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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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