***

 

Entering into the Museum itself, the overwhelming impression is one of an embarrassment of riches. The AMA either owns or displays a nearly incomprehensible number of historic motorcycles, racing motorcycles from AMA sanctioned racing series, racetrack leathers, helmets and boots from Hall of Fame racers, and one of a kind performance and stunt motorcycles such as Land Speed Record machines and Daredevil Bikes. All of these motorcycles and artifacts are displayed on two floors of the building — the upper level mostly devoted to inducted members of the Hall of Fame, and the lower level devoted to special exhibitions, a memorial wall, and ‘The Garage’, an area filled with motorcycles donated by AMA Members.

A blessing that these many treasures may be, the reality is that their collection far exceeds the capacity of their facility — making organization of the collection a challenge, and making display and examination of the many motorcycles and racer figures somewhat haphazard. The first gallery, for example, contains machinery which covers a period between 1914 — a Harley Davidson Pocket Valve Factory Racer — and 2016 — the engineering prototype for the hugely successful Indian FTR750 Flat Tracker.

As someone who has to deal with too many motorcycles in far too little space, I empathize with their problem, but the collection cries out for a re-examination of their curation, and ultimately, as I’m sure they’re well aware, a bigger space.

You shouldn’t, for even a millisecond, let this concern keep you from planning a ride to Ohio to visit, though. I couldn’t begin to describe everything but I can share some of my favorite exhibits to whet your appetite for your trip to Pickerington so you can pick your own.

 

***

 

Walking into the first gallery kind of perfectly encapsulates just what I mean. Displayed in a tight cluster are a replica of Gottlieb Daimler’s Einspur, a vintage Honda MiniTrail 50, and a late 90s vintage Honda Dream 50. Other than the fact that all three are single cylinder motorcycles, it’s hard to for me to see what the thread there is.

Maybe It’s Just Because They Fit There

Fortunately, I have a bit of an irrational fondness for Dream 50s, so I really didn’t overthink things at the time, I just got down on the floor and checked out the little fella.

My irrational fondness stems from my favorite motorcycle ad of all time, which features Father Yvonne and Son Miguel DuHamel banging bars on the track on a Dream 50 and NSR 50. If there’s ever been a cuter motorcycle ad I can’t recall what it is — two road racing champions, father and son, flogging the snot of two absolutely diminutive motorcycles – motorcycles which were small replicas of the foundational racing motorcycles of each’s time – and dicing with each other like the Number One plate was on the line.

It’s an image that’s hard to shake.

So yeah, I like Dream 50s

In the entrance to the gallery sits the Hall of Fame plaque honoring Soichiro Honda, and as his monument, a Honda RC161 250 cc four-cylinder racing motorcycle. The RC is an amazing thing — the proving ground for what would prove to be at least a half-dozen generations of 4 cylinder Honda Motorcycles. And although MV Agusta and Gilera may have gotten there first, all if the design elements — four transverse air-cooled cylinders, overhead cams with chain drive, 4 semi downdraft carburetors, laydown cylinder block, and four exhausts wrapping around either side of the motorcycle — were there, and developed to a degree of output and reliability no one had ever previously managed. In its first full year of Grand Prix competition, the RC 161 and its 125 cc brother won 18 of 22 races.

The Honda RC161

Semi Downdrafts and DOHC

Wandering the galleries one experiences surprise after surprise, and sees layer upon layer of motorcycling history, competition and artifacts.

There are multiple examples of pioneering motorcycles and early motorcycle engineering breakthroughs. Pioneering motorcycles, of necessity, will include the bikes made by William Harley and Arthur Davidson, who along with their partners, William and Walter Davidson Sr., are all members of the Hall of Fame. Representing the Milwaukee brand is a 1914 Pocket Valve factory racer — one of HD Engineer Bill Ottoway’s early attempts to develop a seriously hot rodded speciality flat track racing machine. Eventually, that first step down the hot rodding road would result in the Infamous 8 Valve, but the first step was a pretty big one for a company that had once declared “”We do not believe in racing. We do not employ any racing men. We build no special racing machines.” The Pocket Valve was a serious and special racing machine — bigger valves, serious porting … and overhead valves and rockers that were so high lift that the right side of the fuel tank needed to be modified with pockets so that the tank would clear the valve gear.

1914 Harley Davidson Pocket Valve Racer

We know HD today because of their iconic V-Twin powerplants. HD’s original motors had all been singles, however, which were only dropped from the line in 1918 after greater sales of the twins had determined that strategy. Fittingly, the AMA itself caused HD to do a rethink when, in 1925, they introduced Class A racing — a class built around 21 cubic inch single cylinder motorcycles — and Harley didn’t have one.

The result was the Harley Davidson BA — a 350 cc road going single that broke new engineering ground for Harley. The BA was the first HD that featured a removable cylinder head — up to this point Harley’s cylinders and heads had been cast in unit. This engineering advance meant it was trivial to sell the BA with two different valve configurations — and hence engine outputs and pricepoints. The lower output and lower priced BA Model A was a sidevalve flathead, and its low price meant it exceeded sales expectations. The Model B — such as the one pictured below — offered an overhead valve head and 50% more power, but the price was too close to that of the twins, so B models became the rare beasts. Rare, unless you were going Class A racing.

A Motor To Go Racing With

Production Class A racers removed fenders and other racetrack useless stuff and went racing. Harley itself took the OHV motor, and further developed the cylinder head to use twin exhaust valves and ports, put the resulting motor into a lightweight frame that had no fenders, no brakes and no transmission. The result was the Model S ‘Peashooter’, a 215 pound flattrack war machine.

 

***

 

Harleys and Davidsons were by no means the only motorcycle pioneers, and their motorcycles are by no means the only pioneer motorcycles in the currently displayed collection. The lower level ‘Garage’ contains several significant early motorcycles donated by AMA members.

Among the most intriguing is a 1914 Triumph TT — a 500 cc, single cylinder cycle that was still started by bicycle pedals. Stopping, while riding, meant killing the motor and then bump starting again to get back going. The TT predates transmissions, clutches and other modern niceties — drive from the sidevalve single is by leather belt, saddle is a Brooks leather bicycle saddle, and what braking there is is provided by another bicycle refugee stirrup rim brake. The TT’s front end does feature a lovely springer fork. A little searching of the internet revealed several British enthusiasts that still have these cycles licensed and street legal in the UK. AMA’s Triumph TT is running, restored example, and is both truly lovely to look at, as well as a little portal into the earliest days of powered cycling.

That You Or I Should Be In This Kinda Shape at 104 Years Old

 

Another member-donated denizen of AMA’s ‘Garage’ is a nicely restored 1919 Cleveland.

Quite The Crankshaft, Indeed

The Cleveland was designed to be reliable and affordable transportation. What is intriguing about the Cleveland is the design of its driveline.

Most single cylinder motorcycles of the late 19 teens were in-line engine layouts, where the engine flywheel rotated in-line with the motorcycle’s wheels. Power made by the engine was then transferred, either via belt or via chain, either to a separate transmission case, or directly to the rear wheel.

By Cleveland Motorcycle Manufacturing Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Unique Kind of Unit Construction

The Cleveland, however, was notable in that its two stroke engine — by itself somewhat unusual — was oriented with a transverse flywheel, which allowed power to be transmitted directly via an extended crankshaft to a unit construction gearbox, which was driven off the crank via a worm gear.  The crankshaft then continued past the 2 speed, pedal shifted gearbox to drive the motorcycle’s magneto.  The resulting drive unit was light, simple, economical to manufacture and strong.  This driveline was a concrete engineering example of creative and elegant problem solving. That elegance was of little solace when, like the vast majority of US motorcycle manufacturers, Cleveland was bankrupted in 1929 by the Great Depression.

***

I have an admitted weakness for all the 4 cylinder motorcycles that were made in the US in the early part of the twentieth century. These motorcycles — the Pierce, the Ace, the Henderson and the Indian 4s were all attempts to drive motorcycle performance, comfort and sophistication forward. With the exception of the Pierce, all these motorcycles were the designs of William Henderson, who, along with his brother Tom were inducted into the Hall in 1998.

The Hendersons originally built motorcycles under their own name — long graceful cycles with inline air-cooled 4 cylinder engines. After selling their company to Ignatz Schwinn — who sold the bikes as Excelsior-Hendersons — William Henderson went back into business with another more developed 4 cylinder — the Ace. After William was struck by a car and killed testing a new Ace model, the company went out of business shortly thereafter. Indian purchased the Ace intellectual property, and produced that essentially unchanged motorcycle, called the Indian Ace for its first year, and then subsequently swapped the Ace’s front ends’ leading links for Indian’s trailing links, and Henderson’s Ace became the Indian 4.

These examples of fiercely creative engineering all came a cropper at the foot of Henry Ford, whose assembly line methods – at around 1914 — made it less expensive to manufacture and sell an automobile than to sell a premium motorcycle such as these. The potential market for such machinery was reduced from people looking for practical transportation to motorcycle police — who valued being able to run down anything on the road — and motorsport enthusiasts, and with that reduction one saw the sadly expected series of bankruptcies, acquisitions and commercial failures.

AMA has a few prime examples of these high-speed thoroughbreds, though.

The Ace

One of William’s Motorcycles

This 1924 Ace would have been one of the last Aces built before the company was sold off – first to Michigan Motors Corporation — who failed to build more than a few examples — and subsequently Indian, who moved production to Springfield, Massachusetts and sold the bike as the Indian 4.

Another One of William’s Motorcycles

This 1930 Excelsior Henderson was also one of the last ones of its type built. Ignatz Schwinn, with the Depression coming up on the pipe, made a management decision to exit the motorcycle business as a method to save the bicycle side of his conglomerate. Looking at the two motorcycles back to back, it is pretty easy to see that they sprang from the mind of the same designer. The fact that they both share similar paintwork – royal blue paintwork with gold striping and yellow crème wheels — seems almost but not quite coincidental. The engines have the same Inlet Over Exhaust F-head design — the timing case is almost identical — the placement of the carb and intake manifold is the same — the Magneto is the same — even the transmission lever and linkages are almost identical. The Ace company was quick to point out that not a single part was interchangeable between the two motorcycles

Henderson’s contract with Excelsior provided for protection of all of Excelsior’s designs and intellectual property. Looking at the two engines, it’s clear William Henderson stuck to the letter, if not the spirit, of that contract.

 

***

 

End of Part 1… To read Part Two, Click Here

 

Angry Bees

I guess its time to admit that I’ve been living in the past.

It might be an idealized, nostalgic past, but its the past just the same.

I don’t want to generalize too much though, its not the entirety of the past that that I’m living in, its just the motorcycling past.

My newest motorcycle, a K1200 series longitudinally mounted inline 4 — is a 2000 model — it can’t already be 17 years old — which itself is a refinement of a basic design that debuted in 1983.

My Toaster tank /5 BMW — a bike I came by when I got out of college and the bike on which I wooed Sweet Doris from Baltimore — is a 1973 model — 44 years old. If one is honest, the Toaster really represents late 1950s state of the art motorcycle chassis design — Featherbed Knock-off! — as embraced by the conservative German designers after 20 or so years to make sure the basic idea was sound.

Drum brakes.

In defense of the conservative German designers, they are the best street application drum motorcycle brakes I ever used, but.

Drum brakes.

Such a motorcycle is a lot of things, but modern is not one of them.

***

It’s not to say that these old motorcycles are bad motorcycles, because they’re not.

My /5 is narrow, agile, torquey and simple. Hell, it’s still here and running reliably at somewhere indetermanistically north of 170,000 miles.

Indetermanistically because the motorcycle has turned out to be far more reliable than the odometer in its Motometer combined instrument.

But the /5’s two cylinder pushrod motor — originally designed with bushings in its valve rockers — only revs to 6900 rpm, and made barely 50 hp on its best day. It is an elemental motorcycle — but everything happens with a certain deliberateness of pace.

***

Its not like I’ve had no exposure to modern machinery.

I’ve had some seat time on a modern KTM — an 1190 Adventure — that was a real eye opener, and at the same time, was clearly connected with the classic large displacement roadster twins of the past. One had a broad spread of power across the rev band — it was a clearly a road motorcycle, full stop. The refinement of the chassis, suspension, yes, and electronics was the present, but you could still see the motorcycling past from there.

***

 

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So there I was, looking at a tachometer face. A face that showed redline to be at 14,000 rpm.

This was going to require at least a little adjustment.

Sitting in my driveway was a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR-600. ZZR was Kawasaki’s Marketing speak for “We used to call this the Ninja but we redesigned a faster bike and still want to keep selling this one”. Arms race and branding aside, the ZZR carried a four cylinder, water cooled, dual overhead cam short stroke motor of vastly oversquare dimensions. Engines like this are meant for the race circuit — to be spun hard and made to howl on the straights.

The ZZR has a steel frame of a hybrid perimeter and beam type, one that is shared by all modern Kawasaki sporting motorcycles. Its an elegant design where the frame rails bulge around and envelop the cylinder head — simultaneously compact and strong. The ZZR has a conventional telescopic cartridge fork, a monoshock rear, substantial Tokico 4 piston brakes, and 17 inch radial tires. The riding position is two clicks shy of the racetrack, but bars are still low, and saddle and footpegs high.

This ZZR is one in which I have a small investment of time and troubleshooting effort.  It belongs to my daughter’s boyfriend, and after a fair amount of effort to return it to good operation and the road, I had never really had the opportunity to fully test the results of my work.

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When the weather had turned filthy, he had asked if he could store the bike here, so we squeezed it into my garage. The deal was, if I had possession of the bike, I would ride it. It hadn’t really been winterized, and had been sitting there for the better part of a month, when nature served up a freak 65 degree day.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m still here.

***

Pulling on a Vanson racing jacket is somehow both comforting and strangely calming — its as if this leather exoskeleton, which exerts a whole body compressive hug, works like one of those yippy dog calming vests.

At least it works that way for me.

Think of that what you may.

With my helmet and gloves all strapped in place, I swung a leg over the red machine, and settled into the saddle. I spent a few quality moments adjusting the fairing mounted rearview mirrors — which had been folded in for storage — into a position to be hopefully useful. I turned the bike’s bodywork-integrated fuel petcock to its ‘on’ position, turned the ignition on and slid the handlebar mounted choke lever forward.

Upon activating the starter the bike fired immediately. Being impatient, I tried to work the throttle, and gently slid the choke back open, whereupon the bike stalled immediately.

A second try was better — I let the bike run on full choke for 30 or 40 seconds and then slowly dialed the choke off. And then what we has was a cold, lumpy but running idle — given a little more time and a little more heat, everything would be fine.

I pushed the bike off the centerstand, and flinstoned a K turn until I could drift down the driveway. Taking care to locate and remember the new footpeg position, I selected first gear, which occurred way more deterministically than I am accustomed to — it was almost as if the box was designed to use input power to engage the dogs — once the shift was started it kinda went power transmission on you.

I took the long route around my neighborhood — coming to terms with the bike’s low speed handling, behavior on and off the clutch, and braking.

At the intersection of Jefferson Pike, I made the left and headed up towards town, and past that towards Frederick.

***

It was pretty clear right off that my habit of sometime shortshifting a cold engine wasn’t going to work here. While the engine would take throttle at under 4000 rpm, things down there happened pretty slowly — it was going to take some heat, and way more revs to move things forward smartly.

Apart from that, the riding position that appeared ridiculous at first glance actually worked pretty well once in motion.

Although I have to imagine that the sight of me, with my youthful and trim rear end pointing up in the air may not have been the type of thing that is frequently seen in our little village.

I am under no illusions that chicks dig this.

At Jefferson, I had to stop for the light.

When it turned green, I gassed it.

180 heading east out Jefferson is a winding two laner that follows the contour of the ridge that divides Frederick and Jefferson. I ran the ZZR through the gears, shifting conservatively — for this bike — well below the real power, although it should be noted that my shiftpoints were higher than redline on both of my boxer twins.

The sound of this engine was a racetrack fantasy — the sound of a million angry bees — a raucous, metallic shriek in the middle of its rev band. Hard to imagine how many more bees it might have at its 14,000 rpm limits.

On the other side of the ridge I made the left into Mount Zion Road, and the entrance to one of my most cherished bits of twisty Frederick blacktop. If the ZZR 600 was a well-handling motorcycle, we’d know in the next three minutes.

Mount Phillip is the sort of road where only familiarity can let you run it — roadcraft is of little help where corners apex blind off the tops of hills, and crazy elevation changes obscure the road ahead. Top end power is also of limited use as there’s almost nowhere you can use it — this is a handling test, not a speed event. Even the initial right onto Mount Phillip is tricky — the intersection is a 110 degree turn, usually with a little loose stone, that leads into a very steep and immediate rise — too much throttle and too many revs too soon, and hairy wheelies can easily result. Folks that wish to remain rubber side down are advised to move well forward on their motorcycle here.

Coming off the top of the rise, the road makes a textbook racetrack left 90. I entered well outside, and with the revs up at about 7000, engine braked into the entrance, leaned the bike over and rolled the throttle out. For someone still learning the bike, the entrance was sharp, deterministic and bred confidence. The combination of relatively light weight, very centralized mass, and serious structural rigidity made cornering taut, precise and controllable. The riding position, as well, with the rider located far forward, weighting the front wheel, gave perfect leverage and control to work the front end.

The next several corners, another 90 leading into a sharp uphill right, leads to a hairball double apex that leads down off the other side of the hillside. After 4 real corners, and about three really good minutes, I felt as if I’d been riding this motorcycle most of my life.

***

After running the rest of Mount Phillip up to my bank in Frederick, gearing back up in the parking lot there was no question of taking the shortest route home. The only question really was “Had I bought enough gas?”.

US 40 West out of Frederick – The Old National Pike – is really a treat. It climbs up the mountain (Eastern US version) that sits between Frederick and Hagerstown, where the road immediately enters the forest of Gambrill State Park right outside of town. It’s green, it’s uncongested, with broad, sweeping curves on the climb. The sightlines are stupendous.

If you needed a place to stretch things out, 40 through Gambrill would be the place you’d need.

After clearing the I-70 interchange, I rolled the throttle open and surfed the big wave as the small four spun up into its happy zone. I was focused and comfortable enough to be monitoring both the tach and speedo intently, basically plotting a little dyno chart in my head as the Kawi loosed the bees, made tremendous MotoGP invoking, howling noise, and pulled third gear up the grade.

Around 9000 rpm things were happening as quickly I felt they needed to be happening, so I thokkked the bike up into fourth — noting that the higher one spun this engine, the better it seemed to shift. I rolled the throttle back on and took a brief draught of fourth gear. As much room as I had, it was running out quickly, and the speedometer needle was well into ‘unsafe for conditions’ on a public highway. I thokkkked up into top gear and commenced giving back throttle until I was doing a reasonable impersonation of a socially responsible cruise.

Up here at highway speed, I was impressed how comfortable this motorcycle really was. The airflow off the fairing and windscreen was surprisingly smooth — weather protection surprisingly good. The ride was taut, but not punishing. One could sense the action of the four cylinder engine, but it was mere mechanical character, and not objectionable in any way.

Both the bike and its rider were utterly at ease, and adapted for speed.

***

The rest of the ride was backroad riding school.

From 40 I turned left down Harmony Road – a little snake of a road that lets one work the sides of one’s tires.

Then down Maryland 17 South towards Middletown — the entire route stringing together elevation changes and combinations of technical corners. The ease with which the ZZR entered corners, and the precision with which it held exactly the desired angle and desired line was an illumination.

17 leads towards home, so I didn’t take it.

zittlestown

At Middletown, I went west on Alternate 40. Alt 40 heads up another (eastern variety) mountain. With so few mountains available, I was going to hit every one that presented itself.

Alt 40 is a very old roadway, and where it goes over the ridge is a series of decreasing radius, banked switchbacks that look intimidating but are a gas when properly executed. The ZZR was able to turn in harder and deeper and carry about 25 mph more than my antiques with absolutely zero drama — at the apexes the bike was planted, on line and with tons of ground clearance remaining.

As we came down into Boonsboro, I was held up behind a minivan that indicated its intention to turn left onto Maryland 67 South which was also my intended route. Trolling south out of town, we came to a legal passing zone, and I indicated left, and rolled on to play another game of Third Gear Rocketry. I shifted up as the front wheel got light, with the shift setting the front back on the pavement.

At Reno Monument Road, I made the left back towards the ridge, and worked the tight technical climb with the revs up in 2nd and 3rd gear, setting speed in and out of corners with the throttle.

Marker Road took me toward home. The decreasing radius corners and hilltop apexes which are dramatic on the airheads were dead boring and nailed down on this Kawasaki — roadgear working so well to make it almost seem like mind control.

On the last leg of Gapland road, the ZZR dissected the bridge corners, and did it with style and a wonderful howl of IC exhaust.

On the final straight before home I rolled fourth gear open and the 90 or so my S will make was quickly vaporized — 45 or so more horsepower into roughly the same weight does have some effect.

***

Back in the driveway I found myself listening to the tink tink tink of the ZZR giving its heat back to the atmosphere, and quickly concluded that our 40 miles or so of road had barely scratched the surface of this bike’s capabilities.

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I don’t think I ever revved the ZZR’s motor past 10,000 of those 14,000 rpm — leaving much of the bike’s power potential untapped and on the table. When riding this Kawasaki with its engine spinning up there, it simply ran out of room nearly instantly on any public road that I usually ride, well before it ran out of acceleration, ran out of speed.

The ZZR’s handling made my customary best twisty roads nearly trivial exercises — centralized mass, chassis rigidity, good geometry and sticky radials allowed me to place the bike exactly where I wanted it with minimal to absolutely no drama.

I’ll admit I’d found minimal use for the brakes, but the few times I’d deliberately ‘braked for effect’ they’d been pretty impressive — clearly more than enough power was available from the twin four piston Tokicos to overwhelm the front tire’s contact patch, if one was dumb or unskilled enough to put in a request for same.

Everything about the bike — from the howl of its engine, to my position on the bike that made attacking corners like breathing in and out, to the rush of its high end power delivery, to the big negative G’s on the brakes — sucked one in, encouraging more, harder, faster.

And while its cool to envision myself, wearing bright leathers with a waist size about three sizes smaller than mine actually is, swimming in the sound, slicing across corners with front tire skimming the pavement, dicing with Vale and Marc, its a fantasy with its home on a racetrack — on the street the bike is just out of its element, leaving too much on the table, yawning at anything remotely close to legal speed operation.

Its not even like the ZZR is some bit of 2017 vintage, European literbike exotica — there’s no EFI, no power delivery modes — not yet even a future wet dream of Inertial Management Units controlling lean angle sensitive traction control and antilock braking. This Kawasaki is a small displacement, commodity sportbike — an inexpensive, mass produced motorcycle that was actually an obsolete design when it built by a manufacturer that was just trying bleed out its investment in its tooling.

With all that going against it, its still a motorcycle that — transported back in time — would have probably walked away and won convincingly in any production-based class or even GP Racing until around 1977 when the design of the Yamaha TZ750 was finally debugged.

Modernity — in motorcycle form — means frames, tires and suspension that just work. It means engines that are designed to be routinely revved to ten and twelve thousand rpm and brakes that can pull the rear wheel clear of the ground again and again and again.

Its amazing, frankly, just how good an average modern motorcycle is.

Amazing, but simultaneously useless, at least when used on the road.

While it’s an absolute gas to validate that my years of roadcraft can instantly make the jump to more capable machinery, and to experience firsthand how far the bar has been raised, I’m not sure the temptation is enough to make me leave the motorcycling past for the future.

I’m OK with a run through the gears to the ton feeling like a thrilling trip to the edge, instead of that ton seeming like merely the starting line.

Some More Racing, Some More Customs, and The End of It All

Having seen and heard the Brittens run, and having walked through and oogled all of the racing paddock, it was finally time to just kick back, have a brew or two, and just drink it all in and watch some racing.

I left the pit area and went back to my bike.

Parked beside me was a perfect Laverda Jota 1000, whose owner walked up at the same time as I started putting on my gear. Laverda Guy was another local boy, who lived just over the Georgia Line.

“I hope you don’t mind me tarrying, but I’d really love to just hear that triple run.”

My short-time friend just grinned and then obliged me by gearing up and firing up his orange beast.

Start up behavior, with the bike’s three Del’Ortos, was just a variant of the cold blooded, too-large throated start behavior of my own R90s, which will usually stall on a cold start 30 seconds after the chokes are turned off.

Italian carburetors never disappoint.

So after the restart, and after oil flow had smoothed the operation of the top end back out, the big orange bike sat there idling lumpily, though taking blips of throttle with a rapid bark.

I bade him safe journey, and displayed the thumbs-up salute as the Jota rolled two gears worth of moderate throttle, doing just the tiniest bit of Italian Moto Opera.

I’m very glad I took the time to listen.

***

I rolled the LT around the Barber Perimeter Road, just sightseeing and happy to catch even a little breeze. One of my fellow big bike enthusiasts had told me that Ace Corner ticket holders had a paved parking lot across the road from the entrance, on the grounds of the Barber Racing School. Fellow Enthusiast had been right, and sharing a piece of pavement with a line of dozen track Porsches seemed OK to me, though I can’t vouch for how the Porsches felt about their new wheel-challenged neighbors.

I rambled back into Ace Corner, resolved to chill and try to stop drinking it all in before it drowned me.

I wandered up to the top of the hill, scored a burger and a Naked Pig — a nice pale ale from Gadsden Alabama’s Back Forty Brewing — and found myself a place to sit — in the shade and with a good view of the Carousel and the next two corners of the Track.

There were classes for small displacement singles and twins — close battles that played back the 2-stroke vs 4-stroke holy wars that had consumed two or three decades of motorcycle racing. There were larger displacement twins, which saw great sounding combat between BMW AIrheads, VTwin MotoGuzzis and classic Ducatis, with an occasional Triumph or Yamaha XS650 thrown in.

I thought the guys I was sitting next to were familiar, and they were. They were 5 or 6 members of North Carolina’s Tarheel Travellers BMW Club. They were frequent visitors to my local DC Area Square Route Rally, and this wasn’t our first beer-and-BS-session.

We watched some sidecar racing — which rearranged my mind — and a few more heats, including one for the vintage racing singles — the big booms of the Nortons, Gileras, Velocettes and Matchlesses echoing back from the treeline lining the park.

What really was a long afternoon somehow disappeared like water on a hot exhaust pipe — a moment that seemed like it could stay suspended forever disappearing in an instant.

As the sun settled lower the racing calendar wrapped, and the parade laps marked the end of the day.

***

I was resolved to hang round Ace Corner for a while — to talk to some people and see some stuff. I knew they had a band coming on later, and I wanted to just enjoy the bikey people and the bikey vibe for as long as I could.

There was yet another bike show coming on, and I spent a little time admiring the talent.

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I appreciated this custom /5 Toaster. I have one of these, too, but mine’s not quite so shiny.

Also in the Shiny Category was this custom Norton Commando, a machine that eventually took first prize as the Most Custom Cafe of all the Custom Cafes. With everything but the frame tubes naked polished alloy, I had to agree with the judge’s decision on this one.

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Also shiny, but in a completely different way, was Walt Seigl’s MV Agusta Bol D’or.

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Walt’s motorcycle looks as finished or more finished than anything Agusta has lately built. A complete testament to their heritage making use of their most modern hardware — the best of their past and the best of their future — another bike that would have me running to the phone to buy one if a space-freighter full of currency were to crash land in my yard.

Agusta would have built this if they only knew how.

Sadly, they don’t, but Walt Seigl does.

***

Unbeknownst to me, It seemed to be Honda 750/4 Day.

I’ve got a soft spot for the Single Cam myself,  but nice as mine was, it was nowhere this nice.

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Or this nice.

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Or as nice as this either.

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Or even this one.

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OK, so this one is only half a CB750, but the judges say it still counts.

***

Ace Corner was scheduled to rock into the nighttime, but the food vendors had gone.

You could still score Naked Pigs and Truckstop Honeys — more fun from my new friends at Back Forty brewing — but you couldn’t get any food.

Note to organizers — if you’re going to throw an evening long party where alcohol is served — to a large bunch of Bikers, no less, one might consider making sure that some food is available, even if only to serve as buffer for the drink people were likely to be puttin down.

I know my body, and this point wasn’t negotiable.

I started moving about the compound in search of someone who had been in a position to think ahead, and had come prepared for this.

So I do what any hungry man would do.

I followed my nose.

And my nose led me to the Vintage Iron Motorcycle Club.

Like me, the Vintage Motorcycle Club was made up of hungry men and women with old motorcycles. Hungry men and women who had multiple charcoal grills working up high, and were blowing grilled beef and vegetable smoke my way.

I introduced myself in that patently subtle manner that is a trademark.

“Hey, Dude. You in the food business? No? You wanna be?”

After learning a little about The Vintage Iron Club — which is based out of Palm Beach County, Florida — who seem to be really nice folk that share a certain illness of mine — I decided I really liked these folk and their attitude.

One of their party was a chef who normally worked on someone’s private MegaYacht, but was between cruises right now.

These folk were rolling big.

So I made ‘a small contribution’ to The Club, and even bought a few raffle tickets.

The Club, it seemed, was raising money for Charity — The Paley Foundation, who helps children with a certain serious orthopedic illness — and was raffling off this.

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Looking at it, all I kept thinking was it would be perfect for Finn.

“He’d look badass on that thing. And it’s just the right bike to learn on.”

The people who like to tell you things will tell you that visualization is the secret to success. That if you can see it you can be it.

I visualized that sweet Honda 350 Scrambler into my garage more times than I’m willing to cop to.

It was in the bag.

That shit don’t work.

Never has.

***

Anyway, after one of the only burgers I’ve ever eaten that I might be willing to admit might have been at least equal to my own (as well as several salads that were rocking good), I bade my new club brothers and sisters adieu, and found a cold Truckstop Honey and went back to chatting with random folk and seeing what I could see.

A few EZ-Ups to the right of Vintage Iron was an Artist, Makoto Endo, who was exhibiting his motorcycle paintings — which of course bespoke the eye of a moto-master, all Vincents and Nortons and Agustas and Kenny’s TZ, oh my. Makoto was also taking commissions on the spot and doing portraits of motorcycles that were presented.

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I spent some time watching him working on a painting of this nice /6 BMW with it matching Steib sidecar. From what I could see, Makoto could rightly claim equal parts of inspiration from Japanese calligraphic techniques and from the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. This kind of painting is active, athletic.

Painting isn’t usually a spectator sport, but for Makoto at Barber, it certainly was.

***

So we talked some more. Then we rocked some more.

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And had another Truckstop Honey, and talked and gawked some more.

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At a certain point, I kind of put my hands on my hips, leaned back a little, and drew a long deep breath.

“Man, I just can’t believe the things I’ve seen.”

 

***

 

The previous section of The Barber Tales can be read here. The story continues here.

The Pits – Part Three

Having finished my walk through the first row of the Paddock at the Barber Vintage Festival, I turned down the hill and into the middle of the three streets inside the pit area.

Being a Vintage Motorcycle Festival, I guess the appearance of a nearly completely vintage motorcycle race team should have been completely unsurprising.

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I mean, I guess if you’re going to campaign two vintage mid 1960s Honda racebikes, I guess you’re pretty much required to have the matching vintage lawnchair and mid 1960s Econoline transporter van.

The only thing missing is a vintage motorcyclist.

I’m available, if these guys are looking to complete their set.

***

Right across the way was a team that seemed to have a thing for Laverdas. They had this lovely Formula 500 Cup race bike.

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And if orange is your thing, why stop at one?

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***

Just down the row, was a team campaigning two of the most beautiful Norton racers I’ve ever seen.

They had this beautiful postwar Norton International.

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Not being a Norton expert all I have to go on is the Telescopic Fork — the 30’s vintage bikes still had girder front ends. The International, with its shaft driven single overhead cam motor, became the basis for the Manx, a machine purpose-built to dominate the TT at the Isle of Man.

With its uprated double overhead cam 500 cc single, and it twin loop Featherbed frame replacing the International’s single downtube unit, the Manx became one of the more successful racing motorcycles of all time. The Featherbed frame was light, short, and rigid, at least by the standards of its day, and its performance in the 1950 TT, where Maxes swept the first six positions, confirmed the correctness of its design execution. The Manx would remain largely unchanged until the end of production in 1963.

This example is breathtaking. It is classic racebike porn — impossible to stop staring at. It has everything a racebike needs and nothing that it does not.

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***

My rambles through the pits were interrupted by events taking place on the racecourse. At around lunchtime, The Lap of The Century was scheduled to occur, which features bikes that must be at least 100 years old. I headed towards the race control tower, which has balconies which offer a commanding view of the track.

As I headed for the stairway, these early Harley Davidsons — looks like one 1909 and one 1911 — were picking up some fuel in preparation for their lap.

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I must tell the truth. The Lap of the Century is somewhat less than thrilling.

For motorcycles that, in their prime, were good for a downhill tailwind enabled 65 miles per hour, a complete lap at an average of 45 per is running them at a pretty good clip.

But after watching racing laps that maxed out at around a buck fifty, the old fellers putting around can find you looking at your watch as you’re waiting for the pack to come back into view out of the treeline at the other end of the track. And maybe making a phonecall. And playing a hand of bridge.

Kidding aside, the thrill here is that these motorcycles are alive and running at all.

And the sweet syncopated thumps of all of these VTwins echoing off the forest at the edge of the park, combined with the sight of their muted paintjobs — browns and greys and bungundies — coming through the mist that still hadn’t completely cleared off — made it almost possible to believe you were somehow inexplicably peering back in time.

Reinforcing the illusion was the battle — or lack of it — out on the racecourse. I’ve seen this combustion fueled drama before. Just as at was in 1912, by the end of the run down the main straight, there were Hendersons and Indians battling up front, and Harley Davidsons following them doggedly home.

***

I also have to come clean, that while I wanted to see those century bikes run, it wasn’t the most important reason I’d found my way to the baconies of the Race Control Tower.

After the old ones were flagged in — one old Indian oil smoking impressively from every engine surface — the next scheduled event was ‘The Britten Reunion’.

As the bikes were started, warmed and made ready, my buddies from breakfast appeared against the pit wall.

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Then seven of the ten Britten V1000s even made took to the circuit to put on a little show.

The one thing that sticks out in my head is the sound. The sound of the Britten Vtwin is a flat, fast revving metallic Braaaaap — sounding vaguely like God’s Own Chainsaw.

I wish I understood the engineering enough to know why newer tech engines sound this way — Sweet Doris’ beloved and now gone Nissan 350Z partook of the same metallic sonic palette — but no motorcycle I’ve ever ridden or VTwin I’ve been near ever sounded like these Britten motorcycles sounded that day.

The various racers that piloted them took about 7 laps of fun — doing some good hearted dicing — snapping in and out of corners — and some bikey showing off. Although not being run in anger, the sight of one of them pulling a long, effortless fourth gear power wheelie coming down the main straight is one that’s likely to stick with me for quite some time.

The magic was too soon over as the Brittens were flagged off the track.

The track announcer did us all the favor of directing us to the Team Britten New Zealand tent, where all the motorcycles and the team would be gathered to meet with their fans.

He didn’t have to tell me twice.

***

The Britten pit was right to the left of the Control Tower, so I actually got there as the last several bikes rolled up and were placed on their stands.

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I’ll spare people the endless spiel on the engineering on display on the bike — the Hossack front end, the underseat radiator, the carbon fiber, well, everything. The intent was so max out chassis rigidity, reduce mass to an absolute minimum, and centralize everything that was left. The radiator placement and narrowness of the machine minimized frontal area and drag.

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Watching them ridden one could directly observe the effortless, crisp handling that results — The Britten is the kind of motorcycle where if one can visualize your line, you’ve already ridden it.

I’ll admit I spent a lot of time just drinking the appearance of theses machines in. The more one looks the more one sees. I did what I could to make sure my mouth stayed mostly closed.

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If you owned one of these, people would have to have your meals brought to the garage.

***

Swag is just not my thing.

One of the joys of motorcycle travel is that in its most extreme form, you don’t have any room for swag, so temptation is futile.

I will admit that I have some simple grey jersey T-shirts with just the Barber’s logo on the chest, but nothing they sell is that elegant any more. The museum shop’s selection is awash in old iron and wind and complex graphics and is altogether too visually busy for my tastes.

No matter, I figured that Team Britten might have something worthy, so I ventured inside their pretty substantial tent.

Andrew Stroud — who had ridden Brittens for years — had been provided with a place of honor for his bike inside the tent. You can make of Andrew’s carbon fiber cane what you will. That’s racing.

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With Andrew’s bike was, well, Andrew. Along with this enthusiast fan, who, being at the racetrack was involved in the great fun of telling lies, which, judging from the gestures, were subject to getting continually larger the longer they were told.

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As I worked my way around to the front of the tent, the swag was on full display. Most of it was of minimal interest, but they did have some polo shirts which struck me as perfect. While appearing to be black, on closer inspection the weave was meant to resemble carbon fiber, and the shirt had a “Team Britten New Zealand” logo on the chest, and the Barber Museum’s Checkered Flag logo on the right sleeve.

Perfect.

So I got into line and readied my wallet for action.

When I got to the front of the line I my order was taken by a nice lady with an obvious New Zealand accent who, upon very brief reflection, turned out to be John Britten’s wife, Kirsteen, who then passed me off to another nice young lady to fill my order, who turned out to be Jess Britten, their youngest daughter.

I thought it was pretty cool to obtain my swag right from the source, in this way.

It’s also a pretty cool shirt.

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***

 

The previous section of The Barber Tales can be read here. The story continues here.